There were two upsets in the East and there could be two in the West in the first round. Is the NBA closer than ever to achieving competitive balance or were some of the top teams simply not as good as their record said?
Mark Barrington: At least in the west, some of the lower seeded teams were just better than their playoff seed. The Warriors are the defending champs and they did poorly in the regular season because of a combination of title hangover, off season drama, a lot of missed games from their best players due to injuries, and whatever kept Wiggins from playing for the last month or so of the regular season. The Warriors roster is full strength for the playoffs, and they’re apparently using the first round to re-find their team chemistry. The Lakers team was rebuilt late in the season due to some really savvy moves by Rob Pelinka, and they’re just a lot better team in April than they were in September, and the Grizzlies don’t have the star power to overcome LeBron and AD with an excellent supporting cast.
In the east, the Bucks just went into a late-season swoon, and I just don’t know what’s wrong with them. The Miami Heat are showing that one player (it’s Jimmy Butler!) can elevate a decent team to excellence all by themselves, just by outplaying everyone else on the court. Giannis wasn’t himself in this series, and he needed to be to overcome Jimmy Butler’s transcendent play. I don’t think the Knicks getting past the Cavs is that much of an upset, as the 4-5 matchup is almost always a coin toss, but the fact that it wasn’t close was a little surprising. This was the first playoff series for Darius Garland, and I don’t think he was ready yet, but he should learn from this year and be better if the Cavs return the playoffs next year.
Jacob Douglas: In general there is more fundamental talent in the NBA than ever before. These guys have been working with individual trainers on their games since they were in high school most likely. Every year more and more players are coming into the league ready to contribute. This year’s draft features guys in the second round who have less holes in their game than some first rounders even half a decade ago. What we’ve seen this postseason is the need for veteran experience to show that young talent how to win, and great coaching to put them in the right positions to do so. One could argue not having enough veterans has been the downfall for a team like the Grizzlies, who have shown some immaturity. You could definitely argue that poor coaching made it hard for talented rosters in Milwaukee and Cleveland to win.
Jesus Gomez: It’s hard to be conclusive one way or the other. It feels like the regular season does mean less nowadays, so the upsets and close series are not as surprising. It also feels like for the first time in a while the league doesn’t really have any true super teams with multiple elite players in their prime. Getting to the playoffs in a groove means more than wins in December, at least in the first round, and coaching matters. I’m assuming that the higher seeds will clean up going forward, but there is a sense of parity that hasn’t necessarily made the games more enjoyable but has provided some interesting narratives to follow.
Bill Huan: The NBA has definitely reached a level of competitive balance that has rarely been seen, and it didn’t just come during these playoffs. In the regular season, Boston finished first in net rating at +6.7, which is the lowest mark ever since NBA Stats first began tracking in the 1996-97 season. There are no superteams anymore, and the variance that three-point shooting has brought to basketball means that any team can win or lose on any given night. The league is also filled with more talent than ever before, so the separation between the best and worst players/teams isn’t as large. Just look at Miami! Half their roster always seems to be filled with guys they just found off the street, and they just beat the favorites in five games.
The Bucks became the latest No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. Is this failure enough to result in a big overhaul or should they give the current group and coaching staff another shot?
Barrington: Not a big overhaul, but Giannis needs more help, and they need to land a free agent or two to provide scoring punch to take some of the pressure off him and Middleton. I think that Coach Bud deserves another chance, especially after winning a title a few years ago, but if Giannis wanted Budenholzer gone, it’s a player’s league, and they would replace him. Somehow, I don’t see that happening.
Douglas: The Bucks are at a really interesting crossroads. It was reported that Giannis may not sign an extension this summer, which means the clock is officially ticking in Milwaukee. What do you do with 35-year-old defensive anchor Brook Lopez? They don’t have the draft capital to take a big swing at any superstars who may become available this summer like Damian Lillard, Karl Anthony-Towns or Trae Young – although trading Kris Middleton could be on the table.
More than anything they need a coach who won’t put them at a disadvantage against the best in the game. Erik Spoelstra put on a clinic against Budenholzer, who once again proved he can’t be relied upon to make adjustments on the fly when it counts. I wouldn’t be shocked if we see a coaching change and some moves around the fringes for Milwaukee.
Gomez: They are overdue for a big overhaul, really. The Bucks are an old team that relies on one of the most inconsistent offensive players in the league in Jrue Holiday and an injury-prone secondary star in Khris Middleton. The role players are one-dimensional and not athletic. Bud is someone who trusts his main guys too much which is a problem with their current personnel. The current Bucks are reminiscent of the Spurs before they got Kawhi Leonard. They will need to make some changes or they could waste the rest of Giannis’ prime.
Huan: If firing coach Bud qualifies as a big overhaul, then yes, the Bucks should be in for some big changes this summer. Remember, he had one foot out the door in 2021 if Milwaukee failed to beat Brooklyn, and even though the Bucks went on to win it all, at times it felt like they won in spite of him. I don’t think that Bud is a bad coach by any means, but his lack of adjustments will continue to pose major issues, especially in the playoffs. He failed to call a timeout not once, but twice during the most crucial portions of game five, and Milwaukee’s offense looked reminiscent of pickup games at my local gym.
In terms of the roster, Brook Lopez is the only core player who needs to be re-signed, and they should bring him back as long as it’s on a short-term deal. Giannis, Middleton, and Jrue can all sign extensions soon but they’ll be locked up for next year at least, so the likeliest path would be for the team to run it back for one more season with a new coach before making more potential changes next summer.
Which second round series are you the most excited about?
Barrington: I think it’s the matchup between the Nuggets and the Suns. There is a real contrast of styles, and it’ll be interesting to see how that works out head-to-head. Also, I love watching Jokic play. On paper, this looks like a series the Suns should win, but Nikola’s craftiness gives the Nuggets a shot.
Douglas: It’s not the most star-studded, but Heat-Knicks is going to be a lot of fun. That’s an old-school rivalry with a lot of history, and two teams who play with some edge. It should be an absolute chess match between Spoelstra and Thibs. The Heat are the underdog story of the playoffs right now, and have been a really fun watch thus far.
Most of that has to do with Jimmy (or Himmy, as I have been calling him) He is cementing him as a top-5 player in franchise history, and perhaps a top-50 NBA player of all time. He’s just willing this team to wins right now. Some of the most impressive shot-making I’ve seen from a player in the postseason in a long time, reminding me of the dominance we saw from Dirk Nowitzki in 2011. He’s shooting 44% from 3 this postseason. The last time he shot above 40% in the playoffs was 2017!
Gomez: Suns-Nuggets should be a lot of fun. Those two teams don’t really seem to like each other and there’s a lot of star power there. Jokic is always a joy to watch and who knows how many more good series Kevin Durant has in him. Because of timezone issues, it might be hard for me to catch the games live, but I’ll definitely make an effort for those reasons. And because it’s always great to see Chris Paul fail, which is what I believe will happen.
Bill: My default answer was Boston-Philly, but now it’s Phoenix-Denver due to Embiid’s injury. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Nuggets choose to defend the Suns’ pick-and-roll game and whether or not Jokic can hold up in his own end, and the amount of tactical adjustments that both coaches will make is an NBA nerd’s dream. Before the playoffs started, I picked Phoenix to beat Denver in 6 and make it to the finals, but now I’m going with the Nuggets in 7. The minutes that Booker and KD needed to log just to beat a depleted Clippers raised a lot of alarm bells, and Denver’s continuity is another advantage in their quiver.