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Lessons From the First Round of the NBA Playoffs

Indiana’s future is bright, Milwaukee’s is in danger, and LeBron’s superhuman performances will be enough until proved otherwise

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the second round of the 2018 NBA playoffs in full swing, here are eight lessons from the first round that will take us through the playoffs and into the offseason:

LeBron’s Best Was Just Good Enough Against Indiana. What’s Left in His Tank for Toronto?

“I’m burnt right now. I’m not thinking about Toronto,” LeBron James said at the podium after his Cavaliers defeated the Pacers to advance to the second round against the Raptors. “I’m ready to go home. I’m tired. I wanna go home.” And to think it’s still only April. Before Sunday, LeBron-led teams had never played in a Game 7 in the first round; they’d swept five consecutive first-round opponents, and before this month had a 48-7 all-time record in opening series (which, extrapolated over an 82-game season, would be the win percentage of a 72-win team).

This Cavs season has felt different all along, and the playoffs are no different. Their old and slow roster forced a trade-deadline overhaul that netted George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. But it’s clear now that many of us overreacted to the Cavs acquiring a past-his-prime point guard, an injury-prone wing, an unreliable scoring guard, and an inexperienced big. The newbies played a combined 50 minutes in Game 7 (only seven more than LeBron). It was worth the risk — they had to alleviate the pressure on James, which unfortunately just hasn’t happened. LeBron was legitimately tired in Game 7; he started cramping at the end of the third quarter and had to rest for five minutes of game action even though at the outset he seemed prepared to play the whole game.

For the first time this decade, a LeBron-led team feels like an underdog in the East. If there’s any player who can carry a weak roster to the Finals, it’s LeBron (he’s already done it multiple times over his historic career). LeBron’s first-round numbers—34.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 7.7 assists—rank among his best ever for a series. Yet after another all-time performance, his team still only sneaked by the Pacers.

It doesn’t bode well this time around, when the East is stronger than it has been in years. The Raptors will be a stiffer opponent than the Pacers were. They have two creators, not one, in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Their bench is deeper, and they were one of the most consistently great teams in the NBA this season. Their playoff experience should come in handy, and the fact they have home-court advantage is another boost.

LeBron needs help. Kevin Love had his best game of the postseason on Sunday, yet he was still only 5-for-13 for 14 points and committed five fouls. Tristan Thompson was a difference-maker, but he may not have as much success against the Raptors’ frontcourt. The odds are it’ll all be on LeBron again, which means Toronto’s defense—especially rookie forward OG Anunoby—will have to play the series of its life. Anunoby was the primary defender against James during the regular season, defending him for 106 of 215 total possessions. If Anunoby has success, the series is a wrap for the Raptors. James gives Cleveland a chance, but he is also a 33-year-old coming off seven straight Finals appearances who just played a full 82-game regular season for the first time in his career. Everything—his competition, his fatigue, his teammates—seems to be stacked against him. The odds have never been steeper. What else does he have to give?

Trapping Defenses Shaped the First Round. They Won’t Shape the Second.

Various NBA teams aggressively trapped pick-and-rolls to take the ball out of the hands of superstars in the first round of the postseason, which has been a fascinating trend to watch. The Pelicans did it against Blazers guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum:

It worked for New Orleans. The Blazers were smothered and ended up getting swept. The Cavaliers also trapped Victor Oladipo and the Pacers:

Indiana took Cleveland to the brink, but the Cavaliers effectively took the ball out of Oladipo’s hands. Had Oladipo been given the room to operate, it’s conceivable the series would’ve gone differently. But the Pacers didn’t have enough secondary playmakers to make the Cavaliers pay, and the team oddly did not opt to set higher screens for Oladipo, which would have given their star more space to attack.

The Thunder didn’t go full trap against the Jazz, but they did aggressively blitz and hedge screens. It didn’t work.

