Welcome to Part Two of my NBA Season Review/Offseason Preview/Hybrid Thingy. Part One is here, if you love the sweet, fresh smell of hopeless futility and broken dreams as much as I do.
Without further ado, let’s get stuck into it.
Not Exactly the Plan Going In
Washington Wizards: The path was open for the Wiz this year. The Eastern Conference was as ripe for the picking as it ever had been this decade. After a strong showing in the 2017 playoffs, Washington was a sleeper pick to make the Eastern Finals, and maybe even THE Finals if they got a couple breaks (figuratively and/or literally).
The Cleveland Cavaliers had traded Kyrie Irving. The Boston Celtics, who’d loaded up by trading for Irving and signing Gordon Hayward, lost Hayward to a gruesome broken ankle. The Toronto Raptors were, well, the Raptors. Everyone else either didn’t have the talent or the experience the Wiz could boast. So, what went wrong? Why was this team eighth in the East?
Chemistry, my friends. Chemistry.
I won’t go into the details, for it’s both silly and uncomfortable at the same time, but in this modern age of superteams, bromances, and knowing everyone since the age of 10 thanks to the AAU, there are some NBA teams that still have toxic chemistry. Injuries played a part in Washington’s decline, sure, but they only exposed the real issues with this team.
The worst part is, most of these guys have contracts too large to move without giving up assets the Wizards lack. Washington is capped out as badly as the Portland Trail Blazers are (cue the tasteless joke about a D.C. team not being able to handle a budget), and they’ll have to keep their core players and just ride it out.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokoumnpo may be the do-it-all unicorn alien mutant that may dominate the league in five years, but right now, he can’t actually do it all for Milwaukee. Despite leading the Bucks in all five traditional counting stat categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals) for a whole season, and being in the top 20 league-wide in those stats, the Greek Freak will need help from his teammates if he wants to butt his way into the conversation in the East, which is dominated by Philly and Boston.
20 years ago, Giannis could probably have gotten away with being a one-man show. Unless the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, Thon Maker, or Jabari Parker (if he’s brought back) join Khris Middleton in being useful parts of the team, and unless they stay healthy, the Bucks will not get to where they want to go. As fun as the Greek Freak Show is to watch (and also terrifying to experience; in the two games he played versus Portland last year, he dominated in a way I’ve rarely seen before), it’s a show that is doomed to end every April until a reliable supporting cast is assembled.
Stuck in Neutral, Is There a Reverse Gear?
Miami Heat: Owing Hassan Whiteside, a pouty rim-running center that hasn’t done as much rim protecting or rim-running as Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra would like, $75 million over the next three years has tossed a wrench into any plans to bring another top free agent to South Beach, this time to lead a scrappy band of overachievers and pseudo-stars. It’s a shame, really; a guy like Paul George or Demarcus Cousins (provided he makes a reasonable recovery from Achilles surgery) would be an ideal tentpole for a team this versatile and well-coached.
Instead, thanks to Whiteside, Dion Waiters, and Tyler Johnson soaking up about 40% of the cap between them, Miami has to miss out on the latest free-agent derby. They will be a tough out in the first round, but they will be an out. Pour one out for Spo, the best coach no one is talking about. (The man survived as LeBron James’ coach for four full seasons, and survived his departure. That alone should speak volumes about Spolestra’s abilities.)
Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
Oklahoma City Thunder: If I were Paul George, and I had a choice of where to sign in free agency, I would choose the blank slate of the Los Angeles Lakers, or the exciting young nucleus in Philadelphia, rather than commit the prime years of my career to a team showcasing the biggest ball hog to ever hog a ball, Russell Westbrook.
It’s not that George had a bad year, or a bad time playing with Westbrook; PG’s the kind of player that can oscillate between being the primary option and taking a supporting role. George having to play the supporting role too often was an issue for the Thunder, as he’d join his teammates in standing around on the perimeter while Westbrook did his thing, which could be summed up as “consumer of all possessions.” Westbrook averaged a triple-double (double-digit totals of points, rebounds, and assists per game) in consecutive seasons, the only guy in NBA history to do that, but he had to use up a Wilt Chamberlain-esque level of possessions to do it, as well as shamelessly steal rebounds. It was so bad, his teammates tried to make good-natured jokes about Westbrook being a blatant stat-chaser and rebound thief.
