The NBA season is 82 games long, a length that has been argued to be shortened by many for quite some time now. There had to be an intervention due to stars “load managing” as the dominant teams could get away with waltzing through the drawn-out season until the months where it really counted. There have been procedures put in place to combat the need to load manage like flexible scheduling with less travel, less back-to-backs, and more time off in between games than ever, yet still there seems to be a “sleep-walking” feel at this point in the season, be it from stars resting or teams that we thought would be contending from end-to-end getting off to slow starts.
As it stands, these are a few teams that would be in the play-in tournament through the season so far:
-Golden State Warriors, the defending champs and title favorites
-The Los Angeles Clippers, who had the second-best title odds out of the west preseason
-The Dallas Mavericks, who made the Western Conference Finals last year
-The Minnesota Timberwolves, who traded a king’s ransom for Rudy Gobert this offseason in an attempt to propel them to the top
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, this season was discussed as having the potential to be one of the most egregious seasons of obvious tanking in years, with franchises willing to obliterate their entire rosters for draft capital in an attempt to change their future with prospects Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson in 2023 as the crown jewels.
But here we are, and some of the most entertaining, delightful, and exciting watches thus far at the top of their conferences are the Sacramento Kings, the Utah Jazz, the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Indiana Pacers. Utah had just unloaded their two superstars for draft picks, the Kings have had a history of losing and being incompetent and could have potentially dealt De’Aaron Fox, the Pacers could unload Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, and the Trail Blazers could have ripped apart every part of their roster not named Damian Lillard. We thought these were easy contenders in the “No more victories for Victor” sweepstakes.
Do the front offices of these teams change their plans and build on these surprising results, thinking they could build something with this surprising success, or do they stay the course and trade away the pleasant surprises that have led them to these hot starts? What is real and what’s been a flash in the pan?
And for the contenders that have gotten off to a slow start, when is it time to stop making the “well, it’s early, and they need to get into a rhythm” excuse?
Christmas day for the NBA is the “marquee” day where the attention has been on the basketball traditionally (until the NFL started to schedule games to take over the holiday), and if the season is played in quarters given the length, that should be about the time that we know who is who in the league as it’s around the 32-game mark in the year with this extended amount of rest now between games. Load management and nursing injuries should be moderated by then, teams have had time to figure out what is and what isn’t sustainable, and the teams should be at the point to decide whether or not a reset on the roster should or should not be made. Unfortunately, for many rosters, off-the-court drama that impacts the product on the court SHOULD be solved by then in the decision-making too, a factor that is becoming more and more relevant.
The Clippers’ face of the franchise is SUPPOSED to be Kawhi Leonard, but they nurse his injury seemingly every game, allowing him to only play in 5 games, average 10 points, and assume that the chemistry and his experience will come together by the end of the season when they’re playing high-level competitive basketball night after night in win-or-go-home series just because of his talent and track record individually.
The reality is that both ends of the spectrum need to get over their hubris and look themselves in the mirror and look at what is and what isn’t sustainable. It’s one thing to continue to win right out of the gates with a surprising roster, but winning in miraculous fashion that can’t be done in the other three quarters is entirely another.
The Blazers, for example, have come back down to Earth after starting out the year 10-4- not merely because of injuries, but because 5 of their wins thus far have come from a 3-point margin or less, they trailed by double-digits in 10 of their first 14 games, and they have the fourth-worst assist-to-turnover ratio despite the third-slowest pace. It’s a lot of getting away with mistakes thus far, and that’s not sustainable winning basketball no matter how inspiring their pieces around Lillard like Shaedon Sharpe or Anfernee Simons have been in their winning ways. Does that mean they should tear everything down around Lillard as planned preseason if sustainable basketball levels out the competition? No- it means you have the self-awareness to move around or add pieces that can prevent turnovers and add depth to prevent those mistakes!
If they do end up keeping this up by Christmas, they’ve now reached dilemma territory through this point in the season. Should a team that had initially had the plans to tear everything down sustain these winning ways, you should evaluate yourself by looking to ADD pieces to improve your chances of remaining afloat rather than assuming that everything that is going well will continue to go well. The NBA is a league where talent normally evens out, so the contenders that DO have the talent that we saw on paper preseason that may have gotten off to a slow start, will usually reveal their true forms barring a massive trade by the holidays.
Teams that get off to a promising start, don’t strike while the iron is hot to improve their odds, and then flame out to deal the key pieces of their roster send abhorrent shock waves throughout the team, be it the fanbase, the coaches, or the players and their desire to be there going forward. With such a small roster in comparison to other sports, a move like sending away a role piece for draft capital sends a message to the players, and that can affect their mentals, their will to be there, and shows a lack of belief in their chance to contend that is a gut punch.
If Thanksgiving is the litness test for who’s real and who isn’t in football, it’s Christmas in the NBA. There’s unsustainable winning playstyles, chemistry to build on new or incomplete rosters, and a possible lack of care. It’s a long season that’s played in quarters; the first one is up, and we’re approaching the territory of figuring out who is who. By the time Santa comes, the contenders that have gotten away with these slow starts should be scared, and the surprise winners that have kept the magic going should take advantage on the now and go all-in.
It’s only a shame that “the NBA on Christmas Day” marketing that used to have all of the special occasion jerseys doesn’t also market it to the organizations that “IT’S NOW GO TIME.”