The Frozen Envelope’s 2018-19 Standing and Playoff Predictions

It is always a very difficult and almost pointless exercise to try to predict NBA teams’ exact win total or even to attempt to rank them in a 1-15 order. Especially this season, where a minimal number of wins could separate home court advantage from missing the playoffs out West, it is impossible to correctly see how the standings will shake out come season’s end. Having said that, what I have done is broken down the conference’s into the tiers that I imagine they will be in at the end of the season. Teams within the same tier are ones that I expect could finish in any order, though I do also try to sort them out.

Note: These predictions are considering the regular season only. Absent specific seeding projections, my playoff predictions will be limited to the Conference and NBA Finals only.  

Eastern Conference

Tier One: 55+ Wins

 

  1. Boston Celtics
  2. Toronto Raptors

The race for the top of the Eastern Conference should be absolutely fascinating. For the first time in what seems like forever, and definitely for the first time for these NBA franchises in their current iterations, LeBron James’s team is not a shoo-in for a spot in the NBA finals. James’ move to the Western Conference opens a new world of possibilities for teams that have been relegated to little brother status for an entire generation of NBA basketball.

At the top of the list are two teams that have combined to lose to LeBron a total of six times in the four years since the King returned to Cleveland. Boston enters the season as the slight favorite in the East; they pushed the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and have since welcomed back both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injury, adding into the fold two of their four best players, and arguably the top two when fully healthy.

Boston has few clear weaknesses. Irving and sophomore sensation Jayson Tatum, who arrived as a bona fide NBA star in last year’s postseason, are go-to isolation scorers. Hayward can be added to that list if he recovers fully, and he is at worst a role player plus: Someone who can contribute in all facets of the game in a positive way. Al Horford is the ideal do-it-all center for today’s NBA. He can shoot the three, take advantage of mismatches inside, defend guards on the perimeter and is an underrated defender inside. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier provide defensive intensity and Marcus Morris is probably as good an eighth man as you’ll find in the NBA. The team is extremely deep, well-coached, and hungry.

If they have any shortcoming it is that their absolute top-end talent is not elite. Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all a step above Boston’s best player. Still, Boston’s collective talent is unmatched in the East and only topped by Golden State’s league wide. Throw in the league’s best or second best coach and the second seed in the East is as low as they will fall. In most team’s cases, I would add barring injury, but for Boston, it’s barring multiple injuries, and perhaps as many as three or four before they need to panic. The postseason may bring about a different set of questions for the Celtics, but there are as solid a regular season team as they come.

Still, if all goes according to plan, the Toronto Raptors should be right there with them come May. It’s hard not to when you take a clear step up talent wise following a 59-win season. Although the optics on trading a loyal franchise player who embraced Toronto in a way that no other star player has in exchange for a one year rental are not great, it is almost impossible to argue with it from a basketball standpoint.

If Leonard in Toronto is a success story, the Raptors will compete for an Eastern Conference title and maybe more. That could be enough to entice him to stick around. If he does in fact flee, then Toronto has accelerated its rebuild, breaking up a team that was a nice story but that had already maxed out its potential. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were never going to lead this team to a title.

I am a believer in this experiment. I don’t think that Leonard will be physically incapacitated this season, and even if he is indeed unhappy in Canada, he will at least be playing for a new contract next season, wherever it may be signed. It is in his own self-interest to be fully committed next season.

Now, back to the on the court stuff. The potential five man unit of Lowry/Danny Green/Kawhi/OG Anunoby/Serge Ibaka is downright scary defensively. It has the clear potential of being the most destructive lineup in the league. The guards and wings can stifle opposing ball handlers, and all can guard two positions at worst. Leonard and Anunoby can conceivably guard four. If Nick Nurse wants to experiment with Pascal Siakam at the five, the teams defensive versatility can contend with the Hamptons Five for best in the league. In short, this team is going to be tough to score on.

Offense may be harder to come by, but even 85% of Leonard is better than DeRozan, especially in terms of efficiency and three point shooting. I wonder if Toronto, and specifically its bench unit, can maintain what it did for 82 games last season but their offense will score way more than enough points to win games if the defense is as good as I expect. Even if the reserve squad takes a step back from their ridiculous performance last season, it will still be among the best units in the league.

The combination of stars and depth separate Boston and Toronto from the pack this season.

Tier Two: 50-55 Wins

  1. Philadelphia 76ers
  2. Milwaukee Bucks

I want to believe in the 76ers as potential Eastern Conference champions. I really do. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are absolute studs. They are the two most promising young players in the league and an MVP is very possibly in both of their futures. I’m just not sure that the rest of this team is ready to fly with them, at least not this season.

The 76ers went through some Twitter-related front office turmoil this summer, and elected not to make any big personnel changes, despite being linked with game changers such as LeBron James and Paul George. The team that they are left with is dangerously thin, and probably too much so to seriously compete this season. Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and JJ Redick are all either good complementary pieces or elite role players, and figure to create a dynamic starting five alongside the two young stars. Beyond that, the roster is just a bunch of question marks.

The losses of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were understated, silly as that might sound. They brought a crucial shooting element to the Sixers’ bench and were instrumental to their late season run to the playoffs. Nemanja Bjelica would have been the ideal replacement for Ilyasova, but he reneged on his agreement with Philly to sign with the Sacramento Kings. No one was brought in to replace Belinelli.

Philly’s hope is hinging on Markelle Fultz’ progression, and I am simply not buying it. He still can’t shoot off the dribble or from beyond the three point line, and it is hard to believe that that will change over the course of the season. He and Simmons are essentially unplayable together, not only because they allow for Embiid to get doubled more easily in the post, but also because even with the ball they are not threats from outside. At times, Embiid will be doubled even without the ball, making it impossible for Simmons to throw entry passes into him. At this point in his career, Fultz is far from starter material, and he may not be able to be a part of the 76ers rotation in the playoffs.

JJ Redick will have to supplant Fultz as the fifth starter at some point this season to open things up for Simmons and Embiid, and when that happens, Brett Brown will have no one outside of TJ McConnell, who has his own significant limitations, to rely on off the bench. Philadelphia will need Wilson Chandler to come back as a better version of what he was in 2017-18 to provide the team with much needed depth on the wing.

Look, Philadelphia’s starting five will be dominant on both sides of the ball this season. They should win more than 50 games. They just have too many clear shortcomings in terms of shooting and depth to be considered in the same class as conference juggernauts Boston and Toronto. They are still one or two moves, mostly off the bench, and one or two more years of Embiid and Simmons growth before they reach the absolute top echelon.

Judging from their entire roster, Milwaukee should be just about on par with Philly. Giannis is the best player on either team, and the Bucks starting five looks impressive on paper. Eric Bledsoe is an above average point guard, Khris Middleton is among the league’s most underrated player and has the ideal skill set for a complimentary piece. Malcolm Brogdon, John Henson, and Tony Snell have specific roles that they perform well. Thon Maker and Brook Lopez provide contrasting skill sets at the five, with Maker having supreme athleticism that aid him as a rim runner and protector, and Lopez is a solid low post scorer. Both guys can effectively spread the floor. It will come down to coach Mike Budenholzer to unlock this roster’s potential and deliver the 50-win season that the fanbase rightfully expects.

The Bucks simply haven’t proven that they can be compete at an elite level like the 76ers did last season, and this may be their last chance to do exactly that. Philadelphia and Boston will only continue to get better, and Milwaukee will want to strike this season before it has to start  worrying about the Greek Freak’s contract situation.

The Bucks should be right there in the chase for the third seed, and join the 76ers as potential conference champs if everything goes perfectly right and one of the favorites slips up or falls short of expectations.

Tier 3: 43-50 Wins

  1. Washington Wizards
  2. Indiana Pacers
  3. Miami Heat

Even if Miami does land Jimmy Butler, a move which no longer appears imminent, the Heat would remain in this tier, though they would probably jump up to the top position. As of now, however, Erik Spoelstra’s squad ranks slightly below both the Wizards and the Pacers. This tier holds three teams that are not quite explosive or consistent enough to earn home court in the first round, but with the correct matchup will have a chance to upset any of the top four in the first round.

Washington was among the league’s most disappointing teams last season. Coming off a 49-win season that concluded only one game short of the Eastern Conference Finals, Washington won only 43 games and was knocked out decisively in the first round by the Raptors. However, John Wall missed 41 games, and if he plays a full season, Washington is the fifth most talented team in the East. Washington also managed to plug its two biggest holes this summer despite operating with little available cap space, replacing the aging Marcin Gortat with an equally aging–but more athletic and dynamic– Dwight Howard, and strengthening the bench by bringing in Austin Rivers and Jeff Green.

It is hard to trust the Wizards. Every time they flash their tantalizing potential, they promptly let their fans down. Still, Wall and Beal and now probably the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. The team should be motivated to quiet a growing chorus of doubters. The team is very clearly stuck in a mediocre rut, and a locker room implosion has been teetering on edge for the better part of three seasons, but they have made the playoffs four times in the past five seasons, and a standing between fifth and seventh in the East seems to be a likely outcome for this season.  

The Pacers, on the contrary were a big surprise last year, turning what was supposed to be a rebuilding year into 48 wins and an epic battle against the eventual conference champions Cavaliers in the first round. What Victor Oladipo did last season was shocking and incredibly impressive, but it may be even more difficult to repeat his exploits.

