8 MIAMI VS. 5 MILWAUKEE
KA-BOOOOM! TWO UPSETS IN THE EAST! OK, one was a real upset, the other not so much. Miami has done the impossible by taking down a 1 seed as a lowly 8 seed. Blame the lack of daily lineups? Sure. But the Heat gave a hell of a performance. So did Milwaukee. In fact, the two were separated by a measly 2 points in round 1 scoring. So, yeah, I expect this to be a tight one. The Bucks are a team that continues to perplex. Sure, they’ve got Giannis. But the supporting cast is so weird. Elfrid Payton. He gets triple doubles on the regular now? What?! Robert Covington is still playing hero ball? Hmm. The production from those three has been unreal. Serge Ibaka and Thad Young, however, have disappointed over the past few weeks. This team has suddenly become top-heavy, at least in the short term. Miami, meanwhile…I’m just not sold on them. How far can you really go when your best player is Goran Dragic? A lot of their players have struggled lately. In the last two weeks, only two players besides Dragic are scoring 30 PPG or more: Harrison Barnes and Jonas Valanciunas. Miami got by because of those three, a minutes advantage over Atlanta and a couple of Hawks guys sitting out. I don’t know if they’ll get as lucky this time. I’m going with MILWAUKEE to make it to the conference finals.
2 INDIANA VS. 3 CHICAGO
No one can stop Indy, as far as I’m concerned. They got healthy competition from the Cavs last week and still trounced them, scoring the most points of the week by a wide margin. Westbrook is Westbrook. Blake is slipping a bit as of late, but Gobert has been an absolute monster recently. Nobody is happier about Atlanta going down than Indy, because it basically punches their ticket for a second consecutive trip to the finals. Last year, they did it as an underdog. This year they’re the favorites. Getting past Chicago is not exactly a walk in the park, especially with how well Whiteside and Ricky Rubio have been playing lately, but the Pacers are just too good right now to pick against. To sum up: my pick is INDIANA.
1 NEW ORLEANS VS. 4 PORTLAND
Terrific showing by the Blazers in Round 1. Bad luck for Utah. #VoteDailyLineups. We always knew it was gonna be a close one, and of course Portland came from behind on the final day to take the win and send a division rival packing. The Blazers have got to be confident heading into the semifinals: their opponent, the No. 1 Pelicans, scored almost 300 points fewer in Round 1. New Orleans, meanwhile, should be concerned after putting up the third-lowest point total in the opening week of the postseason. They’re lucky they got that 1 seed; they would have lost to Houston handily, and anyone else in the West apart from Phoenix. They’ll have Jrue Holiday in the starting lineup this week, but will that really be enough to overcome the deficit of points they’ve been missing elsewhere? Bledsoe has been shut down for the rest of the year, making Holiday more of a stopgap than a net addition for the playoffs. In Round 1, all of their players gave at- or near-average performances. In the playoffs, you need more. The same was true for Portland, too, actually, but they’ve got more options they can go to on the bench this week. Hardaway, McConnell, and Afflalo have been playing well lately. And Archie Goodwin signed with Brooklyn out of nowhere, so maybe that turns into something. My pick for this round is still NEW ORLEANS because their talent is more evenly distributed. But I don’t feel particularly good about it.
2 SAN ANTONIO VS. 3 GOLDEN STATE
Last round shows how bad I am at predictions. The Warriors went down by over 100 points on day 2 and had a not insignificant minutes deficit to Sacramento. Not only did they come back to win, they scored the second most points of the week. San Antonio did well enough and fended off a late push from Houston, but it was obvious there were some holes in the lineup. Chandler didn’t play and Jennings, Booker and Dieng underperformed. Evan Turner is back, which should provide a nice boost. The Warriors, meanwhile, are red hot and have no holes. More than half of their starters scored over 40 PPG last week. And their bench looks pretty healthy, too. Screw what I said last week about the Warriors riding Curry to a title last year; this team is damn good. San Antonio is going to need monster performances from their big three in order to win. I don’t think their stars have enough help. I’m picking GOLDEN STATE to make it to the conference finals.
This is a new feature I’m rolling out. NBA writer Tim Bontemps has been doing these for a couple of seasons. Basically, he breaks down what went wrong with teams as they are eliminated from playoff contention. But there’s no way I would have bothered to calculate exactly who went out when during the season, so I waited until the actual start of the playoffs to do these.
