Bidding adieu to the 2021-22 NBA season: Final(s) thoughts

Bidding adieu to the 2021-22 NBA season: Final(s) thoughts

The end of the 2021-22 NBA season is remarkably bittersweet. The basketball was great, with an incredible level of competitiveness, a revamping of defense, an embracing of coverage versatility and an impressive rookie class. Covering it was an absolute joy.

On a personal note, a massive thank you to all who read my work, supported me, encouraged me or interacted with me during the season. Last May, I graduated from college with roughly a year-and-a-half of covering basketball in some part-time fashion under my belt.

I took a bit of a leap of faith to write about basketball full-time or go broke trying, and because of BasketballNews and a few other platforms, I was able to stay afloat and eventually break even for the first time in my life based on work I'm truly passionate about. My athletic ‘career’ ended in 2018 and it took me a long time to really find out what was next and what my purpose was. Writing and talking about the game just does something for me that I can’t explain, so I’ll just reiterate: thank you all again for making this life possible. Without help from many of you and my family, I wouldn’t be in this position. I’m an extremely lucky person and I’m so glad to do what I do, and I'm fortunate that my work resonates with people.

So as per usual, my main takeaway is never from the result, even when looking at my own track through basketball. The process is 97% of why I care and watch the games. It’s what I love to track and decipher. Nekias Duncan exemplified that and then some with his piece yesterday

The seasons within each season define the process. A player returns from injury or makes a key development that shapes a rotation, changes a team's identity or defines a stretch of play. Rinse and repeat, as this happens a multitude of times for each team to varying degrees. The contention landscape is an ever-molding horizon that whittles away as the year goes by.

A third of the way through the season, I thought the Cleveland Cavaliers had a shot at winning a series and making a second one raucous for their opponent. I didn’t have faith in the Golden State Warriors’ frontcourt rotation and halfcourt offense, leading me to think they’d be out of the playoffs before the Conference Finals (lol).

Along those lines, perhaps the biggest takeaway I have from this season and the postseason is that it’s just really freakin' hard to win a title. That sounds reductive, and perhaps it is in essence, but that’s sort of the point. I think it’s a bit foolhardy and lacking in context at times to take away any sweeping thoughts on the ideology of basketball in such a volatile setting.

We at large don’t know the full slate of what is or isn’t going on behind the scenes or in a locker room until it’s being broken nationally and is about to be resolved one way or another. That’s not an excuse for poor or underwhelming play, rather to say that it’s hard to place and capture the magic of incredible success. I, and many, thought that the Phoenix Suns would walk into the Western Conference Finals. The vibes dissipated with a quickness from immaculate to disastrous in a way I haven’t felt since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers.

I can point out the poor play and roster flaws that led to their on-court demise, but whatever happened off the court without a doubt contributed. It would be in poor faith to say, “Because of this they lost." But it would be just as wrong to say, “Well, they just didn’t have that dog in them.”

The Suns did have that magic for much of the season. We’ve seen teams find it and lose it during the course of the year time and time again. Finding that run of play and maintaining it is so much more difficult than we lend credence to. We tend to decry the losers rather than pointing out the immaculate nature of those who stood the test of four playoff series. We should change that! Winning the NBA Finals is extremely difficult.

As Nekias pointed out in hisaforementioned articleabout Jayson Tatum, think about all of the fantastic moments and series that Tatum did have leading up to the Finals. That man balled the heck out. We’re talking about how making the Finals and losing is bad for Tatum’s legacy??? That’s crazy to me. I understand the importance of legacy to some, but those arguments shed 97% of what got us here and hyperfocus on a six-game series at the highest level of play.

Basketball and sports in general are meant to be analyzed; it’s a large part of my job. But I feel the championship series should ultimately be much more about enjoying two incredibly good, incredibly talented and incredibly fun teams duel for the top spot in the league after the season tipped 240 days before.

