It’s a wrap. The long, drawn-out regular season is over. A total of 16 teams will now battle to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy sometime in June. And while the focus turns to what promises to be a competitive playoff slate around the NBA, there’s a whole lot we can take away from the regular season.
The Toronto Raptors finally surpassed both Boston and Cleveland as the best team in the Eastern Conference. For their part, the Cavaliers relied on none other than LeBron James to fix a sinking ship midstream. Meanwhile, both the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers impressed big time.
Out west, the defending champion Warriors gave in to Houston for the best in the conference while dealing with multiple injuries. The new big three in Oklahoma City proved themselves to be incredibly inconsistent. And in Utah, the Jazz turned early-season struggles into one of the best 40-game stretches in recent NBA history.
Here’s a look at one takeaway from each NBA team’s regular season as we head into the playoffs.
Toronto Raptors: East’s best
It may be different come playoff time, but these Raptors proved themselves to be the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference. Relying on a makeshift bench after the departure of multiple key veterans last summer, the likes of C.J. Miles, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright stepped up big time. Their contributions gave Toronto the deepest reserve unit in the NBA behind stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. With 59 wins during the regular year, Toronto now enters the playoffs as favorites to earn a first ever NBA Finals appearance.
Boston Celtics: Darn injuries
If we were to ask Celtics fans, the term “darn” might have been replaced with something out of Game of Thrones. Simply put, it’s been a bloodbath for Boston this season. It started with Gordon Hayward suffering a devastating ankle injury within his first few minutes as a member of the team. Despite this, Boston has remained right up there with the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, the team will now be without MVP candidate Kyrie Irving for the playoffs after he suffered a late-season knee injury. It’s a disturbing trend for a Celtics squad that dealt with Isaiah Thomas’ injury about this time last year. And in reality, it could very well lead to an early playoff exit.
Philadelphia 76ers: The process worked
For the first time since 2001, Philadelphia won 50 regular season games. It heads into the playoffs in the midst of a 16-game winning streak and riding a near all-time high. Sure the injury to Joel Embiid might temper expectations a tad. Even then, what these Sixers have done to build off a process started by former GM Sam Hinkie is nothing short of amazing. Ben Simmons averaged 15.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.2 assists during the regular season. Embiid, who will likely return here soon, turned in an All-Star performance. Meanwhile, the likes of J.J. Redick, Dario Saric and Robert Covington proved to be tremendous secondary options for this instant contender.
New York Knicks: Rebuild stalls
New York actually started the season strong, posting a 16-13 record by mid December. But that’s when the wheels fell off big time. Since then, this rebuilding squad finished the season by losing 31 of 43 games to fall completely out of the playoff race. In between, star forward Kristaps Porzingis was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Now, heading into the summer, New York is at somewhat of a crossroads. Prized free agent acquisition Tim Hardaway Jr. played well and fellow new acquisition Enes Kanter held up his end of the bargain. Outside of that, there’s not much to write home about. Rookie lottery pick Frank Ntilikina averaged less than six points per game and there’s really no other youngster to bank on for the future in the Big Apple. We’re also openly wondering whether Jeff Hornacek is long for the job after another dismal season.
Brooklyn Nets: Some good, mostly bad
At the very least, it was an entertaining product in Brooklyn this season. Without any real expectations, the Nets were able to average nearly 107 points per game. D’Angelo Russell took that next step to quality starter material, averaging 15.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. It’s also important to note that young GM Sean Marks has done will building up the talent and future draft pick assets without a whole lot to work with in that regard. Even then, Brooklyn concluded the 2017-18 season with less than 30 wins for the third consecutive year. That’s just not going to cut it, especially in a basketball city.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Salvaging a legacy
The season started with Cleveland looking to team LeBron James up with the combination of Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade. Within just a few months, both were shipped off in separate trades as the Cavs attempted a rebrand mid-season. In came a bunch of secondary options for James to work with. The end result was another decent 50-plus win season, accompanied with the drama that James-led squads have become accustomed to. For his part, The King might have also put up the best performance of his career. He averaged 27.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists on a ridiculous .590 effective field goal mark. There’s no telling whether Cleveland will find a way to earn a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, but the 2017-18 regular season created a battle-tested squad. That’s for sure.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo’s team
Indiana will head into the playoffs as the east’s fifth seed after a surprising 48-win regular season. No one really saw this coming after the team traded away franchise stalwart Paul George in a deal many chastised last summer. But several months later, it sure looks like these Pacers got the best of that deal. It comes in the form of a player in Victor Oladipo who made the transition from talented youngster to an All-Star. Oladipo concluded his first season with the Pacers averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists while leading the Association in steals with 2.4 per game. He now has the Pacers in prime position for what would be a surprising deep run in the playoffs.
