The “We-Made-The-Playoffs” Effect

For the NBA’s upper-middle class getting into the playoffs is not cause for celebration, but simply relief that the “Second Season” has arrived. These teams expect to escape the first round plunge deep into the tournament with a reasonable chance to compete for a championship. They are the gatekeepers that greet the NBA’s perennial younger brothers whenever they sneak an invitation to the big dance. They are also the reason those teams often have little opportunity for upward mobility in the only time of year that matters.

This year the Portland TrailBlazers and the Boston Celtics are the feel good, they’re-better-than-I-thought, teams that managed to get into the playoffs and avoid the deadly 8th seed. Portland was supposed to be a lottery team after a mass exodus of talent, and Boston was considered to have made the playoffs a year too early in 2015. Both teams had good reason to celebrate a +.500 record, and both teams would consider the season magical if they make the conference semi-finals. They seem to be in good position to vault up to the upper-class except that both teams will miss on the top talent in the draft, and neither are premier destinations for free agents. This is the middle-class bind: too good to draft talent but not good enough to lure it on the open market. It’s even more frustrating for a team like Boston who has a backlog of draft picks but none of them will be quite good enough to warrant trading a blue chip player (Al Horford?). For the ‘Blazers, this season is equal parts a coronation of Lillard, and also a referendum on what happens when the league catches up to you (see the Blazers post all-star break defense). Both teams have to hope they can hit it big through shrewd free agency moves to be anything more than a “tough out” in the playoffs.

In addition to the pure overachievers who did the most with the least, there are teams who should simply be too flawed to make the playoffs. This season, that was the Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks. Here are two teams that, based on last season’s success, figured to build on unexpectedly deep playoff runs. These teams represent a different kind of mediocrity as they have only fielded league average teams (based on efficiency) six times combined in the last ten years. With that in mind, both teams made the playoffs last year and figured to make big namesin free agency to help them get over the hump. It didn’t work and both teams got demonstrably worse. Greg Monroe is not the rim protector the Bucks wanted him to be and Paul Pierce plugged a massive hole for the Wizards, specifically veteran leadership for a now former coach. Both teams would have been better served turning a critical eye towards the important preexisting pieces of their roster and made prudent decisions based performance in context. Randy Whitman likely should have been let go regardless of his team’s run and the Bucks should’ve been patient with their young nucleus. Instead, both teams torpedoed their short-term futures because they thought they were better than they were.

It’s easy, in, hindsight to see what went wrong but perhaps the best example of the “we made the playoffs” effect is everyone’s least favorite team, the Houston Rockets. Prior to last season’s run, Houston had not won a playoff series since 2009. It’s fair to acknowledge that Houston plays in a tough Western Conference with ridiculous match-ups in every round, but they have superior talent. When Lebron James left the HEAT, the Rockets were thought to be one stud short of a super team. Just one season later the Rockets are destined for a breakup and there are no easy fixes. At this stage, James Harden is both among the most hated players and worst defenders in the league, but he is their only blue chip (read:untradeable) player. He carried them to 56 wins last season at a torrid pace that was unsustainable and cast a veil on the holes the GM tried to cover with surly personalities and sub-par talent. Plus the well documented Dwight Howard issue . There is no easy solution here as the front office seems to have no choice but to gut the team. This may not be a bad thing, though;  the Dwight era Rockets have clearly hit their ceiling. Their best bet is to use their assets to drag another star player to Houston and hope that they can hit on a pick late because with Harden at the helm they are likely stuck in the NBA’s middle class.
Unfortunately for those teams stuck in the middle rungs, there is no road map for breaking through the glass ceiling. It takes the fortune of drafting high enough or well enough to grab elite prospects, as well as creativity in recruiting pitches. General Managers must avoid leveraging the future, and knee-jerk reactions while remaining relevant and competitive. Those teams that are stuck in the mud, and those are sinking in it, are faced with the difficult choice: to win or not to win. Make the playoffs and be stuck in NBA purgatory as a first/second round out, or tank and drive your fan base insane.

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