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Jokić’s genius and Brooks’ folly: 20 things I learned from the NBA playoffs | NBA

Jokić’s genius and Brooks’ folly: 20 things I learned from the NBA playoffs | NBA

Jokić is the best player on the planet

The “best player on the planet” crown is one that is ever-evolving, especially in times like these, when a player like LeBron, who held it for a decade-plus, has aged out of the distinction. Giannis had it for a couple of years, and there have been arguments to be made for Steph Curry in recent ones. But after Denver’s dominant wire-to-wire championship run, it feels pretty definitive: for the time being, at least, it’s Jokić’s to lose.

The Draymond punch really did throw the Warriors’ world off its axis

This Warriors season started out with a bang, literally, as video leaked of veteran Draymond Green punching his up-and-coming (and on the come-up) team-mate, Jordan Poole, square in the face in a pre-season practice. The team’s ire was mostly directed at the leaking of the video, and any ripple effects of the altercation were downplayed. But after a tumultuous season and a disappointing second-round exit, even Draymond himself was forced to admit the figurative impact of the literal impact.

Don’t poke the bear

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. That’s what Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks learned in the playoffs this year, when he proclaimed that he “pokes bears” like “old” LeBron James, who, as at worst the second best player in the history of the NBA, is probably not the particular bear you want to poke. Brooks got a lesson in humility in the form of a swift first-round exit and an equally swift release from the Grizzlies’ roster.

Erik Spoelstra is the best coach in the NBA

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone (besides, perhaps, the most diehard Heat fans) who predicted earlier this season that Miami, who lost their first play-in tournament game, would end their season with an NBA finals appearance. But Erik Spoelstra didn’t get the memo that his team didn’t have enough on paper to compete this year. He never does. That unshakeable confidence, combined with genius-level basketball IQ, has improbably put him in a coaching echelon alongside the very best to ever wield a dry-erase board.

Erik Spoelstra, who led the eighth-seeded Heat to an improbable NBA finals appearance, has staked a compelling claim as the best coach in the league today. Photograph: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Timberwolves need to move Karl-Anthony Towns

I’ve already waxed poetic about why the Rudy Gobert trade was such a disaster, but the truth of the matter is that his bloated contract is going to be really difficult to move, and the two-center Big Three of Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards is not going to work. KAT had his time as the franchise’s darling, but it’s time to move him and let Edwards be the sun around which their offense revolves.

The play-in tournament was a stroke of genius

Two of the four teams who made the conference finals this year got there through the play-in tournament. For those mathematically challenged among us, that’s half. And one of those teams (the Miami Heat) ended up in the NBA finals! It’s a pretty compelling case that the tournament was a good idea, after all, and that it’s here to stay.

The Sacramento Kings have a bright future

The NBA hands out a Most Improved Player award out every year, but were there a similar award for a team, the Sacramento Kings would certainly have been the recipients for the 2022-23 campaign. Not only did they overcome US sports’ longest playoff drought, they extended the seasoned defending champions Golden State Warriors the full seven-game distance in a gripping first-round series. Sure, their road ended there, but it seems pretty clear that plenty more beams are bound to be lit in Sacramento in the near future.

The ratings panic was a racist straw man

Back around the time of the NBA bubble, when Black Lives Matter slogans decorated the court, a certain segment of the punditry got to pearl-clutching about the “ratings issue” in the NBA, implying, not so subtly, that the newfound political bent to the league was driving away precious viewers and that ratings were heading to the point of no return. Well, unsurprisingly, that turned out to be bologna. This year’s playoffs were the most watched in five years, and were the most viewed playoffs ever across all NBA social media platforms.

De’Aaron Fox helped the Sacramento Kings end a 17-year postseason drought before pushing the Warriors to the limit in a heart-pounding first-round encounter.
De’Aaron Fox helped the Sacramento Kings end a 17-year postseason drought before pushing the Warriors to the limit in a heart-pounding first-round encounter. Photograph: Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Yes, Russell Westbrook was the problem

The players that the Los Angeles Lakers got back in a trade deadline move to ship out Russell Westbrook didn’t, for the most part, end up being all that impactful in the postseason. But as it turns out, the boon from Westbrook’s absence was greater than the sum of his replacement parts: it seems all the team needed to turn it around from a 2-10 start to a conference finals appearance was to say sayonara to the “vampiric” point guard in their midst.

We might be underrating the importance of coaching

Yes, talent is ultimately the most important factor in a winning basketball team: the coach can do their best, but the players ultimately have to execute. That being said, if we learned one thing from watching the playoffs this year, from first-time head coach Joe Mazzulla being clearly in over his head to seasoned savant Erik Spoelstra bringing his motley crew to the brink of victory by sheer know-how and force of will, it’s that good coaching does matter. A lot.