Milwaukee Bucks: The Greek Freak
Still just 23 years old, Giannis Antetokounmpo took that next step towards elite status this season. He ended the regular year averaging 27.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Those are MVP-caliber numbers right there. It also just so happens that Giannis accomplished this feat for a Bucks team that has a fighting chance to go deep into the playoffs. And if his highlight-reel plays are any indication, fans want to see that happen. He’s just too much fun to watch.
Detroit Pistons: The trade that failed
Trading for someone of Blake Griffin’s ilk is normally meant to bring a contenting team to the next level. Instead, Detroit seemingly made the deal out of desperation as a way to become relevant back east. In doing so, GM Stan Van Gundy and Co. yielded solid veterans Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris as well as a first-round pick in June’s draft. With a 15-17 record after the deal was conducted, Detroit found itself out of the Eastern Conference Playoff race relatively quickly. It now heads into the offseason without any real opportunity to improve a roster that has continued to underperform with Van Gundy calling the shots. Now forced to pay Griffin north of $110 million over the next three seasons, that’s going to handcuff the Pistons even more.
Chicago Bulls: From fights to irrelevance
The season started with Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis throwing punches on opening day. As that drama continued to unfold behind the scenes with Mirotic eventually finding himself traded, the on-court product for these Bulls just lacked any sort of relevance. Acquired from Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler trade, Zach LaVine played in a total of 24 games due to injury. He’s now set to become a free agent. Chicago will look to build this squad with youngsters Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn moving forward, but neither has the franchise-type feel to him. All said, this led to Chicago boasting its worst regular season record since 2003-04. Without much hope of contention moving forward, one now has to wonder if head coach Fred Hoiberg’s days are also numbered in the Windy City.
Miami Heat: Another tremendous regular season
Yet another absolutely brilliant coaching job by Erik Spoelstra has culminated in Miami earning a playoff spot after a one-year hiatus. When looking at the Heat’s roster, it’s hard to believe this squad is actually going to play postseason basketball. Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside lead a unit that’s seemingly without any true star. In fact, Whiteside himself felt left out in the cold having been benched later in games throughout the season. Despite this, a deep supporting cast helped Miami keep its head above water. That includes surprise performances from Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, James Johnson and Wayne Ellington. There’s not a lot to look at when it comes to conference title contention for Miami. But the simple fact that this team is in the playoffs should shock pretty much everyone.
Washington Wizards: Same old story
Head coach Scott Brooks took his frustration out on John Wall and the Wizards’ entire roster late in the regular season. And for good reason. Washington closed up the regular season losing 13 of its final 22 games. This coincided with Wall’s return to the court after missing two months to injury. And now, Washington is limping into the playoffs as a bottom two seed back east. Whether it’s Brooks’ coaching or the inability of GM Ernie Grunfeld to provide a supporting cast behind Wall and Bradley Beal, this has been a continual issue for Washington. And it’s now likely going to lead to another premature playoff exit. At some point, the powers to be in D.C. are going to realize the status quo isn’t working. If the 2017-18 regular season is any indication, that might come sooner rather than later.
Charlotte Hornets: Blow this thing up
Adding Dwight Howard and rookie Malik Monk to the mix this past summer, Michael Jordan’s squad headed into the 2017-18 season with playoff aspirations. Rather quickly, those hopes proved to be utterly foolish. Despite the best efforts of All-Star Kemba Walker and Howard’s return to relevance, Charlotte opened the season at 13-23 heading into the 2018 calendar year. From there, these Hornets were never really in the playoff conversation. It led to the team making the dramatic decision to hire former Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak in the same role. That in and of itself, will lead to wholesale changes during the summer, including the possibility of Charlotte trading the above-mentioned Walker and firing head coach Steve Clifford.
Orlando Magic: Frank Vogel’s fool’s gold
Vogel came to Orlando from Indiana last season ready to overlook what was a budding young roster. Despite the lack of any real experience, there were very little who believed this team couldn’t impress with the talent it had on the roster. That included the likes of Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, Nikola Vucevic and Even Fournier. In less than two seasons, this whole project proved to be doomed. Failing to fit into Vogel’s system, Payton was traded for pennies on the dollar. Meanwhile, Vucevic never seemed to be a fit in Vogel’s scheme, demanding us to ask just what exactly was Vogel’s plans from the get. It all resulted in a 2017-18 regular season that saw Orlando finish with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference. And now, Vogel’s future in Florida is very much in doubt.
