As the NBA playoff picture slowly eases itself into the final round, there are far more winners than just the Golden State Warriors and the (presumed) Cleveland Cavaliers. Seasons are typically measured in wins and losses, especially so in the postseason, but that often isn’t the only criteria worth considering.
From redemption stories to a taste of impending free agency, these are the players, coaches and teams that will leave the postseason as a winner, even if they don’t lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
Outside of their gritty Game 3 triumph, the Boston Celtics have been effectively waxed by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers in the conference finals. Even so, this is a young basketball team that is outperforming their skill set thanks to the heroics of Isaiah Thomas and the wise-beyond-his-years coaching of Brad Stevens. Sure, Thomas has finally tapped out after one of the most grueling postseason journeys of all-time and the Celtics now understand that they can’t take down James as currently constructed, but still, there’s much to like moving forward.
In case you’re just tuning in (or feigned ignorance as a Nets fan), the Celtics took home the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft last week. Popular sentiment — including all four of our writers here at Basketball Insiders — predicts that Boston will select Markelle Fultz, a budding franchise player. With another unprotected Nets pick coming their way in 2018, general manager Danny Ainge can approach the draft and free agency with a clear head.
Can the team win with Thomas at the helm? Is Gordon Hayward the missing piece? Could moving the No. 1 for Jimmy Butler be the answer? Or should the Celtics opt for a strong core in a 2020 landscape that could be post-LeBron? Whichever way Ainge leans, he’s got the tools and assets to build this franchise exactly how he pleases. Between reaching the conference finals and receiving the first pick within a day of each other, there’s just simply no situation better than the Celtics’ as of right now.
Restricted Free Agents
Across the board, this summer’s crop of restricted free agents are about to earn the most lucrative contracts of their careers. In San Antonio, the Spurs may have a hard time holding onto to Jonathon Simmons, the man that excelled in Kawhi Leonard’s absence. Of course, Simmons, who once paid 150 dollars to try out for the D-League, wouldn’t be faulted for cashing in with the highest bidder. Between providing some much-needed energy off the bench to replacing Leonard in the rotation outright, Simmons soared in the postseason, tallying solid efforts of 17, 18 and 22 points. While the Spurs will no doubt look to retain Simmons, their current cap situation may ultimately price them out of the conversation.
Elsewhere, the Washington Wizards’ Otto Porter will have plenty of suitors this summer as well. While the Brooklyn Nets’ front office has made it clear that they won’t cap themselves out in order to become a 30-win franchise, Porter certainly fits their developing movement: hard-nosed defense and three-point shooting. If the Nets don’t dip their toes in the near-to-max contract pool, the Philadelphia 76ers have recently popped up as a potential destination for Porter. The forward’s big step couldn’t have come at a better time, and now the only question left is whether or not the Wizards will match whatever albatross offer sheet he signs.
Of course, who could forget about the unparalleled heroics from the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk? The Canadian’s 26-point outburst in Game 7 of the conference semifinals definitely increased his impending price tag. As the NBA continues to shift toward a league where most bigs can stretch the floor and hit three-pointers, Olynyk now stands as a healthy gamble in free agency. Given Ainge’s laundry list of upcoming decisions, he probably didn’t anticipate mulling over whatever large offer sheet Olynyk receives.
Additionally, Joe Ingles, the Utah Jazz’s tough perimeter standout, should be in line for a major payday on the open market. The Jazz will no doubt be focused on retaining George Hill and the aforementioned Hayward, but they’ll have a difficult choice to make on Ingles too. As our Ben Dowsett wrote last month, Ingles was quietly Utah’s biggest surprise of the season — but can they afford to keep everybody? When Ingles wasn’t destroying the typically steady playoff basketball of J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, he took blows defending Chris Paul. Even if his sky-high mark of 44 percent from three-point range in 2016-17 dips closer to his career average of 39.9 percent next year, Ingles will be worth his weight in gold come July.
And, finally, there’s Andre Roberson, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s swiss-army knife. Although Roberson earned plenty of criticism for his poor free throw shooting against the Rockets, his status as one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders will likely supersede those concerns. This postseason, Roberson often frustrated James Harden into difficult shooting nights and scored in double-digits in four of the Thunder’s five games. A franchise could easily talk themselves into Roberson, a potential All-NBA first team defender, and develop his shortcomings along the way.
