Second Round Fallout

Round Two is over and this leaves four teams with time to assess what happened in the playoffs and what might happen next year.  The most notable elininations are last year’s NBA finalists in Boston and L.A.  Meanwhile, in Memphis and Atlanta we have to decide how real these teams really are going forward.  Let’s take a look:

1.  Boston Celtics: Assessing the Celtics’ last few years really depends on whether you are an optimist of pessimist.  Here’s how the KG Era has gone:

2007-08: Everything comes together and the Celts get stronger with every round of the playoffs and win the title.

2008-09: Kevin Garnett is injured and the Celts struggle until the playoffs.  In the playoffs they have problems beating a young Bulls team in the first round but take a very good Magic team seven games before losing.  One could easily envision Boston beating Orlando (who later would beat Cleveland) and going to the Finals again if KG was healthy.

-2009-10: Celts stall out in the last few months of the season before an almost unprecedented run in the playoffs and nearly win it all before losing to the Lakers in a tight Game 7.

-2010-11: Celts stall out again in the last few months and struggle against the Heat in the playoffs (though they played better than a team that lost 4-1).

Now Boston is a year older and they are still taking another crack at a title (Doc Rivers will be back for five more years).  An optimist could view Boston as a team that easily could’ve won three straight titles before this one weaker season.  The pessimist sees Boston as a team that made a nice run last year that was kind of an aberration (few teams have ever made this kind of playoff run after a decent regular season) but was on its way out.  I think the answer is closer to the optimistic point of view.  The Celts were a serious contender for three years and only injuries kept them from looking even more serious.  The problem is now that the Celts probably are no longer the same team they were the last few years.

I don’t know what it is but it seems that most serious contenders who have an older core do not remain serious contenders after they are dispatched from the playoffs early.  This may not be entirely true but take a look at some of the contenders of the last few decades after they are knocked out early:

1980s Celtics: In 1988-89, Larry Bird missed nearly all the seasons and Boston was swept out in the first round.  Bird came back the next year at 33 and was still a very good player and Boston won 52, 56, and 51 the next three seasons with him but could never get past the second round again.  Bird retired after those three seasons and the team fell into mediocrity for a decade.

1980s Pistons: In 1990-91, the Pistons were swept in the Conference Finals by the Bulls.  They went 48-34 in 1991-92 but lost a tough first rounder to the Knicks in five games.  The Isiah Thomas core never made the playoffs again and fell apart due to age and dissension in 1993-94.

1980s Lakers: Unlike the Pistons and Celtics, the Lakers were still dominant in the regular season when they were knocked out of the playoffs early in 1989-90.  The Lakers went 63-19 but lost 4-1 to a young Suns team in the second round.  Kevin Johnson ran circles around an older Magic Johnson and the Suns just generally played better.  The Lakers regrouped in 1990-91 by signing Sam Perkins and moving Magic away from guarding little point guards.  The Lakers won 58 games in 1990-91 and went to the NBA Finals.  We don’t know if they could’ve kept it up, however, as Johnson was forced to retire the next fall and the Lakers were a .500 team without him.

1980s 76ers: After winning the title in 1982-83, Philly lost in the first round in 1983-84 to the Nets and the 76ers looked old and slow despite winning 52 games.  Philly bounced backed to 58 wins in 1984-85 (with a young Charles Barkley added to the core) and lost to the Celts in Conference Finals.   The 76ers were good in 1985-86 (54-28) but lost a tough seven-game series to the Bucks in the second round.  That off-season, Philly gave up Moses Malone and the first pick overall (which ended up being Brad Daugherty), for Jeff Ruland and Roy Hinson.  Philly then fell off the map as a contender for a few years.

1990s Rockets: The Rockets lost 4-0 to a younger Sonics team in the 1995-96 in the second round.  Houston doubled down with vets, trading younger players Robert Horry and Sam Cassell for Barkley (who was not young any longer).  The Rockets nearly went to the Finals in 1996-97 but age/injury caught up with the team in 1997-98 and though they were dangerous, they didn’t get out of the first round again.