Atlanta Hawks: The Association’s worst
Having moved on from its four All-Stars of just three years back, most figured these Hawks would be among the worst teams in the NBA. That’s exactly how it played out with Atlanta and Phoenix vying for said title. And while the Hawks actually finished with a better record than Phoenix, they were the worst team in the Association. He might have filled up the stat sheet, but Dennis Schroder proved that he’s both incapable of leading a contending team and vastly overpaid for the job he does on the court. John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry might be nice pieces to the puzzle moving forward. That’s fine. Unfortunately, it’s not going to expedite a complete rebuild that had Atlanta go from the east’s best to a walking embarrassment within the matter of a few years.
Portland Trail Blazers: Instant contenders
As much credit as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum should get for Portland’s ascension to legit conference title contention, the team’s supporting cast stepped up during the regular season. In helping lead the Blazers to nearly 50 wins, the likes of Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and even Shabazz Napier showed up big time. The three combined to average 32.4 points and 18.9 rebounds per game. For a Blazers squad that had seen its supporting cast struggle in previous seasons, this was absolutely huge. We have no idea if Portland is going to challenge Houston or Golden State in the playoffs. What we do know is that this team is coming off its best regular season performance since 2014-15. Progression really was the name of the game in the Pacific Northwest.
Utah Jazz: From rebuild to relevance
Fresh off a 40-point drubbing of the defending champs, Utah heads into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Given the team started this season 16-24, that’s among the most dramatic turnarounds in Association history. It will almost assuredly lead to Quin Snyder winning coach of the year and Donovan Mitchell competing with Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year. It also has the Jazz thinking title contention less than a calendar year after franchise stalwart Gordon Hayward moved on to Boston in free agency. It really is something to behold. In addition to Mitchell becoming the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony, six other members of the Jazz averaged double-digit points. It really was a true team effort, and a shocking performance in Salt Lake.
Oklahoma City Thunder: The Big Three
As to where Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony teamed up perfectly fine for the playoff-bound Thunder, Carmelo Anthony struggled fitting in as one of the two main additions at small forward to replace Kevin Durant. His performance led to a mediocre regular year for a Thunder squad that was not guaranteed a postseason spot until the final weekend of the regular season. Despite this, Oklahoma City as a whole impressed against some of the game’s best. It boasted a 5-4 record against Golden State, Houston and Cleveland while being swept out in a four-game set against Portland. If the regular season taught us anything, it’s that these Thunder have both the capability of coming out of the west and losing in the first round. It was about as up-and-down of a regular season as we saw around the NBA.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Andrew Wiggins’ mistake
Long-term, this past year will be defined by Minnesota giving Wiggins a max contract. In his first year earning said deal, Wiggins took a major step back for the Wolves. His efficiency and scoring dropped at alarming clips while the former No. 1 pick continued to struggle on the defensive end of the court. Given the progression we’ve seen from Karl-Anthony Towns and just how well Jimmy Butler has fit into Minnesota’s system, its the one black eye in a season that ultimately led to Minnesota’s first playoff appearance since 2003-04 with a thrilling playoff-clinching win over Denver in the season finale.
Denver Nuggets: Finding cohesion, coming up a tad short
Denver had an opportunity to sneak into the playoffs with a win over Minnesota in the season finale. Alas, that did not come to fruition. In no way does this mean the 2017-18 campaign was a failure for head coach Mike Malone and Co. The team still won 46 games with the likes of Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic proving themselves to be franchise cornerstones. It’s also important to note that Denver was without prized free agent addition and All-Star Paul Millsap for more than half the regular season. Denver is building something nice here, but it proved to be about a year early for true contention in an ultra competitive Western Conference.
Golden State Warriors: Path obviously isn’t paved in gold
Injuries and a lack of interest took a major toll on the defending champs over the final month-plus of the regular season. With the team’s four All-Stars all sidelined together at one point and Stephen Curry himself still out of action, Golden State finished the season losing 10 of its final 17 games. That includes losing to Indiana and Utah by a combined 60 points. More so than in any of Steve Kerr’s first three seasons in Oakland, this team is vulnerable. Carelessness with turnovers and a weakened bench both played huge role in this. Despite all of that, Golden State remains defending champs until told otherwise. Though, the regular season proved that the Warriors’ path to a title is not going to be paved in gold. That’s for sure.
Los Angeles Clippers: A new era
The season started with Los Angeles looking to build its future on the back of the recently extended Blake Griffin. But within the matter of a few months, he was shipped off to Detroit in what was purely a cost-cutting moves. This ended an era of competitive playoff basketball that had spanned the previous six seasons. Instead of riding Griffin and Chris Paul to mid-tier contention, Los Angeles relied on Lou Williams, Tobias Harris, Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari to pack a punch. For the most part, they did. And it’s a rather decent group to build around moving forward. Whether said future includes head coach Doc Rivers remains to be seen.