Teams will now know that he is the focal point of the Pacers’ offense, and he will likely face increased defensive pressure. The Pacers were one of the few teams with ample cap space and despite being linked to such names as Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon, they chose instead to make more lowkey moves, bringing Kyle O’Quinn, Doug McDermott, and Tyreke Evans into the fold. Evans will provide needed versatility off the Indiana bench, but Indiana missed a chance to take its roster to the next level.

Something about the Pacers’ season seemed a little fluky to me and they will be hard pressed to approach 50 wins again. The team’s best chance at improvement lies with the internal growth of Myles Turner, in which I am a big believer, but that growth will likely be joined by a regression to the mean by the likes of Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Oladipo. The Pacers are a legit postseason team, especially in the East, but I see them more as 45-win team than the 50-win one that they probably aspire to be.

Miami’s roster is simply not as talented as Washington’s or Indiana’s, so their ceiling is not quite as high, but they are well-coached and have created a solid floor for themselves. In the regular season, Miami is perfectly on par with their counterparts in this tier, and they make the opposition work for every basket, and they have just enough offensive firepower to keep pace with their opponents.

Josh Richardson and James Johnson are underrated players and tough competitors, and joined with Heat stalwarts Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside they create the physical, aggressive for Spoelstra. Last season, Miami lacked an isolation scorer to turn to down the stretch (save for a couple virtuoso performances by Dwyane Wade, who is another year older), but Dion Waiters might fulfill that role off the bench.

This offseason, not a single player left or signed with the Heat, so there are not many questions when it comes to the Heat. They have no glaring holes or overpowering strength and are just about the most average team in the NBA. It seems as if Pat Riley has been successful in building a foundation for the next championship contending Heat team as the Team President continues to pursue stars through trades or free agency

The Heat likely have one of the smallest ranges of victory totals in the league this season, and that number should fall between 43 and 46 wins. Miami’s roster is not necessarily constructed for postseason success, but they are firmly in the playoff picture and clearly a cut above the two teams that will be fighting for the eighth seed.

Tier 4: 38-43 Wins

  1. Charlotte Hornets
  2. Detroit Pistons

I think that the top seven teams, all playoff squads last year, are going to make it back this year, while Charlotte and Detroit, two mediocre teams with clear shortcomings, will battle it out to replace the LeBron-less Cavs.

Charlotte is one of the leading contenders to blow it up this season if they are not in playoff picture, but Michael Jordan has thus far seemed reluctant to pull the trigger to deal Kemba Walker. If Jordan and the Hornets’ front office’s ultimate goal was just to reach the postseason, the season may be their chance. Walker is one of the most exciting players to watch in the league, and it is sad that his team has proved wholly incapable of constructing a viable roster around him. It’s difficult to even say who the teams second best player, and they didn’t improve the roster in any significant way this past summer.

Still, they have won at least 36 games in four of the past five seasons, and that might be enough to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs. Unless it trades Walker and blows the team up, Charlotte is too good to tank this season, and that means that they will look to chase the final playoff spot full steam ahead.

Detroit is the only other Eastern Conference team in the same boat. The team is not quite complete enough to be a normal playoff team, but they are clearly all in on making the playoffs this season. They swung for the fences by acquiring Blake Griffin last season, and the move did not payoff. Detroit responded by moving on from Stan van Gundy and brining in defending Coach of the Year Dwane Casey. Getting Griffin and Drummond to coexist positively would be one of the most impressive feats of Casey’s coaching career.

I actually like the potential of a Griffin-Drummond frontcourt and the idea of Detroit going against the grain in the East by starting two traditional bigs. Still, the team is dangerously thin on useful players on the wing, and made not moves towards improving that gaping hole in the offseason.

Detroit has more good players than Charlotte, but Charlotte at least have some shooters that can spread the floor and make the offense as a whole tougher to defend. It should be an extremely close battle between the two of them, with the spot possibly being decided by a few head to head games or a couple of lucky bounces. Overall, neither of these teams inspire too much confidence. It will be a race to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff standings, and whoever wins it will stand no chance of beating whichever top seed it plays in the first round.

Tier 5: 30-38 Wins

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Chicago Bulls
  3. Brooklyn Nets
  4. Orlando Magic

These teams are not good, but they shouldn’t completely throw away the season, either. If absolutely everything goes according to plan, Cleveland or Chicago could be in the fight for the final playoff spot come April. More realistically, I expect these four teams to be on pace for 35ish wins before taking a step back during the stretch run in order to solidify draft placement.

The Cavaliers seem unprepared to tank this season, as they kept much of last year’s conference-winning team despite losing LeBron James, who, at times, seemed like he was, in fact, the entire team. A slew of veterans–JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver–proved difficult to move, so instead of gutting the roster, General Manager Koby Altman re-signed Kevin Love to a hefty extension, perhaps in hopes of proving that there is life in Cleveland outside of LeBron. He must not have watched his team without the King on the court last season. I don’t blame him.

The Cavs were absolutely brutal without James last season, and not in a good way. Although they have some solid shooters, they lack any kind of shot creator, and playing with LeBron for four seasons will make it even more difficult for these guys to adjust to having the ball in their hands more often. The majority of this roster is past its prime. Its too old, too slow, and not athletic enough to compete even in the East. Still, Kevin Love is the best player on any team that I have missing the playoffs in the conference, and a large number of games against teams that are even less talented than them may give Cleveland a possibility to get more wins than their level of play will deserve.

If Cleveland is smart, they might offload Love. Some in the media have suggested that the extension was geared towards making Love a more desirable trade chip (it has proved difficult to get adequate value out of players on expiring contracts in recent years), and to start on a large-scale reboot. Cleveland is not as far away from a potential rebuild as they might want to think. Collin Sexton has potential to be a solid guard in this league, and Cedi Osman should not be overlooked. He’s an excellent shooter with solid athleticism, who has proved difficult to stop in transition. He should be the primary beneficiary of LeBron’s departure from The Land.

The Bulls have an intriguing cast of young talent, but though they should be fun, their collection of tools probably won’t yield too many wins. Zach Lavine, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, and Wendell Carter are five exciting young players, but those first three guys just don’t play enough defense for Chicago to stop anybody. If Lavine and Parker fulfill their potential–a long shot, to be sure– Chicago could be interesting to watch, but both have an injury history and have not demonstrated enough consistency to prove that they can be an important part of a winning basketball team.

I like Chicago’s rebuild, they’ve taken a number of chances and accumulated some good basketball players. What that roster yields remains to be seen. I am interested in seeing this core grow together, particularly the frontcourt of Carter and Markkanen, which appears to be a perfect pairing with complementary skill sets, but they are at least a couple of years away from competing for the postseason, unless their whole team undergoes unexpected growth.

The fact that Sean Marks, the Nets General Manager, has been widely praised (and deservedly so) for the work he’s done in Brooklyn, and that this is the roster that he has, is a testament to how poor a job Brooklyn’s previous regime did. Despite never owning his own first-round pick, Marks has gathered a decent group of young, tough players. He has made smart midseason moves to acquire late first round picks that have resulted in Jarrett Allen and Dzanan Musa, he took a flier on former second round pick D’Angelo Russell and signed underrated free agents Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham to below market-value contracts. Brooklyn’s roster is one of the strangest in the league. It’s starting lineup consists of five above-average bench players, and its bench consists of, well, five above-average bench players.

While it’s hard to win in the NBA with maybe one guy who would start for the average NBA team, and with a roster completely devoid of anyone even resembling a star, if Brooklyn is indeed in the running for some marquee free agents this summer, they do have a solid base of complementary players already in place. Expect this team to compete (although they may be tempted to lose since they finally control their own draft pick) and be a good bellwether for the quality of their opponents.

Orlando is, for me, on the borderline between the fifth and sixth tiers. In a vacuum, I don’t dislike the draft selections of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, or Mo Bamba, but I’m just not sure how the three fit together. The Magic’s M.O. seems to be to pick the longest player in the draft and then hope for the best. Bamba will at the minimum be a useful NBA player–he can knock down the three and protect the rim–but both Isaac and Gordon are best used at the four, and court becomes far too congested when all three youngsters are playing together

What inches Orlando over the next two teams on my list is that I like their veterans, namely Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, just a little bit more than New York’s or Atlanta’s. It is unclear whether these two will make it through the season in Florida, but so long as they stay, Orlando should push for 30 wins and stay out of the Eastern Conference cellar.  

Tier 6: Fewer than 30 Wins

  1. New York Knicks
  2. Atlanta Hawks

If New York plays it smart, which is always far from a guarantee with this organization, they’ll ease Kristaps Porzingis back into action slowly, secure a high draft pick, and try to figure out what they have with some of the raw, young talent on the roster.

The Knick’s four most intriguing prospects–Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Mitchell Robinson–are high on physical traits but very low on polish. Determining who from this group is worth developing should the coach David Fizdale’s primary objective this season. New York seems fully committed to a rebuild (unless it lands Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving next summer, which I doubt), and Fizdale should be in no hurry to make short sighted moves for short-term gains.

New York, like Orlando has a couple veterans, Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway, Jr., who could be contributors on playoff teams, and, if the opportunity presents itself, should be open to offloading one or both of these guys. While I don’t think New York has completely whiffed on any of its most recent draft choices, it is extremely hard to find a star player in the second half of the lottery, which is where the Knicks have been stuck ever since landing Porzingis. With the roster as currently constructed, sans Kristaps, they could be in line for a top-five pick next summer.

