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Introducing Teams Of Despair

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Some teams are bad because they’re stocked with young players who’ll eventually help the team win. That’s not ideal, but it’s OK.

Some teams are bad because they’ve held on too long to players who previously helped the team win. That’s also not ideal, but again OK.

And then there are the special teams that have been nowhere and are going nowhere.

Making the playoffs in the NBA is a relatively low bar. Most teams (16/30) qualify, and it used to be even easier. So, even teams that fall out of the postseason shouldn’t have too long of a road back.

But some have taken the scenic route. A few terribly run franchises have had to completely turn over their roster. Twice.

I’m fascinated by teams in such an awful position. They provide no joyous nostalgia for fans. Any hope was later proven to be false.

I call them Teams of Despair.

There are two rules for a Team of Despair (TOD):

1. It has no players remaining from the franchise’s last playoff team.

2. It has no players who will remain until the franchise’s next playoff team.

A history of Teams of Despair (seasons designated by the year they ended):

2014-2015 Sacramento Kings

Sacramento has the NBA’s longest active playoff drought, last qualifying in 2006. The core of that first-round loser didn’t last long. Only Francisco Garcia kept the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Kings off the TOD list.

The DeMarcus Cousins era went nowhere, and now he – and everyone else from the 2014 and 2015 teams – is gone. More recent Sacramento squads could qualify as Teams of Despair, but more on that later.

2010-2013 Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves, led by Kevin Garnett, reached the playoffs every year from 1997-2004. That 2004 team was the best of the era, winning 58 games and reaching the Western Conference finals. But Garnett’s supporting cast – led by Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell – was getting old and was gone only one year later. Garnett eventually approved a trade from Minnesota.

After an extended malaise, the Timberwolves began to build back up. By 2011, they had Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and the No. 2 pick. But they also had David Kahn as team president. Kahn chose Derrick Williams (to be fair, the consensus No. 2 prospect) and eventually alienated Love. Even in hindsight, it’s somewhat stunning these teams had to be completely overhauled.

A small step was drafting Gorgui Dieng in 2013, and he stuck around when Minnesota – led by Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns – broke its playoff drought last season.

2001 Chicago Bulls

The second three-peat Bulls broke up in a hurry. Of the six players who started somewhat regularly – Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Luc Longley and Toni Kukoc – only Kukoc returned the season after the 1998 title. Another year later, Kukoc was gone, too.

Elton Brand, the No. 1 pick in 2000, led the TOD Bulls to a 15-67 record. After the season, Chicago traded him to the Clippers for No. 2 pick Tyson Chandler. The Bulls also picked Eddy Curry No. 4 in 2001, and the twin towers eventually helped Chicago reach the 2005 playoffs.

1996-2000 Vancouver Grizzlies

Expansion teams are at a disadvantage, as they automatically start with a roster of players who never made the playoffs with the franchise. But the Grizzlies went five seasons before acquiring their first player who’d reach the postseason with them. These were the Bryant Reeves years blending into the Shareef Abdur-Rahim years.

In 2000, the Grizzlies drafted Stromile Swift, who became a rotation player on their 2005 playoff team led by Pau Gasol (the No. 3 pick the following year).

1995-1996 Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks were playoff regulars in the 80s, but their core aged out. By the early 90s, Dallas was challenging the worst single-season record multiple times. That gave the Mavericks the high draft picks to assemble a young core of Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson – the “Three Js.” But the trio couldn’t get along, rumors of a love triangle between Kidd, Jackson and singer Toni Braxton swirling.

Dallas traded Kidd during the 1996-97 season then hired Don Nelson shortly before the trade deadline. Aghast at the team’s culture, Nelson quickly shipped out seven players, including Jackson and Mashburn.

Nelson’s early roster churn brought in Michael Finley and Shawn Bradley, two eventual starters on the Dirk Nowitzki-led 2001 playoff team.

1990 Sacramento Kings

In 17 seasons between 1982 and 1998, the Kings made the playoffs just three times – each with losing record, each ending with a first-round elimination. It’s of little surprise the longest postseason drought of that era (1987-95) featured a TOD.

The 1990 Kings had some decent talent – Rodney McCray, Wayman Tisdale, Kenny Smith, Danny Ainge, Antoine Carr. But No. 1 pick Pervis Ellison was supposed to lead Sacramento forward. Instead, he was frequently injured. In his third and best season, he averaged 20-11 and won Most Improved Player – but that wasn’t until after the Kings traded him to Washington.

