What copycat teams can learn from these topsy-turvy NBA playoffs
NBA 

  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus series
  • Formerly a consultant with the Indiana Pacers
  • Developed WARP rating and SCHOENE system

What lessons from this year’s NBA playoffs might teams try to apply in the offseason?

For the other 29 teams, the goal is to get where the Milwaukee Bucks did earlier this week — hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. And while that might not be a realistic possibility next season for many teams, all of them will try to get a step closer during the upcoming NBA draft and free-agency period, accompanied by the return of trade season.

As teams plot their offseason course, the trends we saw during the playoffs can’t help but play a role, even in a postseason as unusual as the 2021 version defined by injuries to key players. Let’s take a closer look at some of these trends, which teams might apply them this summer and whether that might be a mistake.

Accelerating the timetable

The most notable outcome from this year’s playoffs was the success enjoyed by newcomers. The Phoenix Suns reached the NBA Finals and came within two wins of their first title in franchise history after a full decade in the lottery, while the Atlanta Hawks jumped from a 20-47 record in 2019-20 that left them far short of joining the bubble all the way to the Eastern Conference finals.

In both cases, that came after their respective front offices sped up the timetable on rebuilding processes by adding veterans to the young core. Atlanta dealt for center Clint Capela at the 2020 trade deadline and stocked up in free agency last offseason, signing Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. Of the Hawks’ top eight players in playoff minutes, just three (John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Trae Young) had played for them in 2019-20.

Phoenix made fewer additions to a young core that had gone 8-0 in seeding games during the NBA’s bubble restart of the 2019-20 season, but two important ones in All-Star Chris Paul and starting forward Jae Crowder. Their performance and veteran leadership were both key as the Suns surprised everyone by finishing with the league’s second-best record and reaching the Finals.

The concern is Atlanta and Phoenix were outliers for a reason.

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