Westbrook is his generation’s Wilt, but that will likely come at the same Wiltian price: a lack of postseason success compared with the rest of his transcendent peers. Chamberlain won a title in the one year Bill Russell’s legendary Celtics teams had a letdown in the 1960s, then another in 1972 as the NBA was at a very weak state after Russell’s retirement, but his frenemy won 11 championships while playing much more inspired defense; in the run-n-gun sixties, Bill Russell was the only true defensive terror, and I just provided you with all the evidence you need. All the success Westbrook’s ruthless numerical dominance has gotten him in the playoffs are first-round exits, to teams that have (on paper) inferior talent to the Thunder.
As for George, if he does re-sign with OKC this summer, he’ll either see something in the franchise nobody else would, or he has a strong masochistic streak.
San Antonio Spurs: The news over the weekend that superstar forward Kawhi Leonard wanted out of San Antonio was shocking, and yet unsurprising. Unsurprising, because Leonard and the Spurs have been at odds over the management of his tendinopathy for months, to the point that Leonard left the team and sought medical advice on his own, without input from the team—you know, the guys that are paying him eight figures to dribble a ball.
It is also shocking, however, because the Spurs are the most stable, open-minded, player-friendly organization in the NBA, and maybe in all of professional sport. Professionalism defines this franchise, and the men running it, to a T, and has since I was a pudgy teenager eating a carrot a day to lose weight. And Kawhi Leonard would have been voted the “player least likely to start **** with his team” every year since San Antonio acquired him to serve as the heir to the immortal Tim Duncan. Stoic and emotionless almost to a fault, Leonard carried out his business with the precision, excellence, and professionalism expected of a Spur.
It’s stunning, sad, and disappointing that Leonard is reportedly seeking a trade, but all things in this world must end. Even the Spurs’ run of incredible play. Maybe Leonard felt the pressure of having to replace one of the best of all time in Duncan too much. Maybe he was hurting too much and felt the Spurs didn’t do everything in their power to help him. Maybe he felt slighted that his teammates kept pressuring him to play through his pain. I don’t know, and it isn’t my place to ask.
All I know is, Kawhi Leonard won’t be a Spur for very long, and seeing a basketball institution like the Spurs crumble is yet another change in my life, at a time where everything is changing.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are the third team with a superstar wing player that’s a flight risk, but where the Thunder were an experiment gone wrong, and the Spurs are an aging giant about to enter its death throes, Cleveland is one of two teams that have made four consecutive NBA Finals, a feat not done since Magic Johnson was running the break for the Showtime Lakers, not sitting at a desk for them, wanting to steal away LeBron James.
There is always a chance James stays home in Cleveland, preferring the easier path to the Finals in the East (even with the Celtics and Sixers developing into legitimate challengers) to the annual charnel house that is the West. It would be a difficult sell, though; after the frustration of the 2018 Finals, LeBron would only choose to stay through some weird blend of sentimentality and masochism. He’d be nuts to willingly put his legacy in the hands of J.R. Smith.
Whether he goes to the Lakers, sets up shop in Philly, somehow worms his way onto the Houston Rockets, or chooses to go in another direction, the odds are that he’d have the best chance of winning more titles, and continuing the Chase of MJ, outside of northeast Ohio. And in case you’re the kind of person that values loyalty in athletes (especially hometown athletes), LeBron already won one for the Land. He owes Cleveland nothing.
Hanging on By a Thread
Minnesota Timberwolves: On the surface, the Timberpups are set for the future; Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler are a great one-two punch when Towns gives a crap about defense. There are two huge issues with this young, seemingly up-and-coming team, though.
One is Andrew Wiggins’ monstrous contract. Five years, $151 million, set to start in October, for a player who’s never shot above 35% from three-point range, is inconsistent on defense (at least by Butler’s elite expectations, and coach Tom Thibodeau’s exacting demands), and is viewed by the wider NBA community as an inefficient chucker who struggled to blend in with similarly, or more, talented teammates. While I would be inclined to say that it was just one year, and that Wiggins is young and has his prime in front of him, the combination of that five-year max contract and Thibs’ crushing demands means the learning curve gets very steep, very quick. It’s already sink-or-swim time for Wiggins, and the Wolves might sink with him.