Sacramento drafted Lionel Simmons and Duane Causwell with two of its four first-round picks in 1990. Though neither Simmons nor Causwell became high-impact players, both stuck around until the Mitch Richmond-led Kings returned to the playoffs in 1996.

1980-1987 San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers

Of course the Clippers have the longest Team Of Despair streak in NBA history. Through moves from Buffalo to San Diego to Los Angeles, the franchise missed the playoffs 15 straight years (1977-91).

The Clippers had some talented players during their TOD years – Bill Walton, Tiny Archibald, Terry Cummings, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson. But they all faced major health issues while with the franchise.

Obviously, the Clippers also had Donald Sterling during most of this era. The infamous owner was cheap and cranky, and he built a losing organization from the top down.

The Clippers temporarily dug out of their rut by drafting Ken Norman in 1987, Danny Manning in 1988 and trading 1989 No. 2 pick Danny Ferry for Ron Harper. The Clippers made the playoffs in 1992 and 1993.

But they returned only twice in the next 18 years. It was just darned hard to win under Sterling.

1975-1979 New Orleans Jazz

Another expansion franchise starting off with several Teams Of Despair, the Jazz didn’t begin to build a winner until leaving New Orleans for Utah.

Pete Maravich starred for those New Orleans teams. But whether because his game was more flash than substance or his supporting cast was too weak or some of both, he never led the Jazz to a winning record.

Spencer Haywood played for the Jazz during their final year in New Orleans, but according to the team, he didn’t want to go to Salt Lake City because his wife was a fashion model. For some reason, the Lakers traded Adrian Dantley – seven years younger than Haywood – for Haywood.

Dantley led the Jazz to the playoffs in 1984, 1985 and 1986 before the Karl Malone-John Stockton era kicked into gear.

1977 Indiana Pacers

After excelling in the ABA, the Pacers missed the playoffs in their first four NBA seasons. They faced financial difficulties in those years due to the NBA entrance fee, payout to folding ABA teams and lack of national-TV revenue (which former ABA teams didn’t initially receive). Indiana traded its All-Stars, Billy Knight and Don Buse, in money-saving deals.

By the time the Pacers returned to the playoffs in 1981, they had turned over their entire roster.

The success was fleeting. Indiana didn’t return to the postseason until 1987 and didn’t produce another winning record until 1990.

1971 Portland Trail Blazers

Yet another expansion team that needed time to take off. The Trail Blazers missed the playoffs in their first six years.

At least what their initial squad lacked in playing talent, it made up for in future peripheral basketball ability. Geoff Petrie became a two-time Executive of the Year with the Kings. Rick Adelman won more than 1,000 games coaching the Kings, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Timberwolves and Warriors. Jim Barnett became Golden State’s TV analyst.

After that first season, Portland drafted Larry Steele, who had his best season in 1977. That year, the Trail Blazers made the playoffs for the first time, and Bill Walton led them to the championship.

1968-1970 Seattle SuperSonics

Further north, the expansion SuperSonics followed a similar model as Portland. They were lousy their first few years, but their players included a future Executive of the Year (Rod Thorn) and future Coach of the Year (Lenny Wilkens).

Seattle signed Spencer Haywood from the ABA in 1970 then overcame a lawsuit challenging the NBA’s rules about early eligibility to get him on the court. The next year, the Sonics drafted Fred Brown No. 6. Those two led Seattle to the 1975 playoffs, and Brown stuck around as a key contributor to the 1979 title team.

1953 Milwaukee Hawks

Playing as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, the franchise made the playoffs in its first NBA season in 1950. They also drafted all-time great Bob Cousy that year. But focused on opening a driving school in Massachusetts, Cousy refused to sign unless given a $10,000 salary. The Blackhawks instead sold him to the Chicago Stags.

Over the next five postseason-less years, the final four in Milwaukee, the Hawks used 75 players. Only one, Bill Calhoun, played a majority of the Hawks’ games in that era, and he barely surpassed 50%.

Milwaukee traded for Chuck Share in 1953 and drafted Bob Pettit in 1954, and they helped the Hawks make the 1956 playoffs in their first season in St. Louis. In fact, Pettit took them much further, becoming an all-time great and leading them to the 1958 championship.