The Thunder audibled to switching screens during Game 5 since the Jazz picked them apart with ball movement. That’s the key to beating the trapping scheme. In other words, teams are asking for trouble if they trap the Warriors, who have dynamic playmakers at every position, but forcing the ball out of a lead guard’s hands when Jusuf Nurkic or Myles Turner is the screener is a different story. The Blazers and Pacers didn’t have forwards or centers comfortable creating for others on the move, which sunk both teams. The Jazz, on the other hand, survived because they run a system built to beat the scheme.

NBA executives and coaches I chatted with don’t think teams will trap the pick-and-roll more frequently moving forward. The talent and versatility of second-round teams is too great. The Raptors could conceivably do it against LeBron, but that’d run counter to their typical style of dropping the big man (Jonas Valanciunas or Jakob Poeltl) into the paint. It would take the form of a countermove, not a base strategy. Both the Sixers and Celtics move the ball too well to frequently utilize it, and their standard defenses are stout enough as is. The Jazz don’t trap because they have Rudy Gobert, and same goes for the Rockets with Clint Capela. The one team that could still utilize it is the Pelicans; in Game 1, New Orleans was slightly less aggressive defensively and had moderate success defending Golden State pick-and-rolls.

Even if it doesn’t play a role in the series to come, it played a big part in where we are now. These are the types of team-specific wrinkles in the game that can emerge in a seven-game series.

There Is No Catch-All Solution for the Bucks

Bucks interim head coach Joe Prunty looked like he was over his head during the Bucks’ seven-game series loss to the Celtics. He often failed to adjust quickly enough to strategic shifts that Celtics coach Brad Stevens had imposed, and he occasionally made adjustments that bordered on nonsensical. (Why would any team in 2018 feature a lineup with both Jason Terry and Shabazz Muhammad on the floor at the same time? In a Game 7, no less?) NBA Twitter made Prunty the butt of its jokes. He’s been made fun of for his large suits and ties. He’s been called Smithers from The Simpsons. Some of my coworkers called Prunty a substitute teacher. But the bigger issue is the students.

Aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was his usual self, and Khris Middleton, who performed like an All-NBA player, the Bucks got little from the rest of their roster. Even if Prunty were to have shortened the rotation to only eight players, it’d still have included either underdeveloped young players without a playoff-ready skill set or overpaid veterans who don’t quite fit around Antetokounmpo. Prunty made critical mistakes, but the team lacks depth and talent because of poor personnel decisions the past few seasons. Even Gregg Popovich could do only so much with his roster. There are big decisions ahead for the front office.

The Bucks have $98 million in guaranteed salary on the books for the 2018-19 season and have little to speak of in terms of assets and flexibility due to bloated contracts and past mistakes. John Henson, Tony Snell, and Matthew Dellavedova will earn a combined $29.7 million in 2019-20. The sins of the past—Spencer Hawes, Larry Sanders, Mirza Teletovic—were all bought out and will be paid through at least the 2019-20 season. They traded a protected 2019 first for Eric Bledsoe, who was a bust with his lackadaisical off-ball defense and poor shot selection. Jabari Parker could be a goner, and even if he stays, his fit next to Antetokounmpo is questionable due to his defensive limitations. Malcolm Brogdon, D.J. Wilson, and Sterling Brown likely project as role players. Thon Maker flashed his two-way upside against the Celtics but needs to start reaching it more consistently. They need to nail their no. 17 pick in 2018. They need shooting. They need competent defenders. They need rim protection. They need rebounding. Antetokounmpo also needs to get better as a shooter so that teams can’t neutralize him like the Celtics did by clogging the lane and forcing him into fadeaways from midrange.

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2017, ex-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin discussed the idea of taking advantage of a window to build around LeBron James, and he said something that can apply to the Bucks and Antetokounmpo. “We’re only going to be remembered for tarnishing LeBron’s legacy,” Griffin said. “We’re not going to be remembered for being part of building it. We’ve been given like a sacred trust in this guy and it’s our job to win right now.”

The Bucks are feeling that pressure now. Antetokounmpo will be a free agent in 2021, which will be here before we know it.

It’s Time for Wall and Russ to Switch Things Up

“I put the pressure on myself because I am that franchise guy. I am the guy that has to be the leader of the team, that has to get everybody better, make everybody better on my team,” John Wall told reporters a day after the Wizards were eliminated in the first round by the Raptors. “At the same time, if I’m doing my part, the other 14 guys on my team have to do their part at getting better every year.”