Two, Thibodeau’s coaching style, roster usage, and roster construction as the Wolves’ president of basketball operations have combined to create a seven-man rotation that is getting run right into the dirt. Butler, who played for Thibodeau in Chicago, may be used to it now, but it’s way too easy to see a potential Luol Deng situation with Butler, where he’d get run absolutely ragged by Thibs and end up washed and a shell of himself well before his time. Minutes per game are a concern as well; no starter played below 33 minutes per game for Minnesota, and 38-year-old Jamal Crawford played almost 21 MPG, at an age when he should be a mentor instead of the top bench guy.
With Denver lurking and the Lakers looking to make drastic improvements, the Timberpups, who had to beat the Nuggets on the last day of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs, will have to continue to dodge major injuries (only Butler missed significant time for them last season) and see if they can get anything more from Wiggins, as well as praying that one of the young guys earns enough trust from the notoriously prickly Thibodeau to get onto the court consistently.
The Playoff Rank and File
Portland Trail Blazers: While getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and seeing Damian Lillard become the first Blazer to make the All-NBA First Team since Clyde Drexler in 1992 was awesome, taking off the rose-colored glasses and digging deeper into the Blazers’ achievements in 2017-18 shows a different story.
For one, Lillard making the First Team was less a reward for all the work he did for Portland (last season was the first of Peak Lillard, so expect at least two or three more seasons like his last one) and more a referendum on the players above him in the point guard pecking order. Stephen Curry didn’t play enough games and shares the court with Kevin Durant. Chris Paul spent the first part of the season chilling in a banana boat somewhere. Kyrie Irving had his knee fall apart on him after the All-Star Break. Everyone felt dirty for giving Russell Westbrook the 2017 MVP, and overcompensated for their sins.
So, it wasn’t that Lillard outperformed all those gentlemen last season. It’s mostly that he was the only one left. His First Team nod felt like an FU to Westbrook from the media more than anything.
As for where the Blazers finished, it literally was three games between having the third seed, and sitting at home watching the playoffs and munching Cheetos. The Blazers did their usual “catch everyone off guard during the dog days of the season” schtick, and parleyed that seven-week hot streak into a playoff seed that they might have barfed away if the Spurs had Leonard, or the Wolves had Butler, or the New Orleans Pelicans had Demarcus Cousins, or the Thunder had a clue. The Blazers were closer to the tenth-place Los Angeles Clippers than the second-place Golden State Warriors, and that’s with the Warriors punting a solid 15 games to stay fresh for the playoffs.
Portland isn’t in the contending tier yet. And time’s running out on their chance to make that jump, if it hasn’t already.
Utah Jazz: I went to see the Jazz play the Blazers live last February, and it was part pleasure and part horror story. The horror came courtesy of guard Donovan Mitchell, a gem the Jazz drafted at the butt end of the 2017 lottery. Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring last season, and looks to be the kind of tentpole player Utah needed after Gordon Hayward left for Boston last summer. He was the catalyst behind a complete ass-kicking, which ended up galvanizing Portland into an epic 17-game winning streak.
As a Blazer fan, I’m not totally bummed that Portland didn’t draft Mitchell; they already have two star guards, and Zach Collins might end up being the reason the Blazers won’t have to pay Jusuf Nurkic $80 million to be the world’s biggest d*** tease. I bet there are plenty of other teams that wish they had scouts as good as Utah’s, though.
New Orleans Pelicans: As devastating as Demarcus Cousins’ Achilles injury was, it might be a two-fold blessing in disguise for the Pelicans. The fit on the court was slightly awkward with Cousins, especially defensively without Anthony Davis on the floor. Boogie has an infamous tendency to drift on defense, both physically and mentally, a habit picked up during his Sacramento Kings days, when he was the alpha and omega on offense for them. He had no such problems with the Pelicans, but he still lazed around more than he should have.
When Cousins went down, New Orleans traded for Nikola Mirotic, a streaky-shooting big man, and when they replaced the injured Boogie with the new guy, they became a different team. A better team. The Blazers can attest to this; they were the victims of perhaps the most one-sided beatdown in a first-round series I’ve ever seen that wasn’t a 1-8 matchup. Davis was fully unleashed at the center position, and no one in the NBA, including the Warriors, has an answer for him. Heaven help the league once Davis gets more talent around him.
