Welcome to Part 2 of this NBA Season Review. Quick note I failed to mention in Part 1: There is a chance that the final 15-16 games of the regular season will not be played. It all depends on what the NBA does in the coming months in reaction to the ever-evolving (and devolving) COVID-19 pandemic. If the games are played, I may do this over again.
A Tale of Two Under-.500 Playoff Teams
Orlando Magic: Of the two teams in this category, Orlando is undoubtedly happier to be here. Just a half-game behind the Brooklyn Nets for seventh in the East (which is important, since there’s a world of difference between playing Milwaukee and playing Toronto, though I love the Raptors), the Magic have been able to overcome a badly built roster and squeeze whatever advantages they can out of it.
The story of the Magic during Aaron Gordon’s time there has always been about horrid offense and great defense. The defense has stayed great (9th in Defensive Rating), while the offense has gone from “Charlotte Bobcats” to “run-of-the-mill bad.” When you can unleash as many long-armed, nasty, huge, agile defenders as the Magic can, just plain-old regular bad is enough some nights.
Some nights are enough in 2019-20, which has three under-.500 teams among its top 16 teams in the NBA. At least there’s a good explanation in the East—the top teams are destroying everybody.
Brooklyn Nets: Even without the injured (and COVID-19 positive) Kevin Durant for the season, the Nets thought they would still make noise. Adding Kyrie Irving, a dynamite scorer, to a young team that overachieved in 2018-19 sounded awesome—on paper and to the casual fans of Brooklyn.
Unfortunately for paper and the casual fans of Brooklyn, the chemistry issues Irving had on the Boston Celtics followed him down the coast. He poisoned the locker room even though he was injured for most of the year, playing only 20 games before being shut down for the season with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, Boston flourished without him there; the two are not mutually exclusive. Kenny Atkinson couldn’t keep the players in line, and when you lose the players in the NBA as a coach, you lose your job.
The question the Nets are pondering now, as they wait for the league to resume business (or shut it down till next season), is who is going to try to coach this mess. Durant and Irving are perhaps the two most mercurial superstars of our generation, and though they’ve barely played, their influence on this team is as strong as your overdressed date’s perfume.
Gregg Popovich is not walking through that door. Erik Spoelstra is happy being the heir apparent to Pat Riley as Miami’s Godfather. Doc Rivers already has a nice big-market job. Mark Jackson would be a poor fit, and dated. Many coaches on the market don’t have the cachet or big-name value to earn Durant’s respect (we know by now Irving has no respect for any coach).
My guess is the Nets are forced to lure Jackson from ESPN. GM Sean Marks would prefer to hire someone who thinks like he does and can work well with him, but he was already forced to fire one such guy in Atkinson. Why I think Jackson is a poor fit is his lack of offensive structure and tendency to cater to his players at the expense of the coaching staff working under him—a cardinal sin if you’re a former player breaking into the coaching ranks. It’s an easy way to get other coaches to LOATHE you.
Durant and Irving found their greatest team success working under a structure, Durant in Golden State with that incredible team, Irving in Cleveland with LeBron James running the show. If the Nets hire Jackson, all it would prove is that neither player absorbed the championship lessons they were taught.
Trouble in Paradise
Philadelphia 76ers: That’s probably the only time someone has described Philly as a paradise, by the way. Unless you love cheesesteaks, horrible air, or really rude Italians.
The usual drama surrounding this team continues to float around it, like a miasmic film clinging to the rim of a cup. Even the total stoppage of play couldn’t contain it. As The Ringer reported a few days ago, the Sixers’ governors tried to slash payroll at a most politically incorrect time. This misstep caught the attention of their superstar center, Joel Embiid, a humorous and witty giant who’s spending his downtime directing barbs at Philly ownership. It’s never a good thing when your best player is criticizing your business practices.
Nothing major will come of this, at least between Embiid and the Sixers (though please join me in fanning those CJ McCollum-for-Embiid trade flames), but this is just another episode in the Association’s premier soap opera. It’s tiring, the team has underachieved, and a change—or several—is needed.
We Happy Few
Dallas Mavericks: OK, enough doom-and-gloom. Let’s just enjoy the awesomeness that is Luka Doncic highlights.
