Six big questions as the NBA Playoffs continue
In my mind, here are the major big picture storylines that this playoffs will answer:
(6) Have we reached peak “space or pace,” or are we only just beginning?
The three point shot is a structural flaw in the game. Teams have finally started to realize that shooting a 3 isn’t 50% harder than shooting a long 2, and have built their teams around that concept. Players have developed their entire skill set around that concept. Coaches like Gregg Popovich bemoan that it’s bad for the sport, but that it’s such a fact of life and mathematics that everyone must adapt according (unless your name is Phil Jackson).
But has the league adapted enough? As we’ve all noticed, the Houston Rockets shoot the most threes in the league. Clearly, it’s working for their offense. But GM Daryl Morey has noted that, statistically speaking, he’d like the team to take more threes.
The Rockets will become the poster boys for three-pointers this playoff season, so their success may go a long way to determining how others follow suit. If Houston can knock off San Antonio, then every team and GM (even Phil) will have to concede that they need to embrace the change, or get out of the sport.
(5) How much will the refs be a factor?
Some of the consequences of “pace and space” are obvious, some are not. We can clearly see an increase in scoring. As noted here, only 3 teams averaged 100+ points in the 2011-12 season. This year, only 1 team (Dallas) did not.
But there are a few unexpected consequences as well. Because the floor is spread out and bigs have been sent to the bench, guards (like Russell Westbrook) are able to grab more rebounds, which are also longer ricochets. Also, with a more open lane and fewer bigs/shot blockers, playmakers appear to be more inclined to drive and get to the free throw line. (This can also be attributed to analytics showing how efficient FTs are.)
Superstars like James Harden and Russell Westbrook have been averaging 10+ FT attempts regularly, but we’ve also seen a spike in other stars as well. Boston’s Isaiah Thomas has jumped up from 6.6 attempts per game last year to 8.5. Jimmy Butler‘s bounced up from 7.1 to 8.9. Kawhi Leonard has increased his attempts from 4.6 per game to 7.2 this year. Of course, it’s even more impactful because all of these players are great free throw shooters.
We’ve always heard that refs call differently in the playoffs, but that will be more important than ever given all of these free throw attempts. Will stars keep getting the benefit of the doubt and getting to the line? Or will the refs bury their whistles and let the game be decided on the floor?
I’m particularly interested to see how this plays out in the Utah – L.A. Clippers series. Utah GM Dennis Lindsey recently went on the Vertical podcast and went public with research that he believes shows that the Jazz get unfairly treated by the refs. He chalked that up to style of play, but it could also be because the Jazz don’t complain much, and don’t have many “superstars” (relative to the national scale). Guess who complains a lot? Guess who has nationally known superstars? You guessed right — the L.A. Clippers. Hopefully, the refs avoid deciding the series, but it could be especially dangerous when you’re talking about a potential Game 7 in Los Angeles.
(4) Does Toronto have the recipe to stop LeBron?
Given the Raptors’ narrowing window, Masai Uriji has been making strides to improve the team right away. Wisely, he realizes that in order to make the Finals, the Raps will have to beat LeBron James, somehow, some way.
The team attempted to acquire a “LeBron stopper” (or at least, a LeBron “slower”) in DeMarre Carroll, a player whose physical profile would have been well-suited to the endeavor if his body didn’t start breaking down. In the absence of peak Carroll, they’ve traded for P.J. Tucker, who’s not big, but is very strong and tough. If anyone can annoy LeBron, he can. The Raptors also have a pair of power forwards in Serge Ibaka and Patrick Patterson who are reasonably agile and won’t get abused on a switch.
Of all the teams in the East, I like Toronto’s chances against Cleveland for that reason. They have bodies to throw at LeBron (bodies who are not Terrence Ross, anymore), and can try to abuse the Cavs’ guards defensively. Oddly enough, I’m not sure if Toronto can make the Finals even if they beat the Cavs (because Boston and Washington would both be tough matchups), but they’ll have their shot at assassination first in Round 2.
(3) Will Isaiah Thomas be exposed, or prove he’s the real deal?
