I don’t want to hear anymore complaints that the first round of the NBA Playoffs sucked. Sure, only two series made it past five games, and some teams just laid down and died on national television. But anyone who is a true fan appreciates basketball in any form. It’s a beautiful sport and modern basketball’s interrelation with culture provides delightful, dramatic subtext to any little on court occurrence. You can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy the Nets-Sixers scuffle, the Clippers’ amazing resiliency spearheaded by Lou Williams, or the war of Lillard against Westbrook, which Dame punctuated with his forty foot series winner. That shot Dame was so epic, such a perfect climax to what that series represented for both franchises, that it got me thinking. That series was an absolute gut punch to the Thunder team, fans, and especially to the front office. It might’ve been better for them if PG blew out his knee early in the year so they could’ve been spared from that humiliation. I then thought about the other eliminated teams, some happy to have made the playoffs, knowing that they have a bright future ahead, while other teams basically got Deandre Jordan over Brandon Knight dunked on by a rival opponent. I continued down this rabbit hole and eventually came up with this: The NBA First Round Loser Morale Rankings.
It’s a fairly simple concept. Based on how their first round elimination went, how does each franchise feel about itself going forward. Since I generally veer to negativity and sports optimism, let’s work our way from eighth to first, from the lowest morale to the highest.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder (Lost 4-1 to the Portland Trail Blazers)
February 1, 2019. The Thunder were 33-18, were third in the Western Conference standings and could easily catch both the Nuggets and the Warriors, and Paul George had seemingly replaced Durant to make OKC a championship contender once again. Flash forward just two and a half months. The Thunder went 16-15 the rest of the season (only avoiding the eight seed by winning their last five regular season matches), Paul George tailed off due to a very mysterious shoulder injury, and the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs in five quick games. Every team on this list has something to fall back on, either a legitimate excuse that alleviates the pain, or a confident optimism in the future. Every team except the Thunder.
Their roster is old, expensive, and nearly impossible to adjust. Westbrook, a perpetually overrated star, is now entering his post-prime years, as his athleticism that always hid his deficiencies begins to diminish (not to mention that he shoots with the accuracy of a Storm Trooper). Steven Adams got destroyed by his former backup, Enes Kanter, and no longer can anchor a top tier defense. There’s just nothing to be happy about. You played a team that you were outrageously more talented then, a team that was so scared of the matchup advantage you had over them with your size that they tried to purposefully tank the 82nd game to avoid you, and you still got your butt handed to you in the first round for the third straight year. The Thunder haven’t even come anywhere close to winning any series in the post-KD era. In fact, they haven’t won a road playoff game since they beat the Warriors in game one of the 2016 Western Conference Finals! Unbelievable.
We’ll look back on the Thunder of the 2010s as the lost team of the decade, just like we view the ‘90s Magic and the late ‘70s Blazers. Everyone will point to the stupidity in trading away James Harden, a glaringly obvious disaster. But don’t forget how the Thunder made the mistake of adopting the Russell Westbrook basketball style of one on one, lack of higher basketball intelligence, and confrontation and bravado over actual results. It’s the style that drove KD away.
A season that two-thirds of the way finished seemed liked a glorious re-birth of the Thunder actually turned out to be the most depressing year in Thunder history. There is absolutely no reason for anyone related to this organization to feel any hopefulness at all. My advice: trade Westbrook before everyone realizes how troubling he is, and try and move on from this nightmare.
- The Indiana Pacers (Lost 4-0 to the Boston Celtics)
“But they didn’t have Oladipo!!!!!!!!” Yes, that is correct. It’s amazing that the Pacers achieved what they did considering the loss of its far and away best player. This one is more about the manner of how the series went. It was like watching a slow stoning to death of a team. The Celtics did not even provide the mercy of obliterating the Pacers with their own stellar play. In fact, the Celtics were awful this series, averaging a dreadful 90 points per 100 possessions in four games. No matter, the Pacers’ offense set basketball back thirty years themselves, and the team seemed to realize what was happening. The Pacers just don’t have the talent. Oladipo maybe could have won them one game. Maybe. The truth is that the Pacers were never really considered one of the teams of the new Eastern Elite, and this series confirmed that belief. This team is unfortunately now running on that infamous “treadmill of mediocrity”, lacking the talent that defines true contenders, while also not being in place for any kind of rebuild that could acquire the necessary talent. Pacers’ fans were bored and frustrated about everything they witnessed this last week, but most morbidly, they were probably not surprised either. The doom and gloom of Oladipo’s injury finally caught up to the Pacers here in their season’s end.
- The Utah Jazz (Lost 4-1 to the Houston Rockets)
A huge debate is raging amongst the nerds of the NBA. Are the Jazz just a regular season-y team that lacks the true design of a team that can win in the playoffs, or are the Rockets just a horrible matchup for them? There are certainly many in that first camp, likely due to how Utah’s two marquee players, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, struggled the most out of anyone in a Jazz uniform. Gobert, already a monstrous defender, had become more dynamic on offense this season, averaging a stellar 16-13 line. Then Capela did his thing and sucked the life out of Gobert for five games despite Gobert being believed to be a superior center by the public. Gobert only averaged 11 points and 11 rebounds per game, could not handle players on the perimeter, and finished with dumpster fire plus-minus average of minus 10 per game. Holy crap that’s bad.
