2 INDIANA VS 5 MILWAUKEE
If you had told me at the start of the playoffs that the Bucks would be in the Conference Finals, I would have had a difficult time just adjusting to the humanity of that statement. But here we are. Milwaukee surprised me all throughout the season and twice now in the playoffs. I don’t want to say it’s been an easy road for the Bucks, but they’ve faced the teams that had the second-lowest (Toronto) and lowest (Miami) scores in rounds 1 and 2, respectively. They would have lost against any other team in the Conference Semifinals. Facing Indiana, the highest scoring team of round 1 and the second highest scoring team of round 2, will be a rude awakening to say the least. Elfrid Payton has been amazing lately, but Indiana’s starting PG is Russell Westbrook. Ibaka is another really good player, but Indiana has Blake Griffin at PF. Robert Covington has done some really impressive stuff in the past few weeks, but Indiana’s got Paul George on the wing. You see where I’m going with this. And I haven’t even mentioned Rudy Gobert and the 63 PPG he’s averaging over the past two weeks. The pick is INDIANA.
3 GOLDEN STATE VS 4 PORTLAND
The Warriors survive a late push from the Spurs to face a red hot Portland team that absolutely shalacked the top-seeded Pelicans. I am afraid to face the Blazers at this point. After their big end-of-season trade, this team has been nuts. They were four points away from cracking 1,000 in round 1 and beat the top seed by multiple hundreds of points. Pretty damn scary. Lillard, Butler and Jordan have all been playing great ball as of late and the boosts provided by new additions Jae Crowder, Tim Hardaway and Pat Beverley are making a big difference. Even Dirk is playing well! Golden State has looked really good, as well, obviously, taking down the Kings and Spurs. Everyone on this team that you would expect to play well has really done so. Iguodala and Plumlee were letdowns last week, but the Warriors do have options on the bench and can certainly tinker more than most teams left in the playoffs. I think how Golden State sets its lineup could be the deciding factor. These two teams have had really difficult paths to the Conference Finals and this week is going to be a true bloodbath. Whoever wins this matchup will truly deserve to win the title. Will it be a rematch of last year? Golden State vs. Indiana? Could be. But I’m picking PORTLAND to win.
We all know where this team is going. Or do we? After a pretty dominant start to the season, things got a bit rickety as other teams in the West got better and the Suns stayed the same. Then the Westbrook trade happened and Phoenix’s fate was sealed. They would still make the playoffs – that much was clear – but whatever else happened for the remainder of the year was a writeoff. That theme rang true again when Isiah Thomas was traded. Now, the Suns have a crop of legitimate young talent (Kris Dunn stinks like abandoned turds and does not count as a member of this group). Nerlens Noel looks like the Mavs’ center of present and future. Jamal Murray has been coming along very nicely and Mudiay is toast. Parker and LaVine, the ACL twins, were great this season before being injured. I do have concerns about them. For Parker, it’s his second ACL tear in three seasons. Not pretty. And LaVine’s game relies so much on his explosion and athleticism. Does the injury change him? There are some decent role players on this team, too, like Swaggy P and Etwaun Moore. Do the Suns make it back to the playoffs next year? I really don’t think so. I’d pick Memphis or Dallas (or Denver if they get a new owner) to take their spot. But when it comes to rebuilding, there are certainly worse starting spots than what the Suns are currently working with.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, Ed Davis, Leandro Barbosa, Marshall Plumlee
Time may be running out for this team to put together a good squad around James Harden. The Rockets were the best team in the league two seasons ago, a decent playoff team last year and pretty damn mediocre this season. They would have missed the playoffs comfortably if they were in the East. Aside from Hardens’ MVP type season, this team was really nothing special. Trading Harrison Barnes was a questionable move, at least for the long term. Marvin Williams and Evan Fournier are fine for a short-term playoff run, but the former is at his peak and over 30 and the latter plays in Orlando, where his role can change completely at any given second. Barnes is the type of player this team should be looking to keep: young, controllable and unquestionably the #1 option on his team. This team is aging quickly in the starting lineup and lacking in quality on the bench. Things have been on a steady decline and, unless the makeup of this team changes, it’s looking like the Rockets could be a .500 team or worse next season. Without any 1st round picks, Houston will really have to be aggressive in free agency this summer. Harden will be 28 next season, right in the height of his prime. Clock’s ticking.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Seraphin
The song remains the same for the Cavs. Three very good players, one Markieff Morris and the rest is negligible. Cleveland can probably count on those first four to wiggle them into at least one more postseason, but after that, who knows? Next season might finally be the year that Carmelo gets traded, or flat out just refuses to play for the Knicks, or maybe they just flat out refuse to play him. Who knows. You can count on LeBron and Green for the foreseeable future. Morris, I don’t know. Part of me just does not trust that dude as far as I could throw him (maybe like 2.5 feet?), but the other part of me thinks his role as a scorer/rebounder for Washington is slowly growing. One thing’s for sure: Cleveland needs to stop trading draft picks so that they can replenish the talent around their stars. No one else on the team is really worth two turds, save maybe Zaza. The Cavs have two more seasons on the contracts of their big four. Will they be able to put together a decent team around them? Time will tell.
