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The Very Strange World of NBA Purgatory

The middle is an odd place to be as an organization, fan, and coach in the NBA. The decision to stay there is a little more complex than meets the eye.

In life, it is often considered a good thing if you are balanced. People that operate in the middle are often more even-keeled and rational, without a propensity to sway drastically one way or another. Sports tendencies often imitate life tendencies, but not in this case. In sports, you often don’t want to be in the middle. No league personifies this detest of the mean more than the NBA. There is a term for basketball teams that are stuck in the middle: purgatory. The world of these teams is fascinating, and the logic of their moves challenges everything that is supposed to matter when running and rooting for a team.

What is Purgatory?

In Catholicism, purgatory is the stage after death in which the soul is in a final purification state before it can ascend to heaven. It is not pleasant, yet it is also not quite the torture of hell. This is an apt description for being a middling team in the NBA. These teams are not competing for championships (which is the equivalent of heaven), but they are also not losing a bunch of games in the hopes of landing a top draft pick to change their fortunes (the equivalent of hell). They are simply stuck in purgatory, winning games but not winning enough for it to matter.

These teams can be characterized as good but could be better. They often have limited potential, which makes them less desirable than teams that are young and tanking for the next draft pick. A perfect example of this can be found with the Detroit Pistons. From 2016 through 2019, the team was led by Blake Griffin and won 49% of its games. They made the playoffs twice and both times were swept out of the first round. They were a team that was decidedly average and was going nowhere with the players that they had.

Fast forward to today, and the Pistons are losing more games than ever. They are currently holders of one of the NBA’s worst win/loss records and have not made it to the playoffs in the last 4 seasons. But the feelings about this current version of the team are much more positive than those Blake Griffin-led teams. The reason? Hope. The Pistons have young players like Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart that fans think can morph into title contenders. And that upside makes it okay to keep losing since they will be in play for another high draft pick that can take this team to the next level.

The old Pistons could have never dreamed of such an outcome, simply because they would have won too many games to have a realistic chance of winning the NBA Draft Lottery. And because they were not bad enough to get higher picks in a league that usually gives you 3-5 good to great players every draft, they couldn’t drastically improve. On the flip side of that, they were also not good enough to beat the elite teams in the Eastern Conference because they did not have one of those elite players. In that sense, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place and had to make a decision. They could have either kept on stringing it along and being mediocre, or they could have blown the whole thing up and started over. They opted for the latter, which was ultimately the correct decision but in the short term, they sacrificed what sports is supposed to be about: winning.

When Winning is Bad

I have been a fan of the New York Knicks since I was 8 years old. In that time I have mostly known futility and mismanagement outside of a couple of bright spot years. The current iteration of the team is defined as mediocre, a group that hovers around a .500 record without much of a shot to win a title as constructed while not being bad enough to win the NBA Draft Lottery for the opportunity to draft a future superstar prospect. By the definition of the term, the Knicks are in NBA purgatory.

Being a fan of a team in this state is somewhat perplexing. Every fan wants their team to win a championship, and as a result, win every game that the team plays. But deep down when your team is stuck in the middle, you know that there is a ceiling. You know that in a sport like professional basketball that determines its champion through a series of wins as opposed to a single game, the cream rises to the top. This creates a difference in priority with a fan base, where people can be watching the same team but rooting for different outcomes.

One such instance came late last year when the team was eliminated from any sort of playoff contention. The team prioritized its young players to see what they could do, something that the fans had been clamoring for. But then these young players started to win those games, which slightly decreased the team's Draft Lottery odds. This made winning a bad thing, even though the likelihood of the Knicks landing a top 3 draft pick was very unlikely. In this instance, fans were rooting for losses in the hopes that a dream could be fulfilled, despite how unlikely it was to happen.

This is the reality of rooting for a team that operates in the middle. You hope for wins, but only up to a certain point. You enjoy the players that you have but also retain the knowledge that they are simply not good enough to contend with the elite players in the NBA. Your existence as a fan is defined by hope. The hope is that the team will get lucky and make a trade that will lead to that franchise-altering player. The hope is that they will hire the right coach and general manager combination that will allow your team to ascend to the top. But on the flip side of that, the organization must make difficult decisions about whether to continue on the path they have set or to adopt a scorched earth mentality and all the potential repercussions that come with it.