And some more here. (Blazers fans might want to skip the first 20 seconds or so of this one.)
How about this list the NBA curated for his 21st birthday?
The Mavericks sport an offense that has flirted with making history even in this age of offensive dominance, and the Euro Larry Bird is the main reason why.
Houston Rockets: Small ball has been a concept filtering through the NBA since the Warriors trotted out their Death Lineup during the postseason, rendering centers obsolete when the games mattered most. Daryl Morey has not only doubled down on this idea, but by forgoing the use of any kind of big man, he’s pushed his chips all-in. He risks the Rockets’ championship window, James Harden’s prime, Russell Westbrook Westbrooking his team to smithereens, and his very job.
As a guy who loved his poker back when he had money to spend, I love the move. Morey is not a man to take half-measures or hedge bets. Whether it works or not…I want to be diplomatic and say “We’ll see” or some other BS noncommittal line, because I really want it to work, but the hard truth is that the playoffs are unkind to these David strategies. The Conference Finals and NBA Finals are Goliath’s realm, and there are only so many stones a team can throw before one is caught and stuffed down their throats.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Chris Paul has been revitalized this season. It’s like he rediscovered that playing basketball can be fun again, and playing in a three-guard lineup with spark plug Dennis Schroder and walking Swiss Army Knife Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has given him a unique lineup that he can orchestrate without being domineering. The subtle ways he bends a defense, with or without the ball, are a combination of the lessons he’s learned through 14 years as a star point guard and the innate genius only a few players have ever had.
At 34, with a humongous contract that will likely run throughout his last rotation-worthy years, Paul’s championship-chasing days are probably over. It seems like he’s coming to terms with that, and the money (including a $44 million player option for 2021-22) certainly helps. His place in history as one of the NBA’s best five point guards ever should be secure—Paul is close to recording 20,000 career points and 10,000 career assists. No one has ever done that; the only other man close to that milestone is LeBron James, and given that he’s currently leading the NBA in assists and needs fewer than 500 to get to 10,000, it’s a safe bet he’s going to be the first player ever to do that in NBA history.
So, I guess this blurb served two purposes, as a reminder that Chris Paul is absolutely an all-time great, and that LeBron James is not of this world.
Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis has kept Indy in among the more high-powered teams in the East despite not having a ton of help. He’s had just 48 games of Malcolm Brogdon (whose production had fallen off midseason anyway), 13 games of a rusty AF Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner having a down year as he adjusted to Son of Sabas becoming the top big man, and his best teammate sometimes being T.J. Warren.
Son of Sabas is doing his dad proud with a line of 19-12-5 with 54% shooting from the field and 72% from the line, and it’s clear to see that Arvydas Sabonis has passed on many of his prodigious gifts—and likely had a hand in Domantas refining those gifts into skills. We really didn’t get to see Young Arvydas destroying backboards, running fast breaks, and shooting threes behind the Iron Curtain (one of the NBA’s great, hidden what-ifs: what if Arvydas had been able to join the Blazers during Clyde Drexler’s heyday?), but at least we get to see his boy bully other big men, make those clever passes his father was famed for in Portland, and establish himself as a young star on the rise.
Boston Celtics: Whenever I saw the Celtics play, I could feel the change from last season to this season. I knew that Irving and his moods hung over this franchise like the proverbial cloud, but it must have been really bad—worse than even the inquisitive and obnoxious Boston media could convey to the rest of the world.
The joy that these guys play with is very apparent. Jayson Tatum is a superstar in the making, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are All-Star caliber wingmen that make Boston perhaps the most adaptable and switchable team in the league outside Milwaukee, Marcus Smart is a bloodhound mixed with a bulldog with a little wolf thrown in, Daniel Theis is an undersized center making it work with shooting and pure grit…dude, I could go on, but I’m already at 1600+ words, so I need to stop. I really like this team.
Miami Heat: Even before he arrived, everyone knew Jimmy Butler and the workaholic Heat franchise would be a hand-in-glove fit. Butler is an All-Star that thinks he’s a superstar, and the Heat are an overachieving team that thinks they’re a glamour franchise—the chips on the shoulders down there must be Everest-sized.
By now, you know what you’re getting with the Heat. They’ll play a game that’s grindy, physical, annoying to play against, and will result in plenty of 95-89 games usually in Miami’s favor.
