The 2016-17 season will be remembered for Golden State’s casual brilliance, an MVP race for the ages, triple doubles and 50-point explosions galore, and a tightly-packed playoff picture that remained unsettled until the final day of the regular season. With the playoffs set to begin on Saturday, let’s look back at how all 30 teams fared this season. Midseason grades, delivered in late-January, are included for comparison’s sake.
Grades are determined by performance relative to preseason expectations and take into account health-related issues, signings and trades made since the start of the season, as well as the impact of major off-season moves. Significant injuries to star players, especially those with multi-year implications, are also considered in the grading process.
In its second year of backsliding and its first season after Al Horford’s departure, Atlanta managed to avoid a total collapse, for better or worse. The Hawks churned out their 10th straight postseason appearance but enter the playoffs without much of a ceiling. The magical offense that defined the franchise in 2015 has been replaced by Dennis Schroder’s nightly blood pressure tests and way too many missed three-pointers from a revolving cast of wings. Atlanta’s long-term interests would have been better served by a midseason trade of Paul Millsap. The versatile forward and upcoming free agent makes more sense as a complementary player on a contender rather than a leading option on a mediocre squad. Instead of rallying for a big post-deadline push, the Hawks meandered along with inconsistent play, looking positively dreadful when Millsap missed a good chunk of March.
While sticking with their All-Star forward this season helped ensure short-term respectability, it now forces a painful decision: to pay big money to the 32-year-old Millsap and remain slightly better than average during his age-related decline, or to watch him leave and slide further down the standings. Without an established superstar or a clear core of young standouts, the Hawks appear stuck in the East’s thick middle for the foreseeable future. The glory days didn’t last long.
It’s tempting to give the Celtics a solid “A” given that they’re closing in on a reasonable approximation of their preseason best-case scenario: claiming the East’s top seed by being a well-balanced team with a clear identity and an offensive superstar leading the way. Over the second half of the season, once the likes of Al Horford, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley returned from injuries, Boston enjoyed the league’s second-best record thanks to Isaiah Thomas’s growth into a one-man offensive machine.
Still, something seems missing. Perhaps it’s because this isn’t a particularly fearsome or star-studded group. Maybe Danny Ainge’s inexplicable inactivity at the trade deadline continues to linger over his organization’s postseason outlook. It’s possible that preemptive skepticism over Thomas’s ability to carry the load against playoff defenses and find a place to hide on the other end is creating a dampening effect. Whatever it is, the Celtics have yet to fully bloom and therefore have courted a question rare among top seeds with relatively young rosters: How many of their current core players will be around when this organization truly takes off in a year or two?
Those who truly enjoy stretching will note that the sad-sack Nets went 13-23 with Jeremy Lin in the lineup, which amounts to a 30-win pace over the course of an 82-game season. That’s, uh, not exactly reassuring, but maybe it lessens the blow of being the worst team in a league that saw six or seven other teams shamelessly tanking down the stretch. Maybe?
Unfortunately, the pain of a 60+ loss season won’t be offset by the arrival of Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. Brooklyn must settle for reasonable progress from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert while the Celtics cash in their lottery prize. Nets fans and observers have known this for years but the anguish is just beginning. There is good news to be found in two forms: owner Mikhail Prokhorov continues to lay low and GM Sean Marks has shown the ability to avoid crippling mistakes unlike, say, Vlade Divac. Brooklyn’s new slogan: “Truly terrible, but slightly less dysfunctional than the Kings.” Be sure to check back in 2020-21 when Brook Lopez is still gunning for his first playoff series victory.
One clear-cut sign that a team’s margin for error is perilously thin? Cody Zeller is the difference between smooth sailing and absolute catastrophe. The Hornets went 3-17 and posted a 108.4 defensive rating without Zeller this season, a showing so poor that it killed the franchise’s hopes of advancing to the playoffs for the third time in four years. Despite a career year and first All-Star selection for Kemba Walker and virtually an entire season of good health for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, owner Michael Jordan must contemplate (yet again) whether his roster has the necessary pieces to get back into the mix next season.
