The first casualties of the NBA playoffs have arrived. Both Boston and Toronto were swept out rather easily. This leads us to our first postmortem entry, our annual Playoff Fall Out segment. Let’s take a look at the two sweepees and where they are headed:
–Boston Celtics: The Celtics checked all the boxes this season. They played hard, developed a decent young core, dumped Rajon Rondo for a nice return, maintained cap room, and even somehow made the playoffs. The fact that the Celtics didn’t actually do much in the playoffs is of no moment—just getting there is gravy (though management probably would’ve preferred one more high draft pick this season over a brief playoff appearance).
Going forward, Boston has a nice system, a bunch of pretty good young players, and they play in a division that isn’t very challenging. On the other hand, Boston is still is a team in transition. Boston has no one on its roster that looks like star material. Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Tyler Zeller are all solid big men and all under 25. The early returns on Marcus Smart show a weak offensive player but a very tough defender. The range of possible outcomes for Smart is wide but turning into a star is not likely. Isaiah Thomas is a very good player on a cheap contract and would be a perfect fit as a scorer off the bench on a good team.
Really, though, the hope is that the team continues to be solidly competitive and, at the same time, they hit on some of the scores of draft picks they are accruing and/or that they can use the mix of picks and solid young players to nab a disgruntled star when one becomes available in a trade. This is a good plan but it is not fool proof. Stars are rarely available and, even when they are available, the trade doesn’t always yield the perfect fit like Kevin Garnett circa 2007. So, Boston has positioned itself really well on the rebuild but it will still need a little bit of luck. Still, the trajectory is facing up in Boston.
-Toronto Raptors: It’s tough to win a division and feel like your season was failure but that is the situation that the Raptors face. Toronto was not supposed to be a powerhouse in the playoffs and it is also true that Kyle Lowry didn’t seem healthy. Nevertheless, division winners, just aren’t usually swept out by a lower seed. In fact, since the NBA playoffs were expanded to 16 teams, only two division winners have been swept out in the first round. Let’s see how and why those instances occurred:
-2006-07 Heat, Lost 0-4 to Bulls: That Heat team won the Southeast Division by default at 44-38 (-1.21 SRS) and drew the vastly superiors Bulls in the first round (49-33, SRS 4.52). Despite the large disparity in records, there was a case to be made for the Heat. They had Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, who were defending their 2005-06 title. How do you pick against Wade-Shaq versus Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, and Andres Nocioni?
Fairly easily, apparently. There were certainly hints of issues for Miami, as the Bulls went 3-1 versus the Heat in the regular season, including a memorable opening night win over Miami by the score of 108-66. The last regular season meeting, though, was a 103-70 win for Miami, which some felt indicated that the Heat had been playing possum and would be tougher in the playoffs, sort of like Shaq’s 2000-01 Lakers. Alas, there was no possum playing here. The Heat couldn’t guard Deng and Gordon, who scored a combined 207 points in the four-game series (averaging 26.3 ppg and 25.5 ppg respectively). The lopsided sweep ended the “force of nature” portion of Shaq’s career and he was never considered a game changer afterwards. The Heat bottomed out at 15-67 the next year, before retooling with LeBron and Chis Bosh in the summer of 2009.
-1988-89 Jazz, Lost 0-3 to Warriors: The 1988-89 Jazz were supposed to be a breakthrough team. They had taken the Showtime Lakers to the brink in the second round of the 1987-88 playoffs and they followed up with a 51-31 season. This was, at the time, the best record in Utah history. They had the number one defense in the NBA, thanks to Mark Eaton and his four blocks per game, as well as the young Stockton-Malone core. After winning the division at 51-31, Utah met a high scoring but mediocre Warriors teams in the first round (they were 43-39 but were actually outscored for the season).
The Warriors did not exactly stop Karl Malone (30.7 ppg, 16.3 rpg) or John Stockton (27. 3 ppg, 13.7 apg) but they did outscore them. Chris Mullin (32.7 ppg) and Mitch Richmond (25.7 ppg) counterbalanced Stockton and Malone and GS got much more out of the secondary players. Terry Teagle had 19.3 ppg and Rod Higgins and Winston Garland both put up 14 ppg, while Utah’s second fiddles were less effective (the only scorers of note were Darrell Griffith at 15.3 ppg, and Thurl Bailey at 12.0 ppg).
Don Nelson also neutralized Eaton’s shot blocking strength with a typical Nellie wacky lineup. The lineup that played the most minutes for GS had 6’7 small forward Higgins playing center and the rest of the lineup was even shorter. To keep Eaton out of the middle, Higgins stayed on the perimeter and shot 17 three pointers in three games. That was a ton of threes in the context of the 1988-89 NBA (Michael Adams led the NBA with 6.1 threes per game that season). Somehow Higgins also even grabbed 10 rebounds per game (his career-high in a season was 5.1 rpg). Eaton blocked only two shots in the three games. The lesson is that sometimes Nelson’s crazy match up strategies worked.
Utah kept the core together and won 55 games in 1989-90 but, again, lost in the first round. The Jazz were not discouraged by these playoff failures and the Stockton-Malone group would make the Conference Finals in five of the next seven seasons.
Turning back to the Raptors, like the old Jazz, they should not be too distressed about another bad playoff outcome. While DeRozan/Lowry isn’t exactly Stockton-Malone, the Raptors are pretty good. Toronto may not be a title team but there is no reason to rebuild. The Raptors, though, will have to address the alarming drop in defensive efficiency (the Greivis Vasquez/Lou Williams backcourt was particularly weak). A defensive anchor in the backcourt is necessary but this can be easily addressed in the draft/free agency and by some coaching adjustments. The Atlantic Division is wide open and the Raptors are still the favorites to win it next year but some corrections need to be made.