Utah Jazz: I’m not sure how history will ultimately judge Rudy Gobert when he calls it a career, hopefully many years down the road. I can already tell that he’ll probably be remembered as the player who first tested positive for the coronavirus, and caused the NBA to be shut down—as well as the player who was ignoring social distancing rules to the point of purposefully touching reporter’s recorders and microphones, one of many instances of teens and 20-somethings not taking the pandemic seriously.
I hope he doesn’t get remembered that way. I want to think of Gobert as a huge center succeeding and thriving in an era where the game is getting smaller and more skills-based, a center whose rim-running on offense and rim-protecting on defense helped continue a Utah tradition of toughness and physicality, established by Karl Malone, John Stockton, and Jerry Sloan. I want to remember Gobert as a multiple-time Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star, not as the goober touching mikes while unknowingly infected with a highly contagious virus.
Of course, he’s probably going to be thought of by most people as the goober touching mikes while unknowingly infected with a highly contagious. And I already hate it.
Denver Nuggets: Hopefully, Gary Harris remembers how to shoot during the NBA’s hiatus. If he doesn’t, the Nuggets will find it tough to defeat either of the Los Angeles teams, this year or in the future.
Toronto Raptors: Even though the Raptors have played like a title contender, it seems like they might still be missing that one thing to take them over the top. That one thing was Kawhi Leonard, and it might eventually be Pascal Siakam, another young wing making the leap to superstar status. For now, I can’t see them beating the Bucks with a healthy Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Battle for L.A.
Los Angeles Clippers: Clippers Governor Steve Ballmer might think it a power move to buy the L.A. Forum—ancestral home of the Los Angeles Lakers—bulldoze it, and build a Clippers-themed palace on top of the ruins, but I just see it as yet another manifestation of the Clippers’ Little Brother Syndrome, a state of mind that has plagued this woe-begotten franchise since their days as the Buffalo Braves.
Also, though the Clips now have a seat at the biggest of Big Boy Tables, they paid a very hefty cost for it. Leonard made them mortgage basically this entire decade’s worth of assets in trades, while he himself is only contracted for two years. He has a Get Out of Jail Free card after next season, and given his mercenary nature, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to leave the Clippers and move on, a one-man swarm of locusts looking to consume another franchise in search of championship glory.
If the Clippers win the title, it would be worth it; that’s the risk the Raptors took when they traded for Leonard, who then was entering his walk year and was coming off a strange tendinopathy injury that is now his excuse to load manage his way through the regular season. If it didn’t work out for Toronto, they would have been vilified for trading away a franchise icon in DeMar DeRozen for a mistimed shot at glory. That’s the scenario Ballmer and his team face now, the kind of scenario Leonard and those who come after him will always try to put franchises in.
Los Angeles will go crashing back into the dumpster. Whether they take a couple rings with them is still to be determined.
Los Angeles Lakers: While the Clippers are hoping to win a title before Leonard ditches them, the Lakers are racing against another clock, this one being LeBron James’ prime. James is a freak unlike anything we’ve seen yet in the NBA—although he’s not destroying people with athleticism like in days of yore, he still can hang with the best high-flyers when needed, and his intelligence and vision have very few equals in history.
James may be 35, but knowing him, he’s using this time to stay in prime condition while welcoming the rest. Appreciate him while you can.
The Team to Beat
Milwaukee Bucks: If Antetokounmpo wins the MVP again this year, he’ll join this list of repeat MVP winners:
- Bill Russell (won three in a row, five total)
- Wilt Chamberlain (won three in a row, four total)
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (won two in a row twice, six total)
- Moses Malone
- Larry Bird (won three in a row)
- Magic Johnson
- Michael Jordan (won five total, because everyone got bored of voting for him)
- Tim Duncan
- LeBron James (won two in a row twice)
- Steve Nash
- Stephen Curry
The first nine men are among the 13 greatest players of all time. Nash and Curry are easily among the top 50. Though LeBron is making a good case to tie Jordan with five MVPs, my money is on the Greek Freak joining that august company on the list above. And he’s still only 26.
The NBA is awash with an embarrassment of riches in terms of incredible athletes. I hope we can enjoy watching them again soon.