Coming down the stretch of the 2018-19 regular season, a league scout told CBS Sports that to really evaluate a player you have to imagine him playing in the second round of the playoffs. Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers said roughly the same thing this year during an interview. The playoffs are just different. The defense is tighter. The officiating is looser. The scouting reports are more thorough and specific and the players executing them are focused to the letter.
Any hole you have, as a player or a team, the playoffs will expose it. But if you're for real, the playoffs are the ultimate, and really the only, validation. With that in mind, here are 15 things we learned from this year's postseason.
1. Kawhi might be the NBA's best player
This is not a prisoner-of-the-moment overreaction. It's simply what the playoffs showed us. After missing basically all of 2017-18, it's safe to say a lot of people forgot just how great Kawhi Leonard was, and still is. The thing is, he might be even better now. Gone is any skepticism that he was somehow a "system" player in San Antonio.
Leonard is just an unstoppable force whose ability to hit pull-up 3s off the dribble at an elite clip has taken him into another stratosphere. His mid-range game is assassin-like. His ability to get space with his strength and core balance rather than straight blow-by speed is one of the greatest single forces in the game. He is completely unflappable. He is a Hall of Fame defender. He takes and makes gigantic shots with what appears to be a sub-50 pulse.
The man is a killer, plain and simple, and he is walking proof that ...
2. You don't need a 'super-team' to win a title
Granted, some things went Toronto's way. If thatdoesn't fall for Kawhi in Game 7 against Philly, we might be sitting here talking about a Raptors team that -- once again -- couldn't even get out of the second round. If Kevin Durant doesn't miss the Finals, who knows if Toronto wins. Heck, if Klay Thompson doesn't go down in Game 6, they might have lost to Golden State anyway.
But none of that happened.
What did happen is the Raptors won an NBA championship with only one superstar. Beyond Leonard, they just had a whole bunch of really good players. How a team fits, how versatile it can be on both ends, how many capable shot makers it has, a first-class defense, these things can win you a title even in the era of super-teams. That said, there are probably only five players in the NBA that can win a title as the lone superstar. Kawhi, Steph Curry, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have all done it in the past decade.
3. Kyrie is not 1A championship material
Not yet, at least. We're going to address the fallacy of playoff absolutes, and how quickly they can change, later in this article, but for now, Kyrie Irving, unlike Kawhi, has never done one thing as the clear-cut best player on a team to prove he makes a legit championship difference. He's been great alongside LeBron James, but in two years as the man with the Celtics, Boston has made it to Game 7 of the conference finals without him and lost in the second round with him. These are the facts.
So far, Kyrie has been a championship finisher in that he can be the piece that puts a team over the top, but the playoffs have not shown him to be a championship creator -- the guy that makes a team better than the sum of its parts. You need someone better than him on your team if you want to win it all, not just from a production standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint. Kyrie's pouty attitude bled into the fabric of the Celtics and left a stain that couldn't be washed out.
As soon as times got even a little bit tough in the playoffs, as opposed to, say, what Steph Curry did when the Warriors hit hard times, Kyrie all but bailed on his team. Watching him play in the latter part of that Bucks series was embarrassing. The teams considering signing Kyrie as a free agent this summer, in the event that a second, better star (like Kevin Durant was supposed to be) doesn't join him, have to be thinking about that.
4. THESE Warriors need Kevin Durant
I say these Warriors because when the Warriors signed Kevin Durant in 2016, that was a different Warriors team. We talked about the importance of depth with this year's Raptors, and the 2015 and 2016 Warriors had that in spades. You had Harrison Barnes. Andre Iguodala was for the most part a bench player and he won Finals MVP. Shaun Livingston was a stud, with the operative term being was.
You had Leandro Barbosa who could come in a rattle off buckets in a five-minute stretch. You had Festus Ezeli and in later years David West coming in to bang and bruise and drill elbow jumpers. Those Warriors didn't need Kevin Durant. He made them better, but they didn't need him.
These Warriors do.
Once the Warriors actually had to pay Stephen Curry on par with his production, then they actually had to deal with the lack of depth that comes at the cost of adding Kevin Durant to an already loaded team. Now that Iguodala, and especially Livingston, aren't going to give you the production they did even two years ago, as soon as one injury hits you, suddenly you're running out Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie and Jonas Jerebko in the NBA Finals.
It should be noted that even without Durant, with a basically non-existent bench, Curry had this team in position to win Game 6 of the NBA Finals, and within one shot of Game 7. Even the quarter and a half the Warriors survived without Klay Thompson in Game 6 was telling. Yes, these Warriors need Kevin Durant, but that said ...
