Steph’s sizzle and LeBron’s lament: 20 things I learned from the NBA playoffs | NBA

The future is in good hands

If I had to choose one overarching theme of these playoffs, it would be this sentiment. Young stars like Luka Dončić, Ja Morant, Anthony Edwards and others showed that they aren’t even a little bit afraid of the moment, and absolutely have what it takes to lead their teams to future playoff success. And as for the aging superstars standing in their way? Take it from me and my retinol cream: father time comes for us all.

(Roster) patience is a virtue

There was a time when NBA fans and experts alike were questioning if Boston’s two superstars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, would ever be able to get it done together. That time? Fall 2021. Flash forward a handful of months and the duo was lighting it up in the NBA finals. Yes, it took a few years and a few things breaking right for the Celtics’ core, painstakingly assembled through the good ol’ draft, to reach the promised land. But Boston’s 2022 playoff run seems like pretty solid evidence that teams might have become a little too trigger-happy with the trade machine.

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Head coaching experience: not a prerequisite for playoff success

Speaking of those Celtics, their head coach, Ime Udoka, had logged zero time as an NBA head coach (not even in the G League) before his appointment this year. It turns out several years of assistant coaching experience on good teams, which plenty of overlooked candidates possess, can be enough to lead a group to wins in the playoffs. Hopefully his success story will be enough to embolden teams on the cusp of greatness to try something new in lieu of playing musical chairs with the same group of head coaches. The Lakers certainly seem to have taken note.

Ja can carry a playoff team

My “boldest” prediction ahead of this NBA season was that the Memphis Grizzlies were going to be the year’s dark horse team due to Ja Morant taking a leap forward. In the regular season, they exceeded even my own expectations for what that would look like. And in the playoffs they showed flashes of a team that could be truly great for many years to come, bringing to mind, ironically, a younger version of the same Golden State Warriors by whom they met their playoff demise. This is due in no small part to Ja’s incredible leadership and poise at the ripe old age of 22.

Ja Morant
The Grizzlies’ Ja Morant: poised beyond his 22 years with talent to burn. Photograph: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans are gonna be really fun next year

One of the most pleasant surprises of these playoffs was the absolute gauntlet New Orleans put Phoenix through in the first round. By all accounts, the Pelicans weren’t even supposed to be in the postseason; many predicted that a more seasoned (if hobbled) Clippers team would best them in the play-in tournament. But not only did the Pels make the playoffs, they made it highly uncomfortable for a confident Suns squad that had, no doubt, expected to breeze through their opening series. And they put on a hell of a show in the process. With a passionate, well-rounded team, a fantastic coach in Willie Green, and Zion waiting in the wings, the future looks bright in Louisiana.

Superstars find a way to be impactful no matter what

In Game 5 of the NBA finals, Steph Curry made history in a way he probably would’ve preferred to avoid. The world’s best shooter missed all nine of his attempts from beyond the arc, marking the first time in 133 career playoff appearances that he failed to make at least one three-pointer. Golden State pulled out the win anyway, partially due to Steph’s savvy ability to be impactful even when the shots aren’t falling: the Warriors scored 118.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and he ended the game with 16 points and eight assists. They went on to seal the championship in the next game.

JJ Redick was born to broadcast

The NBA player-to-NBA broadcaster pipeline is a well-worn trajectory. We’ve seen everyone from superstars like Tracy McGrady to role players like Kendrick Perkins pivot to media to varying degrees of success. But broadcasting, kind of like basketball talent, is just one of those things that’s hard to predict: when you got it, you got it. It’s been eminently apparent since day one of JJ Redick’s tenure at ESPN that he is a true savant at the art of talking about basketball on TV. The network isn’t particularly rich with engaging and informative basketball analysis talent, and when they do stumble upon it, they don’t have a great track record of rewarding them (justice for Tim Legler!), so seeing Redick rise in the ranks of airtime so quickly has been a breath of fresh air.

Doris Burke makes everything better

On the topic of those rare supremely excellent broadcast talents on the ESPN roster, the latter rounds of the playoffs notably lacked one of the NBA’s most beloved voices: Doris Burke. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and never has that cliché been more true then when one is listening to yet another senseless Van Gundy and Jackson argument, longing for the engaged, whip-smart and passionate voice of Burke to say something about the actual game at hand. ESPN, is that so much to ask?

Doris Burke
ESPN’s Doris Burke: conspicuously absent during the latter rounds of the playoffs. Photograph: Nathaniel S Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Situations are everything

The word “washed” has been overused in the NBA Twitterverse to the point of parody. Even LeBron has jeeringly adopted the insult into his facetious self-branding as a #WashedKing. But if we learned anything this year, it’s that a change of scenery should always preempt the writing off of any struggling player. Cases in point: CJ McCollum’s dazzling renaissance on the upstart Pelicans, or Andrew Wiggins’ decisive rebirth as the overqualified role player of dreams who played a substantial role in the Warriors’ return to the NBA throne.

Anthony Edwards is capital-H Him

There’s a lot that goes into what makes someone a superstar: basketball acumen, god-given physical gifts, inner drive. But there’s also an undeniable je ne sais quoi involved, a certain swagger, a spark that is instantly recognizable and yet almost completely undefinable. As anyone who watched Minnesota and Memphis face off in the first round knows, Anthony Edwards has it. The series was a true “star is born” moment for the 20-year-old guard, who possesses an absolute fearlessness on the court and a larger-than-life charisma (that even Hollywood has taken note of).

