We have reached the end of the line. The Warriors are the NBA champs and the Thunder and 28 other teams wonder what the difference is between the champs and themselves. We close the playoffs with a final roundtable. Thanks for enjoying the playoffs with us.
Were you surprised by the result of any series? If so, how do think it may have altered the course of the playoffs?
Justin Danziger: I originally had the Spurs losing to the Cavaliers, so the Clippers/Spurs series came as a surprise, but then again, LA looked strong. Other than that, I'd say most of the series' outcomes have been relatively predictable. I thought the Atlanta Hawks would at least win one game despite their myriad of injuries, but I ultimately had the Cavaliers advancing. The big question mark about these playoffs is the injury issue. Too many guys sat out: Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Pau Gasol, John Wall, Kyle Korver, etc. It is hard to say the Warriors wouldn't have won with Love and Kyrie playing, but it certainly would have changed the playing field.
Kyle Ramos: When the Clippers were up 3-1, I finally thought they were ready to get to start living up to their contender-hype and I was also excited for a potential rematch of LA and Golden State with the Western Conference crown at stake. So I was definitely surprised to see the Rockets come back and win the series. We all know how unstoppable the Warriors looked during the majority of this season (playoffs included), but I think the Clippers could have been an interesting matchup for them and may have pushed that series further than the Rockets who were downed in 5 games. A harder series for the Dubs could have worked either way in the Finals for them, though. Either the satisfaction of a hard-fought series victory over the Clips motivates them to overwhelm the Cavaliers and win in 4 or 5, or it could have just worn them down enough for LeBron to effectively drag his rag-tag bunch of teammates to a championship. I guess we may never know.
Chris Hanneke: I, too, felt like the Spurs would beat the Clippers because the Clippers are the Clippers and Chris Paul is Chris Paul and that's just the way things go. The actual result of them finally proving their championship merit by taking down the king, only to completely collapse in the most epic fashion to a battered-up Rockets team was far, far more satisfying. With the Thunder out, I was motivated more to watch other teams fail than I was to watch other teams succeed, so seeing the overly-confident Clippers end up in the same place they always do was both a pleasant surprise, and my favorite part of this cursed, awful season.
R.K. Anthony: A final regular season game set up the series that surprised me. Obviously, being a Thunder fan, I watched the Spurs/Pelican matchup very closely. I honestly felt the only advantage to the Thunder making the postseason was experience. I had no grand illusions of our defense taking us anywhere, but I still wanted the Thunder to get that last spot because there is nothing that can prepare young players for playoff intensity better than playoff intensity.
What struck me odd about that Spurs game was Pop's reaction to his team being 20+ points down and about to lose the #2 seeding and home court advantage. Remembering Tim Duncan getting chewed out for missing a single pick opportunity last season, I was thinking that Mr "Give Me Some Nasty" would have been more engaged while watching a 6-year-old T-ball game than he was that night
Etched in my memory is the picture of Pop's kicking back, sipping on bottled water and visiting with someone like he was at a Sunday social while his team was giving the ball away like they were sponsoring a charity event. Thanks for the lottery ticket Pops!
When the Spurs lost home court advantage it cost them dearly when they lost game 7 to the Clippers on the road. I personally think the Spurs would have won their second championship in a row had they beaten the Pels on April 15th.
J.A. Sherman: The outcome of the playoffs didn't surprise me. I believed then and still do now that a healthy Thunder team was the only squad in the league that had enough talent from the top down to deal with the Warriors' depth, star power, and defense. Once OKC's season ended, I thought only the Grizzlies would have enough defensive acumen to slow down Golden State, and had they been a little more healthy (Mike Conley, Tony Allen), they might have even taken things to a game 7. The Cavs showed more defensively than I thought they would, but I predicted GS would win 4-1, and had they not been so awful in game 3, I think they probably would have.
The other surprises were the Spurs losing in the first round and never finding the offensive consistency they had last year, the Bulls completely choking away the Cavs series despite being the better team, and the Clippers going from up 20 in a close-out game 5 to losing the entire series to the Rockets.
In 2011, the Thunder made their mark as a team to watch when they barely missed forcing a 7th game with the eventual champion Lakers in the first round. Did any of the up and comers that lost in the 1st round this year distinguish themselves as a future title contender this year?
Justin: The Spurs rarely get eliminated in the first round, but this year was a rare case. SA is always a contender. If they had an easier first round matchup, they probably could have made it far. Other than that, I'd say the Pelicans. This team won't be contenders for the next few years, but they are two solid players and a smart system away from being contenders to the 5/6 seed. Alvin Gentry will be heading the team there, so he might try implementing a system similar to Golden State (since he was the head assistant there). As Anthony Davis continues to grow as a player, I have no doubt in my mind that he can carry a team all the way...eventually.
