For the first time ever, we can say that the NBA 2K League Finals are once again upon us, bringing to a close another long, drama-filled season of NBA 2K League action. But these Finals aren’t just the result of one playoff campaign or even a single season. They are, in fact, years in the making, and with the first-ever best-of-five series in NBA 2K League history at hand, third-seeded 76ers GC and fourth-seeded T-Wolves Gaming promise something that, while the NBA 2K League Finals will be back again next year, we may never see again.
How They Got Here
76ers GC is, statistically, the best team in NBA 2K League history. They are 42-16 all-time, best in the league over the two-year span, and they have two tournament banners—both Tipoff Tournaments—and another tournament finals appearance from this year’s Turn tournament. The 76ers are the only team with playoff wins in both seasons after becoming only the second team to make the playoffs in two consecutive years (the other, Blazer5 Gaming, has never won a playoff game).
After earning the third seed this year with a four-game streak to cement an 11-5 record, the 76ers ripped off two impressive series sweeps, over Pacers Gaming and Celtics Crossover Gaming, and bookmarked home court “advantage” for the best-of-five Finals.
This team is very similar to last year’s semifinal squad. Radiant, finally nominated for MVP, is the offensive engine and franchise cornerstone at point guard. Fellow protected player Steez—somehow only a fourth-rounder in the 2018 draft—is his pick and roll partner and one of the league’s savviest offball defenders. ZDS and Newdini reprise their roles in the starting lineup, with ZDS the team’s primary sharpshooter and Newdini playing the all-important lockdown defender at shooting guard.
The starting lineup’s newcomer, rookie BreadwinnerLA, has already acquitted himself well: the 19th (how??) overall pick found himself on both the All-Rookie first team and the All-Defense team. The 76ers finally got their sixth player into a game, for the first time ever, and 2019 fourth-round pick Cassius responded with a tidy 36 points in his first career start.
T-Wolves Gaming hasn’t exactly had the same sort of opportunities. Minnesota is the lone 2019 expansion team to finish with a winning record, qualify for the playoffs, and make the Finals, all in one. After being bounced from the Tipoff Tournament at the hands of the 76ers, they fell to 1-3 to start the season and all hell broke lose. One dismissed coach, one trade and one all-time disastrous blown lead later, they sat at 3-6 on May 31.
Famously, they haven’t lost in the regular season since (and only once in a subsequent tournament), and have ripped off a remarkable 11-game win streak, including seven straight to close the season and four in a row in sweeps over Kings Guard Gaming and Warriors Gaming Squad.
The T-Wolves have been a team of twists and turns throughout their odyssey. Their original, theoretical franchise cornerstone—Hood, acquired from Cleveland in exchange for Minnesota’s top expansion draft pick—was dealt away early in the season with the team’s final trade. Point guard BearDaBeast, the team’s most important player during their playoff run, miraculously slid to 11th overall in the entry draft and has turned into one of the best and most vocal leaders in the entire league.
His two fellow rookies are newcomers to the T-Wolves but not to the league: JMoneyRep817 started the season as Heat Check Gaming’s point guard but was acquired for Hood, while starting center JoJo interned for Pacers Gaming last summer. Lockdown defender TURNUPDEFENSE was the sixth player for Cavs Legion GC last year (teammates there with Hood), another semifinalist, and has been a starter since day one with T-Wolves Gaming. This year’s sixth player, Nacho Traynor, is one of the league’s most beloved characters and is integral to the team’s chemistry.
Power forward Feast had perhaps the shortest yet most circuitous route of any player: he played last season for his Finals opponent, 76ers GC, and he is the only player drafted in the 2018 expansion draft to make the playoffs.
This Finals matchup is a delectable chess match. Two very different teams on offense, two teams that fit the same mold very differently on defense.
There’s nothing much surprising about 76ers GC’s offensive attack. They wear you down with one of the best pick and roll pairings in the league, Radiant and Steez, who’ve developed near-perfect synergy after playing together for years. Wrapping up top is ZDS, one of the best shooters in the league. In the corners stand Breadwinner, shooting an uncomfortable 28.6% from three in these playoffs, and Newdini, shooting a comforting 61.5% through four playoff games.
The T-Wolves, by contrast, offer a much lighter dosage of pick and roll. Their offense has mutated a little since former coach Shawn Vilvens first installed it, but it remains one of the most set-heavy offenses in the league.
For the most part, they run interesting pick and rolls with wraps thrown in. They use a double-screen (often deceptive rather than practical) more than any other team in the league. They dabble in horns, with the latest innovation being a Feast loop from left elbow to right corner. When BearDaBeast gets his takeover badge, they go 5-Out.
Each set has its share of wrinkles, and the 76ers will have to be prepared for not only ones they’ve pinpointed on film but also ones the T-Wolves throw in seemingly at random.
Most interesting, perhaps, is that despite the NBA 2K League being a copycat league and one of conformity, these Finals contestants don’t even run the same archetype lineup. The 76ers are traditional in running a pure glass cleaner at center. The T-Wolves have become the last team standing with a sharpshooting rebounder at center, enabling their 5-Out spacing and making their pick and pop game a real threat. JoJo doesn’t hang around long to set his screens when popping, but he pops efficiently and hits shots at a very high clip (78.6% from the field in these playoffs).
