If youth only knew, and age only could.
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
It is a cliché of sports and basketball in particular: you can’t win with young.
If you notice something different during the upcoming playoffs, it’s probably all the guys playing meaningful postseason roles for their teams who ... never saw Michael Jordan play meaningful postseason games. (Pause here to pour one out for myself.)
Rarely have the playoffs approached with so many teams being so dependent on young guys contributing in meaningful roles. Almost every team currently in the mix has multiple guys who’ve never or barely played in the postseason in their current rotations. Barring injuries, they’re likely to stay in those rotations when the playoffs begin.
From Toronto (where rookie O.G. Anunoby has started most of the year at small forward, and whose bench is comprised of kid after kid -- Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright) to Boston (which has started Jaylen Brown at the two all season and Jayson Tatum at the three since Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury) to Philly (with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and Robert Covington all starting a Blutarsky of total playoff games (as in, zero) between them), kids are in the mix.
* Playoff picture: Chases tighten in East, West
“A lot is made about how they’re going to perform in the playoffs,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said of his young guys. “But, again, I can’t find that manual anywhere that says you have to shorten the rotation in the playoffs. It’s written somewhere, ‘cause everybody keeps asking the question. I must have missed that memo.”
In an era of $200 million max deals, you have to -- have to -- find three to five players that can contribute for (relatively) little money. Most of the time, that’s going to be players on rookie deals, who teams can control for up to five years (and, not unimportantly, get some of their most productive seasons out of them during that stretch). Player development has been crucial in the league for pretty much the last decade, and with one-to-one G League affiliations for all 30 teams just around the corner it will become even more so.
The Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo is a playoff graybeard compared to some others in the Eastern Conference -- he has 12 whole postseason games: six in 2014-15, six last season -- under his belt. The Bucks’ starting point guard, Eric Bledsoe, has a whopping 17 playoff games to his credit -- though none have come since 2013. The Indiana Pacers’ Victor Oladipo got his first taste of the postseason last year in a supporting role to Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and shot 34.4 percent -- 24 percent on 3-pointers -- in the Thunder’s five-game first-round loss to Houston.
LeBron James will start his push for an eighth straight Finals appearance overall, and fourth in a row in Cleveland, depending on Larry Nance, Jr. (zero playoff appearances), Jordan Clarkson (zero playoff appearances) and Rodney Hood (11 playoff games total, all last season with the Utah Jazz) all now in the Cavaliers’ rotation. Dwyane Wade has played in more playoff games -- 172 -- than the bulk of his Miami Heat teammates combined. Thirteen of his 14 teammates have played a total of 141 playoff games, and 30 of those are by Goran Dragic. (Udonis Haslem, little-used this season at 37, has played in 147 career postseason games.)
“I think you just have to trust that the regular season, the battles throughout the regular season, seasoned guys enough to be prepared for that next stage,” said Heat guard Wayne Elliington, who logged 14 postseason minutes in two games for Dallas in 2014. “We’ve got a lot of young guys on our team, case in point. I’ve seen guys have big games. They rise to the competition. Hopefully that’s what it’ll be about in the playoffs with us.”
“If you’re fortunate enough to make it, you understand that there’s another intensity level when you get to the playoffs."
There’s more experience in the Western Conference, but even there, teams such as the Minnesota Timberwolves have key players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins who’ve never been in a playoff game. The New Orleans Pelicans will be counting on Anthony Davis (four playoff games total in his first five NBA seasons) to lead them, when the officiating is different and the game plans are more detailed, with the best coaches in the world devising ways to stop you.
Maybe I’m overthinking this.
“In 2008 when we won, we had (Kendrick) Perkins, (Rajon) Rondo, Baby (Glen Davis), and (Leon) Powe,” said Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. “Late firsts and second-round picks. They all contributed a lot. It's nothing new. In managing the salary cap, you need rookie scale and or minimum contracts.”
Or, maybe I’m not.
Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown noted that his young players, who handle the ball the most on his team, have to cut down on their turnovers going into the playoffs -- a belief he reiterated over the weekend. In doing so he sounded an awful lot like Steve Kerr did when he took over the Golden State Warriors in 2014, when he lamented the “plays of insanity” by his young guards, primarily Stephen Curry, which produced unforced turnovers.
Now, the fact is, someone’s kids will play well, and come through, and be a big part of a long postseason run. But whose?
