Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The championship race is wide open
With the exception of the 1989 and 2004 Detroit Pistons, every NBA champion for the past 30 years has featured a superstar with an MVP and/or Finals MVP already to his name. In that same span, only the injury-ravaged 1995 Houston Rockets won fewer than 63% of their games en route to a title (52+ wins in an 82-game regular season).
On that criteria, the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are the only viable contenders. That field would expand to include the Denver Nuggets if current MVP favorite Nikola Jokic wins the award. That feels right, and for the most part oddsmakers agree, but this also feels like an exceptional season.
If the only other shortened seasons in league history are any indication, unexpected playoff results are coming.
Post-1999 lockout, the eighth-seeded New York Knicks were the lowest ever to reach the Finals, beaten by a San Antonio Spurs team led by 22-year-old, yet-to-be MVP-crowned Tim Duncan (David Robinson was their ex-MVP).
The Miami Heat won a post-lockout title as heavy favorites in 2012, but those playoffs saw another eighth seed first-round upset and the aging fourth-seeded Boston Celtics come within a quarter of facing 23-and-under Oklahoma City Thunder stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in their lone Finals appearance together.
The fifth-seeded Miami Heat became the third-lowest seed behind the '95 Rockets and '99 Knicks to reach the Finals in last year's bubble playoffs. For those counting at home, the three previous shortened seasons have yielded two of the five eighth seed first-round upsets in history and two of the three lowest seeds ever to make the Finals.
We might then expand our purview to include teams akin to more unconventional champions. In addition to the '89 and '04 Pistons, the 2006 Miami Heat, 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2014 Spurs and 2019 Toronto Raptors come to mind.
Isiah Thomas was the rare point guard to lead his team to a title, and ultimately did it twice. This would be the argument for Damian Lillard reaching that same mountaintop, but his Portland Trail Blazers are nowhere near the defensive monster those '89 Pistons were. Nor are they as star-laden, even if Detroit's stars were non-traditional.
The '04 Pistons were wonderfully constructed. The pieces fit, even if none were Hall of Fame-caliber (at least not yet). Last year's Heat were similar, right down to the defensive toughness, but this year's fit has been less seamless.
The '06 Heat had Shaquille O'Neal at the onset of his descent and a 24-year-old Dwyane Wade coming into his own as a superstar. You could make a case that Chris Paul and Devin Booker could fill those respective roles for the Phoenix Suns, but there is a stark difference between the playoff track records of O'Neal and Paul. That Miami team also had far more veterans with playoff experience than the Suns. There is no precedent for a team like Phoenix making the leap from perennial lottery participant to champion in a single season without a complete roster overhaul.
The '11 Mavs were a perennial 50-win team that broke through on the back of Dirk Nowitzki, a one-time MVP, franchise icon and uniquely talented 7-footer. Dallas was rich with complementary talent around Nowkitzki but absent a true superstar partner. Jokic's Nuggets and Joel Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers are closest to fitting that same mold, as reliant on the rest of the roster performing to absolute peak form as they are on their generational bigs.
The '14 Spurs technically fit the description of a customary champion, but Duncan was 37 years old, 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker was on the downslope of his Hall of Fame career and Kawhi Leonard was an unfinished 22-year-old project. The organization had championship pedigree, but the roster was an egalitarian outfit, producing some of the most beautiful basketball ever seen. The Utah Jazz are playing that same brand, without the playoff success.
The '19 Raptors had Leonard, fully formed as a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and top-three MVP candidate, surrounded by star-studded role players on a string. Leonard's Clippers have not found that same synergy, just as the cohesion has not translated to the playoffs for Antetokounmpo's Bucks, but this is the hope both teams cling to.
We have expanded our field of championship contenders from four or five favorites to include five more — a third of the league. I am not sure you can make the case for any other team, unless you want to argue Luka Doncic or Jayson Tatum are prepared to make the leap to All-Timer in these playoffs, raising the ceiling of everyone around them. There is precedent exactly 30 years ago, when Larry Bird led the Celtics to the 1981 title in his second season.