1950 Denver Nuggets

1950 Waterloo Hawks

1949 Indianapolis Jets

1947-1949 Providence Steam Rollers

1947 Detroit Falcons

1947 Pittsburgh Ironmen

1947 Toronto Huskies

These seven all missed the playoffs every year of their existence. Maybe they’re more Franchises Of Despair than Teams of Despair.

***

The TOD list could grow. Seven teams enter the season without a player who remains from their last playoff appearance, and six of them have previous seasons still in TOD limbo.

The potential Teams Of Despair:

Denver Nuggets (2019)

This summer, Denver shed the final two players from its last playoff team, trading Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried after those two helped the Nuggets reach the 2013 postseason.

But Denver has extremely short TOD odds. The Nuggets’ young core – Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris – is highly likely to lead them back to the playoffs, maybe as soon as this season.

New York Knicks (2018-2019)

The Knicks got rid of the final member of their 2013 playoff team by trading Carmelo Anthony just before last season.

It’d be devastating if New York doesn’t return to the postseason with Kristaps Porzingis, but his injury presents significant downside risk. If not Porzingis, that’s a lot of pressure on Frank Ntilikina to get the 2018 Knicks off the TOD hook. Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson provide other options on this year’s squad.

Brooklyn Nets (2018-2019)

Brook Lopez was the last link to Brooklyn’s 2013-15 playoff teams. The Nets traded him to the Lakers then played last season without him, starting the TOD clock.

Brooklyn has plenty of young talent – D'Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie – but the team is still in a transient state as it builds up. It’d be surprising if none of those players are keepers who stick until the next playoff team, but it’s also hard to pinpoint one to believe strongly in.

Los Angeles Lakers (2017-2019)

The Lakers have missed the playoffs the last five years, as many seasons as they missed the playoffs in their first 65 years. The last link to the glory days, Kobe Bryant, retired in 2016.

With LeBron James, the Lakers are entering a new era. But how many players from the last couple seasons will stay in Los Angeles? Brandon Ingram is the best hope of clearing the 2017 team from TOD status. Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart could absovle the 2018 team. But any of those young players could get traded for a veteran ready to win with LeBron.

Orlando Magic (2015-2019)

The Magic haven’t made the playoffs since trading Dwight Howard in 2012. Jameer Nelson held off the TOD until 2014, but it has looked grim since.

Orlando still has a few players from its 2015 team – Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic. Gordon just signed a long-term contract and looks like the franchise player. But the Magic don’t appear close to making the playoffs. Who knows what this team will look like when it finally wins again?

Phoenix Suns (2015-2019)

Channing Frye helped the Suns reach the 2010 playoffs then stayed in Phoenix for the first four years of what has become an eight-season playoff drought.

T.J. Warren is the last hope for the 2015 team to escape the TOD label. Devin Booker arrived for the 2016 season, and he just signed a max contract extension. Though there are still questions about his ability to lead a good team, if Booker doesn’t eventually get Phoenix to the playoffs, I can’t even imagine how many general managers Robert Sarver will fire.

Sacramento Kings (2016-2019)

The longest-tenured Kings are Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos, who arrived for the 2016 season. Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere add hope for the 2017 team. But Sacramento looks like one of the NBA’s very worst teams and won’t even have its first-round pick this season. There has been plenty of despair in Sacramento, and more could be ahead.

What worries Adam Silver? Positive tests inside NBA bubble

Adam Silver bubble
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Since testing started on June 23, 28 NBA players tested positive for the coronavirus, 8% of the players tested. That and the positive tests of team staff members (10 of them, 1.1% of the people tested) led to seven teams (at least at one point) shutting down their training facilities.

None of that greatly worried NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and league staff.

The company line is this: Positive tests were expected — this many or more — which is why testing began two weeks before teams flew to Florida for the restart. This gave time for players and staff who tested positive to recover and still go to Orlando for the restart if they wished. The league expects a few more positive tests as players arrive in Orlando this week.

So what does worry Adam Silver and league staff? Positive tests once the first round of testing is done in Orlando and the bubble is formed. Silver spoke (virtually) at the Fortune Brainstorm Health Tuesday and was asked what would happen if there was an outbreak among players in the bubble.

“It’s the right question, and I’m not sure yet.” He went on to say: “Certainly, if we had any sort of a significant spread at all within our campus, we would be shut down again.”

“It would be concerning if once [the players] sit through our quarantine period, and then were to test positive, we would know that, in essence, there’s a hole in our bubble,” Silver added. “That our campus is not working in some way.”

