The many layers of the NBA playoffs provides us with opportunities to look beyond the actual games and notice elements about the game that box scores don’t provide. Thank God for these layers, because this year’s post-season has been an unmitigated dud and without the allure of watching the games within the games, I don’t think we’d be able to stomach another 20-point blowout. The course of two rounds has provided plenty of opportunities for observation and we’ve made a list of some. Some are more obvious than others, but needless to say, they present new and fresh ways of watching them without having to waste your time lamenting on the sheer lack of quality among a majority of these games.
You know what’s really happening in the playoffs? Nothing. All the games that we’ve seen and all the games we’ll see in the next round are inconsequential. Why? Because we’re ultimately headed for Cavs-Warriors III. The Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Washington Wizards can try if they advance past the second round. But “try” is all they’ll do because the Cavs and Warriors are just better than everybody else and it’s not even close. Move beyond the fact that both teams are 8-0 in the playoffs and consider the kind of competition they have in their respective conferences.
Nobody in the East can keep up with a LeBron James that’s on the top of his game. The Indiana Pacers tried and they got swept. The Toronto Raptors tried and they got swept, too. Now the Celtics or Wizards are next, and while they could make a series with Cleveland a little more competitive than the Pacers and Raptors ever could, they’re not going to beat Cleveland.
Then there’s Golden State, which hasn’t even played a complete game this playoffs and yet, they’re still laying waste to the hapless team that they’re pitted against. It says a lot that a Utah Jazz team that looked deep and competitive against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round can get smoked the way they did in the second round by a Warriors team that didn’t even appear to break a sweat the whole series. Houston or San Antonio could also make it more competitive, but again, raise your hands if you think either of these two teams can beat the Warriors in the conference finals? Anybody? Nobody?
So we’re headed for one of the most hotly-anticipated Finals in recent memory. With the playoffs being a competitive dud this season, here’s to hoping that Cavs-Warriors II lives up to all the hype it’s already getting.
John Wall is a Top 5 point guard
We all know that John Wall is a legitimate franchise player, but the John Wall we’ve seen in these playoffs has been downright sensational. Years of disappointment and underachievement has finally blossomed into one of the top point guards in the NBA today. A big part of what has made Wall so good this season—and the playoffs—is the way the Wizards have complemented his full set of skills. He’s got shooters like Bradley Beal and Otto Porter to space the floor for him. He’s good a solid release valve in Markieff Morris when the lane gets too clogged down.
Even the league’s growing obsession with shooting threes has given him more opportunities to corral long rebounds and ignite the Wiz fast break on his own. Speaking of which, is there a more graceful player on the fast break than John Wall? He may not have the sheer force of Russell Westbrook, the long strides of Giannis Antetokounmpo, or the stop-on-a-dime-and-pull-up-from-30 game of Steph Curry, but his combination of speed, handles, and superior decision-making makes him breathless to watch on the break. John Wall, everybody. If he wasn’t on your radar as one of the best point guards in the NBA, he sure is now.
Kawhi Leonard is the most dominant player this side of LeBron James
News flash! Kawhi Leonard is good at basketball. It’s a boring headline, but Leonard’s rapid ascension into full-fledged superstar status is happening before our eyes, and nobody seems to even care. It’s the crux of Leonard’s personality—and maybe that of the Spurs’ culture—that he’s evolved into the most dominant player in the league not named LeBron James and still, people will be quick to put guys like Steph Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook ahead of him.
They’re all great players, maybe even transcendent in some respects. But none of them can dominate both sides of the ball the way Kawhi can. Outside of LeBron James when he’s completely locked in, is there another player in the league that can shut down the best opposing player, still be the focus of his team’s offense, and do both at elite levels consistently? No there isn’t, except that Kawhi isn’t going to get the credit he deserves because he’s, well, Kawhi.
The Eastern Conference needs a culture change
Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri got it right when he said that the Toronto Raptors need a “culture change” if they hope to be more competitive against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ujiri did miss an obvious fact about the state of the conference: it’s not just the Raptors that need a culture, it’s the entire Eastern Conference. With the exception of the Celtics, the whole conference is stuck in mud, unable to scale the mountain that is LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers no matter what they do.
The Raptors thought they finally had the pieces to compete against Cleveland. They traded for Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to bolster their front line. They had a core with some continuity to it. They even have two guys—DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry—that can supposedly go toe-to-toe with LeBron and Kyrie Irving. None of it mattered though because the Raps, if for nothing else, are a microcosm of the entire Eastern Conference: win against others, lose against the Cavs. Rinse and repeat.
The Celtics have a chance, but only if they add that final piece
I am making an exception for the Boston Celtics, but only if Danny Ainge finally goes all-in on his assets and lands another proven superstar to play alongside Isaiah Thomas. Signing Al Horford was a good move, but he’s not the solution to Boston’s LeBron problem. Paul George could be though because he’s proven himself against LeBron countless times. Outside of Leonard and Kevin Durant, George is the closest player the league has that can go toe-to-toe with James.
He’ll rarely win that match-up but if he’s on a team that also features Thomas, Horford, and the likes of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder, Boston has a chance. Here’s to hoping then that Boston wins the lottery because that number one draft pick could be something that the Indiana Pacers might be interested in if George is really out of there. Cleveland needs legitimate competition in the East and at this point, the Celtics are the only team in a position to give them that.
Enjoy this Warriors team as long as you can
Steph Curry is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s given every indication of resigning with the Warriors, but technically, he can still sign anywhere. Supposing he does re-sign with Golden State, he could earn upwards of $35 million a year. Kevin Durant can also be a free agent after this season if he waives his $27-million player option for the 2018-2019 season. If he does that, he can earn around the same figure as Curry. So if the Warriors keep Curry and Durant the way they’re supposed to, that’s $70 million on two players next season. Kay Thompson is set to earn close to $18 million next season too. Draymond Green is on the books for over $16 million. Add those two salaries and the Warriors are looking at a $105-million payroll for its four players. The only other players that Golden has signed for next season are Damian Jones, Kevin Looney, and Patrick McCaw. That’s roughly $108 million on seven players in a league that’s projected to have a salary cap of $103 million. No Andre Iguodala. No Shaun Livingston. No Zaza Pachulia. No Javale McGee.
This means that the Warriors ownership group will have some serious decisions on its hands. It could circumvent the complication of the salary cap by just paying the luxury tax, but that’s going to be a big financial hit for the team. The other option is to sign as many minimum-level players it can get its hands on who can contribute in the coming seasons. The Miami Heat did that and had success, but that only happened because LeBron, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh all left money on the table to give the Heat enough wiggle room. Try selling Curry, who’s been ridiculously underpaid for the entirety of his MVP-level run, to take less than he’s worth again and you’re probably better off just packing his bags for him.
Whatever happens in the off-season is a problem for the off-season. For now, winning the title is priority number one for the Warriors. But you better believe that the looming cloud that is free agency is slowly settling over the Bay. There will be a reckoning for this Warriors team at some point in the near future so enjoy this time for as long as you can.