Editor’s Note: We know the playoffs already started. Thanks.
The NBA regular season is in the books and holy crap was it a ride. We came in expecting the same old same old. Lebron and the Cavs would dominate. The Thunder would ride high in the Western Conference. Steph Curry and James Harden would be very good. But the Golden State Warriors were the team that tore through the league. The lowly Hawks put together a beautiful win streak. Harden, Westbrook, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, and Curry had transcendent seasons. The Raptors and Wizards were disappointments. Portland looked like a legit contender until they lost Wesley Matthews. The Mavs were the hottest team in basketball before becoming one of the coldest. The Celtics hired Brad Stevens, who took a team of role players to the playoffs. The fun Suns of last year were replaced by the “everyone hates each other” Suns. The Lakers and Knicks were flaming garbage heaps that made Philly look good at times. The Timberwolves were god-awful without Love and Rubio. The Hornets looked scary after an interesting off-season but turned out to be smelly water garbage. Lance Stephenson was the worst player in the NBA. The point is many expectations were shattered. It was a weird but fun season. But that’s over now. It’s time for the big dance. This is hands down the best basketball tournament in the world. So get hype fam because we bout to preview it!
In the Western Conference we have the Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Blazers, Grizzlies, Spurs, Mavs, and Pelicans. In the Eastern Conference there are the Hawks, Cavs, Bulls, Raptors, Wizards, Bucks, Celtics, and Nets. There are about 6 legitimate contenders and a couple teams that could make things interesting. And most are worth watching (Not the Nets.) For each team I will provide W/L%, SRS (average point differential adjusted for strength of schedule, which is a pretty good predictive metric), Offensive Rating, and Defensive Rating (an estimation of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) to give you a good picture of the team. I will talk about some players to watch and throw a few highlights in there, too. I will try to make a case that most of these teams could win it all, or at least make things fun.
Golden State had one of the best seasons in the history of the NBA. They posted an SRS of over 10, which has only been done 6 other times in NBA history. Five out of those six won the NBA finals. The problem with this Golden State team is that there really isn’t a problem. They have the best offense in the NBA, and the best defense. They have quality depth and players who can take over games. According to Nate Silver’s 538, they have the best odds to win the Finals at 48%, which is insane. It’s pretty much a coin flip between GSW or the field. Kentucky only had a 40% chance of winning the NCAA Tournament. This team will go down in history as one of the best of all time.
The cast of players is excellent. Steph Curry is freaking electric. Look at this. LOOK AT THIS
WHAT? HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? If for some reason Curry isn’t enough for you, you don’t deserve him or anyone else ever. But there’s much more to Golden State than an MVP candidate.
GET THAT WEAK SHIT OUTTA HERE DIRK. Draymond Green is a monster and a bully who has at least a dozen chips on his shoulder because scouts said stuff like “He’s just not that talented.” The second round pick from Michigan State has been one of the best players on defense this year and an integral part of this Dubs team. More? You want more? Fine, your honor, I submit Exhibit C: Klay Thompson–the hottest heat check in the west.
Thirty-seven points in one quarter. It doesn’t make sense. He should not have hit half of those shots. When Klay is feeling it the rules that constrain us mere mortals no longer apply. He warps reality into what he wants it to be. Klay Thompson is the closest thing we have to a real life sorcerer. Also, the rest of this team is really good, too. Like, top to bottom the roster is pretty solid.
Why they can win it all: Best. Team. In. Basketball.
Why they can’t: Ummm uhh umm…turnovers?
How far will they go: Finals
The Rockets are a very good offensive team with a decent defense. They have the second best free throw attempt per field goal attempt ratio among playoff teams. The Rockets shoot a lot of threes and get a lot of fouls. This roster doesn’t look like it should work. It’s a bunch of real average dudes. And then Dwight Howard (hasn’t been great in a looooonnnngggg time) and then James Harden. We knew Harden had superstar potential last year. But he has taken his game to a whole new level this year. He actually plays defense now. He creates his own shots. He finds open teammates. And his Jab-step/Euro-step is absolutely killer.
Harden has been the most valuable player according to a few metrics and you can see it when you watch the Rockets play. It’s all based around Harden. The whole system falls apart without him. What is so cray about Houston is that they consistently pick players off the scrap heap and make them productive. They picked up Josh Smith and Corey Brewer after they were cut. Ariza and Terry are having late career surges. A random assortment of second round picks and D-League call ups are meaningful rotation players. Pablo freaking Prigioni has played decent minutes and been efficient.
