10 Things the NBA Playoffs Have Made Crystal Clear During First 2 Weeks
More than two weeks of NBA playoff basketball is in the books. Here's hoping you've been taking notes, because we're about reflect on all that we've learned.
There are endless lessons to take away from what's happened thus far, but rumor has it most of you have a life outside the computer, mobile device or printed out fax on which you're reading this. In light of this time crunch, we'll focus only on the most impactful developments and fallouts.
Everyone who participated in the postseason is eligible for a blurb—even those who have been handed an early vacation. Lessons learned will come at both the team and individual levels. Issues left off aren't insignificant; they're just slightly less important.
From the aftereffects of early exits, to ongoing surges and slumps, to surprising sources of debate, the playoffs have been enlightening. So let's #HumbleBrag about all we know.
Kyle Lowry's Postseason-Shooting Curse Is a Real Thing
The Toronto Raptors are fortunate Kyle Lowry is able to impact the game as a setup man and defender, because his shot isn't finding nylon. Still.
Criticizing and worrying about Lowry's efficiency has become a postseason rite of passage. DeMar DeRozan spends time in the same boat, but not as much. Lowry is the more adaptable shot-taker and more efficient scorer to begin with, so his dropoffs are starker.
The Milwaukee Bucks deserve credit for their first-round suffocation of Toronto's most valuable player. Lowry ran into arms and bodies at every turn. The ball was practically forced out of his hands before he even caught it. Their aggressive style is at least partially responsible for him shooting 28.1 percent from beyond the arc and missing more than usual around the rim.
Still, this a yearly trend—a bizarre one. Look at how Lowry's four postseason runs in Toronto compare to his regular-season performances:
|Lowry since 2013-14:||FG%||3P%||FG% 0-3FT||FT Rate||FT%|
Dipping free-throw rates aren't breaking news in the postseason. Officials swallow their whistles (or so it seems) for longer stretches. Those same principles can even be used to justify cratering efficiency at the rim.
But Lowry is too darn good for extra bumps inside and beyond the three-point line to impact his shooting percentages so drastically—not for this long. And this says nothing of him missing a greater share of uncontested bunnies; he's putting down 25 percent (2-of-8) of his wide-open treys this year, and an unimpressive 34.1 percent since 2013-14 (14-of-41).
Dark magic must be at work. Or the basketball gods hate the Raptors. These are the only two acceptable explanations.
Ah, well. At least, for his sake, he's playing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. They usually don't check in on defense until the second half. Maybe that'll get Lowry going.
The Warriors Have More Than Enough to Win...Even Without Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is a top-five player in many respects. At worst, depending on how you rate free-agency traitors, he's a top-10 talent.
He's an MVP.
He's an eight-time All-Star.
He was on pace to receive All-Defense consideration before suffering a sprained MCL at the end of February.
And yet, to the Golden State Warriors, he's basically the greatest human victory cigar of all time.
Stay calm, JaVale McGee. You are not forgotten. This is mostly a joke anyway. But the Warriors don't need Durant to reach the Western Conference Finals. They might not need him to reach the NBA Finals, or to win another a championship. That part is all true.
This isn't just about Durant missing two games during the Warriors' first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. They were blitzing opponents while he nursed his MCL. According to NBA Math's FATS projections, they played like a 61-win team in the 19 games he spent on the sideline—almost as good as the 62-win mark they posted with him on the court for the year.
Portland isn't Utah. And it's certainly not Cleveland, Houston or San Antonio. But Golden State didn't even kind of need Durant to get this far and doesn't need him to keep pushing onward. That's the luxury of having the world's greatest safety net in Stephen Curry. Durant is a luxury, rather than a necessity, at this point in the process.
John Wall Has Another Gear...Which Is Terrifying
John Wall had himself a regular season, averaging 23.1 points, 10.7 assists and two steals per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor—a career year by almost any measure.
His postseason performance has been even better.
Wall has flipped the killer-instinct switch and isn't turning back. He's averaging 28.1 points, a playoff-best 11.1 assists and 1.6 steals on 51.4 percent shooting. He's launching about the same number of threes, but canning them at a 41.7 percent clip. More of his looks are coming at the rim (33.6 percent) than ever before. He has hit more shots in transition than anyone else.
Between the points he's generated off assists (186) and scored himself (197), he represents 51 percent of the Washington Wizards' offensive production in the playoffs. That's not quite Russell Westbrook-level unfathomable (59.9 percent), but it's more than LeBron James (48.1 percent) or Chris Paul (49.4 percent). And it's a far larger share than Wall posted during the regular season (42.2 percent).