Destroy or Keep Building

Despite the idea of tearing a team down to the studs and losing a lot of games generally being viewed as part of the process, it is no easy undertaking for an organization. There has to be a vision in place, an understanding that the immediate future will involve difficult and frustrating moments. Fan attendance will likely dip and there will be growing pains associated with the long process that is player development. This season, the worst three teams in average attendance are teams that are in full-on rebuilds: San Antonio, Indiana, and Oklahoma City.

Consider a team like the Washington Wizards. They have a star player in Bradley Beal and an excellent couple of complementary players in Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma. Since 2016, the team has made the playoffs three times and only won one playoff series in that time. The Wizards have too much talent to be a bottom-three team, but Beal is also not good enough to lead the team to the promised land. So what do they do? It seems that for the time being, the Wizards are content to operate in the middle because the specter of a full-on rebuild could potentially damage the bottom line. As it stands, they are a team with a player that attracts attention and that is good enough for them. They will likely never win a title with this core group of players, and the team has seemingly accepted that fate.

The only other way to escape the middle is to potentially trade your way to the top. This is what the Minnesota Timberwolves have attempted to do. They had done well in the draft with players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. But still, they found themselves in the middle of the pack of the Western Conference. So they attempted to change that by trading for Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. This move was made with the intent to contend for titles and to win playoff series. These trades and acquisitions don’t always work as intended, however.

Teams like the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings have made moves in recent years to escape the middle. The Bulls traded for Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic and signed DeMarr Derozan and Lonzo Ball in free agency. The Kings struck a deal with the Indiana Pacers that brought Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento. Both of these moves have yet to show meaningful progress for either organization. The teams they traded with meanwhile, seem to be building toward a bright future. The Magic acquired Wendell Carter in their trade with the Bulls and he has rounded out into a reliable big man to pair with budding stars, Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. The Pacers got promising point guard Tyrese Haliburton from Sacramento and have paired him with their very talented rookie: Benedict Mathurin. Both the Pacers and Magic have taken the youth route and seem to be better for it, the same cannot be said for Sacramento and Chicago.

Many teams look to avoid the middle but it must be occupied by someone. Everyone cannot be tanking at the same time much in the way that not every team can be contending at the same time. These teams that occupy the middle need to make decisions about the type of basketball team that they want to be. And more often than not it is the team that has a front office worried about job preservation that will opt to stay in the middle.

Job Preservation

Making it as an NBA player is not easy, as there are thousands of basketball players but not thousands of roster spots. It can be argued that it is just as challenging to be a part of a front office in the league. Making it as a coach, general manager, or president of basketball operations is an extremely exclusive club to get into. Perhaps this is why so many teams stay in the middle of the pack as either a perpetually rebuilding team or a team that feels like they are just a player away from contending. It is about staying in the position that they have attained in the NBA, and they are not eager to do things that could cost that job.

These teams will make moves that will keep their owners at bay while they are stuck in mediocrity. By acquiring a role player here and an average rotation player there these teams and regimes can ensure that they stay competitive and get the added revenue that comes with a first-round playoff series. For a majority of NBA owners, this added revenue is crucial as profitability is a concern. The calculation for these owners falls on short-term versus long-term objectives. Are a few years of losing and lower attendance numbers tolerable while they blow it up in search of greener pastures or will moderate success without the short-term drop-off be enough?

These factors play a role in how general managers acquire talent and how coaches strategize their game plans. If continuing to focus on youth development will keep them employed despite losing games then they will do it. We have seen this strategy in Oklahoma City in the past half-decade. If the playing of middling veterans to win as many regular season games before flaming out in the playoffs will keep them employed then they will also do that.

But is this bad for the game? That's a question that needs to be answered. On one hand, maintaining competitiveness has to be seen as a good-faith argument against what many believe to be the blasphemous act of tanking. But at the same time, actively constructing rosters that have no chance to compete for titles feels like a disservice to loyal fans of a team. This topic is an intersection that many fans do not like to openly admit as a part of sports: the intersection of business and fandom.

At the end of the day, fans want an exciting product. So they will root for a middling team that is competitive until they are fed up with coming up short. This can be considered the life cycle of team building. When building in pursuit of a title and a fork in the road presents itself. And as fans, we can hope that our teams will prioritize winning titles instead of the bottom line, even though that is usually not the case. As always, the middle presents complexities and is indeed a weird place to be.

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