Los Angeles Lakers: Team of talented youngsters
We can talk about the Ball family drama all we want. Can Lonzo and LaVar coexist with head coach Luke Walton moving forward? A lot of the talk in Los Angeles has also surrounded the potential that this team will add multiple elite players in free agency. That’s fine. What we do know is that the team’s young core stepped up big time during a surprisingly competitive 2017-18 regular season. Despite some struggles shooting, Lonzo had a stellar rookie campaign. Fellow first-year player Kyle Kuzma proved himself to be a starter-caliber player out of the gate. Meanwhile, the likes of Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle also upped their games big time. It really is a nice core for the Lakers to build around moving forward, no matter what happens this coming summer.
Sacramento Kings: No real progression
No one really expected Sacramento to compete for a playoff spot this season. Instead, it was all about seeing some sort of progression from the team’s young core. That didn’t happen. Buddy Hield struggled in taking on a leading scoring role. Rookies De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson didn’t play up to their status as lottery picks. All the while, Sacramento finished dead last in the NBA in scoring. It culminated in a 12th consecutive losing season, eight of which have seen the Kings finish with 50-plus losses.
Phoenix Suns: Failures everywhere
Phoenix might be set up to do some big things in free agency, but it’s on-court performance this season was a downright disaster. Devin Booker dealt with injuries throughout of the season. Former head coach Earl Watson was fired just three games into the season, only to see interim head coach Jay Triano lead Phoenix to a 21-58 mark. The team yielded an NBA-high 113.3 points per game while seeing youngsters Dragan Bender, Marquise Chriss and Alex Len fail to take that next step. Having a ton of money in free agency is good. But being unable to build up a team from the multiples of draft assets these Suns have had is the biggest problem in the desert.
Houston Rockets: The West’s best
It’s not close. From January 1st on, Houston separated itself from the rest of the west in an absolutely huge way. Here’s a team that won 40 of its final 47 regular season games, including winning streaks of 17 and 11 games during that span. James Harden is the unquestioned NBA MVP. Chris Paul meshed in extremely well with the Rockets, having seen the team post a 51-8 record in the 59 games he played in. Meanwhile, the likes of Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute provided defensive stops at a rate we had no seen from previous versions of the Rockets. All of this led to Houston overtaking Golden State as the top dog out west during the regular year.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis’ ascension to MVP status
Without DeMarcus Cousins for the final 34 games of the regular season, New Orleans posted a 21-13 record to finish extremely strong. During that 34-game span, Davis averaged a resounding 30.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game to cement his status as a top-five MVP candidate. If that weren’t the case before this season, we’re pretty darn sure it is the case right now. It led to New Orleans winning a surprising 48 games en route to contention in what was a competitive Western Conference during the regular season. Whether this translates to playoff success remains to be seen. But Davis has taken that next step, and his Pelicans are now relevant because of it.
San Antonio Spurs: Nothing going without Kawhi
After Wednesday’s loss to the Pelicans, these Spurs will head into the playoffs as the seventh seed and forced to take on the same Warriors team that swept them out of the playoffs last season. They’ll do so with Kawhi Leonard still sidelined to injury and not looking particularly competitive in the grand scheme of things. In fact, San Antonio backed into the playoffs by putting up a 17-18 record in its final 35 games. More than that, the divide between Leonard and his Spurs has apparently grown to the point where other teams might look to trade for him this summer. It’s a far cry from prior to Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. And it’s rather shocking how one injury can change the destiny of an entire franchise. In San Antonio, the biggest takeaway from the 2017-18 regular season was just that.
Dallas Mavericks: Remaining stagnant
Team building has not necessarily been the name of the game in Dallas. For some reason, these Mavericks seem stuck in between the glory years of the past and a new era in which a rebrand is needed. Obviously, Dirk Nowitzki still playing after two decades in the league has led to this questionable team-building method. As has the contract Dallas handed a second-tier player in Harrison Barnes. Mixed in between, there’s a nice amount of young talent here. That includes rookie Dennis Smith Jr., who performed extremely well as a rookie. But at some point soon, Dallas needs to go into full-scale rebuild mode. If the 2017-18 season proved anything, that should include moving on from Dirk completely and potentially finding a buyer for Barnes on the trade market this summer.
Memphis Grizzlies: Time to move on from Chris Wallace
It’s high time that Memphis actually decided the man responsible for its failures is fired. No longer can the Grizzlies allow Wallace to utilize fall guys as a way to explain away his failure as general manager. The firing of head coach David Fizdale after just 19 games proved this to a T. Is it Fizdale’s fault that Wallace gave Chandler Parsons a max contract, only to see him play in 70 games over two seasons? Is it Fizdale’s fault that Mike Conley was given an otherworldly contract despite injury concerns? Is it Fizdale’s fault that two of the Grizzlies’ most-recent draft picks are no longer with the team? Wallace has failed Memphis at every turn, leading to a disastrous 22-win 2017-18 regular season.