There’s no obvious path forward next season: Charlotte has already committed eight-figure per year salaries to Walker, Nicolas Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller and uninspiring midseason acquisition Miles Plumlee and it can’t count on landing a blue-chipper in the draft given its bad-not-terrible record. In other words, the Hornets look like they will be too expensive to be awful and not talented enough to be exciting. This much is certain: Zeller must spend the entire off–season in protective bubble wrap.
Let’s join together in a sarcastic, tepid slow clap for the Bulls, who managed to eke past their preseason over/under line of 38.5 wins in the most depressing way possible. Chicago’s biggest bets backfired in predictable fashion: Signing Dwyane Wade proved to be a waste of everyone’s time, signing Rajon Rondo led to nonstop cycling at the point guard position, and clinging to Fred Hoiberg for a second full season only exacerbated the locker-room frustration that started percolating last year. If those off–season decisions weren’t bad enough, Chicago’s inexplicable midseason deal for Cameron Payne saw multiple rotation players, Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, depart for a very questionable return.
If not for Jimmy Butler’s All-NBA caliber contributions and good health, the Bulls would have been neck-and-neck with the Knicks when it comes to big-market disappointments. But instead of savoring Butler’s work or trying to reshape the roster around his skills, Chicago’s management apparently spent another trade cycle testing his market value. At this point, all three of the “Three Alphas”—Butler, Wade and Rondo—might be better off playing for different teams in 2017-18, and yet the franchise’s beleaguered front office apparently remains in good standing with ownership. How?
There’s a big difference between saying “Cleveland had an incredibly disappointing second half of the season” and saying “Cleveland is imploding and LeBron James’s Finals run is bound to end.” This grade is meant to reflect the former and not the latter. Consider: the 2017 Cavaliers boasted a sterling 30-11 record at the midpoint and will finish with the fewest wins of any James-led team since the 2007 Cavaliers. While injury issues for J.R. Smith and Kevin Love loomed, Cleveland’s stretch run was defined by shakiness rather than steadiness, by ineffective defense rather than overwhelming offense. While most would agree that James will crank it up to a level no one else in the East can match come playoff time, that doesn’t fully account for a stretch of 40-ish games in which the Cavaliers often failed to look like defending champions.
On balance, Cleveland is still in good shape: James is healthy, the major injury issues are in the rearview, and the team’s offensive ceiling is sky-high thanks to an array of three-point shooters. If the 2015 Cavaliers were forced to grind out playoff victories possession by possession, the 2017 version may very well light up its intra-conference competition with never-ending streams of deep threes. Ultimately, Cleveland’s title hopes will rest on its ability to rekindle the lockdown defense that stalled Golden State’s attack late in the 2016 Finals. That’s a difficult development to bet on, given this year’s body of work, but it might not truly matter until June given the fundamental problems James poses to all of the East’s challengers.
Dallas spent much of the season stuck in the dreaded middle ground between the fringes of an utterly pointless playoff bubble and the bottom of the standings. One needs look no further than this week’s promotional stunt with Tony Romo to grasp just how far the 2011 champions fell from relevance. At the same time, though, there were fun wrinkles: Seth Curry made a little magic, Yogi Ferrell was a nice find, Harrison Barnes proved to be a much wiser investment than Chandler Parsons, and Wesley Matthews continued to savor last-minute defensive stops more than any other player in the league. After an injury-plagued start, franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki pulled his game together over the second half of the season, climbing into the sixth spot on the league’s all-time scoring list.
Perhaps the biggest development, though, was the acquisition of Nerlens Noel, who arrived from Philadelphia at a cut-rate price and immediately established himself as a positive impact-maker and a clean fit on both ends. For an organization that has refused to tank despite Nowitzki’s inevitable fade into retirement, a young starter like Noel is worth his weight in gold. Even so, it’s not clear where Dallas goes from here: its talent base remains one of the West’s weakest and Mark Cuban’s free-agency pursuits have not landed true star power in recent years.
