One of the major takeaways from the NBA’s 2017-18 regular season—aside from the fact that Ben Simmons is really, really good—is that the Denver Nuggets will probably be a strong advocate for playoff reform.
By the skin of their teeth, the Nuggets missed out on qualifying for the playoffs. By losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final night of the regular season, the 46-36 Nuggets now have a date with the draft lottery, although they would have much rather have had a date with the Houston Rockets.
The Nuggets now become the poster child for the renewed advocating of playoff reform. Denver, you see, was eliminated from the playoffs despite having a better record than three Eastern Conference teams that qualified—the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.
The Heat and Bucks each finished the season at 44-38, while the Wizards were 43-39.
With the regular season over and the playoffs set to begin, the first round matchups have now been set.
If we’re lucky, though, this may be one of the final few times that we see the traditional playoff format in action.
During All-Star Weekend, Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed that the league was discussing playoff reform. Because of the relative imbalance of talent in the Eastern and Western Conference, the cries for a modified playoff system that would simply take the 16 best teams in the league have only grown louder over the years.
The two obvious issues with the ’Best 16 In’ approach is the travel concerns and the imbalanced schedule. Teams such as the Trail Blazers, Heat and Celtics could find themselves in the ‘nightmarish’ scenario of having to play a team that’s thousands of miles away. Particularly with the 2-2-1-1-1 format, the toll of traveling between Boston and Portland, for example, would probably catch up to a team.
In other words, the winner of a Game 7 between the Celtics and Blazers in the first round would probably be at a competitive disadvantage in the second. At least, that’s the prevailing sentiment.
While the concern is valid, it’s one that could only be addressed and resolved by doing a 2-3-2 format throughout the playoffs, or somehow figuring out a way to reduce the frequency of travel—not easy.
The other major issue—and it’s one that’s easier to fix—is the fact that teams only play 30 out of conference games. To make the system fair, each team would have to play at least 40.
Still, for want of allowing two teams from the same conference to play in the NBA Finals, the league is mulling its option.
I say: it’s about time.
To somewhat address the scheduling imbalance and the want to preserve the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format, the league revealed that they are also considering a ‘Modified Best 16 In’ playoff system in which the top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the playoffs and then be re-seeded based on how they fared in the regular season. The concept would more or less mimic what was done for the All-Star game, whereby All-Stars were chosen based on their conference and then redistributed once selected.
Although the Modified Best 16 In system wouldn’t necessarily get a team like the Nuggets into the playoffs, it would help preserve the distribution of TV markets, something that’s important to the league. A world in which 10 of the 16 playoff teams are from one conference, after all, isn’t ideal.
Again, this approach would also allow for two teams in the same conference to compete in the NBA Finals—something that’s never been possible.
With all of that said, let’s take a look at what this season’s first round of the NBA Playoffs would look like if the league adopted either the Best 16 In or Modified Best 16 In format and compare it with what we’re getting.
Here’s what’s actually going to happen this season…
In Western Conference Playoffs…
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (4) New Orleans Pelicans
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
In the Eastern Conference Playoffs…
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami HEAT
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks
Now, compare it to what would happen in with the Best 16 In playoff format, where five of the matchups would feature an Eastern Conference team battling a Western Conference team…
Best 16 In Playoff Format…
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (16) Milwaukee Bucks
(8) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (9) Utah Jazz
(5) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (12) San Antonio Spurs
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (13) Minnesota Timberwolves
(6) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (11) New Orlean Pelicans
(3) Golden State Warriors vs. (14) Denver Nuggets
(7) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (10) Indiana Pacers
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (15) Miami Heat
For the most part, when people think about intercostal playoff battles, Los Angeles and Boston is usually considered to be the worst case scenario. The truth is, though, that Portland to Miami is the furthest possible distance between NBA cities. That route is the only one that features teams separated by over 3,200 miles. Los Angeles to Boston is just over 2,950.
