I wrote earlier this year about the NBA’s happiest surprises: Gilgeous-Alexander, the Kings, and more. Today, it’s time to write about the flip side: the saddest, strangest, and most disappointing developments this season.
The surprises article is always more fun to write: people like reading nice things about their favorite teams. But it’s important to be objective and take a long look at the things that didn’t pan out, too, and we have to start with arguably the biggest disappointment of the year.
The Vegas favorites to win the championship, the Bucks, will have to take a long, hard look in the mirror this offseason after badly losing in the first round to the Miami Heat.
There are plenty of extenuating circumstances. The Heat shotmaking felt like demonic intervention at times. Giannis got hurt in Game 1 and, although he played well upon his return, never returned to 100%. Khris Middleton, similarly, didn’t look the same after his injury last year. Coach Mike Budenholzer, who has just been fired by the team, reportedly lost a brother in a car crash right before Game 4.
But the Bucks were the #1 seed and should have been able to take care of a Tyler Herro-less Miami. Watching Jimmy Butler dominate Jrue Holiday over and over without much change in the defensive gameplan enraged Bucks fans. Giannis’ free throw struggles (14-of-31 in three games) and late-game tentativeness brought back old, buried memories of his struggles pre-championship — like Jason Voorhees, rising from the grave.
The Bucks are old and getting older. They don’t have a ton of flexibility to make major moves, having traded most of their remaining assets for a player (Jae Crowder) who proved unplayable when it mattered.
Milwaukee’s owners have already ventured deep into the luxury tax, and bringing everyone back could cost a nine-figure tax bill alone. That’s a lot of moolah for a team that just lost in the first round, even for billionaires.
I’d expect major shakeups beyond replacing Bud. Expect them to dangle Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Jrue Holiday on the trade market, much as it hurts. Milwaukee needs an infusion of youth and talent to support Giannis as he approaches the end of his prime.
The reasons for failure (sorry, Giannis, but let’s call it what it is) are real and understandable, but so is the disappointment. Fans thought this team was made of sterner stuff. Now, the Bucks enter an offseason with significant uncertainty for the first time in several years.
Man, the Lonzo story sucks.
A linchpin of the Bulls’ hard charge at the beginning of last year, Lonzo seemed to be on the rise. But his injury woes have gotten worse and worse with each update.
Ball is the platonic ideal of a role player. He’s a selfless, talented passer, a sturdy, handsy defender large enough to defend wings and quick enough to stick with guards, and a lights-out marksman from deep. The league in general, and the Bulls especially, are better when Ball is healthy.
Unfortunately, Ball couldn’t run or jump after his second surgery, and there was some confusion as to how to fix his issues. He is now set to undergo a third straight surgery and will almost certainly miss the entirety of next season, too. It’ll likely be three calendar years between games for Lonzo when — and if — he returns.
There have been bigger-name players with frustrating injuries, for sure, but enough ink has been spilled lamenting the Zions and Kawhis of the world. With his entire career in jeopardy, Ball deserves support. So here’s hoping we’ll be talking about him again more positively soon.
Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks
Where do we even begin?
The Memphis Grizzlies lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1 of the playoffs despite ending the season as the West’s second seed for a second straight year. They were so injury-riddled as to be hollow, but that didn’t stop the Internet from piling on the league’s least-liked team after their summary execution by Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
Just a year ago, the Grizz were the talk of the town: a buoyant mix of fun, brash personalities and thrilling play. But their reputation curdled, in no small part thanks to Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks.
Morant faced a litany of off-the-court issues: threatening a rando online that “it’s free to see how hollows feel”; intimidating mall security staff; punching a teen and flashing a gun after an altercation during a pickup basketball game; and reportedly riding in a car in which someone flashed a laser at Indiana Pacers’ staff following an on-court verbal argument, simulating a gun sight.
Memphis clearly was aware of many of these allegations before they became public, but the team continued to shield and coddle Morant. It fell to Steven Adams, one of the few veterans on the team, to put together a meeting demanding more responsibility and accountability from Ja and others.
The final straw came when Morant sent an Instagram Live video of him waving a gun around in a strip club. The league suspended Morant for multiple games, and Morant entered a counseling program in Florida to help him “cope with stress” in healthier ways. His return featured an awkward, stilted apology hosted by Jalen Rose that did little to improve his public standing.
Dillon Brooks’ issues are different. After saying he didn’t respect LeBron James and preferred the Lakers as his first-round opponent, Brooks ducked the media after the Grizzlies’ decisive loss. Brooks has had a litany of on-court technical fouls and fines over his career, constantly straddling the line between irritant and idiot. His tendency to shoot first, second, and third, combined with a sub-40% field goal percentage, have made him a popular punching bag for fans. A Shams report stated that the Grizzlies told Brooks he would not be brought back “at any price,” shockingly harsh language in a league where bridges are seldom burned.
