The NBA playoffs are off to a somewhat anticlimactic start. The Eastern Conference playoffs have been pretty uneventful as the higher seeds have dominated so far. The Western Conference has certainly been more interesting, but it’s becoming more clear that it’s a two team conference. Here’s what we learned this week.
The Playoffs feel empty without LeBron James.
Basketball’s future is brighter than it’s been at any point in history. The league is more talented than it’s ever been from top to bottom. Unfortunately the insane talent and star power we’re witnessing doesn’t fill the void LeBron has left behind.
This may not be may a popular take, but it’s personally my main takeaway from watching the playoffs. The postseason has revolved around LeBron for over a decade and it’s wrong that we’re watching basketball being played at the highest level without arguably the greatest player of all time being involved.
The throne has been vacated.
For the first time in roughly a decade we will enter next season with a new consensus best player in the world. How these playoffs turn out will determine who that player will be. As it stands right now Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and James Harden have the best chance at claiming that throne.
Durant has had an awkward season, but his start to the playoffs have been phenomenal. He’s been in complete control of his game and has arguably the least flaws of any player in the league. Durant would probably have this title already if he didn’t play with the most talented team in NBA history.
Antetokounmpo has taken care of business so far in the first round. The Pistons don’t belong in the same building as the Bucks which makes evaluating Antetokounmpo’s playoff performance a little more difficult. I’m excited to see how he performs against the Celtics in the second round.
Harden hasn’t had a great start to the postseason considering his play in the regular season. He’s still getting his points, but he’s posted a pedestrian 44.3 effective field goal percentage. The good news for Harden is that he will be judged based on how he plays against the Warriors, and not how he plays against the Utah Jazz.
The Russell Westbrook problem continues.
Westbrook and his Thunder are on the verge of being knocked out of the playoffs in the first round for the third year in a row. A lot of the blame will fall at Westbrook’s feet and I’m not entirely sure that’s fair.
Westbrook is continuing the trend of being entirely inefficient in the postseason. He continues to take shots completely outside of the flow of the offensive while posting an abhorrent 40.6 effective field goal percentage. However, outside of Paul George, there really isn’t any spacing for someone like Westbrook to operate.
This is the third year in a row the Thunder have looked vulnerable in the playoffs because of their lack of outside shooting. Sam Presti has continuously valued defensive players over three point shooting and it shows. In the last three seasons, the Thunder have finished 22nd, 24th, and last in three point percentage.
Westbrook shouldn’t be excused from blame, but he isn’t the only problem in Oklahoma City. The organization’s overall philosophy is flawed and that’s not entirely Westbrook’s fault. Maybe it’s time for Presti to get some actually floor spacing for Westbrook.
Kyrie Irving is a 16-game player.
Irving continued his dominance throughout the playoffs with his performance against Indiana. Irving was in complete control during Game 2 as he led the way for the Celtics with 37 points and seven assists. Through four games, Irving is averaging 22.5 points and 7.8 assists per game.
One of the biggest criticism about Irving throughout his career is that he can’t carry teams. His inconsistencies on defense and playmaking don’t do much to raise the floor for his team. Those inconsistencies combined with his unorthodox leadership style can lead to peaks and valleys overran 82 game season.
Despite all of those shortcomings there is no denying his value in the playoffs. Few players raise the ceiling for their team as much as Irving. His ability to create instant offense in isolation or simple pick and roles is a perfect way to counter any defense. Defenses in the postseason can scheme around almost any team concept, but it’s nearly impossible to scheme around a great isolation player.
Irving now has the highest win percentage in the postseason with .764. It’s easy to look at that stat and dismiss it by pointing out that Irving has been on some great teams. While that’s true, Irving is a big reason for his team’s success. We’ll see just how high he can raise Boston’s ceiling this playoff run.
Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way superstar you probably forgot about.
It’s been really easy to forget about Leonard this season. He hasn’t had the most exciting season and he’s only played 60 games despite no major injuries.
His offensive fit with Kyle Lowry and the rest of the supporting cast hasn’t been ideal this season. However Leonard’s fit on the other end of the floor couldn't be any better. Toronto has the ability to switch nearly every position because of their depth at wing. Through four games Toronto has posted a 96.0 defensive rating.
Leonard has been phenomenal on the other end of the floor as well. He’s averaging 28.0 points while posting a 21.3 net rating and a 59.8 effective field goal percentage.
Leonard has anchored one of the best defenses this postseason while being a complete force on the offensive end. Antetokounmpo is hands down the best player in the conference, but Leonard may not be as far behind as we all thought coming into the playoffs.