The Atlanta Hawks’ only goal for the 2018-19 season should be doing as much as they can to secure the first overall pick in next summer’s draft. They have completely torn down all the remnants of one of the NBA’s all-time mediocre dynasties, one that reached the playoffs ten seasons in a row but only had one Conference Finals appearance to show for it.

Trae Young is so far at the center of that rebuild. I really like Young as a prospect (though I would have far preferred Luka Doncic), but it will take time for him to acclimate quickly. For the time being, he is too slight, too weak, and not quite quick enough to be an impact player, and he has too many weaknesses to be a positive player as a rookie. Still, he should be given free rein over the offense and may put up solid counting stats.

Outside of Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince are the only intriguing names on the roster, and both project more as solid role players than future stars. Outside of those three, the roster is almost utterly devoid of talent. Atlanta is very clearly taking the long view on this rebuild. They won’t be any good any time sure and I am almost sure that they will finish this season as one of the two worst teams in the league.

Western Conference

Tier 1: 55+ Wins

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Houston Rockets

I am not as staunch a believer in Golden State this year than I was either of the past two seasons. Having said that, I was ready to hang the banner in Oracle Arena on opening day in both 2016-17 and 2017-18. There are a couple reasons why I think the Warriors are a little more vulnerable this season. Most obviously, it’s hard to win three titles in a row. It’s even harder to reach five consecutive NBA finals. The Warriors have played a lot of basketball over the past four seasons and it’s hard to maintain motivation after having so much success. Only one of the Warriors’ eight playoff series with Kevin Durant has even been a challenge. Secondly, the East is stronger this season than either of the past two. Sure, LeBron is gone, but Boston or Toronto will be the best team that Golden State has faced in the finals since it blew a 3-1 in the second of four consecutive Finals match-ups with Cleveland. The third reason is the most interesting and, I assume, the most controversial.

I am not a fan of what the Warriors front office did this summer. Yes, DeMarcus Cousins has been one of the best centers in the game for the past few years and can be a game-changing presence when healthy. He does give the Warriors’ offense a new option when shots aren’t falling. But, he’s coming off an achilles tear, a notoriously tough injury for anybody, especially a guy of Boogie’s size, to come back from. I wouldn’t expect to see the court until February at the earliest, and he may never be 100% of what he was every again.

More importantly, though, I don’t see Boogie as being a great fit with Golden State on or off the court. His history off-the-court is well documented, and although I would pin those issues on Sacramento’s organization more than Cousins himself, it is never a good idea to add a combustible personality to a locker room that doesn’t need to take that risk.

Basketball-wise, I’m nervous about what Cousins means for the Warriors defense. Their small-ball lineup, featuring Draymond Green at the five, has long been a linchpin of Golden State’s success. That unit had the ability to switch everything and did not have a clear weak point for opponents to exploit in the pick-and-roll. Boogie changes that and makes Golden State a suddenly more vulnerable team, especially against a team like Houston that will surely look to exploit a Harden-Cousins mismatch at any chance they get. I know that Boogie makes the Warriors already unstoppable offense even more deadly, but they didn’t really need much help on that side of the ball.

Now, it would be one thing if the Warriors were a completely flawless team and could therefore take this risk. They may be the most complete team in the league, but it would be misguided to think that the two-time defending champions roster has no holes in it. After all, they were arguably a healthy Chris Paul away from bowing out in the Conference Finals last May.

Outside of their “Big Three”, (who are admittedly, three of the greatest shooters in NBA history), Golden State struggles with outside shooting. Their bench ranked last in three-point shooting last season and they will likely replicate that feat this season. They would have been better served adding a solid three-and-D wing to come off the bench this season instead of flexing their collective organizational muscle on the rest of the league.

Bottom line: If Cousins is going to be a part of Steve Kerr’s crunch-time five, he detracts from so much of what makes the team so impossible to beat, and the clear quality that he provides may not be enough to overcome this. If Cousins is not in the closing unit (which I assume will be the case), the mid-level exception could have been better spent on someone who could maybe replace Iguodala in the death lineup, as the wing figures to take yet another step back this season. The best-case scenario is that Cousins understands that his role is to play in lineups without Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, where he effectiveness can be maximized, but the usefulness of a player in that role is limited come playoff time.

Despite all that, the Warriors are, by far and away, the most talented team in the league. Even if they coast during the regular season, which they likely will, 55 wins seems like the absolutely floor of their total this season. If they stay healthy, they will probably approach 65.

I won’t take too much time on Houston, because they figure to do pretty much exactly what they did last season season, albeit at a slightly lower level. They will pick-and-roll opponents to death, give Chris Paul and James Harden the keys to the offense, shoot a ton threes, switch everything on defense, and win a whole lot of basketball games.

I expect James Ennis to replicate a lot of what Luc Richard Mbah a Moute did last season, and though losing Trevor Ariza hurts, that issue should become more evident during the playoffs. Carmelo Anthony should improve slightly over last season, and the team will score enough points to paper over what it sure to be a defensive regression. I like Marquese Chriss’ potential in a simplified role as Clint Capela’s backup.

The main reason that I see Houston’s win total dropping is because they proved last season how good they can be in the regular season, and setting themselves up for the playoffs should be the priority. Mike D’Antoni’s goal this time around should be to get his stars some rest and figure out the best postseason rotation. The first seed would be nice, but I don’t see Houston prioritizing that this season. Either way, they are firmly cemented as one of the conference’s two best teams.

Tier 2: 50-55 Wins

  1. Utah Jazz

I like the Jazz as the three seed in the West. The reasons are fairly straightforward: Stability, good coaching, stingy defense, three point shooting, and Donovan Mitchell’s continued growth. Utah has such a deep roster that despite ample cap space it decided to bring in virtually no free agents this summer. Beyond adding a bona fide superstar, there is really not much that the Jazz can do to improve its fortunes. Unfortunately, absent that superstar player, the roster as currently constructed is not equipped to surpass the Warriors or the Rockets, especially in the postseason. They will need to count on internal improvement, notably from Mitchell, in order to take that big step forward. As much as I like Mitchell and as impressive as his rookie season was, I wonder if he will ever ascend to that truly elite status.

Utah went on a torrid, league-best run after Rudy Gobert returned from injury and a full season from the disruptive Frenchman should propel the Jazz to a near league-best defense. They won’t be able to replicate the pace from that insane second half run, but they might not be so far off.

What separates the Jazz from the next batch of teams is that I expect them to really take care of business against the bottom-feeders in the league, just like they did last season. They are the best coached team, and defense tends to travel better than offense. I am not quite prepared to cement the Jazz as the third seed, but I do think that they have a leg up on the chasing pack.

Tier 3: 44-50 Wins

  1. Denver Nuggets
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. New Orleans Pelicans
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder

This was the toughest tier for me to sort out. Even the three teams below (and, to an extent, the Jazz), had a case to be in this grouping, but I thought capping the tiers at four made it more fair. Either way, I am not even going to try to argue which of these teams will finish where in relation to the others, because, as we saw last season, one game can stand between the fourth and seventh seed in this bloodbath of a conference.

The Nuggets missed out on postseason basketball on the final day of the regular season last year, but, to me, they were clearly one of the eight best teams in the West. Nikola Jokic had a unreal run to close the season, and I expect him to continue that growth this season. A 20/10/6 season should be well within his reach.

The rest of the Nuggets’ team remains underrated. The Jamal Murray/Gary Harris backcourt duo is dangerous; they can both score from all over the court and will only get better as they gain experience. With Jokic running the offense, they should both get ample opportunity to score points in bunches. I see both guards being in the running for Most Improved Player come season’s end.

Will Barton transitions into the starting lineup and and slots in beautifully as a guy who can play of Jokic by catch-and-shooting threes or by using his athleticism to cut hard and finish around the basket. The key to this whole team might be Paul Millsap, who needs to grow more comfortable without the ball in his hands and continue to adapt as he ages into the latter stages of an under appreciated career. At his best, Millsap also has the ability to be the linchpin for a team that otherwise figures to be an absolute sieve defensively.

The only notable offseason addition (except for Michael Porter, Jr., a potential draft-day steal who figures to miss the entire season), was Isaiah Thomas, who fits perfectly with the team’s all offense, no defense M.O. It remains to be seen how much IT can contribute, but I have no qualms with a team trying to absolutely maximize its strength.

Again, it’s totally possible that the Nuggets are the seventh seed but I expect this team to outscore enough opponents to at least secure a playoff berth after last year’s heartbreak.

Like the Nuggets, I put the Lakers in the upper half of this tier not because I necessarily thank that they will finish fifth, but more because they are the least likely to miss the postseason altogether. It seems downright silly to think that a team led by LeBron James won’t be playing when it counts, no matter how stacked the conference is or how little sense the roster makes to me.

Quickly, on the roster: I cannot understand what Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka were doing this summer. They quickly went from the offseason’s big winners, landing the Best Player in the World—on a four-year contract, no less—to a huge question mark. LeBron has won three titles and reached eight finals in the last eight years largely with a similar supporting casts of guys who can play well off the ball, knock down shots from the perimeter and (ideally) play good defense. Johnson and Pelinka may be onto something by thinking that approach may never defeat a three-point shooting behemoth like the Warriors, but I can almost assure them that the way to win is not by signing a bunch of guys who can’t shoot and don’t play defense.