That is the nightmare scenario for the NBA: They set up the bubble — essentially trying to keep the rest of Florida and its spiking cases out of the NBA’s campus — and still the virus gets in and spreads. If that happens, even with all the NBA’s protocols and protections, it’s hard to imagine the NBA season finishing.

However, the NBA is confident the bubble will work, that players will follow the rules enough, that it will all come together and work. Plenty of people, players included, have their doubts. But everyone seems willing to give it a shot, and the NBA wants to push through this.

So long as Silver’s nightmare scenario doesn’t unfold.

Rudy Gobert on dynamic with Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell: ‘I’m the a—hole’

Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell
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Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s best player.

Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz’s biggest star.

That situation naturally creates tension. Gobert and Mitchell testing positive for coronavirus exacerbated it.

Mitchell was upset with Gobert, whose reckless actions made him more likely to contract and spread coronavirus. Now, Mitchell sounds ready to move on.

But other issues remain.

Mitchell quickly became Utah’s go-to offensive player. He’s a sensational scorer with a magnetic personality and electrifying dunks. But he’s still developing as a playmaker, which can frustrate Gobert.

Most famously, Gobert cried when discussing his All-Star snub last year. Gobert plays a complementary style that can be underrated. He’s an elite defender who cleans up for his teammates. On offense, does all the little things – screening, finishing, rebounding. Yet, all that diligent screening isn’t always rewarded with passes when he gets open.

Should Mitchell pass more to Gobert? Yes. But Gobert has also let his effort slip this season when not getting touches, and that’s not the right solution, either.

Gobert, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“I understand that I’m annoying. I can be very annoying,” said Gobert, adding that he knows Mitchell’s job is difficult as the focal point of defenses. “I think maybe because he was really good really early, I’ve been very demanding and maybe in not always a positive way. Sometimes you don’t realize it.

“Like with me, people can be hard on me and I can handle it, but for some guys, it can become very frustrating. I can understand that 100 percent. Donovan has gotten better every year since he’s gotten here. I think he’s going to keep getting a lot better. It’s pretty much, I’m the a–hole.”

“If I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t want to be watching f—ing Rudy Gobert. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell. I wouldn’t want to watch Rudy Gobert get dunks and alter shots. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell cross people up and do crazy layups, crazy dunks, of course.

“I totally understand how it works, and I’m fine with it.”

There’s an endearing amount of self-awareness in these quotes.

Gobert and Mitchell have a chance to form a highly successful partnership in Utah. Winning could bond them. On the other hand, losing could push them further apart. Another potential complication: Mitchell – with all his talent and about four years younger than Gobert – will probably soon surpass Gobert as a player. Then what? How will each handle that?

The future is unpredictable, but it’s worth understanding the current relationship between Gobert and Mitchell. To do that, I highly recommend reading MacMahon’s excellent article.

Nets’ Taurean Prince tests positive for coronavirus, will sit out restart

Taurean Prince Nets
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Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Nicholas Claxton all had pre-existing injuries and were never expected to play in the NBA’s restart in Orlando. Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart to spend time with his family.  DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie both tested positive for the coronavirus and did not join the team headed to Orlando on Tuesday. That’s six players from the Nets roster not playing in the restart.

Make that seven — forward Taurean Prince tested positive for coronavirus and will sit out restart as well. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Prince started at the four for the Nets and averaged 12.1 points and six rebounds a game.

The Nets are free to sign a substitute player to fill in for Prince, however, that player must have fewer than three years of NBA experience. Whoever the Nets line up, it will be a drop off in quality from what Prince brought to the table.

Expect the Nets to look at big men for substitute players because they need size. Jarrett Allen is the only true center on the roster, and there are only two other players — Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa — are taller than 6’9″. Amir Johnson is one Nets’ big man target, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times.

Brooklyn enters the restart as the seven seed in the East, but just half a game up on eight seed Orlando, a team that is largely healthy and bringing its full roster. It’s likely the Nets slide back to the eight seed, but likely make the playoffs (Washington, playing without Bradley Beal or Davis Bertans, would have to make up two games on the Nets during the eight seeding games, then beat Brooklyn in a two straight play-in series games, a tall order). The Nets reward for making the playoffs? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee.

WNBA players call for ouster of Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia senator

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)
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NBA players showed their power by getting Donald Sterling removed as Clippers owner.

