The Portland Trail Blazers just finished with their best record in four seasons, triumphantly placing 3rd in the Western Conference and winning the Northwest Division. Predicted to finish low in the playoff standings or miss the playoffs entirely, the Blazers surprised the NBA this season, largely because their success was due to a stout defense, not a high-powered offense. Unfortunately, the Blazers’ postseason was not so successful, as the New Orleans Pelicans swept them in the first round of the playoffs. Suddenly, success turned to failure, and pride sunk to dismay. Instead of a team on the rise, the Blazers seemed ripe for change and a shake-up.
The Toronto Raptors reached even greater heights this season-- and fell to even greater depths. They ended the season with a franchise-best 59 wins, and snagged the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, giving them homecourt advantage through the East playoffs. The basis of their success was a new attitude of sharing the ball, shooting more threes, and generally being a more well-rounded team. In the first round of the playoffs, they were able to vanquish a tough, talented Wizards team, erasing the demons of their sweep by the Wiz in the 2015 playoffs. They then came square against the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, the team (and more specifically, the player) that ended their seasons the previous two years. With homecourt, an improved way of playing basketball, and a strong bench, the basketball world had every confidence that the Raptors could beat the Cavaliers, or at least push them to the limit. Instead, the Cavaliers swept the Raptors yet again, beating them down in a brutal series that may well mark the end of an era in Toronto.
The similarities between the two teams are eerie, even beyond this season and playoff run. Both squads were almost formed by accident, the result of trades to rebuild that got their respective teams back into the postseason more quickly than expected. The Raptors’ two best players are their star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Blazers’ two best players are their star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Raptors have one of the top candidates for Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey, while the Blazers’ Terry Stotts is frequently mentioned as a “down-ballot” contender for the same award. Each team has a couple bad contracts saddling them down (Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell, and Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard respectively). Finally, both squads boast a promising rookie (though OG Anunoby is definitely on a different tier from Zach Collins).
Sure, there are some differences between the teams too. The Blazers’ stars are a bit younger than the Raptors’, while their bench is older. The Raptors have almost the entirety of their roster under contract for next season, with only one key piece a free agent. This means if they want to shake things up, they will have to do so via trade. No less than four of the Blazers’ rotation players (including their third best player) are free agents this summer, meaning the Blazers have far more decisions to make, yet also lack some control in who they keep. Overall, the two teams appear destined for the same basic choices this summer: to keep their team together, to switch things up a little, or head full-bore into a new era.
In both cases, however, I question whether these playoffs, and therefore their results, should drive such a force for change organizationally and roster-wise. For all the pressure placed on teams during the postseason, and the common sentiment that “the real season starts there”, the simple fact is that the regular season is a much larger (and therefore overall more meaningful) sample size. NBA writers and media frequently bemoan the use of small sample sizes during the regular season-- so why don’t we apply this to the (even more limited) postseason? Here’s a good example below.
Yall told me robert Covington is better than Andrew Wiggins— Tony Jones (@tribjazz) May 10, 2018
Ma your MCM changes his players evals based on small sample sizes https://t.co/dn4cBCLGja— Playoff Niko (@NikoReg_) May 10, 2018
Tony Jones is a much-respected beat writer for the Utah Jazz—and I’m not trying to knock him (or his basketball know-how) at all—but that is a brutal, brutal take. We have years of evidence that Robert Covington is a borderline All-Defense-level player and a good, extremely high-volume three-point shooter. We also have years of evidence that Andrew Wiggins is an inefficient volume scorer who doesn’t play much defense, and who does nothing other than score to help his team win. It’s clear who has been better since both came into the league. Robert Covington has been awful in the playoffs, there’s no doubt of that. But his performance could be due to a myriad of factors: nerves, bad matchups, an undisclosed injury, simple bad luck, etc. A nine-game sample size simply isn’t enough (or even close to enough) to overturn what hundreds of games of data have established.