Somehow, the T-Wolves have not paid the penalty on the boards despite facing two successive glass cleaners. They sit at a +11 rebound margin through four playoff games and have never lost the rebound battle in these playoffs. Both teams have seen their points per game increase and their rebounds increase during the playoffs, but the sharpshooting rebounder team has out-rebounded the pure glass cleaner by a slim margin of 17 to 16.3 rebounds per game.
The 76ers cannot be out-rebounded. Most importantly, they cannot allow any serious quantity of offensive rebounds. Steez will be lined up opposite Feast, arguably the least mobile T-Wolves Gaming player offensively, and so he must be able to crash the boards from the wing and obtain possession no matter what shot goes up.
The T-Wolves corner shooters—Feast and TURNUPDEFENSE—are crucial. Averaging 12 assists per game in the playoffs, up 3 assists from the regular season, Bear is a pass-first point guard who has shown expert ability to drive and kick. Though fairly ambidextrous, he prefers going right, which means that Radiant will often be the strongside defender tasked with pinching and retreating. He must play smart.
TURNUP has upped his scoring to nearly 14 points per game, and averaged 21 points in two games against the Warriors. While that was due, in part, to some egregiously poor defending, poor defending can often be the result of overwhelmingly good offense.
But we know that the 76ers produce overwhelmingly good offense. Radiant might well be the best player in the world right now. He decimated Celtics Crossover Gaming in the semifinals, including a 37-point, 14-assist masterpiece in the clinching win. In clinching games these playoffs, he averages 32.5 points and 13.5 assists per game. If he treats all of these Finals games like clinching games, no defense can stop him. For the most part, the T-Wolves can only hope to contain him as much as possible.
Even that will be a difficult task. Feast is one of the best defenders in the league, but his diagonal pick-and-roll defense will be insufficient if Radiant is totally locked in. TURNUP has to fight through Steez’s clever screens, while Feast may play incredibly high. ZDS isn’t a constant threat to cut to the basket—they prefer him wrapping around the arc—and the corner defenders will have to man their islands as well as possible.
The ZDS-JMoney matchup is an interesting one. Each is the perfect complement to his team’s offense and perhaps the weakest point of his team’s defense. Both players can shoot and score with minimal space to operate and both are the beneficiaries of stellar point guard play.
Yet both have actually seen their points per game decrease in the playoffs, ZDS by just over one point and JMoney by over six. Most concering is JMoney’s 3-point percentage, which sits at 38.9%. A matchup with ZDS, who has his moments of inactivity and unawareness defensively, might be just what the doctor ordered. Conversely, JMoney has played far above his regular-season standard defensively, and continuing to do so should be his top priority. This is a classic strength-on-weakness matchup: one player’s strength (perimeter movement and shooting) will face off against the other player’s weakness (perimeter defense). Whoever best remedies their weakness will win.
Because it’s 2K19, whoever wins the pick and roll matchup will have the best chance to win. T-Wolves Gaming has more tricks and sets to compensate for their deficit in the pure pick and roll matchup. Defensively, Bear will have to use Breadwinner’s aggressive defense against him and exploit every opportunity. Newdini is having the playoffs of his life, and if he continues to play at his current level the 76ers will be very confident, for good reason. It’s not 2018; Radiant isn’t turning in a dud of a playoff performance this time around, and playing like this Radiant will always win the pick-and-roll matchup.
What This Means on a Greater Scale
Although the Showcase is the night before, this is the true measure of the NBA 2K League. The playoffs have seen an uptick in viewership over the lower regular-season numbers. But last year’s Finals was the equivalent of a ratings bonanza for the NBA 2K League, with up to 68,000 viewers tuning in at one point. This year must hope to match that across three platforms: Twitch, YouTube and Tencent.
Tencent may be most important. It’s no secret that the potential for esports and NBA 2K viewership in China is huge, and it’s a market that the league has never been shy about eyeing. Tencent distribution is a huge deal for the future of the league—for future viewership in the world’s most populous country and for future team accession based on foreign investment.
Conversely, this weekend also contains the Evolution Championship Series (Evo 2019) in Las Vegas. That’s a major esports calendar event and it will take away some slight coverage from the Finals. But this Finals is, on a larger scale, about building up to become something that fights with Evo for viewers and in some cases outduels them. Having an expansion team in the Finals is a good story. Having BearDaBeast in the Finals is a good story. But the best story of all—for a tight, competitive Finals—will be one that draws serious viewership, demonstrating the league’s potential for longterm growth.
The winner, in hindsight, will be no surprise. If T-Wolves Gaming wins, we will point to their ability to sustain momentum in a remarkable turnaround and their incredible team play, led by Bear, as the reasons for their victory.
If 76ers GC wins, we will say that pick and roll is king as usual and that talent’s consistency won out in the end. Everyone, in retrospect, will have been right.
But the pick here, personally, is the same as it has been since the start of the playoffs and since the start of the 2018 playoffs as well. No team has executed at such a high level over such a long period of time as the 76ers have. They have the success in tournaments and the crunch-time wins to prove it. Bolstered by the coach of the year and the best player in this series, 76ers GC has their golden chance, after years of expert asset management and sheer skill and execution, to ring the Liberty Bell in celebration.
76ers GC in four.