Now that the regular season is complete, it's time to look back at each team from a big picture perspective. What did this season teach us about a particular team, a particular player, a particular coach? Did the team meet or exceed expectations? For the teams that missed the playoffs, are they trending in the right direction like the Atlanta Hawks? Or is rock bottom still on the horizon like for the Washington Wizards. For the teams that made the playoffs, what did this regular season teach us about them? What's next for them?
One takeaway: Trae Young is going to be a star
It seems like ages ago the Hawks were getting criticized for passing on the opportunity to draft Luka Doncic. Although Trae Young struggled early in the season, he still managed to average an impressive 19 points and eight assists per game thanks to an incredible post-All-Star stretch that saw those averages rise to 25 points and nine assists per game. In fact, Young played so well during the second half of the season that he has an outside chance at stealing the Rookie of the Year trophy from Doncic. With at least one high draft pick (and potentially a second one if the Maverick's pick falls outside the top five), Atlanta is set up wonderfully for the future.
One takeaway: The grass might not be as green as we originally thought
Coming into the season, most NBA pundits predicted that the Celtics would have the best record and deepest roster in the league. They were the consensus choice for Eastern Conference champion and the best-equipped team to challenge the Warriors for the next five years with their combination of great coaching, young talent and draft assets. Unless they've been rope-a-doping us the entire year, Boston's championship window might not be open just yet. Kyrie Irving might not be as committed to Boston as he made it seem this offseason. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown might not have the Carmelo Anthony and Paul George career trajectories some people were assigning them. And worst of all, their draft picks from the Kings and Grizzlies might not end up yielding them the type of prospect they envisioned.
One takeaway: D'Angelo Russell is a star
Despite showing few signs of becoming the player analysts envisioned when he was selected with the second overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, Russell made a huge leap this season for Kenny Atkinson and the exciting Brooklyn Nets. After averaging 16 points and five assists per game in only 48 games last season, Russell put up an impressive 21 points and seven assists a night while playing all but one game this season. Furthermore, he's emerged as a leader for the young Nets and a player they can build around moving forward. The next step in his progression as a player will be learning to draw more fouls, as he gets to the line less than three times per game right now.
One takeaway: Kemba Walker deserves better than this
The gap between Kemba Walker and the Hornets' second-best player (Jeremy Lamb) is probably larger than any team's gap between its best and second-best players. And boy, did it show at times this season. One game that particularly stands out is a loss late in the season when Walker scored 47 of the Hornets' starting lineup's 53 total points, which was the highest percentage of a team's starting five points in a game since starts were first tracked. Even though there is a mutual desire for Walker to sign a long-term deal in Charlotte, it'd be best if he leaves this summer and joins a contender for the remainder of his prime. The Hornets need to bottom out and get off this hamster wheel of mediocrity that they're currently running on anyway.
One takeaway: They're a superstar away from being a fun team
Believe it or not, the Bulls actually have some nice, young talent on their roster. Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter have all shown some promise this season. Otto Porter also looks like he enjoys playing basketball once again now that he's off the miserable Wizards. Those four players make for solid building blocks for the future, but the team is in need of a superstar. Could it land him in this year's NBA Draft? If it gets Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, Chicago could be next year's Kings — the young, exciting team that is all of a sudden making a playoff push before anyone expects it.
One takeaway: Collin Sexton probably isn't a point guard, but that's OK
After struggling immensely early in the season, Sexton really started to break out after the All-Star Game, averaging over 21 points per game on 44-48-83 shooting splits (FG percentage-3FG percentage-FT percentage). During that same stretch, however, Sexton handed out less than three assists per game. Thus, the Cavs should be excited about Sexton's future as a scoring guard but need to also be on the lookout for a better distributor to pair alongside him moving forward. Realizing that Sexton probably isn't going to be a traditional point guard now is a good thing though because the team can feel comfortable selecting Ja Morant should it land the No. 2 overall pick.
One takeaway: Luka Doncic is awesome!!
Every so often, a rookie gets to the league, and it becomes immediately obvious that the rookie learning curve isn't going to be an issue. Doncic made that abundantly clear in the first week of his NBA career, playing like a young James Harden — hitting step-back threes and manipulating the defense in pick-and-rolls like a seasoned veteran. Doncic's ceiling is as high as that of any young basketball player not named Zion, and this first season in Dallas went about as well as it could have gone with him averaging better stats than LeBron James did as a rookie: 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game.
One takeaway: It turns out, you can build a contender around a doughy, unathletic big man
Although his increase in points and assists was gradual, Nikola Jokic made a leap this season. Tasked with effectively being the team's point guard in the half court, Jokic carried an injury-riddled Nuggets team to a top-five offense in the league and a two-seed in the stacked Western Conference. His defense might still leave something to be desired, but Jokic's impact on the offensive end is worthy of a first-team All-NBA selection. His numbers from this season (20 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists per game) are unique to him and Wilt Chamberlain, too. Not bad for a 7-foot Serbian teddy bear.
