Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 12, 2017

NBA Update: Winners, Losers And The Knicks

As the NBA season hits its midpoint, the league is riding high in popularity and has a new collective bargaining agreement that ensures the games will go on without interruption well into the next decade. But unlike the NFL, which rose to prominence among American sports leagues on the notion of parity among its teams – the old “on any given Sunday” trope – the NBA is very much a league of haves and have-nots.

Sixteen teams will make the playoffs as always, but the reality is that most of them have no realistic chance of finishing as this season’s champion. Four franchises, Cleveland in the Eastern Conference and Golden State, San Antonio and Houston in the West are winning more than seventy percent of their games and have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the league. Even that may be charitable to the Spurs and Rockets; for few fans will be surprised if come next June 1st the two teams that tip off in Game One of the Finals are, for the third straight year, the Cavaliers and Warriors.

Behind this small group of elite squads are a number of teams that are quite good, but manifestly not at the level of their superiors. Until losing five of eight over the last two weeks the Toronto Raptors also had a winning percentage above .700. But Toronto is 0-3 this season against Cleveland, and in the string of recent losses were defeats at the hands of the three Western Conference powerhouses. Similarly the Celtics are giving fans here in New England plenty of reasons to smile, winning at better than a .600 clip despite a road heavy early schedule. But few of the folks filling the seats at TD Garden are under the illusion that Brad Stevens’s young squad is ready to match up against LeBron James and company in a seven game playoff series. Hopefully clear heads will also prevail among fans of the Hawks and the Jazz, the Clippers, Thunder and Grizzlies. All these teams are likely headed for the playoffs, but game dates in June are improbable in the extreme.

One might question whether dominance by a handful of teams is good for the long-term popularity of the NBA, but it’s something that fans have seen before. When the Celtics were the Eastern Conference representative in the finals twelve times in thirteen seasons from 1957 to 1969, they faced either the Hawks or the Lakers every year save one. More recently Boston and Los Angeles spent the decade of the 1980s mostly trading the title back and forth. Still NBA Commissioner Adam Silver opined last summer that Kevin Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State wasn’t “ideal,” and that he hoped for provisions in the new collective bargaining agreement that would encourage “the distribution of great players throughout the league.” It’s of course too early to tell whether the recently ratified new CBA will accomplish that.

If there is a clear dividing line between the handful of great teams and those that are merely quite good, there is an even wider chasm between the latter and the NBA’s dregs. An inevitable result of a few teams winning so often is that a larger number have to share in the losses. If the playoffs began today three teams currently at .500 or worse would qualify for the postseason. The same thing happened two years ago, when the Brooklyn Nets captured the last Eastern Conference playoff spot despite finishing six games under .500.

There’s no chance of postseason play at the Barclay’s Center this season. That woebegone franchise has won just eight games in the current campaign, the fewest in the league. This week Brooklyn became the fourth team to give up on Anthony Bennett, the surprise number one pick in the 2013 draft, who had previously washed out in Cleveland, Minnesota and Toronto. Perhaps the biggest draft bust of all time, Bennett is now taking his skills, such as they are, to Turkey. But the Nets are only marginally worse than the 76ers and the Heat in the East, or the Timberwolves, Suns and Mavericks in the West. In both conferences the bottom three teams have combined to win barely more games than Golden State or Cleveland the two leaders in the standings.

Still if one is going to single out a franchise as the symbol of NBA ineptitude, it’s hard to overlook the New York Knicks. It’s not just the fact that with characteristic regularity the team has gone into a midseason swoon, dropping nine of ten to go from the fringes of the playoff race to five games under .500 and eleventh place in the East. Rather it’s that the Knicks have done so with drama and turmoil that is horribly familiar to the fans who pay premium prices for seats at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

Carmelo Anthony, the face of the franchise, is carrying his lowest shooting percentage since his rookie year. Already he’s been tossed out of three games, a career high, with half a season still to play. This week Derrick Rose, one of New York’s big offseason acquisitions whose play has been poor enough that coach Jeff Hornacek chose to sit him during the fourth quarter of two recent contests, simply disappeared for a day. Rose went home to Chicago without telling Hornacek or anyone else on the Knicks, missing a loss to New Orleans and creating a predictably major stir in the Gotham media.

With Rose back on the court Wednesday, New York led by seventeen at one point over the 76ers, long the NBA’s leading example of franchise futility. With 2:39 to play the Knicks still led by ten. But when Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell’s jumper from the corner fell through the net as the buzzer sounded, the Sixers had come all the way back to steal the win and send New York’s season to its nadir.

Through the losing streak and the attendant drama Phil Jackson, praised as a savior when he signed a five-year $60 million contract to serve as team President in 2014, has been largely silent. An executive who once spoke of being open with the media has limited his availability to one recent radio interview, when he suggested Anthony should pass more. The result was an instant feud with his team’s biggest star. Meanwhile Rose is now said to be seeking a maximum contract come next offseason. Only with the Knicks could that sentence be written just two paragraphs after describing his decision to go AWOL.

Forty or so games still to play for most teams, but this NBA season is settling in. A very short but familiar list of contenders for the title, a number of squads who will give their fan bases hope for something more down the road, and a too long list of sad sacks bringing up the rear. Highlighting the last, as has often been the case in recent years, is the franchise that plays on the brightest stage of all. Sadly for Knicks fans, their team once again seems far better at dysfunction than dunks.

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