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Predictive or Predicament? Three Teams Poised for Regression

Despite mostly maintaining their respective rosters, these three teams may regress next season.

Ben Dowsett

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As with nearly every major team sport worldwide, win-loss record in the NBA can be an imperfect measure of true team quality. A simple yes/no result over 82 attempts lacks deeper context. It’s more than enough to separate the best from the worst in a 30-team league, but can be much less reliable for parsing teams grouped more closely together in the standings.

More importantly, through an offseason lens, raw wins and losses often fall well short in predictive power for future seasons. They don’t offer enough data points with which to accurately judge teams and players, and that’s before considering more obvious year-to-year factors like personnel movement and development, or decline from guys at various stages in their careers.

A few candidates for moderate to severe regression from their 2015-16 performances might surprise you. Note that “regression” here doesn’t necessarily mean playoff teams sliding to the high lottery – at least two of our top examples will still be in the postseason next April barring major catastrophe. There’s evidence to suggest each could take a step back overall, though, and perhaps a bigger one than surface factors would ever indicate.

San Antonio Spurs

There’s no danger of a playoff miss provided Kawhi Leonard stays healthy, but the usual ink we use to mark down the Spurs as elite title contenders might be better swapped with a dark pencil this year.

Personnel moves are the most obvious indicator, and allow us one final (okay, probably not final) ode to Tim Duncan here: He will be missed for more immediate reasons than legacy and culture. Duncan entered the league as one of its best defenders and left it the exact same way, with ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking him as the second-most impactful per-possession defensive player in the NBA last season after controlling for team and opponent quality. Figures from Nylon Calculus continued to rate him among the league’s 10 best rim protectors even as he rarely ever left the ground to contest shots.

True to form, Duncan’s impact was felt on the floor even during plays he wasn’t directly involved in. The Spurs’ famous “anti-Moneyball” defense became markedly less so when he sat down: they allowed more attempts near the rim and a higher conversion percentage, and gave up nearly five more three-point attempts per-100-possessions, per NBAwowy.com. With Duncan out there, they were the NBA’s stingiest defense against the consensus “best” shots in the game.

San Antonio was still great defensively without Duncan so long as Leonard was on the floor, but dropped back to league average or even slightly below when both sat. Those minutes made up just over a quarter of the team total on the year, a figure that could nearly double this season if Kawhi’s minute load, already high for any recent Gregg Popovich player, remains similar. Neither LaMarcus Aldridge nor Pau Gasol has ever proven capable of approximating Duncan’s impact defensively.

There are concerns surrounding current roster players as well, namely fellow future Hall of Famer Tony Parker. Dragging around a 40,000-minute ball and chain that’s only further weighted by years of international play he’ll add to this summer in Rio, it’s worth wondering how much Parker has left in the tank. His jump shooting numbers have been exceedingly positive the last two seasons given his age and history here – so positive, in fact, that speculation as to their sustainability is justified. It’s tough to imagine a career 33 percent three-point shooter continuing to bang home over 40 percent from deep for much longer, and he won’t keep matching his career highs from longer midrange areas every year. It’s never fun to forecast a decline from such a crafty and likable player, but the smoke signals are there.

Does Manu Ginobili have another renaissance year in him, particularly gaudy jump-shooting numbers that blasted his career averages out of the water at 38 years old last year? Manu shot a ridiculous 54 percent on all midrange shots 16 feet and further from the hoop last season, per basketball-reference, nearly 20 points higher than his career mark.

Can Gasol fit alongside Aldridge on either end of the floor with both now over the age-30 threshold? David West and Boris Diaw were far from stars last year as both showed their age, but can San Antonio’s depth maintain with David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon in their place? Leonard is among the game’s best all-around players; is he really one of the five best shooters in the league, though, or simply a very good one, as the rest of his career before last season would indicate?

Look, these are the Spurs, and this is Gregg Popovich. They’d need guys playing on broken legs to miss 50 wins or the playoffs. They’re not winning 67 again, though, and it’s fair to wonder whether a more precipitous drop back into the West’s middle might be on the horizon.

Toronto Raptors

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a two seed that reached Game 6 of the conference finals running it back the following year. In practice it’s all about the details, and a few are suspect north of the border.

First and simplest: Toronto’s two best players both had career years last season, and that sort of thing just doesn’t happen all that often. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both great-to-elite players at their positions, but at 30 and 26 respectively are unlikely to improve much. In fact, history – both personal and league-wide – suggests one or both could slide back a bit.

Lowry is a success story who blossomed from an overqualified backup into an All-Star in his late 20s, and he’ll deserve every cent of the mammoth deal he signs next summer after giving the Raptors three years of value that wildly exceeded his dollar figure. He’s also a guy with a history of running out of gas late in the season, and even the high-level peak he reached last winter feels a bit like fool’s gold.

Lowry topped his career high in three-point attempt rate last year; he can keep doing that pretty easily, but will his career-best success rate continue? It seems especially unlikely from the corners, where he shot nearly 50 percent on the year. Likewise with a free-throw rate that was steadily declining every season in Toronto before a sudden resurgence last year – like several elements of his game, it dropped off a cliff late in the season and into the playoffs. Undersized 30-year-old guards don’t often sustain this kind of single-season production when prior multi-year trends suggest they’re outliers, and Lowry’s style offers few distinguishing factors from these types.

DeRozan’s case is a bit murkier. He did post career bests in typically high-variance areas like jump-shooting, but the optimist sees a 26-year-old just entering his prime who can sustain those figures. His peripherals mostly remained solid or improved slightly.