One takeaway: Blake Griffin has transformed his game
Griffin appeared to have peaked back in 2014 when he averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game for the Lob City Clippers. At the time, he was one of the most athletic players in the league. Five years later, he's no longer an elite athlete (by NBA standards), but he's a complete player and worthy of a third team All-NBA selection. This season Griffin averaged 25 points, eight rebounds and over five assists per game while shooting a career-high 37 percent from three. Griffin has transformed his game to make up for his loss in explosiveness and now has an array of offensive moves, including a nice step-back three-point shot. For a while it appeared that injuries had robbed Griffin from reaching his ceiling as a player, but perhaps they were a blessing in disguise because they forced him to round out the rest of his game.
One takeaway: This is getting old
Here's a question for NBA fans: To guarantee that Kevin Durant leaves Golden State this offseason, would you skip the playoffs and just concede the championship to the Warriors? I think I would. I think a lot of NBA teams would too. Barring an injury to Durant or Steph Curry, the Warriors are going to lay waste to every team in their path to a third straight title this spring. They're too damn good, and it's becoming boring...even for Durant and the Warriors. Let's just give them their title and make the path to the NBA Finals competitive again.
One takeaway: James Harden is an offensive cheat code
If we're being honest, I, like many NBA writers, figured James Harden had peaked last season, both from a statistical and abilities standpoint. Turns out, I was big wrong. Not only is The Beard having one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history, but he's also become a one-man elite offense. Play off him even a little, and he'll destroy you with an array of step-back three-pointers. Press up on him, and you might turn around in time to catch the end of his Euro-step on the way to a bucket. Lately, teams have been playing alongside Harden and trying to funnel him toward their rim protectors. That doesn't work either because Harden suddenly has one of the best floaters in basketball. Finally, you could double-team him, but that will only lead to wide-open corner threes and easy dunks for his teammates. Now, this has to be peak Harden, right?
One takeaway: Nate McMillan is a very good coach
If I told you that Victor Oladipo would play only 36 games this season, how many wins would you have guessed the Pacers had? 30? 35 tops? Would anyone have guessed damn near 50? That's some Brad Stevens-level coaching right there. How did the Pacers stay in the hunt for home court in the first round once their star went down with an injury? By playing some of the most stifling defense in the league (third-best defensive rating). McMillan also deserves credit for enabling Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic, who all enjoyed career years. There isn't a ton of McMillan-Coach of the Year buzz right now, but just wait if the Pacers manage to upset the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
One takeaway: The Clippers are the most attractive free agent destination
The Clippers might always be the little brother to the Lakers in Los Angeles, but it's tough to argue that they aren't the most attractive free agent destination this offseason. In the past year, the Clippers have opened two max cap slots, restructured their front office so that Doc Rivers could focus on what he does best (coaching), unlocked the deadliest bench duo in the league (Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell), developed young talent, acquired draft picks and had a blast doing it all. In a league where many players seem unhappy, the Clippers have managed to corral a group of hard-nosed, team-first players on great contracts. Their infrastructure is second-to-none. Now they just have to go get some superstars.
One takeaway: LeBron James is no longer unequivocally the best player in the world
When he's fully engaged and surrounded by players who can make open shots, he's still the best player. But neither of those qualifiers occurred in Los Angeles this season. Some of that is on LeBron for losing a bit of his edge and overextending himself with all of his entertainment productions this offseason, while guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden were busting their butts in the gym all summer. A lot of it is also on the Lakers front office for thinking guys like Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley were going to be optimal teammates to play alongside James. Things will certainly look different in Los Angeles next year.
One takeaway: Jaren Jackson Jr. should be great
Although his rookie season was cut short after 58 games, Jackson displayed star potential all year in Memphis, averaging 14 points, five rebounds and more than a block per game on decent shooting splits. He showed an advanced understanding on the defensive end, which is rare for young rookie big men and should be one of the better two-way players in the league within the next five years. Memphis also may have won just enough games for its top eight protected first-round pick to vest to the Celtics. (They want it to vest now because it loses protections each year, and this draft class isn't as deep as future classes). So while this year saw the end of the Grit'N'Grind era in Memphis, it may have also served as the beginning of the Three-J era.
One takeaway: Erik Spoelstra deserves better than this
Lost amid Dwyane Wade's farewell tour is yet another wasted year of Erik Spoelstra's coaching prime. Fortunately for the Heat organization, Spoelstra is still one of the youngest coaches in the NBA and should be one of the best for many years to come. But still — what are you doing with this roster, Pat Riley? Nearly every role player was signed to a four-year contract, making all of them undesirable. (Would you be interested in James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters or Hassan Whiteside? Didn't think so.) Get Spoelstra some stars or young players with star potential. This guy should be coaching contenders, not scrapping with the likes of the Hornets, Pistons and Magic for the eight seed.
