What a bizarre first round — uncompetitive, yet wildly entertaining. Let’s cruise through our annual list of winners and losers from the NBA’s craziest two weeks:
LOSER: Any Raptor Who Bought Property in Toronto
We know what the Raptors are now: a cute regular-season team that can no longer sustain strong two-way play, and that followed up two Atlantic Division titles — hang those banners next to the Bon Jovi one! — with exactly zero playoff series wins. Masai Ujiri knows, too, and he always suspected; he admitted to me in December that the Raps’ ascension within a weak Eastern Conference might be fool’s gold, and he wisely resisted win-now moves at the trade deadline.
This series was an epic collapse — a failure at all levels. Washington’s punchless offense piled up 112.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have topped the league by a kilometer in the regular season. The Wizards understood that Toronto’s defense gave up the middle of the floor on side pick-and-rolls, and they came in with a simple game plan: Run those plays, see how aggressively Toronto rotates, and use that aggression against them.
Over and over, John Wall would dribble into the middle of the floor, lure Toronto into trapping him, and watch as Toronto’s defense bent inward to contain Marcin Gortat’s clean roll to the rim. Wall could skip the ball to an open shooter or thread it to Gortat, leaving the Polish Hammer to play 4-on-3:
When he really wanted to be mean, Wall would fake toward a screen in the center of the floor, draw out the Raptors’ big man, and then bolt the other way:
The Raptors never adjusted. You had to check the time and score to make sure the Washington basket you just watched wasn’t an instant replay. Toronto could have gone under picks, pulled its big-man defenders further back into the paint, directed Wall toward the sideline, or tossed hockey sticks at him. A wholesale strategic change is tough to orchestrate on the fly in April, but coaches do it, and anything would have been better than sticking with a broken scheme.
The issues went way beyond scheme. Terrence Ross was chasing shadows on defense. Jonas Valanciunas isn’t ready to anchor things on that end, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson are hurting,1 and DeMar DeRozan is basically a random points generator. He takes brutal shots that go in some nights and not others. Toronto never nurtured the kind of passing-and-cutting continuity that would keep the offense flowing from one option to the next. It didn’t have to in the short term; it was the most efficient scoring team in the East this season, loaded with one-on-one types who draw bushels of fouls.
Lowry says he’s healthy, but players say things.
But things get tougher in the playoffs. Defenses are better. Defenders slide further off non-shooters, and if they suspect you don’t have a second or third option in the bag, they’ll smother your first one with extra bodies. Too many Toronto possessions ended with DeRozan stopping the ball and navigating a thicket of defenders:
The Raptors never played the long game with their offense. They took shortcuts, and that’s on everyone. Now, no one is safe. Dwane Casey has done wonderful things in Toronto, but this was not a good series for him, and it’s unclear if he’ll be back next season, per league sources, even though he’s under contract. Ujiri will listen to inquiries about every player, but those expecting a fire sale should remember: Ujiri didn’t build a pristine trade record by acting desperately — not even when Carmelo and LaLa had him over a barrel.
But a lot of these guys have real value around the league, and some won’t be in the T-Dot when training camp opens.
WINNER: The Revived Wizards
What a turnaround. Two weeks ago, the Wizards had stalled out. The young core consisted of John Wall, a legitimate star, and Bradley Beal, a second banana who hadn’t gotten better — or healthier. Otto Porter was on the fringes of the rotation — a Vine punch line. The rest of the team consisted of colorful fogies and two pricey starting bigs on the decline. The Wiz had no one else relevant in the same age band as Wall and Beal, and no one even just a few years older. That mishmash was the price of missed draft picks, poor player development, and get-rich-quick moves.
And then the first round happened. Randy Wittman flinging off the dunce cap and using Paul Pierce at power forward drew most of the attention, but two other story lines carry larger fundamental importance to the Wiz: the play of Porter and Gortat.
