With the semifinals underway, there’s more on the line than just a ticket to the conference finals. The remaining NBA teams and players all have long-term questions requiring answers that this round could provide.
Is This the 2008–09 Spurs All Over Again?
I’m turning into a broken record by citing this Kawhi Leonard stat, but I have to do it again because it puts everything into perspective: Leonard posted a 31.1 usage rate this season, which is higher than anyone in the Gregg Popovich era other than Tony Parker in 2008–09. Parker’s Spurs were great that season, winning 54 games and posting the NBA’s sixth-best net rating. But then they lost in five in the first round to the Mavs.
That 2008–09 team was without Manu Ginobili in the playoffs because of an injury. Michael Finley, Roger Mason, and Ime Udoka had three of the six highest minutes totals. The Spurs relied so much on Parker (and Tim Duncan) because they had no one else to turn to. This 2016–17 Spurs team feels familiar. Considering Leonard’s defensive impact, he’s being leaned on about as much as a Pop player can. But as Kawhi has risen, the rest of San Antonio’s roster has also gotten steadily worse.
Its interior defense is manned by Pau Gasol (gulp), David Lee (woof), and LaMarcus Aldridge (do you also hear Shea Serrano screaming?). Dewayne Dedmon has all but fallen out of favor in the rotation. Parker got drunk from the fountain of youth in Game 6 against the Grizzlies, but he’s been up and down all year. Ginobili’s body has already retired, and only his spirit remains. The Spurs beat Memphis, but it feels like it should’ve been easier with Tony Allen out and the Grizz lacking defensive reinforcements. This Spurs team feels like one we’ll look back on eight years from now and say, “Damn. Kawhi led that team to 61 wins?”
In a way, aren’t we already doing that? The question all season has been whether their success would translate to the playoffs. The Spurs had the league’s best defensive rating, but the playoffs are different and we’re starting to get the answer.
In the Spurs series, Mike Conley scored an incredible 1.16 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll and created countless open shots for his teammates. The problem for the Grizzlies was that those shots didn’t fall. The team had a 41.3 effective field goal percentage on passes received from Conley.
Next up for the Spurs is James Harden and the Rockets, who have significantly more firepower and had the league’s second-best offensive rating.
For as long as Kawhi is healthy and in his prime, the Spurs will contend to make the playoffs. But the team is quietly in a post-Duncan transition phase that will soon be post-Parker and post-Ginobili. How the Spurs perform over the next round or two may give a clearer indication of what they need to compete for titles in the short term and sustain their success in the long term.
Can the Rockets Play Good Enough Defense to Compete?
Houston beat the Thunder in five games, but it wasn’t pretty. The Rockets played sloppy offense, took 5.9 percent fewer 3s than they did during the regular season, and looked lackadaisical on defense. Watch James Harden’s defense on these three possessions against Andre Roberson:
This can’t happen against the Spurs. Whomever the Rockets hide Harden on will, in all likelihood, be a better shooter than Roberson, so Harden won’t be able to take it easy defending off the ball, and the Spurs’ ball movement could lend itself to even more open cutting opportunities. Harden needs to wake up. But he’s not the only problem defensively.
The Rockets’ late-game defensive improvement might have been directly tied to Russell Westbrook’s increased usage. Russ was typically out of gas by the fourth, and he was Oklahoma City’s sole source of offense. But Houston also increased its effort late in games, with tighter rotations limiting Thunder field goal attempts in the paint.
The Rockets need to bring it from the opening tip against the Spurs, a team that can hold a lead because it’s led by an efficient, multidimensional scorer in Leonard and has a stronger overall roster than Oklahoma City does. The Rockets are due for a nuclear-scoring offensive game, but it’s their defense that makes the difference between winning and losing a series against the Spurs. Mike D’Antoni would know better than anyone.
Can Boston Hide Isaiah Thomas?
After getting off to a 16–0 lead over the Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Wizards were outscored by 31.4 points per 100 possessions for the remainder of the game. The final score, 123–111, suggests Boston turned in a dominant performance in its Game 1 win. But the Wiz got what they wanted: Isaiah Thomas was defending John Wall, who made Thomas dance like a puppet on strings:
Washington’s early lead wasn’t built on just Wall isolations. It came largely due to Boston’s inability to score, which created cross-matches and early-offense opportunities for the Wiz. Once the Celtics started scoring, the Wizards couldn’t create consistent opportunities for themselves. The Celtics also pulled Thomas off of Wall — it’s surprising he started on him in the first place. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart made life hell for the All-Star point guard, and the Wizards couldn’t make up for Wall’s silence by attacking Thomas and forcing switches.