One takeaway: It turns out that Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty were really holding the Bucks back
With one smart coaching hire, the balance of power in the Eastern Conference shifted dramatically in favor of Milwaukee this offseason. Mike Budenholzer was hired to do what every NBA expert was screaming Kidd and Prunty should have been doing with Giannis Antetokounmpo: spreading the court with four three-point shooters and giving Giannis a runway to the basket. The results have been terrifying. The Bucks finished with the best record in the NBA and fourth-best offense. Giannis, who averaged 28 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and almost three stocks (steals-plus-blocks), turned into a hybrid of LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal and might win his first career MVP. Oh, and Budenholzer scrapped the crazy switching, helter-skelter defense that Kidd had implemented for a more traditional defense, bringing out the best in guys like Giannis, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez and leading the team to a No. 1 rated defense.
One takeaway: No team should ever give its head coach the title of head coach and team president again
Case in point: Tom Thibodeau. Ironically until the Jimmy Butler fiasco, Thibodeau the GM/president had actually done a decent job structuring a competitive roster. Thibodeau, the coach, however, reverted back to his old ways of running his players into the ground and refusing to develop any of his young guys. It's truly impossible in today's NBA to have dual titles and do both jobs well. We've now seen some of the best basketball minds try and fail at this. Had Thibodeau simply been the coach, the front office could have figured out how to better handle the Butler trade demand. Then even if the demand went public, Thibodeau wouldn't have lost his locker room. Instead, the other players were left waiting out the staring contest between Thibodeau and Butler. And Thibodeau blinked first.
One takeaway: New Orleans is a bad basketball city
Yes, Anthony Davis and his representation handled his trade request poorly. Yes, Davis and a number of important contributors over the years went down with untimely injuries. And yes, the Pelicans made some questionable roster and coaching decisions during Davis' tenure with the team. [Channeling my inner-Stephen A. Smith] HOWEVA, New Orleans had one of the best talents in NBA history in its city for seven seasons, and not once did it even have a top 12 attendance record. In fact, yours truly attended a game this season on a Sunday afternoon in the Big Easy (when the Saints weren't playing until Monday night), and the arena might have been half full. It was pathetic. Pelicans fans (if there are any) don't get to be angry at Davis the way Cavaliers fans and Thunder fans were mad at LeBron James and Kevin Durant when they left their respective teams. No, you had a transcendent talent play 41 games a season in your city for the past seven years, and you couldn't be bothered to fill the arena.
One takeaway: The Knicks had better have Kevin Durant and/or Zion Williamson on their roster this fall
If Durant and/or Williamson are not in Knicks jerseys when the 2019-2020 season tips off, their entire tanking and cap-space-clearing strategy will have been a failure. Why? Because the Knicks actively tried to lose all season and traded their franchise cornerstone, Kristaps Porzingis, to the Mavericks to clear room for two max free agents. They'll have a 14 percent chance at Zion, but they had better have a good idea that Durant (and another big-time free agent) are coming this summer, or else they had no business doing the Porzingis deal. If the Knicks strike out this summer, then fans better pray that this "Oak-Bomb" about Jeff Bezos buying the team is legitimate.
One takeaway: Paul George's ceiling is a top five player in the NBA
The moment has since passed due to a shoulder injury and a falloff in the Thunder's play, but there was a moment earlier this season when George was arguably the best player in the NBA. He was essentially putting up Kevin Durant numbers on the offensive side of the ball while playing the best wing defense in the league. Even with his and the Thunder's recent struggles, George still managed to post career highs in points (28.1), rebounds (8.1) and steals (2.2) per game this season. Before the season we assumed George had reached his ceiling as a fringe top 10 player. Now that we've seen him play like a league MVP, we realize that that ceiling is top five.
One takeaway: Nikola Vucevic is the big man the Magic should build around
In addition to leading the Magic into the postseason for the first time since 2012, Nikola Vucevic posted an impressive 21 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game this season. With Vucevic set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Magic came into the season prepared to build around their young, athletic big man trio of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. However, they might want to reconsider that plan, as Vucevic is giving them essentially everything they could ask for out of a go-to big man. He can score from the post, he can facilitate, he can rebound and he can bury three-pointers too. Why hope that one of the raw, young big men develops into a star, when you have a 28-year-old star sitting right in front of you?
One takeaway: The Process is over; now it's time to win
After trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the 76ers officially ended The Process. While they don't have a perfect team, they're talented enough to make the Finals. Joel Embiid took his game to a new level this year, posting an absurd 28-point, 14-rebound, four-assist and two-block stat line this season. He needs to dominate like this all postseason — no getting outhustled and outsmarted by Al Horford this spring. Same goes for Ben Simmons — he can't have any more one-point stinkers this postseason. Great players find a way when the going gets tough. The championship window is open today. Let's hope that the 76ers take that advantage because Butler, Harris and Redick are all free agents this summer — that window could close just as fast as it opened.
