Although they have just begun, the 2011 NBA Playoffs have no shortage of intriguing storylines.
Without further ado, here are five storylines that have come to light so far in the first round. They include an upstart team on the rise, an embattled former superstar, the NBA’s best center, and two of the league’s most visible and consistent powers.
Like the playoffs themselves, the conclusions to these stories have yet to be written. The coming playoff rounds will determine not only the NBA champion, but the fates of countless others as well.
Three-time all-star Brandon Roy didn’t play at all in the Trailblazers Game 2 loss to the Mavericks. In a post-game interview, Roy admitted that he was upset with the team’s handling of his minutes—or lack thereof.
Realistically though, the Blazers are handling Roy correctly. If he were still the Brandon Roy from three years ago, he would no doubt be in the lineup. But he isn’t, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes he will ever be that player again.
What has happened to Roy is sad. For a brief moment in time, he was that rare player who could be the face of a franchise both on and off the court.
But his knees have failed him. Like Bill Walton and countless others before him, Roy has been betrayed by his body.
It is understandable that Roy does not want to believe what has happened. He has played through so many knee injuries in the past, including coming back early from a fairly significant one to play in last year’s playoffs, that he must view his current state as a temporary one, one that he can play through again.
However, by all accounts this year is different because this time his knees are gone, and they aren’t coming back.
Roy’s frustration with the team merely gives a voice to the frustration he feels with his own career. Roy is only 26 years old. It is appropriate that he is having trouble coming to grips with the end of his professional life.
For the Blazers, this is much more than the mid-life-crisis-of-sorts that Roy is undergoing. This situation could become a real problem very quickly.
Portland is stuck with Roy, and Roy with the Blazers. He is beloved by fans, and the team has echoed this sentiment by giving him a maximum contract, $49 million of which is still owed. They are paying Roy like he is still a franchise guy. He is untradeable. And now, stuck in Portland for the foreseeable future, the team’s star is vocally bashing the team and the coaching staff. These are all bad signs.
If Roy keeps his opinions to himself, and moves on with the little career he has left, this situation can be salvaged. Maybe Portland buys him out and he retires early, living out his days as a fondly remembered local icon.
If he continues to take issue with the team for moving on without him though, things will snowball quickly. Fans will turn on him, and he will become a distraction. The Blazers decision to not play Roy in a playoff game is certainly not a personal one, but if he continues to perceive it that way, things in Portland could really get out of hand fast.
Since the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins they have not been the same team. Some will argue that the damage the Perkins-Green trade did to the team’s chemistry is to blame for their lack of subsequent success.
I argue that although they clearly got the worst of the trade, their downfall has had little to do with a chemistry change and much more to do with the seven-foot void that has been left unfilled by Shaq.
If Shaq had been able to fill in for Perk adequately, the Celtics would still be considered championship favorites. As it is, they are having to play their hardest to make it past the Knicks, and seem headed for a second or third round exit.
The Celtics need Shaq because when he is healthy, he is still a force. They just don’t make 7’1", 325-pound behemoths like him every day. He gives the C’s immediate size, an added intimidation factor, and even more championship experience.
Contrarians will say that Shaq is a figurative shadow of his former self, and they are right. But even 50 percent of Shaq can still help a team. He may not be able to shut a player like Dwight Howard down anymore, but he is still big and strong enough to keep Howard a foot or two outside of his comfort zone, and prevent him from killing Boston the way he is currently killing Atlanta.
For the Celtics, Shaquille O’Neal keeps the lane clear and tempers even. His size is the difference between championship hopes and early summer vacation. He is arguably the most important role player in the playoffs.
The Magic may be struggling as a team in their first round matchup, but Howard has had no such difficulty.
He has feasted on matchups with Josh Smith and Al Horford. Jason Collins, who was brought on board specifically to frustrate Howard, has also been outclassed thus far.
The level at which Howard has dominated has raised two key storylines in the Magic/Hawks series. The first is the effect that an early exit by the Magic will have on Howard’s impending 2012 free agency. The second is the Hawks complete vulnerability to any legitimate low-post player, and the impending rebuilding that seems predestined at this point.