Early 2000s Lakers: The Kobe/Shaq Lakers were beat up by the Spurs in 2002-03 in the second round.  L.A., like Houston, decided to flood the core with vets (Gary Payton and Karl Malone) and go for one more ring.  The plan worked pretty well until Malone hurt his knee and Kobe and Shaq began feuding.  The Lakers made the Finals but were beat 4-1 by the Pistons.  After the season, Shaq and Payton were traded (the Celts got the pick that turned into Rajon Rondo in the Payton trade) and Malone retired.  The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2004-05.

So, there is some precedent for being competitive after playoff disappointment but there quite a few teams that didn’t really contend again.  Fortunately, there is some young talent on hand (Rondo) to help offset the age issues.  But 2011-12 could be last call.  KG and Ray Allen are free agents after the season and looking at pay cuts if they want to stay in Boston.  The Celtics are in the position to take another shot if they can find some vets on short term deals (the payroll is quite low for 2012-13) and if there is a lockout, Boston maybe able to parlay a helter skelter free agent pool into some nice short term bargain deals that would facilitate contention again. It is impossible, however, to know what will happen.  What is clear that Boston lacks young athletes (outside of Rondo) to compete with Miami and Chicago and will have to find some youth at all positions to fill in some weak depth.

2.  Atlanta Hawks: Every year, Atlanta improves a little more but ever year, there are reasons to question where the team is headed.  While the Hawks have never been so competitive in the playoffs, the team was only 44-38 and were actually outscored in the regular season (expected record was 39-43).  Throw in an anemic offensive output (20th in efficiency) and the future indicators are not great.  Moreover, the Hawks have invested way too much in Joe Johnson and should never have paid Marvin Williams to begin with.  Now, this will probably cost them Jamal Crawford, one of their only perimeter scorers.

On the brighter side, the Hawks still have a great front court and Jeff Teague looks like he can step and either start at the point or replace some of Crawford’s points off the bench.  If the CBA isn’t changed, the Hawks have a payroll of $64 million with only seven players under contract (JJ, Josh Smith, Kirk Hinrich, Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Al Horford, and Teague).  In short, depth will be a series problem and regression looks likely.   Given how weak the East is, the Hawks should still be a team with a shot at making the second round but without some creativity in adding to this roster (or subtracting Williams) Atlanta could backslide.

3.    Los Angeles Lakers: Much of what was said about Boston can be said about the Lakers.  This is not a young team and depth and athleticism seemed like huge issues in the postseason.  It is now obvious that Derek Fisher is not a starting level point guard anymore, even in the triangle.  But the rest of the core is not that old.  Here’s a look at the core players, their current ages, and their PERs from the last three years (the most recent PER is the last number in the list):

-Kobe Bryant (age 32): 24.4, 21.9, 23.9

-Ron Artest (age 31): 15.6, 12.1, 11.2

-Lamar Odom (31): 16.6, 15.9, 19.4

-Pau Gasol (30): 22.2, 22.9, 23.3

-Andrew Bynum (23): 20.0, 20.2, 21.1

While age is an issue, this doesn’t look at a team in imminent collapse and is much younger than what Boston has.  If Kobe is healthy, most of the rest of the horses are ready to contribute at the same level for at least another year.  The only real problem looks like Artest, who is not a good offensive player any longer.  Some of that is the system (Artest put up the 15.6 in Houston where they needed scorers but dropped down as role player in L.A.).  So, the Lakers should be good if they can add a point guard and some more decent young players.

The larger issue is that Phil Jackson will likely be gone and coaching can really matter with some teams, particularly on defense and with the cast of characters on the team.  Any coach must have a real defensive system and the ability to command the respect of Kobe.  That means no no-name hires unless Kobe accepts them.  In other words, Brian Shaw will only get the job if Bryant wants him to.  The Lakers are also supposedly looking at Mike Dunleavy, who did a nice job replacing Pat Riley on the Lakers in 1990-91 in a very similar situation.  I frankly think the clear choice is Rick Adelman, who is precisely the type of coach who has succeeded in almost every situation he was put in and is a perfect short term fix.  So, the coach choice will really matter here but no matter who is chosen, the Lakers should stay the course with only minor tweaks.  There is no reason this team can’t contend again in 2011-12 if they stay healthy, hire the right coach, and make the right roster tweaks.

