The NBA play-in games turned out to be a good idea that added some excitement to the final days of the regular season and also added more of a sense of “achievement” to making the playoff field.
That said, the actual playoffs still include 16 of 30 teams, over 50% of the entire league. Teams shouldn’t be satisfied by simply making the playoffs. Instead, winning the first round (and becoming a top 8 team) represents a more tangible form of success. Teams that win the first round can safely presume they’ll be back in the mix next year. Teams that lost in the first round may be forced to look themselves in the mirror and debate what to do.
Should they “shake it up” and reengineer the roster? Or should they “shake it off” and retain continuity instead? Let’s go team by team and make those determinations.
Atlanta Hawks: lost 4-1 to Miami
Coming off a surprise Conference Finals appearance, the Atlanta Hawks regressed and stumbled to a disappointing 43-39 season. For many young teams, the fans and front office could shrug that off as natural growing pains. But for this franchise, it has to reignite some concerns about their Achilles heel. That is: can a team be a title contender when their best player is a defensive sieve? Trae Young looked physically overwhelmed on that end again, and the Hawks slipped back to the bottom 5 (26th) on defense largely as a result.
Overall, I’d defend Trae Young to some degree here. He’s a bad defender, but one bad defender shouldn’t sink your entire operation. The Brad Stevens/Boston Celtics are a good example of that. Little Isaiah Thomas had limitations on defense, but the Celtics still managed to be a top 5 defense with him (back in 2015-16.) Back in 2000-01, the Philadelphia 76ers managed to have a top 5 defense despite a small and defensively-disinterested guard in Allen Iverson. In theory, the Hawks can do the same.
Of course, to do that, the rest of the supporting cast has to be very strong defensively. GM Travis Schlenk has made some attempts at that, but it hasn’t worked out so far (with Cam Reddish being the most notable swing-and-miss.) The team isn’t going to be good enough on defense if they roll back this same roster, so they do need to shake it up to some degree. Schlenk should attempt to package some of their secondary stars (John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic) into a 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 to find a star or near-star that can be a secondary scorer but also anchor the perimeter defense.
On a positive note, Hawks fans should be excited to see if sophomore Onyeka Okongwu can stay healthy and develop into a stud defender on the interior. Watching Okongwu versus Bam Adebayo in the playoffs, you can squint and see some similarities there (on the defensive end) in terms of their movement ability.
Brooklyn Nets: lost 4-0 to Boston
Yikes. You can make all the excuses you want, but it’s hard for a preseason title contender to land with this much of a thud. The Nets should be thankful that the Lakers also imploded, otherwise their own disappointment would have absorbed even more headlines.
The foundation is mostly fine here. Kevin Durant will be back. Kyrie Irving should be back for a full season (or his version of a full season, which is about 60 games.) Joe Harris and Seth Curry are good spacers that should complement them well. Still, the Nets really need defenders with size. Like the Lakers, they had to play a lot of undersized 3 and 4 guard lineups that left them vulnerable on defense.
Can Ben Simmons fill that need? Does Ben Simmons want to fill that need? Does Simmons — as a former # 1 pick and primary playmaker — want to be a third option, ace defender, and overall glue guy? Consider me skeptical on that front. I’d suggest the Nets should immediately start asking Simmons what his intentions are and whether they need to trade him or not. I’d also strongly consider a shake it up to the coaching staff. If their stars want to keep Steve Nash around as a figurehead that’s fine, but he needs to be backed up by strong lieutenants like they had last season with Ime Udoka (former assistant, current coach that swept their ass.)
Chicago Bulls: lost 4-1 to Milwaukee
It was a roller coaster season for the Bulls and their fans. They started red hot at 26-10 but eventually cooled down and quietly slinked out of the playoffs in shame as though they didn’t truly belong there. Their advanced stats (-0.4 point differential, # 20 in SRS) suggest that they may be closer to a .500 team than a true playoff team.
Still, I’m oddly going to recommend that the team shake it off and try to recapture the magic of the first part of their year. They overachieved certainly — but they’re a solid team when they’re at full strength. That may mean topping out as a 4th or 5th seed, but that’s still a better position to be in than falling back into the land of the 9th or 10th seed. It’d be too hard to pull a complete 180 and start a tank right now, so re-signing Zach LaVine and staying course is the more prudent play. The hope is they’d have better health and a better playoff draw and actually have a chance next in R1 season. And if not, it’d be time for a big shake up.
Denver Nuggets: lost 4-1 to Golden State
Hopefully you picture Nikola Jokic gyrating and dancing to Taylor Swift in your dreams tonight, because the Nuggets are clearly a shake it off team. Given the circumstances and the injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Jokic and the Nuggets pulled off a Herculean feat to grab 48 wins and make the playoffs. Back at full strength next year, they should be a title contender.