The Lakers aren’t expecting to win this season and most of the bizarre signings are on one year deals, so the moves don’t matter too much in a vacuum, but the question of whether Magic has a good blueprint for this roster remains.

Any number of lineups that the Lakers will be intriguing, fun, and scary in transition, but they will almost necessarily sacrifice shooting (Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson), defense (Michael Beasley, Kyle Kuzma), or both (Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee). The two guys who fit a typical LeBron teammate, and who I expect to have fairly big years, are Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

My faith in the Lakers as a surefire playoff team hinge on confidence in LeBron, a belief that Ball and Brandon Ingram will continue to grow—although, for the latter, not quite as much as many are expecting), and the hope that the team is good enough in transition to mitigate the other shortcomings.

The Pelicans have an extremely high ceiling but a lower floor than either Denver or LA this season. Their good pieces are really good. Anthony Davis will stake his claim as the heir apparent to LeBron’s throne and is my pick to be this season’s MVP, Jrue Holiday is an excellent complementary piece who had a career scoring year and played absolutely elite defense last season, and the Julius Randle/Nikola Mitotic duo is so exciting to me. They fulfill contrasting roles, but I see both power forwards playing very nicely off of Davis. The first round sweep of the Blazers in last year’s playoffs was an exhibition in how good this team can be, and the addition of Randle makes them that much scarier.

The problem is, New Orleans has no talent on the wings. At it’s extremely hard to win at this level without wings. Offensively, they should be fine, given that they have the best offensive big in basketball surrounded by just enough shooting. The real shortage in quality comes on the defensive side of the ball. One of the reasons why New Orleans disposed of Portland so easily was because the Blazers had no wing to exploit this weakness. Once Golden State came to town, Durant scored at will and the Pelicans had no chance at competing. The Pelicans are also counting on Elfrid Payton to replace Rajon Rondo, and I’m not at all convinced that he can do that. Holiday proved so much more effective off the ball last season, and the team’s lack of backcourt depth means Payton has to be serviceable for New Orleans this year.

If the hot shooting of Mitotic and E’Twuan Moore drops off, it could spell trouble. Ultimately though, at this point in his career, Davis is just about good enough to guarantee the playoffs for his team.

So long as Russell Westbrook comes back healthy and at least somewhat as explosive as he was, the Thunder should be in the playoff picture. I am still not a believer in this team’s postseason capabilities, but there’s simply too much talent for them not to get there. Westbrook and Paul George are top 15 players in the league, and the teams win total should hover around where it was last year so long as those two are still around.

I would like to think that there would be some level of addition by subtraction as a result of Carmelo going to Houston, but the Thunder did not replace him at all, and front-court depth was not the team’s forte last season. At this point, they’re starting Patrick Patterson or Jerami Grant and that means that they are sacrificing too much on defense or offense, respectively.

The Thunder did upgrade its bench, by adding Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel, two moves which I like. Schroder, especially, will be an important piece. He will start in place of Westbrook while the point guard recovers, and will probably play alongside Russ in the crunch time five, at least until Andre Roberson returns.

Oklahoma City doesn’t inspire much, and I don’t see them going very far, but Westbrook got to the playoffs almost on his own two years ago. He should be able to do it with this team.

Tier 4: 42-46 Wins

  1. San Antonio Spurs
  2. Portland Trail Blazers
  3. Minnesota Timberwolves

As I said before, these teams could theoretically reach as high as number four in the West (hence the overlap in the win totals), but they don’t figure to be quite as explosive as the tier 3 teams. Any of these three teams has just about an equal chance at landing the number eight seed, and whichever two teams miss out will justifiably feel robbed of something that they deserve and would unquestionably have gotten if they were in the other conference.

If Dejounte Murray hadn’t gone down with an ACL tear in the preseason, I would have surely favored the Spurs to reach the postseason for a record tying 22nd consecutive season. As it stands, I have them sneaking into the final slot, but that standing is on extremely shaky ground.

The Spurs really have no one at point guard, but I trust Gregg Popovich to make something work and deliver the goods once again. While the Spurs likely came out as the losers in the blockbuster trade with the Raptors, they nonetheless improved significantly over last season, when they were the seventh seed while the since-traded Kawhi Leonard missed 72 games.

DeMar DeRozan is clearly superior to Danny Green and he provides a much needed second shot creator alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. While the fit between the two iso-heavy, midrange dependent guys is a strange one, especially given the current state of the NBA, they have two guys who know how to create their own shot, which will always be a valuable commodity.

Although he preaches ball movement and teamwork, Popovich has an incredible knack for playing perfectly to his team’s strengths, and I think that we will see a heavy dosage of DeRozan and Aldridge isolation sets this season.

The lack of depth and athleticism scares me a bit, but the Spurs have been a consistently excellent defensive squad for over two decades, and though they may drop off, they will be better than their talent would indicate. If the Spurs ridiculous streak comes to an end this season  it will be because of the depth and talent of the conference and not because San Antonio themselves regressed.

Portland’s 2018-19 season, on the other hand, screams regression to me. They basically maxed out their potential in last year’s regular season, and still got swept in the playoffs. They remind me of the Western Conference version of the Wizards, and it is hard to remain motivated when a roster and team remains so stagnant and stale.

Already, as it was, last season seemed like a fluke. They got hot at the right time, and were realistically only a handful of games from the eight seed. The compact nature of the Western Conference made their season appear better than it really was.

Now, dispirited from the ugly postseason loss, I don’t think Portland will recreate what they did. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are great, but they do not get enough help from the rest of the roster. The teams above them are either more exciting or more talented than Portland. I have them ranked above Minnesota due to the uncertainty of the Jimmy Butler situation, but if I had to  pick one of these 10 teams to miss the playoffs, it would be Portland. Don’t be shocked it they are looking to blow it up by next summer.

With a fully committed Jimmy Butler in uniform for the entire season, Minnesota slots closer to where the Lakers are this season. My guess, though mostly unfounded, is that Butler will be traded before the deadline, and that drops Minnesota down to tenth.

Like the Lakers, the Timberwolves’ roster is ultra-talented but illogically constructed. There are not enough shooters and too many guys who need the ball in their hands to maximize effectiveness. Still Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are among the best inside-outside combos in the league, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson are solid, reliable veterans, and for all the recent negativity and lack of growth, Andrew Wiggins is not bad as a third or fourth option.

The Timberwolves were on a 50-win pace (good for third in the Conference) with a healthy Butler last year, and even though some chemistry and confidence issues might drop them back, they have the ability to be in the top half of the standings.

Without Butler, this team will not make the playoffs, assuming that the return is in the range of some of the packages that have been reported as possibilities. Overall, the uncertainty is too great to make a confident projection, and Minnesota’s win range is probably the largest one in the league.  

Tier 5: 38-42 Wins

  1. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers were among the hardest teams for me to place. As I’ve already articulated, the above seven teams are ones that more than have the ability to make the playoffs. Any of the seven could possibly jump to fourth. While the Clippers might be in the eight to ten seed range, they simply don’t have anywhere near the ceiling of Minnesota or Portland. They don’t have a player at the level of Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, LaMarcus Aldridge, CJ McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns or DeMar DeRozan. As you’ll notice, the teams in tier four have two each. At the same time, the Clippers figure to be in the thick of things come March, whereas the teams ranked below have virtually no playoff aspirations.

In some ways, the Clippers are a rich man’s version of the Brooklyn Nets. They don’t have any single standout player, but they do have a deep collection of talent. They might have more solid contributors vying for playing time than any other team in the league. Doc Rivers has to manage minutes for three rotation worthy player at each guard spot and center, and two at each of the forward positions. Also similarly to the Nets, the Clippers have been rumored to be in the market for a number of big name players next summer, and they have a solid foundation of above average complementary pieces already in place if they land a big fish.

I like the Clippers to surpass most preseason expectations. Their guards present an ideal mix of scoring (Lou Williams), playmaking (Milos Teodosic), and defense (Patrick Beverley), their starting forwards, Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris are very versatile and can switch between the three and the four seamlessly, and Montrezl Harrell should eventually supplant Marcin Gortat at center and provide the team with an athletic presence in the middle. Although they may struggle to see too much time on the court, the Clippers also have an intriguing duo of late lottery picks in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. Los Angeles will be far from a pushover, and if a team like Minnesota or Portland implodes, they should be ready to jump at the opportunity to make the playoffs.

Tier 6: 30-38 Wins

  1. Memphis Grizzlies
  2. Dallas Mavericks

Memphis and Dallas are two teams who should undergo meaningful improvement this year, although both are still a long way off from competing for a postseason spot. They both have a mix of young talent and productive veterans, which put them above the bottom-feeders of the conference, but that’s about as high as they will reach this season.

Memphis’ season was derailed early in 2017-18 by an injury to Mike Conley, Jr, who appeared in only 12 games. When it became evident that Memphis would not be a serious competitor, Marc Gasol seemed to take his foot off the pedal, and the rest of the team was not talented enough to win games.

Getting Conley back, along with impressive fourth overall pick Jaren Jackson will make the Grizzlies a lot better this season, but their overall roster is still mediocre, and that will not cut it in the cutthroat West.