This week I’m just focusing on the teams who missed the playoffs – there would be way too much to write otherwise. I’ll have the eight losers from Round 1 next week.
I’m also going to take a bit more of an optimistic view. Instead of harping on about why these teams fell short, I’ll focus on what they should do in the offseason. Basketball is all about feeling good.
Another terrible year, though I do have to point out the Thunder got six times the amount of wins this year as last year, so there was some improvement (I guess). More than enough has been said about this team’s dire situation. This team is still an incredibly long way away from getting back into the playoffs, but there are at least a couple of bright spots here. OKC scrimped together some assets to grab a couple of late picks last offseason, and some may bear fruit. Tyler Ulis has looked awesome now that the Suns are in full tank mode and Bledsoe is being held out. He’s had a 20-point game, a 13 and 13 game and a 17 and 11 game in March. Like I’ve said about this kid in the past, he has a great on his tiny shoulders and he can straight up ball. Hopefully he’s playing himself into a role for the Suns in the future. If there was any coach that would give him a shot, it’s Earl Watson. Furkan Korkmaz remains a mystery but I believe in his upside. The rest of the picks look like busts, unfortunately. But the Thunder have traditionally done well with free agency – they rode Hassan Whiteside to the playoffs two seasons ago – and they’ve got two good ones again in Dewayne Dedmon and Alan Williams. Dedmon’s contract is a bit expensive but he’s always been underrated and is a perfect Spurs guy. Williams is a bit more iffy given his size and physical limitations (read: he’s a fat fatty), but you can’t deny that he’s performed well this season. If OKC can manage more of that – playing it smart in free agency and finding a couple of decent guys in the draft – they’ll be back on the right track.
Expiring contracts: Korkmaz, AJ Hammons, Sheldon McClellan, Sergio Llull, Nicolas Brussino
Draft picks: None
Talk about another “how the mighty have fallen” team. The number 1 seed two years ago, the Magic really fell off a cliff this year when all of their players either got old or became free agents. This roster is a bizarre combination of ancients, misfits and weird rookies. Nene, RJ and Jet are all way too old to consider holding onto. Wilcox and Huestis are not NBA players. The rookie crop – Bender, Zubac, Williams, Ndour, Jackson and Ochefu – are all worthless, minus the two big Euros. The rest? Greg Monroe remains in no man’s land, lost in time as a big guy who can’t play D or shoot from long range (AKA the Jurassic Era). Derrick Favors – what the hell happened to that guy? Tyreke Evans – who the hell knows with that guy at any given circumstance? Ross has some promise in Orlando but Frank Vogel’s rotations are so completely fucked that even that’s not a given. The good news? It means that no one should be considered untouchable in Orlando. Now is the perfect time to make some moves. Some guys should be flipped for any perceivable asset, and some others could fetch a legitimate prize. It’s less about “blowing it up” and more about wiping a bunch of snot and poo off of the mirror so you can take a look at yourself and figure out what to do next. Having two picks in the top four certainly helps. Uncertain times in Orlando – but after a 14-win season, that’s a good thing.
Expiring contracts: Richard Jefferson, Demetrius Jackson, Maurice Ndour, Troy Williams, Daniel Ochefu
Draft picks: #2 (projected), #4 (projected) via NYK
I will never forgive the guy who owned this team before me, traded the team for picks 2 and 3 in the 2014 draft, and then skipped the draft. I could’ve had Wiggins and Embiid! But I’m really not so bitter about it anymore. I don’t trust myself with draft picks anyway. After more or less whiffing on four top 10 picks (Ingram, Johnson, Hezonja and Cauley-Stein), it’s hard to get excited about having even a high lottery pick again. This was the year that I decided the rebuild can’t take another five years. I swapped picks and prospects for proven talent. It was finally time for me to admit to myself that the likes of Vonleh, Jerian Grant, Rashad Vaughn and a bunch of late first round picks are probably never going to amount to anything. I scrimped together pretty unappealing assets and turned them into OK players. Not ones who will win me a title, but OK ones. Suddenly, I’ve ended up with a lot more players scoring in the 20s and 30s than in the 10s and 20s. Thompson is a keeper. Patty Mills is a free agent, and even if he comes back to the Spurs, he could be the starting PG. Richaun Holmes is a real NBA player, damn it, and I hope he stays on my squad for his whole career. Courtney Lee had a great year and Hollis-Jefferson can definitely reach MKG levels. My one regret? Trading Tyler Johnson for a pick. Oh well. I finished the year on an 8-6 run. Again, not amazing, but I was no longer losing every game by a million points. My hopes for next season? Eight seed. Playoffs. The Atlantic will remain weak, with Boston, New York and Philly trending down or staying the same (I finished with more points scored than Boston and New York, despite the worse record). I’m not sure if I can get to .500, which is the bare minimum of what you’ll need to make the playoffs in the East, but if guys like Hezonja, Stan Johnson and Ingram take a step forward in development, it could happen. Maybe Osman and Zagorac will come over and be decent. I’ll consider whatever I get from my picks to be a bonus. This has been an excruciatingly discouraging rebuild, but I’m finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just a little.