Wall is an extraordinary point guard who undoubtedly is responsible for nearly all of Washington’s success this decade. But he’s not exempt from criticism when he’s slumped over and putting his hands on his knees for an entire possession.

Sure, Wall returned from an injury layoff with only seven games left in the regular season and understandably wasn’t in tip-top basketball conditioning. But it’s not uncommon for him to stand stationary off the ball. Earlier this season, ESPN’s Zach Lowe published a Second Spectrum stat that stated Wall led all rotation players in time spent either standing still or walking.

The Wizards are at their best when both the ball and players are moving; there was something to the “everybody eats” Wizards playing without Wall, but it was obviously unsustainable since the Wall-less team lacked the star power necessary for long-term success. They need Wall to be a more active off-the-ball cutter and screener to create more scoring and playmaking opportunities for Bradley Beal and his other teammates. If Wall adapts, he’d probably help his half-court scoring efficiency, which routinely ranks in the bottom third of the league, per Synergy Sports.

I’ve written about this time and time again with regard to Russell Westbrook, which is still true to this day, but ball-dominant point guards can remain forces while relinquishing some control. There’s no harm in making defenses suffer with cuts, screens, and spot-up 3s.

The Celtics Might Need a Full Ojeleye

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said his team wouldn’t have won its first-round series against the Bucks if it weren’t for the defense of rookie second-rounder Semi Ojeleye. Boston deployed Ojeleye against Antetokounmpo, and the rookie used his chiseled frame to keep the Greek Freak out of the lane.

Ojeleye will continue to play an important role for the Celtics against the Sixers. Boston threw a lot of different looks at Ben Simmons during the regular season. Sometimes the Celtics sagged off of him, like the Heat did in Game 1, and got burned. Sometimes they pressured him, like the Heat did after Game 1, and still got burned. Simmons, despite lacking a jump shot, is the primary source of Philadelphia’s offense, and it’s on Boston to figure out how to stop him.

The Celtics had mixed success against Simmons during the regular season using a wide range of players: Ojeleye, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. Simmons is quicker and a better ball handler and passer than Antetokounmpo, plus his teammates are far superior. It won’t be easy for the Celtics—the Sixers are favored and are my pick to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. But Ojeleye at least gives the Celtics another switchable body that can alternate between Simmons, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid. They’ll need every bit they can get from him.

Carmelo Puts the Thunder’s Future in Danger

“I think everybody knows that I’ve sacrificed kind of damned near everything—family, moving here by myself, sacrificed my game—for the sake of the team, and was willing to sacrifice anything and everything in order for this situation to work out,” Anthony told reporters during his exit interview Saturday. “So it’s something I really have to think about, if I really want to be this type of player, finish out my career as this type of player, knowing that I have so much left in the tank and I bring so much to the game of basketball.”

The idea Carmelo has of himself has become an abstraction. The reality is Melo now performs like a tall Mario Chalmers, but his ego remains that of an A1, first-option player. It can’t be easy as a star to accept that his skills have diminished, but it’s a necessity. Dwyane Wade did it. So did Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter and many other stars of the past. There isn’t a single team in the NBA that’d want an age-33 Anthony in a feature role, highlighting an antique offensive skill set and an utter disinterest in defense—except for maybe Oklahoma City, which could be desperate for options if Paul George leaves. But that’d be a recipe for disaster; the rest of Melo’s career has taught us that his style isn’t conducive to winning.

Anthony’s ball-stopping habits have been permanently etched into his basketball code, stagnating the Thunder offense; still, for the most part he did accept his role as a floor spacer. The problem is he shot only 37.3 percent on spot-up 3s, which isn’t too different from the past four seasons (38.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per; that there wasn’t a percentage uptick with more open shots is disappointing, and he didn’t come through in clutch moments—Melo shot a dismal 19 percent on spot-up 3s in the playoffs. No one would’ve blamed Thunder coach Billy Donovan had he been caught on camera saying “Can’t play Melo.