“First, you’ve got to make it,” said Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who has seen both sides of the playoff divide, having sat on Boston’s bench when the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen team of tough-minded vets won The Finals in 2008, and then coaching a painfully young Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and their teammates through a long playoff run two seasons later.
“If you’re fortunate enough to make it, you understand that there’s another intensity level when you get to the playoffs,” Thibodeau said. “This is what you play for. If you love competition, this brings out the best in you.”
Towns loves competition. But he hasn’t experienced it for himself yet.
“It’s just a fight,” he said.
“One play throughout the game can change the whole course of it. It’s a feeling of trying to be perfect. You’ve got to be perfect. You have to go out there and try your best, but you can’t make those simple mistakes you make in the regular season and be able to get away with it. It’s a different philosophy ... the playoffs is a different animal. The biggest thing in the playoffs is who’s the first team to switch up their game plan.”
But nothing does like doing.
“I was nervous,” said Washington Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal, whose first postseason series came in 2014 against Chicago. “We had Sam Cassell, and Witt (former Coach Randy Wittman), and Nene was crazy. The level of play, the fierceness, the competitive edge that everybody had, they treated every game like it was a win or lose situation. Both teams. Every time I’ve been in the playoffs it’s been that way. It’s nothing like the regular season.”
Washington is one of the few East teams that will bring a core with no first-timers to the postseason. The Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Warriors are similarly seeded throughout their rosters. But increasingly, those kinds of teams are the exception, not the rule.
The Raptors may have the biggest postseason learning curve of any contender. Their young guys were in the lab all last summer -- Siakam handling the ball, VanVleet and Wright working on their shooting. They have been crucial to Toronto’s “culture reset,” as GM Masai Ujiri put it after his team was swept by Cleveland in the East semifinals last season. Their presence and production have cut the minutes of All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, while also changing the iso style that the Raptors had maxed out at over the previous few years.
None of them dominate the stat sheet -- veteran C.J. Miles is tops off the bench in scoring, at 10.4 points per game in just under 19 minutes a night. But they all contribute.
Some of Toronto’s kids got a taste of things to come when they played on the team’s G League team, Raptors 905, in the championship series last year, which it won over Rio Grande Valley in three games.
“It was the first time for me being in a series situation; in college, it’s one-and-done,” said VanVleet, who got to the regional semis in the NCAA Tournament as a junior at Wichita State.
“I think I was thrown in there like, Game 2, of the three games of The Finals. Pascal played the whole playoffs. But just being thrown in a championship environment, it’s big. It’s not the same type of feel like a March Madness, but it’s the same kind of intensity in terms of you want to get the job done in a playoff series. I think we were down 0-1 at the time, and try to come back and win the next two. It was just good experience getting under your belt, and you hope it can continue this year.”
Again, Miles is a big part of the Raptors’ reserves. But VanVleet, Siakam, Poeltl and Wright have helped make Toronto’s unit into one of the league most potent benches. They’re first in the league in Defensive Rating (100.7) and steals per game (4.0) and third in made 3-pointers per game (4.9). When they’re done, Lowry and DeRozan often are, too.
“It was a crazy stretch, seven or eight games, where they didn’t get to play the fourth quarter,” Van Vleet said. “That was big for us, and for our team, keeping those guys fresh down the stretch. There’s times where it’ll be the second quarter. DeMar usually comes in with six or seven minutes left. It’ll be all the way down to three or four before he checks back in. Those guys have been great, being unselfish, letting us kind of rock out when it’s going good, and when it’s not going good, all right, let’s get back in there and settle this thing down. It’s a good balance of both. But we’ve got the utmost trust from our vets, and obviously from the coaching staff.”
The hard lessons the playoffs usually teach will be merciless. But those who survive it can often conquer it. Dennis Johnson went 0-for-14 in Game 7 of the 1978 Finals with the Seattle SuperSonics. The following year, he averaged 20.9 points and helped lead the Sonics to their only NBA title before repeating the feat twice more for Boston in ‘84 and ‘86.
You only become a great playoff performer by getting there, and then getting back, again and again.
“I used to have a coach when I was younger who told me if you’re not nervous in these types of situations, you’re not ready to play,” Beal said. “For me, it was getting my feet wet. After the first couple of minutes, you get used to it. It’s like, okay, this is what it’s about, this is what you have to do, this is how hard you have to play. And it just kind of takes off from there.”
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