Even before suffering an injury that cripples NBA careers, Cousins was a candidate for the Ewing Theory of addition by subtraction. Now, I’d be stunned if New Orleans brought him back for the max. Or if he gets the max at all.
Indiana Pacers: These guys went from being dismissed by everyone with a keyboard, to coming within an iiiinnncchhhh of being the first team to defeat LeBron James in the East in eight years, and in the first round EVER. Even in the NBA, it’s never safe to make assumptions.
The Pacers are young, hungry, and looking to prove they belong with the Celtics and Sixers in the discussions about the East’s future. Watching them continue to prove people wrong is a refreshing reminder that pro basketball is not always chalk.
Toronto Raptors: After earning the first seed in the East, modernizing their offense, developing a bench that allowed them to go literally 10-deep, and positioning themselves to finally seize the day, the Raptors had everything going their way. Surely, this year, the Raptors would shake off their playoff woes. Surely, they would take advantage of the Cavaliers’ disunion, the Celtics’ injuries, and the Sixers’ callow youngsters.
Then…LeBron James happened.
If Michael Jordan had Cleveland’s number every time, and if Kobe Bryant had Portland’s and Sacramento’s numbers every time, then James has Toronto’s number every time. This is the scope of LeBron’s ambition and overall greatness: where MJ and the Mamba were content to dominate mere cities, the King is tactically crouching (or tea-bagging) on an entire country. What a legend. The Cavs swept the top seed in the East in four games, capping a three-year run of prison-level ownage by LeBron over Canada.
The Raptors fired Dwane Casey in response to being crushed by a flawed Cleveland team, but their narrow window to make the first Finals in franchise history has likely just closed. I’d feel sorry for them, if I weren’t busy laughing at them.
Princes of the East
Philadelphia 76ers: There was so much to like about the Sixers last season, from Ben Simmons emerging as a reborn Magic Johnson, to Joel Embiid finally being healthy (though he needs to stop Tweeting and scarfing Twinkies, and start working on his cardio and three-pointer), to Brett Brown finally reaping the rewards for coaching all those horrible teams…so much to root for.
The Bryan Colangelo saga, however, put a damper on things. Colangelo’s wife made several burner Twitter accounts, and proceeded to do all sorts of unsavory things with them, from trashing former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie (the man her husband replaced) and Raptors president Masai Ujiri (who used to work for Colangelo before replacing him in Denver), to disclosing medical information about players under her husband’s employ. She even defended the size of Colangelo’s shirt collars and promoted his supposed virtues shamelessly; it was like watching an overbearing mother at work.
Colangelo resigned in an attempt to salvage whatever’s left of his reputation, and now the Sixers are heading into the most important offseason in their recent history without a general manager. Philly sure makes things interesting.
Boston Celtics: Another Eastern team to come within a bee’s phallus of dethroning LeBron, Boston has several decisions to make this offseason, including on Marcus Smart’s restricted free-agency. Smart is a defensive bulldog that struggles to shoot, basically Tony Allen with some handles, and was a huge part of the Celtics’ defensive excellence the last two seasons. He’s expecting to get paid, however. Maybe not Isaiah Thomas Brinks truck level, but a hefty chunk of change.
Chances are, he’s not going to get it from Boston. Smart is a solid player, sure, but why pay Marcus “I can’t hit the broadside of a barn with a bazooka” Smart $75 million when you can trot out this lineup: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving? Good freaking luck beating that fivesome; it has the potential to be Boston’s version of the famed Death Lineup that established a dynasty in Golden State.
Odds are, Danny Ainge will be cool with some other team paying Smart. He’ll just find someone else like him, and the Celtics churn will continue.
Houston Rockets: There’s an argument to be made that if Chris Paul had not gotten injured, Houston would have beaten the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. They were that close, and had the Dubs that bamboozled; the Rockets were the first team to provide a legit challenge to the Warriors since they poached Kevin Durant, and their obsession with beating that team is only continuing to fester.
Reports are surfacing that Paul is recruiting LeBron to join their crusade. It would take some serious roster gymnastics, but Daryl Morey will do whatever it takes to give his team the best possible shot to win it all. Now, if only he didn’t have to pay Ryan Anderson $44 million over the next two years….
And STILL Your Reigning, Defending, Undisputed, NBA Champions of the World…
Golden State Warriors: Yeah. These guys are pretty good.