The NBA's regular season has, mercifully, come to an end. We can stop obsessing over "tanking." We can stop fretting over the sad state of the Eastern Conference. We can stop wondering whether this is the day the Knicks figure it all out and everything falls into place.
We are no longer burdened by the Philadelphia 76ers' planned obsolescence, or the Detroit Pistons' puzzling insistence on playing Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe together. We can stop counting DeMarcus Cousins' technical fouls. Dwyane Wade no longer has to rest on back-to-backs. There are no more back-to-backs.
The season is too long. There are too many meaningless games, too many hopeless teams. Suspicions about tanking (whether founded or not) only made this season more frustrating.
There were too many serous injuries to too many star players: Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez, Steve Nash, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Eric Bledsoe, Danilo Gallinari, Jrue Holiday.
There were too many absurdities: J.R. Smith untying opponents’ shoes. Jason Kidd intentionally spilling a drink to steal a timeout. Phil Jackson tying his reputation to James Dolan. Nick Young becoming a Laker folk hero. Terrence Ross and Corey Brewer dropping 50-point games.
But there are no meaningless games left. Everything counts now. You can see a complete breakdown of each playoff matchup here.
Let's raise a toast to the playoffs—but please, keep your glass a safe distance from Jason Kidd.
|B/R NBA Experts' 1st-Round Picks|
|Brk-Tor||Nets (7 games)||Nets (6)||Nets (7)||Raptors (6)||Nets (6)|
|Atl-Ind||Pacers (5)||Pacers (6)||Pacers (5)||Pacers (5)||Pacers (5)|
|Cha-Mia||Heat (4)||Heat (4)||Heat (6)||Heat (5)||Heat (4)|
|Was-Chi||Bulls (6)||Bulls (6)||Bulls (6)||Bulls (7)||Bulls (6)|
|GS-LAC||Warriors (7)||Clippers (6)||Clippers (6)||Clippers (5)||Clippers (6)|
|Dal-SA||Spurs (4)||Spurs (7)||Spurs (5)||Spurs (5)||Spurs (5)|
|Mem-OKC||Thunder (5)||Thunder (6)||Thunder (5)||Thunder (7)||Thunder (6)|
|Por-Hou||Blazers (7)||Rockets (6)||Rockets (6)||Rockets (6)||Rockets (6)|
|NBA National Columnist Ric Bucher, NBA National Columnist Howard Beck, NBA National Columnist Kevin Ding, Miami Heat Lead Writer Ethan Skolnick and NBA Analyst Jared Zwerling|
The playoffs are the ultimate clarifier. Reputations are defined. Images are shaped. Careers are made, or broken. But the stakes are higher for some parties than others. These folks might look a tad stressed out in the days and weeks to come:
• Mark Jackson, Warriors: File this under "victim of his own success." The Warriors have improved every year under Jackson and just completed their first 50-win season in 20 years. But Jackson could be out of a job in two weeks.
Why? Expectations have outpaced results. The Warriors had a magical run through the playoffs last spring, beating an injury-depleted Denver Nuggets team before falling in six games to the mighty Spurs in the conference semifinals. The bar was instantly raised.
Then the Warriors pulled off one of the great acquisitions of the summer, landing Andre Iguodala to shore up their defense. The bar went up another few clicks.
When the Warriors declined to offer Jackson a contract extension last summer, the message was clear: Prove your worth; take us further. Jackson's job security has been in question ever since.
Fans and ownership had visions of a top-four finish. The Warriors finished sixth. There should be no shame in that, given the incredible strength of the Western Conference. Fifty wins is impressive. Molding the Warriors into a top-three defensive team is an achievement.
Now Andrew Bogut, the heart of that defense, has been shelved by a broken rib, leaving his playoff status in doubt. Jackson preaches a “no excuses” mantra, but Bogut’s absence will put a serious crimp in the Warriors’ postseason hopes.
If the Warriors flop, Jackson will take the heat, and quite possibly the fall.
• Frank Vogel, Indiana: Few 50-win teams have closed out a season as meekly as the Pacers just did. They still claimed the No. 1 seed in the East, but they no longer look like a lock to make the conference finals. A quick exit could conceivably cost Vogel his job.
• Dwane Casey, Toronto: The only list Casey should be on is the short list for Coach of the Year. But he’s on this list anyway, because he is coaching without a contract, despite guiding the upstart Raptors to their best record in franchise history. It remains to be seen whether Casey has a future in Toronto, but he has surely earned another head-coaching job somewhere.
• Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City: The Thunder fell short last spring because of Russell Westbrook’s knee injury. They are healthy now and coming off a 59-win regular season. Nothing less than a Finals appearance will be considered a success.
