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Once considered purgatory, the NBA's dreaded middle is becoming extinct

Purgatory in the NBA has been the area between true contenders and truly terrible teams that comprises road playoff seeds and late lottery picks. A third of the league fits into that space, where there is almost no hope for a title and less for drafting a franchise savior. Kemba Walker nearly watched a decade pass in the Charlotte Hornets’ failed pursuit of a playoff series victory.

But if this season is any indication, the dreaded middle is becoming extinct.

The very top and very bottom of the league looks similar to years past. Three teams (the Bucks, Lakers and Celtics) are on pace to win 60-plus games, and two (the Hawks and Warriors) are bound for fewer than 20 wins, which is not all that out of the ordinary. (There have not been three 60-win teams since the Cavaliers, Lakers and Celtics in 2009, but two is fairly common.)

But top-to-bottom changes in organizations across the league have widened the gap between good and bad teams more than ever before. An influx of wealthy technological entrepreneurs and venture capitalists has led ownership groups to take a longer view of their investments. Front offices are taking an analytical approach not only to player performance, but to long-term team-building as well. And star players are empowered to join forces where success is fostered.

In other words, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer — on purpose.

The Hawks tanked after a decade-long playoff run, landing likely All-Star Trae Young as a result. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Hawks were once the epitome of the purgatory phenomenon, which made their 60-win Eastern Conference finals campaign in 2014 all the more stunning before business as usual resumed a season later. From 2008-17, the Hawks made the playoffs every year, winning between 37 and 48 games eight times and reaching the conference finals just the one time.

In 2015, a bumbling group of businessmen sold the Hawks to billionaire private equity tycoon Tony Ressler. Within two years, a rebuilt basketball operations staff, with former Golden State assistant general manager Travis Schlenk eventually at the helm, had stripped every contributor to the 60-win team from the roster. They absorbed bad contracts into the newly available cap space in return for draft picks, and the resulting talent void sent their own lottery odds soaring.

The strategy has already yielded three-fifths of the starting lineup that opened the new year — Trae Young, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter — with two more first-round picks coming in June, including what will likely be another high-end lottery pick derived from their inexperience. 

The aim is to acquire the kind of players who can lift them from truly terrible to true contender without wallowing in the dreaded middle. Here, teams die to emerge from purgatory born again. It is a far greater gamble to build from the middle, where you have to hope a late lottery pick or second-round flier turns into a superstar, as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic did for Milwaukee and Denver, respectively. It is practically impossible to plan for such a scenario.

Philadelphia embraced The Process under Sixers GM Sam Hinkie. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The Philadelphia 76ers’ Process set the extreme example of this blueprint. The team was essentially an extension of Comcast Corporation until 2011, when billionaire investor Josh Harris organized a group to purchase the Sixers. Within two years, they hired analytics guru Sam Hinkie as GM to strip a perennially middling team down to the studs. That brought Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and a roster that went from less than 30 wins to more than 50 overnight. 

The Thunder are the only team currently projected to win between 40 and 49 games, and there is some question as to whether they will hold a fire sale to reenter the land of the dead for the first time since GM Sam Presti steered the post-sale Sonics to the top of the lottery. (His three straight top-five picks in the late 2000s brought MVPs Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who transformed a 23-win team to a 50-win one in their first year together.)

Only four teams (the Thunder, Magic, Nets and Spurs) are on pace to finish the season within seven games of .500, which would be the fewest in NBA history by a wide margin. Last year, 13 teams — nearly half the league — fell into that category. The last time the number of teams to win between 35 and 49 games fell in the single digits was 2010, when there were still twice as many as there are projected this season. Since the NBA and ABA merged in 1976, the fewest number of teams to fit into the dreaded middle as we have defined it is seven in 1993-94.

Is it a coincidence that the disparity between good and bad teams is so great in the years after Michael Jordan first retired from the Bulls and the Warriors dynasty fell into disarray? Ten teams entered a wide-open 1994 playoff field with 50 or more wins, and the 42-win Nuggets became the first eighth seed ever to pull off a first-round upset. The road to a ring is just as unpredictable this season, but the divide between contenders and pretenders is far greater than ever before.