If such a small sample size is insufficient to change how we think regarding a player (and it shouldn’t), it shouldn’t create such a great impact on how we evaluate teams during and after the playoffs. There are many moving pieces to a playoff series, and it’s hard to quantify them. Take the Blazers-Pelicans series. It was an upset, sure. And the Blazers going out via sweep in the first round was a disappointing end to their season. But taking a step back, while there are a lot of legitimate takeaways, there are also numerous points that impacted the series that should not have any effect on the Blazers going forward.
The Pelicans were clearly a bad matchup for the Blazers. Jrue Holiday is the type of athletic, big guard who can stick with and limit Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum—he’s probably going to make All-Defense 1st Team this season, for good reason. Anthony Davis is a superstar, and his athleticism and length made him a tough challenge for anyone on the Blazers. Bad luck was also involved: Damian was not 100% going into the series, and as the best player on the Blazers and the one who stirs the drink on offense, not being his regular self was a devastating blow. Additionally, it’s hard not to think that the Blazers might have matched up better with the Pelicans if DeMarcus Cousins was healthy. While Cousins is a good player, he’s a slow, lumbering big man who would have provided a reasonable cover for Jusuf Nurkic. Instead, Nurkic was played off the floor by the Pelicans going small and stretching the floor. On the other end, the Pelicans’ speed on the perimeter made switching and recovering easier as well—if Cousins was out there, Lillard and McCollum might have worked their way free more frequently by dragging him out on the high pick and roll. So, while Cousins’ absence hurt the Pelicans severely in their next series against the Warriors, it may have helped them against the Blazers. Give the Blazers a healthy Damian Lillard, suit up Cousins for the Pels, and the series might have played out quite differently.
The Raptors, meanwhile, ran headlong into the greatest player of the era, perhaps the greatest of all time, LeBron James. There are few players, teams, or defenses that have ever bothered LeBron, and the Raptors don’t check any of those boxes. They were a better team than the Cavaliers this season. They probably could have beaten any of the other teams in the Eastern Conference in a playoff series. And even in this series, if a couple of bounces had gone their way, they might have won Game 1, changing the entire makeup of the series. The same goes for Game 3. Was the Raptors getting swept out of the playoffs an indictment of their mentality against the Cavs? Possibly. But there are other reasons for their loss that put far less shame on the Raptors.
The next argument is that even if the Blazers or Raptors had advanced, they might not have gotten much further anyway. That’s fair, but it’s impossible to know. And that just emphasizes the point that these individual series don’t mean that much. The Blazers weren’t a title-competitive team, but everyone knew that before the Pelicans series, and nothing changed after. They didn’t magically become some different team because they got embarrassed in the first round. The Raptors are a bit different in that it seemed like this was finally the year they could take LeBron. Even so, losing to LeBron during one of the greatest series of his storied career shouldn’t significantly change how the Raptors think about their season, or about this team.
None of this is to say that playoff failures should just be ignored: there are clear lessons to be learned. The Blazers’ duo of guards is weak against bigger defensive players, and they can be too small to make an impact on the other end. That doesn’t, however, mean that one of them should be traded away, or that the era is at an end. It just indicates that they desperately need a big wing who can create his own shots to take the pressure off Dame and CJ, as well as other larger guards or wings who can play a more physical brand of defense.
This version of the Raptors might never beat LeBron James in the playoffs. But what if they don’t have to? The Celtics and Sixers seem destined to be top-tier teams in the East next season, and they might have real shots against LeBron (if he even stays with the Cavs). If another team knocks out LeBron, the Raptors could finally see a window to the Finals creak open. So long as they have a 50+ win team that can hang with just about any non-LeBron/Warriors team, it seems silly to not run much of the same squad back.
The Blazers aren’t on that level, yet they obviously have some (maybe even many) of the pieces to the puzzle of a very good playoff team. They need to round out their squad with the right players and get a little bit of luck in the postseason. The 2011 Mavericks are a great example of a team that had failed in the playoffs for a decade, but kept some of their key players around, constantly tweaking the edges to find something that clicked. Who’s to say that Damian Lillard can’t be the Blazers’ Dirk Nowitzki?
Neither Portland nor Toronto won much in the playoffs this year, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. Are you Team Rebuild, Team Stay the Course, or somewhere in between? Comment below!