As I wrote before about March Madness, all teams except the champion lose their last game. In March Madness, 52 of The Dance’s 68 teams have their season ended on the Sunday of the first weekend. In the NBA, it’s a slower process, but we’re now at the point in the playoffs where half the teams are done for the year.
All losing teams feel pain, but some feel more than others. Here is my ranking of the teams’ respective pain levels, starting with the least, ending with the most:
8. New Orleans Pelicans
While excellent young Pelicans coach Willie Green rightly poured a lot of sad water after his team’s Game 6 loss to the Suns, I’m sure those were tears of pride too. His young team had scared the top-seeded Suns after having to win two Play-In games just to qualify for the playoffs. The team gained valuable playoff experience and confidence for the next time they get here. And they did all of that without Zion Williamson, arguably their best and absolutely their most exciting player. Zion have just announced he will ‘absolutely’ be signing long-term with the team on a max deal – but do they want to invest all that money in an often injured player? One way or another, the Pelicans are the feel-good team for this group of teams.
7. Denver Nuggets
Denver can’t just be nearly swept away, but they managed to capture Game 4. Without their second- and third-best players for most of the season, the Nuggets were essentially a great player and a group of average players, this which means their sixth-place finish and a first-round loss seem about right. No one expected them to go any further, most likely including the Nuggets themselves. The Nuggets can feel good heading into the summer knowing they can be a real contender next season with their full squad back.
6. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls also returned to the playoffs after a long absence. After a long decline in relevance in the second half of the regular season, largely due to injuries to key players, the Bulls were not expected to be a strong playoff team. Indeed, the Bucks appear to have moved into third place in an effort to face the Bulls in the first round, leaving the Celtics to deal with the much scarier Nets. Ironically, both teams won easily, although the Nets-Celtics matchups were much closer than Bucks-Bulls. While the Bulls stole a game thanks to a terrific game from DeMar DeRozan, the Bucks won their four games by 7, 30, 26 and 16 points. The Bulls must have been disappointed, but not surprised. They lost to a better team.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
We thought of the T’Wolves as a perennial lottery team for a long, long time because they were. They haven’t won a playoff since 2004 — they beat the Sacramento Kings, another longtime loser, when Kevin Garnett was league MVP. It was a very long time ago. This year’s team played the Memphis Grizzlies virtually evenly, with 20-year-old Anthony Edwards giving the team hope they could have two real stars, with Karl-Anthony Towns possibly making a team All NBA. That being said, giving up three double-digit runs in the fourth quarter to lose winnable games has got to sting.
4. Toronto Raptors
A popular sleeper pick heading into the playoffs, the Raptors crashed to the 76ers in the first three games, only to turn that 3-0 “here’s a sweep” into a 3-2 “a Doc Rivers team will choke at new?”. Unfortunately, we all missed the media frenzy that would have accompanied a Game 7 when the Raptors imploded in a 35-point Game 6 home loss that ended their season. Just a few years after the championship Spurs West Toronto, the Raptors may have once again peaked as a playoff middle-grade team, well short of true contender status.
3. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks had a disappointing postseason, after an even more disappointing season. Last season, the Hawks made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, and when Giannis Antetokounmpu suffered a knee injury in Game 4, they looked like legitimate threats to advancing to the Finals. The Bucks easily won the next two games (and the Finals), but the Hawks looked set to take the next step this season. Unfortunately, the Hawks’ next step turned out to be backwards, as they limped to an 8th place finish. While Trae Young had a great statistical regular season, his postseason was a disaster: 15 points per game on 31% shooting, 18% on three, with more turnovers (32) than assists (30). Before the playoffs, I wrote this:
I heard a great comment about the Hawks on a podcast: “The Hawks have a lot of swagger for a team that finished four games above .500.”
The Heat overturned the Hawks’ swagger. As a result, the Hawks enter the offseason with serious doubts about the cornerstone of the franchise in particular and the team in general.
2. Brooklyn Nets
While most can put the Nets in the first (worst) spot on this list, I have them in second — though I understand the argument that the Nets had the most painful end. The Nets were the preseason title favorites, and even after a 7th-place finish, they were still favored by many to win the East. Spoiler alert – they didn’t. Instead, they suffered an embarrassing sweep against the Celtics. Even after a 39-point effort in Game 4, Kevin Durant still had a subpar streak, shooting just 39% with five turnovers per game. KD was simply dominated by Jason Tatum. Kyrie Irving did the opposite, stringing together a stellar 39-point Game 1 with forgettable 10, 16 and 20-point games. Steve Nash was also edged out by Ime Udoka, as the Nets never changed their iso-heavy offense to counter Boston’s defensive plans. After the series, Irving ironically complained that the team never had a chance to gel, failing to mention that his own unfortunate picks resulted in the team point guard playing in just 29 regular-season games. The only reason the Nets are avoiding last spot here is because they’re going into the summer believing they could live up to the hype next season, especially if confusing Ben Simmons plays and performs well.
1. Utah Jazz
The Jazz started the season like they always do – winning a lot of games, with a great point differential. But during the second half of the season, the Jazz were just a .500 team and fell from the ranks of contenders. As a result, many believed that without a strong playoff run, the Jazz might decide to make some major changes. In my pre-playoff article, I wrote:
Rumors say this could be the last release for this team unless the unexpected happens, and I don’t expect the unexpected. (By definition, no one does.)
Unfortunately for the Jazz, the expected happened and they lost in the first round. But how it happened was not expected. The Jazz couldn’t take advantage of the Mavs missing Luka Doncic for the first three games, losing 2-1. The Jazz then seemingly turned it around by winning a thrilling Game 4, but then went 3-30 from three in Game 5 (yes, that’s 10%) and lost by 25, scoring just 77 points in their biggest game of the year. But while it was bad, Game 6 was worse. Down 2 points at the buzzer, the Jazz’s best shooter built a wide-open three-pointer that could have extended his season.
That miss sealed the deal, ending not just the season, but likely that version of the team. As a result, I have them at number one on this list. I will miss this version of Jazz: a good but not great team that left Jazz fans with yet another painful end, dashing their hopes once again.