The NBA's Paper Tigers Exposed in The Postseason by Matt John
If there was a perfect time for the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers to win a title, it was now.
If there was a perfect time for the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers to win a title, it was this season. Both getting the first seed in their respective conferences was all well and good, but this NBA postseason provided a rare opportunity for both of them.
The Los Angeles Lakers were down for the count, and so were the Brooklyn Nets, the Denver Nuggets, and the Los Angeles Clippers. All from one common denominator: Sidelined stars. No one would ever prefer it this way, but injuries have played a much more significant part in how the playoffs have turned out than usual. Even with a successful regular season, the chips were down across the board for the Jazz and the 76ers to take full advantage of. Even before all these injuries piled up in the postseason, many believed a Jazz and 76ers finals matchup was in the cards. So, having a record number of all-stars miss games on top of that made it seem almost like an inevitability. But, as we know, that didn't happen.
The 76ers and the Jazz bowed out earlier than expected this postseason in not-so-pretty fashion. The Sixers lost to an inferior Atlanta Hawks team with little playoff experience while the Jazz fell to a Kawhi-less Clippers squad. In their defense, the postseason's injury bug got to both teams. Losing Mike Conley Jr. and Danny Green for most of their second-round matchups is nothing to dismiss. Not to mention, Joel Embiid and Donovan Mitchell dealt with significant enough injuries. Nevertheless, both produced as much as they did, and it speaks volumes for the caliber players they're in this league at full strength.
At the same time, Danny Green is a role player who, lest we forget, Trae Young hunted and toasted time and time again when they matched up. On the other side, Conley's an excellent ballplayer, but do we need to compare the impact and talent between him and Kawhi Leonard as players? Or that the Hawks and Clippers were missing De'Andre Hunter and Serge Ibaka, respectively too?
When you factor in both the circumstances and their regular-season success, it's hard to look at either the 76ers or the Jazz and not think that, at present, they are paper tigers. In other words, they're far from bad, but their ceiling is still not nearly high enough to put them in the same tier as the Nets or the Lakers. So the only question that remains is, how do they escape that label?
Let's look at how both teams lost their second-round matchups despite the odds being heavily in their favor. We'll start with the 76ers. Let the record show that, talent-wise, the Hawks were not better than the 76ers. The 76ers had the series' best player and had a team identity all season long. The Hawks weren't necessarily shorthanded on talent, but they formed their identity only after replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan mid-season. Ultimately, that did not matter because the Sixers' roster construction had flaws apparent enough to be easily exploited. That, in a nutshell, is how the Hawks beat them.
Having the best player in a playoff series usually gives you the inside track, but over-relying on him is a recipe for disaster. That was the Sixers' primary problem in that series. Despite Embiid making his most significant leap as a pro, he failed to keep up his scoring prowess in the fourth quarter for the same reason as it's been in the past- he ran out of gas. However, this time, instead of that stemming from lackluster conditioning, his fourth-quarter issues revolve around a lack of support in the scoring department. Tobias Harris and Seth Curry did their jobs and then some, but they are not guys you count on to pick up the slack when Embiid is off the floor during the postseason. At the heart of the 76ers issues lies on the shoulders of their second star, Ben Simmons.
Before you ask, no, this is not another "Ben Simmons sucks" tirade because we've already seen enough of that, and *hot take* it's not true. Simmons has disappointed, but that shouldn't overshadow what he brings to the court. He deserved his recognition as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He's still a phenomenal passer. His size allows the 76ers to go big without skipping a beat. If there is one thing that he most certainly isn't, it's a three-level scorer, and it showed its head in the postseason.
Simmons' ability to score, start and end in the paint, he's not bad at it by any means, but since the post is Embiid's bread and butter, that makes it easier for opponents to clog the paint to make it rough for both of them. Compare that to the Hawks, who had multiple guys capable of creating their own shot from anywhere - Trae, Bogdan Bogdanović, Kevin Huerter, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari - and they had an advantage over Philly in that department - a significant plus in the postseason. It made their half-court offense much more dynamic and unpredictable than the Sixers.
