Lessons from the First Round - NBA Playoffs 2018
The first round of the playoffs has wrapped up, after the Cavaliers finally put away the Indiana Pacers in seven games. While most series went as expected, there was the odd series (New Orleans vs Portland, or Cleveland vs Indiana) that surprised quite a few people. We said goodbye to many stars this round, like Paul George, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, and many more. How many did we see in their respective jerseys for the last time? The 2018 offseason starts early for many players, but the work begins for many writers - looking back to see what went wrong for a number of teams, what could be done, and what the future holds.
The first round in the NBA went a little something like this:
#1) Toronto Raptors defeat #8 Washington Wizards 4-2
#2) Boston Celtics #7 Milwaukee Bucks 4-3
#3) Philadelphia 76ers defeat #6 Miami Heat 4 - 1
#4) Cleveland Cavaliers defeats #5 Indiana Pacers 4-3
#1 Houston Rockets defeat #8 Minnesota Timberwolves 4-1
#2 Golden State Warriors defeat #7 San Antonio Spurs 4-1
#6 New Orleans Pelicans defeat #3 Portland Trail Blazers 4-0
#5 Utah Jazz vs #4 Oklahoma City Thunder 4-3
Coming out of the first round, what have we learned from the NBA’s elite teams? I’m Parker Love, here to break it down for you!
1) Kevin Durant made the correct (but unpopular) choice.
Disclaimer: An ambitious first lesson? I’m probably gonna get a lot of flak for this.
Remember in the Dark Knight, where Alfred tells Bruce Wayne to endure? Well, Durant must be a Batman fan, cause he’s had to endure a lot of hate, despite making the correct decision to leave. *Disclaimer: I never said he went to the right team.*
Not saying Durant wasn’t/ isn’t immature in his decisions to leave Oklahoma City, but there is so much evidence that he should have. Hell, boil it down to Westbrook vs Curry - I’d choose to go play with Curry 10/10 times. Steph makes his team better. Westbrook is a stat chaser, simply put. Yes, he averaged a triple double again, but is doomed to lose to a team nobody predicted to make the playoffs. Kevin Durant is likely to go to another Western Conference Finals, while Westbrook is going to lose another all star running mate in Paul George in about a week. Was joining a 73 win team a popular choice? Absolutely not. But don’t tell me you won’t be tuning into the Rockets - GSW matchup in a few weeks, and that you think the Warriors could be making yet another finals appearance.
Yes, he could have not went to the team that beat him. But, he made the right decision to leave. Westbrook will not win OKC a championship. If he does, I will eat crow and admit I was wrong. But I am confident in my decision that he will not win.
2) The Jazz are for real.
Donovan Mitchell is a stud. Rudy Gobert is a stud. Joe Ingles may be the best sneaky-good player in the league. The job Quin Snyder has done with this team is just suberb. The Mitchell-Rubio-Ingles-Favors-Gobert lineup destroyed the Thunder, and they’ll only continue to improve as this team gets older. Remember when Gordon Hayward left this offseason? How it was all doom and gloom for the Jazz? They’ve completely changed that attitude in Utah, and possibly have the best home crowd in the league. I mean, Mitt Romney is trash talking. How cool is that?
This team will contend down the road. Now? They face a tough Houston team that will show how real this team is, especially without first round stud Ricky Rubio. I do expect them to lose this series, but the fact they’re in the top 4 in the ultra competitive Western Conference is fantastic.
3) Does New Orleans need Boogie?
Who would have thought New Orleans would be the only team to sweep their opponents in the first round?
Demarcus Cousins was playing at a fringe - MVP level before his unfortunate injury. He is an incredible talent, and will no doubt continue to impact the game in a huge way. But did you watch the Pelicans dismantle the Blazers? Give Davis room to operate in the post, let Mirotic hit open jumper and someone convince Rondo that every game is a playoff game. If they can create some solid cap room to sign another above average wing (say, take a flyer on Jabari Parker or Trevor Ariza), this Pelicans team could look dangerous as Davis continues to improve.
Boogie is an incredible player, no doubt. Take a look at the stats Anthony Davis had after his injury, and what increased responsibility did for Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic did. Now, addition by subtraction is something that can help some teams. I think that letting Boogie go could help Davis become a top 3 player in the league. If I was Cousins, I would look at partnering up with John Wall in Washington or somewhere that can take advantage of his offensive rebounding. I still think Cousins could be a star, even after his injury; ground based NBA games age well, and DeMarcus can play that game. But if I were NOP, I wouldn’t hand a max contract to Boogie for it.
