You're Only as Good as Your Bench, Beware the Big Trade, and Other Lessons from the NBA Playoffs So Far
The race for the Larry O’Brien trophy is down to four teams, which means it’s time to make a bunch of broad, sweeping generalizations about What it All Means and the broader state of the NBA, which we absolutely will not later regret. Among them: Continuity matters. So does chemistry. And depth. Star power is never enough.
But before any of that, let’s start with the strange and unexpected echoes from 2020 to today.
The bubble teams are back—with some big changes.
To wit: the four conference finalists—the Lakers and Nuggets in the West, the Celtics and Heat in the East—are the same final four from three years ago, when the NBA staged its postseason in the so-called “bubble” in Orlando. This proves definitively, once and for all, that the bubble teams were no fluke, and the Lakers’ bubble title should be asterisk-free. Case closed!
To which I say: Well, sort of. Mostly. Maybe?
It’s true that we have the same four franchises, featuring the same core stars from 2020: LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. But the same teams? Eh, not exactly.
The Lakers have turned over their entire roster—multiple times, in fact—leaving James and Davis as the only holdovers from the bubble. Their third leading playoff scorer in 2020, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is now starting for the Nuggets. And of course, James (38) is now considerably older, less spry and less efficient than Bubble LeBron.
Nor are these the same Nuggets. Denver, too, has turned over its entire supporting cast since 2020, leaving only its core stars: Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. And even those three aren’t the same. When these teams last clashed in the playoffs, Jokic was a rising star, but not yet a two-time MVP. Porter Jr. was a virtual rookie, having missed his first NBA season due to back surgery. Murray, a breakout star in the bubble, tore his ACL the next season, and has only recently reclaimed his swagger.
The 2023 Heat also bear little resemblance to their 2020 squad, though a few familiar faces remain alongside the stars: Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent and of course, the eternal Udonis Haslem (who, like Jack Nicholson’s hotel caretaker in The Shining, has just always been there.) But Herro, a rookie in 2020 who blossomed into a star, is out for the 2023 playoffs, having broken his right hand in the first round. Vincent, an end-of-bench spectator in 2020, is now a starter. Robinson, a key starter then, is a diminished reserve now. (Haslem, now as then, is mostly here to play the Roy Kent role: teach, guide, occasionally growl.)
If there’s a true through line (and logical comparison) from 2020 to 2023, it’s the Celtics, who are still built around bubble vets Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams and Grant Williams. That said, the Williamses were much younger then (Grant, a rookie; Robert, a sophomore) and far less integral. Tatum and Brown are certified All-NBA now, and they’ve got a wealth of veteran support in Al Horford, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon.
So no, this final four isn’t exactly the same four that dominated the bubble, and no, the reappearance of these four franchises doesn’t necessarily validate what they did three years ago. The 2020 playoffs, played in seclusion because of the Covid-19 pandemic, were unique and profoundly strange: No fans, no travel, no freedom to leave. It impacted every player and team differently.
What this postseason has proven, once again, is that “chemistry” and “continuity” aren’t just touchy-feely buzzwords. They matter. So does depth. Just ask the vacationing Phoenix Suns, who were practically crowned as championship favorites when they acquired Kevin Durant in February, only to be summarily dismissed by the Nuggets last week.
Stars matter. But so does everyone else.
It's easy to be seduced by marquee talent in this league. The partnering of Durant with Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton was irresistible to pundits and oddsmakers alike. But they were never going to have more than 20 games to establish a rhythm before the playoffs. Then that 20 became eight, because of another Durant injury. The Suns also surrendered three talented wings in the trade that brought Durant from Brooklyn, leaving them a depleted rotation. Coach Monty Williams never could find a group he trusted outside of his starting five.
The Suns did go 8-0 with Durant in the regular season, they did crush the (injury-depleted) Clippers in the first round, and they did tie the Nuggets at 2-2 in the semifinals with outstanding play from Durant and Booker. But they were crushed in the final two games, because their two main stars were spent, their complementary stars were hurt, and their depth was nonexistent.
Which brings us to our next lesson.
Be wary of the in-season blockbuster trade.
Like the Suns with Durant, the Dallas Mavericks never figured out how to thrive with Kyrie Irving, who was also acquired from the Nets in mid-February. Like the Suns, the Mavericks surrendered multiple key players in the deal, weakening their depth and their defense. Irving and superstar Luka Doncic meshed well enough, but they struggled to actually win games. Dallas went 9-18 after acquiring Irving, and 8-12 in games he played. The Mavericks, who were fifth in the West when they landed Irving, finished 11th and missed the playoffs.
Indeed, everyone involved in the Nets’ midseason blockbusters—which were triggered by trade demands from Irving and Durant—effectively lost. The Nets went from title contender to second-tier playoff team, and were quickly dispatched by the Philadelphia 76ers. They’re back to searching for a foundational star. The Suns and Mavericks both need serious roster reconstruction this summer, but have few tools to do so.
And, sure, watch out for the offseason ones, too.
As it happens, offseason blockbusters didn’t fare so well this season, either. The Cavaliers, who surrendered a wealth of players and draft picks to acquire Donovan Mitchell from Utah last summer, flopped in the first round. The Timberwolves, who gave up a massive cache of players and picks to get Mitchell frenemy Rudy Gobert, barely finished over .500 (42-40) and were smoked in the first round by the Nuggets. The Hawks, who traded multiple picks to get Dejounte Murray from San Antonio, finished at .500 (two games worse than the year before) and also lost in the first round.
Indeed, the deals that paid the greatest dividends this season were decidedly un-blockbustery. Jalen Brunson, who signed a (then-controversial) $104 million deal with New York last summer, revived the Knicks’ fortunes and carried them to an unexpected semifinals appearance. The Warriors stabilized their rotation at midseason by reacquiring Gary Payton II, who toughened their second unit and their defense and helped propel them to the semifinals. And Malcolm Brogdon, acquired by Boston from Indiana last summer, won Sixth Man of the Year and has been critical to the Celtics’ run.
And then there are the Lakers, who executed the reverse blockbuster—shipping out the ill-fitting Russell Westbrook and replenishing their rotation with solid role players: Jarred Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. That trade, plus a separate deal to acquire Rui Hachimura in February, quite literally saved the season—and saved the franchise from the humiliation of squandering another All-NBA year from James.
Now LeBron and Co. stand four wins from a return to the Finals, eight wins from another championship—this time without a pandemic, a bubble or an asterisk.
Originally Appeared on GQ