But Brooks has had no off-the-court drama that we know of, and he fills a role that will be very hard for Memphis to replace. He’s been an important starter on a team that has finished second in the West for two straight seasons. I wrote more about why I think Brooks is incredibly underappreciated here.
If Memphis decides they want to move on from Brooks, that’s completely reasonable. They may want a more consistent shooter to bolster Morant’s shaky aim in the backcourt, or he might have rubbed people in the locker room the wrong way. But regardless of who leaked that information to Shams, to say Brooks isn’t coming back “at any price” seems foolhardy. Brooks will be an asset to many teams in this league, particularly if he can rediscover the shooting form of his first few years, when he was a competent marksman from deep.
My disappointment in Memphis is as much about how the team has handled its players as the players themselves. Despite the win-loss record, this is a season Memphis fans can’t wait to forget.
Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves
Utah fans are cackling. After years of watching their star duo, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, flame out in the postseason, the Jazz traded them for a bounty of picks and players. Both players were again bounced in the first round.
After a scintillating Game 1, Mitchell couldn’t get going against a Knicks defense that mucked up the paint like offensive linemen clogging a toilet. The Cavs’ regular season success was built around two tall, skilled men protecting the paint and two short, dynamic guards creating offense. But they never found a suitable fifth starter, and the lack of two-way players severely limited Cleveland’s playoff flexibility — they were too small to play big and had too little shooting to play small. The postseason is about malleability and adjustments; the Cavs had little room to maneuver, and when their best punch was absorbed, they had no counter.
Cleveland’s future is still exciting. Their core four are all talented, young, and under contract. But their pathway to improvement is murky, barring an explosive leap from sophomore Evan Mobley (which is not out of the question). Expect them to be one of several teams looking hard at the aforementioned Dillon Brooks, and they’ll need a sturdier backup big man to help them counter the Mitchell Robinsons and Joel Embiids of the world.
Minnesota’s future is less certain. Their own twin towers, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, never had a chance to gel thanks to Towns’ injury this season. Key depth pieces like Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid were hurt in the playoffs, as well, puncturing their playoff run hopes like a flat tire in a construction zone.
Anthony Edwards plays like he was shot out of a cannon, and the ascending McDaniels is a defensive bulldog with tertiary-player scoring chops. But the Wolves may need to swallow hard and trade KAT to clear the path for future success.
It’s unclear what kind of returns Towns will garner, but he’s still a versatile and astonishingly effective offensive weapon (at least in the regular season). The Wolves need a point guard to support the ancient Mike Conley and more shooting and defense at the power forward and wing positions.
Both teams will rightfully be disappointed with this season, but neither should feel bad about their future. The only thing they can’t do is nothing.
The dialogue around officiating
I don’t have any hard numbers here, but for whatever reason, it feels like the dialogue around officiating has become far more toxic than ever before.
Even players, who have long been reluctant to publicly criticize officials for fear of a fine, are getting in on the act. From the silly (Giannis telling Richard Jefferson he was “reffing like Marc Davis and s***” during the Celebrity All-Star game) to the petty (Luka Doncic getting fined for insinuating officials were making bad calls for the money) to the personal (Fred VanVleet straight-up accusing Ben Taylor of bad behavior), there have been an exhausting and frankly damaging number of stories casting the refs in a bad light. The increasing presence of gambling money in the NBA likely has a lot to do with fan irritation and suspicion, as well.
But there seems to be a public impression that referees are free to act however they want without consequences, which isn’t true. Ben Dowsett at FiveThirtyEight had a nice piece detailing all of the ways that referees are held accountable, the most tangible of which is money — refs are paid more if they perform better (as judged by a third-party grading service).
NBA referees have the hardest job in sports, and some level of public scrutiny is actually a good thing — being held accountable helps keep another Tim Donaghy scandal from brewing. But fan, broadcaster, and player fixation on referee mistakes is a constant anchor on the enjoyment of the game, and it seems to have reached a tipping point this year.
A vicious cycle is developing — anecdotally, players seem to be increasingly acting poorly toward officials, who are more defensive than in the past. Entitled players throw fits when they don’t get a call they want and then act flabbergasted when they receive a technical. As a result, it’s become harder for players and refs to have a conversation instead of a battle.
There are a couple of possible solutions. First, the league could simplify the rulebook to eliminate confusion, particularly around block/charge calls. Decreasing the number of technical fouls accrued before a player is suspended could also help. But at the end of the day, we just need players and refs to be nicer to each other… and I don’t know how to encourage that.
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