Mitchell fared only slightly better. To his credit, he scored 34 in game three, and 31 in a game four that he took over when he needed to. But then, you realize that he shots a 1940s esque 32% from the field, or that he killed Utah’s defense with his inability to keep track of his man off the ball. That horrible shooting percentage mainly falls on his love for out of control rim-attacks and over eager pull up threes, but it’s not like he has a ton of options. What else should he do, pass it to Rubio or Crowder spotting up from three, both of whom shoot far below league average and miss so badly sometimes that you think an optometrist might soon be called up to check their depth perception. It didn’t seem like Gobert and Mitchell just had a bad series, but rather, that Utah just looked like a lack luster team incapable of raising itself to an elite playoff level (with the exception of Royce O’Neale who was so superb that I’m officially starting the Royce O’Neale fan club and naming myself president).
However, the idea of the Rockets just being a bad matchup can’t be dismissed either. Utah was ranked in the top five in many metric standards, and teams that lack elite shooting have always struggled to keep up with the Rockets. But even if this is just a bad matchup, that’s not a good thing either. James Harden isn’t going anywhere, and with KD probably headed to the Knicks in the summer, the Rockets could potentially run the Western Conference for the next five years. You have to figure out how to beat the best teams eventually, and Utah unfortunately did not show any progress from last year.
- The Detroit Pistons (Lost 4-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks)
To be honest, they could have been much lower on this list, and were only raised to five because it’s hard to fall low in morale when you had no expectations to begin with. The Pistons know their roster isn’t good and they knew that the Bucks would sweep them. Still, they can say that they made the playoffs, which is (technically) progress after two years of regression. In addition, they at least seem to have enough in Blake that he is no longer in the John Wall level of bad contracts. You could argue that Detroit needs to be lower because they clearly have no direction that inspires hope. However, I believe they’re not as disheartened, because unlike the the Thunder, Pacers, or Jazz, they were never promised anything great by this roster. If they ever become something within the next decade, at least 90% of the current roster and coaching staff will be different.
- The Orlando Magic (Lost 4-1 to the Toronto Raptors)
I’ll admit, I was feeling pretty smug after I wrote that the Magic would take the Raptors to seven games in my playoff preview, which was immediately followed by a DJ Augustin-led upset in game one. I was feeling much less smug after the Raptors activated Jurassic Park mode and ate the Magic alive for four straight games following game one. But similar to the Pistons, the Magic probably surprised themselves in even making the playoffs. The fact that this was the franchise’s first taste of any success in the post-Dwight Howard era automatically means that their morale has to be pretty high right now. They have some actual young pieces to work with in Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, and have found a very useful coach in Steve Clifford. It’s hard to imagine that the Magic could make any move that would ever make them anything other than a first round exit for the next five years, but at least the team has shed the stench of being a continual cellar dweller. The simple of joy of making the playoffs and having an awesome moment in game one that may one day be very nostalgic to Magic fans is nothing to scoff at. They shouldn’t be upset at all with how this year went. However, they can’t be ranked any higher than four because a) it still sucks to realize you clearly have no chance against the elite teams in your conference, and more importantly b) Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s best player and lone all star, was swallowed up and neutralized by Marc Gasol, averaging 11 points per game for the series and shooting 36% from the field, drop offs from his regular season average of 21 points and 52% shooting. Oof. That might’ve been the difference between the Magic keeping Vooch with a huge deal this summer and them letting him go with little resistance.
- The San Antonio Spurs (Lost 4-3 to the Denver Nuggets)
I fell into the trap again. I assumed that the Spurs were too old and rigid, giving the Nuggets a favorable matchup, and picked Denver to win in five games. Even if the fact that this series prolonged to seven games was more due to Denver’s flaws than any great play from San Antonio, the Spurs should be proud. Talented but overhyped teams like the Thunder and the Jazz left us with doubts to their future success, whereas the Spurs showed us that they won’t be leaving the playoff picture for a long time. Spurs fans are salivating at the idea of a defensive back court of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White next season, both young cornerstones that are capable of becoming above average starters for the rest of their careers. The Spurs should feel happy that they gave their fans a season and series worth remembering.
With all this said, with all the truths that this was a good year for the Spurs, I had them a spot higher in the ranking before what transpired at the end of game seven. The Spurs, trailing by four with under thirty seconds remaining as the Nuggets held the ball, did not foul to extend their season, but inexplicably let the clock tick away and seal their fate. A lot of excuses can be made. The Denver crowd was too loud for LaMarcus Aldridge to hear Popovich’s order to foul. A foul probably wouldn’t have changed the game’s outcome. Had the Spurs called a timeout after getting the rebound they maybe could have set something up. But, as I said, these are excuses, not explanations. Professional players have to know the necessity of the moment, when to foul based on the clock. The Spurs will be upset about how their season ended even if everything prior to that was relatively positive.
