Web Content Contributor
After a tirelessly great NBA regular season, which was filled with game-winning shots, mostly against the Phoenix Suns, depressing injuries, the liveliest MVP discussion in years, complete incompetence, a surprising historically great regular-season team, and a thousand other storylines, the playoffs are almost here. So time for another thousand storylines or two! I love this time of year.
(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets
The Hawks are one of the feel-good stories of this season, a rag-tag group of unselfish players playing cohesively and beyond their talent level. At least, that’s how their perceived. In reality, they’re just a really good team. You don’t win 60 games by accident. They’ve cooled off in the past few games, but keep in mind they cliched the one seed three weeks ago. The one question mark is the craziness surrounding Thabo Sefolosha’s arrest/injury. He was a valuable rotation player, especially if the Hawks play the Cavaliers since he can matchup with LeBron, but maybe the Hawks can replace his minutes with John Jenkins or Kent Bazemore. Or they could lean on their starting five, who have been consistently great all year. Kyle Korver
Brooklyn would easily take the most depressing franchise award this season. Since the Deron Williams trade and Mikhail Prokhorov, they’ve mortgaged their future to build a winner in the present, and have a total of one playoff series wins to show for it. Since trading for Thad Young they have a little bit of talent, but overall it’s probably not worth it. As a franchise, they’re probably just waiting for the Williams and Joe Johnson contracts to come off the books and hope that none of the many draft picks they’ve traded away come back to bite them. By the way did you know that Williams is shooting 39% this year? And is making nearly $20 million? Pretty cool, right?
An interesting subplot to Atlanta’s season is that they have the opportunity to switch draft picks with Brooklyn because of the Joe Johnson trade, so Atlanta’s going to end up with the 15th overall pick in a good draft. Now not only are the Hawks going to take their pick, they’re probably going to run them off the floor too. Brooklyn’s home crowds are one of the least-impactful in the NBA, so playing away probably won’t be a problem for the Hawks. Hawks in four.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics
Cleveland has become the de facto favorite in the East, going 34-9 since January 13th, and they have more obvious talent than Atlanta. Kyrie Irving has become one of the best scorers in the league, and has the best handles this side of Steph Curry. What’s most impressive about this season is how well he’s meshed with LeBron. Kyrie’s stats have actually improved in his first year playing James, something neither Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh nor Kevin Love can say. Speaking of Love, he has garnered a ton of criticism this season, but even when he’s being misused, as he is right now, he’s still pretty freaking good. A power forward who makes 37% of his threes on a high attempt rate with 10 rebounds a game is a great asset in any game. The supporting cast has rounded out nicely, with J.R. Smith, Tristian Thompson and Mozgod fitting their respective roles of shooter, hustler and rim protector well. Also, the Cavs have this dude named LeBron, still probably the best player in the world when he has to be.
Hey look, another team Brooklyn owes draft picks to! Making the playoffs this year is more of an bonus than anything. They weren’t bad enough to get a high pick, and the difference between say the 11th pick and the 16th is negligible when you’re giving your young guys experience. Brad Stevens is a fantastic coach, and Boston has a bright future if it drafts well, but they’re still a sub-.500 team. Isiah Thomas is pretty cool though (and a possible 6th man of the year).
Even though some of the toughest playoff series LeBron has played have been against Boston, this year the Celtics are probably going to be little more than fodder for Cleveland. Cavaliers in five.
(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
The thought that NBA teams take the characteristics of their best player definitely holds true for the Bulls, because they, like Derrick Rose, are huge enigmas. Although he hasn’t been the Bulls’ best player this season, either Jimmy Butler or Pau Gasol have been, Rose is still the face of the franchise. And despite how great he was just a few years ago, I can’t help but think that I’d like the Bulls’ chances better if he wasn’t playing. This is another besmirched season for the former MVP, and playing their offense through their bigs rather than Rose would be their best bet to make it through the east, in my opinion. Chicago has enough talent, and they have so much size, that they’re dangerous to any team but between the Rose situation and the Tom Thibodeau controversy their season could submarine early.
All I want is for Giannis Antetokounmpo to be unleashed on a national audience, so people can gape at how a man his size moves like he does. There’s going to be a game in this series where Giannis steals the ball, goes three-fourths of the court and dunks on three dribbles, and it will seem so natural. And if he flames out? Who cares, the dude’s only 20. Like the Celtics, the Bucks best days are ahead of them. They’re not even playing with Jabari Parker, who should be a franchise cornerstone. Their young core could use some high-pressure games for growth, and Jason Kidd is a forward-thinking enough to give them some run in these games.