The 1994 playoffs did not feature a single sub-.500 team. San Antonio, Brooklyn and Orlando are all on pace to make the playoffs with 35-38 wins this year, potentially the most losing playoff teams in more than a quarter-century. No losing team since the merger has ever won a series.

Conversely, there are 12 teams projected to win 50-plus games this season, twice as many as 2018 and the most in a decade, which means two things: Half of the first-round series could turn ugly, and the other half could be heavyweight title bouts. Where the top seeds should walk to the conference semis, the opening-round slate could feature best-of-seven coin-flip sets between the Rockets and Mavericks, Raptors and 76ers, Clippers and Jazz, Heat and Pacers.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis have transformed the Lakers, leaving the Cavaliers and Pelicans in their wake. (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Player movement has transformed a few terrible teams into contenders and lifted several more from mediocrity, even if some good teams have survived losing stars and most bad teams stand no chance of signing a franchise-altering free agent. The trend from big threes to dynamic duos has helped spread the wealth across the top of the league, but there is still a heavy imbalance.

LeBron James left Cleveland reeling. The Anthony Davis trade saga expedited a New Orleans tank. Together, James and Davis lifted the Lakers from the depths. Walker helped Boston endure the losses of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford while sending Charlotte spiraling. Horford joined Embiid and Simmons on the 76ers, whose loss of Jimmy Butler lifted the Heat from mediocrity. Dallas plucked Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks, bolstering one rebuild and delaying another.

Of the 10 teams involved in those transactions, only Brooklyn is projected to fall within 10 games of .500, and the Nets are expected to join the ranks of the elite next season, assuming Irving and Kevin Durant are in the lineup. Likewise, the Warriors, who lost Durant to free agency, could return to contention with the healthy returns of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

There is almost no middle ground in the NBA anymore. Roughly a third of the league has realistic designs on a 50-win season and a Finals appearance, which should make for great playoff theater. In the regular season, though, almost two-thirds of the league has lost hope by the midway point — either in reaching the playoffs or the possibility of advancing in them.

Few fans, if any, should be banking on a 1994 Nuggets-like upset. And maybe for the best. That can often prolong the inevitable, leaving a franchise in limbo as it chases the high (and profits) of a second-round series. That used to be good enough for small-market, small-pocketed and/or small-minded organizations, but those dwindle with each billion-dollar sale of a basketball team.

What kind of impact might this have on the NBA’s television ratings? Generally speaking, the ebbs and flows of regional sports network ratings follow the success and starpower of a franchise. Good news for the haves and bad for the have nots. The Hawks experienced the league’s biggest local TV ratings decline during their first lottery season in a decade, losing 50 percent of their viewership, according to the Sports Business Journal. The Cavaliers and Spurs saw similar declines in the wake of the free-agency departures of LeBron and Kawhi Leonard.

The news is not all bad for rebuilding teams. The injection of a high-end lottery pick and the thrill of following a roster with a bright future can draw viewers, too. Dallas saw an 88 percent ratings increase during Luka Doncic’s rookie season, per the Sports Business Journal. Masochistic Philadelphia fans even spiked ratings by 40 and then 88 percent in 2016 and 2017, respectively, as the tanking Sixers chased back-to-back No. 1 overall picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz.

There is danger in the middle, where the slow drip of mediocrity sunk the mid-market Magic to the NBA’s second-worst rating last season, despite their first playoff appearance in seven years.

So, is 2019-20 an aberration or the new NBA normal? No teams have for sale signs out front right now, although Portland could be on the market soon. Even the bad teams have revamped their front offices, with the exception of the Knicks. And the 2020 free-agency class is limited. All signs point towards the rich staying rich and the poor staying poor, save for some lottery luck.

The hope, at least for the bad teams out there, is that the development of high-end draft picks will turn their fortunes around before they find themselves stuck in purgatory, having to start the whole process over again. Anything but the dreaded middle is the NBA’s new business model.