If you asked any casual fan what topic has defined the NBA over the past few years you’d probably get one of two answers: super-teams and tanking. Teams are either stockpiling superstars like they’re toilet paper at the start of quarantine, or they’re hoping nobody will notice that they’ve been playing Shelvin Mack 23 minutes a game. This race to the top/bottom means that the true losers are the teams stuck in the middle. And thus, the “treadmill of mediocrity” was born.
This isn’t anything new or earth-shattering. Former NBA GM Kevin Pritchard coined the term way back in 2011. The NBA landscape looked entirely different at the time. The original Big 3 had just formed in Miami and were still a few years away from truly kicking off the era of the super team. Major outlets have continued to discuss it over the ensuing decade, because it’s never changed. The concept is relatively straightforward: because a team only has five players on the floor at a time, an individual star can have a huge impact on a game. Therefore, getting a superstar that can take over a game should be every team’s goal. The best way to get such a player is through the draft. The typical NBA draft includes maybe two or three future stars, each of which almost always go in the top five. The middle of the draft is full of perfectly serviceable players; guys who can win you a few games but never make you a contender. These role players are the engine that makes the treadmill go. Drafting one will make you good enough to stay in the middle of the pack, which means your next draft pick will be around the same spot, where you’ll draft another solid role player, which keeps you in the middle of the pack, and you can see where the cycle repeats from there. The only way to become a contender is to lose, and lose big.
Despite it being a widely discussed topic for a decade, teams continue to fall into this trap. The Indiana Pacers have finished with between 42 and 48 wins and lost in the first round each of the last five seasons, and they’re on pace to do the same thing this year. The Washington Wizards have been stuck in a similar spot, recently extending their stay in basketball purgatory by trading John Wall for Russell Westbrook. After watching Chris Paul carry the Thunder to a first-round exit, GM Sam Presti, inventor of “The Process” and tanking pioneer, wisely shipped him off to Phoenix the first chance he got. The Thunder ensured they had a clear path to future success. The Suns on the other hand…
The Chris Paul trade is a perfect example of why so many teams are willingly hopping on the treadmill. They took the first step towards success by landing a young star in Devin Booker, but he ended up being their undoing. In an age of unprecedented player empowerment, a time where James Harden can force a trade with three years left on his contract, young stars like Booker are blackmailing their teams onto the treadmill. All they have to do is deliver a simple threat: get me another great player or I’m leaving. Most teams don’t want to burn it all down and start over, and most GMs know doing so will cost them their jobs, so they give in. Phoenix traded for Paul, Washington traded for Westbrook, etc. Even with two bonafide superstars, nobody actually believes these teams have a chance at winning a championship. The consensus is that, at best, they’ll lose in the second round to a super-team team like the Lakers or Nets. While teams like the Celtics and 76ers are reaping the benefits of their years in the wilderness, these also-rans are mortgaging their future for a minuscule chance at glory. And, as long as GMs continue to be plagued with this roster management myopia, the treadmill will only get more crowded.