After former Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic and the Blazers effectively eliminated Denver from the playoffs earlier this month, many Nuggets fans lashed out with anger over the terms of the midseason trade. Their anger was understandable, given Nurkic’s immediate resurgence, but it was also evidence of Denver’s progress: How many years has it been since Nuggets fans actually had reason to feel pain? For context, Denver hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013 and it hasn’t had a talent like franchise center Nikola Jokic since Carmelo Anthony. Yes, this is still a sub-.500 lottery team and Jokic’s mesmerizing offensive game far surpasses his limited defensive game, but this season still counts as real progress.
That said, further upward momentum isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Emmanuel Mudiay is approaching the “do or die” stage of life as a former lottery pick, a host of veterans should probably move on next year, and Jokic will need to be paired with a rim-protecting, mobile power forward if Denver hopes to make serious strides in fixing its atrocious defense. None of these issues are fatal, and the Jamal Murray/Gary Harris combination has a chance to be special if Murray succeeds in making the type of steady progress that has so far eluded Mudiay. While landing a playoff berth would have been big for morale, the Nuggets should give thanks that their misguided pursuit of Dwyane Wade failed and that their new star, Jokic, evolved organically. Building around him could prove challenging, but it will be, at the very least, a fun challenge.
Detroit hit the midway point stride for (stumbling) stride with Portland, two high-payroll, under-achieving teams falling well short of optimistic preseason outlooks. While the Blazers were able to get their act together, the Pistons did not. As a result, they will fall at least eight games shy of their over/under and finish in the Central Division’s basement. So much for building off of last year’s trip to the playoffs.
Stan Van Gundy the president hasn’t done Stan Van Gundy the coach any favors: Reggie Jackson was a mess all season, Andre Drummond plateaued, and the Pistons are looking at a future in which Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a very nice complementary player, will be the roster’s top talent and earning a max or near-max contract. Good luck with that. The Pistons’ off–season plans will start at the point: Should a healthy Jackson get the chance to reclaim his 2015-16 form next year or is now the time to pursue a better long-term solution? Detroit might be stuck in a holding pattern given that Jackson’s contract runs for three more years, but this much is certain: Van Gundy the executive must prove more adept and prudent at retooling than he did in constructing this group if the Pistons are going to be a factor at any point in the near future.
Bob Myers is the easy choice for Executive of the Year. In his first three years as coach, Steve Kerr has overseen the most wins in a three-year stretch in NBA history, surpassing the 1996-1998 Bulls. When top-three MVP candidate Kevin Durant was lost to injury, Stephen Curry reemerged as a top-five MVP candidate and top-two Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green picked up the slack on the other end. Fourth wheel Klay Thompson scored 60 points in 29 minutes against the Pacers. Supersub Andre Iguodala is the Sixth Man of the Year award favorite. The Warriors are on pace to follow up the winningest regular season in league history with the fourth-best point differential of all time. They went 4-0 against their first-round opponent (the Blazers), they went 6-1 against their possible second-round opponents (the Clippers and Jazz) and they humiliated the Thunder, Durant’s former team, with four straight blowouts. Somehow, they did it all while cruising in fourth gear, as not a single Warriors player logged 35 minutes per game.
This team isn’t perfect, it almost certainly hasn’t played its best basketball yet, it still faces questions in crunch time, and it will likely need to conquer Mount LeBron to redeem itself for the 2016 Finals. Nevertheless, the Warriors have been the NBA’s best team for the third straight year and, despite Durant’s injury and a bunch of off–season roster turnover, it hasn’t been close at all. Now that Durant is back, Golden State is firmly back into “win the title or it’s a failure” territory, which is right where it belongs.
Houston’s sensational season shouldn’t be diminished by recency bias. Yes, James Harden and the Rockets are limping to the finish line a little bit, but this remains the league’s biggest overachiever relative to preseason expectations and one of the league’s most tantalizing stories. Thanks in large part to Harden’s MVP-caliber play and his perfect fit with coach Mike D’Antoni’s vision of open offense, the Rockets have smashed three-point shooting records, challenged the loaded Warriors for the league’s most efficient offense, and claimed one of the NBA’s top three records when a lottery trip seemed like a distinct possibility as recently as September.
