The first round of the 2017 NBA playoffs is in the books, and I feel like I finally got to spend some quality time with some of the NBA’s best squads.
Being a passionate follower of an NBA team is a serious time investment, and when you also have other serious commitments it’s hard to carve out time for other teams.
While I wish the Detroit Pistons had made the postseason, their absence means that I could devote serious basketball watching time to teams I normally don’t get to see much of. Here are my main takeaways from the teams who have already departed and the teams that are still with us. I’d love to hear what everyone else has noticed up to this point in the comments.
The Chicago Bulls
If there is any team not to be jealous of, I’d say it’s the Bulls. Chicago jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the Boston Celtics behind Jimmy Butler’s underrated all-around brilliance, Rajon Rondo giving marginal fucks on both ends and a vintage Playoff Dwyane Wade 3-point barrage.
The biggest takeaway from me is just how important it is to have an alpha-dog in the lineup that everyone else can play off of — especially in the playoffs. Generating offense is so difficult in the postseason with so much time to prepare, and having a player like Butler who can create for himself and for others is invaluable. It also helps when a guy like Rondo turns the clock back about five years.
Other things I learned: Wade is washed. He’s still marginally effective, but he either needs to learn he’s a marginal fourth- or fifth-banana or walk away from the game with his head held high. I’m not sure he’s interested in the Vince Carter Career Plan, but he doesn’t do enough on offense to account for his high usage or indifference to defense.
Also: Robin Lopez is underrated.
Also, also: Fed Hoiberg didn’t do himself any favors throughout the series.
Also, also, also: There could be no bigger indictment of the Bulls front office than the fact that it felt as if there were zero point guards on this roster after Rondo’s injury. That is despite the fact that the team added five new bodies to their team this season that could ostensibly play PG full- or part-time — Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan, Cameron Payne, Michael Carter-Williams and Denzel Valentine. Yuck.
The Celtics seem like the classic “They Are Who We Thought They Were” team. People overreacted to their slow start and are likely overreacting now. The truth is they were the No. 1 seed in a down year and are completely beatable because they don’t dominate anyone in any phase of the game. But they’re still a quality team, they are deep, and they have smart players. So they could also beat anybody in the NBA.
The gnashing of teeth about Al Horford has been completely overblown. Celtics fans have been so anxious about Danny Ainge finally pushing some chips in that I think they wanted to see more out of Horford than he could ever reasonably deliver. The truth is he’s a championship-caliber No. 2 player, and that’s just fine. He delivered 16 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7 assists in round one.
Isaiah Thomas is everything I thought he’d be in 2014 when I had delusions of a Isaiah Thomas and junk contracts for Josh Smith deal floating in my head. He’s one of the most dynamic offensive forces in today’s NBA. He’s also doing it in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy. I don’t want to take it any farther than that because I don’t want to minimize the tragedy or presume how he’s handling it. But he’s been great.
Also: Avery Bradley is what all Pistons fans hope Kentavious Caldwell-Pope turns into. Which makes sense considering Bradley is three years older. But to see KCP get there the Pistons have to be willing to pony up max money.
Also, also: Marcus Smart is what all the other Pistons fans are fearing Ketanvious Caldwell-Pope turns into. An effective defender whose unreliable offense is completely exposed in the playoffs and hurts the effectiveness of everyone sharing the floor with him.
Also, also, also: While I wasn’t one to crucify Ainge for not making a big move for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, I do wonder the current thoughts of the Jae Crowder bandwagon right now.
I spent the least amount of time watching the Cavs-Pacers series so my takeaways weren’t quite so comprehensive. That said, I think I we can all safely say the Cavs’ defense is gone and it’s never coming back. Honestly, it was always more surprising a team relying so heavily on Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, et al. were so effective last season. This year is more of what I always anticipated for this crew.
That being said, LeBron James will, of course, take you pretty far on both ends, and it always helps to have quality rebounders hoovering up all the misses (something Detroit can relate to).
This team just doesn’t have it. It really reminds me of the post-NBA Title Pistons squads. Endless talk of on and off switches, puzzlement about defense and an expectation it would all click again.
