We don’t really write a lot about the NBA here. We ranked the teams during the preseason, but that was the last time that we did anything. We covered a couple of big personnel moves along the way – including the one that would have a direct impact on this series – but as a site that was born out of football (and the non-American version at that), we just haven’t been able to find a lot of time to write about basketball.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t watch or pay attention when we have a league-shifting event like the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA title. It was the first champion for a Canadian team in the NBA (in a sport created by a Canadian, as Commissioner Adam Silver reminded us last night), but events in the playoffs, and the season as a whole, could have major implications next season and beyond. Here’s a look at a couple of thoughts on the just completed NBA season:
Stop Waiting for the Warriors Dynasty to End
When the current version Golden State Warriors won their first title in 2015, it seems that the rest of the NBA seemingly pressed pause on their title chances. Some teams avoided taking the big swing on players, pretty much punting the season to the Warriors every year for the past four, and the Warriors have been overwhelming favorites to win the title in the preseason the last for seasons. As a result, the Warriors went on one of the most inevitable runs in league history.
They’ve had some bumps along the way – a 73-win season followed by a loss in the 2016 Finals immediately comes to mind – but for the most part, the Warriors were dominant. In this postseason, it didn’t seem much different, and they entered the Finals coming off a 4-0 sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, though without all-world player Kevin Durant (except for 12 minutes in Game 5).
The Raptors, meanwhile, had to fight through the surprisingly tough Eastern Conference, needing a lucky bounce to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the second round, and had to play six games against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. They didn’t get as much rest as the Warriors in advance of the Finals, but nevertheless won Game 1 (and three of the first four).
This Finals showed that waiting for the Warriors dynasty to end wasn’t the best way to win your own title. The Houston Rockets seemed willing to go toe-to-toe the past couple of seasons, only to be undone by injuries (or poor play) before toppling the monster. Teams like the Boston Celtics had the resources to potentially acquire Anthony Davis during the season, but were unwilling to part with their young players for what could have been 18 months of one of the better players in the league (though the Celtics had other issues during the season).
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri took a huge swing before the season, trading for Kawhi Leonard after he had only played nine games the prior season. Ujiri likely knew that Leonard was gone after the season, but with LeBron James heading west prior to the season, the Eastern Conference was wide open. If Leonard could return to his pre-injury form, or even 80% of that, the Raptors could compete, and they definitely did.
It’s hard to know what this Finals would have looked like had the Warriors had Durant the entire series, or Klay Thompson for Game 3 and the final quarter of Game 6. But I don’t say that to take away from the Raptors’ title at all; they made the moves to prepare themselves for an opening in the finals – just like the Cleveland Cavaliers taking advantage of Draymond Green’s suspension in 2016 – and came out on top. Maybe that will convince other teams to stop being so scared of the “best team” before the season, and instead build a team that they think can win at the end of the season.
The Top Could be Vastly Different Next Season
The NBA “Final Four” could likely feature a 75% turnover next season… or it could be the exact same. But this upcoming offseason is going to be one for the ages – just like seemingly every offseason seems to be.
In the East, Toronto has the likely departure of Kawhi Leonard to deal with, though Pascal Siakam seems to be poised to step into his shoes should he leave. But other important players from the title team will be one year older, and have some looming contract decisions. It’s likely the Raptors won’t enter the season as favorites to win the East, let alone repeat as NBA Champions.
The team that took them to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals could also be a different team. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the likely league MVP this season, will be back, but the team around him could be different. Khris Middleton will likely opt-out and look for more money, either from the Bucks or elsewhere, and some other role players are at the end of their contracts.
Out West, the Warriors will be different regardless of the free agency decision of Kevin Durant. He’s out for the season after rupturing his Achilles in Game 5, so even if he were to “opt-in,” he’s not playing for the Warriors next season. Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6 and will miss most (if not all) of next regular season, so the Warriors will be down a Splash Brother. He’s also a free agent (though expected to re-sign). Not counting Durant, the Warriors only have seven players under contract for next season, so the team will definitely look a lot different next season.
The team they swept will likely be mostly intact, with most of the team under contract for next season. Plus, they will be boosted by the return of Jusuf Nurkic, who went down with a knee injury in the spring. But with a lot of moving parts elsewhere in the league, will it be enough for them to stay at the top of the conference?
This season, 11 playoff teams repeated from the prior season (five in the East and six in the West). How many of this season’s 16 playoff teams will repeat next season? Will the offseason player movement dramatically change the immediate futures of more than five teams?
The Warriors Dynasty Was Still a Success
Even though it seems to be at a premature end – even without Durant next season, they could have been a favorite out West – the Warriors dynasty is seemingly at an end. But they still won three titles in five seasons, and made it to five straight finals out of the (supposedly) much more difficult Western Conference.
They should be in the mix again next season, but the biggest impact from this run could be the change that their style of play had on the league. The constant switching on defense was a thing long before the Warriors made it mainstream, but it seems to be the default defensive style of a majority of the league now. Shooting three-pointers have been a thing for nearly 40 years, but nobody did so with as much frequency – and accuracy – as this version of the Warriors.
In the 1998 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz combined for 148 three-point attempts over their six game series. In this year’s Finals, the teams combined for 148 made three-pointers. They were also more accurate; in that 1998 Finals, the teams made only 39 of those shots, good for 26.4%. The Raptors and Warriors attempted 407, so they made 36.3%.
But you don’t need to go back 20 years to find those discrepancies. Five years ago, when the San Antonio Spurs defeated LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the teams combined for 234 three-point attempts (albeit over five games). On a per game basis that works out to 47 attempts combined per game; the Raptors and Warriors average is 67 combined attempts per game. The three-pointer has become a major part of the game, and the teams that don’t shoot them – or can’t defend against them – have struggled in the new NBA. The Warriors weren’t the first to focus on three-point shooting – the 1995 Orlando Magic come to mind for a different era, among others – but the Warriors definitely heralded its arrival over the past five seasons, and changed the league for the better.
This NBA Finals could be remembered for the injuries to the Warriors, or as an odd Toronto Raptors championship that doesn’t make sense a decade later (much like the 2004 Detroit Pistons win over the Los Angeles Lakers). But if Leonard returns, or Anthony Davis is traded to the Lakers, or Kyrie Irving moves to a winner, or… or… or… next season can’t come soon enough.
The NBA draft is quick upon us, with perhaps the next generational talent (Zion Williamson) to join the league, perhaps to a team (the New Orleans Pelicans) destined to lose its current star (Anthony Davis). And not long after that, the annual shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic begins when free agency opens on July 1st. The league has never been in as much turmoil as it is at the moment, but it’s also the reason why the league has become the 12-month league it is now.
It’s been fun. On to the draft. And free agency. And next season in a little over four months.
Until next time…