Expiring contracts: Tyler Zeller
Draft picks: #3 (projected), #15 (from Phoenix)
Under new ownership, the Knicks went from their just-below-mediocre plateau to downright terrible this year. But oddly, that’s a good thing. Move no. 1 was also the team’s best move this year, getting Kristaps Porzingis and giving the franchise some direction for the first time. Unlike the real Knicks, New York is doing the right thing by putting the team’s future in his big Latvian hands. The team has a preposterous seven rookies, and some of them have decent promise. Caris LeVert is looking like a nice player – a good scorer and passer with great size. Thon Maker remains mysterious and interesting and is worth waiting on. The rest? Jake Layman? Henry Ellenson? Georges Niang? Arguably not NBA players. (The jury is out on Brice Johnson because Doc Rivers is a maniac.) The good news is that New York has five first round picks over the next two years, even if three of them will be in the late 20s. Porzingis is only 21, so the clock is ticking very slowly, but it still would be nice to see some real talent developing around him. This is looking like it’s going to be a long rebuild, but at least there’s some intent by the ownership of this team for the first time. Keep an eye out for this team in free agency, too: they’ll have about $70 million to spend, depending on who gets re-signed.
Expiring contracts: Joe Harris, KJ McDaniels, Salah Mejri, Tiago Splitter, Brice Johnson, Georges Niang, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rakeem Christmas
Picks: #22 (from Atlanta) and another in the late 20s from San Antonio
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Trading a superstar is never fun or easy. It helps when you have two top 10 picks, but I gotta say, the more I look at this draft, the more it looks like there will really only be one, two or three stars in the lottery. The rest look like really, really solid players, but I only see a couple in this draft that are likely franchise-changers. The good news for the Lakers is they have the best shot at the #1 pick. After trading Durant, LA predictably went into a tailspin. Still, there are a few good players on this roster. Clarkson, despite his ludicrous contract, is a decent young guy to have. He should be in the league for a long time. Robin Lopez is as solid, if boring, as ever. Belinelli and Danny Green are decent bench guys to have, but maybe not for a rebuilding team. The Lakers have essentially zero on the roster in terms of young prospects (no, Ron Baker does not count). This means it could be an interesting offseason in Hollywood. They could trade pretty much any player on the roster for a pick or prospect and it would be a good move. So the possibilities are limitless here. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to amass a morass of youngsters and picks and see what sticks a couple of years down the road. First thing’s first, though: OKC has to win the lottery and the Lakers have to nail the pick for this to be a rebuild of any promise.
Expiring contracts: Marco Belinelli, Ron Baker, Chasson Randle
Picks: #1 (projected) from OKC, #6 (projected) from LAC
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
A mass exodus of superstars from Los Angeles seems like a weird thing, but here we are. We’ve all talked enough about the trades. So what’s left in Clippertown? Dario Saric has looked awesome – I mean really freaking good – in the last month or so. But how much of that production is going to stick around next season when Simmons and Embiid are back? Depending on how the draft goes for Philly, Saric might be the #5 option offensively for the Sixers. The talent is certainly there, but the opportunity remains shrouded. LA has six other rookies. Do any of them have any promise? Don’t talk to me about Whitehead. TLC could be a nice 3 and D guy, but Justin Anderson really cramps his style and Korkmaz might be coming soon. Wade Baldwin can’t get ahead of a Harrison brother on the depth chart, so that’s all you need to know about him. Deyonta Davis is by far the most promising of the bunch. But, again, will he ever get the opportunity? Josh Richardson is a keeper. But is anyone else? Next year is basically already a lost year for the Clippers since they don’t have their pick, but that’s a good thing for them. It gives them essentially a free year to wait on guys like Davis, Baldwin and Brooklyn castoffs Jerian Grant and Rashad Vaughn to develop. David West, Norris Cole, Aron Baynes and Spencer Hawes should be sent with cash for any conceivable 2nd round pick. The goal for LA now is just to take as many shots as possible and hope that some stick. This is a long-term rebuild, but there’s only one way to go from here, and that’s up.