The Thunder will be over the cap with $116.8 million in guaranteed salaries after Melo opts in, and that’s before re-signing Paul George, Jerami Grant, Corey Brewer, or Josh Huestis. If George leaves, the goal needs to be staying out of the luxury tax to avoid starting the clock on the repeater tax. And even if George stays, the Thunder will be better off without Melo if he’s unwilling or unable to accept a reserve role. I’d try to buy out Melo or use the stretch provision to owe him $9.3 million over the next three seasons.

Depending on other transactions made this offseason, either method would suffice. So much depends on the decision that George makes and what other options could be on the table. But either way, the Thunder are better when Grant is playing heavier minutes than Anthony—and they need to start thinking about what benefits them most beyond this season. If Carmelo isn’t willing to accept a diminished role, changes must come.

The Pacers’ Future Might Be Brighter Than You Think

Taken as a whole, the Indiana Pacers’ 2017-18 campaign has been a wonderful story. The team outperformed all expectations—including the projections of its own front office. But their series against the Cavaliers was a series of missed opportunities to slay the King. They didn’t adjust quickly enough to the Cavaliers trapping Victor Oladipo, had horrific shot selection in games 4 and 5, and then in Game 7, when LeBron went to the bench with one minute left in the third quarter, they failed to take advantage of a weak Cleveland bench unit. Despite that, the Pacers still outplayed the Cavs over the course of the series. Indiana outscored Cleveland by 40 points, the largest margin for a losing team in a seven-game series since 1984, as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted. The Pacers are far ahead of schedule, but they missed an opportunity to make noise Sunday, which means our attention must turn to the future.

In Oladipo, the Pacers found an All-NBA talent who will win the league’s Most Improved Player. Oladipo’s trainers, coaches, and teammates all emphasized earlier this season that he’s not a finished product. Mere minutes after losing to the Cavs, Oladipo texted “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to another level” to his trainer David Alexander. The next step for Oladipo, who is still only 25 years old, is to improve his shooting consistency, playmaking, and to further expand his ballhandling to enhance his scoring dynamism. The hardest step to take in team building is finding a star, and the Pacers have one in Oladipo.

But the Pacers need to find another one to complement Oladipo. Otherwise teams will continue trapping him to take the ball out of his hands. They have two impressive young bigs in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, but neither player projects as a star. They own all their future first-round picks and could create roughly $60 million in cap space this offseason depending on their decisions this summer, so the odds are that player is currently on another team or not even in the league yet. But depending on decisions made on players with non-guaranteed deals and team options, their cap space is more likely to be in the $20–30 million range.

Since contracts guarantee by July 1 for most players, Indiana will need to backchannel with agents to gauge interest in players. If the Pacers decline the non-guaranteed contracts of quality role players like Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison, it could be an indicator they have confidence in their ability to sign a free agent. But it’d make more sense to try to convince any of the mentioned players to opt out and sign longer-term deals with cheaper annual salaries—so, rather than paying Bogdanovic $10.5 million, he could get locked up for around $7 million annually. Every penny counts starting this offseason. The trouble is that most potential targets this summer are restricted, so teams will have the ability to match offer sheets. The conservative approach is to bring back most of the band and create space for one max free agent. So in the event you strike out in 2018, you can then try again in 2019 with what should be a much more loaded class.

As for this summer, I’d consider pursuing a rim-running center who can play at a fast pace like Clint Capela—he can anchor a defense while also forcing defenses to collapse into the paint, making life easier on Oladipo. Capela would also make Turner an expendable piece to use in trades, which would open the possibility for future trades. Magic forward Aaron Gordon stands out; he’s a superior defender who can conceivably swing across three different positions in the Pacers system. Bucks forward Jabari Parker is also tempting because of his go-to scoring ability, but he has torn his ACL twice and is an eyesore on defense. Parker might be too grand of a risk when they’d conceivably have options the following summer.

Big decisions are ahead for the Pacers. The franchise is in wonderful shape with a quality coach, a superstar, some young talent, and cap space. But whether they’re destined to be a true championship contender or just another postseason also-ran is yet to be determined.