Or take the Warriors, who finished one game better than the Lakers. Their regular season was warped by multiple factors: extended absences by Stephen Curry (26 games missed) and Andrew Wiggins (45 games); an ill-fated effort to give major roles to their youngest players, and a wonky road record (11-30) that remains inexplicable. But they eventually got healthy, abandoned the youth movement, reacquired a key veteran (Gary Payton II), and found their footing in time for the playoffs. They were a different team by the time they “upset” the third-seeded Sacramento Kings—a team with almost zero playoff experience on the roster.
Or take the Heat, who looked like colossal underachievers when they won just 44 games this season—a nine-game dropoff from their (conference-best) record the prior season. Their underwhelming season was due in part to the long absences of Jimmy Butler (18 games), Tyler Herro (15 games) and Kyle Lowry (27 games). And Miami, too, added a key player midseason: the veteran Kevin Love, who was signed in late February (after being cut by Cleveland) and is now entrenched as a starter.
Miami was a much sounder team by mid-April. Still, the Heat lost their first play-in game (to Atlanta), dropping them to the eighth seed, where they were expected to get rolled by the Bucks. True, Milwaukee lost Antetokounmpo for two games in the series (to a back injury), but the already-thin Heat lost their second-best scorer (Herro) and a key playmaker (Victor Oladipo) in the series, and beat the Bucks in five games—with Antetokounmpo on the court for the finale.
Still, these apparent underdogs just aren’t the same teams that meandered through the regular season. Nor are the Phoenix Suns, who made a blockbuster trade for superstar Kevin Durant in early February…then got just eight regular-season games out of him due to injury. The Suns have found their stride in the postseason, ousting the Clippers in five games, then rebounding from a 2-0 deficit to tie their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets in the second round. (Until chaos agent Nikola Jokic gave his Nuggets a 3-2 lead.)
In an alternate universe—where the Lakers fix their roster in October, the Suns have Durant all season, the Heat stay healthy and the Warriors stay whole—these teams almost certainly finish in the top four of their conferences. (You could say the same for the injury-riddled Clippers, who played much of the season without Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George.) Which would make them all favorites, not scrappy upstarts.
Oh, and how about this: How different would these playoffs look had the Brooklyn Nets, a plausible title contender, not been forced to trade their two superstars (Durant to Phoenix, Irving to Dallas) at midseason?
Why, exactly, is all this happening right now? Start with the play-in tournament, a recent innovation that, among other things, has muddled the postseason. Without it, the Heat would have been the seventh seed, pitting them against a deeper, tougher Celtics team, and the Hawks would have been first-round fodder for the Bucks, who would almost certainly still be playing now. Budenholzer would still be coaching. Giannis would not, as of yet, have been moved to philosophize about the meaning of “failure.”