Lots of little things broke right along the way. Clint Capela’s game and personality meshed with Harden in ways that proved impossible for Dwight Howard. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon each appeared in 70+ games, while Lou Williams arrived in a midseason deal to further bolster Houston’s attack. D’Antoni worked his magic to coax meaningful contributions from afterthoughts like Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and Nene. Look, this could all go very wrong in the postseason, where both D’Antoni’s philosophy and Harden’s style of play will go under the microscope all over again. For now, though, the Rockets deserve full marks for their 82-game body of work and their representatives deserve serious consideration for MVP (Harden), Coach of the Year (D’Antoni), Executive of the Year (Daryl Morey) and Sixth Man of the Year (Gordon and Williams).
It’s way, way too early for 26-year-old Paul George to slip into Carmelo Anthony-like irrelevance, settling for mediocre shots and offering inconsistent effort for mediocre teams plagued by inconsistency. And yet that’s where George has found himself this season; not even a strong individual closing push could salvage a third straight forgettable campaign that pales in comparison to Indiana’s conference finals trips earlier in his career. The red flags—in the form of George’s rants at referees and ongoing trade rumors—are increasing in regularity.
While Larry Bird certainly can’t be blamed for inactivity, his many trades, multiple roster shake-ups and a coaching change have failed to build a winning identity around George. This current group seems to lack both upside and chemistry. Who really wants to pay big for Jeff Teague? Should George base the rest of his prime banking on Myles Turner’s development into a superstar sidekick? Did hiring coach Nate McMillan signal a true commitment to winning now or was it merely a convenient act of change for change’s sake? Add it all up, and it’s easy to make the argument that both team and player would be better off if a deal to ship George to a contender can be consummated this summer. “Hoping to pull off a first-round upset” is too low of a bar for a player with his gifts.
For a very good team, the Clippers are awfully infuriating: they started brilliantly and closed convincingly, but merely survived for the 60 or so games in between. Which team is it: the rollicking contender from November or the slumbering squad that slipped out of the West’s top three? On the whole, the Clippers will finish with their worst winning percentage since 2011–12, they’re staring at a seemingly insurmountable second-round series with the Warriors if they can dispatch the injury-ravaged Jazz, and they’re headed for a potentially calamitous summer in which Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick are all free agents. On the bright side, both Paul and Griffin will enter the playoffs healthy after suffering postseason-ending injuries last year and missing time this season.
The trick for Doc Rivers and company will be to approach the playoffs without letting their minds wander to July. That’s easier said than done, especially when Golden State has dominated the head-to-head matchups in recent years and notched four wins over LA by an average margin of 22 points this season. The stakes are clear and foreboding: the Clippers must do the near-impossible by taking down the Warriors or prepare for what will likely be a summer splintering.
The most depressing email of the season landed in my inbox earlier this week, and it read: “The Lakers have won four consecutive games for the first time since closing out the 2012-13 season.” Come on, Lakers. Come on. You had one job after the season fell apart, Magic Johnson was named president, Rob Pelinka took over as GM, Jeanie Buss won a legal battle with her brothers, and the future of the franchise became fully tied up in its ability to keep its top-three protected lottery pick. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. By any means necessary. This also happens to be the one thing you’ve been great at for four straight years. How do you mess this up at the worst possible moment?
Arguably the worst-timed winning streak in league history has dropped the Lakers to third in the draft order, meaning they will forfeit their pick—and a possible shot at UCLA’s Lonzo Ball—if they are jumped by just one team in the draft order. There is no way to pitch this turn of events as late-season player development or morale boosting given that the front office shut down most of the roster’s veterans in March. If the collective play of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle should have taught the Lakers anything this year, it’s that they needed another dose of top-end talent. Missing out on that dose because of ping pong ball mismanagement could prove ruinous.
Memphis might have landed closer to preseason expectations than any team in the league. Its offense showed modest improvements thanks to new coach David Fizdale’s emphasis on the three, as expected. Its defense remained at an elite level thanks to a cadre of experienced defenders inside and out, as expected. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley chugged along at an All-Star caliber level, as expected. Zach Randolph shifted into a good new life as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, as promised. And, yes, Chandler Parsons turned out to be one of the league’s worst off–season investments due to injury issues, as feared.
