Congratulations to the 2018-19 NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors! Toronto edged out the Golden State Warriors 4-2 in a tight, entertaining series that unfortunately saw much injury-related disappointment for the Warriors.
Now, it’s time to look back at the playoffs as a whole. Which postseason players have made significant moves up or down the NBA pecking order since mid-April? We’ll pick a total of six guys who have done just that.
NBA Playoffs Overall Risers
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors (Raptors won NBA Finals 4-2 against Golden State Warriors)
Everyone knew Leonard was an amazing player. He had won an NBA Finals MVP, and he has been a top-five player or very close to it for his last three healthy seasons leading into this postseason.
He proved something in the playoffs in leading to the Raptors to the franchise’s first-ever championship. In the regular season, Toronto frequently rested Leonard to his quad injury from being an issue. He sat out of 22 of the Raptors’ 82 games for that reason.
In the postseason, Finals MVP Leonard played all 24 of his team’s games and averaged 39.1 minutes per contest. A knee injury limited him throughout, but he soldiered through it and was still the best player in the playoffs. He showed off some nice playmaking skills that he’s been developing throughout his career.
Where will Leonard sign this offseason? That’s still up in the air, but teams will be even more eager to sign the superstar after watching his playoff performance.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Nuggets lost 4-3 in Western Conference Semifinals against Portland Trail Blazers)
Jokic doesn’t seem like the most natural fit for the modern NBA. He’s a center who isn’t very quick or explosive, which hurts him defending on the perimeter and moving up and down the floor in a league where the pace of play is getting faster and faster.
Still, the Nuggets center proved himself as a viable playoff superstar to build around this spring in his first postseason appearance. Jokic was smart about his positioning on defense and certainly didn’t get played off the floor by any lineups of the opposing team. On offense, Jokic absolutely dominated the Blazers, significantly improving his per-game scoring and assist numbers while decreasing his turnover numbers.
Denver now knows that its superstar isn’t just built for the regular season. Can the franchise continue to develop and add the right players for the Nuggets to become true title contenders next season?
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers (Clippers lost 4-2 in Western Conference First Round against Golden State Warriors)
Harrell is a top-three finalist for the Sixth Man of the Year award this season. He probably won’t win the award, but you could argue that he was the league’s premiere substitute in his short time in the playoffs.
Facing the eventual Western Conference champion Warriors, Harrell averaged 18.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 26.2 minutes per game on 71.9 percent shooting from the field. He was stellar in the Clippers’ two upset wins, upping his scoring average to 24.5 in those games while shooting a mind-boggling 20-of-23 from the field (87 percent).
Harrell has shown constant improvement over the past few years. Now, the question is whether he can continue to do so while maybe taking on even bigger, possibly starting, role with the Clippers. He seems to have outgrown his current role.
NBA Playoffs Overall Fallers
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder (Thunder lost 4-1 in Western Conference First Round to Portland Trail Blazers)
Where does Russ go from here? He was a consensus top-seven player in the NBA just a year ago. Now, his status is falling fast as his shot selection and jump shot efficiency continue to be questionable.
In the postseason, Westbrook put up his trademark gaudy numbers of 22.8 points, 9 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game. He also turned the ball over 4.6 turnovers per game and shot 36 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from three-point range. He was outplayed very significantly by the Blazers’ Damian Lillard at his point guard position and the Thunder lost in five games, despite being favored to win the series.
Many people praised Westbrook for taking a step back this season to let Paul George expand his game as the team’s best player. He reverted back to dominating the ball and the shots in the first round.
As Westbrook’s amazing athleticism inevitably begins to fade in the next few years, he needs to make significant adjustments to his skill set to stay an All-Star-caliber player.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Jazz lost 4-1 in Western Conference First Round to Houston Rockets)
Mitchell’s demeanor is much less brash than Westbrook’s, but there are some parallels between their concerning tendencies as players. Both guys take (and miss) a lot of contested jumpers, despite their impressive physical gifts. Their teams probably would prefer it if both of them didn’t take as many shots as they do.
To be fair to Mitchell, he is still 22 years old and is playing for a Jazz team that doesn’t have much shot creation outside of him. There wasn’t much excuse for the 32.1/25.6/72.7 shooting slash or the 16-to-21 assist-to-turnover ratio he posted against the Rockets in Round 1. Can he be the No. 1 ball-handler on a title contender?
The second-year Jazz guard had really started to come around in the second half of the season, but that progress has halted. He has the physical tools to become a superstar, but his basketball IQ and instincts need to catch up.
DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors (Warriors lost 4-2 in NBA Finals to Toronto Raptors)
To be fair to Cousins, his quad injury from the first round was undoubtedly an issue for him as he mostly struggled in the NBA Finals. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka were way better than him, which was a big factor in the Raptors winning the series.
Cousins’ playoff averages were 7.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.4 turnovers in 16.6 minutes per game on a 39.6/25/64 shooting slash. The turnovers and efficiency were very concerning, as the 28-year-old big man didn’t seem to adjust to his body not working as well as he’s used to.
Cousins is a four-time All-Star, but some serious injury issues are now blocking his path to getting back to that level. Wherever he signs this summer, Cousins will have a lot to prove to the NBA basketball world in the fall.