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: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers
The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.
The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.
For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.
The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.
“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.
General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.
“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”
Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.
“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.
When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.
“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”
Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.
“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.
Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.
“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”
Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.
“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”
Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.
“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”
Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting
Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.
“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”
With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.
“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.
Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.
“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.
For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.
“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”
Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.
“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.
Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.
“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.
Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.
“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.
When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.
“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.
“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”
The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’
Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?
In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.
Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.
While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.
The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.
After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.
The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.
And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.
But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.
This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.
Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.
However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.
Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?
Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.
There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.
It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.
And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.
Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.
NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?
Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?
The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.
In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.
Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.
He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.
In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.
That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?
Here are three possibilities:
Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.
Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.
He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.
Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.
Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.
He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.
This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.
He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.
In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.
With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.
In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.