The clock is running out on the Dallas Mavericks

People were rightfully skeptical when the Mavericks made a blockbuster trade for walking controversy Kyrie Irving this season, but I don’t think anyone saw them missing the play-in tournament, let alone the playoffs, entirely. This, the same team that made it as far as the conference finals last year, and has had the sensational Luka Dončić for all of his nascent career. It seems imminent that someone with Luka’s talents will eventually grow tired of the Mavericks’ mismanagement, and that day feels ever closer.

The Mecca is back, baby

There’s an internet trope that you should date someone as loyal to you as a Knicks fan is to their oft-disastrous franchise, and for good reason: they’re among the most steadfast fans in sports, with often very little to show for it. But the Garden finally, finally has something to cheer about again as Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart have proven to be picture-perfect Knicks stars: gritty, tenacious, and happy to be there.

Jalen Brunson has given the New York Knicks’ long-suffering fans reason for optimism after their run to the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Jalen Brunson has given the New York Knicks’ long-suffering fans reason for optimism after their run to the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

The Celtics shouldn’t blow it up (but probably will)

Jaylen Brown is 26. Jayson Tatum, 25. Together, they’ve been to four conference finals in six years. Objectively, that’s promising. But they’ve come up short with sky-high expectations two years running now, and this year, in particularly devastating fashion. With Brown eligible for a supermax contract extension on the heels of a disappointing playoffs showing, the Celtics have a tough choice to make – and an overreaction seems imminent. But the truth is that most teams would kill for a sub-28-year-old one-two punch like Brown and Tatum, and they should probably run it back.

Jimmy Butler is a superstar

There is, almost certainly, going to be an overreaction to Butler’s somewhat underwhelming performance in the NBA finals. But the truth of the matter is this: there is no chance, none whatsoever, that Miami would’ve ever graced the finals stage this year (or in 2020, for that matter), without him. Whether it was slaying the dragon that was the Milwaukee Bucks in round one, or staving off a historic 3-0 comeback from title favorites Boston, Jimmy has proven it: he’s that guy.

Jimmy Butler was the engine behind Miami’s charmed run to the Eastern Conference title.
Jimmy Butler was the engine behind Miami’s charmed run to the Eastern Conference title. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

The Clippers are built on an ancient burial ground

OK, not literally, although hopefully Steve Ballmer did his due diligence on the site of the in-progress Intuit Dome in Inglewood, given the team’s ostensibly cursed existence. But it really does feel like every time this franchise gets close to greatness, they’re struck down with a lightning bolt of bad luck. This year, that came in the form of a Paul George knee injury a few weeks before the playoffs began, followed by a devastating meniscus tear for star Kawhi Leonard in the first round, after a couple of games where he looked like he might be the best player in basketball again. Might be time for the team to burn some sage in the locker room.

Continuity is key

The last three NBA champions (Milwaukee, Golden State, Denver) are quite different in many ways, but one important common denominator between them was several years of the same core players and coach, allowing for a chance to build chemistry and trust. Yes, it was ultimately on the shoulders of star players Antetokounmpo, Curry, and Jokić to carry their teams across the finish line, but continuity has proven to be an underrated secret to success in a league that looks so different year to year.

Kawhi Leonard’s injury during the first round torpedoed the Clippers’ playoff hopes in torturous fashion.
Kawhi Leonard’s injury during the first round torpedoed the Clippers’ playoff hopes in torturous fashion. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We are entering the International Era

The era of basketball we’re now exiting was American homegrown: ruled by players like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. But times have changed, and the future of the league is decidedly more global in scope. Stars like Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, and Luka Dončić have already proven this point, and rising talents like San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama will only underscore it in the years to come.

We have a long way to go with toxic masculinity in sports fandom

Whether it was the reaction to Lakers big man Anthony Davis leaving a game against the Warriors with a possible concussion, or the blowback against Giannis Antetokounmpo for positing that losing isn’t a failure but, rather, a part of the process, NBA fans proved that they have a long, long way to go when it comes to widening their view of what a male athlete should be. Here’s hoping next season provides a much needed step forward in the path towards emotionally intelligent progress.

Giannis Antetokounmpo explains why Bucks’ season was not a failure – video

I’m not ready for LeBron to retire

It’s a little disingenuous to put forth that I learned this postseason that I wasn’t ready for LeBron to hang it up. I’ve known for a while that I would probably be beside myself when that fateful day arrived. But LeBron hinting, for the first time ever, in his exit interview for the season, that he was even considering retirement elicited a whole lot of feelings, from me and many others.

You can focus on MVP or NBA finals MVP, but not both

I don’t blame Joel Embiid for wanting to finally win one of those damn Michael Jordan MVP trophies after being runner up a few years in a row. But while his efforts were ultimately successful in that regard this season, the trade-off was that he didn’t seem to have much left in the tank for the pursuit of the biggest prize, which is why Nikola Jokić ultimately got to hoist that one this year.

Claire de Lune

Published: 2023-06-15 08:00:27


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