The Philadelphia 76ers lost big to win even bigger.
Several NBA teams trapped on the treadmill of mediocrity should follow their lead and embrace The Process 2.0.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with chasing a playoff berth, it gets problematic when the ceiling obviously stops short of championship contention. Cap restraints stunt the growth process, and mid-to-late first-round draft picks are rarely ever enough to get it back on track.
So, our advice for the following four clubs boils down to three simple words: Blow it up.
Dallas Mavericks Defensive and Player Development coach, God Shammgod, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss New York basketball and culture, today’s NBA style of play, his childhood love of the New York Knicks, the art of dribbling versus ball handling, coaching, and his friendship with Kobe Bryant.
On the Bubble
While a handful of clubs are obvious Process candidates, these teams are less clear-cut choices. It's too early to recommend a wholesale teardown, but they might want to start perusing through Yelp reviews of local demolition crews.
The Bulls can count youth and upside as strengths for now, but that only works for so long, especially for a team trying to accelerate its rebuild through win-now acquisitions like Otto Porter Jr., Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young. It's like they were so positive this would be their leap year that they invested heavily in it before bothering to check whether Feb. 29 was on the calendar.
The offense is stuck in the mud, and it's bogging down supposed building blocks Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Coby White is an NBA teenager, and it shows more often than not.
Granted, some of this can be attributed to growing pains, but growing pains can be tough to stomach for a franchise that could already have as much as $119.8 million on next year's books without an obvious star.
Houston's bench is unsightly. Its financial future looks even worse. While it's impossible to say any team with James Harden is teetering on disaster, the Rockets are closer to the edge than their 7-3 start suggests.
Russell Westbrook might be piling up individual numbers as per usual, but his impact puts him deep in the red. Houston has fared 12.6 points per 100 possessions better without him. Eric Gordon's shooting slash is a comically abysmal 30.9/28.4/64.3, and he can't clean that up anytime soon with a knee injury that could require surgery, per Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic.
Harden isn't hitting 41 percent of his field goals or 30 percent of his triples. Clint Capela has dragged the offensive efficiency down by 12.1 points per 100 possessions.
Guess what all four of those players have in common: eight-figure salaries for this season and at least the next two. Depending on what Westbrook and Harden do with their 2022-23 player options, this quartet could cost $132.2 million that season when all but Capela are well into their 30s.
Houston won't pull the plug as long as it feels it's in the championship race. But at the first indication that window has closed, the Rockets will race to hang "Everything Must Go!" signs all over the Toyota Center.
Jimmy Butler's arrival has given the Heat a Pat Riley-approved edge, but they'll need a second star to jump from pesky playoff matchup to full-fledged contender. That probably isn't happening in-house, although they're getting good mileage out of youngsters Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn.
Trading for a star is tricky since the franchise has thrown around future draft picks like they were in-game giveaways. Consolidating some of their prospects might theoretically do the trick, but Nunn and Adebayo are already starters, and Herro has the highest ceiling of the youngsters on the roster.
With Butler's 30th birthday behind him, he and the Heat have already zoomed past their honeymoon period. If there's a saving grace in South Beach, it's that they'll shed multiple eight-figure salaries each of the next two summers. But that only matters if Butler can extend his prime into his mid-30s and the young players keep maturing at a rapid rate.
Portland Trail Blazers
Are we really still raising an eyebrow toward the Trail Blazers and their undersized, offense-oriented backcourt? Yes and no.
Yes in the sense we remain skeptical about this team's ability to slay postseason dragons.
Sure, the Blazers made the Western Conference Finals last season, but they were swept out of the round and trailed twice in the previous series before dispatching the unproven Denver Nuggets in seven games. They reworked their rotation since, but Damian Lillard remains their solo star, and CJ McCollum has overlapping strengths and shortcomings.
But we're not totally counting out the Trail Blazers because this core has never had this much opportunity for improvement. Zach Collins' shoulder injury hurts, but Anfernee Simons and Nasir Little still loom as high-ceiling contributors or attractive trade chips. With a couple of massive expiring salaries on the books, Portland is positioned to be a major buyer in this year's trade market.
You can saturate the Detroit Pistons' roadmap in glass-overflowing optimism and it still isn't leading to title contention. What route would it even possibly take to get there?
Is Blake Griffin supposed to play at an MVP level? He was pretty special last season—24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game—and Motor City only managed a .500 record. Plus, hoping for an encore might be asking too much. He's a 30-year-old with a long injury history who tore his meniscus late last season, so expectations are best tempered from here forward.
Would Andre Drummond need to make a superstar leap? He's the best rebounder in the business, and his defense keeps improving, but he's hampered by offensive limitations. And there's only so much credit you can give him for anchoring the Association's fourth-worst defense.
Does Derrick Rose need to rejoin the MVP discussion? Because that isn't happening without a time machine. Would Reggie Jackson have to reach the upper echelon of NBA point guards? Last season, he wasn't even top-25 at the position in ESPN's real plus-minus.