To lead into some of the more tactical/schematic takeaways, advantage continuation is paramount. It probably seems obvious, but the ability to keep moving the ball, keep a play running and force the defense to react in kind is so important, even if it doesn’t lead to a bucket. I was routinely stricken by how often the Warriors had first, second, third or even fourth actions sputter out, but they routinely found a small crevice upon which to expand and keep the advantage flowing. 

I saw so many times throughout the series, “How was this Boston defense good during the regular season?” Was I doomscrolling and over-indexing? You bet. But it still stood out. The Celtics fought for their lives on possessions, and the way they shut down the Warriors time and time again in the halfcourt only to be whiplashed by a backcut, a broken play, an impromptu DHO, a Steph Curry deep three or a quick putback after 15 seconds of scramble felt back-breaking. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt Steph’s shooting gravity and never ending off-ball movement like I did in this Finals.

Even with players who weren’t shooters on volume, the Warriors unclogged possessions due to Steph’s otherworldly play and the quick decision-making of his teammates. Draymond flipping the switch on his offensive aggression, adjusting the shot tendencies like we WISH NBA 2K would even consider absolutely changed the series. Eliminating some of the indecisiveness and unwillingness made Golden State that much harder to guard. 

As athletic and sizable as the Celtics were across the board, they often felt a step behind and rarely dictating the dance in defensive possessions, which felt quite polar to their first three series.

Prior to the final few games against the Warriors, the Celtics toed that line of having enough of that ball movement and redrive oomph, attacking with secondary and tertiary drives to maintain an advantage. That, uhhh, did not hold up in the Finals, as the Warriors played phenomenal defense, but it also felt like Boston went away from what made them the best offense in the league in 2022. Marcus Smart has his fair share of erratic offensive possessions, but he spurred the offense throughout the year as Ime Udoka charged him with more primary ball-handling duties to put Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in more optimal offensive situations.

It wasn’t that he needed to always have the ball, and he still handled much in the postseason, but it assuredly happened less, and penetration and kickouts became more sparse. Again though, the point is that secondary creation juice is a large part of how they got to the Finals.

The Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks both felt as though they really lacked another secondary creator or enough of that ability to continue the advantages of Ja Morant and Giannis Antetokounmpo respectively. Again, not fully that dumbed down, but the Griz dealt with the issues of too many shooters who were hesitant and also not impacting the defense. The Bucks rarely sniffed the paint outside of Giannis or Jrue Holiday’s forays to the rim. Kick-outs were routinely one-and-done shots. Injuries certainly played a factor, as Khris Middleton changes things greatly for the Bucks, but that wasn’t the case. Even during the regular season, Milwaukee felt short of another shot creator.

On a similar note, the use of the clock to cut down or exacerbate your advantages on the margins is essential if you have some semblance of halfcourt struggles or are facing a top-notch defensive team. The Warriors absolutely bodied teams in transition and with early offense (no stats, just vibes; this was clear while watching). I think back to that Denver series and how masterfully the Warriors forced cross-matches and shifted the defense before plays started just by running like mad down the court. 

Boston was on their heels for so much of the series due to how much concerted effort the Warriors put into getting into early sets. Running off of misses was a huge swing factor, feasting on Boston’s at-rim misses in droves and parlaying a 4-on-3 against them into a 4-on-3 the other way. It honestly felt devastating at times, the basketball version of Sisyphus’ toil playing out on the parquet.

The Celtics felt on the verge of an eight-second violation every possession coming up court. Golden State employed a good array of pressure to slow down the Celtics; that’s one of my favorite random things. You’d think pressure would speed things up, right? Nope, it made the Celtics bog down and sink like a tank traversing through mud (shout out Call of Duty 4, mission War Pig; a throwback to seventh grade). In turn, they were sped up due to facing the shot clock with a proverbial back against the wall. All of the tendencies were loaded up in Golden State’s favor given how they worked the margins.

My last point I really want to stress is my ultimate Old-Man-Yells-at-Clouds moment. It is really, really, really, reaaaallllllyyyy hard to be a big in the NBA. So often, there’s this idea that's consistently projected that you can "just scoop up a viable big for the mid-level exception" or that "teams shouldn’t draft a big in the lottery." And sure, you can get a really serviceable backup or spot-starter for the MLE!

