Guys, this has been a really great season. We’ve had some monster trades, big-time performances, tight divisional races and the formation of some real super-team type squads.
But the one thing that’s been missing? Playoff drama.
Let’s be real: We’ve known who the playoff teams would be since, like, early December. There is such a massive divide between the good teams and the bad teams in this league that it’s actually a little bit ridiculous. There are only two teams with records even CLOSE to .500: Washington and Phoenix, and Phoenix only because they blew their team up a month ago. The biggest trend in this league by far is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Ho hum.
But anyway. The playoffs are here! Let’s break it down.
1. ATLANTA VS. 8. MIAMI
This could be a very interesting 1-8 matchup, which is sort of an oxymoron. Atlanta has proved that the most important thing to have in this league is depth, riding a tidal wave of nine 30+ PPG scorers to a Real Deal record 71 wins. So their victory over the lowly 8 seed should be a sure thing, right? Not so fast. Riding high off of the acquisition of Harrison “Not Empty Stats” Barnes, this new-look Miami team has seven players who score 30 or more PPG – incidentally, the same amount of players the Hawks have at that mark over the past month. The main difference between the two? Atlanta has two star-level players, or near it, in Millsap and Howard. They’ve given near 50 points apiece pretty consistently across the season. Throw in the fact that Miami’s best player, Goran Dragic, is dealing with one of the ugliest looking face injuries I’ve seen in basketball and I think the Hawks can wrap this one up pretty handily. The Heat do have a slight minutes advantage this week, but I’m still giving it to ATLANTA.
2. INDIANA VS. 7. CLEVELAND
A Central Division clash! Westbrook vs. LeBron! Actually, there’s not much to say about these two teams apart from what I’ve been saying about them for a while now. Indiana is a super team with the potential to become a dynasty. Cleveland has three awesome players and 11 crappy ones. The Pacers, who have been at or near the top in scoring since acquiring Griffin and Westbrook, will win this matchup in a landslide. Sadly, March LeBron is not Playoffs LeBron. One thing to watch as a potential Achilles’ heel for Indy as the playoffs go on: the dismal lack of depth. If one of their starters goes out next week, they could be in trouble. And that’s with Dante Exum and his 14 PPG already in the starting 8. Still, though, my pick is INDIANA.
3. CHICAGO VS. 6 CHARLOTTE
Oh boy. It’s been a bad luck season for the Bulls. I’ll start with the most obvious thing, and that’s Kevin Durant and his 57 PPG sitting out injured. Add in the announcement of Chandler Parson’s knee busting again after lineups were set, meaning Chicago is playing 7 on 8 before the action really even begins. This is a team that should’ve done better. Difficult to say, considering they’re behind only the untouchable Hawks and super team Pacers in the East, but the Bulls were as low as the 6 seed just yesterday afternoon. They’ve been fending off the Bucks (somehow?!) in the Central all season and has recently been going through the eating-of-dust of the aforementioned Pacers in the Central. Durant wasn’t supposed to get hurt. Tobias Harris was supposed to become a leading scorer for Detroit. Aaron Gordon was supposed to play power forward all season, but Frank Vogel and his asinine lineups ruined that, too (trust me, I’ve been there). Oh, and which team are they up against in the first round of the playoffs? A red-hot Charlotte team that comfortably scored the most points in the league last week. The Hornets are a sort of Hawks-lite-ish team in that they’re deep but lack a true superstar. Kemba is the closest thing they have, but that’s OK when the supporting cast includes Avery Bradley, Otto Porter, Clint Capela and Enes Kanter, all of whom are having their best seasons. Chicagos’ bad luck continues and they’ll become the first upset of Round 1 so far, falling to CHARLOTTE.