4) The Pacers won the Paul George trade…
…and especially if George leaves in about a week. A first round elimination with a declining Carmelo Anthony and stat stuffing Russell Westbrook seems less than ideal for his free agent situation. It’s not like this OKC team has ton’s of salary cap space, or a long history of going into the luxury tax… If so, they would still have James Harden.
Seeing the Pacers compete against LeBron and co (and requiring James to go nuclear already) is a huge shock. This is a team that was supposed to hope the lottery balls bounced in their favour - and they’re taking LeBron to the limit?
When Sam Presti turned Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis into Paul George, many questioned Indiana Pacers decision to part with their superstar forward. Fast forward to the end of the season, and it seems like they traded a one year rental for the Most Improved Player this year, and a valuable role player at the 4/5 position. Who would have thought these two would lead the Pacers to a 5 seed? Indiana looks like a solid free agent destination for next year.
5)Time to break-up some all star back courts?
John Wall and Bradley Beal’s rocky relationship seemed to take a turn for the worse this year. It seems that while they have relative success together, each is meant to lead their own team. Looking at the talent on Washington compared to their seeding, it only backs it up.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum led Portland to a third seed and 49 wins while playing great defence for the first time together. However, it led to them to a first round sweep. I’m one of Dame’s biggest fans, but the 2018 playoffs did him no favours. With the variety of quality 3’s available in the off season, should Portland dangle one of their star guards?
I’m not saying all star back-courts don’t work - Toronto, Golden State and Houston have proven that they can win. But each of the mentioned 1/2 combo’s have a huge advantage - Harden and Paul both can run a top offense and play off the ball. Golden State has two of the best shooters ever. Toronto’s inside-out combo of DeMar’s midrange and Lowry’s 3’s allow for Toronto to have a great offense. It could be time for the aforementioned teams to look at other options.
6) Houston is scary.
Just watch the 3rd quarter from game 4.
A reminder - Harden had 12 points on 14 shots before this offensive explosion. They played elite defence as well. If you have money on Houston to win it all this year, I would be pretty happy right about now. My only fear is PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute’s potential injuries.
7) Boston will be the class of the East next year…
Brad Stevens has done a masterful job of coaching this team. Yes, a 7 game series vs the Bucks wasn’t what they expected at the start of the year… but they won while starting three rookies & Terry Rozier. Either way, whether they make a trade with the assets Danny Ainge has collected, or sit on this young, talented core - Boston should be a player next year. Kyrie will be back & healthy, with Gordon Hayward being able to take over that secondary playmaker role. With Hayward at the #2 option, think about how good Jayson Tatum will be….
This team has an embarrassment of riches to play with. Whether that be an influx of young, affordable talent or something along the lines of a Horford-Irving-Hayward core that played about 6 minutes together this year (and still was the #2 seed), or the coaching acumen of Brad Stevens: This team looks like the top team in the East next year, especially if they can turn their young assets into a superstar.. say, long rumoured Anthony Davis? Or, maybe they can convince the Claw to come to Beantown?
Danny Ainge has played the long game better then anyone, except maybe Philadelphia over the last few years - what could be his next move?
8) …but Philly will be the class of the East for many years afterwards.
Did anyone expect Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to be this good? How good have supporting players like Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova & Robert Covington been? And how the hell do these guys have roughly $25 million to play around with next offseason? They’ll probably need to resign JJ Reddick for his shooting, but seriously - these guys are going to do some damage this year. The East has never been so wide open; Philly is either going to play the Bucks or the shorthanded Celtics next round. I’d put money on Philly winning that series. Following that, they’ll either play Indiana, Toronto, Cleveland or Washington. Out of all those teams, can you confidently say any of those teams will beat Philadelphia four games out of seven?
Even if they don’t win the second round, they are probably among the most attractive destinations for free agents. If I were them, I would throw money at a solid wing like Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; someone who will hit 3’s and play solid defence.
Somewhere, Sam Hinkie is crying tears of joy. Get this man a ring - and Trust the Process.
9) Does Toronto have what it takes to win… even after this year?
I’ll admit, I started writing this while the series was 2-2. Now, Toronto did turn it around in games 5/6 - it seems that their superior depth helped keep the Raptors fresh. Coupled with some great play throughout the series by Delon Wright, Fred Van Vleet and Pascal Siakam, Toronto looked extremely dangerous - possibly good enough to beat Cleveland. However…
I don’t see a way Toronto can win a championship this year. Throughout the regular season, they looked like a different team than years past. They swung the ball, played great defence and we’re led by their all star backcourt. First round comes around, and they drop a couple games to Washington. Now, that’s not the end of the world.. but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Game 5 was a refreshing change of pace, seeing the ball fly around the perimeter and having other options rather than ‘DeMar/Lowry isolates into a contested midrange’. It was nice to see JV get some 4th quarter minutes.