Porter’s emergence as a quality two-way player could realign the entire long-term trajectory of the franchise. They would have a real core, not just a duo in need of reinforcements everywhere. Porter enveloped DeRozan on defense; DeRozan shot 34 percent with Porter on the floor and 47 percent otherwise, per NBA.com. Porter still makes all the typical young-guy mistakes on defense, but the Wizards have realized he has the length and quickness to recover immediately:
Porter hit jumpers, murdered the glass, and made slicing off-ball cuts for easy buckets.
Gortat signed a five-year, $60 million contract last summer and then spent the first four months of this season losing crunch-time minutes to Kris Humphries. Washington didn’t need Gortat to be a star, but a 31-year-old regressing in the first season of a five-year deal is a problem. The Wiz want to pitch themselves as an attractive free-agency destination in need of just one more key piece, but they wouldn’t be able to do that with the regular-season versions of Gortat and Porter.
Gortat punched Barney in the freaking face. He shot 74 percent, finished everything near the bucket, aced his pick-and-roll dance with Wall, patrolled the interior, and dished assists at a career-best rate.
Beal is even driving more, per SportVU data, and driving with more speed and conviction — a big reason he doubled his free throw rate in this series. Lineups with Pierce at power forward flummoxed the Raps, and they hold promise in a potential second-round clash with the Hawks.
The Wizards are a team on the rise again. Let’s see if it lasts.
WINNER: Dwight Howard
He’s not Orlando-era Dwight, but he’s slamming dunks, protecting the rim, and dominating the glass. This might be the most important development of the postseason so far. Houston with this Howard is dangerous — even without Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas.
WINNER: The Situational Superstar
We have one conception of a superstar max player — the guy who gets the ball, stops the offense, and gets you buckets. Michael Jordan, basically. Draymond Green is not that sort of player, and an astonishing number of fans seem to find him laughably unworthy of a max-level deal as a free agent this summer.
In the new NBA — the NBA of motion offenses and speeding defenses — Green is a max guy. There are still players who can produce baskets from nothing, and they are massively valuable. But rule changes have made one-on-one creation harder than it used to be, from the post and the perimeter.
Good offenses move the ball continuously, and to do that, you need as many players as possible who can shoot, dribble, and pass. Find one at the power forward spot, and you’ve really got something — a guy who can stretch the defense, suck one big-man defender away from the rim, and plug holes all over the court on defense. A guy who does everything at a B-plus level is relatively more valuable today, because the game requires everyone to do everything.
Paying anyone the max carries an opportunity cost; it might limit Golden State’s ability to snag another free agent down the road. You can scan the league and find guys who can replicate Green’s skill set at a fraction of the max salary: Patrick Patterson, Boris Diaw, Josh McRoberts, Markieff Morris, and others.
But they all lack something. None are near Green’s level as defenders or on the glass. Patterson is a better long-range shooter, but he can’t sniff Green’s passing, dribbling, or ability to push off a defensive rebound.
Green’s only major negative is an inability to hit contested jumpers, but that’s not a huge deal as long as he can hit open triples. Teams in the hothouse of the playoffs exploit every liability that goes unnoticed during the regular-season slog. If you can’t guard the post, teams will bully you. If you can’t hit open 3s, they’ll ignore you. If you can’t dribble or pass, they’ll run you off the arc, force you into the lane, and take the ball from you. Players without holes in their games become even more valuable in that environment.
You can’t run an offense through Draymond Green, but you also can’t exploit him in any way. He can keep the machine moving on offense, and he’s one of the half-dozen best defenders in the league. He’s a max player this summer, especially since any long-term max contract signed in July will only take up something like 15 percent of the cap once it leaps into the $100 million range in two years.
One thing Green can’t do: play center full-time. The Warriors will always need a bigger guy next to him, and they’ll eventually have to pay Andrew Bogut’s successor. But their cap sheet is structured so that every time someone is due a raise, another big deal comes off the books. The Dubs can max out Green this summer, re-sign Stephen Curry to a $30 million mega-max deal in two years, and — if they play their cards right — still have enough money to nab a big free agent at some point during that process. It may cost them Harrison Barnes, but that’s a trade-off the Warriors will make if they have to.