• Chris Paul, Clippers: Paul is widely regarded as the NBA’s best point guard, yet he's made it out of the first round just twice in eight years. He is 16-24 in playoff games.
Fairly or not, stars are judged on their postseason record. Tracy McGrady’s stellar resume is forever stained by his failure to lead a team out of the first round. Carmelo Anthony, Paul’s close friend, is burdened with a strikingly poor playoff record, having won just two first-round series in his 11-year career.
Paul just led the Clippers to their best record in franchise history, 57-25. He is playing alongside Blake Griffin, one of the NBA’s top forwards and the most talented teammate he has ever had. He is playing for one of the greatest coaches of this era, Doc Rivers. The Clippers’ rotation is deep, their defense stout.
Paul turns 29 next month. The time is now.
• LeBron James, Miami: Yes, LeBron has two rings now; he’s a proven champion. But when you’re taking aim at the all-time greats, you always need to do more. James needs a third championship to validate the first two and help him keep pace with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal among modern-day superstars. The pending free agency of Miami’s three stars makes the matter more urgent.
• Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City: All indications are that Durant will soon claim his first MVP trophy. He’s earned it, but beating LeBron for the award will only ratchet up the pressure on Durant to add more hardware, or at least make it back to the Finals.
• Dwight Howard, Houston: Howard is an MVP-caliber player, the best two-way center in the league. Ten years into his career, he has little to show for it. He’s found a happy home in Houston and a worthy costar in James Harden, the best shooting guard in the NBA. It’s only Year 1 of the Howard-Harden partnership, so the pressure isn’t quite as great. But it will be.
• Billy King, Nets general manager: No team has staged a more dramatic revival than the Nets, who misfired for two months and then won 34 of 51 games after Jan. 1. But Mikhail Prokhorov didn't spend an NBA-record $190 million in payroll and luxury taxes to buy a feel-good underdog story.
The Nets were pegged as title contenders when King swung the blockbuster deal for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last July, and rightfully so. Their lineup was stocked with All-Stars, and Pierce and Garnett would provide the two elements the Nets were sorely lacking: defense and backbone.
Despite their brilliant run in 2014, the Nets enter the postseason without home-court advantage, and they are still prone to the occasional, inexplicable pratfall. Their window to chase the title is narrow: Pierce is a free agent this summer, and Garnett turns 38 next month.
How far can they carry this team? How far do the Nets need to advance to justify the expense? Given their poor start, a run to the conference finals would feel like success. But anything short of that would likely be seen as a failure.
Prokhorov has given King tremendous financial latitude. At some point, he is going to demand a return on his investment.
• Larry Bird, Indiana: Bird has constructed one of the best rosters in the league. His job is secure. But if the Pacers falter in the playoffs, critics will point to two risky midseason moves—the trade of Danny Granger for Evan Turner, and the signing of Andrew Bynum—as part of their decline. The moves made sense from a basketball perspective, but the Pacers’ chemistry has been off-kilter for weeks.
• Ernie Grunfeld, Washington: Wizards fans have been demanding Grunfeld’s dismissal for years. Drafting John Wall and Bradley Beal has put the franchise on better footing, with the Wizards earning their first playoff bid since 2008. But they need sustained success.
When Dwight Howard led the Orlando Magic to the 2009 Finals, it looked like the start of a glorious era. The Magic haven't been to the Finals since. Howard left in 2012.
In June 2011, the Dallas Mavericks raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Their championship roster was broken up within months.
A year ago, the Knicks were a 54-win team on the rise. Today they are a 37-win team destined for demolition.
Things change quickly in the NBA, especially in the luxury-tax era. Today's promising young contender might be tomorrow's laughingstock. And every legend eventually has to say farewell.
Take a long look at these teams and players. We might not see them on this stage again, or at least in this form:
• Indiana Pacers: Young, brash and rising. That was how we viewed the Pacers last fall. Now? Young, fragile and potentially too expensive to keep together.
Lance Stephenson had a breakout season, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists, establishing himself as one of the NBA's top shooting guards, at age 23. But Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he could command $10 million or more per year. The tax-averse Pacers might not be able to afford him.
Team officials also have to determine whether the Pacers' late-season struggles are merely growing pains or an indication of some deeper problem. Either way, the Pacers could be destined for change.
• Miami Heat: It's easy to assume that the Heat, with three superstars in the fold and two championships already in hand, should just stay the course. It's never that simple.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all become free agents in July, and they all have serious decisions to make. So do the Heat. Re-signing all three to max or near-max deals will mean massive tax bills for the next few years. The Heat must also restock the bench, which is much harder to do when three players take up the entire salary cap.