The Lakers and Nets are still heavy favorites in their respective conferences, so long as they are healthy, but they are not right now, and shortened seasons have traditionally made favorites vulnerable. That props a door open for the Bucks, Clippers, Nuggets, Sixers and Jazz. If we expand the field no further, and I would be shocked if any other team even reached a conference finals, that is still a quarter of the league with a title shot, far better than most years.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is now the MVP sleeper
It would be amazing how little the two-time reigning MVP is discussed among this season's best players if it were not entirely predictable. We have seen the Bucks thrive during the regular season, only to fall well short of playoff expectations, and you start to tune out the storyline on the second rewatch. Wake us up for the alternative ending.
But MVP is a regular-season award, and there is no storyline criteria, or at least there should not be. Injuries to LeBron James, Embiid and now Harden have derailed their campaigns, however you felt about them. The award feels like Jokic's to lose at this point. Lillard is getting some buzz. Antetokounmpo should absolutely be a threat.
• Jokic is averaging 26.3 points (64.7 true shooting percentage), 10.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.1 combined blocks and steals in 35.4 minutes per game for a 33-18 team that ranks third in offensive rating and 15th defensively.
• Lillard is averaging 29.1 points (61.6 TS%), 7.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 combined blocks and steals in 35.9 minutes per game for a 30-21 team that ranks sixth in offensive rating and an abysmal 29th defensively.
• Antetokounmpo is averaging 28.8 points (63.1 TS%), 11.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.4 combined blocks and steals in 34 minutes per game on a 32-19 team that ranks fifth in offensive rating and eighth defensively.
The advanced statistical case:
• Lillard: 4.27 Real +/-; +4.5 on/off rating; 25.7 PER; 7.4 win shares; 5.5 Box +/-; 3.3 VORP
• Antetokounmpo: 6.74 Real +/-; +12.9 on/off rating; 29.0 PER; 7.7 win shares; 8.5 Box +/-; 4.1 VORP
This should reconfirm Jokic's status as an overwhelming favorite, but it also cements Antetokounmpo as a clear-cut challenger at this point. Say the Bucks climb to the top of the Eastern Conference again, ranking top five on both ends of the court with something like a 50-22 record by the end of the season, and the Nuggets stay in the West's 4-5 matchup with a middling defense at their current 47-25 pace. All it takes is a slight cooling off from Jokic for their statistics to look closer on paper, and Antetokounmpo's status as an All-Defensive player narrows the gap further.
Jokic still probably wins with a rock-solid case and a better narrative, making the two-time reigning MVP a sleeper.
Paul Pierce should still be at ESPN
ESPN fired Paul Pierce this week after the Celtics legend filmed himself (mask-less) on Instagram Live drinking and smoking in a room full of exotic dancers somewhere in Los Angeles. It is unclear whether the women consented to being filmed on camera for his 1 million followers. None of it was illegal, per se, but all of it was a terrible look, especially for a public-facing representative of ESPN's parent company, Walt Disney. He should have known better.
It does seem like Pierce would have received a suspension had his future on the network's "NBA Countdown" and "The Jump" programs not already been a subject of much conversation. The pairing was never a great fit. He was one of the few analysts willing to express controversial opinions that made headlines, and that has never seemed to be what ESPN is prioritizing in its basketball coverage. Pierce certainly did not appear displeased with the firing.
It is difficult to determine ESPN's policy concerning character. This is the network that hired Ray Lewis as an NFL analyst. An internet search of Pierce's fellow NBA analysts on "The Jump" will also raise questions in that regard.
According to the New York Post's Andrew Marchand, Pierce may not have faced so stiff a penalty had he not filmed himself and merely appeared in the video. In that case, the decision to make public his actions would be considered a greater violation of ESPN's morality clause than the actions themselves, which is a valuable lesson for everyone on social media and a confusing one to those viewers whom the network was presumably concerned about protecting.
Regardless, I imagine both parties will get what they wanted out of this parting of ways.
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