It was fun while it lasted…
Four NBA playoff hot takes going into the Conference Finals, and how it will affect the Bucks-Warriors Finals.
#1: Teams can change throughout a season, or a postseason*
First, let me admit that I was wrong about my prediction at the beginning of the season.
I picked Golden State to play Toronto in the Finals, based on the fact that Toronto had the best bench in the NBA in 2017–2018 by point differential (+10.1), and they were adding Kawhi Leonard, the only guy who has ever beaten Kevin Durant and LeBron James in consecutive playoff series.
However, Toronto gave up Jakob Poeltl in the Kawhi Leonard trade, lost OG Anunoby to injury, and traded their best offensive threat in the post (Valanciunas), along with a tall, young point guard (Wright) who is an excellent defender and passer. With the loss of those four players, Toronto dropped to #20 in point differential (-2.5).
The team lost a huge amount of flexibility in their ability to attack opponents with different types of lineups. While Marc Gasol might have been the magic potion to defend Joel Embiid, his inability to score in the post like Valanciunas is a major weakness playing the shot-blocking Bucks. Without Wright, Philadelphia’s big lineups exposed Van Vleet (their best bench player for much of the last two or three seasons) a liability. And the loss of Anunoby just kills Toronto’s ability to play small and spread the floor.
Second, let’s give props to the Golden State Warriors as one of the greatest teams in history.
In the West, the injury to Kevin Durant has reignited Golden State, as it has returned to its motion offense revolving around the gravity of a now liberated superhero in Stephen Curry, and the stifling defense of a re-energized Draymond Green. They were underdogs by the largest point spread in Game 6 against Houston and played one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen them play. After sleepwalking through the regular season and early playoff rounds, they were pumped up by a rare challenge to remind us of how amazing the are. Houston was probably the 3rd best team in the NBA as the playoffs began, and the Warriors closed out the series on the road on the strength of incredible team defense played by everyone, including little used bench guys who had been written off as unplayable.
#2: Coaches really matter in the NBA
First, let’s look at the teams that had no chance.
Dwane Casey had no chance against the Eastern best Bucks, let alone without a healthy Blake Griffin, but he swept his old team, the Raptors, during the regular season.
FUN FACT: During his last four years with the Raptors, Casey’s team won 219 regular season games, the 3rd most in the NBA: Warriors (265), Spurs (230), Rockets (217), Cavs (211), Clippers (202), Celtics (196), Thunder (195), Hawks (175), Pacers (173), and the Heat (170). He just couldn’t beat LeBron James in the playoffs.
Kenny Atkinson developed his young players, somehow made the playoffs, and then led his badly over matched Nets to scare the Philadelphia 76ers.
Nate McMillan only got 36 games this season from his only All-Star player this season and still earned the #5 seed, winning 48 games. (Guess who had the services of LeBron James for 55 games and didn’t come close to having a .500 record?)
Steve Clifford somehow lifted Orlando into the playoffs for the first time in years, and they took a game off the vastly superior Raptors.
Gregg Popovich took a team that many people thought would miss the playoffs, and was one Jamal Murray fourth quarter hot streak away from going up 3–0 in his series against the #2 seeded Nuggets.
Doc Rivers should win Coach of the Year for a miracle season filled with rookies, castoffs, and role players, while trading away their one All-Star level player. They engineered some of the craziest comeback wins ever seen during a regular season — during one stretch, they played six straight games in February where they trailed by 20+ points, and won three of them. Oh, and they had that little playoff moment against the Warriors you probably have heard about.
Next, let’s look at the teams with lots of talent
Billy Donovan still can’t get Russell Westbrook to play the right way, and the Thunder haven’t won a playoff series since Durant left.
Mark Malone is a solid coach who probably overachieved during the regular season, but his young players weren’t up to the task this year. We’ll have a better idea of what he can do next year.
Quinn Snyder is another good regular season coach, but was unable to make enough adjustments to slow down Houston, and didn’t have an experienced enough star in Donovan Mitchell to win close games. We’ll have to wait on his capabilities until next year, as well.
Brad Stevens went from wonder boy to getting held back a grade due to his inability to go to the next level with a “healthy” (at least in a physical sense) Kyrie Irvin and Gordon Hayward. Back in February I wrote about the difference between being a player development coach (Doug Collins) and a guy who can control player egos to win rings (Phil Jackson). Very few coaches are ever able to do both.