I admit: I still doubt whether Isaiah Thomas is a top 10 player in the league. I didn’t have him anywhere near my MVP ballot. My argument is that, as great as he is on offense, he’s a liability on defense. The statistics bear that out, where ESPN’s real +/- ranks him as one of the worst defensive guards in the league. It’s not his fault, necessarily, because his short stature makes it nearly impossible for him to be an impact defender.
The question is — is that deficiency a damning liability? Or something the Celtics can work around? We’ll find out soon enough, especially if we get the expected Round 2 matchup between the Celtics and the Washington Wizards. John Wall is a 6’4″ physical beast of a guard. Bradley Beal is a damn fine basketball player on the other side. There’s nowhere to hide.
If Thomas’ defense dooms Boston in that matchup, the Celtics will have to think long and hard about their (and his) future. The team may end up with the #1 or #2 pick and a chance at bigger lead guards like Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. If Thomas fails in this playoffs, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him leave Boston once his contract expires after next year.
(2) Are the Cavs ready to implode?
I’m not trying to pick on LeBron and Cleveland here, I swear. They’re still the favorites to make the Finals out of the East.
Still… we all see these warning signs, right? The Cavs have closed out the season 23-23, with their defense seemingly getting worse every week. Ty Lue’s coaching has come under fire. In fact, I recently ranked him #3 on my worst coach of the year ballot.
If I was a Cavs’ fans, I’d be especially concerned about LeBron James’ history of implosions. Don’t get me wrong — he’s arguably the 2nd best player in history — but when he loses, he has a tendency to lose badly. He mailed in the 2010 playoffs (his last with the Cavs before he left), losing in the second round despite being a 61-win team and the #1 seed. It didn’t seem like his heart was in it, for a variety of reasons we don’t have to delve into.
In 2013-14 (his last with the Heat before he left), Miami completely combusted against the Spurs in the Finals. They looked shellshocked, lost without answers, and simply folded in. Once again, LeBron left.
There are signs of cracks in this current Cleveland team as well. The defense looks lost, Ty Lue looks lost… the role players look over the hill. In fact, if the Cavs lose, I wouldn’t be shocked if they lost badly. That loss against the Raptors isn’t out of the question, nor is the potential to get swept against the Warriors.
If the Cavs lose (badly), I doubt LeBron will leave. But if they do lose (badly), I’d expect some major changes. His buddies Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade could be available this summer, which could add enough firepower to seriously compete against Golden State.
(1) Will Kevin Durant take the throne?
Around the playoffs last year, we here in the Reddit nerd-dom conducted a silly Mock Tournament where we drafted 32 separate rosters and pitted them against each other in a tournament (with results sim’d by other Redditors).
At the time, there was intense debate about who should be the #1 pick — LeBron James or Kevin Durant. LeBron ended up going #1, but it wasn’t a no-brainer.
Now, a year later, we all seem to agree without blinking that LeBron James is the “best player in the world.” Obviously a lot has happened since that time (including LeBron coming back from 3-1 to win the title), but what has Kevin Durant done to prove he is not the best player in the world? He bolted on Oklahoma City, sure, but he put up historically good stats on Golden State (in terms of efficiency).
He’s also improved his defense over these last few years. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard may be better defenders on the perimeter, but you can make an argument that the long-armed Durant is a more effective rim-protector and defensive anchor when the three work as a stretch 4. Durant wasn’t in the MVP discussion this year for obvious reason (the injuries, the stacked team) but he would have been in he played in all 82. The dude was shooting 53.7% from the field (despite 5+ threes a game). I’d still consider LeBron James the best player on the planet, but my primary argument wouldn’t be skill — it’d be durability (as LeBron hasn’t missed extended time.)
But this playoffs may redefine his legacy, and how we view Durant in the basketball landscape. The Warriors are better than everyone else, as a team, but Durant will also have the opportunity to show whether he’s better than everyone else, individually. If all goes according to plan (aka Vegas odds), Durant will be matched up with Kawhi Leonard in the Conference Finals and then LeBron in the Finals. There’s a not-zero chance that Durant plays better than both of them, individually. If he does, and he raises that trophy, we may be saying that he’s clearly the best player in the world.