The 2018-2019 NBA season was a time of transition.
LeBron moved out and put the Eastern Conference up for sale, resulting in an arms race that brought Marc Gasol, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Brook Lopez, and more to the East to fight for the right to get swept by the Golden State in the finals. However, the basketball gods had other plans.
The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. It is a fitting reward for a fanbase that has often appeared on the other side of history. After suffering Vince Carter’s missed buzzer beater against the 76ers, Kobe’s 81 point game, and the “LeBronto” era there is a championship north of the border.
Kawhi Leonard cemented his legacy as the dynasty reaper — his second Finals MVP appropriately commemorating the addition of a second back-to-back champion to his kill list. The Raptors were new to the finals but were the sum of incredibly experienced parts. The time was ripe for the inevitable fall of a dynasty.
The Golden State Warriors fell apart right before our eyes like a Walking Dead season finale. One of the most compelling NBA Playoffs in recent memory will cost us a year of prime Kevin Durant and prime Klay Thompson. Golden State will close Oracle Arena and head into next year armed with Steph Curry and whatever is left of this roster.
Before we attempt to answer the unanswered questions that lie ahead beyond the draft and free agency, here are five things that stuck out to me about this particular NBA season and how the league is trending going forward.
Sacrifice. It’s Worth It.
It’s always easy to point out when things don’t work. The Brooklyn Nets just recently recovered from one of the worst trades in NBA history when they sold out to add the fossils of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a misguided championship pursuit. The Lakers may be forced to gut their entire roster just to put LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the same gym. Fans and media will always question these moves when they happen. Champions take risks and go against the grain. This year’s story was no different.
Masai Ujiri fired Dwane Casey who would go on to win the NBA Coach of the Year that season and traded DeMar DeRozan who was the face of his franchise for a decade. This wasn’t just randomly shaking the table. He felt that Nick Nurse was the right personality to manage a team with the dreaded “rental” superstar. All signs pointed to Kawhi wanting to play for the Clippers. Ujiri traded for him anyway. He then traded 27-year-old Jonas Valanciunas and some key rotational players for a 34-year-old Marc Gasol. Both moves were questioned. Both undoubtedly were irreplaceable during this Finals run.
Playing things safe will keep a team in “good, but not great” status until they ultimately fall apart. The Washington Wizards might have benefitted from splitting John Wall and Bradley Beal up a few years ago. One day we may wonder the same thing about the Portland Trail Blazers. As teams make shuffles during this offseason remember to ask the only question that matters. No matter how uncomfortable the move is, is the outcome a better chance at a championship? If the answer is yes, even a 1% more chance, you do it.
Time Creates Parity
Behind the buzz and excitement of the Larry O’ trophy having a new home is a grim reality. Time is undefeated. The Golden State Warriors were primed to run amuck through the entire league en route to another easy championship before Kevin Durant’s departure. This season started with a familiar inevitability among NBA fans. The same inevitability that accompanies dynasties for so long that we are often caught by surprise when they fall.
Golden State did not just cruise to another NBA title. Regardless of internet debates, it was a mix of injuries and a deep, defensive-minded opponent that put an end to the era of the NBA where the Warriors were the most talented team in the league. The irony is that this came in a season where Demarcus Cousins was the “eff you” cherry on top of an already loaded roster.
The Dubs did make the NBA Finals again as most assumed. Once they got there they found their most formidable non-LeBron playoff opponent (this Raptors team is certainly better than even 2016 OKC). Even with both teams at full strength, the Raptors would have given Golden State trouble. Their collective experience and length on defense made them a perfect counter to Golden State’s free-flowing artistic offense. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are bigger guards that are built for chasing people around screens and taking punishment.
Fred VanVleet wound up covering Steph Curry more than any other player throughout the playoffs (six games), and over 198 total possessions he held him to 14–42 (33.3%) shooting from the floor and 7–25 (28%) shooting from three-point range.
— Joshua Howe (@Howevolution) June 15, 2019
A torn ACL and ruptured Achilles have turned Golden State from the team that was “ruining the NBA” to a team that will be fighting tooth and nail to remain in the playoff chase until some form of Klay Thompson returns around the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see an NBA where both LeBron and the Warriors have something to prove and aren’t shoo-ins to be playing in June. The confetti has barely hit the floor and the chips are already beginning to move.
Anthony Davis is a Los Angeles Laker. Chris Paul wants out of Houston. If Kyrie ends up in Brooklyn where will D’Angelo Russell go? Is Kemba Walker really that loyal to the Hornets? Based on player movement over the next few months there may be 8-10 teams next season with a realistic chance to win a championship.
Thick Skin Keeps You Alive
Kawhi Leonard will never admit it but he has to feel pretty good about winning a championship immediately after being shamed out of San Antonio.