Expiring contracts: Dario Saric, Isaiah Whitehead, Chinanu Onuaku
Picks: Two in the 20s from Milwaukee and Indiana (potentially #30). It was a potentially fatal mistake getting Indy’s pick and not Philly’s.
Nikola Jokic. Nikola. Jokic. NIIIIII. KOOOO. LAAAAA. JOKIC. If Dallas is going to do anything of note in the near future, it’l be because of Nikola Jokic. He’s been the 13th best player in Real Deal over the last two months and he’s a center who gets triple-doubles. From a fantasy perspective, the sky’s the limit for this guy. The rest of the roster is a total mystery. Jae Crowder and Pat Beverley are gone, and now Pau Gasol is here. Nikola Mirotic is looking more and more like a lost cause. Jamal Murray and Nerlens Noel were traded away for a pick. On the other hand, Juancho Hernangomez looks like a real solid player and Seth Curry has flourished under Rick Carlisle. The Mavs love to reward those types of players. Is this team rebuilding or not? They looked like a surefire bottom-three team for most of the season, but Jokic may have messed that up a bit by playing so well down the stretch. Nevertheless, Dallas has two top-seven picks in what everyone is saying is a loaded draft. If the team can nail both selections, they’ll have two studs to partner up with Jokic, and this team could get dangerous quick. I’m keeping my eye on this team in free agency this summer, too, where they’ve been very successful (see: Jokic, Curry).
Expiring contracts: Kyle Anderson, Malcolm Delaney
Picks: #5 (projected) from LAL, #7 (projected)
Another bad year for the Celtics, but at least this time we can say they’ve got some real promising players. D’Angelo Russell has become criminally underrated and is one of the most irrationally hated/disrespected players I think I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the kid can play. There’s definitely a lot he can do to get better – his shooting, scoring and passing all need to improve – but you can see the talent. And Jusuf Nurkic has been a monster since being freed from Denver. Remember when he had 28 and 20 with 8 assists? Yeah. The rest of the roster I have little to no confidence in, apart from Justise Winslow. Justin Holiday, Luke Babbitt, Brandon Rush and several others all seem like end-of-the-bench players for contenders, not starters for a rebuilding team. This makes them prime trade candidates. I’d look for Boston to be active on the trade market in a search for young prospects. Picking as low as they’re projected to, you can no longer count on grabbing a star, even in this draft.
Expiring contracts: Jusuf Nurkic, DeAndre Liggins, CJ Watson, Brandon Rush, Malik Beasley
Picks: #8 (projected), #17 (from Houston)
Kevin Love on the Minnesota Timberwolves is starting to look a lot like Kevin Love on the Minnesota Timberwolves. He remains a very useful player to have, but where’s the talent around him? Aside from maybe Norman Powell and Kelly Oubre, who can you count on to be a part of this team’s future? The Wolves are in dire need of a reboot, and I’m not sure how they’re going to achieve it. One could do a bit of a salesman job in pitching the likes of Omri Casspi, Mike Beasley and Garrett Temple in trades. Whatever picks or prospects they can get for those guys would be a step in the right direction. This could also be a rare case of when trading a superstar might be a good move, if Minnesota can manage to get a good return on him. The team has been adamant in keeping him in the past, but perhaps a second poor season and the departure of Jeff Teague could signal a change of heart. Either way, I’d keep an eye on Minnesota to be making some changes this offseason.
Expiring contracts: Fred VanVleet, Cat Barber
Picks: #9 (projected), #19 (from Sacramento)
Detroit is loading up on picks, prospects and reclamation projects, which to me is exactly the move to make after trading Andre Drummond last season. Picking up the likes of Willy Hernangomez, Larry Nance and Sean Kilpatrick were the types of shrewd moves that the Pistons need to continue making. Other youngsters like Buddy Hield, Terry Rozier and Malachi Richardson have shown flashes. This team, to me, is very much in the “wait and see” phase. They’ve done the job of getting younger, and now they just have to see who develops and who doesn’t. I think their one true mistake this season was not selling high on James Johnson – he’s having an unreal season and probably will never match that production again. The first course of action for Detroit is to start scouting some late round picks. But they’re on the right track.