Draft picks: None
Expiring contracts: Zaza Pachulia, DJ Augustin, Devin Harris, Randy Foye
Sacramento arrived at a crossroads midseason and managed to turn things around quite well. They’re looking at another playoff season next year with a core of Cousins, CP3, Bradley Beal and Rudy Gay. My two big worries about this team are 1. Dwyane Wade and 2. cap space. Wade was so up and down this season, ending with a broken elbow. He will probably opt out of Chicago this offseason. Where does he go from there? Would some team really give him $25 million to be a #1 option like he probably wants? I seriously doubt it. Does he take less money to join a playoff team? Perhaps the Clippers if Redick leaves in the summer? Look, we all know we’ve seen the best of DWade and it’s only downhill from here. But the dropoff from this season to next could be drastic. And the cap space situation: when Wade and Gay come off IR, the Kings will be over cap by a couple million. They can get back under by letting Matt Barnes walk, and maybe Meyers Leonard is an amnesty candidate. Still, this leaves the team with little options to improve outside of the trade market. This team is damn lucky that Boogie is on such a cheap contract. Even if nothing changes at all, the Kings are probably still top 6 in the West next year.
Expiring contracts: Matthew Dellavedova, Matt Barnes, Kyle O’Quinn, Jordan Crawford
This is a team in need of a star, and their lack of one showed in the playoffs. There’s really no need to pick apart this team: it’s solid. Even with Bazemore disappointing, this is a solid team 1-8. Charlotte’s going to be fine no matter what they do, but trading for a ringer could be a strategy they pursue. Unfortunately for them, the market for available superstars kind of oversaturated and evaporated during this season. Still, though, even if they do nothing, this is a really good young team. Kemba, Bradley, Porter, Capela, Warren and Kanter are all terrific young players that this team can sit back and watch grow. The big question is who gets amnestied this summer between Andrew Bogut and Jarnell Stokes.
Expiring contracts: TJ Warren, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ian Clark, Joel Bolomboy, Rakeem Christmas
The Raptors will be psyched to get Lowry back next season and they’ll hope he and DeRozan will be just as great as they were this year. A few questions linger for the real-life Raptors, mainly centered around Serge Ibaka. Will he re-sign? And if so, how will be gel with Lowry? Fortunately for the Real Deal Raps, I don’t think it matters much. Last time Ibaka was third fiddle to two ball dominators, he turned into a complete ghost, but KD and Westbrook still got theirs. Jeff Teague was a great add and just had his best season ever. With Waiters playing out of his mind, Toronto looks like it might have the best backcourt in the East. Down low, however, there are questions. Unlike the real NBA, bigs matter a ton in this league. Guards don’t get double-doubles, but centers do. While he was still very effective this year, Zach Randolph moved to the bench for Memphis and will be 36 next season. Gortat had one of his best seasons this year, but again, he’s 33 and sometimes it really feels like Scott Brooks looks for excuses not to play him. Expect Toronto to be in the market for a big during the summer. For Toronto, there’s no need to be concerned. They’re still a lock for the Atlantic Division title for at least one more year.
Expiring contracts: Troy Daniels, Derrick Jones, Larry Sanders
Utah has four players who average 40 or more PPG and still lost in the first round. Yeah. That’s how tough the top of the West is. I really don’t have much to say about this team except, “Better luck next time.” Utah won’t have to change much to be competitive again next year. They’ll have an open roster spot or two, depending on what they do with Plumlee, so I think the Jazz are a prime candidate to go all-out on the best player in free agency this summer, whoever that is. The Jazz are sort of like the Western version of Atlanta: really deep, but no true superstar (though maybe Hayward can become that guy).
Expiring contracts: Alexis Ajinca
What can you say about your team if you go 71-11, setting the league record for most wins in a season, and go out in round 1 of the playoffs? Beyond campaigning as hard as possible for daily lineups, not much. In breaking down the upset loss, it’s easy to point to last-minute injuries and a games played disadvantage. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that Atlanta was down in minutes to Miami by 50 total minutes over the entire week. If the minutes were even, would Atlanta have won? Yes. The Hawks lost by less than 60 points. It would’ve been close, but it probably would have been a win. But hold on a minute – shouldn’t a 1 seed be able to take care of an 8 seed, even if they’re at a slight minutes disadvantage? Therein lies Atlanta’s fatal flaw. The Hawks have built a roster of 15 very good players. But could you really call any of them stars? Can you count on any of them to get you 120 points in a given week in the playoffs? For years, we’ve been studying how important depth is vs. having just a couple of stars. And until now, the depth truthers have looked like they have the more compelling argument. Now, it looks like the Hawks might need to sacrifice some of their healthy depth for a star. It’s a tall order, but we’ve seen that it can prevent them from reaching the next level. Regardless, the Hawks will be a contender out of the East next season.
Expiring contracts: Lou Williams, Tony Allen