Where does that leave the Grizzlies? As the clear underdog (again) in a postseason matchup with the Spurs (again). If that wasn’t intimidating enough, Memphis faces the possibility of some painful goodbyes this summer: Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Vince Carter are all set to be free agents, and Fizdale’s aging roster needs some rejuvenation.
Hearty congratulations to Erik Spoelstra and the Heat for thoroughly embarrassing writers, like this one, who mistakenly assumed back in January that a full-on tank was the only possible outcome. Despite a roster so loaded with no-namers that they might as well be called the South Beach SkyForce, the Heat enjoyed one of the greatest “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again” about-faces in recent NBA history. This was a campaign for the diehards: Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, James Johnson and company might not be the Heatles, but they more than kept things interesting during a season that was torpedoed by the losses of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Still, there’s a question that always plagues unexpected (and likely unsuccessful) runs at the eighth seed: Would it have been better in the long run to be terrible rather than average? One can’t help but wonder if Waiters is really worth locking up, if Dragic is capable of being the lead guard on a team that advances in the playoffs, and if chasing a Markelle Fultz/Justise Winslow backcourt would have been the surest path back to the top of the standings. As the Heat rightfully take pride in their second-half push, they also must grabble with the possibility that they just raced their way onto the treadmill of mediocrity.
No team should be prouder to land in the East’s congested middle than Milwaukee. For starters, the Bucks survived two potentially heartbreaking medical developments: the early loss of Khris Middleton to a hamstring injury and the devastating midseason loss of Jabari Parker to a second major knee injury. Either one could have crushed a lesser team. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Bucks enjoyed Giannis Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise into the type of all-around superstar capable of one day grabbing the “Best player in the East” baton from LeBron James. Milwaukee now gets to relish a pressure-free life as first-round spoiler with the knowledge that their long-term outlook is among the brightest in the conference thanks to Antetokounmpo, the odds-on favorite to win Most Improved Player.
While Antetokounmpo landed on the East’s All-Star starting lineup and on the list of the NBA’s 10 best-selling jerseys—two signs that he’s become a household name—the upcoming postseason offers him the chance to catapult even higher. It’s not crazy to suggest that Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are already a scarier proposition in the playoffs than Jimmy Butler’s Bulls and Paul George’s Pacers, leaving basketball historians to hope that his inevitable postseason showdowns with James commence this year. Why wait?
There are some who will rush to label the Timberwolves as one of the league’s biggest disappointments given that they fell way short of preseason Las Vegas projections that pegged them to be a winning team. That’s too harsh. The Timberwolves were a young squad with a new coach and zero track record of playing quality defense. As such, their season wasn’t all that surprising, although the loss of Zach LaVine to a season-ending knee injury qualifies as a body blow.
All signs point to Minnesota making the leap, a la the 2016 Pistons or the 2017 Bucks, next season. Karl-Anthony Towns has become an undeniable force, Ricky Rubio has played perhaps the best ball of his career in recent months and Andrew Wiggins has gradually improved his scoring efficiency. Plus, coach/executive Tom Thibodeau enters the summer with a better understanding of his personnel and the requisite spending power to address his roster’s weaknesses. Sometimes the hype arrives one year too early for young teams. Bank on Minnesota doing bigger things in 2018.
There are some very good reasons to consider the Pelicans’ season a failure. A 1-9 start put the team into a hole that proved impossible to escape. Anthony Davis played at an All-NBA level and held up for 75 games, and yet the talent around him was so poor that the playoffs were far out of reach for most of the year. A midseason blockbuster deal for DeMarcus Cousins failed to push New Orleans to the front of a very weak pack chasing the eighth seed. Alvin Gentry, hired to oversee a strong offense, found himself on the hot seat due to a lagging attack. Omer Asik and Solomon Hill were compensated like impact-makers but left much to be desired in terms of their production. Lottery pick Buddy Hield struggled out of the gate and was traded by the All-Star break. A long list of injuries led to 25 different players (!) suiting up for the Pelicans.
