New blood has injected life into the opening week of the NBA Playoffs as youthful newcomers have found the bright lights just to their fitting.
For those on the outside looking in, half-decade rebuilding plans appear tougher to sell to fan bases and ownership groups watching players on rookie scale deals outperform their contracts.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown weren’t expected to lead the Boston Celtics this season, but they’ve been thrust into leading roles after Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury on Opening Night and Kyrie Irving’s knee troubles shut him down weeks before the postseason.
But they’ve shown there’s no need to be treated with kid gloves, that redshirting is for the minor leagues. Tatum hasn’t gotten the extra publicity of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, but he’s not to be forgotten about in the playoff equation.
Brown had the benefit of being a rookie for the Celtics last season, and was more bystander than active participant.
But he’s still 21 years old, months younger than Mitchell and Simmons.
The two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year are certainly franchise players, and although they have major help on their respective rosters by way of veterans or fellow phenoms, one could argue the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers would have made the playoffs regardless.
The playoffs used to be a place reserved for the veterans, a higher plane of air that young lungs weren’t yet prepared for.
But Simmons is posting numbers that have statisticians scrambling for box scores from the tape-delay era for reference, while Mitchell is showing the teams who passed him up they should check their scouting and decision making.
And even though we could be in store for more of the same in the Finals if LeBron James’ Cavs meet Stephen Curry’s Warriors in June, the road to get there will be filled with so many new faces sure to be more than potholes in the years to come.
Recent NBA history can’t be written without the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder having significant ink. But each is on the verge of going fishing, trailing 3-1 after four games.
Instead, the 76ers are now darlings, the Celtics are chugging along without main cogs and the Jazz aren’t far away from catching the attention of casual fans to become must-see TV.
There’s a shift going on in the NBA, with slow-moving franchises hoping for a traditional clock on a rebuild taking the risk of being passed by those more determined, more opportunistic and unbothered by job security in the pursuit of winning now.
If you have something close to a unicorn, your house better be in order. Of the rising stars who have a level of establishment in the league’s hierarchy, only Kristaps Porzingis’ New York Knicks and Devin Booker’s Phoenix Suns are sitting on the outside of the playoff party. Porzingis is recovering from an ACL injury suffered midseason, otherwise the Knicks would have likely been in contention for a playoff spot.
The Suns, well, they’re a mess.
And it’s no coincidence both franchises are on the hunt for new coaches.
The talent pool in the NBA is so vast, its players seemingly so prepared for the transition to the professional game that the clock on franchises to wait on its players ticks louder than it ever has.
Factoring in booming salaries with young players poised to cash in on restricted free agency, franchises need answers on its young players—and they need them in the form of impact, in the form of wins.
Short of the Philadelphia 76ers’ sham and scam of the league’s rules by tanking for half a decade, it’s tough to envision a team duplicating the strategy with lottery reform on the horizon.
If done right, turnarounds can happen quicker than saving yourself a seat at the draft lottery four or five years in a row.
A correct mix of scouting, coach selection and veteran influence can put teams back in the playoff hunt quicker than before—as opposed to having similarly talented players making big money without having proven much.
For some fan bases, it represents hope.
For some front offices, you wonder if a shudder of fear is seeping into their buildings, knowing their clock is ticking.
Anyone who watched the Oklahoma City Thunder implode in Game 4 of their first-round series against Utah Monday night probably had the same thought run through their mind. “Paul George is so out of there.”
Speculation about George signing a max free agent deal with his hometown Lakers has been running wild since the All-Star forward forced a trade out of Indiana last summer. And, who can forget the scene of George’s parents sitting in the front row at Staples Center cheering on their son as he played a strong game against the Lakers earlier this season?
But if we’ve learned anything through the years watching top level free agents make decisions on their future, it’s that it’s almost impossible to predict what factors will turn out to be most important.
Take the George free agency for example. Sure, he’s talked openly about his desire to play in southern California and his love of the Lakers and Kobe Bryant through the years. But what if LeBron James decides to take his talents to L.A. this summer? Will George be happy playing secnd fiddle to “the king” in his own hometown (if the Lakers can create cap space for a second max contract), or will he look for a better option to showcase his game and his brand?
That’s where the Bulls could come in.
John Paxson said in his season ending news conference it’s unlikely the Bulls would be major players in free agency this year, but he also said he never wanted to go through another season like the one his team had just endured, and that the front office will always be on the lookout for opportunities to add a star player to the mix.
