As I have written before about March Madness, every team except the champion loses their last game. In March Madness, 52 of the 68 teams in The Dance have their season ended by the Sunday of the first weekend. In the NBA, it is a slower process, but we are now at the point of the playoff where half of the teams are done for the year.
All of the losing teams feel pain, but some feel more than others. This is my ranking of the teams’ respective pain levels, starting with the least, ending with the most:
8. New Orleans Pelicans
While outstanding young Pelicans coach Willie Green deservedly shed much Sad Water after his team’s Game 6 loss to the Suns, I am sure those were also tears of pride. His young team from him had put a real scare into the top-seeded Suns, after having to win two Play-In games just to make the playoffs. The team gained valuable playoff experience, and confidence for the next time they get here. And they did all this without Zion Williamson, arguably their best and absolutely their most exciting player. Zion just announced that he would “absolutely” sign long-term with the team on a max deal — but do they want to invest all that money in an oft-injured player? One way or the other, the Pelicans are the feel-good team of this group of teams.
7. Denver Nuggets
Denver can’t be happy with almost being swept, but they were able to capture Game 4. Without their second and third best players for almost the entire season, the Nuggets were basically one great player and a bunch of average ones, which means that their sixth-place finish and a first-round loss feels just about right. No one expected them to go any farther — most likely including the Nuggets themselves. The Nuggets can feel good heading into the summer, knowing that they can be a true 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 slide from relevance in the second half of the regular season, largely because of injuries to key players, the Bulls were not expected to be a strong playoff team. Indeed, the Bucks appear to have maneuvered themselves into third place with the goal of facing the Bulls in the first round, leaving the Celtics to deal with the much scarier Nets. Ironically, both teams won easily, though the Nets-Celtics games were much closer than Bucks-Bulls. While the Bulls stole one game thanks to a tremendous DeMar DeRozan game, the Bucks won their four games by 7, 30, 26 and 16 points. The Bulls had to be disappointed, but not surprised. They lost to a better team.
We have thought of the T’Wolves as a perennial lottery team for a long, long time because they have been. They have not won a playoff series since 2004 — they beat the Sacramento Kings, another long-time loser, when Kevin Garnett was league MVP. That was a long time ago. This year’s team played the Memphis Grizzlies basically even, with 20-year-old Anthony Edwards giving the team hope that it may have two true stars, with Karl-Anthony Towns possibly making an All-NBA team. All that being said, giving up three double-digit fourth quarter leads to lose winnable games has got to sting.
4. Toronto Raptors
A popular sleeper pick going into the playoffs, the Raptors face-planted against the 76ers in the first three games, only to then turn that 3-0 “here comes a sweep” into a 3-2 “will a Doc Rivers team choke again ?”. Unfortunately, we all missed out on 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. Only a few years after the Spurs West Toronto championship, the Raptors may have once again maxed out as a mid-level playoff quality team, well short of true contender status.
3. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks had a disappointing playoffs, after an even more disappointing season. Last season, the Hawks made the Eastern Conference Finals, and when Giannis Antetokounmpu hurt his knee in Game 4, they appeared to be legitimate threats to make the Finals. The Bucks easily won the next two games (and the Finals), but the Hawks seemed poised 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 an excellent statistical regular season, his playoffs were a disaster: 15 ppg on 31% shooting, 18% from 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 knocked the swagger off the Hawks. As a result, the Hawks fell into the off-season with severe doubts about the cornerstone franchise in particular and the team in general.
While most may put the Nets into the top (worst) position on this list, I have them second — though I understand the argument that the Nets had the most painful ending. The Nets were pre-season title favorites, and even after a 7th place finish, they were still favored by many to win the East. Spoiler alert — they did not. Instead, they suffered an embarrassing sweep to the Celtics. Even after a 39-point effort in Game Four, Kevin Durant still had a sub-par series, shooting only 39% with five turnovers per game. KD was simply outplayed by Jason Tatum. Kyrie Irving did the opposite, following up a stellar 39-point Game 1 with forgettable games of 10, 16 and 20 points. Steve Nash was also outcoached by Ime Udoka, as the Nets never modified their iso-heavy offense to counter Boston’s defensive schemes. After the series, Irving ironically complained that the team never had a chance to jell, failing to mention that his own unfortunate choices led him to the team’s point guard playing in only 29 regular season games. The only reason that the Nets avoid the bottom spot here is that they enter the summer believing that they may live up to the hype next season, especially if the confusing Ben Simmons plays, and plays well.
1. Utah Jazz
The Jazz started the season like they always do — winning a lot of games, with a great point differential. But over the second half of the season, the Jazz were only a .500 team and fell from the ranks of contenders. As a result, many believed that absent a good playoff run, the Jazz may decide to make major changes. In my pre-playoff piece, I wrote:
Rumors are that this might be the last version of this team, unless the unexpected happens, and I don’t expect the unexpected. (By definition, not one does.)
Unfortunately for the Jazz, the expected did happen, and they lost in the first round. But how it happened was not expected. The Jazz could not take advantage of the Mavs missing Luka Doncic for the first three games, going down 2-1. The Jazz then seemingly turned the momentum around by winning a thrilling Game 4 but then went 3-30 from three in Game 5 (yes, that is 10%) and lost by 25, scoring only 77 points in their biggest game of year. But while that was bad, Game 6 was worse. Down 2 points at the buzzer, the Jazz’s best shooter bricked a wide-open three pointer that could have extended their season.
That missed shot sealed the deal, ending not only the season, but likely this version of the team. As a result, I have them in the number one spot in this list. I will miss this version of the Jazz: a good but not great team that left Jazz fans with yet another painful ending, dashing their hopes once again.