Interestingly, Portland to New Orleans is over 2,500 miles, and Portland to any of the NBA’s three Texas cities is over 2,000 miles. In other words, Portland can, and in this year’s playoffs, actually will face a daunting travel schedule. They will actually play the Pelicans.
Game 1 is on Saturday.
* * * * * *
Generally speaking, Eastern Conference cities are in closer proximity than Western. If you started out in Boston, you’d only need to travel 500 miles to pass through New York and Philadelphia on the way to Washington, D.C.
Quite similarly, the furthest distance between two Eastern Conference cities is less than 1,500 miles—that’s about the distance from Miami to either Boston or Toronto.
The point here is that one could actually (and quite easily) make the argument that the playoffs would actually become more fair from a travel standpoint if Eastern Conference teams were subjected to the possibility of having the same daunting travel demands as as their Western Conference counterparts.
If, for example, the Knicks and Sixers played a playoff series, either team could opt to sleep in their own beds for the entire series.
By opening things up, Eastern teams would probably have to travel further distances more often, but in the majority of instances, their travel probably wouldn’t be any worse than what Western Conference teams already have to endure.
Of the five inter-conference playoff matchups listed above, Houston to Milwaukee (1,151 miles), Philadelphia to San Antonio (1,742 miles), Boston to Minneapolis (1,391 miles), Portland to Indianapolis (2,264 miles) and Cleveland to New Orleans (1,055) are all less miles than the distance between Portland and New Orleans. And that series is actually going to happen.
Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Phoenix could also find themselves in unenviable situations requiring them to cover a lot of miles.
Sure, the Eastern Conference teams might, too, but the probability is much less and could only be addressed by mixing the playoffs.
If the league opted for the Modified Best 16 In format, where it still chose eight teams from each conference (rather than the top 16 overall) it’s a very consistent story.
The result would be a minor shuffling of the teams at the bottom of the standings. The Nuggets would fall out, the Heat and Bucks would each move up one spot and the Wizards would get in as 16th.
As a result, the Rockets would play the Wizards instead of the Bucks, the Warriors would play the Heat instead of the Nuggets and the Raptors would play the Jazz instead of the Heat.
Houston would have to travel 1,408 miles to get to D.C. and the Raptors would have to travel 1,900 miles to get to Salt Lake City.
Neither of those distances is further than what the Blazers will have to travel to get to New Orleans, but they also aren’t much further than how far Western Conference teams normally have to travel, anyway.
The Warriors, in this instance, are an exception. Under this scenario, they would have to travel 3,100 miles to Miami. Being on the West coast, any matchup featuring an Atlantic or Southeast Division team, for the Warriors, would be similarly painful. But do recall that they beat the Pelicans in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs en route to winning the championship. And Miami isn’t that much further from Oakland than New Orleans.
Look, there are pros and cons to everything, and no solution is going to please everybody—not all the time, at least.
But if one of the arguments against reformatting the NBA playoffs is a concern about the potential of increasing the frequency of cross country travel, it might not actually be as big of a deal as many of us believe. Western Conference teams already have to face more daunting travel than their Eastern Conference counterparts, and at least by mixing the playoffs, the league would subject all teams to the same opportunity of brutality.
It might not be ideal, but it probably is fair. Or, at the very least, more fair.
Plus, at the end of the day, who wants to see an anticlimactic NBA Finals?
Ensuring that the two best teams get to compete for the championship is the pro that should probably outweigh the minor cons.
The only way to ensure that is to make the change that’s been a long time coming.
NBA Daily: Can the Milwaukee Bucks be Real Contenders?
Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?
The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.
While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.
But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?
If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.
On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.
The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.
The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.
In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.
Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.
More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.
Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.
Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.
While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.
But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.
One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.
NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss
The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.
The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.
Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.
All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.
First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.
Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.
Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.
The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.
De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.
Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.
Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.
Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.
There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.
The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!
Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.
There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.
Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”
NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact
Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.
Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts.
Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason.
- Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard).
- DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place.
- New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
- Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
- Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.
One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.