The Grizzlies seem organizationally opposed to tearing it all down, instead choosing to ride Gasol and Conley until they are on their last legs. The duo gave some great moments to the franchise, but they are past their time. It would have been an intriguing option to deal one or both franchise cornerstones, since they already have a potential future building block in Jackson, but so long as they remain in town, Memphis will be just good enough to win 30+ games every year, but just bad enough to remain irrelevant.

Dallas is also at an interesting mix between wanting to compete for wins in the present and looking to build for the future, although they appear more inclined to the latter than Memphis is. The Mavericks have not one, but two potential key components to their future roster in Dennis Smith and Luka Doncic, and I expect both of them to be productive players this season, but them getting a heavy load of playing time may not contribute wins for Dallas.

The offseason signing of DeAndre Jordan seemed odd, not only because he betrayed the franchise once before, but also because he does not fit in at all to the Doncic/Smith timeline. Neither does Harrison Barnes, although I would not be surprised if Dallas looks to ship him out this season. Those two won’t win any games on his own, but they are solid NBA starters and will keep Dallas at least somewhat competitive in what figures to be Dirk Nowitzki’s final NBA season.

Luka Doncic guarantees that the team will be anything but irrelevant, but in terms of final record, the Mavericks figure to be stuck in the worst possible position, nowhere near good enough to be in the playoff fight, but talented enough to not jump into the upper half of the draft lottery. Dallas also has more reason to try to win games, since they will almost assuredly owe Atlanta their draft pick from the Doncic trade.

Tier 7: Fewer than 30 Wins

  1. Phoenix Suns
  2. Sacramento Kings

Like in the East, there are two teams in this conference who might as well be playing for next year. Both the Suns and Kings franchises have made a habit of whiffing on draft picks in the past several years, and although Phoenix has shown a recent ability to buck that trend, both of these teams simply have too many holes to compete this season.

The Suns appear to have not gotten that memo. They added seasoned veterans Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, both of whom figure to help the Suns win some games this season. Since moving on from the Steve Nash era almost a decade ago, Phoenix has bizarrely alternated between moves aimed at an all-out tank and those that seemed more in line with a quicker timeline. That continued this offseason.

In Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, the Suns have the potential cornerstones for a future franchise. Both are exceptionally talented, but they struggle defensively and their current game styles do not necessarily transmit to wins. The bench is also extremely weak, the team lacks a traditional point guard worth mentioning, and the franchise moved on from two former top 10 picks (Marquese Chriss and Alex Len) this summer, and two more (Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender) will need to take steps forward this year to prove their worth. Like New York, the Suns have young talent to judge, and this is a season where that will be the top priority.

Sacramento is not even at that point yet, as they seem perpetually stuck in the phase of accumulating that talent, a step that the front office has proved fully inept at doing. De’Aaron Fox has shown some promise, but the roster outside of him and Marvin Bagley (who is far from a sure thing at this level) does not inspire much hope. Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Bogdan Bogdanovic may be serviceable role players at some point in their careers, but none have especially significant room to grow.

Sacramento has not made the playoffs since 2005-06 and that streak is not ending this season. It would take a serious effort to keep this roster out of the basement of the conference, and it appears as if the race for the worst record in the league will include them and the Atlanta Hawks.

Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference Finals

Boston Celtics over Toronto Raptors, 4-3

I really went back and forth with this one. A series like this one could come down to home-court advantage on a Game Seven. Ultimately, I like Boston’s depth a little bit more in a playoff series. In the regular season, when bench players get more minutes and bench units play more often together, Toronto may excel. But Boston showed in the playoffs last season, sans Irving and Hayward, that they have the unrivaled capacity to trot out effective five man lineups.

Boston’s five of Irving/Brown/Hayward/Tatum/Horford is one of only a handful that can hang with Lowry/Green/Leonard/Anunoby/Ibaka on both sides of the ball. At the end of the day, Boston just has a few too many playmakers and I trust Brad Stevens to make the correct adjustments on the biggest stage. I’m a big believer in what Toronto can do this season, but they will come up just short of their long-term goal of reaching the NBA finals.

Western Conference Finals

Golden State Warriors over Houston Rockets, 4-2

I don’t think either Golden State or Houston will be as good as last year, nor will they reach this point as easily as they did last year. But the other teams in the West did not improve enough to overtake these two. In Ariza and Mbah Moute, Houston lost two big parts of their gameplan to slow the Warriors, and let’s just say that Carmelo Anthony does not alleviate these fears.

Though DeMarcus Cousins presents defensive issues for the Warriors, Anthony does the same for the Rockets. Steph Curry and Durant are still the two best players in the series. Houston proved las year that they can definitely compete with Golden State, but they took a bigger step back than their opponents this offseason. In a hard-fought series, I like the Warriors to triumph in six games.

NBA Finals

Boston Celtics over Golden State Warriors, 4-2

Call it a hunch. Ot just call me crazy.

I don’t think that the Celtics are a better team than the Rockets, but I like their chances to beat the Warriors a lot more. The earlier paragraphs detail what I like about Boston and not so much about Golden State, but there are particularities about the match that make me lean towards Boston. I like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier guarding Curry, with Kyrie Irving going at him on the other end. I like the bevy of guys who can battle Kevin Durant or chase Klay Thompson around screens. I like that Al Horford allows Boston to match-up against the death lineup without sacrificing. I like the fact that Boston should be able to exploit any Warriors lineup that has more than one reserve in it, no matter who is on the court for Brad Stevens.

Of course, Golden State has the better individual players and has every right to be considered the favorites in this matchup. But unlike Cleveland in the past two seasons, Boston will force Golden State to bring its A-game every night.

Golden State is playing for a third consecutive crown. Some of their roster will be in its fifth straight finals. Boston is hungry, tough, versatile and deep. They have enough guys who can break you down defensively and score one-on-one. It would take a perfect storm to beat this Golden State team, and by being able to both exploit the teams weaknesses and somewhat mitigate its strengths, Boston might present precisely that.

 

The Frozen Envelope’s NBA Award Picks for 2018-19

The NBA season kicked off last night, beating out my first blog post of the year by a few hours. Below you will find my picks for all of the end of year awards, along with the two people who will accompany them to the NBA Awards show as finalists. For the most part, I tried to go with what I think should happen, meaning which player will deserve each award, but in certain cases I also used typical voters’ tendencies to help me sort through difficult decisions. Keep your eyes open for NBA standings and playoff predictions in the coming days.

MVP

This should be an intriguing year for MVP candidates, as there are many contenders for the award, yet each of them have obvious flaws that will hamper their candidacy. Accordingly, if any of the early favorites for the award overcome this perceived flaw, they should instantly become the frontrunner for the MVP.

Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the two best players in the NBA who have yet to win an MVP trophy and are almost guaranteed to put up MVP-worthy numbers this coming season. They are the only stars on their respective teams and both of them have shown a remarkable ability to fix holes in their games and improve every season that they’ve been in the league. Davis had a career year last year, averaging 28/11/2 along with a league leading 2.6 blocks per game last season. Those numbers increased in the approximately half a season Davis played without fellow star big man DeMarcus Cousins, who shocked the NBA world by abandoning Davis without playing a full year together and joining forces with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and the rest of the prohibitive title favorite Golden State Warriors, meaning that Davis will now be fully unleashed for an 82-game season. That version of Davis averaged 31 and 14 in the playoffs as the Pelicans swept the favored Portland Trail Blazers before succumbing to the Warriors in five games.

Although Davis and Cousins was an exceptionally fun experiment, the Pelicans’ new frontcourt triumvirate, which added Julius Randle alongside Nikola Mirotic and Davis, plays more to the Brow’s strengths, allowing him to play and center and operate in more space, and should see him put up unparalleled numbers this season.

Antetokounmpo should also see an improvement this season, which is a pattern he has followed for each of his first five seasons in the league. Like Davis, the Greek Freak sees an important change within the organization that should open the door for him to fully take advantage of his scary ability. No longer constrained by the coaching of Jason Kidd or Joe Prunty, the expectation is that former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer will opt to spread the floor and give Giannis meaningful minutes at the five. Unlike Davis, Antetokounmpo has parts of his game that could still use significant improvement, namely his shooting and ball-handling abilities. Early indications from preseason suggest that he is at least mildly more comfortable pulling up from the outside, which spells bad news for Bucks’ opponents. In spite of how good Giannis has become, it seems as if the league has been waiting for the fully unleashed version for the past couple seasons. If that comes this year, expect the Greek Freak to be a leading contender for both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies. At the same time, however Budenholzer is a smart coach who is a branch off of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and who preached ball-movement during his stint in Atlanta. Although I imagine Giannis becoming a better player under his tutelage, this improvement won’t necessarily manifest itself through stats.

Of course, the problem with these two guys is that their respective teams may not win enough games. Russell Westbrook is the only guy in recent years to not finish in the top three seeds and still win the trophy, and I don’t think that either Davis or Antetokounmpo will accomplish a fear as historically significant as Westbrook’s triple double average. It might take 50 wins for the Pelicans or the Bucks for these guys to win the award, which is a tough ask considering the depth of the league and the supporting casts with which these two stars are playing.