Green just finished putting up 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, and 2.5 steals per game against New Orleans, with all-world defense and acceptable long-range shooting from a big-man position — a position that defines the spacing of the floor. Where do I sign the paperwork?
All of this applies to Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard as well. As wing players, they fit the traditional image of a max-level star. They can take the ball and create their own shot. But that isn’t quite their bread-and-butter, and it doesn’t matter. Pay ’em.
LOSER: Point Guards Who Can’t Shoot
They might be the trickiest players to build around — one-man saboteurs of otherwise-functional NBA offenses. It’s just hard to gain traction on a pick-and-roll when the guy guarding the ball handler can go under every screen — even below the foul line:
If anything, Chicago isn’t going under enough screens on MCW pick-and-rolls in this series, and the Bucks exploited that repeatedly in Monday’s huge road win. The Bucks knew there would be growing pains transitioning from Brandon Knight to Michael Carter-Williams, but they didn’t think it would be this bad. Carter-Williams is shooting 44.4 percent in the playoffs, thanks to Monday’s monster Game 5 performance in Chicago that stands, for now, as a happy outlier. Defenses stuff the paint when the Bucks play Carter-Williams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and one traditional big man — even with shooters at the other two positions.
Carter-Williams isn’t a good enough passer or defender yet to make up for his bricky shooting. Rajon Rondo used to be, and the Celtics still needed three of the greatest shooters ever at their positions to build a functional offense around him. As those stars declined, Boston’s offense fell with them. A healthy Rondo proved unable to prop up a league-average offense without Hall of Fame–level support.
Rondo in recovery has been unable to do much of anything. He’s somehow become a worse shooter, and while he deigned to try on defense again in Dallas, he hasn’t been as good as his reputation on that end in nearly a half-decade.
The Mavericks tried to maximize his skills. They allowed him to run a lot of side pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler, and to take those plays along the baseline — exactly where the defense would direct him:
Meandering where the defense wants you isn’t ideal, but it at least allowed Rondo to get deep into the paint and fire weirdly angled passes all over the floor — to be Rondo. Dallas also called more set plays after Rondo arrived; Rondo didn’t like having things scripted, but Rick Carlisle felt he had to slot the chess pieces in certain places to limit the damage of Rondo’s horrible shooting.
It failed in entirely predictable ways. The offense fell apart, and Rondo’s impact on defense faded after a promising start. It has been jarring to watch Dallas rediscover its early-season identity in his absence — pushing the pace, running unpredictable series of pick-and-rolls all over the floor, and producing a bundle of Chandler dunks:
The Mavs are like your friend who dated a crazy significant other for a few months. The relationship turned them into an unrecognizable weirdo, and when it ended, they reverted back to form like nothing ever happened — like we all just imagined everything. One difference: The Mavs traded two good players and a first-round pick to get a first date.
Get out of here, by the way, with the noise about how the Rondo deal was a risk-free flier for Dallas. Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright are good players; Wright might be an even better pick-and-roll dunker than Chandler, and Dallas didn’t have to change a thing when he came into the game. Amar’e Stoudemire has done well for Dallas, but he’s more of a post-up guy now, and he’s a huge defensive downgrade from Wright.
Some fans love to say the first-round pick doesn’t matter, since the Mavs always blow them or trade them, but that’s exactly the point: They used one bullet in a trade that didn’t work, and they can’t replace it. Trading for Rondo was a calculated risk. It wasn’t risk-free.
For now, the Mavericks have found something in the J.J. Barea–Monta Ellis–Al-Farouq Aminu–Dirk Nowitzki-Chandler lineup — a group that features both a long-armed defender for James Harden and a point guard who can shoot well enough to keep defenses honest.2 Aminu’s not a good shooter, but he has a partial track record of hitting corner 3s, and he’s happy to stand on the strong side during spread pick-and-rolls — a place from which defenders rarely help:
Dallas tried to put Rondo there, but he’s an even worse shooter than Aminu, and he likes to stray closer to the paint.