Forget that the Wizards are a net minus with him on the court. That has more to do with their Game 3 non-effort against the Atlanta Hawks and Wall trying to ferry bench-heavy units.
Washington is only in the second round, vying for a chance to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1979, because of its point guard. Playoff John Wall has arrived, and he's outshining almost everyone.
Al Horford and His Contract Are Divisive Issues
And, well, they're about to be rapped about again, because it turns out his individual standing is more divisive than expected.
Toward the end of Horford's 21-point, 10-assist, nine-rebound masterpiece in the Boston Celtics' Game 1 win over the Wizards on Sunday, yours truly threw this out on Twitter: "Imagine thinking at any point ever the Celtics shouldn't have paid Al Horford." The sentiment was met with varying levels of agreement and disdain.
The most common refrain among detractors included something to the effects of "Well, then why did he get outplayed by Robin Lopez for most of Round 1" or "A player can be both good and overpaid."
First off all, Horford wasn't owned by Lopez. He averaged 11.8 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 70 percent overall and 75 percent from three when his bushy-haired counterpart was on the court. His defensive rebounding rate plummeted when battling Lopez, but a known regular-season weakness rearing its head in the playoffs doesn't define a whole series.
The "Horford is overpaid" tropes are more interesting. They're also invalid. The market for him last summer was a max contract. So Boston gave him max money. And unlike Chandler Parsons, if Horford hit the open market again this July, a bursting salary-cap bubble wouldn't prevent a bunch of teams targeting him at the same price.
To believe Horford is overpaid is to reject the idea of max salaries. And that concept is a straw man. Curry, James and a handful of others are worth more in a free market, but the NBA doesn't have one. Horford is a max player under the current salary-cap constructs. Do-everything bigs always are.
Which, of course, won't end arguments to the contrary. The Celtics' cap situation, roster construction and collection of trade assets make for a hot-button issue, so Horford's earnings will, apparently, remain one, too.
Russell Westbrook's Lone Wolf Act Is Not Sustainable
Nothing that follows is meant to take away from Russell Westbrook's year-long efforts.
He averaged a triple-double through both the regular season and his short playoff stay. He dragged a franchise that lost a top-five player for nothing last July to 47 wins and a postseason bid. If he wins the MVP award, he'll deserve it.
But that doesn't prove Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder have a good thing going. They don't. They flamed out of the playoffs in five games—an exit that is mostly owed to the minutes they played without him, but also due to what's happening with him.
Westbrook hijacked the Thunder offense down the stretch. He shot 14-of-49 (28.6 percent) through 45 fourth-quarter minutes and 4-of-14 in crunch-time situations. Whether this was by Oklahoma City's design or Westbrook's own judgment doesn't matter. Either trigger leads to the same answer: He needs more help. As CBS Sports' Matt Moore underscored:
"This season was Year Zero. If you're doing a rebuild, that's the year that you liquidate your stars for picks and focus on acquiring young talent. If you're doing a reload/reconfiguration as the Thunder were, you're just trying to get a sense of where you are. You're just trying to find your bearings. It's like trying to calibrate a highly sensitive machine by sight and sound. As quoted here, Presti described this season as a "season of discovery." They discovered a lot. Oladipo can be good, but struggled to be great. Steven Adams had a down year and was still pretty good. Sabonis is going to be good.. eventually. [Alex] Abrines will be helpful...eventually. Jerami Grant dunked a few times."
Reaching the playoffs at all was a success on its face. But Westbrook is slated for free agency in 2018 (player option) and will be eligible this summer for a five-year designated player exception worth well over $200 million after he's named to an All-NBA team. There is no time for the Thunder to bask in the feel-good aspect of their continued relevance. They have a superstar ready to win now anchoring a roster that isn't.
If the regular season didn't prove that's not good enough, a superficially competitive first-round series did. And now the Thunder must figure out how to improve a nucleus that left alone already threatens to carry them into the luxury tax.
Kawhi Leonard Is Not of This Galaxy
Will David Fizdale's Kawhi Leonard take ever stop being funny?
"He was standing next to me the other night and he wasn't breathing," the Memphis Grizzlies head coach said (h/t CBS Sports). "So I'm going to check the rulebook and find out if robots are allowed to play in the NBA. Because somehow, Pop and them have figured it out. They know something I don't know. This guy bleeds antifreeze or something."
Nope, still funny. And totally spot-on.