With Zach LaVine’s cap hold and the salary slots included for the sixtth and 22nd picks in this year’s draft, the Bulls would have around $73 million in salary commitments for next season, leaving them just enough space to fit in the first season of a max contract offer for George. And even if they wind up just a little bit shy of a max slot, they could easily create more space by trading one of their back-up point guards or another reserve player.
Would George be receptive to a Bulls offer? Hard to say. The Lakers are obviously his first option and he might also consider the Clippers and 76ers. Doc Rivers would have to do some salary cap gymnastics to make a run at George, but Philadelphia will be in position to sign a major free agent outright, and the thought of George joining forces with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would be scary for the other Eastern Conference contenders.
After years of toiling in Indianapolis, it’s hard to imagine George being interested in joining a rebuild in Chicago, but as I mentioned earlier, stranger things have happened in free agency.
The assumption in league circles is the Bulls will wait until 2019 to make their big move when players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving could be on the market, and might consider signing with the Bulls after watching another year of development from LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.
But Paxson couldn’t have been more transparent in describing the mental pain he endured watching his team play for the best possible draft position during a 27-55 season, so he’s not going to pass up on a chance to add a franchise player if one suddenly becomes available this summer.
Paul George signing with the Bulls is an extreme long shot, but it’s not totally impossible.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
The biggest surprise in round one of the playoffs has to be the Pelicans’ 4-0 sweep of Portland. After losing DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury, not many people expected New Orleans to even make the playoffs, much less win a series.
But Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry designed a new offensive system, utilizing a three-guard offense of Jrue Holiday and former Bulls Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore to get the ball to superstar big man Anthony Davis, with another ex-Bull, Niko Mirotic providing floor spacing as a third scoring option.
Add to that the almost annual transformation of Rondo into an elite playoff performer, and all of a sudden the Pelicans are dangerous. Granted, they’ll probably come up short in the next round against Golden State, but casual basketball fans are finally getting a chance to see just how good Davis is playing on a national stage. He’s a top 5 talent, who has consistently pledged his loyalty to the organization that originally drafted him.
Assuming the Pelicans re-sign Cousins this summer, it will be interesting to find out what the ceiling might be for this team that seemed to be treading water just a few short months ago.
On the other side of that series, losing four straight playoff games could signal major changes ahead for Portland. The backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the league’s best, but the Blazers are capped out and have to make a decision on signing restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic.
Portland was one of the biggest offenders in the Wild West free agent chase in 2016 after the new tv contracts ushered in a $20 million spike in the salary cap. The Blazers signed Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Myers Leonard to ridiculously inflated contracts and then overpaid free agent forward Mo Harkless the following summer.
General Manager Neil Olshey was able to unload Crabbe’s contract in a deal with Brooklyn, but the Blazers are already over next year’s projected salary cap with the contracts already on the books, making it extremely difficult to improve the team’s frontcourt.
So, would Portland consider trading McCollum or Lillard for a package of young players and picks? Lillard just had his best season and is a fixture in Portland, so it’s unlikely he would be moved. But if Olshey decides the current roster has maxed out, he might explore trading McCollum to bring in the reinforcements the Blazers need to contend in the brutally tough West.
Similarly, what’s next for Tom Thibodeau and the “Timber-Bulls” after they get eliminated by top seeded Houston in round one?
It’s been fun watching Derrick Rose re-kindle memories of his MVP past with his end to end attacks and twisting finishes at the rim. Rose has averaged around 15 points off the bench in the series, probably earning an invitation back to be a rotation player for Minnesota next season.
But what about the uneasy alliance between Jimmy Butler and the TWolves young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins? Butler has one guaranteed season left on his contract, but in an interview with the Sun-Times' Joe Cowley, Butler admitted it’s been tough watching players who don’t share his passion for winning and constantly working to improve their games. Don’t be surprised if Jimmy isn’t already planning his exit strategy with an eye towards Los Angeles.
Butler also said in the Cowley article he has a lot of love for the Reinsdorf family and wouldn’t rule out finishing his career in a Bulls uniform. Now that sounds like an even bigger long shot than my Paul George idea, but after all this is the NBA!
Just visualize Kevin Garnett screaming in his on court interview after the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008. “Anything’s possible!”