Expiring contracts: Doug McDermott, Spencer Dinwiddie, Noah Vonleh, Malachi Richardson, Thomas Robinson
Picks: Three in the 20s and beyond (maybe) from Toronto, Utah and New Orleans
The new ownership in Philadelphia brings a certain – I think boldness is the correct word – to the 76ers. Despite an overwhelming lack of talent, this is a team that never counted itself out and coasted past a bunch of tankers to a second place finish in the Atlantic. There are some interesting guys here, but none to build a franchise around. Mudiay is looking more and more like a bust. Frank Kaminsky is just a role player. The most interesting parts of this roster are the Detroit pick, followed by Marquese Chriss in a distant second. There are a lot of players in Philly that don’t need to be there, which means a big overhaul could and probably should be in play this summer. The Sixers should also focus on getting more picks, if they can. Dumping Jrue Holiday for a top-10 pick was a great move. Also, Malcolm Brogdon for president.
Expiring contracts: Malcolm Brogdon, Dante Cunningham, Dorian Finney-Smith, Bruno Caboclo
Picks: #10 (projected) from Detroit
Tradtionally a pretty good team, Memphis was set back this year by big injuries to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the two Grizzlies kingpins. Props to them for keeping the crew together despite a bad year, and props to them for being one of the few teams left with their two original franchise guys (mine are looooooong gone). Despite career years for Eric Gordon, JaMychal Green and Wayne Ellington, Memphis didn’t stand a chance in the West. In addition to injuries, the Grizzlies have had the misfortune of dealing with the sudden collapse of two players they got a lot of compliments for drafting three years ago in DeMarre Carroll, who looks broken beyond repair, and Jared Sullinger, who is now so fat and bad that even the Suns didn’t want him. With a good offseason, Memphis could be right back in the thick of things, though. Gasol and Conley obviously give them a good place to start. Gordon seems to have finally found his fit in Houston. Recent developments involving Taurean Prince are encouraging. Ante Zizic is apparently beasting in Europe. And Tim Frazier is a legit NBA player (?!?!?!). There’s a lot of dead weight on the roster, but the Grizzlies already have the foundation of a contender. Could be a quick fix.
Expiring contracts: Hollis Thompson, Paul Zipser, Ante Zizic
Picks: #12 (projected)
Another year, another ho-hum season for Denver. After an exciting end of the first season that saw the team sneak into the playoffs, not much has happened for the Nuggets, despite some really exciting development from the likes of CJ McCollum and Devin Booker. It’s a real shame. With a little attention, this could be a special team. A core of McCollum, Booker, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown is really damn special, but they’re not going to do anything without some help. Brian Roberts is your starting point guard? Really? Josh SMITH is still on the roster? Really?! This team needs to figure out what’s up, and quickly. They’re not good enough to be a contender. They’re not bad enough to consider a total rebuild or get a high pick. Things can change quickly with a little tinkering. But if the Nuggets continue to stagnate, well, expect more of the same.
Expiring contracts: Marcus Smart, Brian Roberts, Guerschon Yabusele, Petr Cornelie
Picks: #13 (projected)
The Wizards rode an unbelievable hot streak to a title two years ago and have been on a steady decline ever since, going .500 and missing out on the playoffs this season. John Wall is comfortably a top-10 player, and the supporting cast has some really interesting pieces. So why the lack of success? Too many players scoring in the 10s in the starting lineup. Julius Randle and Tyson Chandler can be good pieces on a contender. Washington struck gold twice, it seems, in Skal Labissiere and Yogi Ferrell. I remember before the start of last season, some people had Skal ahead of Ben Simmons. I’m not saying they were right, but it just goes to show you can’t trust John Calipari with making NBA prospects look good (see also: Devin Booker, Jamal Murray). Sabonis Junior has been atrocious this year but there’s no way a kid that smart is a total dud forever. Mike Scott is the easiest amnesty candidate of all time. So there is a lot of promise here: the roster can get a lot better very quickly. Add in three picks and you’re looking OK. Get the rookies in and let deadweights Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson and Luis Scola take a walk. Washington could easily be back in the playoffs next year, even as the East gets better and better.
Expiring contracts: Julius Randle, Jameer Nelson, Wesley Johnson, Shabazz Napier, Diamond Stone
Picks: #14 (projected), #17 (from Cleveland), one pick in the late 20s (from Golden State)