When I look at the questions I have for next round - the fact that they play LeBron this round, or play a team they don’t match up great with next round (Philadelphia, most likely),or Golden State/Houston in the finals…it makes me wonder if all the stars will align. I do still think this team can come out of the East. But can they win a championship? And can they compete with the Houston or Warriors in a 7 game series? Can they continue to afford to either pay their fantastic bench pennies on the dollar? Or, can they attract another quality free agent to put them over the top? This author has his doubts, but I am pulling for the Hoop Ball Lizards!
10) What’s next for the Spurs? - Celebrity Guest Shot from Len Nunes
It’s been a decade of people (like myself) predicting the Spurs to fall. But now that it’s here, it feels it shouldn’t have gone down this way. Let’s address the elephant in the room first. I mean.. what the hell is going with Kawhi Leonard? Everyone has always excited for one more year of Parker and Manu, to see if they could eek out another 50 win season. Somehow, they always did. Now, people have to be hoping both retire. Not because Murray and Mills are suitable replacements… but because time has passed them by.
Speaking of game passing them by,it may be time to say bye to Pau Gasol. It’s tough to see a former star like Pau even struggle to move up & down the court, let alone play consistent minutes..
I feel sorry for Coach Pop losing his wife. Pop has long been one of the classiest individuals in the league, and my heart goes out to the guy. I cannot see him coming back to basketball, and I can’t see him returning to the hot mess that is the Spurs (especially if/when Leonard gets traded). If he does decide to come back… what will this team look like? Hell, will his bench look the same? Who knows what may happen to coaches like Ettore Messina or Becky Hammon.
For almost 20 years, the Spurs organization has long been a shining example of what an organization should run like. This year has been the outlier. Never before has this team come into the off season with so many questions.
Spurs fans deserve better then this.
11) Bye Bye, PG (and LeBron?) The 2018 offseason will be extremely interesting…
Cleveland did win their first round series, does there seem to be any indication that LeBron will return to Cleveland? Has Cleveland done nearly enough to show why he should stay? I mean, it took LeBron’s best efforts to close them out. At home. In game 7. Against a team nobody thought would sniff the playoffs. Yes, LeBron may stay to protect his legacy, but James is definitely looking at his career after basketball. He would be dumb to at least not evaluate all his options.
In addition, Paul George should start shopping for places in LA; really, anywhere but OKC. With a point guard who takes 40 shots a game, or a washed up Carmelo Anthony who refuses to take a pay cut or bench role, OKC seems to be in a tough position. Who would have thought Andre Roberson would be OKC’s most valuable player this year? He’s at least damn close to it. On topic, I suspect Paul George and LeBron will find new homes this offseason. As a Lakers fan, come home Paul.
On top of that, this year’s free agent class looks stacked - and there is the possibility many stars could find a new home. Realistically, Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins & DeAndre Jordan could be big names that switch teams. That’s not including incredibly valuable players like Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker & Derrick Favors who could all find themselves beneficiaries of a rising salary cap.
12) The East is wide open… but they’re all playing for second place.
LeBron James has never looked more vulnerable coming out of the East. Cleveland looks weak, struggling to put away a Pacers team that plays Bojan Bogdanovic big minutes. Now, it’s not his fault as he has been incredible. However, the supporting cast of Cleveland has shown nothing to inspire confidence. Toronto has looked less than stellar against a Wizards team that won more games without it’s best player than with in the regular season. Philly is young, but feisty… but starting this young of a core and expecting them to beat the best in the East/West is asking a ton. And Boston is hampered by injuries, making their likelihood for a finals run a lot less likely as they would be with Kyrie and Hayward on the court.
Now, even if all the teams reversed fortunes, can they realistically defeat either Golden State or Houston? What should be the West Finals will likely be the best basketball you see all year. The Paul-Harden-Capela combo is absolutely deadly. However, can they overcome two former MVP’s, a defensive player of the year, and one of the best shooters in NBA History? In my opinion, Golden State will win this series again, due to a combination of coaching advantages (Mike D’Antoni has done nothing to show he can out coach Steve Kerr/Ron Adams), previous superstar playoff performances (give me Curry/Durant over Harden/Paul in the playoffs), and Golden State’s ability to shut down the 3 pointer. I think the defenders the Warriors can throw at Harden & Paul outweigh what Houston can use to defend Curry, Thompson and Durant too. However, it should still be a hell of a series.
Were there any lessons from round one that I forgot folks? Send me a tweet @Parkman15Love and let me know, or be sure to tweet @WCSportsCA to get the discussion going with some other basketball minds!