The Mulligan: Every NBA team not named the Cavs and Warriors

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To every team not named the Warriors and Cavaliers, I would like to say: it’s not you, it’s them. On their way to a third consecutive Finals matchup, Cleveland and Golden State rendered the rest of the playoffs moot, losing a combined one single game against their opponents, putting together a 24-1 record together.

With each opponent they dispatched, they sent one more franchise into soul-searching mode. The Pacers and Blazers were never contenders to begin with this season, so their first round sweeps only confirmed those facts. But in the later rounds, losing to the Warriors and Cavs meant an entire revaluation of the direction of the franchise.

The Raptors pushed themselves into the contender conversation at the trade deadline by acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, then found out they were not even in the same tier as the Cavs, who swept them in four games. And just like that, we started to wonder whether 31-year-old Kyle Lowry was worth a max deal this summer, if Dwane Casey was the right head coach, and if there was a point to any of this.

Same for the Utah Jazz, who were a dark horse in the West, and considered a tough matchup for the Warriors with their ability to slow the pace, spread the floor and the potential to upset Golden State’s rhythm with their rim protection. All of that turned out to only be competitive in theory. The Warriors beat the Jazz in four straight by an average of 15 points per game.

The Boston Celtics rose atop the East, winning 53 games and earning the number one seed, then promptly dropped the first two games in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs at home by a combined 57 points, before losing in five. There’s a contending core there, and Boston will be adding the number one overall pick, but yet again, they were reminded of how far the gap is between Cleveland and the rest of the East.

Could the Spurs taken down the Warriors had Kawhi Leonard not been hurt early in the series? Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs will wonder what if had Kawhi Leonard not gotten hurt in the second half of Game 1 against the Warriors, but their sweep was another reminder that even with a core group led by Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio is nowhere close to competing with Golden State over a seven game series. That’s the sobering thought confronting all of these teams on a contending curve: how do we possibly catch up to the Cavs in the East? And how does anyone catch up to the Warriors when they’re positioned to have Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in and near their primes for the foreseeable future?

The short answer: you don’t. The long answer: forget about the playoff embarrassment and just continue building your team as you would. In another era, teams like the Raptors, Celtics and Wizards would consider themselves a player or two away from possibly landing a Finals spot. The Jazz and Spurs would see themselves as realistic contenders in the West. Right now, that’s not realistic. The Cavs and Warriors are so good that every playoff failure against them this season (and likely beyond) should be graded on a different curve. If everyone’s getting embarrassed, is it really worth it to overreact?

It’s worthwhile for each of these teams to assess their performance based on the larger sample size of the regular season, and how they fared against one another, and not against the two juggernauts who are light years ahead of everyone right now. The Raptors won 51 games despite Lowry missing 22 games, and if they re-sign Ibaka, they’ll come back next season ready to challenge the Celtics for top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Celtics face a money crunch soon with Isaiah Thomas headed to free agency after next season, but Danny Ainge’s rebuilding plan is moving along just fine, and they’ve still got one more first round pick from Brooklyn coming.

The Jazz are a promising young core, and if they can re-sign Gordon Hayward in free agency, this group can continue to develop and become a playoff mainstay for the next half decade. The Spurs, well, they’re the Spurs. This was their 18th consecutive season in which they won over 50 games, and they’ll be right there again next season. Tearing it down or changing directions because of one playoff round against these two powerhouses would be a mistake.

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks dunks against the Miami Heat during the first half of a game at BMO Harris Bradley Center on January 13, 2017. Antetokounmpo could be the MVP of the league in the future.   Stacy Revere/Getty Images

And that goes for the rest of the league too. For the Bucks, who have a future (very immediate future, probably) MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a few years away is not the worse timeline to be on right now. Same for the forever rebuilding Sixers, who will be adding a lottery pick to the core three of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. Out West, the Rockets discovered that putting James Harden at point guard and surrounding him with shooters gave them one of the most explosive offenses of all-time. The Pelicans have Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, which is the start of something. The Lakers and Wolves are coming soon.

Everyone is in a second tier now, behind the Cavs and Warriors, and while they might take a lot of drama and excitement out of the league for the next few years, every other team needs to take a mulligan on how their season ended, especially those in the playoffs, and just stay the course. There’s no shame in admitting that your team isn’t in the same stratosphere as the Cavs and Warriors right now. Some day, LeBron’s reign in the East will end. The Warriors’ dynasty might just be getting started, but there’s an expiry date on that too. For now, everyone just chart their own course and forget about the disappointments and embarrassments of this year.

Alex Wong is a freelance writer from New York. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_lebron.

QUIZ: Name every NBA franchise's points leader

Can you name the career points leader for every NBA franchise?

Clue: Team (number of points scored)

Dominique Wilkins
John Havlicek
Buck Williams
Dell Curry
Michael Jordan
LeBron James
Dirk Nowitzki
Alex English
Isiah Thomas
Wilt Chamberlain
Hakeem Olajuwon
Reggie Miller
Randy Smith
Kobe Bryant
Pau Gasol
Dwyane Wade
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kevin Garnett
David West
Patrick Ewing
Gary Payton
Dwight Howard
Hal Greer
Walter Davis
Clyde Drexler
Oscar Robertson
Tim Duncan
Chris Bosh
Karl Malone
Elvin Hayes

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