Where legacy ends and myth begins
The Boston Celtics can’t stop wondering why they aren’t the Warriors. Here are 4 reasons why they aren’t.
Brett Brown was exposed as a horrible coach last year, blowing two fourth quarter leads against Boston in a series they lost 4–1. He did a little better this year, taking Toronto to 7 games, but still can’t draw up a late ATO that gets a good shot for his team. With the massive talent on that team, there was no reason for them not to reach the Finals. Maybe he can get Embiid to go on a diet and Simmons to learn to hit a jump shot in the off season.
Mike D’Antoni was a genius innovator in Phoenix. He basically invented Warriors basketball, and was unlucky not to have won a title in the 2005–2007 era. What he’s done at Houston has also been innovative, but taken basketball into a dark, ugly place. But the biggest thing he did was find a good defensive coordinator in Jeff Bzdelik, who turned last year’s Rockets into a top 5 defense. When he retired this season, the Rockets slid to the bottom of the league. The Rockets somehow got him to come back after a month, and they were the #2 defense in the NBA after the All-Star break.
The ability to pick a quality coaching staff is a huge part to being an elite coach, so give props to D’Antoni. (For context, look at the clown car coaching staff that Luke Walton assembled to see how a coach who can do one thing well completely fails without have the right assistants)
Nick Nurse replaced Coach of the Year winner Dwane Casey. He was given a team that had led the East in total regular season wins since 2014 (see above), the best bench in the NBA, and Kawhi Leonard, but won one less regular season game than the year before. His team has started out unprepared, losing early home games to the Magic and the 76ers. And his over-dependence on Leonard has made the team looked frightened to shoot the ball down the stretch of close games. (It took a miracle shot by Leonard to avoid going to overtime and possibly losing to Philadelphia.) Top it off with throwing away a gift opportunity against a rusty Bucks team, and it’s hard to put him above the level of Brett Brown.
Finally, let’s look at the teams with talent AND a good coach.
Terry Stotts may not be a coach of the year candidate, but he’s got a solid track record, including his stint as offensive coordinator for the Mavericks when they won the title in 2011. He has shown a lot of courage in keeping Portland energized and competitive in spite of the loss of starting center Jusuf Nurkic near the end of the regular season. He has somehow found a scheme that allowed Enes “can’t play” Kanter to become a key member of Portland’s playoff run, in spite of having to defend high quality centers like Steven Adams and Nikola Jokic. His rotation adjustments with Collins, Turner and Harkless provided some big defensive sparks in an epic 7-game win over Denver.
Mike Budenholzer has to win Coach of the Year (even though Doc Rivers did more with far less), after leading the Bucks to the best record in the NBA. His offensive system has transformed the team and unleashed Giannis’ potential. But what I like the most was the way he figured out how to adjust his game plan after athat disastrous first game loss to the Celtics. Over the next four games, the Bucks took fourth quarter leads of 31, 16, 14, and 26 points, and won all four games.
Steve Kerr reminded us of his excellence as soon as Kevin Durant got hurt, as the Warriors closed out Houston and then crushed Portland in the opening game. He may have two of the greatest shooters of all time, but his ability to get his team to pass, run and defend, no matter the score, makes him an elite coach.
#3: Thank goodness, beautiful basketball still rules.
Teams that play ugly isolation basketball have fallen by the way side.
Say goodbye, Houston, Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto. (Yes, I’m writing off Toronto after one game). They all depend far too much on a single player creating his own shots.
Teams that share the ball, play defense, and run have been able to wear down opponents in the fourth quarter.
Golden State wore down James Harden to the point where he had 4 fourth quarter turnovers, and the outscored Houston by 10 in the final period. Portland did it against Denver on the road, in spite of falling behind by 17 points in the first quarter. And Milwaukee came back from a couple of double digit deficits to outscore Toronto by 15 in the fourth quarter.
#4: Having a stretch 5 to space the floor is great; knowing how to use one is better.
Brook Lopez had the game of his life against the Raptors in game 1, but that’s a testament to Coach Budenholzer.