James has to consider how much longer Wade, who sat out 28 games this season—mostly to protect his chronically sore knee—can function as an elite costar. If Wade is diminished, the Heat's future title chances will be, too. And James will have to carry too much of a workload.
How much faith does James have in Wade's health? How much are the Heat willing to spend? How long is Bosh willing to play third fiddle? We'll find out in July.
• San Antonio Spurs: Every playoff run feels like the last for the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili partnership. They have been branded "too old" for at least five years now.
Of course, the Spurs were within seconds of claiming a fifth championship last spring. And they just put together a league-leading 62-win season, so we should perhaps stop questioning their longevity.
And yet…Duncan turns 38 next week. Ginobili turns 37 in July. If Duncan were to retire—and there are whispers that he might—would Ginobili follow suit? Would 65-year-old coach Gregg Popovich follow them out the door after 18 seasons with the organization?
The end of the Spurs as we know them? It has to happen eventually. Doesn't it?
• Derek Fisher (Oklahoma City), Shane Battier (Miami): Both of these clutch-shooting playoff stalwarts have announced their intention to retire after the season.
Who else might consider hanging it up, based on age, health and circumstance? Keep an eye on Miami's Ray Allen (39 in July) and Brooklyn's Kevin Garnett (38 in May).
Superstars get you to the playoffs. But role players can shape a series, save a title run and steal the spotlight. Think Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, John Paxson.
When the playoffs get heated, keep an eye on these guys:
• Jamal Crawford, Clippers: There might not be a more dangerous bench scorer in the league. Crawford averaged 18.6 points this season, the third highest on his team. He averaged 6.8 points in fourth quarters, the fourth-best mark in the league (behind Kevin Durant, James Harden and Stephen Curry).
• Reggie Jackson, Thunder: They might never replace Harden in Oklahoma City, but Jackson has become the ideal sixth man—a scoring, playmaking, pace-changing reserve who keeps the offense humming when Russell Westbrook goes to the bench. Jackson averaged 14 points and five assists in 36 starts this season. He’s shooting 41 percent from three-point range since March 1.
• Andrei Kirilenko, Nets: You could choose several players from the Nets’ deep bench, but Kirilenko is the one who might prove the most critical. He does a little of everything—scoring, rebounding, passing—and he can guard multiple positions. His length and versatility will come in handy if the Nets face the Heat.
• Patrick Beverley, Rockets: Many fans probably recall Beverley as the guy who injured Westbrook in the 2013 playoffs. That’s unfortunate and unfair. Beverley is a fantastic, relentless defender who can change the tenor of a game with a timely steal, or several. He disrupts opposing offenses and annoys opposing point guards. He can make an impact without ever scoring.
• Lakers, Celtics, Knicks: For the first time since the NBA came into being, the playoffs will commence without the Lakers, Celtics and Knicks—three of the league’s founding franchises. Until this spring, every NBA postseason featured at least one of those three.
It’s not unusual to see the Knicks miss the postseason. They have been a dysfunctional mess for more than a decade. But an NBA postseason without the Lakers and Celtics, who have combined for 33 championships? Without Kobe Bryant? It’s frankly jarring.
• Lakers/Celtics/Knicks stars: Bryant will be a postseason spectator for just the second time in his career. The Lakers’ absence also means we’ll be missing Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, who, like Bryant, are destined for the Hall of Fame.
The Celtics’ absence means no Rajon Rondo, the last link to Boston’s recent championship era.
The Knicks’ failure means that Carmelo Anthony is missing the playoffs for the first time in his career.
• Kyrie Irving, Cavs guard; Anthony Davis, Pelicans forward; Kevin Love, Timberwolves: This was supposed to be the year that the young Cleveland Cavaliers blossomed into a playoff team. But the young Cavs imploded, denying us the chance to see All-Star MVP point guard Kyrie Irving make his playoff debut.
Injuries decimated the New Orleans Pelicans, so we’ll have to wait another year to see Anthony Davis grace the postseason stage with his scoring, shot-blocking and glorious unibrow.
Kevin Love keeps setting the record books ablaze with his scoring and rebounding. But the Minnesota Timberwolves’ failures mean we won’t be seeing another 30-20 game—or those brilliant outlet passes—until next fall.
• David Stern: The playoffs will end with one more jarring absence. For the first time in three decades, David Stern will not be the one handing the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the champions. Adam Silver, who replaced Stern as commissioner on Feb. 1, will now have that honor.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Please find him on Twitter at @HowardBeck