NBA Playoffs: The Great, Wart-Exposing Equalizer

At the beginning of these NBA playoffs, I was as excited as a kid in a candy shop.

16 teams, most with a legitimate chance to win it all.  Some familiar faces, a smattering of new talent, this post-season boasted unpredictability at its finest.  As much as the NFL borrows from the NBA’s playbook, one thing the NBA learned from its helmeted counterpart is that parity is optimal.

As much as we celebrate dynasties and love comparing modern winners to those that have won in the past, when one team wins too much, we grow tired of them and thirst for something new.

These playoffs promised something altogether different.  While old hats like LeBron and Curry tried to add crowns to their resume, the league also offered new talent looking to make their mark.  Giannis and the Bucks had one under their belt, but also-rans like Chris Paul’s Suns (now with Kevin Durant!), Jayson Tatum’s Celtics and Jimmy Butler’s Heat, had all made the Finals in the very recent past but couldn’t close.  We had up-and-comers like Memphis and Sacramento looking to crash the party, the Knicks and Timberwolves back in the playoffs, the Hawks testing to see if they had maxed out, the Clipper looking to see if they could stay healthy, the Sixers trying to unhitch a monkey from their backs, what was left of the Brooklyn Nets experiment and oh yeah, the Denver Nuggets, that beautifully efficient one seed out west, somehow still flying under everyone’s radar.

What we got instead of a riveting post-season was a bloodbath, with teams embarrassed, flaws exposed, coaches fired, eras ended and a collection of owners wondering what the hell had just happened and whether they’d need to start from scratch.

Let’s start with the sublime, a team that many of us dismissed: the Denver Nuggets.  We’ve recently discussed my friend Jay and his hard-on for efficiency.  You might remember Jay as the one who suggested Kobe Bryant is overrated because he’s a career 44.7% shooter.  While Jay whiffed on that notion, his point is well taken.  More efficient teams tend to have greater success.  At no other time in history has that rung truer than in 2023.  This season, the Denver Nuggets were the most efficient team in basketball, the only team to shoot over 50% from the floor.  They kept that up in the playoffs, second only in field goal percentage to the Phoenix Suns who were ousted by those very same Denver Nuggets.  Denver is plodding, efficient, and cautious with the basketball.  They also rank second in the playoffs amongst teams with the fewest turnovers.  Put those two together and you have a team that has been hard to beat.  This post-season, they are 11-3 and need only five more wins to bring the city of Denver its first NBA championship ever.

They might not be flashy (as much as one can call Jamal Murray following up a 23-point quarter with a 30-point half not flashy) but these Nuggets are grounded, methodical and very well-coached.  What’s most impressive about this team is how close it came to never happening.  The Denver Nuggets are doing all this with a second-round draft pick who became a two-time MVP, a super max player coming off ACL rehab, a risky draft pick with three back surgeries and a player that not even the Orlando Magic wanted.  No one in their right mind would call that a recipe for success but it has worked glowingly.  Someone needs to give Denver GM Calvin Booth a rousing round of applause.  He’ll be getting one soon.  Maybe even a parade.

Nobody felt the Miami Heat would get this far either.  We’ll delve further into my favorite wager ever in an upcoming post, but the Miami Heat were, get this, a whopping 46-to-1 to win the East.  Please tell me that you placed at least a little something on that wager (#SpoilerAlert) like I did.  Jimmy Butler has been so hot this post-season, I’ve read internet rumors that he’s Michael Jordan’s illegitimate son.  Miami is not your typical eight seed.  The teams they’ve run through are finding that out in rude fashion.

Now let’s get to the warts, shall we?

The Lakers have finally hit a wall, with LeBron looking old and Anthony Davis sadly inconsistent.  It’s a dreary day in basketball history when you realize that LeBron James might need to be his team’s third best player if he wants another championship.  While the organization most assuredly loves Austin Reaves, I’m not sure L.A. wanted to pin their title hopes on the one they call Hillbilly Kobe.  (I hereby propose that “Country Kobe” is a far better nickname)

One can make the argument that, aside from the Denver Nuggets, the Sacramento Kings had the best post-season.  Sure, they got bounced in the first round, but they gave Golden State all they wanted and appear ready for the future.  The same cannot be said for Atlanta, who still must find a way to surround Trae Young with talent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who need to figure out whether their twin towers and the rest of their roster can peacefully coexist, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were reminded what the Jazz already knew, that Donovan Mitchell cannot be the best player on his team, and the Knicks, who are going to have to figure out what to do with Julius Randle, who New York fans were calling MVP last year but are calling for his head in 2023.