I hope Dwight gets back to his dominant self, but who knows if that happens during these playoffs. I think people hate on Dwight way more than he deserves, though. So to commemorate that, here is Dwight destroying the Timberwolves.
I hope Dwight absolutely dominates in these playoffs and we get another chance to see the Dwight we all fell in love with six years ago.
Why they can win it all: Harden will be cooking! Their defense will hold up and force a whole lot of turnovers, which is the only way to beat the Warriors. Dwight can still get it done around the rim and his defense is good. Their role players make their stars better and are key cogs in the rotation. This Rockets team is scary efficient.
Why they can’t: They won’t get calls in the playoffs. Dwight is a shell of what he once was. Josh Smith taking three pointers. Harden has nights where he takes way too many shots. Their bench is paper thin. Josh Smith taking three pointers. Patrick Beverly is out for the playoffs which hurts them on defense. Josh Smith taking three pointers.
How far will they go: Second Round
Los Angeles Clippers:
Clip show has been so consistently good since they got Chris Paul. And Paul is having one of his best seasons ever. Blake Griffin hasn’t had to do as much mush down low with Paul healthy unlike last year, but is still a very, very good player. Deandre Jordan may be the best rim protector in the NBA and is an extremely weird but fun dude.
He brought his mom to a post-game interview. And then there’s this gem.
There are a million of these. Just Google Deandre Jordan post-game interview and watch him wipe a booger on JJ Redick or sing to Jamal Crawford. He truly is a delightful human being. The Clippers just seem fun. Like a great group of guys who get along well. I think that’s one reason they are so enjoyable to watch. They just have great chemistry. They also have a very fluid offense with deadly shooters, a point god, and one of the best front courts in basketball. Their defense outside of potential DPOY Jordan and Pick-your-Pockets Paul is pretty meh. Their bench is super weak. They have Austin Rivers playing back up point guard. Austin Rivers is terrible at basketball. He is also the coach’s son. The second unit for this team is just horrible to watch.
Why they can win it all: Chris Paul is in Point God mode. They have the second best SRS in the NBA. Deandre Jordan actually provides a good amount of value on both ends of the floor. Blake Griffin is a better passer and shooter than people give him credit for. The core of Paul, Jordan, and Griffin are all young and you can probably play them enough that bench depth won’t be a concern. Doc Rivers is a top 5 coach in the NBA.
Why they can’t: Refs hate them. They beg for calls and don’t get them. Bench depth is everything in the playoffs. Austin Rivers cannot play significant minutes on a championship team. The last time JJ Redick, Hedo Turkoglu, and Matt Barnes were good was when they were on the Magic dropping threes while defenders crashed on Dwight. Jamal Crawford seems to have forgotten how to shoot. They play the Spurs in the first round.
How far will they go: Oh god. I want to pick them. But there is a part of me screaming “DON’T BET AGAINST POP EVER!” Ok. The first round. But they will take it to seven. I’m so stressed about this series.
The Portland Trail Blazers:
Record: 51 – 31
I feel so bad for the Blazers. They had styled themselves into an offensive juggernaut built around LaMarcus Aldridge’s deadly mid-range game and Damian Lillard’s shooting and driving. They had a whole bunch of wings who could defend and score and centers who were extremely mobile. The key cog making everything mesh? Wes Matthews. Wes made himself into the exact role player the Blazers needed. He was a perfect three-and-D wing. He helped hide Damian Lillard’s utter lack of defense and made their spacing work on offense. He was headed for a max contract this summer. Then he tore his Achilles tendon. That’s a big injury in basketball. Guys come back from it, but sometimes they just can’t run the same anymore. That unfortunately has been the story for these Blazers. Just look at the guys coming off injuries or missing at least the opening game of the playoffs: Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, Gee, Afflalo, Wright. They are decimated on the wing. That’s why they made a deadline trade for Aaron Afflalo. This is making me too sad. Let’s watch Damian Lillard attack the rim with the ferocity of a velociraptor.
You might be wondering, “How did the Blazers get a four seed in the west? The Spurs had the better record.” The NBA has an asinine rule that says the winner of each division has to have home court advantage. It’s dumb. The Blazers shouldn’t be rewarded for being in the shittiest division in the West. It just creates mismatches. This year’s Blazers will be remembered in a “what could have been” light, which sucks. This is a fun, very good team that was decimated by injuries.