But while this is less scientific, doesn’t it feel like the book is out on DeRozan after his first deep postseason run? His shooting and free-throw rate both dropped sharply against top defenders leaning on his weaknesses. Most teams don’t have Paul George and days to devote purely to scouting the Raptors, sure, but it’s not exactly tough for coaches to emphasize the sort of sell-out, under-every-pick approach that often turned him into a non-factor in April and May. The playoffs can be a harbinger of things to come in future years – even if DeRozan himself maintains last year’s value in a vacuum, the way he’s defended could strain his production.

The Raptors were dead last in the NBA for percentage of baskets assisted last year, relying heavily on Lowry and DeRozan to work their magic, and it could spell trouble in River City if either takes a step back. They’ll hope for better health from Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, but injuries masked the fact that even once they returned, Toronto was a better team while both sat on the bench.

This is understandable for Carroll, who may have strained himself getting back in time for the stretch run, but it’s a more worrying trend for Valanciunas. Frankly, departed Bismack Biyombo was pretty clearly the more effective center within Toronto’s most used lineup combinations. Valanciunas is a highly skilled beast in the right situation; whether this is that situation is a valid question with DeRozan back on the books long term and limited touches to go around. Don’t be shocked to see the Raptors quietly gauge his trade market on a fair contract if they underachieve.

It’s all a bit concerning for a team that already exceeded their Pythagorean expectation (based on point differential) by three wins, then added precisely zero new talent in the offseason. Biyombo’s departure hurts, especially on defense, where the Raptors would have been a bottom-half team during the minutes he sat. Patrick Patterson and Corey Joseph are nice players who have nonetheless probably reached their value ceilings. Dwane Casey has proven capable of connecting with and motivating his team, but he is also relatively incapable of adjusting his approach when better teams clamp down on Lowry and DeRozan.

Like San Antonio, the Raptors are at least one major injury away from being in any danger of finishing outside the playoff picture. Most simply penciling them in for a home playoff series could be in for a surprise, though, especially if moves from a few of their chief rivals behind Cleveland in the East pan out.

Portland Trail Blazers

Forecasting the Blazers after a pleasantly surprising 2015-16 comes down mostly to this: Do you believe the team that beat Golden State and Oklahoma City on the way to the league’s best record from mid-January through the end of February is the real thing, or is it the sub-.500 group we saw the rest of the year?

Sustainability isn’t an issue for Portland’s star guards, with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both following traditional developmental paths and both young enough to expect continuation. Like the guard duo in Toronto, though, smarter teams poked holes in their shooting-driven style as the year went on last season, forcing the supporting cast into larger roles in which they mostly succeeded – and that’s where issues of continuity rear their heads.

Al-Farouq Aminu was a career 29 percent three-point shooter heading into last season; he nearly matched his attempts from those previous five years combined, and still managed 36 percent. Gerald Henderson likewise posted career highs in attempts and percentage from deep (he’s now in Philadelphia). Mason Plumlee hadn’t averaged even a single assist per night in his first two seasons until defenses began blitzing Lillard and McCollum up high last year, forcing the ball into Plumlee’s hands and tripling his output (it nearly doubled again from there in the playoffs as the Clippers and Warriors trapped even more aggressively).

These were non-trivial factors in Portland’s seventh-ranked offense, a unit that conveniently masked a bottom-10 defense. The Blazers did nothing in the offseason to dissuade teams continuing to aggressively hedge their pick-and-rolls; can the supplementary guys, now featuring Evan Turner, ostensibly in Henderson’s place, continue performing?

With the right tinkering from Terry Stotts, it’s certainly possible. Turner is a non-threat from three, but could be smartly staggered with Allen Crabbe to inject a bit more spacing if things tighten up – he’s a solid bench prop-up piece when Lillard or McCollum (or both) sit. Meyers Leonard is around as a spacing option, though he’s been a weakness on the other end. Noah Vonleh is running out of time to prove himself, and it feels like one of Vonleh or Maurice Harkless could become redundant and fall out of the rotation (or be traded). If Lillard and McCollum maintain their level and at least a couple of these guys shine, maybe there isn’t much cause for concern.

Even for glass-half-full types, though, big issues remain on the other end of the court. Portland picked up Festus Ezeli on a below-market deal, but getting a good price isn’t always the same as getting a good player. A return to the promise of a year ago could put Ezeli on track as a defensive anchor, but the 770 minutes he logged in Golden State last year (in an elite defensive culture, no less) offered little convincing proof that he can get back there.

Outside that, it’s tough to see where this group finds organic improvement defensively. Aminu is a wonderful universal jack, Crabbe is solid on the wing and Harkless did his best last year, but this team is devoid of much other defensive talent, especially in the backcourt. There’s only so much Aminu can do to cover for McCollum and especially Lillard, and slotting Crabbe onto tougher guards either opens up a mismatch with a bigger small forward or forces one of the studs to the bench. Rim protection will be a big issue if Ezeli isn’t the answer. It’s basically impossible to post even a league average defense with sieves on the perimeter and no one reliable to clean up inside.

None of this considers injury luck, either. The Blazers were among the league’s healthiest teams, particularly among their top guys – each of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Aminu, Plumlee and Harkless played in at least 75 games, and Henderson logged 72.

Stotts is a proven wizard, and Lillard has made a habit of silencing doubters in his career. Still, it’s tough to shake the feeling that a bad break or two could doom a team that was four games from the ninth seed last year. The Blazers have to prove their streaky group can hit last winter’s level consistently.

 

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook

After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.

Matt John

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First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.

There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.

Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.

Boston – So Close, Yet So Far

Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.

The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.

They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.

This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.

That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?

As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.

Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.

With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.

Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?

They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.

On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.

The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.

Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.

Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?

Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.

Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.

Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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