One takeaway: Devin Booker keeps improving his strengths and ignoring his weaknesses
You probably didn't watch the Suns at all this season (and you didn't miss much), but because they neglected the point guard position yet again, the team basically made Devin Booker their de facto point guard most of the season. The results were promising, as Booker was like a James Harden-lite, averaging 27 points and seven assists per game. On paper that looks great, but in practice Booker was doing a lot of stat-padding (some of it especially cringe-worthy late in the season). He was also ignoring the other half of the court, barely participating on defense, like he has for his entire career. At some point he's going to have to step up, be a leader and take some initiative on defense. Otherwise, he'll be stat-padding on a lottery team in perpetuity.
One takeaway: The Blazers franchise has the worst injury luck
First it was Bill Walton. Then it was Sam Bowie. Then it was Greg Oden. Then Wes Matthews. And this season it was Jusuf Nurkic. Whether it be career-altering foot and knee injuries to Walton, Bowie and Oden or untimely season-ending injuries to Matthews and Nurkic, the Blazers seem a little cursed. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic were quietly beating up on teams all season and potentially an outside threat to make a run at the Warriors before Nurkic suffered a gruesome, Gordon Hayward-like leg fracture in late March. Now the team will enter the playoffs as an undermanned, guard-dependent team with a second-round ceiling.
One takeaway: This team is going to be so good...if the front office doesn't screw it up
Here's what the Kings' priorities this summer should be: 1) Retain coach Dave Joerger at all costs. (He's been linked to the T'Wolves for years); 2) Let Willie Cauley-Stein walk in free agency (Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles are going to be way better than him); and 3) Do not overpay Harrison Barnes. If the Kings do those three things, and maybe bring in a couple of Jared Dudley-type veterans, they should end the NBA's longest active playoff drought next season. De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic are already one of the more lethal back court trios in the NBA. The aforementioned Bagley and Giles complement each other beautifully as modern big men. There aren't many teams with five talents like that already in place. The Kings need to make sure they make the most out of their good fortune.
One takeaway: Gregg Popovich could lead a YMCA team to the playoffs
Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Spurs have had only 65 days with a losing record. For some context, the Rockets have the second-fewest with 1,007 days with a losing record over the same period of time. Death, taxes and Gregg Popovich coaching the Spurs into the playoffs — those are life's only certainties. Seriously, look at the Spurs roster. Coach Pop has Bryn Forbes averaging 12 points per game. He's got Rudy Gay playing good team basketball despite rupturing his Achilles on the wrong side of 30 two years ago. He even has DeMar DeRozan playmaking on offense (six assists per game). We repeat this after every regular season: Don't ever underestimate coach Popovich.
One takeaway: Pascal Siakam has made Kawhi Leonard somewhat expendable
There were a number of takeaways to be had with this Raptors regular season. For one, Nick Nurse is a good coach. For two, no matter where Kawhi Leonard signs this summer, the Raptors gave him every reason to stay in Toronto. Lastly, we learned that Pascal Siakam has superstar potential. In one of the more unforeseen leaps in the league, Siakam went from averaging seven points, under five rebounds and two assists per game on 51-22-62 shooting splits last season to 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game on 55-37-79 shooting splits. His numbers when Leonard rested were even better. In fact, as much as Toronto wants and hopes that Kawhi Leonard decides to re-sign there this offseason, Siakam's emergence has given the team a legitimate contingency plan to remain competitive in the East if he doesn't.
One takeaway: The Jazz are one star away from being a real threat
The Jazz are good, but they have a second-round ceiling right now. After struggling out of the gate, Donovan Mitchell turned his season around and had a solid sophomore campaign, averaging 24 points, four rebounds and four assists per game. Rudy Gobert improved his game on the offensive end, posting a career high in points (15.8) and rebounds (12.9) per game while playing his usual stifling defense. Joe Ingles is a two-way force as well. The building blocks are in place; the Jazz just need one more piece to take them to the next level. They were rumored to be close to acquiring Mike Conley at the deadline,. Could they revisit the deal in the offseason?
One takeaway: Bradley Beal is awesome...he should demand a trade this offseason
Get as far away from John Wall as you can, Bradley. Even if Wall was the best teammate and hardest worker in the league (which he is neither), his contract is poison, plain and simple. The Wizards won't be able to move him unless they mortgage their future like the Nets did back when they acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Beal, who averaged just 26 points, six assists and five rebounds per game, shouldn't spend the next two seasons wasting away years of his prime on a bottom-feeder. Trading Beal could actually help the Wizards begin their rebuild, as he would likely yield multiple first-round picks and young talent in return.