The Mavs hit on this lineup a few games too late, and without Chandler Parsons, they likely don’t have the horses to win this series anyway.
Rondo’s future in the league is unclear. He has long wanted a max-level contract, and that’s obviously not happening. No team that has watched him since his ACL tear would get into a bidding war for Rondo. Several teams that once needed point guards — Detroit, Miami, arguably Milwaukee — found their guy at the trade deadline. The Knicks run the triangle. The Lakers may not be competing against anyone but themselves, and they should proceed accordingly.
Rondo’s a skilled player, and health has robbed him of some of what he once was. But the league has also evolved since Rondo’s peak. Teams are more attuned to spacing — on both ends. They are more aggressive in simply abandoning bad shooters than they were in 2009 and 2010. It is harder today for Rondo, and for Carter-Williams, than it was five years ago. Speaking of which …
LOSER: Chicago’s Frontcourt and Nonthreatening Bigs
Another way the league is getting smarter: More teams are flat-out ignoring big guys who can’t shoot or post up. Bogut might have been the first big man to really optimize the defensive three-second rule like this — or at least take things to the extreme. If Omer Asik was at the elbow during the Warriors-Pelicans series, Bogut was somewhere else — doubling Anthony Davis in the post, butting his way into a passing lane, and generally paying Asik no attention.
More teams are following suit, in a few ways. Milwaukee is fine switching wing players onto Joakim Noah, confident a hobbled Noah has no shot to punish them. That has neutered a lot of the Noah handoffs that once powered Chicago’s Derrick Rose–less offense:
Noah has also struggled slipping entry passes to Butler in the post, since Noah’s guy just ignores him to double Butler. You can bet the Cavs, facing the possibility of having to play small more without Kevin Love, have taken note.
There are ways for offenses to counter this. The Bulls have turned over some handoff duty to Taj Gibson, who has enough back-to-the-basket game that teams will at least think twice about switching a smaller player onto him. And if no one is guarding your big man, you can always involve him in a pick-and-roll; his guy will be out of the play, in no position to meet a ball handler darting around a pick. The Pelicans hurt Golden State like this a few times:
It’s dangerous leaving perimeter defenders so naked on the pick-and-roll; if they get smushed, the whole defense is toast. Teams rarely risk doing this against Bogut when Golden State has the ball, because the Warriors would simply have him step up and set a screen for one of the Splash Brothers:
But the Warriors are not a normal team. The risk-reward usually favors ignoring the Noah/Asik types — or going small against them.
Chicago’s frontcourt is a giant question mark. Noah is hurting, and Gibson has been in a slump since returning from an ankle injury; he hadn’t attempted a single post-up shot against the Bucks3 before feeling frisky against Jared Dudley in Game 5, per Synergy Sports, and his midrange jumper isn’t the weapon it was last season. Pau Gasol rolls on, but he’s a minus on defense, and it’s unclear if Chicago can survive with a Gasol–Nikola Mirotic front line — or whether Tom Thibodeau will even consider it unless the Bulls are way behind.4
Milwaukee doubling the post has something to do with that.
He did so in Game 5, but the lineup didn’t really make a dent, and it surrendered a crucial putback dunk.
Pairing Mirotic with Gibson or Noah would make for a nice offense-defense balance, but none of the three is fully healthy. Thibodeau has played Mirotic much more at small forward since Gibson came back, and while Mirotic can still contribute there, he doesn’t do nearly as much to open up the floor on offense. Mirotic can hang with any of Milwaukee’s big men on defense, and Thibodeau over the last two games has slowly shifted more of Mirotic’s minutes to lineups in which he plays power forward.
There’s an optimal frontcourt rotation in here somewhere. It just doesn’t feel like Chicago will find it.