Somehow, someway, Rajon Rondo performs just well enough to guarantee himself his next contract. Two years ago, it was his play in Sacramento that lured the Chicago Bulls in as they looked for a floor general to facilitate their all-veteran lineup. But as the Bulls struggled, the relationship with Rondo soured midway through the season. Given their disappointing record and the infamous social media shade he threw at Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, the Rondo in Chicago experiment was chalked up as a failure.
However, with Bulls surging toward the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth, they had nobody to turn to but Rondo. In a perfect storm, Rondo reclaimed his throne as the Bulls’ starting point guard and then throttled his former team not once, but twice on the road in the first round. Rondo’s impressive line of 11 points, nine rebounds, 14 assists and five steals in Game 2 had Bulls up 2-0 in Boston — halfway to a feat that would have ruined the Celtics’ immaculate season.
Unfortunately, Rondo broke his thumb and the Celtics promptly won four straight games to move on, but that will hardly concern the four-time All-Star. For years, Rondo’s off-court actions have kept him from landing another multi-year contract. As of now, it seems unlikely that Rondo will remain with the Bulls, which would send the point guard searching for his fifth team in four years.
But after striking fear into the hearts of Celtics fans everywhere, Rondo has done enough to earn himself another hefty one-year deal — maybe this time, he’ll head to a more postseason-ready franchise.
When the Celtics drafted Avery Bradley back in 2010, they believed he was the perfect backcourt partner for Rondo. Together, the pair would lock down any opposing set of guards while the latter would set the table for the former offensively. And, for a while, that’s exactly what happened: Rondo chugged along as the team’s pass-first point guard and Bradley earned an NBA All-Defensive second team berth in 2013. While Bradley made for an exceptionally talented professional, it was tough to foresee him playing the role of secondary scorer for any legitimate contender.
Now more than a month into the playoffs, Bradley has been one of the Celtics’ most consistent players on their bumpy road to the conference finals. Bradley certainly won’t explode for 40 points like Thomas, but the hard-working guard has left his mark on a number of playoff-altering moments.
In Game 7 against Washington, Bradley helped to shut down John Wall, forcing him into one of his worst shooting nights of the postseason at 8-for-23. Then, after getting walloped twice at home by the Cavaliers and officially losing Thomas for the remainder of the playoffs, it was Bradley that fueled the Celtics to their massive Game 3 win. Bradley scored 20 points, including the game-winning three-pointer, to rescue the Celtics without their All-Star guard on the floor.
Bradley will never reach the superstar echelon, but he’s more than earned his stripes with the Celtics. As a lockdown defender and a reliable option for 15 points or so per game, Bradley has carved out quite the niche — now, the rest the country has taken notice.
It’s been a long and winding road to this point for Mike Brown, but that has made the newfound success all that much sweeter. Despite five straight seasons with a record above 50 percent for the Cavaliers, including a trip to the NBA Finals in 2007 and a Coach of the Year victory in 2009, Brown was fired in 2010. After short stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and (again) with the Cavaliers, Brown eventually landed in Golden State as the Luke Walton replacement.
Brown hasn’t lost a game since he started filling in for the ailing Steve Kerr during the first round pummeling of the Portland Trail Blazers. For Brown, he’s taken the opportunity in stride — never overreaching on a team that is clearly self-sustaining but more than happy to play his part in the proceedings.
The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps accurately described the Warriors’ search for a new assistant coach in a column earlier this month, and, as Golden State found out, Brown was the perfect fit:
“The Golden State Warriors knew there was a possibility Steve Kerr could be sidelined again this season. . . Eventually, the Warriors found their man: Mike Brown, the former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and the Lakers; a guy who has won 347 games, two coach of the year awards, led a team to the NBA Finals and worked with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
“In other words, he checked every box. And if Kerr ever needed to be away from the team, everyone involved knew the squad would be left in safe — and experienced — hands.”
Now just four wins away from an NBA championship, Brown could easily channel this success into another head coaching opportunity down the road. For now, however, Brown is Kerr’s right-hand man, currently thriving once again on the game’s biggest stage.
If another team comes calling this summer, Brown will surely listen. But if he stays, Brown will have an indefinite front row seat to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the best on-court product in the league. Anyway you slice it, that makes Brown the major winner in these NBA playoffs.
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