All of that being said, the Cousins trade provides a degree of hope. First, it signals to key free agent Jrue Holiday that New Orleans is serious about winning and that he will have two meaningful talents, Davis and Cousins, to play with if he chooses to re-sign. Second, it ensures that Davis and Cousins are no longer stranded superstars, and that they can dream about stringing some wins together if GM Dell Demps can track down some shooting over the summer. While the initial returns of the Davis/Cousins pairing were less than stellar and there’s always a chance Cousins decides to flee as a free agent down the road, New Orleans should enter next season in a better place than it did this season as long as Holiday returns. That progress, even if it requires some squinting to make out, should count for something.
• James Dolan, the most despicable owner since Donald Sterling, repeatedly disgracing himself, his organization and the league… • Phil Jackson standing by silently as his major plans blew up in his face… • Derrick Rose going to the courtroom and then back to the operating room… • Joakim Noah turning out to be the summer’s worst contract and an anti-drug program violator… • Carmelo Anthony praying that he can win a power struggle with Jackson while turning in another forgettable season and grumbling at every step of the way… • Jeff Hornacek being unable to avoid the team’s fourth straight lottery trip, publicly giving up on his team’s atrocious defense, and continuing to go along with foolhardy plans to implement the Triangle Offense • Charles Oakley getting dragged out of Madison Square Garden by security before getting arrested… • And Kristaps Porzingis’s development being sabotaged by all of the above…
There was only one thing preventing the Thunder from reaching their best-case scenario this season: a win over Kevin Durant and the Warriors. Aside from that hard-to-swallow season sweep, Oklahoma City enjoyed the league’s top thrill ride, witnessed Russell Westbrook’s historic triple-double chase end successfully, and landed in a must-see playoff matchup with the Rockets. The Thunder fan base gorged on close wins and delighted in Westbrook’s clutch heroics; Durant’s departure might have knocked Oklahoma City out of title contention for the foreseeable future but the quickly-refashioned roster held up better than could have been expected. Unlike the 2011 Cavaliers or the 2015 Heat after LeBron James’s departure, the 2017 Thunder remained both compelling and successful.
Is there a hard ceiling on how far this group can go in the playoffs? For sure. Is there a long-term shelf life to this entirely Westbrook-centric version of the Thunder? Almost certainly yes. But it’s almost inconceivable that a team could lose a top-three player like Durant and remain one of the league’s three most entertaining teams. Somehow, the Thunder have made that feat look easy.
At some point, right around the time that GM Rob Hennigan cut his losses and traded Serge Ibaka mere months after acquiring him, pity kicked in. Not all plans work. The defense never gelled under new coach Frank Vogel. The offense was, more predictably, a mess. A lengthy list of lottery picks had never quite panned out. It’s no fun being a small-market team without a signature star trying to keep up with the Joneses. Struggles happen.
But then the Magic made the ultimate rookie mistake, allowing some portion of their off–season plans, written on a white board, to leak out via social media. At the end of a cripplingly disappointing season, this was the equivalent of blasting off their own feet with a bazooka. Pity naturally dries up in such an unusual situation. As painful as it will surely be, it’s time for the Magic to start repairing the damage by moving forward with a new front office. No ownership group should tell its fan base that it’s willing to settle for life as a laughingstock.
The fever dream that was Joel Embiid’s rookie year remains so disorienting that grading Philadelphia’s season requires a list of pros and cons. On the plus side, Embiid looked like the NBA’s best center and the future of the sport for about eight weeks. On the minus side, he missed more than 50 games, never worked his way out of a minutes limit and underwent another surgery. On the plus side, TJ McConnell delivered an iconic fist pump. On the minus side, Ben Simmons’s best play was holding a cat in the air on social media as he never actually made it onto the court. On the plus side, ill-fitting center Jahlil Okafor was almost traded. On the minus side, productive center Nerlens Noel was punted for a fake first-round pick. On the plus side, the Sixers lost enough down the stretch and the Lakers won enough down the stretch that Philadelphia could easily wind up with two of the top four picks in June’s draft. On the minus side, the Sixers are about to enter Year 5 of “The Process” and have yet to cultivate a single proven and reliable centerpiece.