5. Steph Curry remains a savior
There is a lot of talk about the Warriors falling off a cliff next year without Durant, and with Thompson expected to miss much -- or possibly all -- of the regular season. If you're doubting Curry again, it's going to burn you. If the playoffs taught us anything we should've already known, it's that any team with Stephen Curry is a contender.
The Warriors won six straight playoff games, including a sweep of Portland in the conference finals, without Durant, and again, Curry had Golden State within one shot of a Game 7 in the NBA Finals despite two of his All-Star teammates being on crutches.
The amount of defensive attention Curry draws will never be truly quantifiable for some people, but its impact continues to be the definition of game-changing. And unlike, say, Damian Lillard, who is now drawing at least similar defensive attention but at the expense of some of his own production, Curry's own production doesn't fall off.
Curry averaged 28 points, six rebounds and five assists for the playoffs. In the Finals, despite facing every kind of blitzing and double-teaming defense imaginable, he upped his scoring to over 30 points a game to go with six rebounds and five assists. Thompson should be back by the playoffs next year. Draymond Green (as we'll get to shortly) remains an elite player. With Curry at the helm, Golden State, albeit with a significantly lower margin for error and probably not as the favorite, will remain in the championship conversation.
6. Sixers not as far away as we thought
We already talked about Kawhi Leonard's game-winner to beat Philly in Game 7. It bounced around like he was playing Plinko before it fell. That's how close the Sixers were to a Game 7 overtime, on the road, with a chance to take out the eventual champions.
Yes, the Sixers are flawed. Ben Simmons' inability to shoot remains a real playoff problem. If they don't re-sign at least one of Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris, forget about it. If they lose JJ Redick, well let's just say they're already too thin on shooting. But for the sake of argument, let's say the Sixers run it back with most of this roster in place, and is able to add some shooting via the draft and with some value free agents -- this is a team that is clearly close to championship level on the strength of sheer talent, fit issues and flaws notwithstanding.
7. Pascal Siakam is an All-Star
It won't be long until this is official, perhaps as soon as next year. A lot of casual fans found out how good -- borderline great -- Siakam is in these playoffs. He's likely going to win Most Improved Player, but again, the playoffs are where you really validate yourself, and the bottom line is the Raptors would not have won the championship without him.
Siakam is such an unconventional playmaker, and it's gorgeous to watch. You never know which way he's going to twist his body or adjust his release with all sorts of finishing angles. He knocks down 3s. He's a rangy defender and a monster athlete. He is quick to recognize one-on-one mismatches and can attack off the dribble. His Game 1 in the Finals -- 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists in 40 minutes -- was a work of art. He made 11 straight shots at one point.
Siakam is so good, and I have to admit, I didn't fully realize it until the playoffs. Now there's no denying it.
8. Damian Lillard is a superstar
Damian Lillard is a star, even if he's never been to the Finals. You might say: Wait a minute, you just slammed Kyrie for not leading a team into championship contention as the 1A player. What's different about Lillard? Pretty simply, Lillard has never been on a team with championship potential. Lillard has consistently gotten the absolute most out of the roster with which he has to work with, and he did it again this year.
Nobody had Portland making it to the conference finals to start the year. When Jusuf Nurkic went down, few people thought they'd get out of the first round. Then Lillard single-handedly torched Russell Westbrook and the Thunder before leading the Blazers past a really good Denver team that frankly had the Blazers out-gunned. Even when the Warriors swept them, Portland had a 15-point lead in each of the final three games. Given the talent disparity, that is a Blazers team led by Lillard once again playing to its max potential.
Lillard wasn't statistically great against Denver, but that's the difference between super talents and superstars: Superstars impact the game, and their teammates, way beyond their own stats. I don't believe there's another point guard in the league outside of Stephen Curry that would've taken that Portland team as far as it went this year. If you call James Harden a point guard, then Lillard is behind only him and Curry in the floor general hierarchy.
9. Nuggets are for real
Like the Raptors, the Nuggets were very close to having an entirely different playoff story. If Denver loses Game 7 to the Spurs and goes out in the first round as a No. 2 seed, that's a disappointment. But they got through that series, and proved a lot in doing so. That took some real stones getting through that series, especially that Game 7 when Jamal Murray hit the biggest shots of his life and Nikola Jokic hung a triple-double. Those two went from exciting regular-season players to legit studs in these playoffs, especially Jokic, who is well known for his passing but showed he's a dominant scorer, too.
10. Klay Thompson is so underrated
When Klay Thompson found out he didn't make one of the three All-NBA teams, he responded by saying, "Do I think there are six guards better than me? No."
He is absolutely right. Klay is better than Kemba Walker. He's better than Russell Westbrook. He's better than Kyrie Irving. Do not even bother debating this with me, because you'll get nowhere. If you would rather go into a playoff series with any one of those guys over Klay, considering what he does on both ends and the huge shot-making he gives you, you got some explaining to do.
