The “treadmill of mediocrity” is a term coined by former Portland Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard in 2011. It’s pro basketball limbo — being good enough to sneak into the playoffs but not good enough to win, yet not quite bad enough to earn a top-5 draft pick and select a serious game-changer. And still, 10 years after the birth of the metaphorical “treadmill,” the Trail Blazers haven’t finished their workout.
Through the 2010’s, the Blazers only made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs three times, despite earning eight trips to the postseason. They only made it to the Conference Finals once and were swept by Golden State, who didn’t have Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant available. While nobody is denying that the Blazers have been a good team for a decade, they are nowhere close to a championship-caliber club with their current roster. They would need another superstar to team up with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum before they could compete with the best in the West. However, since Portland is not a big basketball market, big-name free agents tend to look away from Rip City.
The Charlotte Hornets are the next team to start running on that treadmill. Despite having more minutes from players in their first three years than any other team in the league, unless several of the Hornets’ young players see a meteoric rise in level of play, the team will be stuck near the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket every year.
Is LaMelo Ball a baller? Yes. Do Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham have potential? Yes. Can Gordon Hayward still be a pivotal piece in a team’s success? Yes. But even if every player on this team reaches their potential, would you take them over the Nets or the Sixers or the Bucks? No, and if you would, you’re wrong. The Hornets are still one or two strong additions away from being a threat in the Eastern Conference, and since Charlotte is only the 21st largest TV market in American sports — exactly one spot ahead of Portland — it’s unlikely they’ll land any genuine game changers.
If you think that’s far-fetched, tell me the last time a player who made an All-Star team in the most recent season opted to go to a team outside the top-15 NBA markets. Before you answer, re-signings don’t count, and LeBron James choosing to return to Cleveland doesn’t either since he grew up in that area. Got it? So…can you think of one? Who was the best small market signing of the 2010s? Al Jefferson to Charlotte? Paul Millsap to Atlanta? Darren Collison to Sacramento? Jrue Holiday to New Orleans? You get the point. It hasn’t happened recently. Therefore, a team like the Hornets would have to build primarily through the draft.
The selection of LaMelo Ball was good — maybe even great — but that pick is actually the selection that keeps the Hornets from competing. With Ball, Charlotte is good enough to stay out of the draft lottery every year. Avoiding the draft lottery has traditionally been an awful formula for rebuilding. Since 2010, there have been 33 players selected within the first 10 picks who’ve earned an average Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of at least 1.0. Between picks 11 and 20, that number drops to 18. In fact, only one season (2011) saw more players with an average VORP of 1.0 or more drafted between picks 11 and 20 than picks 1 through 10. And even that is a major outlier in a league that has become so top-heavy and star-dependent.
The Charlotte Hornets were a fun team to watch in 2021. They have some great, interesting characters to root for, but the Hornets’ future looks dim. Even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has gone on record saying that he wanted the Mavericks to be “really bad” after Dirk Nowtizki retired in order to rebuild more effectively. That seems to be the best path to go. While you could always get lucky in the draft like Milwaukee finding Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in 2013, or Indiana finding…Kawhi Leonard (geez, that’s unfortunate) with pick 15 in 2011, it’s much more likely that a team will find a legitimate game-changer within the first 10 picks. Charlotte has done enough to avoid a top-10 pick within the next 3-5 years, and that is exactly why they won’t succeed in the NBA.