Anthony Edwards
The Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards: absolutely fearless on the court with a larger-than-life charisma. Photograph: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

Championship teams aren’t math

We’ve been living in the era of the “superteam” for over a decade, if you count its inception as the day LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach. After the immense success Kevin Durant found after joining up with the already dominant Warriors, it seemed that this particular team format was becoming as inevitable as Thanos. But after the implosion of the Brooklyn Nets’ Big Three this year, and the abject failure of the Lakers attempt at replicating a similar template, we might be staring down the death of the superteam. In a league-wide realization that should make fans of teams with one or two big-name stars quite pleased, it seems as if the secret to NBA team success is once again greater than just the sum of its parts.

The Utah Jazz need to burn it down ….

Yes, all good things must come to an end. But all “meh” things must also meet their maker eventually. This iteration of the Jazz showed more than one flash of greatness, and for several years running they entered the regular season with buzzy championship expectations. But in 2022, as with all the years prior that Utah rolled out the odd-couple one-two punch of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, those expectations collapsed early in the playoffs. This year, they didn’t even make it past the first round, so it seems basically inevitable that half a decade into this particular chemistry experiment, it’s time to blow it up.

… and so do the Portland Trail Blazers

Another team that feels destined for a rebuild are the Blazers, noticeably absent from the postseason this year for the first time since 2013. Damian Lillard seems understandably discontented, Jusuf Nurkić alluded to selling his house in Portland in a Twitter reply and the departed CJ McCollum is living his best life on an exciting Pelicans team. The Blazers made some baffling roster decisions this season that seemed to put them in a strange purgatory between excellence and tanking, but it’s time to commit to the bit, become a bottom-dweller for a few years and let Dame live out the rest of his prime elsewhere.

Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz
The Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz: time to burn it down. Photograph: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Luka’s got next

Luka Dončić not being taken No 1 overall is going to live in infamy among the worst draft decisions of all time, right up there with Michael Jordan going third and Steph Curry going seventh. This isn’t meant as a slight to Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III, but anyone who watched a then-18-year-old Luka win EuroLeague MVP could’ve told you that this kid was going to be something special. After slaying the dragon that was the best team in basketball this year in the Phoenix Suns and finally getting Dallas out of the first round of the playoffs, special feels like a gross understatement when describing Doncic. If there’s to be an heir apparent to LeBron’s throne, Luka seems primed to take a seat upon it.

The regular season is too long

We all know the physical toll the ramped-up intensity of postseason basketball can take on the bodies of NBA players. This year saw what felt like an unprecedented amount of injuries to crucial players, which made, at times, for some very disappointing matchups. Eighty-two games is a grind even before factoring in an extra couple of weeks or months of the highest level of play, and the game is more physically demanding than ever. We’ve seen how little regular-season success can amount to under the brightest lights (the 64-win Suns come to mind), so why not shorten the season in service of making sure the games that really count feature the true best of the best of NBA talent?

The ‘G’ in G League stands for ‘gems’

Jose Alvarado was one of the breakout stars of the first round as his infectious energy helped lead the Pelicans to a couple of unlikely wins against the formidable Suns. Gary Payton II proved invaluable for the reloaded Warriors and broke hearts as Dillon Brooks “broke the code”, and Payton’s elbow, in the second round. What they have in common is extensive time spent in the NBA’s developmental G League, a source more and more often for some of the league’s bright young stars and indispensable role players. Look for it to continue to play an important role as potentially heavily recruited college prospects opt, instead of collegiate life, for a guaranteed paycheck with the newly minted G League Ignite team.

Jose Alvarado
The Pelicans’ Jose Alvarado: one of the postseason’s breakout stars. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

LeBron has a tough road ahead to ring No 5

Far be it from me to bet against the king. But the small window where the Western Conference looked a little less menacing than usual (brought to you, in part, by the brief hiatus Golden State had from greatness), appears to be closing. And on top of that, the East looms as a more foreboding opponent than it has been in years past. Even if the Lakers coaching reset proves helpful, and even if they can figure out what to do with the mercurial salary-suck that is Russell Westbrook, if LeBron wants a ring for every finger on his shooting hand, the road there next year may be his toughest yet.

Chris Paul will retire ringless

First and foremost: I hope I’m wrong. But after the regular-season world-beating Phoenix Suns flamed out in the second round in spectacular fashion, even the least superstitious among us have to wonder if the “Chris Paul is cursed” conspiracy theories have teeth. The man is undeniably one of the smartest and most skilled point guards the league has ever seen, and will surely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But at 37, and with the Western Conference primed to only be better and more competitive next year, it feels increasingly likely that he will retire with one glaring omission from his impressive resumé.

Role players win championships

At least one superstar is undoubtedly a prerequisite to a championship. But role players who excel at playing those roles are an equally, if not more, important ingredients to a winning NBA recipe. Looking especially at the business end of the playoffs, players like Al Horford, Robert Williams III, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney proved a key component to games that, among well-matched teams with keen defensive acuity, are won in the margins.

Steph Curry’s legacy is cemented

By the close of Game 4 of the finals, Steph had accomplished something of a luxury for an NBA player: for all legacy-related intents and purposes, it didn’t really matter if his team won or lost the series. It had already, by that point, become crystal clear that the only real reason Golden State was in position to hoist yet another Larry O’Brien Trophy was because of Curry’s mind-blowing, unwavering excellence. His brother in splash, Klay Thompson, had been streaky at best this postseason. There was no Kevin Durant to deflect part of the credit to. Yes, the role players showed up, but the success of this particular Golden State run came down to one undeniable thing: Curry is still one hell of a Chef.

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