WINNER: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Stink Face
It’s perfectly cartoonish, like some casting director told Antetokounmpo to muster his most villainous sneer. “No, kid, go even bigger with it. Bigger!” It’s a ridiculous put-on, but Antetokounmpo appears to be in the joke, and he’s going full-on Method with it.
WINNER: LeBron’s Disdain for Evan Turner
You could feel the hatred seeping through the TV screen. LeBron wanted to humiliate Turner. He played 15 feet off him, not just daring Turner to shoot 3s, but showing him up. He morphed into a ferocious hellhound, swiping for steals every time Turner got the ball against him. Random rivalries are great, and playing the same team over and over really brings them out. Austin Rivers decided he hates Patty Mills, Jerryd Bayless disdains Aaron Brooks — an abomination in the playoffs so far — and the usual instigators like Zaza Pachulia, Matt Barnes, and others are getting on everyone’s nerves. The playoffs!
LOSER: Fans Hoping to See the Cavs’ Extra Gear
It’s a testament to how great this team can be that it outscored Boston by 13 points per 100 possessions and left the impression it had at least two extra gears in reserve for the next rounds.
The Cavs weren’t exactly coasting. They played a smart game on both ends. They milked LeBron post-ups, for which Boston had no answer, and searched out pick-and-roll combinations Boston couldn’t switch — or those, like a Kyrie Irving–Love combo, in which a switch would produce a fatal mismatch. They were efficient, and they made the extra pass.
But they mostly played a brand of defense somewhere between “chill mode” and championship-level — enough to beat Boston, and maybe even win the East, but not enough to chase a title. You know LeBron is going at half-speed when Crowder roasts him on closeouts:
Or when LeBron is dreaming of fast-break highlights while the opposing team is, you know, still playing offense:
Love is still watching his own shot while his guy leaks out in transition, and sometimes he doesn’t even try to offer resistance at the basket. Love should watch tape of Luis Scola, another slow, ground-bound power forward who manages to make a difference at the basket just by putting in an effort. Frank Vogel tells me he shows Scola’s challenges at the rim during film sessions as a model of verticality. And this is Roy Hibbert’s coach.
It’s safe to assume the Cavs have more to give. Love is hurt now, and we got a window during Game 4 in Boston to see how the Cavaliers might respond: with smaller lineups featuring LeBron at power forward, and not including James Jones. The Cavs haven’t played those lineups much this season; there’s no real need to downsize when Love can rain 3s from the power forward spot. Playing three wings and Irving also means that Love is either sitting or at center — where his lack of defense is more glaring.
But the Cavs will need these lineups without Love, and achieving peak small-ball power means excising Jones, a stationary shooter who can’t defend anyone. LeBron can check Noah, Mirotic, and Gibson without any problem, and Cleveland could even get away slotting a smaller wing player — Iman Shumpert, maybe — on the first two. The best chance any opponent has to contain Cleveland is when David Blatt plays Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov together.
And when Love comes back, the Cavs should experiment (again) with small lineups featuring Love at center — groups that could be unguardable.
WINNER: Late 1990s Vintage
Sit back and appreciate what Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, and Pierce are doing in the playoffs in 2015 — both the ageless glory and the aging legs. Houston is stalking Nowitzki, using his man to screen for Harden, confident Harden can blow past Nowitzki’s creaky help defense. They’ve cornered Chandler into an impossible choice, over and over: Step up to help on Harden, and allow a lob to Howard, or sit back and let Nowitzki fend for himself.
The Dallas coaches have placed a huge burden on Chandler; they’ve clearly instructed the Mavs’ off-ball defenders to stay home on Houston’s 3-point shooters during Harden pick-and-rolls, forcing the Rockets to beat them with Harden floaters, lobs in tight spaces, and tricky interior passing — anything but kickout 3s.
Starting in Game 3, Dallas shifted Nowitzki onto Trevor Ariza, an awkward hide-and-seek game designed to get him out of pick-and-rolls, since Ariza rarely screens for Harden. But Houston is ruthless. It’s unearthed the Harden/Ariza pick-and-roll and freed Ariza to attack Nowitzki off the bounce — something it should do more in Game 5. The Mavs may be better off shifting Nowitzki back onto Houston’s power forwards. Dallas has also tried a zone, but even the Lakers think the results have been embarrassing.