Luke Kennard is exciting in a complementary scorer kind of way, but that's the extent of the positives with the Pistons' prospects. Maybe Sekou Doumbouya eventually becomes another, but that could take years to happen.
Rather than chase a back-end playoff berth, Detroit should shop everyone not named Kennard or Doumbouya as soon as possible. This core is likely fracturing sooner than later anyway with Drummond able to enter 2020 free agency and Jackson going there for sure. Rose and possibly Griffin could do the same a year later. Paying up to keep them would only commit the Pistons to a longer stay in purgatory.
Overachievers make for great sports stories, but they don't always form the sturdiest foundations.
The Indiana Pacers have been a fun team under head coach Nate McMillan. They lost Paul George after the 2016-17 season, then they won more games the next year without him. They watched Victor Oladipo blossom into an All-Star. They've seen Domantas Sabonis grow into a rotational role and now a featured spot in the starting lineup.
But they seemingly felt they had stagnated after back-to-back 48-win seasons, so they added Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren and Jeremy Lamb. Those are solid role players, but where's the second star to complement Oladipo? Are we certain Oladipo makes it back to an All-Star level after rupturing the quad tendon in his right knee in January? And if so, do we know when that will happen?
Oh, and what do we make of the funky Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt? Or the fact it only grew more congested when the Pacers spent this year's 18th overall pick on yet another 6'11" center, Goga Bitadze?
That's a lot of questions for a core that might be older than you think.
Brogdon turns 27 in December. Oladipo and Lamb turn 28 in May. Warren will be 27 next September. These players are by no means ancient, but they're all at the age at which you worry how much, if any, growth potential they have left. (Brogdon's early-season numbers would argue against that, but remember, there's a massive scoring void without Oladipo.)
Most of Indiana's youth is tied up in the frontcourt, where the pieces don't necessarily fit. Sabonis might have the highest ceiling of the three, but he's tricky to build around as a non-shooter who also doesn't protect the rim.
Are the Pacers sure they haven't already peaked? Because we aren't. And the longer they chase a championship that appears out of reach, the harder it will be to find the cap room or high draft picks needed to increase the star power.
Mediocrity can be expensive. Just ask the Orlando Magic.
They won 42 games last season, thanks in no small part to career (and contract) years from late-20-somethings Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross. Despite dreadful playoff showings and rocky track records for both, Orlando deemed it necessary to lock them up for the next four seasons at the cool cost of $150 million.
Oh, they also threw a three-year, $29.2 million deal at the solidly unspectacular Al-Farouq Aminu. Because if there was anything this roster needed, it was a defensive-minded frontcourt player with a shaky outside shot.
Orlando's plan to make something more out of this season came down to...well, we're not sure.
Maybe the reintroduction of Markelle Fultz? But it's problematically optimistic to position him as a difference-maker after two injury-riddled, typically unproductive seasons to start his career. Or were they expecting a massive jump by Jonathan Isaac? Because it's a long way up from 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game to anything close to stardom.
What's the long-term strategy in the Magic Kingdom? It seems to be wait, cross fingers and hope for the best. But even then, to what is the hope attached?
That Vucevic and Ross prove they weren't contract-year mirages? That Aaron Gordon snaps out of stagnation and becomes a two-way star? That Isaac anchors a top defense while Fultz puts some pep into the offense? That Mohamed Bamba suddenly springs to life and looks like a top-10 pick?
The Magic are light on top-level talent and heavy on big contracts. That's either a brutal combination or the perfect ingredients for a reset.
San Antonio Spurs
Second-guessing the San Antonio Spurs seldom seems advisable, but they've given us no other choice.
How did they not start over when Kawhi Leonard forced his way out in 2018? Why make a now-30-year-old DeMar DeRozan the centerpiece of that exchange and only collect one first-rounder—not even a lottery pick—while giving up both Leonard and Danny Green (i.e. 40 percent of the Toronto Raptors' championship starting five)?
Why were they mulling a possible max extension for DeRozan before the season, as Mike Finger reported for the San Antonio Express-News? Why did they feel it necessary to fully guarantee Aldridge's $24 million option for the 2020-21 season eight months before they needed to?
Are they seeing something we don't? Because to us, these look like 30-somethings who are in decline and incapable of leading a team to anything more than one of the West's final playoff spots. Embracing mid-range chuckers in a time of analytics feels not like a zig against a league-wide zag, but rather simply applying an outdated approach and shrinking the team's ceiling because of it.
"A seemingly unwavering faith in post-ups, long 2s and Marco Belinelli has locals and outsiders alike wondering, for the first time in eons, if the Spurs are behind the curve rather than ahead of it," The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote.
They don't have an elite player on the roster. They have no guaranteed future stars, either. Dejounte Murray comes closest, but he's facing a treacherous path to get there as a non-shooting perimeter player.
San Antonio should embark on the fire sale that it should've had as soon as Leonard wanted out. The rewards won't be nearly as rich as they could have been, but anything that moves the Spurs away from this forgettable present and toward whatever the future holds is worth exploring.
All stats, unless otherwise noted, used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference and current through games played on November 12.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.