Kyle: That 2011 Thunder team was almost comparable to the way the New Orleans Pelicans looked this year against the eventual champion Warriors. I say almost because the Pellies were swept and the Thunder pushed LA to 7, but man did they play those games a lot closer than anyone, myself included, expected. But the upside is definitely there. Anthony Davis is young, budding superstar with a seemingly limitless ceiling and there's some pretty good talent in NOLA around him. There's some big decisions to be made regarding the fit of Tyreke Evans and his position or if Eric Gordon fits in the long term plans, but I see a lot of potential in the Pelicans, who will be installing a new (probably better) offense under recently-hired head coach Alvin Gentry.
Chris: Yeah I think the Pelicans are the obvious choice here. Still, I don't know that getting swept - no matter how feisty they looked - is anything to get overly excited about. Sure, Gentry will probably do some great things with that roster, but did anyone watching that really think they had the makeup to compete with the Warriors, Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Grizzlies of the world going forward? It's one of those fun stories to talk about the incredible young superstar on the pedestal of taking the league by storm, but Kevin Durant had Russell Westbrook and James Harden in 2011. Anthony Davis has Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans. But because I think this season just reaffirmed that it's going to be the same teams contending next year, I'll go with the Pelicans.
R.K. Anthony: Based more on history and a bit of home cooking maybe than anything else, but I find Brad Steven's young Celtics team very interesting. The Celtics, steeped in tradition, have grown accustomed to winning and won't stay down long. Of course I also want to see how Marcus Smart develops.
I like Brad Stevens. The Celtics improved drastically in his second season at the helm and with the complete organizational support the Celtics enjoy and money to spend, I seriously doubt they have plateaued.
Sherman: I too like the Celtics and wouldn't be surprised if they are a mid-round playoff team next season. Also, they don't count as a 1st round loser, but I think the Wizards have more upside to obtain and might have had a really good shot to make the ECF had John Wall not broken his entire hand.
In the west, the only real up-and-comer is the Pelicans, and while they're good and going to get better, who will they supplant? Dallas, maybe? Yeah, probably Dallas. Sorry, Dirk.
What are your thoughts on the recent article from ESPN's Marc Stein criticizing LeBron James and his attitude toward Cavalier head coach David Blatt? Did LeBron's relationship with Blatt help or hurt the Cavaliers in the Finals?
Kyle: It's a tough situation, I think, for both Blatt and LeBron. David Blatt was brought on before LeBron made his decision to come back to Cleveland and was hired with the plan to build around Wiggins and Irving. Plans obviously changed when LeBron returned and I'm not sure if the Cavs may have made the same hire if they had known beforehand. So with that in mind, I think Stein's criticism was fair to an extent, but at the same time, I don't think LeBron should necessarily be looked down upon for being a leader of his team, especially when they needed one desperately. Whether or not he meant to fully subordinate Blatt in the process of doing so is something we can't really be truly sure of, however. Personally, though, I do think that LeBron's leadership power play did affect the team to an extent in the Finals. At different times, you could see that maybe Blatt had lost his guys and, specifically in Game 6, they didn't look just physically exhausted, they looked plain unmotivated. Obviously LeBron could have had a big role in improving team morale during the game, but it's often still dependent on the head coach to be the driving force behind that.
Chris: That was kind of weird. I don't really understand what Stein's point was in writing that. It just seemed like another chance for the whole "MJ was the greatest crowd" to circulate another clickable link about how Lebron is this awful person that shouldn't be considered the greatest. You know who barks and yells and screams a lot? Great coaches. Guys that understand the game and want to make sure everyone falls in line. Yeah, Lebron doing that may disrupt the whole coach/player dynamic, but we're talking about one of the smartest players (maybe THE smartest) to ever play, so he should probably have input in the game. Given the fact that that Cavs roster took that series six games is a testament to the fact that, hey, it worked, so again I don't really understand the issue and why Stein felt the need to write that to begin with.
R.K. Anthony: I think it is more important how David Blatt feels about it than any outsider's take on the situation. I know how David Blatt responded to questions after game 6 and I'm sure he isn't going to start a media frenzy no matter what, but I believe he gladly took the advice of the best player in the NBA in critical situations throughout the playoffs. Bottom line, who had 5 NBA Finals experience and who was the debutante at the ball?
Unless it was LeBron's idea to only play Timofey Mozgov 9 minutes and 19 seconds of game 5 playing time, I think they worked well together and got this team farther than it probably should have gone. If there was a negative, I would say it may have hurt LeBron's efficiency.
