In my career as a brave, attractive basketball iconoclast, no position I’ve held has been less respected than my stance that the treadmill of mediocrity is actually perfectly fine. Has this been shaped by my experiences as a Dallas Mavericks fan? Absolutely. That team was really good for a long time, and a championship contender for longer than people remember, but they also changed all the time. Their 2006 team that lost the Finals, and their 2011 team that won it, had pretty much nobody in common besides Dirk and the JET. They just kept staying pretty good and occasionally would add someone who made them really good. I think that’s a good strategy!
But finally, my day has come because the Houston Rockets, at the very least the second-best team in the NBA today, built their present dominance on the backs of a lot of mediocrities.
Consider if you will, the Houston Rockets of the late 2000s and early 2010s: between 2009 and 2013, four season, the Rockets averaged 41 wins, which is to say, precisely mediocre. In that period they finished ninth, in 2009-10, ninth in 2010-11, ninth in the strike-shortened 2011-12, and would you believe it eighth in 2012-13. They lost in the first round. It does not get much more mediocre than that.
But something magical happened between 2011-12 and 2012-13, which is that the Rockets traded Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick, for James Harden. They haven’t always been great, since then, but they have always made the playoffs and this is Harden’s third-straight MVP-worthy season.
The core of the present team includes Trevor Ariza, who signed with the Rockets in 2014, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who signed in 2016, and of course, Chris Paul, who forced a sign-and-trade to the Rockets having gotten tired of a nearly-as-good-at-the-time Western contender, the Clippers. The only Rockets draft pick currently making a significant impact is Clint Capela, drafted with the No. 25 pick in 2014. Pretty much every one in the league could have had Capela, but the Rockets nabbed him. They’re more or less the anti-Sixers. Which, of course, is not a dig at the Sixers.
Now, let me ask you this. Could my current Mavericks have traded for James Harden, even the Harden of 2012? No, of course not. They don’t have any good players. Are they good enough to sign savvy vets like Ariza, Gordon, and Anderson, to form the core of a deep unit? Maybe, depending on whether those guys want cash or a chance to win the title, but the Mavs are certainly in no danger of offering the latter. Could they convince Chris Paul to leave the Clippers in order to come play with Dennis Smith Jr., as opposed to James Harden? No, of course they couldn’t.
I’ve said this a bunch of different ways in the four hundred and seven years I’ve been a sports-writer but what some people call mediocrity is, very simply, what other people call opportunity. Of course it means you’re not going to get a high draft pick, but it does mean you have a lot of quality assets to move for a Harden, or an established core with which to attract, potentially, a Paul. It’s not exactly a disaster, and it doesn’t really take any less time than anything else. The Rockets lost in the semifinals in 2009, played .500 ball for three years, then are about to make the playoffs for the sixth year in a row. Again, not exactly a disaster.
Of course, this is not meant to be a criticism of tanking. I’m not saying this is the “right way,” because the Rockets kept trying to win, and that tanking is the “wrong way.” I don’t care about that. I’m not a huge nerd, I’m cool and have real issues to worry about. And of course, the difference between tanking and a mediocrity-based strategy like this is that the Rockets core would seem to have less time to flourish than the appallingly young Sixers. That’s the point of investing in very young players, and who knows what might happen? Then again, the counterpoint is, who knows what might happen?
All I’m saying, and I’ve been saying it since slightly before the American Revolution, is that there are in fact a lot of different ways to build a team, none have a great track record, and all depend to a significant degree on luck. In this case, this year’s NBA champion might have been purchased with the coin of three mediocre years, seven to nine years ago. It’s an interesting thing for all of us to consider. I therefore submit it here for your consideration.