Tony Parker took subtle digs at him through the media. Gregg Popovich said that he wasn’t a leader. Fans questioned his heart repeatedly. Hell, there was even a players-only meeting where teammates prodded Kawhi with questions about his absence from the court. Leonard didn’t budge and sat out the majority of the season before friction and eroded trust between his camp and the Spurs ended their union.
He simply knew that he wasn’t right and showed signs during even this year’s playoffs that there are lingering effects from the quadriceps injury that shut him down last season after only 9 games played. Leonard did attempt to come back but maintained that he was not feeling right and refused to return until he did. That decision making has produced a city’s first championship and two new Drake songs (only one is good). Pretty decent return.
I have to wonder if Kevin Durant’s motivations for returning early were based on the similar outside pressures he faced. No one took shots as openly as Tony Parker did with Kawhi, but the angst for his return amongst teammates and fans was palpable as the road to a championship became more and more distant for Golden State.
Kendrick Perkins clearly felt the same:
Durant isn’t the only one who has had his career affected by laying his body on the line for his team. Isaiah Thomas played on a bum hip for the Boston Celtics before shutting himself down in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals. His reward for sacrificing himself for one of Boston’s more memorable playoff runs was to be traded to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Thomas has been a journeyman ever since.
It’s an unfortunate condition of sports that we hold athletes to this “gladiator” style mentality where people forget that these are human bodies. If a player is not feeling right they shouldn’t play. Many people showering Kevin Durant with condolences now are the ones who would have crushed him if he sat out and Golden State lost game 5. Fans and media can be fickle. I hope players will take a lesson from this and prioritize themselves going forward.
Teach Your Kids How To Shoot The Basketball
“If _______ ever gets a jumpshot it’s over.” We’ve all heard it. And you all know who I’m talking about so let’s get right to it.
Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the poster children for what a spotty jump shot can do to great talent in the playoffs.
Giannis will win the MVP award and deservedly so. He averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. In the regular season, he abused opponents with his strength and length. Not even LeBron James in his prime displayed the raw physical dominance that the Greek Freak presents opponents with on a nightly basis.
Ben Simmons was third in the NBA this season with 10 triple-doubles. He improved his scoring numbers and rebounding numbers and made great strides defensively. He also remained an elite playmaker despite playing with other ball-centric players. His 7.7 assists per game were good for 6th in the league.
Both players have unique physical gifts at their positions that create a massive disadvantage against 80% of teams in the league. Most teams simply do not have the physical ability to either guy. The problem is that once you get to the playoffs you’re not playing 80% of teams.
The Raptors were able to defeat the 76ers and Bucks in back to back rounds en-route to the Finals. There were multiple factors that played into each series. Part of those were the lack of impact that Simmons and Antetokounmpo were able to have on offense for long stretches of games.
The Raptors have the optimal roster for neutralizing bad shooters. They simply build a wall at the rim that makes it obscenely difficult to score inside. A team that has a high-quality elite defender (Kawhi) and high-IQ help defenders (namely Marc Gasol but everyone else too) will routinely put an end to stars that only make an impact on the interior in the playoffs.
Last Night, In Basketball (5-19-19) #LNIB
Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam did the heavy lifting, but the Raptors' plan to slow down probable MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 3 involved a whole lot of help. pic.twitter.com/wKhJlp4KUg
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) May 20, 2019
Outside of Shaquille O’Neal, it is hard to think of any modern-era players that have managed to dominate on a championship without being a threat outside of 10 feet. With the Steph Curry effect sweeping through the AAU circuit and players from outside of the country becoming more skilled than ever, it will be interesting to see how many players continue to enter the league without reliable jump shooting. Range is the name of the game in the playoffs.
A Superteam is an Option, Not a Rule
The Toronto Raptors followed a formula I have not seen since the Dirk Nowitzki led 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Dirk was unguardable and playing out of his mind while surrounded by defensive-minded high-IQ vets that made big plays when it mattered. This is a similar story to the one that unfolded in Jurassic Park.
There was no meeting of superstars in Toronto. Kawhi Leonard was the unquestioned blue-chipper of this team and shouldered a roster of with the right formula of breakout performers and battle-tested shot makers.
While there is still room for superteams and we will see plenty more as time goes by, these Raptors are a reminder that building a title contender does not hinge on having multiple A-level players.
We often see teams land a top-5 talent and then fail to surround him with the appropriate surrounding pieces to get over the top. Toronto just actually got it right. Kyle Lowry’s scoring slipped but he posted a career-high assist total and had big moments at the right time during the playoffs. Fred VanVleet became the second coming of Derek Fisher. Pascal Siakam will win the Most Improved Player of the Year award by a landslide. Siakam went from starting only 5 games last year to destroying Draymond Green in game 1 of the NBA Finals. A “regular” team loaded on depth and defense behind an elite star can always threaten for a title.