4. TORONTO VS. 5. MILWAUKEE
Now that seedings are based on record first and not division titles, Toronto no longer automatically slots into the 3 seed, but luckily for them they’ve only fallen one spot. This is a team that’s a bit on its heels at the moment, losing their best player in Kyle Lowry. They’ve still got some competent talent, enjoying meaningful production from DeRozan, Gortat, Teague, Randolph and the no-longer-a-piece-of-crap-apparently Dion Waiters. In some cases, that’s enough to win a playoff series against a lower seed. Milwaukee, somehow, hung near the top of the Central all season long despite only having five truly good players (the same amount Toronto currently has) in Giannis, Ibaka, Payton, Young and Sir Robert Covington. This season, Toronto had the single easiest schedule in the league. Milwaukee’s difficulty of schedule was right in the middle of the pack at the 13th hardest. The teams finished 11th and 13th in total scoring. So your guess is really as good as anyone’s in this situation. I’ll give the slight edge to Milwaukee here. The Bucks have Giannis. And the Raptors are missing Lowry badly. So, yeah, the pick is MILWAUKEE, a team that continues to hang on.
1. NEW ORLEANS VS. 8. PHOENIX
Nothing to see here, folks. This would’ve been a hell of a matchup if Phoenix still had Westbrook and Thomas. IT is back to burn his old team with Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe and company to help. NEW ORLEANS in a landslide, featuring Jrue Holiday next week.
2. SAN ANTONIO VS. 7. HOUSTON
Another fairly uninteresting matchup. San Antonio is the top scoring team in the league and is starting to get healthy again with Lin and soon Turner coming back to support Kawhi, KAT and Drummond. Houston, who had their regular season wins record broken this year, has James Harden and not much else. In terms of the playoff teams, the Rockets were second to last in scoring, ahead of only Phoenix. As one of the few teams in the league without an abundance of cap room, this offseason will be a meaningful one for Houston. The pick is SAN ANTONIO.
3. GOLDEN STATE VS. 6. SACRAMENTO
This is a tricky matchup. Golden State are the reigning champs, but in hindsight, it’s starting to feel like the Dubs rode Curry all the way to the title last year. That’s not really an option anymore. Curry is putting out a whole 10 PPG fewer than he did last year. The supporting cast remains strong, but those 10 points missing from your top guy do matter. The Warriors are enjoying a great second-year jump from Myles Turner, but Klay Thompson and Brook Lopez have both declined ever so slightly from last year. On the other hand, JJ Barea is coming back just in time, and Bojan Bogdanovic has somehow had some amazing games since arriving in DC. Sacramento has had one heck of a weird season. After losing Rudy Gay for the season, it looked for a bit like the Kings were throwing in the towel as they struggled to keep up with the West’s best. Dirk was shipped out of town. But then something miraculous happened: the Kings acquired Chris Paul, perhaps the best point guard of his generation, for basically free. And Chris Paul came back from injury and resumed normal Chris Paul Activities, keeping the Kings alive and allowing the team to lock up the 6 seed and avoiding a dreaded matchup with New Orleans or San Antonio. Look, Golden State has been the better team consistently over the course of the season, but Sacramento has a real chance here. And that’s where I stopped writing before the Monday night games started, which kind of ruined by prediction. So, yeah, the Kings have a 100-point lead and a minutes advantage. The winner is SACRAMENTO.
4. PORTLAND VS. 5. UTAH
This is the only possible way this could have ended up. The preseason favorites to take the Northwest, Utah could only watch as the red-hot Blazers tore through the first month or so of the season, building a lead that looked at points to be insurmountable. This led the Jazz to do some tinkering, acquiring Al Horford, Cody Zeller and Nikola Vucevic to shore up the frontcourt positions and give Hayward some help. Utah came roaring back, reclaiming the top spot on the division. The arms race continued and Portland brought in Dirk, Jae Crowder and Pat Beverley to add to a squad that sorely lacked depth. These two teams were neck and neck for the longest time, but in the end it was the Blazers who came out on top to lock up the 4 seed…only to face the team they’d been fending off all year long. This is my favorite matchup of Round 1. These are two teams that are just very, very solid from 1-8. I expect this to come down to the wire, but I’m giving the edge here to the team that can hope for some superstar performances from Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler: PORTLAND.
One interesting note in all of this: Kyle O’Quinn will likely be claimed off waivers this week by a playoff team. If he’s plucked by a team that advances to the next round, he could be a difference maker. Keep an eye on that.
So that’s it! Enjoy Round 1! And let me know your predictions too!