LeBron James finds himself in a similar boat. Over his past decade-plus in the league, it has been almost assumed that James will put up consistently excellent numbers and that he will win at least 50 games per season. Last year, playing with his worst supporting cast since at least 2007, his Cavaliers won exactly 50 games, the fewest for a James led-team in 10 years. Now off to Los Angeles, LeBron is surrounded by both an inexperienced and seemingly incomplete roster, as well as a number of Western Conference teams that should make his path to 50 wins more difficult. With the intense pressure of expectations now lifted from LeBron’s shoulders, I can see two paths that the four-time MVP’s season might take. James may see this year as his last, best chance to win a fifth trophy, and go all out in pursuit of superlative individual numbers, which may be enough in to secure him that honor. Alternatively, James may not want to exert too much energy; understanding that this is his sixteenth NBA season and that he may want to coast, at least to some extent, before chasing a fourth ring next season when the Lakers will presumably add another star player to the mix. If winning the MVP is an important part of LeBron’s checklist for 2018-19, I fully expect him to accomplish that goal, as I think a fully focused season from him could see the Lakers win 50 games and him average numbers that no other player is capable of reaching in terms of a combination of overall productivity and efficiency. If not, if leaves the door open for other contenders.

James Harden has to be considered one of the frontrunners for the award after the season that he put together last year. Harden cemented himself as the league’s premier offensive weapon, particularly from the guard spot. After arguably being robbed of the highest individual regular season honor twice in the past three seasons, Harden got a chokehold on the MVP trophy early in the season, and, despite LeBron James’ best efforts, never really let go. He averaged over 30 points and almost nine assists per game while forming a dynamic duo with Chris Paul that catapulted the Houston Rockets to the league’s best regular season record. Although Harden figures to almost replicate what he did last year on an individual level, voters tend to make it more difficult to repeat than it is to win the first. The narrative around the association last season was that Harden deserved an MVP trophy for his continued excellence, a storyline that is more likely to be associated with Davis or Antetokounmpo this season. Combine that with the fact that the Rockets already proved that they could be a regular season juggernaut last season, and want to be better rested for a postseason run this time around, and I would argue that it will take something really spectacular for the Beard to repeat as MVP. Still, expect him to collect a large number of second or third placed votes.

The other two members of my clear-cut top six players in the league (in my opinion), Steph Curry and Kevin Durant play for the same team and figure to continue the same theme as the past two seasons by cancelling each other, limiting each other’s statistics and MVP votes. The presence of DeMarcus Cousins in Oakland will only make it harder to accumulate numbers. Curry and Durant should be content to roll to 60-plus wins and be the leading contenders for a fourth NBA title in five seasons.

Kawhi Leonard would be in this same tier of players, if only we knew what to expect of him. It has simply been too long since Leonard has played meaningful minutes in NBA game. I don’t expect him to be 100% of what he was in 2016-17 right away, but if he replicates that performance on both sides of the ball this year, he is right up there with the top contenders, if not the outright favorite for the award. Coming into last season, before it became apparent that something was wrong with Kawhi, either physically or mentally (or both), I had him as my pick for MVP. He has the ability to be the most impactful two-way player in the league, which he arguably was for two years before his bizarre injury. Toronto has the roster to do some serious damage this year, and if that happens, it will likely be due to a return to peak form for the Klaw. As of now though, I am not ready to make any assumptions as to how the season will play out up north.

After these seven, there are a collection of guys who are outside contenders for the award, but who will need to issues in their games fixed, a big statistical improvement, a big jump in wins from their team, or some combination of the three, in order to be in the discussion. Kyrie Irving will play for one of the better teams in the league this season, but he is coming off a knee injury, and there are too many mouths to feed in Boston to think that his numbers will be good enough to warrant serious consideration. Joel Embiid has a chance to be in the discussion as the best player in the post-LeBron Eastern Conference, but he still needs to grow as a basketball player, improving his decision making on both sides of the ball, as well as showing the ability to handle the rigors of a full NBA schedule. He missed 19 games and only played 30.3 minutes per contest last season. If he stays healthy, I have no doubt that an MVP trophy is in Embiid’s future, but he might still be a year away. (For the record, Embiid averaged 27/13/4 with two blocks per 36 minutes last year. Those are very clearly MVP worthy numbers). Ben Simmons is in the same boat, but he might need two or three more seasons before he fully arrives. Damian Lillard seemed to have done the most he can last season, leading Portland to a shocking third seed and scoring at an extremely high level, but still finished only fourth in MVP voting. He should come back down to earth a little in 2018-19. Russell Westbrook has earned his place in this discussion the shine seems to have rubbed off his triple-double act a little. Westbrook will get his numbers, but it will take a herculean effort from both him and the Thunder as a team to get him a second MVP trophy. A dark horse in this discussion for me is Karl-Anthony Towns who has the potential to put up almost Anthony Davis like scoring and rebounding numbers if Jimmy Butler successfully forces his way out of Minnesota, but if that happens it is highly unlikely that the Timberwolves will get enough wins to launch Towns into the race.

Ultimately, I believe in the Pelicans a little more than in the Bucks or the Lakers. Although LA may win one or two more games, I see Davis’ win threshold for MVP as being a little bit lower than James’. Absent a clear favorite, I see New Orleans eking out just enough wins to hand a dominant Davis a deserved MVP award.

Winner: Anthony Davis

Finalists: LeBron James, James Harden

 

Defensive Player of the Year

This award for me was fairly straightforward. Although there are a number of worthy competitors, once stands above the rest. Last season, Rudy Gobert appeared in only 56 games. He still won the Defensive Player of the Year award fairly handily, taking 89 out of 100 votes cast. He is, simply put, the most consistently excellent defensive force in the game today. The Utah Jazz as a team, and Gobert individually, led the league in every important advanced defensive statistic, and the Jazz’ stingy defense propelled them to a surprise appearance in the Western Conference semifinals. This season, the team figures to be competing once again for a spot in the conference’s upper half. Obviously, Gobert protects the rim at an elite level, but he is also more adept than most bigs at switching onto guards at keeping them at bay at least for long enough for the defense behind him to properly rotate. In many ways, Gobert is the ideal big man for a modern NBA defense, and barring injury or a special season by another candidate, he should repeat as Defensive Player of the year.

If anyone is going to unseat Gobert, my money would be on Kawhi Leonard. Again, we really don’t know what we’ll be getting from him this year, but Leonard did win this award twice in succession while with the San Antonio Spurs. Even at his highest level, Leonard would be pushed by Gobert, and though it is not unrealistic to think that Leonard will get back to his disruptive best by the end of this season, I do not expect 82 games of prime Kawhi defense. One thing to mention, though, that may play to Leonard’s advantage is that the team he is now on has the potential to be a suffocating defensive force. Between Kyle Lowry, long a rugged and underappreciated defender, former Spurs stalwarts Leonard and Danny Green on the wings, versatile sophomore OG Anunoby, who flashed tantalizing defensive potential last season, and the rim-protecting Serge Ibaka–or perhaps more the more intriguing, and arguably more effective Pascal Siakam–the Raptors will have the ability to combine height, length, and speed to create a switch everything, swarming defense without parallel in the league. A top three defensive finish by the Raptors would be an instrumental piece in any Kawhi DPOY resume.

The other usual suspect who will always deserve discussion on this topic is Draymond Green. Green, like Gobert and Leonard is a former winner of the award , but represents a new kind of defender all together. Not a classical rim protector or lockdown wing, Green is the quintessential do everything defender who can guard all five positions and make plays at all three defensive levels (on the perimeter, in the post, and at the rim). However, Golden State took a step back defensively last season, and team success has always been a big part of Green’s argument. They figure to continue to experiment and get rest for their stars in the regular season, which hinders Green’s chances at winning the award. Plus, Cousins’ arrival may limit Draymond’s minutes at the five, a position where he has historically been most successful. Still, come May and June, Green will still have a compelling argument for being the league’s single most valuable defensive player.

In the same mold, Al Horford is Brad Stevens’ defensive swiss army knife and unleashes so much of what makes Boston so good on that side of the ball. He doesn’t have eye-popping numbers or make stunning plays, but Horford is just about as good as they get on defense. I would be pretty shocked if he actually won the award, but Horford does figure to be in the running, and has at the very least earned to have his name in the same breath as the best defensive players in the game.

This award has typically been a big man’s award, and if Gobert takes any kind of step back, two other centers will be waiting in the wings. Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid are two game-changing rim protectors who anchor top-10 defenses. The finished second and third, behind Gobert, respectively last season. Despite both of their brilliance, it is hard to see how either one of them surpasses Gobert, who is not only the superior defensive player, but who also has a stronger reputation on that side of the ball. I like Embiid a little more than Davis because he looks to have more room to grow in terms of positioning and awareness, and he is surrounded by a stronger defensive cast, on average. However, with both shouldering a large offensive load this season, I don’t expect them to also take the requisite significant step forward on defense in order to unseat Gobert.