Turns out, that listing process didn’t offer much clarity, but it’s hard to positively spin any situation in which a team’s two most promising talents combine for 31 games and two season-ending injuries. There’s always next year. Or the year after that.
Devin Booker’s out-of-nowhere 70-point mega-explosion validated his standing as one of the most promising young guards in the league and proved that truly incredible things can happen when a team spends months (well, years) with nothing to play for. Why not chase history during another tanking season that saw Brandon Knight’s career fall apart and Eric Bledsoe get shut down early for ping pong ball purposes?
It could have been worse: The Suns got tons of minutes for athletic rookie forward Marquese Chriss, they out-tanked the Lakers down the stretch for the second spot in the draft lottery order, and Booker made steady progress towards life as a max guy in his second season. But when the lottery trip streak has reached seven and former Suns Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic are playing meaningful ball into April, it’s hard not to wonder when this franchise will finally be able acquire and retain enough talent to turn the corner. Speaking of which, how long until Bledsoe and the roster’s other spare vets get tired of waiting?
With all due respect to the Wizards and Heat, the Blazers pulled off this year’s best in-season salvage job and it’s not particularly close. Why? Consider the possible wreckage if Damian Lillard and midseason addition Jusuf Nurkic hadn’t combined to help Portland squeak in as the West’s No. 8 seed. GM Neil Olshey would have surely been on the hot seat after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marginal talent last summer. Coach Terry Stotts, despite his immense popularity, would have been in serious jeopardy given how the league treats teams that regress out of the playoffs and struggle to stop anybody. The possible breakup of the Lillard/CJ McCollum pairing might have dominated off–season discussion given their overlapping strengths and weaknesses. The search for a viable center would have continued while the front office did its best to unload multiple underperforming players on bloated deals. If the Blazers had kept spiraling, it’s not insane to think that Olshey, Stotts, McCollum, Evan Turner, and Allen Crabbe all could have been victims of a teardown. Regardless of how many of those names survived, something definitely would have had to give.
Instead, Portland’s sparkling March puts the franchise in position to save face with a postseason berth and a playoff rematch with Golden State. Perhaps more importantly, Nurkic’s ability to serve as a low-cost, starting-caliber center next season eases the stressed cap situation and potentially represents a long-term solution in the middle. The Lillard/McCollum pairing suddenly looks more palatable if there’s a space-filling, screen-setting big man to help make it work. In the face of this strong pendulum swing, a little perspective is needed: Portland still fell short of preseason expectations, Nurkic’s rebirth was sidetracked by a fluke leg injury, Golden State presents serious matchup problems at multiple positions, and there’s still some heavy lifting to be done this summer to get the salary picture back under control. Barring a miracle, the Blazers will soon be contemplating 2017-18, but at least they will approach the future with their sense of self-worth restored.
The Kings’ season was a tour de force in stupidity. After initially signaling a public desire to re-sign DeMarcus Cousins to a max contract, the beleaguered ownership group and front office abruptly reversed course and agreed to trade their franchise center during the middle of the All-Star Game. That combination of blatant inconsistency and poor timing somehow ceded the moral high ground to the league’s most polarizing player and simultaneously managed to return just pennies on the dollar in the deal. And that was before GM Vlade Divac handled the post-trade press conference with Sean Spicer level dopiness and another aborted run at the playoffs ended with a middling spot in the lottery order.
Obviously, the Kings are the lowest hanging fruit in the NBA. Their owner is renowned for his zaniness, Divac is best known for his total lack of experience and attention to positional balance, their roster now has gaping holes at four or five positions, and their long history of losing has made it difficult to attract draft prospects for workouts, much less free agents. Even if the Kings keep and nail both of their 2017 first-round picks and even if Buddy Hield blossoms as Vivek Ranadive is praying that he will, the process of moving on from Cousins is going to be long, tough sledding. Hey, at least Skal Labissiere looks like a keeper.