Despite Howard’s historic efforts, the Magic dropped Game 1 at home to the Hawks. They are still expected to win the series, but a first round loss—any loss short of a finals or at least conference finals appearance in fact—could have long-term ramifications in Orlando.
If 2012 arrives and the Magic have not shown significant progress and developed into one of the league’s elite teams, it is likely that Howard will take his talents elsewhere as a free agent.
He will have no shortage of suitors, and years of postseason letdowns will only make it easier for him to head to a more established NBA power to collect the rings he is certainly capable of winning.
On the other side of the ball, the Hawks seem to be in trouble whether they win this series or not. They have shown that they can be dominated in the paint, and Joe Johnson’s albatross-like contract seems as though it will make it impossible for the team to make the necessary additions in coming seasons.
The Hawks also seemed to be resigned to losing Josh Smith in the offseason. They would surely like to trade Johnson and keep Smith, but no one is taking on that contract willingly.
Al Horford is a nice player during the regular season, but 2011 has shown that he simply doesn’t have the size to carry a team the way a franchise center ideally would.
Regardless of outcome, the end of this series will signal major changes for one of these franchises. For the Magic, it could mean the loss of a star. For the Hawks, it could mean complete rebuilding.
The Pacers have been the playoff’s biggest, least sensational surprise.
They have played the Bulls unexpectedly close, and although they will eventually lose this series (and possibly get swept), the high level of their play has been a joy to watch.
Not like an N64-kid on Christmas morning level of joy, more like the joy that comes when you think you spot a nickel on the ground and pick it up only to discover it is a quarter. But a joy nonetheless.
In Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and Darren Collison, the Pacers have three players who could be All-Stars at their position (Granger is already there). The best part is, they play the three most important positions on the court, and all have completely unique skill sets that compliment each other.
To fill in the cracks, they have some of the league’s best role players. Guys like Tyler Hansbrough, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Jeff Foster all know their skills as well as their limitations, and thrive as glue guys working within a team concept.
The 2011 Indiana Pacers have revealed themselves to be the NBA’s version of a really good college team. They have balance. They have swagger. They are well coached by a man who honestly believes that they will win every game they play.
And like a college squad, the Pacers have rallied around the “nobody believes in us” mantra that is so powerful below the pro level.
The Pacers certainly won’t do any damage in this year’s playoffs, but growing a quality team is a slow-developing process.
First you make the playoffs, but lose almost immediately. Then you improve, but only enough to get bounced in seven games instead of four in the first round. The next year you earn a higher seed, and move past the first round, possibly even through the second. Then and only then are you ready to realistically compete for a title.
It seems that the Pacers are in the infancy of this process. While it may not yield impressive results immediately, it is fun to watch the seeds of future success being sown.
Although they finished first in the Western Conference, it seems that the yearly grind of the regular season is simply too taxing for the Spurs' aging, injury-prone roster.
The Spurs success is completely predicated on having Parker, Ginobili and Duncan all healthy and playing 40-plus minutes a night in the playoffs. This year’s regular season was designed to maximize the chances of this happening.
They gave the stars extra rest for their inevitable nagging injuries. They monitored their minutes. They took every precaution to ensure that the Southern version of the Big Three would all be healthy and ready to go come playoff time.
But there is no fighting father time. Despite his extra in-season rest, Duncan is clearly not the player he once was. His game was never based on pure athleticism or quickness, so an aging Duncan can still be an effective player, but he can’t carry the team the way he once did.
Tony Parker has been fairly durable, and seems to have decent legs in the playoffs, but is the least offensively potent of the three, and is correspondingly least capable of carrying the offense by himself.
The weight of the offense could normally be carried by Ginobili, but a freak elbow injury kept him out of the Spurs Game 1 loss to the Grizzlies and threatens his effectiveness for the postseason as a whole.
No one doubts that the coaching staff and front office of the Spurs are in the company of the NBA’s best. But it seems that, win or lose, the close of the 2011 NBA Playoffs will also signal the end of the team’s championship window.