If you think those teams had it rough, look at the off-season Memphis and Philadelphia stumbled into.  Memphis told Dillon Brooks he would not be welcomed back in no uncertain terms, meanwhile their megastar is running around Instagram like he’s Dirty Harry.  Ja Morant’s Nike contract has been all but voided as he’s been issued his second warning from Commissioner Silver not to tout his second amendment rights all over the internet.

The Philadelphia 76ers, who unceremoniously fired their head coach after he failed to close out yet another series in which he had a lead, must be kicking themselves after watching how Miami has manhandled Boston, yet another team to be exposed as a fraud.  I had this whole post planned about the Sixers, about that town’s continued quest for titles once again falling short, about how it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia, about how Doc Rivers’ failure to convince his MVP center to stop shooting three-pointers when he was only shooting 18% from that distance or why he never slowed things down with the lead and five minutes left while his team rushed ill-advised shots in a game that would have seen them advance, but the point is Philly wasn’t good enough to win a title.  And yes, they gave the MVP award to the wrong guy.  And yes, after watching the Celtics melt down in the series immediately after beating Philly, Doc Rivers botched the job.  He took the fall but there was plenty of other blame to go around, including fingers to be pointed at James Harden, Joel Embiid and ownership for ever thinking this team was worthy of truly contending for a title.

The Warriors were hindered by Steph Curry’s worst career, three-point shooting post-season.  Klay Thompson’s wasn’t much better.  They might not look as feeble as the Suns or Clippers, who couldn’t keep their Hall of Famers on the court, but these three Western rosters are playing golf all the same.  Golden State should be fine after some minor spring cleaning, but the other two teams are faced with the off-season decision of whether to run, or more appropriately, limp it back.  And the Bucks who whimpered into that quiet May night, also fired their coach who was unprepared for the buzzsaw that is Heat culture.  Here’s hoping Giannis spends plenty of time this off-season working on his 14-17 foot jump shots.

Finally, the grand wart of them all: the Boston Celtics.  Having played all season to ensure home court advantage, only to drop their first two games at home in the Eastern Conference Finals is not what they had hoped for.  Getting bludgeoned by twenty-plus in a must-win Game Three was the most 21st century Celtics thing ever.  As with so many of these other teams, ownership will have to determine whether this team as currently comprised has reached its summit while they stare a giant Jaylen Brown contract decision squarely in the face.  There are plenty of other teams out there that would love to have him.

What once looked like a great post-season still turned out to be, but what we ultimately encountered was some pretty good teams with major flaws exposed, and one team with very few.  Kudos to the coaches that made that happen and sayonara to those now looking for work.  I can’t recall a season where four head coaches who made the playoffs all got canned but the Raptors, Suns, Bucks and Sixers sent their coaches packing.  As the coaching carousel turns.

When it’s all said and done, which won’t be long now, we’ll all be asking ourselves which top-seeded Eastern Conference team, the Bucks, Celtics, or Sixers, had the most disappointing post-season… and that question will be difficult to answer.  We’ll see how many franchises start to follow the new trend-setting efficiencies of the Denver Nuggets and the fiery determination of the Miami Heat.  They could most certainly do worse.  It appears they already have.

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4 Replies to “NBA Playoffs: The Great, Wart-Exposing Equalizer”

  1. The best benefit of this NBA postseason is, we can find out whether Erik Spoelstra really is the best coach in the NBA. None of the people you mentioned could enable their players to have a chance against this Denver Nuggets team.

  2. Two undeniable facts have shown through in this post-season.
    1) Since Brad Stevens, the Celtics have “picker problems” when it comes to coaches.
    2) Nikola Jokic is a man amongst boys.

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