As a culture, we've apparently decided that "the middle" is something to dread. Middle of the road. Middle child syndrome. Stuck in the middle. None of those phrases elicit particularly good feelings. There's even a term that has become popular over the past couple of years that, according to an astute Urban Dictionary scholar named kangol, is "used to insult or degrade an opposing opinion, labeling it as average or poor quality."
What's the term? Mid.
So it stands to reason that the middle is generally equated to Death Valley in NBA parlance. You either want to be competing for a championship or losing as much as humanly possible to earn a higher draft pick. Anything in between is considered treading water, simply counting down the moribund days until a new front office regime inevitably breaks down the arena doors, steamrolls the roster and starts the whole thing anew.
With the 2023 NBA trade deadline less than a week away, there have been plenty of calls by NBA analysts and Twitterati for certain teams to sell off their valuable pieces and start their own version of The Process -- namely the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers.
The NBA's relationship with tanking is fraught with complexity and contradiction. Watching teams bottom out, boasting lineups full of 19-year-olds and two-way players, can be excruciating. On the other hand, landing a superstar in the draft is one of the few ways to quickly turn the direction of a franchise, as we've seen with Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks, Trae Young's Atlanta Hawks and Zion Williamson's New Orleans Pelicans.
Recent history has shown us, however, that there is another way, and it starts with *gasp* the middle.
When teams finally trade their stars, draft picks are generally the most valuable commodity they receive in return. But there are also players involved in order to match salary, and that is where gold can be struck and rebuilds can be hastened.
Take the most glaring example from this season, the Utah Jazz. When they traded away All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last summer, most looked at the unfathomable swath of draft capital as the primary win for Danny Ainge and the Utah front office. It very well may be, but nearly all of us overlooked the fact that they also received players that were good enough to make them not only competitive, but also a legitimate playoff contender this season. Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Collin Sexton and rookie Walker Kessler have all been productive for the Jazz, currently in play-in position but just one game out of fourth place in the jam-packed Western Conference.
The jewel, and the crux of the excitement coming out of Salt Lake City is, of course, Lauri Markkanen, the former No. 7 overall pick who has grown into a first-time All-Star as the focal point of the Jazz offense. A mobile, graceful 7-footer, Markkanen is averaging a career-high 24.9 points per game, while improving his shooting splits to an unreal 52/43/88. Are the Jazz going to win the title any time soon? Maybe not. But they are poised to compete for a playoff spot for the foreseeable future with a budding superstar, quality rotation pieces and draft capital to accelerate their ascent if the opportunity presents itself.
Another team left for dead before the season was the Indiana Pacers. After trading away Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Buddy Hield were presumed to be next, which would set off the tanking/rebuild in earnest. Instead, thanks in large part to point guard Tyrese Haliburton blossoming into an All-Star, the Pacers found themselves at 22-18 before an injury to Haliburton led to a steep, but potentially brief, slide in the standings.
Even with the skid, Indiana is battling for play-in position with room to rise, and showed that they're happy with the direction of the team by extending Turner, who has been the subject of trade rumors for essentially his entire career. The rookie they selected with their own pick, Bennedict Mathurin, looks like a future star, and with he and Haliburton in the backcourt combined with Turner in the middle, the Pacers have a much clearer path to contention than if they were scrambling for ping pong balls.
The Jazz and Pacers are still relatively far away from holding a championship parade, to be sure. But how about the Memphis Grizzlies? When they dealt Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the last remnants of Grit N' Grind, it was seen as a white flag emblazoned with a giant, military grade tank, signaling a long and arduous rebuild. In their first year without their two franchise mainstays, however, Memphis improved its winning percentage from .402 to .466 under new head coach Taylor Jenkins.
The biggest factor was Ja Morant, whom the Grizzlies were able to secure after fortuitously moving up to No. 2 in the 2019 draft lottery. But you also have to look at the players they received in the deals for their departing stars. Gasol netted Jonas Valanciunas, a key part of the Grizzlies' ascent before being flipped for their current center, Steven Adams. In exchange for Conley, Memphis received the No. 23 pick in the 2019 draft (which turned into rotation fixture Brandon Clarke), along with Jae Crowder and Grayson Allen, who played key roles in the team's improvement while they were in Memphis. They also received a future first-round pick that turned into rookie David Roddy, already contributing to this year's squad off the bench.
Despite jettisoning two All-Stars, the Grizzlies avoided bottoming out and turned into a bona fide title contender in essentially three seasons. This certainly isn't the norm, and they got lucky with Morant, but they wouldn't be here without shrewd dealings and talent evaluation by the front office.
So here's looking at you, Raptors, Blazers, Bulls. With everyone crying, "blow it up!" remember that there is a middle path. Trading away Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and/or OG Anunoby would still leave Toronto with a legitimate building block in Scottie Barnes, while also creating room for emerging players like Precious Achiuwa and whomever they're able to secure in the deals.
Even if Portland decided to trade Damian Lillard, which doesn't seem the least bit likely at this point, they would still have Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant and Shaedon Sharpe -- the makings of a core that could get close to the 11th seed in the West, where they currently reside.
With Zach LaVine the hot name in discussions leading into the deadline, the Bulls could certainly part ways with him and remain competitive with DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and a potentially healthy Lonzo Ball down the road. Even if they trade all three of their best players, the lesson is to make sure to restock the coffers with talent, even if the fit isn't apparent right away.
Even though the "middle" has become a dirty word in sports, recent history has proven that teams can trade stars and remain competitive, while simultaneously building toward the future -- an important concept to keep in mind leading up to what should be an active trade deadline.