Thomas is the lone hole in Boston’s stellar defensive backcourt. The Celtics have hid him on defense almost all playoffs long. Against the Bulls, they stuck him in the corner on the likes of Paul Zipser. If the Bulls tried screening with Zipser, Boston played an unusual zone-style defense where Thomas simply defended the corner of the floor. If the man Thomas was defending set a screen on the ball handler, Thomas would just pass him along and defend the next-closest player.
In Game 1, Brad Stevens put Thomas in the corner or on the wing against Bojan Bogdanovic, Kelly Oubre Jr., or Otto Porter Jr. — and that was that. Thomas’s defensive assignment was to contest their 3s, and box out. Simple stuff. And the Wizards didn’t make it any harder. I counted only one occasion in which the Wizards screened using the man Thomas was defending.
You’d think the Wizards would try this more, particularly with Porter. Whether or not they get a switch, they can create an advantageous matchup. The thing is, screening with Bogdanovic, Porter, or Oubre isn’t part of the Wizards’ offense. The trio has recorded a combined 32 possessions ending in a shot or foul as an on-ball screener this season, per Synergy. Teams in the playoffs usually try to do what they do best, not install new sets. But Boston’s perimeter defense is too stout for the same-old Wizard offense. Bradley and Smart are both legitimate All-NBA-level defenders. Jae Crowder can be, too, when he’s playing at his highest capacity. Thomas is the weak link. It’s up to Washington head coach Scott Brooks to expose him.
What the Wizards shouldn’t do is be systematically lazy and simply post up a larger player onto Thomas. It won’t work well. This is what happened when Thomas got posted up by Porter:
Thomas might be small, but he grinds and forces opponents into off-balance shots. Unless a player is a facilitator or a spectacular scorer, the Thomas post is dead. Porter is neither. He recorded only three post-ups this season, per Synergy. Oubre had two. Bogdanovic had 20, going back to his time with the Nets.
No matter the opponent, no matter the personnel, Washington is going to hunt for matchups with Thomas. But the Wizards have to get the right kind of matchups.
What Is Otto Porter Jr. Worth?
Even as Wizards fans are basking in a playoff run, Porter’s upcoming restricted free agency is on their minds. Porter has been John Wall and Bradley Beal’s third wheel: an efficient scorer and competitive defender who knows his role and plays it well. There are other teams that might see even bigger roles for the Georgetown product, and that’s where the Wizards could get into trouble.
One agent I spoke to expects Porter to be offered a deal in the $15 million to $20 million range. A front-office executive thinks that seems low, based on the precedent set last summer with all the money thrown at Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe. A max contract is not out of the question for Porter. All it takes is one team, and the Nets are reportedly interested. The max for Porter will be worth roughly $25 million in 2017–18. The Wizards already have about $92 million in guaranteed contracts next season, and re-signing Porter would bring them close to the luxury-tax threshold of $121 million. If they matched, then wanted to re-sign Bogdanovic and/or Brandon Jennings, the tax would be unavoidable, and they’d be paying it for the first time in franchise history.
And we don’t even know if Porter is worth a deal in the $20 million range. He shot 43.4 percent from 3 this season, providing necessary floor-spacing for the district’s dominant guard duo. But was that a blip or the norm? Prior to the 2016 All-Star Weekend, Porter had shot 31.5 percent on 289 3-point attempts over his career. From then up to the 2017 All-Star break, Porter shot 46.1 percent from 3 on 356 attempts. Since this season’s break, however, he’s hit just 34.9 percent of 3s on 106 attempts.
Porter’s recent shooting slump might just be a small sample. If he hit a handful more shots, he’d still be over 40 percent. But the long-term stability of his shooting numbers must to be taken into consideration. If he’s a mid-30s percent shooter, then his value as a floor spacer is a lot closer to a replacement-level shooter than a max-contract player. And we haven’t started on his defense yet.