Brandon Anderson wrote all about the Buck’s win and the Lopez performance here:
20 Key Takeaways from Bucks-Raptors Eastern Conference Finals Game 1
Kyle Lowry did it all, but Brook Lopez stole the show and carried the Milwaukee Bucks to victory, 108 to 100
In 2017, this was the same guy who was so completely frustrated and incompetent while playing for the Lakers under Luke Walton. In a game against Cleveland, he ran and hid when LeBron James came into the lane for a dunk, then followed it up by shooting two straight air balls on free throws. He melted away during that season. In one game, he was so distraught he needed to go to the locker room to regain his composure. He shot horribly from beyond the arc during the first half of that season, and wasn’t great in the Lakers switching defense.
Is it any wonder he wasn’t interested in signing to play another season in Los Angeles, even with the chance to play with LeBron James?
Al Horford gives the Celtics a chance to be an elite team.
His ability to stretch the floor as an accurate three point shooter and at the same time defend elite centers like Joel Embiid had powered Boston to the Conference Finals two years in a row, when they had no business getting out of the first round. He’s one of those rare glue guy All-Stars who are the soul of a team. Boston’s #1 priority should be to resign Horford. Without him, they’ll be closer to a perennial #8 seed, regardless of how well their young guys play.
When Draymond Green can hit a three pointer, we get a glimpse of the 73-win Warriors.
As great as he is on the defensive end, his ability to push the ball after a rebound, and create plays for teammates on all the 3-on-2 matchups that result when teams try to trap Stephen Curry, Green has been a miserable shooter from deep since the 2015-2016 season (.308, .301, .285 the last three years). Even shooting 33%, like he did during the 2015 title run, is enough to spread the floor and make the Splash Brothers completely unstoppable. He hit two huge three pointers in Game 5 against Houston, the game Durant got hurt. If Kevin Durant does leave the team this year, Green’s ability to shoot will be a key to continue winning titles.
Giannis is starting to shoot more three pointers. If he can get close to league average while playing center, doesn’t that become the most dangerous small ball lineup on the planet?
The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season. If the Greek Freak is able to score almost as many points per shot on three pointers as he does around the rim, this lineup shoots better than the Warriors: 6–3 Hill (.400 3P% in the playoffs), 6–5 Brogdon (.426 3P%), 6–7 Snell (.397 3P%), and 6–8 Middleton (.378 3P%).
If Giannis improves his long distance shooting and Durant leaves the Warriors, do the Bucks become the next dynasty?
Bonus thought: next year, watch out for the Lakers!
(That was a joke to make sure you’re paying attention.)
This off-season and next season could see radical changes in the power structure of the NBA.
Here are the main free agents coming on the market on July 1st:
TIER 1: TECTONIC SHIFTS
These are the Max Contract guys, with no questions asked. They can cause contenders to rise and fall like the Rock’s hokey movie, San Andreas, especially the Warriors players who simultaneously strengthen their new team and weaken Golden State’s grip on the NBA: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson.
TIER 2: INSTANT REBUILDS
These are the Robins, looking for a Batman. They’re going to cost a lot, but signing them probably lifts a team into the playoffs: Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton.
TIER 3: THE LAST PUZZLE PIECE
Signing these solid #3 options to reasonable contracts could put some teams over the top: Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Vucevic, Julius Randle, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gay.
TIER 4: GOOD BUT OVERVALUED
These are good players who expect to be paid, but have some flaws (either no defense, too fragile, or too old). Giving these players a huge long term contract will probably hamstring a team’s future: D’Angelo Russell, DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap
TIER 5: NICE ROLE PLAYERS
These are solid veterans who don’t quite rise to the level of a #3 option but could be starters or key bench players: Danny Green, Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Thaddeus Young, Jeremy Lamb, Darren Collison, Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris, JJ Redick, DeAndre Jordan
Eastern teams facing the most questions going into next year.
Toronto — if they lose Leonard, and have one year left on the huge Lowry contract, do they blow up the team after almost reaching the NBA Finals? If they upset the Bucks or even the Warriors, does Kawhi stay and they become an Eastern fixture by stealing someone like Horford from the Celtics?
Boston — everything is up in the air, with Kyrie and Horford’s future unknown, the poor performances of their young guys reducing their trade value, and the uncertainty of Hayward’s ability to regain his old form, they could be exploding though the luxury cap with the chance of being no better than the 3rd best team in the East.
Philadelphia — can they resign all those expensive, ill-fitting parts? Will Joel Embiid ever get in good shape? Will Ben Simmons ever learn to make a jump shot? Will Brett Brown ever call a successful ATO? Maybe the Process starts up anew after another failed attempt to win the East after next season.