Bucks in six. Nah kidding, Bulls in five. But I think these games will be more competitive than people expect. This could turn out to be similar to the Bulls-Pacers first round series in 2011, which the Pacers used as a springboard to contention, much like the Bucks hope to do.
(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards
They started the season off so well (they were 24-7 at one point). Then…they just kind of ran out of steam. Which is too bad, this is a likable roster. The have one of the best backcourts in the league, with DeRozen and Lowry, but they’re missing the punch of one more impact player. Their nine-man rotation is solid, but you can’t help but think that this is as far as Dwane Casey can take this team. This might be a Mark Jackson/Doug Collins situation, where the coach that incubated the talent can’t quite take them to the next level, and change is needed. The Raptors seem to have stagnated, which shouldn’t happen for a team without a single player on the roster who gets significant minutes who is over 30.
Now this is definitely a team that needs a coaching change, there is no might here. Same with their general manager. The Wizards were gifted John Wall and Bradley Beal, a back court that’s just about made in heaven. Their games play off each other so well, with Wall being the speedster distributor and Beal being the bowling ball-like shooter. Beyond those two, the roster is downright curious. It’s filled with veterans like Gortat, Pierce and Nene, who are all good players (except for Nene being in a strange funk this season), but they their cupboard for potential is bare beyond Wall, Beal and Otto Porter, who in theory should be a great fit with the guards but in reality seems to be either misused or just an average player.
I mean, somebody has to win this series, and whichever coach does will probably keep his job. So, just devils advocate, maybe it would be for the best long-term if say Washington lost this series? Just saying. Anyway, the matchup between DeRozen-Lowry and Wall-Beal will be fantastic to watch, but this might be a frustrating series to watch from a logic sense. “Wait, why has Rasual Butler played the last 20 minutes in this game? Why is Toronto just running Lou Williams iso’s when Valanciunas is being guarded by Kris Humphries? Urgh.” I see this one going the distance. Toronto in seven.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans
Golden State’s Side:
Only five teams in NBA history have won more than Golden State’s 67 games this year, the eight-best point differential ever and the basketball-references SRS tool ranks them to be the 7th best regular season team ever. They’re also the only team in NBA history to average 110 or more points per game and give up less than 100. All of that is to say that the Warriors are a juggernaut. Steph Curry is going to finish either first or second in the MVP voting, Klay Thompson has been one of the best players at his position, and in the NBA in general, they have two legitimate defensive player of the year candidates in Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green, a sixth man of the year candidate in Andre Iguodala, a bevy of good role players and the likely coach of the year in Steve Kerr. They have both elite talent in the forefront of their team, and a way overqualified supporting cast behind Curry and Thompson. This is a special team in every way, and despite that it would be surprising if they ran through the West without contention because of how tough their series in this conference will be.
New Orleans’ Side:
I was just gonna have this paragraph consist of “Anthony Davis, Anthony Davis, Anthony Davis, Anthony Davis, The Brow, brow, brow, brow, wow, wow, wow, wow, 24 and 10, 31 PER,24 and 10, 31 PER, oh sweet jesus he’s only 22.” But I should also mention that Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon are all healthy again, so the Pelican’s backcourt has a fair amount of punch. But the main story here is that Anthony Davis just put up the best season for a power forward since the peak Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan seasons of the mid-2000s, and he just turned 22. He might be a great enough player to make up for whatever mistakes the Pelican’s front office have made in the past few seasons.
I’m excited to see Anthony Davis in the playoffs, and nobody from Golden State can matchup super well with him, but the Warriors have too much firepower. Warriors in five.
(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
James Harden is the other guy who will finish either first or second in the MVP voting, and he’s dragged Houston’s very confusing roster to the second seed in one of the better conferences of recent NBA history. Despite your stance on his free throw-drawing methods, Harden has been fantastic this season. He is the perfect player to execute Moreyball, and he has passed the eye test as well as the statistical test this season. As for the non-Harden Rockets, having Motiejunas and Beverly out for the season probably hampers their potential to win the title, but if Howard is healthy and plays like he did in last year’s playoffs, Houston will continue to be dangerous. It’s just a little disheartening that beyond Harden, the Rocket’s best players are a hobbled Howard, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza.
In theory, the Rajon Rondo trade should’ve made the Mavericks a contender. Their offensive system was destroying teams, and Rondo would bring some legitimacy to their roster if he fit well. He did not. He’s not even shooting 50% on his free throws, and has -0.5 offensive win shares and only a 94 offensive rating (and a 107 defensive rating). If you’re not super familiar with advanced metrics, I’ll just say that those aren’t good. Beyond Rondo, Dirk’s showing his age, Monta Ellis appears to be moody and Chandler Parsons is bro-ing out as per usual. Of course, Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the NBA, so they won’t bow down to anyone.