Why they can win it all: Maybe if they all get healthy at the right time–like, now–and Afflalo steps up on defense and they’re able to hide the sieve known as Damian Lillard for a few series in a row. But no, they really don’t have a shot of getting further than the second round.
Why they can’t: Injuries, Lillard plays a fraction of the defense Harden plays, Aldridge’s feet are made of glass and he is going to have to play heavy minutes.
How far will they go: First round exit.
The Grizz have the third best defense in the NBA. Their front court of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is downright terrifying. This is the most old school team in the NBA. They are the Anti-Warriors. They don’t shoot threes, their spacing is garbage, they play extremely slow, and they push everything inside. But what they are is incredibly tough on defense. Tony Allen has a steal percentage of 4.1%, which is amazing. A good steal percentage is over 2%, an elite steal percentage is over 3%, but 4%? 4% is a glitch in the freaking system. Conley and Allen in the back court is unfair. Then they bring Calathes, another great defender off the bench. This Memphis team can pretty much shut down anyone. They only allow 95 per game. One the other side of the ball, Marc Gasol has been asked to step up on offense this year and this has been the result:
The weakness of these Grizzlies is the weakness of every Memphis team in recent history. Their offense isn’t great. It’s better than average for sure. But they can’t score points in a hurry if they go down early. Also, the lack of legitimate shooting threats kills their spacing. You can pack the paint against the Grizz and leave their shooters open to bring help defenders into the lane.
Why they will win it all: Gasol and Z-Bo, deep bench, soul-crushing defense, forcing turnovers, playing extremely slow, limited possession basketball, grit and grind and toughness etc.
Why they won’t: Zach Randolf is getting old, Jeff Green has not been the shot of offense they needed, no one can shoot threes. What are they going to do when they go down by more than 5 points and need to score buckets in a hurry?
How far will the go: Second Round
San Antonio Spurs:
Record: 55 – 27
Greg Popovich could take a team of kitchen appliances to the NBA finals. The man is a living legend. How is Tim Duncan still this good? It shouldn’t be possible. And then there is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has evolved into one of the best two-way players in the NBA. His offense and defense have gone to another level this year. If he hadn’t missed so many games he would be the DPOY. Watch him catch Steph Curry sleeping.
He is so good. The Spurs big advantage is their depth. They have the deepest bench in the playoffs. 13 of their players have been worth at least one win and 11 of their players have an above average WS/48 (a good measure of efficiency). This team is top to bottom one of the best in the NBA. They are going to be tested early and often though. They will play the Clippers in the first round, probably the Grizzlies in the second round, and unless something goes horribly wrong, will get the Warriors in the conference finals. That is a grueling schedule. They won’t be able to rest players, so Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili will be exhausted at some point. But they are so deep they don’t need to play those guys a ton of minutes.
Why they will win it all: Greg Popovich is one of the best coaches in professional sports. Tim Duncan does not age. Kawhi is a monster. Super deep bench. Parker has about an eighth of a gallon left in the tank and that is just enough.
Why they won’t: Too old. I know that argument is made every year and it never really holds any weight, but what else is there? This is an elite offense with an elite defense and a ton of depth. There’s just, you know, the Warriors.
How far will they go: Conference Finals
I love this team. Monta Ellis playing Monta Ball is entertaining as hell. Playoff Rondo is a phenomenon I don’t completely understand, but is an absolute joy to watch. I love how much this team hates Houston. They overpaid Chandler Parsons just to spite their in-state rivals. Tyson Chandler is one of the best two-way centers in the NBA and is deadly on pick and rolls. And about one in every five games Dirk looks like Dirk again. Let’s take a trip down memory lane to the Dirk we all know and love.
The ugly truth about this Mavs team? They are the streakiest team on the planet. They came out super hot and limped into the playoffs. Dirk looks bordeline immobile some nights. Rondo kills the team’s spacing and is turning it over on 22% of his possessions. Monta Ball is fun but can lead to disastrously inefficient performances. The bench is not great. Amare Stoudamire? Yikes. Devin Harris playing significant minutes? Ouch. Charlie Villanueva is hot garbage. This Mavs team is so much fun when everything clicks, but it seems the only thing that clicks every night is the fantastic play of Tyson Chandler.