Beyond these five names, there are a couple other superstars whose defensive impact is often overlooked due to their offensive dominance. I don’t expect Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo to seriously contend for the honor, but they both have the ability to garner some votes and could theoretically make noise if they put more emphasis on the less glamorous side of the ball. There was a time early last season when I had Durant as my frontrunner for DPOY, but that faded fairly quickly. Both Durant and Antetokounmpo are intriguing options because they can be equally effective guarding the perimeter and protecting the rim. These tall, long forwards will become increasingly valuable as the league transitions more and more into the positionless, pace and space era. Next, there are some guards and more traditional wings worth mentioning, even though it is rare who anything less than an absolute stud to win the award from those positions. In 2014, Leonard became the first wing in eleven years to be named Defensive Player of Year, while no point guard has earned the honor since Gary Payton in 1996. Still, Jrue Holiday’s dominant performance against Damian Lillard last season put him on every NBA fan’s radar, and he will look to continue to build on that success. Victor Oladipo and Paul George were the steals leaders last year, and although that stat doesn’t always mean much, they both finished in the top 15 in DPOY voting last season. Boston figures to be one of the NBA’s toughest defensive squads and their perimeter duo of Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown is tenacious and tough to score against. It would take an incredible effort from any of these guys to snatch the award from a big or Leonard if he produces like we know he can. (Note: I really, really liked Dejounte Murray in this spot. Probably more than any other guard/wing. As a big point guard who can rebound and guard 1-3, he has an incredibly fascinating defensive skill set. Last season, in under 22 minutes a game, he earned all-defensive second team honors. Gregg Popovich tends the coax the most out of his players, especially on defense. I was very tempted to put Murray as one of my finalists for this award. It is extremely sad and disappointing that he will miss the season with a torn ACL.)

Winner: Rudy Gobert

Finalists: Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid

 

Rookie of the Year

The Rookie of the Year race is often a numbers game. Rookies who are both talented enough and get the requisite minutes to win the award are rarely playing for winning teams, so statistics are often the deciding factor.  Last year, with Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, was clearly an exception but I don’t expect any top 10 pick this season to play for a team with any hopes of competing.To me, there are two clear frontrunners who are good enough and play in favorable situations to win this award. First overall pick Deandre Ayton demonstrated in the preseason that counting numbers, specifically points, rebounds, and blocks, will come easily to him. His ability as a well-rounded player who actually contributes to winning basketball remains an unknown, but that is rarely taken into consideration for this award. Next to Devin Booker, Ayton should be the clear second option in Phoenix, and he has the potential to hover near 20 and 10 as a rookie.

The co-favorite for the award should be Luka Doncic. Dallas took a risk by trading up to grab Doncic and third overall, given that the 2019 pick that they gave to Atlanta figures to be, at worst, in the bottom half of the lottery. However, if the preseason is any indication, Rick Carlisle seems prepared to hand the reins of the offense to Doncic over second year backcourt mate Dennis Smith, Jr., and the Slovenian rookie looks ready to handle to load.

Although many around the NBA are habitually concerned with international rookies, and understandably so, especially given high European picks recent track record, Doncic is a different specimen altogether. Euroleague coaches are historically hesitant to play young players significant minutes, as recent NBA lottery picks Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja, and Dragan Bender averaged between 10 and 20 minutes per game in their last years overseas. However Doncic not only played starter’s minutes for Real Madrid but also won the league championship and captured the MVP award, averaging 16/4/4 and making a number of highlight plays against competition that is probably at least equally competitive to NCAA basketball.

He has a tremendously high basketball IQ and should be able to put up solid numbers across the board. He does have some athletic shortcomings but his overall talent level will make him one of the more productive rookies in the past decade.

There are two reasons why Doncic might end up with a slight edge over Ayton in this race. Firstly, I expect Dallas to be at least five games better than Phoenix. Although, as explained earlier, wins don’t play a big part in these considerations, with both guys expected to put up nice numbers, the tiebreaker might be related to who contributes more to wins. Secondly, I personally like Doncic’s future prospect as a potential star more than Ayton’s. Of course, in real voting this won’t play a role, but I am opting to use this criteria to make a tough decision.

There likely won’t be any rookies at the same level as these two there are a few others a few others worth mentioning. Like Doncic and Ayton, Trae Young will be given control over an NBA offense. Growing pains for such a unique player are to be expected, especially with the weakness of supporting cast that Young has in Atlanta and the typical difficulty that point guards experience when transitioning to the NBA. While he may put up a decent number of points and assists it’ll be hard for him to be efficient or to avoid turnovers. Furthermore, Atlanta figures to be among the very worst teams in the league. Judging of the summer league, big men Wendell Carter and Jaren Jackson were the two most impressive performers. However, both play on teams that may be trying to win games and where they might not get as much playing time and therefore may not have the requisite numbers to be in the running for this award. However, looking further down the line they have the potential to be some of the best players in this class. Both are very solid models of modern day NBA big man. They can shoot from the outside, play a little bit in the post, protect the room, and most importantly switch out onto quicker guards in the pick and roll. On the flip side, I did not love the Cleveland Cavaliers pick of Collin Sexton in the long run, but the Alabama product will have ample opportunity to prove himself in a thin backcourt for the Cavs.  I do not expect Marvin Bagley to see very much success this year in Sacramento as the roster is simply too weak and his position in today’s NBA remains a massive question mark and one that is too big to overlook. It would take a perfect situation, in terms of surrounding talent, for Bagley to be a successful NBA player and he is far from that with the Kings.

Winner: Luka Doncic

Finalists: Deandre Ayton, Trae Young

Sixth Man of the Year

I’m going to hedge my bets a little bit on this one. As evidenced by my MVP pick, I am a big believer in what New Orleans can do this season. Specifically, the big man rotation of Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle will be a lot of fun to watch. They will hurt the opposition in different ways and can create significant mismatches all over the court. Therefore, I am taking whichever of Randle or Mirotic ends up coming off the bench to win this award.

Randle was an absolute beast down the stretch for the Lakers last season, and he is the rare player that can take bigger centers off the dribble and muscle up smaller forwards down low. Especially playing alongside Davis, Randle will draw less attention from the defense, which should free him to put up points and rebounds in bunches. It is more likely that Randle is the big that is consigned to the bench, but he will look to play a role similar to Eric Gordon in Houston last season, in which he spells both Davis and Mirotic, and also occasionally plays alongside them (Mirotic will conceivably have to play some three this season given Alvin Gentry’s utter lack of options at the position). This role should provide Randle with almost starters’ minutes and his production should just about mirror the 16 and eight he put up last season.

If Gentry eventually decides to move away from Mirotic, who will start on opening day, he too is a nice candidate for this award. He is the ideal floor spacer next to either Davis or Randle, and he shot a very healthy 38% from downtown last season. Given the Pelicans’ lack of shooting , Mirotic will carry a heavy load and figures to be, at worst, the third option when he is on the court. Mirotic saw by far a career high in field goals attempted per game after arriving in New Orleans at the trade deadline last season, and although Randle figures to bite into that number a little, Mirotic will have more than enough opportunities to score. Like Randle, if he is in the area of the 15 and seven that he averaged in 2017-18, Mirotic will be in the thick of the Sixth Man of the Year race.

LeBron James has a habit of upping the efficiency of the role players that surround him, and Kyle Kuzma in Los Angeles this year should be no different. Although he likely won’t replicate the 31 minutes or 13.5 field goal attempts from a year ago due to the Lakers’ increased focus on winning and the team having more mouths to feed, Kuzma will grow as a player both due to LeBron’s presence and simply due to natural second year progression. Kuzma is more of a midrange player who likes to have the ball in his hand, but James will provide him with more easy opportunities than he has had at any point last year. In fact, Kuzma is playing alongside three of the best playmakers in the league this year, and if he can simply knock down open shots, points will come. James’ arrival will push Kuzma to a bench role, but the combination of playing next to great passers and the opportunity to carry the offense in more reserve-heavy lineup actually bode very well for a successful season for Kuzma.

Next to these three forwards who are among my frontrunners due to being clear starter-caliber players who are only relegated to the bench because of their teams’ quality at their positions, there are a number of guys who fit the more typical role of sixth man around the league. Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, the two most recent honorees will reprise their place as professional bucket-getters off the bench. I expect both to put up seasons that would typically be more than worthy of this award (although Lou will likely take a rather significant step back from his scorching-hot performance last season),  and depending on how much they can fill up the scoresheet, both are more than viable contenders. Gordon’s teammate Carmelo Anthony should also score enough points to be in the discussion, but I expect him to miss out due to not even being the best bench player on his own team.

Over in the East, Terry Rozier and Fred Vanvleet  are two of the more well-rounded guards who are in reserve roles this season, and if voters actually watched all the games, they may well be the frontrunners for this award. However, Vanvleet’s counting numbers simply aren’t impressive enough, and Rozier is in a system in Boston where there will be so many contributors that it is possible that no one individual stands out. Rozier will have games where, like in the team’s postseason run, he will be one of the best players on the floor, but his consistency won’t be at the same level as Gordon’s or Williams’.

Two guys who might thrive in new environments are the Indiana Pacers’ Tyreke Evans and the Thunder’s Dennis Schroder. If they remain healthy, these two will have as good as chance as anybody to win the award, but I wonder if they will both stay on the bench for long. They are both clearly among their respective teams’ five best players, and it is far from inconceivable that Donovan turns to an unconventional Westbrook/Schroder backcourt if the Thunder get off to a slow start. Similarly, Evans could slot in as a point guard, shooting guard, or small forward alongside Victor Oladipo and some combination of Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Doug McDermott. If Evans shoots as well as he did in Memphis last year, it is hard to imagine that he stays on the bench, because he simply brings more to the table than any of the other options.

Winner: Julius Randle/Nikola Mirotic

Finalists: Kyle Kuzma, Eric Gordon

Most Improved Player

This is always one of the toughest awards to predict. After all, who can have seen Victor Oladipo’s stunning breakthrough taking place last season. Usually a player will win this award due to increased opportunity or personal growth. However, voters usually won’t reward second or sometimes even third year players with, since their improvement is seen as natural and therefore to be expected.