This should be a contentious series. These teams have legit beef with each other, they play in the same state and the Rockets might be the most disliked team in the NBA other than the Clippers. There will be a style clash, which will makes these games either some of the most compelling of the playoffs, or unwatchable. Even though Houston is probably the matchup Dallas wanted for the second seed, if only because of their injuries, I still feel like the Rockets have the upper hand. Unless Carlisle does a coaching equivalent of what Tywin Lannister does to every other character in Game of Thrones to Kevin McHale, the Rockets should win. Rockets in six.
(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs
Los Angeles’ Side:
The Clippers are a top-heavy team, with three of the best players in the league at their respective positions in Paul, Griffin and Jordan. Beyond their big three, J.J. Redick has had a typically great shooting season, Matt Barnes’ shot has come back as he remains tough-as-nails on D, and even though Jamal Crawford has been inconsistent dealing with injuries this year, he can still get buckets. That’s a good top six. Very good, actually. Good enough to be highly ranked in a few important categories: second in points/game, second in SRS, second in expected win/loss and first in offensive rating. What’s the problem then? Well, the fact that the next guys off their bench are Spencer Hawes, Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and, um, Austin Rivers. Who’s being coached by his dad. Who was traded for, in-season, by his dad. Who would probably be riding the bench, or playing in the D-League if he wasn’t traded for and coached by his dad. It’s so awkward. I kind of want the Clips to make a run so we can have more awkward Austin Rivers-Doc Rivers moments.
San Antonio’s Side:
The Spurs appear to be peaking at the right time, and the rest of the NBA is cowering in fear of the team that never dies. Since returning from injury, Kawhi Leonard has terrorized some of the best players in the league, becoming a defensive player of the year candidate and coming into his own on offense. He is given more freedom than ever to freelance and go 1-on-1, and for the first time since 1998 the Spurs top scorer has been somebody other than Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. While the core Spurs are aging, the young guys are stepping up. Which is terrifying for the rest of the NBA. I mean, there’s a reason Duncan and Popovich have five championships, and the Spurs have won the equivalent to 50 games for the past 18 years.
Right now, these might be the second and third best teams in the west, possibly in the entire NBA, and they’re playing in the first round. What a fantastic series this should be. Chris Paul, who has been playing out of his mind in the past few months, going against the best perimeter defender in the NBA in Leonard is worth admission alone. The rest of the parts will make for compelling television as well. Griffin, the new-school power forward going against Duncan, the best power forward in history; Manu and Crawford in a battle of aging sixth men guards; DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting versus Popovich who is inevitably going to use hack-a-Jordan often. Despite my Spurs fandom, I think the Clippers are going to win this one, on their home court, in game seven. Clippers in seven.
(4) Portland Trailblazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
If Wesley Matthews hadn’t injured his Achilles, the Blazers would be my second pick to make it out of the West (behind the Warriors). He was so valuable to them; he was their best perimeter defender, a great high-volume shooter, had a nice off-the-dribble game and seemed like an important chemistry guy for them. Now their already shallow team doesn’t have an incredible starting five to lean on. Their main lineup of Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Lopez was outscoring opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions. The same lineup with Aaron Afflalo, Matthews’ replacement, has been outscored by more than four points per 100 possessions. I mean, the Blazers still have great talent, Aldridge is one of the best players in the league and Lillard can score on just about anyone (even if the same is true for opponents against him), but Matthews was the cog that made them run. Oh well. Once again, injuries have to ruin everything.
Grit-n-gind has had one of it’s best seasons this year; although they were second in the west for the longest time, they cooled off soon after trading for Jeff Green, which should indicate something not being right with them. But it was a worthy risk, as Green gives them flexibility they’ve never really had. This is a veteran team; as long as Mike Conley is healthy, they have a shot against just anyone. Marc Gasol has turned into the kind of player you can build an offense around, and his unique skill set is a tough matchup for anyone. Their defense is still their calling card, and that will keep them in games. The question is, like always, is whether they have enough scoring punch to be more than just a threat. That’s why I liked the Jeff Green gamble; it gave them someone who can create offense on the perimeter, which they’ve lacked in their playoff runs.
This playoff series would’ve been absolutely amazing a few weeks ago before their recent slides, but it should still entertain. There are enough elite players on each side to make these games riveting. The Blazers are one of the few teams that can matchup with the Grizzlies’ size, but I think Memphis’ defense across the board will prevail, in what hopefully will be a close series. Grizzlies in six.
Well, there it is, a probably completely wrong first round preview. I hope you enjoyed it, and enjoy the games. I know I will. Until next time…