There are different degrees to defense. There are top-tier defenders, like Andre Roberson and Kawhi Leonard, who can make life hell even for superstars. Porter isn’t on that level. He’s fine. He hustles. But he has trouble against larger forwards and speedy guards, and stars tend to give him the basketball equivalent of a wedgie. Paul George shot 16-of-31 when defended by Porter, according to data derived from Synergy Sports. LeBron James shot 8-of-15, and the buckets came easy:
Even if Porter keeps hitting shots, which is no guarantee, he still hasn’t shown that he can offer the kind of defense the Wizards need for deep playoff runs. That’s what teams will be watching for in his matchups against the likes of Isaiah Thomas or Al Horford, and possibly next round against LeBron, or DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. If he can’t stop these guys in the playoffs, then what are you paying for?
If the Wiz re-sign Porter, they’ll lack the financial flexibility to make other significant tweaks. Kelly Oubre Jr. isn’t ready to fill Porter’s shoes. They could always look to sign-and-trade Porter this summer. The best path, though, might be to match whatever offer Porter receives and continue building while not being afraid to flip him in a trade as early as the 2018 deadline.
The Wizards are one of the best teams in the East. Though they’re down 1–0 to the Celtics, they have an elite backcourt. But they need to get the rest of their roster in order to make the leap. Porter proving that his shot is for real and that he can contain elite scorers would make Washington’s choice a lot easier this summer.
Can the Raptors Bench Make Up for Cleveland’s Starters?
Cleveland’s poor defense has it more vulnerable than anyone could’ve expected. While sweeping the Pacers, the Cavs allowed 111 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve ranked last this season. These Cavs are arguably the worst healthy, LeBron-led team since he joined the Heat in 2010. Meanwhile, the Raptors have their best team in franchise history. After their trade deadline haul of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, they had a top-four defensive rating to complement their top-six offense. Toronto might’ve taken six games to beat the Bucks, but the team began to click after a Game 3 wake-up call. If there’s ever a time to beat the Cavs, it’s now.
The Raptors have the defensive personnel to switch against Cleveland: Tucker can defend LeBron, then switch onto Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. Ibaka can switch screens too, and they have other hard-nosed defenders like Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry. The problem is Cleveland is so good at getting its guys isolations. Per Synergy, the Cavs scored 1.02 points per possession in situations where an isolation resulted in a shot, pass, drawn foul, or turnover. By comparison, they scored a hair less — 1.003 — in pick-and-rolls. The Cavs were better in isos, largely due to their ability to screen until they get the matchup they want. Even Toronto’s best might not be good enough.
This series might be decided by the bench, which would be atypical, since stars and starters take on such a heavy workload. When Toronto’s starters go to the bench, the team will need Jonas Valanciunas to maximize his time on the floor by exploiting Channing Frye — or whoever the Cavs throw out behind Tristan Thompson. Toronto DeMarre Carroll will need to be Atlanta DeMarre Carroll. Cory Joseph and Delon Wright can’t let the offense slip when they’re spelling Lowry. Cleveland’s reserves are fragile. Toronto’s are not. The edge needs to be significant.
If the Raptors starters play to a draw or outperform Cleveland’s starters, while also receiving a big bench boost, they can win the series. A win — or even a competitive push to seven games — will justify Masai Ujiri’s decision to give the roster the chance it deserved by trading for Ibaka and Tucker. But a loss, particularly a declarative one in four or five games, will raise more questions than it provides answers.
What Happens If Cleveland’s Switch Is Broken?
I think Cleveland will flip the switch and handle the Raptors, and we’re going to feel silly for questioning whether Toronto had much of a chance. I said so on the The Bill Simmons Podcast last week. The Cavs coasted through the first two rounds last season, but didn’t start clicking defensively until Game 5 of the NBA Finals. This year feels different, and I have a feeling they will get into gear sooner. They need to take the Raps seriously, and, if they win, Boston and Washington aren’t lightweights, either.
If they struggle defensively, we will probably say they’re still working their way up to an optimal level. They held the Warriors to a 97.3 offensive rating over the last three games of the 2016 Finals, but it doesn’t mean they have that level this year.
After all, just look at their personnel. Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye all make a positive offensive impact, but they’re all defensive liabilities. You have to be a relative of Edy Tavares to trust him as a backup to Thompson. Irving cared defending only in last year’s Finals. Love is good positionally and a rebound vacuum, but still maxes out at about average at best. LeBron has Cleveland’s highest upside defensively, but he carries such a tremendous offensive workload that it’s hard to ask him to defend the best player on every possession.