Klay is always an afterthought in the Warriors conversation, boxed out by his superstar teammates. But he's as vital to what the Warriors do, and have done these past five years, as anyone.
Thompson was in the middle of shooting the Warriors to a potential Game 6 victory in the Finals when he tore his ACL. Not knowing the extent of the injury, he limped back onto the court, banged his two free throws, then ran back on defense flexing his knee with every intention of staying in the game. Klay Thompson does it every game. Every year. On the biggest stages he knocks down the biggest shots. He defends like crazy. He is just a stone-cold winner, and I'm here to tell you, if I had to pick one Warriors player to shoot one shot to win a championship, I wouldn't pick Stephen Curry. I would pick Thompson. On top of everything else he brings to the table, he's as clutch as they come. If the Warriors don't max him out, they are absolutely brain-dead.
Presumably, they are not brain-dead. Thompson is going to get a five-year deal for $190 million from Golden State if he wants it, and he's worth every single penny.
11. Truth is temporary
Kyle Lowry is a playoff bum, until he isn't. The Warriors are invincible, until they aren't. It's all about ball movement, until the world champion Raptors and conference finalist Blazers finish the playoffs 10th and 14th in assist percentage, respectively. Mid-range is dead, until Kawhi Leonard and CJMcCollum revive it. The Raptors are a playoff punchline, until they're not. LeBron James is a playoff fixture, until he isn't. James Harden is completely unstoppable, until the refs stop blowing their whistle and defenses throw a few wrinkles in. Stephen Curry is the best shooter ever, except in his playoff career he's 0-8 on go-ahead shots with under 20 seconds to play.
So when I said earlier that Irving hasn't proven to be a 1A player on a championship team? That's only true until it isn't. There was a time when we said Dirk Nowitzki couldn't lead a team to a title, and then he did. Nothing is absolute in the NBA. This playoff season proved that 10 different ways.
12. Utah needs offense
Utah's first-round, five-game loss to the Rockets was a little bit deceiving. After getting blown out in the first two games, the Jazz could have easily won the next three. They just cannot score the ball easily enough. It's too hard for them to generate offense. They can get by in the regular season with a great defense and decent enough offense to be a mid-seed team, but come playoff time, there's no hiding their lack of offensive firepower.
The Jazz know this., per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. They had to put someone next to Donovan Mitchell who can be a second perimeter threat to create offense rather than just spot up and rely on the system for shots, and Conley is that guy.
13. Giannis needs to improve his shot
As great as Giannis is, and no doubt he's great, there is still at least a tiny answer for him in the playoffs. The Raptors wore him down and to some degree limited him by putting a wall in front of him and making him go through it time after time to get to the rim. You just can't do that against the best defenses in the world game after game on the biggest stages.
Just look at the history. Almost every player who can't shoot, who initiates a good portion of his team's offense, eventually hits a wall, so to speak, in the playoffs. It has happened to Russell Westbrook. It has happened to John Wall. It has happened to Derrick Rose back when he was an all-world athlete but had yet to figure out his shooting. It has happened to Ben Simmons.
Giannis is better than all those guys, perhaps with the exception of prime Westbrook and Rose, but certainly better than all of them right now, but even he has to have that release valve jumper. The Bucks might not add any big players this offseason, but if Giannis adds a consistent jumper, which he showed signs of in these playoffs, the Bucks don't need anything else.
14. Draymond Green is still elite
There was some question about this. Draymond no longer goes full speed all regular season. He hasn't shot the 3 like it looked like he was going to start shooting it at the beginning of this Warriors' run. But come money time, yeah, Draymond remains one of the 15 best players in the league.
Green was an absolute terror for the Warriors in these playoffs. He was triple-double Draymond, pushing in transition, that modern point-forward making plays for everyone while being the best defender on the court and rebounding and fighting like a madman. His energy was where we're used to seeing it. He stepped into 3-pointers confidently and made a lot of big ones.
I said earlier that the Warriors will still absolutely be a player in the championship conversation next year because of Steph Curry. That's also because of Draymond Green, who clearly still has elite game in him and will probably, deservedly, attract something close to a max contract in 2020.
15. Clippers are on the verge of greatness
Facing the Warriors at full health, the Clippers took two games against the champs and proved more in that series than they did in their entire impressive regular season. Montrezl Harrell showed why he might be the best player casual fans have never heard of, and Lou Williams is an All-Star scorer as a sixth man. The rookies, Shae Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, played big. Patrick Beverley is a lot more than a defensive pest, and is now capable of really hurting you from the 3-point line.
The Clippers just play ball. They move and share and play hard and rebound and make shots, and if they get Kawhi Leonard in free agency, they are going to be a championship force. If they get Kawhi and another max player, or even a less-than-max guy like Al Horford, they might be the favorite.