To do that, Denver needs tweaks — not an overhaul. Their defense can struggle at times (particularly with Porter) and their roster has a few weak links (spoiler alert: Facu Campazzo may make an appearance in our LVP column later this week.) But if they can trim the fat and get Bones Hyland locked in as a Sixth Man contender, then the team should be rocking and rolling for next year.
Minnesota: lost 4-2 to Memphis
As an ascending team, the Minnesota Timberwolves can feel confident in their ability to shake it off and contend for a higher seed next year. It’s feasible for the team to strive for a top 4 seed next season.
That said, if the team is going to reach their eventual ceiling (which may be the Finals or a title) they may need to work on some long-term projects. Primarily, they’re going to eventually need to find an heir for Patrick Beverley (now age 33) in terms of his on-court role and his attitude and toughness. Trying to get Anthony Edwards to the FT line should also be a point of emphasis. Edwards has the physical makeup and playing style to draw more than his 3.9 FTA a game; until he does that, he’s going to have some inconsistencies in his efficiency.
New Orleans Pelicans: lost 4-2 to Phoenix
Like Minnesota, New Orleans should feel good about their season and their prospects going forward. After a horrid 1-12 start, the Pelicans rallied to make the play-in field, won that, and then gave the # 1 seed Phoenix Suns as much as they could handle in the first round.
The Pelicans found a winning formula with 3 established scorers (Brandon Ingram, C.J. McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas) and a bunch of young energy defenders around them (like Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, and Jaxson Hayes.) That said, none of those young sparkplugs project as standout offensive players — a fact that may cap the Pelicans’ ceiling. That is, if they didn’t have a 280-pound hulk waiting in the wings.
Zion Williamson’s ridiculous efficiency around the rim (and overall 65% true shooting last year) will give this team a whole new dimension. The fact that the team did OK without him is also a boon to their long-term prospects. The franchise would be wise to “load manage” Williamson when he comes back — going so far as to cap him around 30/32 minutes a game and 60/65 games a year. It’s a plan that the L.A. Clippers did not do with Blake Griffin (who once played 38.0 minutes and started all 82 games) and arguably shortened his career.
If Williamson can come back healthy and back near 100%, the sky is the limit. In some ways, these Pelicans remind you of their new-rival Phoenix Suns. Two seasons ago, the Suns were only 28-39 in Monty Williams’ first year on the job before they rallied and rattled off 8 straight wins in the bubble. Their surge continued from there (with an assist from Chris Paul) and they took an immediate leap up to 51-21 the following year. So yes, this is a long-winded way of saying the team can shake it off and look forward to 2022-23.
Toronto Raptors: lost 4-2 to Philadelphia
The Toronto Raptors may be the most difficult peg to label here. They were a solid 48-34 in the regular season, but didn’t look as threatening as many experts projected in their series against Philadelphia.
Is that type of year good enough? If not, they may need to shake it up. There’s a chance that Scottie Barnes takes a leap into All-Star status next season, but it’s unlikely that he’d be good enough to lead them back to the Finals. There’s a chance they can plug their hole at center and get a little better at the margins, but it’s unlikely that will be enough of a difference to make the Finals either.
Overall, I’m going to label them as a tentative shake it off because they’re not in desperate need of a teardown, but the clock may be ticking on this current core. Ultimately, Masai Ujiri will need to decide whether this roster needs a true superstar (like Kawhi Leonard had been for them) to lead them back to gold. Until then, it makes sense for them to keep chugging along and laying in wait until a big star enters the trade market.
Utah Jazz: lost 4-2 to Dallas
According to media reports, the Utah Jazz are destined for divorce court. If you read the gossip sites, you’d think Donovan Mitchell was already on the Knicks and “Quin Snyder” was already cast on season 28 of Winning Time.
Personally, I don’t think there’s AS MUCH reason to panic as Chicken Little would have us believe. Yes, the Jazz bombed out in the playoffs (again), but they were a good regular season team before that (again.) They finished # 3 in SRS, # 3 in point differential (+6.0), and # 1 in total offense. And yes, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert may not be besties off the court — but their on-court skill set does complement each other well.
If anything, the Jazz may need to shake it off and strengthen their supporting cast instead. Their depth had been a strength in the past, but Joe Ingles got hurt (and then traded.) Royce O’Neale didn’t play as well as he has in the past. Jordan Clarkson didn’t either — shooting only 31.8% from 3 in the regular season. When you don’t have a top 5 superstar, your supporting cast has to be rock solid, and the Jazz can’t claim that right now.
Now, this decision may ultimately be out of the Jazz’ control. If Donovan Mitchell truly wants a change of scenario, he can make that happen. However, if I’m a small market team like the Jazz, I wouldn’t force his hand.