- The Brooklyn Nets (Lost 4-1 to the Philadelphia 76ers)
I was legitimately scared. After that game one disaster, I thought my Sixers might be the ultimate loser of the first round. If not for a miraculous Mike Scott three, the Sixers and Nets probably would’ve finished their series in a game seven a couple of days ago. And that is probably the only regret the Nets takeaway from this series. They lost in five in a series they definitely could have stolen from the heavy favorite. No one thought the Nets would be this good this soon, and the playoffs only confirmed their bright future.
A constant theme of the teams already mentioned on this list was the lack of any sure, prosperous future moving forward. The Nets almost certainly will keep ascending the Eastern Conference for the next decade, due to their combination of talented, young assets and oodles and oodles of cap space. Caris Levert was the third best player in the entire series after Simmons and Embiid, and I would bet on him making at least one all star team in the next three years. D’Angelo Russell didn’t have his best series, but he didn’t have a total meltdown either. He proved himself as a top ten point guard in the league this season, and I think it would be smart for the Nets to resign him even if feels like a bit on an overpay. Those are two potential current roster stars on the Nets, but it really gets interesting when we talk about free agency. They haven’t been listed as the favorite to land guys like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, or Kevin Durant, but they seem to at least be on the list of each. If the Nets could somehow convince a pair of those guys to join the Brooklyn squad, then all of a sudden this post-season loss will be viewed as a courageous effort that inspired the stars to join them and form a powerhouse. Even if they fail to sign a big name guy, the 2019 Nets rekindled fan interest in what was a dead franchise, and this playoff series was the capper to their admirable journey. No reason to feel any shame.
- The Los Angeles Clippers (Lost 4-2 to the Golden State Warriors)
And it’s not even close. Not even the 127 Clippers fans that actually exist in the world thought this series was going past five games, and even then, they probably assumed their one win might be the typical Warriors game three letdown win at Staples Center. No one could have predicted two wins at Oracle. In fact, only the fewest of the few predicted that the 2019 Clippers would make the playoffs this year (yours truly picked them to finish 14th in the West). With the only exception being whoever is crowned NBA Champions by mid-June, no NBA franchise will be happier with how their season went then the Los Angeles Clippers.
A million things have been (deservedly) written about Lou Williams, so there’s no reason for me to ramble on about it more. Just know that Lou’s unbelievable tough shot-making really solidified his legacy in the ether of NBA history. He won’t simply be a name from some old roster fifty years from now, he’s a legitimate footnote, a guy you have to know about to properly understand the history of basketball. Montrezl Harrell is the perfect young big man, not just in style of play but in reputation. He does everything that modern small-ball requires of a big man without demanding the touches and contract that make big men frustrating to front offices. Jamychal Green starting at center gave the Warriors so much problems that they had to bench both Bogut and Looney to go super small-ball with Livingston. Even though I’m not a huge fan of Beverley’s play style, it’s undeniable that he became a cult hero this series and his effort (particularly as a rebounder) was beyond admirable. Shai Gilgoeous-Alexander hit every rookie check mark and projects to be an above average starter for the next decade. Landry Shamet is such a lethal shooter that it actually pains me to think that my Sixers gave him up plus the unprotected 2021 Miami Heat first round pick!!! It’s a legitimate claim that Landry Shamet might be a better asset than Tobias Harris. And I’m just now mentioning Danilo Gallinari, the best player on the Clippers this entire season, and a guy who could star as the third or fourth best player for a championship-level team. Last of all, we can’t forget about Ivica Zubac, who may have been too slow and plodding to play in this series, but the Clippers move to get him for Mike Muscala of all people remains the biggest trade robbery of 2019.
All this goodness for a team whose front office spent the whole season mapping out their 2020 plans. It’s no secret that the Clippers have been working for the last year and a half to create two max slots to sign star players in free agency. It’s assumed that they’ll be getting Kawhi Leonard considering his desire to be in L.A. and the presence of several Clippers’ staffers at contests in Toronto. Maybe if Kawhi signs early in free agency they could even snag a second guy, such as Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, and maybe even (gulp) Kevin Durant. Just tantalizing to think about. You can’t tell me one of those guys watches the Clippers’ immaculate 31 point comeback in game two, or the butt-kicking they administered to the Warriors in game five, seeing their raw emotion and energy, and think, “Man, it would be really fun to play with those guys.”
The Clippers pulled off the impossible this season. They were a real, competitive team that provided their fans with a year they can fondly remember for generations. They also set themselves up to be rebuilt as a dynasty for the next decade. In an age in which extreme success or extreme tear-down of a team is widespread, the Clippers finding a perfect middle made them fan favorites across the league. Definitely a lot to be happy about for a team that lost in the first round.