Leonard is a cyborg, forged in a subterrestrial laboratory funded covertly by an alien government, sent from a far-away world as proof that cross-galaxy travel and silent superstardom are both possible.
Every other form of reasoning for his playoff dominance is wrong. This is the only correct argument. It has to be. He's averaging an unreal 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 52.5 percent overall and 47.2 percent from downtown.
Ninety players have cleared 29 points per game through at least five postseason outings. As of now, Leonard is notching a true shooting percentage—combined measurement of two-point, three-point and free-throw accuracy—at least 4.2 points higher than anyone else (70.1). The canyon between himself and second-ranked Hakeem Olajuwon (1987) equals the distance from third-place Dwyane Wade (2010) and 13th-best Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970).
Even when the San Antonio Spurs are surviving without Leonard, they don't look good. The offense bogs down; they don't have anyone who can work as hard and as long for their shots without sacrificing efficiency. With him, though, it's a completely different experience.
San Antonio is a plus-11.3 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court compared to a minus-17.2 when he takes a breather—a 28.5-point nosedive. This, again, isn't quite Westbrook-ian, but it's pretty damn close for a Spurs squad that prides itself on having an identity beyond any one player.
LeBron James Hates Rest (and Is Not of This Universe)
LeBron James can't even let Leonard have his moment. He has to go all-universe when San Antonio's robot is all-galaxy. SMH.
Many of us are immune to—or, in some cases, resentful of—James' on-court charms. He spoils us by being consistently indescribable.
Oh, he's averaging 33.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, eight assists, 2.6 steals and 1.8 blocks through his first five games? Cool. He's shooting 44 percent from long range? Sometimes, he decides to make threes. Big deal.
He almost single-handedly erased the largest halftime deficit in playoff history (25 points) by leading the Cavaliers to an improbable Game 3 victory over the Indiana Pacers? OK, fine, but it's not like he tallied his triple-double in the second-half alone.
Though still extremely entertaining to watch, James' production isn't news anymore. The real brain-bender: Cleveland needs its 32-year-old to be this way, this exact superhuman amalgam, all the friggin' time.
Not only do the Cavaliers fail to sweep the Pacers without him detonating nightly, but they wouldn't have advanced at all. James played all but 17 minutes of the series—the series—and they still only outscored Indiana by a total of 16 points.
And in the quarter-and-a-half James spent plugged into the sideline outlet on the bench, the Cavaliers were outscored by 12 points. If they played another 23 minutes without him—so, six per game—the net score could have shifted in the Pacers' favor.
Sure, this is an inexact science. But James is averaging more minutes per game than he has since the 2011 postseason, when he was 26 years old, because the Cavaliers, a reigning champion with two other All-Stars, need him to. So much for him ever outgrowing an existence as his team's lifeline.
The Clippers Are Stuck
The Los Angeles Clippers fell well short of the Western Conference Finals. Again. Largely because another key player, Blake Griffin, suffered a season-ending injury. Again.
And now, after their seven-game dalliance with the Utah Jazz, calls for the Clippers to blow it up are about to multiply in number. Again.
Los Angeles' Big Three of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul has been together for six years. It feels like a good time to try something new. It was head coach and president Doc Rivers, after all, who wondered aloud before 2015-16 whether this core had grown stale.
Four of five starters—Griffin, Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute (player option) and J.J. Redick—are set to explore free agency. That creates a natural pivot point. Let everyone walk, and the Clippers can bottom out with cap space.
Except, getting one top-20 player is hard enough. The Clippers have two. Willingly cutting bait with Griffin and/or Paul isn't a power move. The team has to capitalize on their departures. If that means re-signing them to max deals with the intent to trade them later, then so be it.
Besides, the path to bottoming out isn't as clear. The Clippers will still have Jordan, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers on the books. They might not be bad enough until 2018-19 to reap the benefits of tanking. (Their 2019 first-round pick, by the way, is owed to the Boston Celtics under lottery protection.) And once they get to a point where they can rebuild through the draft and via free agency, is Doc their guy? With the exception of Mbah a Moute and Redick, he hasn't hit on any of his supporting investments.
Mbah a Moute might price himself out of Hollywood. The Clippers only own his Early Bird rights, so a lucrative enough offer could force them to dip into cap space they won't have. Redick is a flight risk as well. Certain NBA officials expect him to bolt for a deal worth $18 million or more per year, according to the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner. The Clippers can go over the cap to re-sign Redick, but the subsequent luxury-tax penalties could bring the roster cost past $200 million—all for the same product that has made it past the first round twice in the past half-decade.