Why they can win it all: They get so hot they burn up all the competition. Playoff Rondo manifests himself in all of his glory. Monta’s shot falls. Dirk manages to move.
Why they can’t: They are way too streaky and have a ton of weaknesses. Their bench is terrible. This isn’t 2011.
How far will they go: First Round, but the Texas rivalry is real and fun and hopefully we get one game out of this team where they flash their incredible potential.
New Orleans Pelicans:
Record: 45 – 37
Anthony Davis. Anthony FREAKING Davis. Anthony Davis is amazing. He leaves me awestruck. Just watch this:
Anthony Davis had 36 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists, and 9 blocks in this game! This is a perfect summary of this Pelicans season, because they lost this game. Anthony Davis continues to do amazing things while the garbage fire rages all around him. New Orleans is a great example of why fit matters. You have to acquire players that compliment each other and can play well together. You can’t start Tyreke Evans at SF–he has to be the primary ball handler. I hope Davis puts up 60 points vs the Warriors one game before the Pellies succumb to the juggernaut that is GSW.
Why they can win it all: They can’t, but if you have to have one reason it is the Brow, Anthony Davis
Why they can’t: Davis can’t play every position.
How far will they go: 5 games max in the first round
Record: 60 – 22
The Hawks were a revelation this season. A team that had been projected to finish at the bottom of the playoffs in the East took the conference by storm with an amazing 19-game win streak. They got a new coach who revolutionized the team with a system that emphasized cuts and passing. The Hawks are number two in the league in assisted twos and threes. The offense is beautiful to watch. The bench is good enough to get it done when the starters struggle. In short, this team looks a great deal like the Spurs. Check out these plays.
If you want to know more about how the Hawks offense works, I wrote about it in length here. The Hawks defense is the sixth best in the NBA, thanks in large part to the sheer number of turnovers they create. This team is fun. You have personalities like Schröder and Antic. Jeff Teague attacks the paint like a mad man. DeMarre runs all over the court, often shadowing the opponents top wing. Horford’s mid-range game is delightful. Millsap has nights where he looks like an MVP candidate. The Hawks are a highly entertaining show to watch. They also have one glaring weakness: rebounding. They were the worst team in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and 6 worst in defensive rebounding percentage.
Why they can win it all: Amazing ball movement, one of the best coaches in the game, Horford/Millsap pick and pops, Korver’s deadeye shooting, team basketball
Why they can’t: They don’t have a star, they can’t rebound, they depend too heavily on Korver, they aren’t the Warriors, they don’t have LeBron. My bias might be getting in the way here, but I don’t see a compelling reason why the Hawks can’t reach the conference finals or the actual Finals.
How far will they go: The Finals
Holy crap, what a season for the Cavs. They came in with big expectations and had a horrible start to the season. Then LeBron took two weeks off, they rebuilt the roster, let LeBron be the coach, and now everything is clicking! Kyrie has been developing like crazy under the tutelage of LeBron. And they have built some beautiful chemistry.
The Cavs have looked downright deadly on offense, with the second best offense in the NBA. JR and Shumpert injected life into this team. Mozgov gave them a legit rim protector and big man. Their defense has not been great, but they’ve been outscoring too many people to care. They have a troubling tendency to go iso-heavy at times, but when you have LeBron you can get away with that. Their bench is not great outside of Tristan Thompson. This is the second best team in the Eastern Conference and when they get cooking it is a sight to see. They are currently the favorites to win the East, and at times they look the part. Plus, this roster is full of fun characters like LeBron and Kyrie. They have JR Smith and all his antics and irrational confidence. They have Shump’s great hair. Mozgov’s name is funny. I mean “Timofey”? C’mon.