Back in 2013, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich openly mused about the end of Tim Duncan’s career, telling reporters: “I can see him walking off the court saying ‘Nah, I’m not pulling my weight anymore, I’m gone.’ And he’ll walk. And I’ll be right behind him.”
What an atrocious prediction. Instead, Popovich spent the first year of the post-Duncan era coaching a team with the second-best record and the top-ranked defense. He reconfigured his offense around top-three MVP Kawhi Leonard, whose offensive production rivaled Peak Duncan, and covered up for the age-related slippage of Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili. And he pulled quality minutes from cast-offs like Manu Ginobili and Dewayne Dedmon and Spurs pet projects like Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons. In other words, Duncan walked and Popovich somehow didn’t skip a beat. Of course, Popovich would be the first one to credit Duncan for making this seemingly incomprehensible continuity possible.
It’s not often that a team whose winning percentage falls off noticeably in the second half of the season sees its grade increase, but Toronto is worthy of being a rare exception for two major reasons. First, the Raptors proved that they could get by without Kyle Lowry, an All-NBA caliber point guard whose elbow injury threatened to send his team’s season into a major tailspin. Second, president Masai Ujiri made a pair of savvy, calculated deadline buys—Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker—that put the Raptors in position to take their best shot at the Cavaliers or the East’s other second-tier contenders.
Make no mistake, Toronto is facing a serious crossroads in the weeks and months ahead. The Raptors failed to duplicate last year’s win total. They’re rushing to work Lowry back into the lineup before the postseason. Their offense is heavily reliant upon both Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two players with spotty postseason track records. They’re facing a summer that will include expensive decisions on Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker and others. Nevertheless, they do so with homecourt advantage in the first round—no guarantee when Lowry went down—and with Cleveland appearing more vulnerable than it did last year. Things could be a lot worse.
The Jazz finally delivered on years of optimistic projections with a breakthrough season that will snap a playoff drought that dates to 2012. To be clear, this was a bumpy ambulance ride, not a magic carpet ride. The following eight players, including multiple starters, looked like rotation guys in September and all went on to miss significant time due to injuries: Gordon Hayward, Boris Diaw, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, George Hill and Alec Burks. By holding down the fort through those waves of MRIs, boots and braces, center Rudy Gobert deserves full consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA First Team and Most Improved Player. His combination of steady backline rim-protecting and improved finishing on offense was central to Utah’s formula of elite defense + good enough offense = just enough to win.
Hayward will be the player to watch in the playoffs, though, as he’s a highly-coveted free agent and an irreplaceable creator for the Jazz. Theoretically, his postseason success (or lack of it) could weigh heavily in his off–season plans. If he carries Utah to a surprising first-round series victory over the Clippers, he’d surely want to keep the positive momentum going in the only NBA home he’s ever known, right? Alternatively, if he struggles to score and doesn’t have enough help due to various injuries around him, wouldn’t he have to consider whether the grass might be greener in Boston or elsewhere? That predicament, plus Hill’s injuries in advance of his own free agency, help explain why Utah fell short of top marks: after such a long trip back to the playoffs, it’s a little nerve-wracking to consider just how uncertain their long-term outlook remains.
How often does a team start 3-9 and endure a full round of “Time to blow it up” chatter before finding a way to deliver on its best-case scenario? Not often. The Wizards have been an especially fun story precisely because their season could easily have gone horribly wrong. What happens if just one of their starting five misses an extended stretch? What happens if John Wall and Bradley Beal never make peace? What happens if Wall doesn’t maintain excellent health? What happens if Beal and Otto Porter don’t perform like Most Improved Player candidates?
New coach Scott Brooks deserves serious Coach of the Year consideration for keeping things together, while Wall has played his way into MVP ballot honorable mention and All-NBA second team honors. As with both Boston and Toronto, two other “very good but not great” aspiring contenders, Washington enters the postseason with a definite sense of uneasiness. After all, what good is a long-sought division title if it doesn’t result in a memorable playoff run?