Footing that bill is on the table. Owner Steve Ballmer wants to win, and the alternative is harrowing. But even if the Clippers look different next year, the changes they're in for shouldn't be too drastic. They don't have the tools or flexibility in place to rebuild. Unless Griffin and Paul decide to flee, the Clippers are stuck right where they are.
Joe Ingles Is About to Get Puh-aid
By end of Joe Ingles' stay on the NBA's national stage, his next deal should take even the most aggressive optimists by surprise.
Inconsistent shooting isn't helping the restricted-free-agent-to-be. He buried just 33.3 percent of his three-balls against the Clippers while vacillating between on and off nights. But he doesn't need a strong three-point success rate to woo anyone.
Ingles nailed 44.1 percent of his three-point attempts during the regular season, and his cold shooting in the first round didn't stop him from carving up the Clippers as an on-ball playmaker. He averaged more assists per 100 possessions for the series than George Hill and routinely bailed the Jazz out of an oft-defunct search for a secondary table-setter.
Pair this with his regular-season three-point display, and Ingles is a shoo-in for eight figures annually. But he's earning himself even more money with his defensive switchability. He spent most of the year as Utah's best perimeter pest and is, somehow, exceededing that reputation.
Redick struggled to find daylight whenever Ingles was his primary defender. And the Jazz didn't hesitate to throw him on Chris Paul. The latter saw his three-point efficiency crater with Ingles in the game. The Clippers in general were more inclined to challenge Rudy Gobert inside than Ingles on the outside.
Utah was always going have trouble keeping Ingles in town. Cap holds for Hill and Gordon Hayward (player option) bring the team dangerously close to luxury-tax territory. Their actual contracts will push the books over the edge.
Adding in a conservative salary projection for Ingles leaves the Jazz investing more than $140 million in its roster before taxes. After his defensive showcase in the playoffs, though, they'll be lucky if another squad doesn't lean toward an unreasonably lucrative offer sheet—one that pays him as much as it could take for the Clippers to keep Redick ($18 million or more).
Indiana Needs to Trade Paul George
Paul George's wants to play for a contender, and the Pacers aren't close to competing at that level. Their first-round sparring with the Cavaliers was competitive, but they were still swept. They don't immediately have a way to pivot out of the Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson deals, and they'll be hamstrung financially if they re-sign Jeff Teague and C.J. Miles (player option) and let the core marinate.
With team president Larry Bird stepping down, now is the perfect time for the Pacers to hit reset. Bird's successor, Kevin Pritchard, is 11 years his junior and, thus, better suited to play the long game. As Jared Wade of 8 Points, 9 Seconds wrote in a Twitter thread just after the Bird news broke:
"My initial thoughts: The Pacers, particularly in a rebuild, are better off under Pritchard. Larry has made many bad personnel moves of late. And I don’t believe Bird would have the demeanor and, really the stomach, for the asset-wrangling that needs to happen in Indiana right now. Whereas Pritch will go HARD trying to win deals, use savvy cap tricks and generally try to prove to everyone he remains an elite GM/NBA mind."
The Pacers will get a leg up on retaining George if he makes an All-NBA team. They'll be able to offer him a five-year extension worth in excess of $200 million—money he's not likely to turn down.
But that's a lot to shell out for one player. Add in new deals for Miles and Teague, plus Turner's extension after next season, and Indiana will be tying itself to specific core for the foreseeable future—only one member of which, Turner, has yet to reach his peak.
That's a precarious place to sit. And this the best-case scenario. If George doesn't earn All-NBA honors, everything changes. The Pacers can wait to see if he lands it next year, but then they risk him reaching free agency (player option) and leaving without compensation.
George remains "hell-bent" on getting himself to the Los Angeles Lakers, according to USA Today's Sam Amick. (This contradicts his purported desire to contend, but whatever.) Teams won't empty their asset armory to trade for him mid-year with that scenario hanging over their heads.
Dealing him before the season allows the Pacers to extract more value out of his departure. The right suitor will unload an alluring combination of picks and prospects in hopes one year with them convinces George to stick around long term. Those buyers can then be used as leverage against the Lakers, should they keep this year's top-three-protected pick and be willing to package the player they draft with a mix of their other youngsters.
Shopping George early beats the alternative of accepting pennies on the dollar or, worse, getting nothing at all later. It may even beat giving a $200-plus million extension to a 27-year-old who is unlikely to ever headline a squad better than what Indiana went to war with in 2012-13 and 2013-14.