That highlights the most significant issue of the Embiid-Simmons pairing. They're undoubtedly good together - they form arguably the best defensive duo in the league. However, their offensive limitations make them not good enough as a pairing. If they had lost a hard-fought series to a fully healthy Nets or Bucks squad in the second round, then Philly could hang their heads high, but they lost to an inferior team and, by extension, a golden opportunity to have their most successful season since 2001. Because Simmons is nowhere close to becoming a three-level scorer, and it looks like a real possibility that he never will be, the main issue is that he's on the wrong team. Hence, a fresh start for him appears to be the only discernible option if the 76ers want to take another step forward. How they do that is anyone's guess.
Then there's the Jazz. The Jazz being eliminated was a little more defensible than Philadelphia's. They lost to a team that, even without Kawhi, is still a pretty good team. The Clippers had a battle-tested superstar - The Paul George jokes last year were overblown guys - a coach who had gone the whole nine yards and a roster with enough versatility to adapt to any situation. Still, Kawhi's absence was like a goalie being taken out of a soccer game. The series was right there for the taking.
After Kawhi went down, the Jazz's game plan was pretty simple in Game 5 - dare Paul George to beat them. The next game's strategy was also simple - dare any Clipper not named Paul George to beat them. As it so happened, the Clippers were up to the task both times. Game 6 was hideous for the Jazz, having blown a 25 point lead and whatnot. Role players who aren't known for hot shooting that happen to do as such is not technically something we haven't seen before in the playoffs, but the frustration from an opposing fanbase is understandable all the same. There's not much you can do when the likes of Terance Mann and Patrick Beverly are going off besides roll with the punches because anyone with common sense would instead take their chances having them beat you than Paul George.
The Jazz did, and lo and behold; they've been eliminated for a few weeks. So, Jazz skeptics went to their go-to scapegoat for the Jazz issues, Rudy Gobert's perimeter defense, which is also overblown. Gobert certainly wasn't blameless for the Jazz being eliminated as early as they did. But to say that the Clips' small ball was yet another example of a team making Gobert's defense a non-factor relies on confirmation bias because the Golden State Warriors did that in 2017, as did the Rockets from 2018 to 2019.
The Clippers won Game 6 and, by extension, the series because they went small. However, that did not come down to Gobert's defensive inadequacies this time as it has in the past. The Jazz' perimeter defenders made a pretty uninspired effort to cover the Clippers' guys who were shooting lights out, which contributed to their elimination. Gobert has his miscues, but here's the underlying problem. When teams go small, Gobert can't punish them offensively.
Compare that to say DeAndre Ayton, the breakout star from this year's postseason. He tore through any lineup the Clippers threw at him in the next round. Big or small. That's something that Gobert has never done. The reason the Rockets and the Warriors managed to play Gobert off the court in the past because they had enough two-way firepower to make him a non-factor on both ends of the floor. The Clippers didn't do that because they didn't have two of the league's generational offensive machines going at him. Still, they believed that going small to diversify their offense would not be punished by Gobert on the other end, and they were proven right.
Unlike, say, the 76ers and Simmons, the solution may not be to trade Gobert. Instead, they need more offensive firepower to compensate for his limits on the offensive end. They had one of the league's best offenses last year, but that didn't get them past the Clippers anyway. Of course, you can attribute that to Conley's absence but remember, the Clippers didn't have Kawhi Leonard. The Jazz got enough on their plate deciding how to manage their expensive payroll. The result from this season should influence how they approach this coming offseason.
The 76ers and Jazz steps forward were a welcome sight after the disasters they had to tread through last year, but they did nothing to dispel their skeptics at the season's end. To get that monkey off their back, they may have to make some tough decisions that won't be favorable but necessary.
But of course, the easier option is to run it back. Give their current teams another shot and see what happens. If they do that, then they have to remember that there aren't a whole lot of postseasons in which teams run by LeBron James and Kevin Durant because injuries stripped them of their roster's bare essentials. The headline here is that a number one seed falling in the second round is one thing. A number one seed falling in the second round when getting past it should have been a cakewalk is another. If neither the Jazz nor the Sixers could take full advantage when the title was as wide open for them as it could ever be, then what does it say about their playoff chances when everyone will (presumably) be at full strength next season?
Make no mistake. The Sixers and the Jazz made progress, but their early eliminations demonstrated that they hadn't made enough progress. Even worse, there aren't precisely clear-cut options for them to get better from here. So, until further notice, they are the NBA's quintessential paper tigers.