But don’t let the Mavs’ defensive issues, which extend far beyond Nowitzki, overshadow what a magnetic offensive force the Tall Baller from the G still is. The Rockets are switching a ton of Nowitzki pick-and-rolls — one reason they have Ariza on Ellis — and Nowitzki is (mostly) doing work5 against smaller defenders; he sealed Game 4 with a one-legged fadeaway over Corey Brewer that made me yelp from my couch. When Houston didn’t switch, Barea turned the corner around weak Josh Smith hedges, slicing up the Rockets until Kevin McHale went to an all-switch lineup featuring none of Houston’s point guards.
Houston’s double-teams on Nowitzki post-ups have created some issues for the Mavs.
Nowitzki doesn’t score on the move as much anymore, but he mixed in a vintage Dirk short roll when Smith was too slow recovering toward him:
The new-old Mavs have the Rockets defense on its heels.
Duncan has been flipping in righty shots from impossible angles as if it were 2001, only with 90 percent less jumping ability. His defense has been as smart as ever, but he showed a bit of age in Game 4, when the Clippers set monster double screens near midcourt to spring Chris Paul (and Jamal Crawford) with enough open space to gather speed before encountering Duncan. They left him in the dust or pulled up for easy midrangers. Duncan’s 39; he can’t do everything.
As for Pierce, what can you even say anymore? I think he overthrew the mayor of Toronto in a bloodless coup and ordered his new civil servants to hang a giant banner of this image in Nathan Phillips Square:
This “I give zero fucks” version of Pierce is incredible. He’s spitting venom at multiple teams, taunting fans, and backing it all up with ballsy daggers. You can’t even keep track of how many fan bases view him with a rare mixture of hatred and terror. Where does he even go from here? Does he start live-tweeting random NBA games and making fun of people, spilling secrets, and producing more needling Photoshops?
LOSER: Damian Lillard and Point Guards Who Can’t Defend
A few years ago, it was popular to suggest point guard defense didn’t really matter — that staying in front of opposing waterbugs was impossible with handchecking banned, and that only big men could really affect team defense.
That was always overstated, and the game is evolving in a direction where it may be even less true. The NBA isn’t a simple high pick-and-roll game anymore — not against the sophisticated offenses everyone is copying. Even little guys have to defend everything — on-ball screens, cuts, off-ball screens of all types. As each possession features more of those things, the opportunities for a defensive gaffe increase. And just one gaffe can prove fatal.
Point guard defense is hard, and a good defensive team doesn’t necessarily need one of the few guys who do it very well. The Spurs have survived Tony Parker, and Curry improving from “bad” to “above-average” was enough for Golden State.
But the real liabilities inflict more pain than ever. Memphis just obliterated Damian Lillard. Beno Udrih and Mike Conley repeatedly dusted Lillard by feinting toward screens and then darting the other way:
Lillard torpedoed Portland’s defense at the point of attack by running head-on into picks:
Every link in the chain matters. A slipup at the top requires more help from a big man, which in turn requires a perimeter defender take an extra step away from a lethal shooter. Portland has occasionally shifted Lillard off Conley, and both the Cavs and Celtics sometimes hid their point guards — Irving and Isaiah Thomas — away from the ball.
Those cross-matches can create more pain than they’re worth. Irving has improved as a defender, but he’s inconsistent, and it will be fascinating to see how he fares against better playoff offenses.
Deron Williams finally showed life on offense in Game 4, but he can’t string together a good week, stay in front of opposing point guards, or dodge screens. If games like Monday’s remain an aberration, the Nets may even consider waiving Williams with the stretch provision — provided they are confident they could upgrade the roster somewhere with the resulting cap flexibility.
WINNER: Spurs-Clippers, Game 5
We have our first massive game of these playoffs. Giddyup.