4.    Memphis Grizzlies: Sure they lost to the Thunder but the enthusiasm in Memphis is palpable.  The Grizz have a nice core and it’s locked in contractually for several more years.  Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay both will make big money through 2014-15 and Mike Conley has relatively big deal through 2015-16.  The Grizz also have to deal with Marc Gasol’s impending free agency.  Gasol is 26 and has established himself as an important cog in the team, as a rebounder and defensive presence, who can score a bit too.  Above average centers merit pretty large contracts in the NBA and Memphis will have to keep him.  This means that Memphis is gambling that this core can continue to compete for the next five years and that they may have to let some expensive talent go.  The obvious cast off will be O.J. Mayo, who has one year left on his deal and can probably get a sizeable deal on the open market. In a perfect world, Memphis would keep Mayo but, instead, they’ll have to trade him and left Sam Young and Tony Allen divvy up his minutes.  There will be a loss of depth but keeping Gasol is clearly the better move.

Can Memphis improve on its dream run of this year?  Frankly, I’m not sure.  Memphis looked good but they have relied on Randolph continuing to be a force.  While I applaud how well and seriously he has played in Memphis, investing on him for another four years is hardly riskless given his past issues staying in shape and engaged.  Hopefully, he stays on the right path and Memphis will stay a tough team.  Also, Memphis will need Tony Allen to continue to play as well as he did this year.  Allen has always been a great defender but he has never come close to putting up a the 18.4 PER as he did this year at age-29.  On the other side of the ledger, Young, Darrell Arthur, and Mike Conley are all very young and are all candidates to potentially improve.  In short, a lot is up in the air here.  The Grizz are as likely to slip as they are to build on their success but this is not a bad thing for a franchise that has been in limbo for so many years.

Just for fun, here’s how the other eight seeds followed up after knocking off one seeds:

1993-94 Nuggets: This was a very talented and young Denver team with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Robert Pack, Bryant Stith, Laphonso Ellis, Rodney Rogers, and Dikembe Mutombo.  They knocked off a 63-win Sonics team in 1993-94 and took Utah seven games before losing.  In 1994-95, the Nuggets did not improve primarily because Ellis missed the season with injuries.  They were the eight seed again but were swept out by the Spurs.  The Nuggets never got it together and lost Pack in 1995 and Mutombo in 1996 as free agents.  They didn’t make the playoffs again until Carmelo Anthony came to town.

1998-99 Knicks: These Knicks beat the one-seed Heat on Allan Houston’s buzzer beater.  This was the lockout season and the Knicks were not a true eight seed in the classic sense (they were 28-22 and just peaking and would’ve likely moved up in the seeds in a regular 82-game season).  After beating Miami, they made a run to the NBA Finals, fueled by Marcus Camby’s defense and energy and some crazy plays (LJ’s four-point play against the Pacers).  In 1999-00, they followed up by going to the Conference Finals before losing to Indiana.  In 2000-01, the Knicks lost in the first round and they haven’t won a playoff game since.

-2006-07 Warriors: Somehow, Don Nelson engineered an upset over a heavily favored Dallas team by shooting tons of threes, using Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes to defend seven-foot Dirk Nowitzki, and because Baron Davis played like a Hall of Famer in April and May 2007.  People forget this but the Warriors built on the success, improving from 42-40 to 48-34 in 2007-08.  Alas, the West was so good, the Warriors improvement still wasn’t enough to get them in the playoffs again.  After that, Nellie lost interest and made a series of odd trades and created a front office civil war that knocked Chris Mullin out of town.  With Nelson in full control and too content, things got bad.  The Warriors fell to 29-53 in 2008-09 and have been struggling ever since.

Outside of the Knicks, the eight seeds have stalled out after the playoff success.  The Grizz look like they are in better shape of continuing their success than Denver or Golden State but we the ending in Memphis remains to be seen.

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