Why they can win it all: LeBron is still the best player in the NBA, Kyrie is next level, the team is finally meshing well, JR is playing like he isn’t on the Knicks, Shump is being asked to do less so he is more efficient,
Why they can’t: Their bench is a bunch of old dudes who are really inconsistent, Kevin Love is a big question mark, Matthew Delavedova plays a lot of minutes for this team, the team is too top heavy and doesn’t play championship level defense
How far will they go: Conference Finals
Record: 50 -32
The Bulls have many things that make a contender, but those things just don’t click. Pau and Joakim couldn’t share the floor together. Derrick Rose is trying to play like a man who hasn’t blown out his knee multiple times. Rose still has the potential to be a very good point guard, but he needs to change his game. He can no longer rely on his overwhelming athleticism, game one aside. Nikola Mirotic has had flashes of greatness, but has cooled after a hot start. They play him as a SF, because the front court is so jammed up with Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, and Pau Gasol. Jimmy Butler has been fantastic this year and made the leap from good shooting guard to an elite two-way wing player. Dunleavy is doing his best Korver impersonation. Snell and Brooks were welcome surprises. This is another classic “It probably shouldn’t work, but somehow it does,” Bulls team. Tom Thibodeau continues to somehow coach a team of aging stars, one young stud, and a pile of scraps to the playoffs. Let’s watch Pau Gasol win a game by dunking:
And here’s Jimmy Butler eating James Harden’s breakfast sandwich:
PUT THAT IN YOUR AM CRUNCHWRAP BEARDY!! Any way the Bulls are decent, but like maybe at the same level or a bit worse than the Mavs, who are a 7 seed in the stacked West.
Why they can win it all: Thibs, a Derrick Rose revival, deep front court rotation, Jimmy Butler’s rising star, Mirotic’s delightful beard and three point shot.
Why they can’t: Their offense is good but can’t compete with the elite teams. The defense is better than average but not to the point where it compensates for the offense like Memphis’s.
How far can they go: Second round
This Raptors team has regressed from their over-performing ways from last year. Lowry is still a great point guard. Valanciunas is still a good scorer and a decent rebounder. DeRozan is still a bad shooter with a volume problem. Patterson and Johnson make up a good big rotation. The roster is pretty solid, but it’s not a championship roster. They do have a deep rotation, which will help them in longer series. But the defense is just so bad. Its a freaking sieve. Valanciunas doesn’t play defense, Lowry is bad on that end, and DeRozan is terrible. Patterson and Johnson are decent defenders and so is James Johnson, but Johnson is a liability on offense. The best part of this team is Lou Williams off the bench, who provides a much needed spark for the second unit. His irrational confidence is a force to be reckoned with. Like this shot. There is no reason he should ever take this shot.
Apparently Lou also has two girlfriends, who not only know about each other, but are apparently friends. Yes, Lou Williams is in some sort of triad. Wow, what a time to be alive.
Why they can win it all: A balanced and elite level offense with a deep bench.
Why they can’t: Nobody on this team plays defense, there are very good players but no stars (Lowry is the only player in the top 40 in Win Shares)
How far will they go: Second round exit. Sorry Drake.
There are four players on this team. They have one of the worst coaches in professional sports. How did Wall and Gortat, and to a lesser extent Beal and Pierce, drag this team to the playoffs? Nene had a terrible season. The rest of this roster is replacement level trash. Truly this a huge accomplishment. How are they winning games?
Ok, so that’s how they got here.
Why they can win it all: They can’t.
Why they can’t: Wall and Gortat can’t win more than one 7 game series all by themselves.
How far will they go: First round
Milwaukee thinks they may have found the future of basketball. Instead of going with the current space and pace trend, they are attempting to build something brand new. They have assembled a bunch of young freakish athletes and players who just generally don’t have a set position. The center of this build is the Greek Freak: Giannis Antekokounmpo. He can dribble, run, and see the floor like a point guard, but he has the body of a big wing or big man. He can defend pretty much any position. From there the Bucks are stacked with guys who can play 2 or 3 different positions. Jason Kidd has embraced this and uses the ambiguity to create a fluid offense and a crazy, havoc-style defense with a ton of switching. It’s not always beautiful to watch, but occasionally Giannis does something like this:
I don’t know if you noticed but he took three steps from half court to the basket. OH MY GOSH!!! The vision this play took was incredible. He knew what he was going to do after like two dribbles. It doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t make sense in the context of position or spacing, which is how we understand modern basketball. He just might be the future. But he also might just be a once in a generation freak. Anyway, the Bucks are pretty bad besides their defense. This team should be fun and interesting next season when we see the plans for this team unfold a bit more and Jabari Parker comes back.
Why they can go all the way: Nope
Why they can’t: They aren’t good
How far will they go: First round
Let’s go live to Brooklyn to look in on the Nets:
Live footage from this morning’s practice:
Brooklyn is terrible and I will not do a serious preview for them. They deserve neither my time nor yours. They are disgusting brown water garbage. They have no business being in the playoffs. Do not waste any thoughts on them. They are the actual worst, they are bad, and they should feel bad.