Detroit was able to ride a weak conference and a much better defense back to the Final the next season, but they came up short. Cleveland could do the same thing with their powerful offense this season. In its current form, however, this team ain’t winning another championship.
Also: Kyrie Irving has been low-key terrible in the postseason so far. He has a knack for the moment so I wouldn’t be super concerned, but it’s just hard for me to get behind a player who is not a great distributor and a terrible defender. No player is luckier for their career legacy to be playing alongside James.
Also, also: I sometimes wonder why Detroit couldn’t just take Channing Frye along with Tobias Harris in the lopsided trade a couple years ago. He’d fit in perfectly (but I’m sure he is just fine with how things turned out).
Also, also, also: I don’t want to project too far ahead, but what the hell will management do if this team falls short again? They’re pretty old and pretty expensive right now. If they don’t do something bold (trading Irving, for example) will they be able to move the needle?
The main takeaway is that the Pistons should have drafted Myles Turner. Whether he’s a center playing power forward alongside Andre Drummond or a big man that could serve as a possible Drummond replacement (flexibility is always good!), there was no better player available in the 2015 draft. Stanley Johnson was No. 1 on my board at the time (Turner and Devin Booker were next as I was never on the Justise Winslow train), and I still think he could grow his skillset to be effective. But Turner is a transformational talent a team can build around.
Also: Paul George remains ever so slightly overrated to me. He’s still a great player, but I just don’t like his offense or defense enough for him to enter the second-best-player-in-the-conference discussions.
Also, also: I continue to like CJ Miles more than most other NBA fans, and I learned just how good Thaddeus Young could be on both ends of the floor. Jeff Teague remains just good enough to be problematic. He’ll have the ball in his hands a ton, he’ll make a fortune and he’s almost good enough at everything so you don’t really question anything. But in the end I don’t think he can be your second- or third-best player on a serious contender. Perhaps we should call that the Reggie Jackson conundrum.
Also, also, also: Even before the series, people were writing the Pacers’ graves, and thinking about where they should trade Paul George. I’d adjust that slightly and say as a Pistons fan I hope they do everything possible to keep them. Might I suggest uniting him with one of his best friends, the aforementioned Reggie Jackson. I would literally trade any combination of any Pistons players and take back any amount of Indiana junk in return to get Myles Turner. Please and thank you.
Simply, I learned that the Washington Wizards are perhaps the best team in the Eastern Conference. I love John Wall. I love Bradley Beal. I love Otto Porter. I love Marcin Gortat. I tolerate Markieff Morris. I root for Scott Brooks.
They have size issues, interior defense issues and depth issues that could sabotage this current run. But when I see that starting unit out there and it is clicking I start trying to talk myself into the idea that they could compete for a championship. Golden State obviously has a lot to say about that, and it’s going to be hard for Washington to work around the edges to put the right players around the core to seriously compete. Wall, unfortunately, doesn’t have the cache of James in getting vets to take huge discounts to make a run at a title. Gortat’s age also worrires me. But I’ll soak up this team as much as I can.
Also: Watching Kelly Oubre is so FUN. He also serves as a reminder how effective a young player who doesn’t really know what they’re doing can be when they are surrounded by the right parts. In other words, there is a lot of Stanley Johnson in Oubre, but when your team struggles fans take out the knives for Johnson and when your team is good they revel in the hustle and defense.
Also, also: I’m still not convinced that Markieff Morris is very good at basketball, and if the Wizards didn’t have crippling depth issues losing Morris to injury might be a blessing in disguise. As it stands they are going to have to pray that Bojan Bogdanovic and Jason Smith can get on a perimeter hot streak.
Also, also, also: Bradley Beal is another player that could serve as a template for KCP. Think back to where the team stood last year at this time. Beal was inconsistent but sometimes super effective. He had huge injury concerns. They were going to have to pay him the max to keep him. They did. They signed a player with a career .080 win shares per 48 minutes (.100 is starter level) to a max deal. Then he blew up this season and delivered .151 ws/48 and had career highs across the board including a 60.4 true shooting percentage. Swap out slightly less shooting and better defense and no injury issues and you’ve got KCP. I’m still worried, but remain cautiously optimistic.
