Playoff Quick Thoughts

So far, the playoffs have been as unpredictable as any, including the Bubble.  We had a sense that the regular season results would be less predictive than usual but seeing Milwaukee get surprisingly dispatched relatively easily by an eight seed Heat team was surprising to say the least.  Let’s run through some interesting questions from the playoffs so far FAQ-style.

How bad was the Bucks’ loss?

Any time a one seed loses to an eight seed, the one seed is not covered in glory.  Nevertheless, I’m inclined to cut Milwaukee some slack.  Jimmy Butler scored nearly 38 points per game and the poorly timed Giannis Antetokounmpo injury didn’t help either.  An argument could be made that the Bucks should have deviated from their normal defense to double Butler more but the Heat supporting cast shot incredibly well from three also (.450% as a team and Duncan Robinson was an incredible 14-19).  The loss was a perfect storm and shouldn’t be taken as a grand indictment of the Bucks as a team.

What does a loss to an eight seed do to the upset favorite?

Just for a little perspective, here’s how past one seed losers did in the aftermath of their disappointments:

-1993-94 Sonics:  After the tough upset against Dikembe Mutombo and the Nuggets, Seattle went 57-25 and post the best SRS (7.91) but were upset by the Nick Van Exel Lakers (of “Nick at Night” fame).  Seattle didn’t throw in the towel (though they did seriously consider trading Shawn Kemp) and went 64-18 and made the Finals in 1995-96 and were a title contender through 1998.

-1998-99 Heat: This doesn’t even count as an upset as they lost to a 27-23 Knicks team during the lockout season when everything was a bit screwy.  The Heat brought the same team back in 1999-00 and went 52-30 but lost to New York (again) in the second round, blowing Game 7 at home.  The team remained competitive until a kidney ailment greatly reduced Alonzo Mourning’s effectiveness in 2000.

-2006-07 Mavericks:  The Mavs were upset by the athletic Baron Davis Warriors, who somehow were able to use smaller players to curtail Dirk Nowitzki.  Dallas retooled a bit by trading for an older Jason Kidd and won 50+ games the next four years.  The Mavs playoff success was varied during that span but they did ultimately win the title in 2010-11.

-2010-11 Spurs:  Yes, the Tim Duncan Spurs were whipped by an eight seed Grizzlies without any real excuses.  The only plausible excuse was that the Grizzlies were much better than everyone realized and had a nice run over the next five years.  As for the Spurs, the playoff malaise was actually longer than just 2011.  Since losing in the 2008 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs lost in the first round two times  (including the 2011 upset) and were swept the one time they made the second round.  The Spurs, however, did not panic and kept the core together (and drafted Kawhi Leonard).  The Spurs then had one of their best runs from 2012 through to 2014, going to the WCF or NBA each season (winning a title 2014 and coming a Ray Allen shot away from a second title in 2013).

-2011-12 Bulls:  This is a sad example because the title contender Bulls were sunk by a knee injury to Derrick Rose during Game 1 of the series against the eight seed 76ers.  Without Rose, Chicago was just okay and they lost to Philly.  Rose was never the same player again.  They remained a 45-50 win team the next three seasons but were not a real contender. 

The moral of the story is that teams should not panic only about one bad playoff result.  Yes, each context is a bit different but star power matters and there is no need to overreact to a single playoff upset (or even consecutive upsets).  Milwaukee may need to adjust around the margins but the are obviously a contender as long as Giannis is healthy and near his peak.

A look back at Jimmy and the summer of 2019 free agents

Hindsight is 20/20 but it’s clear now that the Heat did the best of all the big transactions of that historic summer of 2019.  The Nets and Clippers made rational moves getting Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George but the future is always uncertain (hell, Miami isn’t perfect either, as evidenced by Kyle Lowry signing).  Butler has stayed healthier than the others and led his team to serious playoff success.  By the numbers, here are the stats for each of the players since the 2019 moves:

Jimmy Butler: 231 games, 33.6 mpg, 21.5 ppg, .609 TS%, 6.3 rpg, 5.9 apg, 25.3 PER, .246 WS48, 7.1 BPM, 17.8 VORP

Kevin Durant: 134 games, 35.6 mpg, 28.8 ppg, .656 TS%, 7.1 rpg, 5.7 apg, 25.9 PER, .199 WS48, 7.2 BPM, 11.3 VORP

Paul George: 189 games, 33.1 mpg, 23.2 ppg, .581 TS%, 6.3 rpg, 4.9 apg, 20.0 PER, .122 WS48, 3.8 BM, 9.2 VORP

Kyrie Irving: 163 games, 36.0 mpg, 27.1 ppg, .607 TS%, 4.9 rpg, 5.8 apg, 23.3 PER, .172 WS48, 4.7 BPM, 10.0 VORP

Kawhi Leonard: 159 games, 33.3 mpg, 25.3 ppg, .610 TS%, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 25.6 PER, .219 WS48, 7.4 BPM, 12.8 VORP

Butler has basically played at the same level as KD and Kawhi but has played 70 to 100 games more.  That’s impressive but it gets even better when we add in playoff stats (not including today’s New York/Miami game):

Jimmy Butler: 47 games, 37.8 mpg, 25.1 ppg, .602 TS%, 6.8 rpg, 5.5 apg, 25.8 PER, .223 WS48, 4.4 VORP

Kevin Durant: 22 games, 41.6 mpg, 31.2 ppg, .623 TS%, 8.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, 23.2 PER, .155 WS48, 1.9 VORP

Paul George: 32 games, 39.2 mpg, 24.2 ppg, .563 TS%, 8.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, 18.0 PER, .096 WS48, 1.2 VORP

Kyrie Irving: 13 games, 38.1 mpg, 22.2 ppg, .584 TS%, 5.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, 19.7 PER, .147 WS48, 0.7 VORP

Kawhi Leonard: 26 games, 39.3 mpg, 29.6 ppg, .634 TS%, 8.4 rpg, 5.1 apg, 29.1 PER, .249 WS48, 3.2 VORP

Butler has racked the most games and led his team to, at least, the Conference Finals twice (and a third ECF appearance looks quite possible).  He’s done so with virtual no drop off in playoff performance, which is quite rare (KD, PG13, and Kyrie drop to varying degrees).  Kawhi, somehow, got better in the playoffs but has missed too much time to catch Butler’s cumulative VORP.  In other words, Butler has been as good as anyone since signing in Miami and has solidified his Hall of Fame case.  Who would’ve guessed?

Kevin Love: nexus of the playoff universe?

Many have noted that the Cavs decision to buyout Kevin Love was questionable because he still had value and he could come back to bite the Cavs in the ass in the playoffs.  The Cavs weren’t directly hurt by Love but consider all the things that happened as a result of this decision:

-Love put up 9.8 ppg , .653 TS% (.433% from three), 7.4 rpg  in 21.8 mpg to help beat Milwaukee

-Love took the charge that hurt Giannis, which killed Milwaukee

-Cleveland really needed another shooter to keep up with New York in the playoffs (and Love had played well against New York in the regular season)

-Love is now a key player in the Miami-New York series

Cleveland couldn’t have known all of this would cascade from one seemingly inconsequential decision but this is a reminder that giving up something for little (a discount on the amount due on the contract) has real risk.