New York — what if they sign both Durant and Kyrie? Could that team become a top 4 seed in the East?
Charlotte — if they can’t resign Kemba, are they doomed to the lottery? If they resign Kemba, are they doomed to the lottery?
Brooklyn — what if they sign Durant, or Kyrie, or both? They are still in New York, after all. As much as I discount D’Angelo Russell’s poor defense and inability to get to the rim, he has proved to be a supportive teammate in Brooklyn. I was really impressed by his actions while on the bench in the 76ers series. And there was a video of him coming out with teammates to cheer on the Nets’ G League affiliate as they played for the title. The Nets have the cap space to pay Russell and sign Durant. Could that become a top 4 team in the East?
Western teams facing the most questions going into next year.
LA Clippers — can they land one or two major free agents? They’ve got a great coach, a great front office, AND Jerry West as their consultant. If they sign Kawhi Leonard, could this team edge Houston and Denver for the #2 seed?
LA Lakers — they’ve got nothing the Clippers have, but they still have LeBron James, some young guys who could develop under the right coach, a bunch of cap space and the #4 pick in the draft. If they can sign or trade for a big free agent, could they become a contender in spite of the organization’s dysfunction?
Sacramento — they’ve got a good young core, a huge amount of cap space, and one year left on the Harrison Barnes contract. Could they sign a big free agent, or maybe make some big trades? How about a lineup of only Kentucky players: Fox, Jamal Murray, Cauley-Stein, Anthony Davis, and Julius Randle?
New Orleans — they draft Zion, and convince Anthony Davis to stay with the team. Add in Jrue Holiday, a borderline All-NBA guard, and they could become an interesting playoff team. Or, they trade Davis for a boat load of stuff. Imagine what their roster would look like if they took that ridiculous offer made by Magic: Zion, Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, the #4 draft pick, a future 1st round Lakers pick, no Solomon Hill contract, and E’twaun Moore. Or they get Tatum, Brown, Smart and a 1st round pick from Boston. If Zion becomes a major impact player, their future path can go anywhere.
Golden State — the only question is if they lose either Durant or Thompson. Lose one, and they’re still the favorites, but the margin for error becomes much smaller. Lose both, and I’m taking the field.
*After Milwaukee took a 2–0 lead, it looked like Toronto’s terrible bench play would result in a quick loss. What I didn’t count on was Fred Van Vleet turning into mini Stephen Curry, making 14 of 17 on his 3-point shots in games 4-6.
Also, major props go to all those Raptors who had conference finals experience. Gasol made 10 of 20 3-pointers in the four consecutive wins, after shooting a hestitant 2 for 9 in the first two losses of the series. Kyle Lowry played out of his mind against the Bucks, averaging 19.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.2 apg, while making 48.8% of his three pointers. Danny Green, was the only guy with championship experience who shot horribly compared to the regular season.
I didn’t think the pressure of these games would cause the Bucks to fall apart, but they did. For the season, Milwaukee shot 47.6/35.5/77.3. In the four losses against Toronto, the team never shot above their season average in any category. Part of the credit goes to Toronto, but Milwaukee collapsed. In game 6, the Bucks led 76–61 with 2:18 left in the 3rd quarter and got outscored 17–2 in less than four minutes.
Just look at the shooting of their key players: Brogdon (.285 3P% for game 4–6), Mirotic (.169 3P% for tgames 1–5, he was a DNP in game 6), Ilyasova (.175 3P% for the series), Lopez (.285 3P% for the series), and Bledsoe (.164 3P% for the series).
Giannis actually shot better from deep (.333 3P% during the series than he did in the regular season, but he couldn’t figure out how to break down Toronto’s defense and his shooting efficiency was a disaster (.445 FG%, .555 FT% in the series, compared to .578 FG%, .729 FT% in the regular season). In Game 3, Giannis missed 11 of 16 shots and 5 out of 7 free throws in a double overtime loss. This was the turning point of the series, as there was no way Toronto could have come back from a 3–0 deficit.
Finally, I shouldn’t have been so quick to abandon my original contention that Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the East. Giannis is still limited offensively, while Leonard played like a Finals MVP. Only three other players in history racked up the numbers he did in the last two series (≥30 ppg, ≥9 rpg, ≥4 apg, ≥ 1.5 steals), while playing unbelievable defense against the opponent’s best players on every possession, and averaging over 40 minutes per game.