I learned that the Hawks are the least compelling team in the Eastern Conference, and that might even be true if you include nonplayoff teams. I just don’t like rooting for Dwight Howard, Dennis Schroeder would scare the hell of out of me if I were a Hawks fan and I weep that Paul Millsap’s prime is going unnoticed and will be wasted.
Kent Bazemore is more a fun meme than super effective player, and there just doesn’t seem to be a path forward for this team. I don’t plan on getting on the Tim Hardaway Jr. train with everyone else, thank you. The team is actually really similar to the Pistons, except at least you can say that the Pistons were bad enough this year that big changes might be in the offing. The Hawks just seem like they’ll trudge along into oblivion.
Also: Watching Ersan Ilyasova do all the things he’s always done (for good and ill) makes me extremely happy. I really miss that guy, as it turns out.
Also, also: Watching Jose Calderon has made me exactly as sad as Ersan made me happy.
Also, Also, also: Taurean Prince is really good, and if they carve out more minutes for him next season he could take a big jump.
I want to love this team so much more than I do. On paper it all makes sense, especially in a head-to-head matchup with the Cavaliers. I still think they might win the series, in fact, but they don’t have that special thing contending teams seem to possess. I’d say Washington has it. The Raps don’t. Perhaps it’s because all their best players could be described as “functionally talented,” and I realize that comes across much worse than I mean.
Really, I mean that these players are excellent in their prescribed roles. But they can’t take over. They can be schemed against. If you take away everything they want to do they don’t have the kind of game that says, “eff it, give me the ball and I’m scoring anyway.”
Whereas when I watch the Wizards, I can imagine either of John Wall or Bradley Beal deciding to take over a game and getting what they want no matter what, I can’t see the same for DeMarr DeRozan or Kyle Lowry. The Wizards are like a bold, spicy meal. A brilliant chef (Wall in this case) can take a batch of ingredients put in front of him and deliver a transcendent meal. The Raptors are more like a bunch of bakers. It’s more science than art, and if you throw off their ratios at all the whole thing could collapse.
Also: No team did more to address concerns with their roster than the Raptors. PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka fit in so well on both ends, and especially against a team like the Cavs. If this team can take the next step it will because they took Cleveland’s best punch, responded and realized collectively just how good they could be.
Also, also: Jonas Valanciunas is fascinating in how I can simultaneously love and hate his impact on the floor at the same time. He seems to be doing things so well for his team but I get a sense of relief when they sub him out. I’d be curious if regular Toronto watchers have the same reaction.
Also, also, also: Cory Joseph has been one of my favorite under-the-radar bench players for a long time now, but he’s been absolutely dreadful through one round of the playoffs. If he can’t figure things out then the Raptors are going to accidentally run Lowry and DeRozan into the ground.
I buried the lede here because the Bucks, and more importantly, Giannis Antetokounmpo, are the biggest revelation of the playoffs. The Greek Freak took the step, loudly proclaiming that he is LeBron’s heir apparent in the conference. Everything he did on the floor in the playoffs was profoundly exciting and Bucks fans have to be giddy at how fun and easy it will be to complement his vast array of skills and build a championship contender.
This is not a novel observation, everyone was saying it, but that’s because his superstardom was hitting you in the face every 30 seconds on the floor. His defense, his athleticism, his ability to run the floor, create with the ball in his hands, and his ability to get defenses to overreact to every move was the surest sign he’s a superduper star. And he started getting the whistles to match.
Also: They did it again with Thon Maker. Damn it! I’m not sure he’ll get to star level but you could see his natural skills, his growth throughout the season and the corroborating evidence of his work ethic and the head on his shoulders, whatever his ceiling is, he’ll get close to it.
Also, also; Perhaps with the embarrassment of riches and Jabari Parker in tow, they’ll be willing to part with Khris Middleton? Maybe? yeah, probably not.
Also, also, also: The playoffs showed off Greg Monroe in all his glory. He was a great second and third banana that played effectively off his more dynamic teammates. Super effective on offense for the most part and a minus, but marginally so, on defense. I miss the Moose.
2,600 words later, and that’s a wrap. What did you all think of the teams so far in the first round?