Considering the Cavs’ personnel, their best on defense might be just league average. If it’s better, we could be in for another Finals classic. If it’s average or below, they could be more than good enough to get by the Raptors, but it wouldn’t bode well for their chances in the Finals. And if they lose to the Raptors, then the roster will need a major shake-up. Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that it was like “jumping into a burning building” when he was first hired in September 2010, months after LeBron left for the Miami Heat. If the Cavaliers lose to the Raptors, fire alarms might start ringing once again.
Can Mike Brown Coach the Warriors?
“Mike Brown has one big flaw in his coaching: He does not make adjustments in game. That’s what killed him in Cleveland, and that’s what killed him with the Lakers,” Magic Johnson said in 2012 after Brown was fired by the Lakers. “If you go back to every series that the Cleveland Cavaliers lost, and every series that the Lakers lost, Mike Brown did not make adjustments within the game. … That’s his biggest flaw. It’s not preparation. It’s not his defense, before the game and getting a game plan together. It’s within the game.”
That’s history; this is the present. There are no excuses for Brown. He is coaching the Warriors while Steve Kerr grapples with back issues. The Dubs’ system is in place. Kerr is still around. Brown has one of the league’s best assistants in Ron Adams. He has four superstars. You have to try hard to screw it up. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheel already works,” Brown said when it was announced he’d coach in place of Kerr. As long as Brown stays true to that statement, the Warriors will be OK. They still might even be strong enough to make a run at 16–0 and Kerr could still return this postseason, but it’s not a given. I’m worried about his long-term health, and I wonder about his future. How does someone coach a pro basketball team with “excruciating symptoms such as migraines and nausea”?
Kerr has undergone two back surgeries in 19 months and relief hasn’t come. He’s only managed the pain. “I don’t know if he can do this very much longer,” an NBA associate close to Kerr told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski last week. “He hasn’t enjoyed this one bit. Even if we haven’t talked in a bit, I can see the pain on his face.”
Considering Kerr’s health, you could view the playoffs as something of a tryout for Brown. Watch for his in-game adjustments, his rotations, and how the players respond to him. There was an instance in Game 3 when Brown tried to pull Draymond Green from the game after two quick fouls, but Green refused, like a kid ignoring the substitute teacher. The Jazz may not stand a chance, but watch for how the Warriors interact with Brown as the pressure turns up in the postseason.
Can Rudy Gobert Keep Up With the Warriors?
Rudy Gobert posted big counting numbers against the Warriors this season, averaging 16 points while shooting 20-of-26 from the floor, with 17.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. But if the Jazz have any hope, they’ll need Gobert to be even better.
Green had a point when he downplayed Gobert’s candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year to USA Today last month. He said Gobert has “changed games” as an elite rim protector, but that in a guard-heavy league, he’s not able to “switch onto guards” and “defend 1 through 5.” Green’s right, but Draymond is about the only player who can do that. Green mastered defense like Jack Nicholson mastered anger. Gobert will face his greatest test against the Warriors, a team that can entice him to leave the paint whenever they damn well please by using lineups that feature five players who can all shoot 3s or make plays off the dribble.
This series will be decided when the Warriors run pick-and-roll and Gobert switches or is forced to defend the ball handler. The Jazz have a versatile group, but the Warriors are special. Gobert isn’t extraordinary defending perimeter players, and switching George Hill or Joe Johnson onto Draymond or Kevin Durant is just asking for trouble. They could try to Golden State defense the Golden State offense and switch screens, but it could create less preferable mismatches. Then again, if they play the Warriors straight up, the ball handler can more easily drive, pull up, or pass:
Gobert is so great that even when he’s beat he’s so mobile and long that he can still contest shots. But any slippage against the Warriors typically leads to an open shot.
The Warriors are also going to try to run Gobert off the court by pushing the pace. The Jazz play at the slowest pace in the NBA, while the Warriors are one of the quickest. They can put Gobert into bad situations by racing up the floor to cause crossmatches against Stephen Curry, create open shots for Draymond, or scramble Utah’s assignments, teamwide.
Gobert is part of Utah’s long-term future no matter what happens this series or this summer. How he performs will give us a hint as to how they’ll be able to compete against the superteam Warriors into the next decade. The Jazz need Gobert to be perfect — because when the Warriors press turbo, they’re almost unstoppable.