Sherman: The timing of the article makes me kind of cynical toward the whole thing. If Stein was observing this behavior courtside during the series, why did he wait until the series was over to publish it? How is he possibly going to get a valid reaction from anyone now that the whole thing is over? The answer of course is, if he had fired it off mid-way, it probably would have jeopardized ESPN's access to the Cavaliers, so they waited until it was safe to publish. That's awesome. Great story that intentionally undermines itself.
As far as the content goes, one the one hand, yes, you've got a de facto on the court coach in LeBron who is likely smarter and has a greater retention for situations than anyone else in the league, including his own coaching staff. On the other hand, nobody can see everything all the time, and when you start to think you can, even personal accomplishment is mitigated. Witness Russell Westbrook during the 2nd half of the season for evidence of this.
There's a reason why Tim Duncan is held in such high regard. It is because he allows Gregg Popovich to coach him. Duncan knows that he can't perceive everything all the time; he needs another set of eyes who will help him. It isn't fair to compare Pop to Blatt, but the same principle applies.
The question on every Thunder fans mind: Can Billy Donovan duplicate Steve Kerr's success as a rookie coach? Why or why not?
Kyle: I definitely think so. Steve Kerr did a fantastic job in Oakland this year and did so without any head coaching experience to boot. The good thing about Billy Donovan is that he has been a head coach for quite some time, so even though he'd be a rookie NBA coach, he's had experience coaching some high level talent over at Florida for the past 19 years, including two national championships. What will be crucial to his success is the team staying healthy (please KD), because the roster he is being handed has potential to be one of the most talent-filled Thunder teams we have ever seen in Oklahoma City. I'm also a big fan of Donovan putting the right guys around him who have been head coaches. Guys like Monty Williams and (potentially) Mo Cheeks make great assistants, even if they've had struggles being at the helm of teams. The only thing working against Donovan may be the high expectations, especially after seeing two rookie NBA head coaches pitted against each other in the Finals this year. If he doesn't live up to the hype around this (hopefully) healthy Thunder squad, don't be surprised to see fans (albeit, usually the overreacting ones) already start calling for his head and questioning the decision making of GM Sam Presti. I am inclined to believe that this will not be the case, however, based on what I've heard and read about Donovan from former colleagues and players.
Chris: Sure, I don't see why not. More than the possibilities for a rookie head coach, though, I think this Finals highlighted the benefit of having a complete coaching staff. You can already see other front offices attempting to mirror Kerr's decision to bring in top assistants like Gentry and Ron Adams, and Donovan is following right in line with that. On top of that, the Thunder roster is certainly comparable in terms of depth to the Warriors, assuming everyone finally stays healthy. What set Kerr and his staff apart was that they were humble while also managing to be completely in control. They got everyone to buy in while also getting everyone to love playing in their roles. That's no easy task, but it's easier when you have stars like Curry, Thompson, Durant and Westbrook who have demonstrated a humble nature throughout their careers. For what it's worth, I think Brooks was actually pretty good at fostering that culture, as well. The problem with him was that, you know, everyone got hurt. So Donovan finds himself in a great spot where he is slated to have the first fully healthy Thunder team since 2012, and there isn't a coach out there who I wouldn't think could win it all given those circumstances.
R.K. Anthony: If KD's foot is okay (and there is no reason to think it won't) and the Thunder can avoid the critical injury bug that plagued many of the teams in the playoffs this year, sure. There are a few questions that are still unanswered, but on paper, the Thunder field one of the most talented teams in the NBA from top to bottom.
Russell Westbrook dazzled us with historic numbers during Kevin Durant's absence and in the process earned the respect of his teammates with not only his play but also his leadership on the floor and the locker room. I feel strongly that he also gained new respect for his fallen teammates and is anxious to have them all by his side next season.
In my opinion, the largest question about next season is Presti signing Enes Kanter or not. My concern is not whether Billy Donovan can coach the team but rather can he do what no coach has done before, get Enes to play some respectable defense. I seriously doubt it.
Thirty-three and sixty-five, those are the winning percentages of the Utah Jazz before and after the Kanter trade. If Kanter's offense is so indispensable, why did the Jazz winning percentage nearly double when they dumped him? I think Kanter's -0.7 net rating with the Thunder is a pretty good clue.
What did Trevor Booker say? "He did what he always does. He got his stats. He didn't defend. He took an L (a loss)"
Sherman: It isn't fair to say that Donovan has to replicate Kerr's success, but that said. he kind of has to. That's the situation that the Thunder have put themselves in, with their three cornerstone players in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka all up for new contracts in the next 2 seasons. The climb back to the top starts this week.