WNBA players might be having a similar moment with Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia.

Sterling committed incredibly harmful racist and sexist acts for years. Ironically, something far more benign – telling his girlfriend not to post pictures with black people or bring them to games – did him in. But he went too far in a time of growing sensitivity to speech.

Now, there’s even less tolerance for people saying the “wrong” thing. And Loeffler has said things lately that range from disagreeable to offensive.

The WNBA announced its plans for promoting social justice during its upcoming season:

The WNBA will begin its season in late July with a weekend of competition centered around the Black Lives Matter movement, during which teams will wear special uniforms to seek justice for the women and girls, including Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Vanessa Guillen and many more who have been the forgotten victims of police brutality and racial violence. Throughout the season, players will wear NIKE-branded warm-up shirts that display “Black Lives Matter” on the front.   Additionally, “Say Her Name” will adorn the back of the shirts.  “Black Lives Matter” will also be prominently displayed on courts during games.

In response, Kelly Loeffler wrote a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. A portion of that letter, via Greg Bluestein and Bria Felicien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

All of us have a constitutional right to hold and to express our views. But to subscribe to a particular political agenda undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion.

The truth is, we need less—not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote. And now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.

The lives of each and every African American matter, and there’s no debating the fact that there is no place for racism in our country. However, I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country. I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.

Amid the recent unrest in many American cities, this movement advocated the creation of lawless autonomous zones in places like Atlanta. I denounced these zones of violence—for which I have been criticized. However, this same group fell silent over the fourth of July weekend when an 8-year-old girl was murdered under the “mob rule” that I warned about days earlier. This is not a political movement that the league should be embracing, and I emphatically oppose it.

Though I was not consulted about—nor do I agree with the League’s decision in this matter, I am proposing a common-sense recommendation to ensure we reflect the values of freedom and equality for all. I believe we should put an American flag on every jersey. Include it in our licensed apparel for players, coaches and fans.

Women’s National Basketball Players Association:

WNBA:

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement:

“The WNBA is based on the principle of equal and fair treatment of all people and we, along with the teams and players, will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice.  Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not served as a Governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team.”

That is a strong statement from the union. Several players previously criticized Loeffler, especially in the wake of a recent interview.

She was asked, “It is not every day you see people carrying long guns in big cities in America. What is happening on the streets of Atlanta this morning?” While Fox News showed armed black men, Loeffler said, “This is totally unacceptable. We cannot allow mob rule. We’re a nation of the rule of law.”

If Loeffler – a self-avowed Second Amendment advocate – were specifically denouncing legal gun carrying because the carriers were black, that’s racist, hypocritical and completely unacceptable. But it’s unclear whether Loeffler could see the images and videos as she answered. It’s also unclear whether she was answering more generally about everything happening in Atlanta.

Regardless, backlash spread.

Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream:

Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm:

Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Washington Mystics:

Natasha Cloud of the Phoenix Mercury:

Layshia Clarendon of the New York Liberty:

Sydney Colson of the Chicago Sky:

There is room for legitimate debate on the issues raised in the tweets and articles they link, including gun control, abortion and the best tactics for fighting racism. Loeffler shouldn’t be forced out simply because she disagrees with some vocal players. (I suspect, in a league as large and diverse as the WNBA, some players agree with her on some of these issues.)

But Loeffler’s letter to Engelbert is particularly off-putting.

Disagreeing with some elements of the Black Lives Matter organization would be one thing. But condemning the Black Lives Matter political movement is something else. Within that movement, there are disagreements on methods and goals. The unifying thread: Believing black lives matter. That’s why Black Lives Matter, despite some extreme views, holds such mass appeal.

It’s also gross for Loeffler to use a false claim about Secoriea Turner to fit her agenda. Protesters have decried the girl’s killing.

The players who are using their platforms to promote racial justice deserve praise. Their plan is good for the WNBA. It’s good for the United the States.

The truth is there has always been politics in sports. White people can more easily ignore it, but that’s their privilege. The many black players in the WNBA still live in a country with systematic racism. Their humanity doesn’t end when they show up to work, and they shouldn’t be told to be quiet and just wear an American flag on their jerseys.

It’s telling that Loeffler’s solution to politics in sports is to put a political symbol on jerseys.

She doesn’t want politics out of sports. She wants politics she disagrees with out of sports.

Now, the WNBA will determine whether it wants her out of its sport.