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Lessons From the NBA Playoffs: Continuity Matters

The Denver Nuggets upset the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games on Tuesday night and the lessons from that series are relevant to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2019-2020 season kicked off last fall, the idea that the Los Angeles Clippers would fail to reach the Western Conference Finals was fairly difficult to imagine. Fresh off of a huge offseason that included the acquisitions of both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers were finally vaulted into contender status alongside another Staples Center tenant, and it appeared like the road to the NBA Finals would indeed run through Los Angeles.

That last part may still technically be true, but after the Denver Nuggets rallied from another 3-1 deficit to defeat the Clippers in Game 7 on Tuesday night, we now have a little more clarity about which LA team is still on that proverbial road.

For all the Clippers’ promise, it never felt like they realized their true potential. Even as the Nuggets rallied back in this series, the Clippers always felt like they would eventually pull away and seal the deal. They had too much star power and with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, it appeared they had the depth to overcome this adversity.

While still very good, we spent all season waiting for the Clippers to become this juggernaut and it just never happened. Again, they were still extremely competitive but not as dominant as many had predicted. When it came playoff time, we waited for them to simply flip the proverbial switch and vanquish the opposition. The Clippers showed us who they were all season and not enough of us believed them, myself included.

Looks like we’ll have to wait until next season for that switch, if at all.

With that in mind, one of the biggest takeaways from this series was the value of roster continuity. Call it chemistry, familiarity, or what you will. This isn’t about too much load management or whatever, it’s about having your players together as much as possible, especially when integrating significant pieces like George and Leonard. Of course, it’s not George’s fault he began the season injured, but him missing 24 games in addition to Leonard’s missed 15 games quickly adds up.

Not only do these absences affect how much Leonard and George play together, but also how familiar the rest of the roster is with these guys. Only one Clipper (Ivica Zubac) played all 72 games this season, followed by Williams at 65 games. Injuries, adding late-season acquisitions like Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, and late player arrivals to the bubble prevented the Clippers from attaining the continuity of other teams.

The Clippers lost the 10th-most games to injury this season, so it’s not as if the pieces simply didn’t fit. When you factor in the injuries of Golden State, Washington, and Brooklyn — teams we expected to have players miss all 82 games — the Clippers probably missed an even greater proportion of games throughout the entire roster.

Resting players isn’t inherently bad, especially when you know you’re gearing up for a long playoff run. Like, can George or Leonard take a night off against the Knicks in March? Absolutely. The same goes for other injury prevention strategies. But you should have players playing together as much as possible (especially if you’re trying to win a title).

It’s a bit unlucky for the Clippers to have their injury struggles, late-season roster upgrades, and then an unforeseeable three-month league shutdown. Overcoming two of those three was maybe possible, but all three proved difficult. However, you’d be hard pressed to find an NBA team using injuries as an excuse. Everyone has injured players, even the Nuggets. Denver spent the better part of this series trying to get Gary Harris up to speed, but they did possess the benefit of having their core together for a longer period of time.

In case this wasn’t already apparent, let’s give some serious credit to the Nuggets here. This is a group that has played together for years, enduring the ups of regular season success and postseason shortcomings, like losing to Portland on their home floor in Game 7 last year. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic elevated their play to narrow the star power gap between them and the Clippers. Denver is really talented and deserves to be in the Western Conference Finals, so it’s not like the Clippers lost to a bunch of scrubs (but that doesn’t mean you can’t still get your jokes off about blowing a 3-1 lead).

Connection to the Timberwolves

Anyway, this is a Minnesota Timberwolves blog (I think?), so we should probably bring this full-circle. It’s been six months since the Timberwolves and the rest of the NBA dregs have played basketball. Having the worst teams in the league idle for so long while the best teams play real games has to be detrimental in the long-term.

The idle period is especially true for the Timberwolves, who turned over their roster again at February’s trade deadline. The former Nuggets, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley, certainly have their chemistry but this isn’t a 2-on-2 league. You want and need everyone getting as many repetitions together as you can if you’re going to actually build something sustainable.

Most importantly is Karl-Anthony Towns, who missed much of the season with a wrist injury. Towns has played very few minutes with his new teammates and it’s likely to look a little awkward once the Timberwolves begin playing meaningful games again. Playing games or at least scrimmaging with other teams would be ideal ahead of the draft and offseason to determine what the Timberwolves need to build around a Towns-D’Angelo Russell core. Having current tape and information on who plays best with this core could go a long way to inform the team’s strategy this offseason.

This isn’t entirely about the number one pick, either. The idea of shelling out big lump sums of money to their own restricted free agents (like Beasley and Hernangomez) is a tad unnerving, and while it will probably be fine in the long run, you’d ideally want to see them on the court with their future teammates, wouldn’t you? The current roster has very little continuity because Towns, the most important piece in their puzzle, has seldom played since the trade deadline. How they play with only Russell on the floor will differ greatly from how they play with Towns and Russell.

For the betterment of both the eight non-bubble teams and the league as a whole, the NBA would be wise to get them playing again. It’s going to be more difficult for the teams sitting idle to get to full speed without the chance to shake off the rust. Next season could have less surprise than usual as far as who is and isn’t good because of this layoff if these teams don’t get the chance to start playing together on a more regular basis (the current three-week training camp taking part in Minneapolis is a good start).

Aside from the fact the Timberwolves need to get time together on the court to gel and form chemistry, it’s also important from an off-the-court perspective, considering how long we’ve now waited to see this new dynamic duo in action. For a fan base that has had little to be excited about since the 2018 playoff run, having the opportunity to analyze the Towns/Russell core is extremely important for all shareholders (not just the ones looking to cash out on Glen’s possible sale).

Overall, we just saw how important familiarity and continuity are in a series like the one played between the Nuggets and Clippers. The Timberwolves and other non-bubble teams have little of either of these things, and the NBA would be wise to get them playing again (sooner, rather than later).