Lessons Learned From the 2021 NBA Season

After Game 5 of the NBA Finals, a maximum of just two games remain in a season that was a little shorter than the usual eight-month marathon from preseason to Finals, but seemingly took more out of every contending team than an 82-game campaign.

The Bucks may be crowned as highly deserving champions on Tuesday night, but there's a lot to take from this season. Here are four of the biggest lessons.

1. 72 games plus the play-in tournament was enough.

You might not realize this, given that last season had a lengthy COVID shutdown, but each of the last two NBA regular seasons have been played at about 72 games per team.

Did you miss those 10 extra games? I highly doubt it.

Furthermore, with the play-in tournaments this season, an extra element was added to the schedule that undoubtedly improved the last six weeks of the season.

I'm not going to hold my breath for 10 games being dropped from next season unless the players want to negotiate a pay-cut on top of what they've had to withhold in escrow due to teams' losses from the pandemic. But it appears there could be a sweet spot for the future if momentum occurs for shortening the regular season permanently.

2. The mid-range shot is not dead yet.

With the knowledge of 2-pointers inside or near the restricted area and 3-pointers being the most "efficient" shots on a basketball floor, the mid-range shot has been heading the way of the dodo for about the past decade in pro basketball.

But I think a funny thing has started to happen on our way to homogenous basketball — more teams and players realize that a mid-range shot or floater can be a serious weapon when everyone's trying to guard threes or within eight feet of the hoop.

Nowhere has that been more evident than with the Suns' journey to the Finals, led by mid-range mavens Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

Even Trae Young, once a poster child of the three-point-or-bust generation, used a floater as a defense-busting weapon throughout the playoffs to unexpectedly get the Hawks within two games of the NBA Finals.

I was encouraged that this trend of re-embracing the 10-20 foot shot is something that's been noticeable to the eye in the playoffs — meaning that players knew they couldn't rely on threes as much as they did in the regular season when defenses locked in more in May, June, and July.

3. The Process failed, and the Sixers need to retool.

It's hard to feel like I can add anything more to the discourse about Ben Simmons and his disappearance in the second round against Atlanta. So I won't try to.

But I also want to make clear that the Sixers haven't actually been close to a title in the "Process" era. Yes, they did get beaten at the buzzer in 2019 by the eventual champions, but it was still at a point of the playoffs where Philly had to win five more playoff games to get to the Finals and nine to raise the trophy.

That's the same spot of the playoffs they got eliminated this time around. And this time, the other team's best player had a bad Game 7.

It's reasonable to rest most of the Sixers' hopes for improvement on a Simmons trade that feels inevitable, but Philly needs more than that. Despite Joel Embiid's dominance, we've seen ample evidence that he's not going to stay totally healthy through a whole season and playoffs.

The easy answer is to throw four shooters and relatively switchable defensive players around Embiid, but whoever supplements Embiid from now on has to be able to both shoot decently from deep and be a good playmaker. Otherwise, the Sixers can probably write this same song for the rest of Embiid's prime when the stakes get high and only Embiid and Seth Curry are willing to step up in big playoff games.

4. Stagnating contenders have to overpay for pieces that take them over the top.

If you're not a superstar free agent destination like L.A. or Brooklyn, the common NBA adage is that you have to build through the draft and pick a superstar (or two) before you can hope to seriously contend for the title. But what a front office does after it has the established superstar is about as important.

The Bucks, who are one game away from their first championship since 1971 after a captivating Game 5 win on Saturday, knew after the bubble last year that their roster after Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton wasn't going to cut it in playoff basketball.

So, Milwaukee pushed its chips to the middle of the table and traded for Jrue Holiday, giving up Eric Bledsoe, two first-round picks, and two first-round pick swaps. That's the kind of return that would traditionally get you a current all-star or All-NBA player. Holiday hadn't made an all-star team since 2013 and never made an All-NBA team.

By any objective measure, it was an overpay for a guy who hovers around being in the top 10 in the league at his position and probably only had two or three more years left in his prime. But it's been clear for the entire playoffs that Holiday's leadership, defense and fearlessness was exactly what the Bucks needed in the moment.

And Milwaukee's moves to create a Finals (and possibly championship) team don't stop there. The Bucks essentially traded an unprotected first to get P.J. Tucker from Houston in March. While I love Tucker for his world-class sneaker collection, he's a career 42% shooter who hasn't cracked 5 points per game this season. He was brought in to play defense in the playoffs.

Like Milwaukee, Portland made the conference finals in 2019. But unlike Milwaukee, the Blazers didn't make a big move to shake up their core, electing to keep the Dame Lillard/C.J. McCollum partnership together and supplement them in the front-court with solid players like Carmelo Anthony, Robert Covington, and Norman Powell.

Those moves didn't ultimately raise Portland's ceiling, McCollum's contract may be an albatross and Lillard — the best crunch time player in the league — may want out, depending on who you listen to.

This season wasn't always a smooth one, but as playoff time approached and then began, the quality of play was outstanding, even with the unfortunate rate of attrition among star players.

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