This is the second of a two-part article looking at the rapid pace of change in the NBA. Part 2 looks at the league as a whole.
As established in Part One, the NBA we once knew is gone. Just 26 players remain on the same team they ended the previous decade with, and that number could easily drop below 20 next summer. Arguably just as stunning is that only nine players have been with their current franchise for a decade running.
The NBA wants things this way. Shorter contracts and frequent player movement has turned free agency into an event (and the moratorium into chaos), as well as served to keep fanbases involved that might not have been before. The flip side of that frenzy is that it’s harder to keep rosters together, or perhaps more accurately, it’s easier to be tempted into breaking them apart. If the current group isn’t working out, might as well shake it up, right? Let’s take another look at the chart from Part One, except this time, it’s not sorted by year, but by franchise:
17 franchises have turned over their roster completely, while just seven have multiple stalwarts. It’s those latter teams that are fascinating, and more specifically the ones with long-standing cores that haven’t gotten to the Finals. The titles in San Antonio and Miami, plus the narrow misses in Oklahoma City, make the continuity of each relatively straightforward (for example, Udonis Haslem is just about done, but he was a key part of their run alongside Dwyane Wade, and it’s clear he’s part of the fabric of the organization). As for the other duos, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been around for a while, but they aren’t close to their decline phases, and the Horford/Teague combo isn’t quite a full-blown core.
The teams to focus on here are Chicago and Memphis, a fitting pairing since they mirror each other. Though Chicago received a little more buzz over the years due to residing in the weaker conference and the ceiling that a healthy Derrick Rose provided, all told, both have thus far reached one conference finals, managed improbable series wins and brought home impressive individual accolades, yet function closer to a “rite of passage” for the eventual conference champion than an actual contender.
Another thing they have in common: they’re the last vestiges of the NBA’s patented path to success. As the narrative goes, young teams have to take their lumps in the playoffs, learning what it takes to usurp the bully on the block. Larry Bird’s Celtics ran the East in the 1980s, until the Bad Boy Pistons reined them in, only for Michael Jordan and the Bulls to famously dethrone them to begin their dynasty.
That narrative has mostly faded though in the age of Big Threes, as Boston, Miami and Cleveland built instant powerhouses. Most recently, doubts about Golden State’s collective inexperience were mostly cast aside once they passed the requisite test against Memphis. Throw in the dissolutions of the Blazers and Pacers, and that leaves the Bulls and Grizzlies as relics of an earlier time.
However, sometimes zigging when everyone else zags can help create a comparative advantage. On the Lowe Post podcast, Zach Lowe asked Blazers GM Neil Olshey if chemistry will be harder to find in the current landscape:
“I do think it’s tougher. We were very lucky that we had great guys like Wes Matthews and Nic [Batum] and LaMarcus [Aldridge] that were team-first guys, and when we added [Damian] Lillard, we realized that group of four had great chemistry, and we were very cognizant of that when we went out to get Robin Lopez, who we knew as a guy maybe wasn’t a sexy get in the summer in terms of in a vacuum, in terms of his numbers, but what he would add to the collective […] Isolated player for player, we might not have been able to compete at the highest level in the Western Conference, but as a collective, in the sum of the parts, that group outperformed maybe their individual abilities to a certain extent.”
At this point in time, the chances of a breakthrough don’t look great for Chicago or Memphis. Although the Grizzlies made the switch from the hyper old school disciplinarian to a younger, calmer voice before the Bulls, they seem to be falling victim to the same trap that doomed the end of Tom Thibodeau’s tenure: it’s simply really hard to be good for years on end as “the effort team,” especially when core players move into their 30s. As for the Bulls, recalibrating their identity and rebuilding chemistry have proven elusive tasks, considering Jimmy Butler is the only consistent contributor night in, night out. Rose vacillates between driving force with blurring speed and passive participant with blurred vision, while 2015 Joakim Noah might be the first player ever to be better at dominating a game with his energy than scoring in an empty gym.
It’s difficult to anticipate where each team will go from here. The Grizzlies might just be waiting to flip the switch, and get back to some gritting with the occasional grinding. As for the Bulls, it’s quite possible they finally manage to stay healthy, building momentum and consistency and set themselves up for a second wind with this nucleus. It also can’t be discounted that the best days of both are in the rearview mirror. Such a fate would be sad for such prideful groups, but that’s why we watch. The fear is part of the fun. There’s real stakes here for teams that are historically relevant whether they win a title or not, and inheritors to their legacies will unfortunately be fewer and further between in the new NBA.