But you know that defensive-coverage versatility we mentioned earlier? It is so hard to be a big who can only play one coverage. I’d argue being a coverage-versatile big who can make quality decisions and continue advantages if you don’t craft them themselves is the most lacking positional archetype in a league that looks starved for them. 

This is not my attempt to display how I think basketball should be played; there are a ton of viable ways to win a title and construct a roster even if there are some underscored guidelines that set the boundaries of what a team can be at the highest level.

But let’s just run through some of the most important players on the deep playoff teams (who made it to the second round or further):

  • Jaren Jackson Jr.
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Deandre Ayton
  • Robert Williams III
  • Al Horford
  • Draymond Green
  • Kevon Looney (who was incredible throughout the Warriors' run)
  • Bam Adebayo
  • Maxi Kleber

The NBA 5 is so pivotal upon how defenses play the game on either side. For a defense, they need to be able to hang up in a multitude of schemes while ideally being a backline eraser with strong-help instincts and the athleticism to deter shots. Switch everything is a lie, but some switchability is pretty nice too! Can you play close to the level? Can you show and recover? Can you display enough hand activity to add a modicum of hesitation on pull-up twos or a guard turning the corner out of a ball screen as your point-of-attack defender fights over to reconnect?

There are a trillion responsibilities seemingly, and ground coverage is a must.

Offensively, the 5s routinely were the focal point of how a defense looked to stifle an offense. While Draymond isn’t technically a 5, he played a great deal of time there and his improved play and aggression over the backend of the series was paramount in attacking Boston’s defense and tipping the scale. In the previous series, I can still hear Steve Jones Jr.’s voice ringing out from the Dunker Spot (listen and subscribe!) about how teams played him as a post decision-maker with Golden State’s patented split cuts.

Al Horford broke defenses with his consistent shooting in the playoffs, something that wasn’t there much of the regular season. Shooting in that sweet spot of league average or slightly higher without hesitation at the 5 spot is back-breaking. Miami and Milwaukee routinely tried to negate Horford’s presence, but if you’re going to shoot like that without thinking, it changes the way a defense can play you. Much of the same should be said of Maxi Kleber for the Mavs. His personal heater against the Suns altered that series and forced Phoenix into a defensive bind that restructured the way they could play defense without getting absolutely pelted from Kleber’s above-the-break dynamism.

Being a capable two-way NBA big is freakin' hard. The game is still shifting more and more toward size and skill, something the next few draft classes exemplify. I don’t think it’s as drastic as every player being 7-feet tall and taking pull-up threes out of ball screens, but there’s real credence to acknowledging that the first few draft classes of players that grew up playing AAU and youth ball after the spacing revolution are coming in with skill sets to match. A few seasons ago, I was speaking with a prominent high school coach who mentioned that the high-school game was a half decade behind the NBA, as players adapted to what they saw and took in growing up. We’re seeing that start to play out and that’s absurdly cool to witness.

What will the game look like in 2027? I don’t have the answer, but I have a semblance of an idea of where it’s headed in the next few years, and I’m excited.

What will the next shift be? How is the game going to bend the court dimensions again? It continually happens over time, as innovation and adaptation occurs.  

The game is beautiful, and I’m lucky to cover it. Once again, a heartfelt thank you to anyone who's reading and those who have shared or interacted with my work over the last season. It’s odd to say goodbye to 2022, but I have a good feeling about next season.

Who knows, maybe this is the year for the Sacramento Kings?! Maybe the Orlando Magic are our wondrous young team that takes a sizable step forward from fun and young to fun, young and funkily effective. I don’t know what next year holds and I can make as many predictions as I want, but that unknowing is part of what makes the game so mystifying to me. I love uncovering and trying to learn more about what the game is, and the skill sets and stories that make up the humans who play the game. I truly loved the process and unraveling of the 2022 season, and I hope you can say the same!

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