Four games in, the 2021 NBA Finals have certainly lived up to the pre-series billing. This was supposed to be an exciting, even matchup between two teams that basketball junkies have gotten hooked on these past few months. And while the Phoenix Suns looked unstoppable at home in the first two contests, the Milwaukee Bucks stormed back at home to tie the series at 2-2.
Now it’s down to a best-of-three to decide the championship — a fitting end to what has been an unpredictable and entertaining playoff overall.
But no matter what happens over the rest of the series, the Suns and Bucks have also provided the rest of the league with team-building lessons that are distinct from the usual championship blueprint. Here are just a few of the ways these Finals have broken with the conventions of NBA wisdom:
Who needs championship experience?
There’s a lot of evidence from throughout NBA history that teams with loads of postseason experience (and preferably the rings to show for it) do better in the playoffs than we would expect based on their standard regular-season indicators. This would have seemed to be bad news for the Bucks and Suns: Milwaukee ranked just seventh of the 16 playoff teams in previous career postseason minutes (weighted by current playoff minutes), while Phoenix ranked 11th. Moreover, not only do the teams own two of the five longest championship droughts among NBA franchises — Milwaukee last won 50 years ago; Phoenix has never won in the franchise’s 53-year history — but they also became the first pair of finalists since 1977 to make it this far with zero previous NBA champions on their rosters:
|2021||Bucks vs. Suns||???|
|1977||Trail Blazers vs. 76ers||Trail Blazers|
|1971||Bullets vs. Bucks||Bucks|
|1967||76ers vs. Warriors||76ers|
|1956||Warriors vs. Pistons||Warriors|
|1955||Nationals vs. Pistons||Nationals|
|1947||Warriors vs. Stags||Warriors|
For a dynastic league like the NBA, it’s been an incredibly rare sight to see a couple of unfamiliar clubs on the championship stage — particularly coming close on the heels of an era when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the Finals four consecutive times (from 2015 through 2018). But perhaps Phoenix and Milwaukee will give hope to other teams trying to go on deep playoff runs without a long track record of title contention in the past.
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Depth actually does help
As Ben Dowsett wrote on Tuesday, the Suns are also notable for the overall strength of their rotation from top to bottom. Among the nine players to average at least 10 minutes per game for Phoenix in these playoffs, eight currently have a postseason RAPTOR plus/minus rating of at least +1.0. That’s also true of Milwaukee’s rotation — the Bucks have eight players averaging at least 10 minutes per game,1 and seven of them have a rating of +1.0 or higher. Since 1990, that tally — 15 total players at +1.0 or better — is the highest in any NBA Finals matchup, edging out the 2013 Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs.
|Year||Team||+1.0 Players||Team||+1.0 Players||Total|
The conventional wisdom on the NBA playoffs is that, as rotations shorten and stars log more minutes, a deep well of contributors matters less and less — perhaps to the point that most of a team’s playoff success can be explained by just a few core players at the top of the pecking order. And certainly both Milwaukee and Phoenix have star power, in big names like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul and Devin Booker. But these teams have become more than the sum of their star-powered parts thanks to the quality of their supporting casts, serving as a counterpoint against teams built solely on the stars-and-scrubs model of roster creation.
Build from within … or not
When it comes to the value of homegrown talent, there are a couple of schools of thought in the NBA. On the one hand, drafted stars tend to be among the game’s most important building blocks, given that they are typically on favorable contracts early in their careers and that smaller-market clubs theoretically have better odds of retaining a star when he hits free agency (since they can offer more money under the NBA’s max-contract rules). At the same time, many recent champions have been led by players who were not acquired by their teams through the draft, whether we think of LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry on the 2019 Toronto Raptors, Kevin Durant on the 2017 and 2018 Warriors, James and Chris Bosh on the 2012 and 2013 Miami Heat, and so forth.2
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The Suns and Bucks offer their own contrasting lessons on the value of building around homegrown talent. In the playoffs so far, 54 percent of Phoenix’s minutes have gone to players who originally debuted with the franchise, which ranks 22nd-highest out of the 64 NBA Finals teams since 1990. Four of the team’s top six minute-earners (Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson) are homegrown, though the other two — Paul and Jae Crowder — joined the Suns for the 2020-21 season, and practically none of the team’s other real contributors debuted with Phoenix. Meanwhile, the Bucks are a case study in building from outside the draft, with only 18 percent of their minutes going to homegrown players in these playoffs, fourth-fewest among NBA finalists since 1990:
|Year||Team||Total||Homegrown Players||Share Homegrown||Won Finals?|
|1999||New York Knicks||4,800||841||17.5||—|
|2020||Los Angeles Lakers||5,040||1,011||20.1||✓|
|2000||Los Angeles Lakers||5,545||1,224||22.1||✓|
|1994||New York Knicks||6,025||1,864||30.9||—|
|1999||San Antonio Spurs||4,080||1,347||33.0||✓|
Aside from Antetokounmpo — admittedly a big “aside” — none of Milwaukee’s other top nine minute-earners are homegrown,3 with acquisitions ranging from 2013’s trade for Khris Middleton and the signing of Brook Lopez in 2018 to the more recent pickups of Jrue Holiday, P.J. Tucker and Bobby Portis. (In these playoffs alone, 46 percent of Milwaukee’s minutes have gone to players acquired since the end of last season.) If anything, the Bucks and Suns both showcase the value of picking up stars in the draft but also surrounding them with key pickups — think of Paul and Holiday — with an eye on what will take their team to the next level.
The big man isn’t dead yet
Louis Zatzman wrote a great piece this week about how, in an age of small-ball death lineups on the NBA Finals stage, this series represents something of a throwback. That’s because both the Suns and Bucks have generally been at their best when they play with — gasp! — a traditional lineup, anchored by an actual big man playing center. Each team can go small, too, and that was especially apparent from Milwaukee in Game 4 (when their most frequently used five-man unit consisted of a point guard, two wings and two forwards). But for the majority of the series, the teams have settled into a matchup of strength-on-strength, in which the tactical advantages offered by having the likes of Ayton, Lopez and Portis on the floor have made the frontcourt an important theater in this Finals battle.
Perhaps that will change going forward, after the strategic shift Milwaukee made in Game 4. And lest we get too carried away, it’s important to note that only four NBA Finals in history saw a higher share of points scored off of 3-pointers than this year’s 31.7 percent mark. The modern game is even baked into some of these larger units; Lopez and Portis combined to make 169 threes during the regular season, after all. But both teams have been showcasing the value of a traditional lineup in a way that hasn’t been as evident in recent Finals matchups.
Not everything about these teams goes against the usual ways of building a champion. These are still two of the most talented teams in the league, with plenty of the kinds of big names that usually show up to vie for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Nor do the more unusual aspects of how these teams were built mean they couldn’t stand toe-to-toe with Finals teams from years past. But if sports are all about copying successful squads and applying their lessons going forward, we could see a slightly different approach deployed by future champions who took notes from the Suns and Bucks.
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