If it is going to be a third year player, I would favor one of Brandon Ingram  or Jamal Murray, both of whom figure to take another step forward this season. Although they will both continue to grow as NBA players and be a part of (hopefully) taking their teams to the next level, both Ingram and Murray averaged over 16 points per game last season. Each of the last six Most Improved Players increased their scoring output by at least six points per game, and I’m just not sold on either Murray or Ingram averaging solidly over 20 points per game this season. I especially like Murray as a future star in this league, but the Nuggets have so much offensive firepower and it seems to me as if Murray took a bigger step forward last season than he will this one, especially statistically.

Instead, I like Myles Turner to win this award. He was my pick in this space last season as well, and it seems as if the league has been waiting for him to break out ever since his very impressive rookie year. He took a step back as a third year player last season, putting up 13 and seven a night, and it is not unrealistic to expect him to improve those numbers by almost 50% each this coming season. Turner is also among the most reliable rim protectors in the league. He should be far more productive than he has, as on talent alone, he seems very well balanced. He can shoot the three and the midrange, and has shown flashes of an ability to score inside. He was supposed to take the reins to the franchise after Paul George was traded and was perhaps taken aback by Oladipo’s explosion. I expect him to be more settled down this season. The Pacers have a history of having Most Improved Players (five in the past 20 years alone), and if Turner makes natural progression from his rookie year, he could continue that trend.

Next to him, D’Angelo Russell seemed on his way to at least a top-five finish for this award before injuries derailed his candidacy. Post-injury, his scoring average dropped from 21 to about 15 points per game. I am not huge believer in Russell’s long term ability to be a star or even a good player on a good team, but he should thrive as the clear first option in Brooklyn. He will have the ball in his hands a ton, and points and assists will naturally come as a result of that. As a fourth-year player who has flashed potential but never quite put it all together, Russell is, like Turner, in a perfect situation to capture this award.

Simply in terms of opportunity, I like James Ennis, Elfrid Payton, and Eric Bledsoe to succeed this season. Ennis will be giving an extremely simple role in Houston, and if he can hit open threes, he can recreate much of what Trevor Ariza did last season, which would be a nice jump over the first few years of his career. He was underused and underrated over his frist few seasons in the league, but that could overcorrect this season as D’Antoni’s scheme has a way of bloating role players’ scoring numbers.

If Payton doesn’t succeed as Rajon Rondo’s replacement in New Orleans, it may be time to give up on his potential as an NBA player. The system is in place for a pass first guard to succeed around a solid cast of players and an up-tempo pace that theoretically suits Payton’s style. Payton has yet to show that he can produce at a consistently acceptable level, but if he does fulfill his potential this season, he could find himself in this discussion.

Bledsoe’s ugly end to his career in Phoenix marred what has been an underratedly productive career. After all, this is a guy who averaged an extremely impressive 21/5/6 just two short seasons ago. He had to adjust to the Bucks style on the fly last season, and still managed 18/5/4. Under the leadership of Mike Budenholzer, one of the most respected coaches in the game, I like Bledsoe’s chances to be a borderline All-Star in the weak East and that alone could catapult him to his award.

If we are looking for someone in the mold of Oladipo, in other words, someone who has hovered as a solid NBA starter but nothing more for a few years, I like Gary Harris’ chances. I am not necessarily expecting an explosion from him, but he has gone from 12 to 15 to 17 points in his last three seasons, and he might be the best guard on Denver’s roster. Twenty-two or 23 points per game for one of the league’s best teams might be a bit of a stretch, but it is not at all unfathomable.

As dark horses, I like Andrew Wiggins or even Carmelo Anthony. They both had big-time down years last year, and the narrative around them has grown to be toxically negative. They will almost surely not win this award, but if either of them get back to near their 2016-17 levels (a time at which both were, ironically, grossly overrated), the media could be willing to offer them a few votes. Wiggins’ candidacy could become even more serious if Jimmy Butler is indeed traded.

(Note: I originally had Dejounte Murray penciled as the winner of this award. The major reasons why are outlined in the DPOY space. Also: he averaged 13.5/9/5 last season and was sure to see a minute bump in 2018-19. Murray’s injury opens the door for Bryn Forbes, who could replicate what last year’s runner-up Spencer Dinwiddie did, in other words improving from just another, anonymous NBA player to an actual starter-level player).

Winner: Myles Turner

Finalists: Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell

 

Coach of the Year

During the NBA playoffs last year, the basketball community seemed to come to a consensus: Brad Stevens was becoming the best coach in the league. Of course, voting for the Coach of the Year Award takes place before the playoffs, and by the time Dwane Casey won the award at the NBA honors night, it was not only understood that Stevens had been robbed, but Casey had also been fired from his post as head coach of the Toronto Raptors.

While Stevens will have a tough time eclipsing Boston’s expected win total–a usual barometer for Coach of the Year–he will still present a strong case since he should be rewarded for his overall excellence and there seems to be few other strong contenders.

Everybody knows that the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are going to be great in the regular season, so it will take something absolutely remarkable for either Steve Kerr or Mike D’Antoni to be recognized. Similarly, Brett Brown, Mike Malone, and Quin Snyder are expected to oversee serious improvements from their squads, so their names won’t come immediately to voters’ minds. All three, particularly Snyder are excellent coaches, but the expectations for the Jazz seasons have reached extremely high levels. It may take a top-two seed, which is an enormously difficult task for a squad without a single top-20 offensive player to accomplish. Gregg Popovich is seemingly always in the discussion, although this is the weakest team he has had in years (perhaps with the exception of last year). Although this predicament could place even more of a spotlight on Pop’s coaching ability, if San Antonio finishes in the lower ends of the playoff race, or misses out altogether (which is seeming increasingly likely), his case will become harder to make.

Mike Budenholzer presents an interesting case. If Milwaukee takes the step forward that has been expected of them for so long, it will be evidence of a coach’s importance in the NBA. Conventional wisdom has become that the Bucks’ ability to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference has been held back by the ineptitude of Jason Kidd and later, Joe Prunty, to design competent sets on either side of the ball. Budenholzer is a highly respected NBA coach and a former recipient of this award. If he can change Milwaukee’s fortunes in a significant way, he will be a frontrunner for this award. If not, it might be time to question whether we have just been overrating the roster’s talent all along.

Beyond these names, a majority of whom are considered a part of the upper tier of NBA coaches, it will simply come down to which team can outperform expectations. My personal choice is the New Orleans Pelicans, coached by Alvin Gentry, but in the crowded Western Conference, a few wins is likely to account for a few spots in playoff positioning. Unfair as this may be, the seedings are going to be too random to predict that any coach will sufficiently outperform expectations to capture the award.

Thinking through the contenders for this award, I keep coming back to Stevens. His team is likely to finish as a top-two seed in their conference, and I give them a more than solid shot at winning 60 games and having the best regular season record in the league. Stevens puts his players in the best position to succeed on both offense and defense, and when it’s all said and done, the voters should recognize this and hand Stevens the respect he is due.

Winner: Brad Stevens

Finalists: Alvin Gentry, Mike Budenholzer

 

The Four Questions that Will Determine the Conference Finals

Four Questions that Will Determine the Conference Finals

  1. How will the Celtics defend LeBron James?

This is the central question that any coach who has faced LeBron James over his decade-plus long run as the league’s best player has had to deal with, and James’ increased mastery of the game over the past few seasons has made it only more difficult to answer.

Brad Stevens has solidified his reputation as the league’s best coach during Boston’s impressive postseason run without their presumed two best players, but handling LeBron will be by far his toughest assignment yet. However, the Celtics roster is as well equipped as any other in the league to throw a number of bodies and a number of looks at James in order to disrupt his rhythm.

The vital question to answer is whether to guard LeBron one-on-one, as Toronto did to no avail in the Cavaliers’ second-round sweep, or to double team him and let him pick you apart with his passing to Cleveland’s assortment of three-point shooters. This is the NBA’s ultimate example of pick your poison, and no team has managed to solve this puzzle.

The conventional wisdom, at least recently, has been to guard James with a single defender and live with him scoring over 30 points per game. James is the best player on the planet, and he will get his regardless of what looks you throw at him. At the very least, you want to remove the possibility of some of his teammates getting hot, and make James carry his team to victory single-handedly. However, as the first 11 games of this postseason have demonstrated, LeBron is more than capable of doing just that.

Taking a look back at Boston’s first two series, it seems as if they have been as close to prepared for James as possible in the Eastern Conference. Although nowhere near James’ overall dominance, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons are probably the closest thing to him in the East, and Stevens put on a masterclass in how to slow down the physically dominant stars who struggle with their outside shot. For the most part, Stevens stuck his best perimeter defenders (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, and Marcus Smart) on the surrounding shooters in an attempt to limit three point attempts and to not allow role players who shoot themselves into a rhythm.

Al Horford, basketball’s version of a Swiss army knife, handled the bulk of the time guarding Simmons and the Greek Freak. Horford usually stood at the free throw line and dared those guys to shoot from the perimeter, similarly to the way San Antonio has guarded James over the years. This time around, that strategy may not work so well. Not only has LeBron eschewed some of those perimeter isolations for post-up possessions, but he has shown an increased comfort and efficiency in shooting from the outside. While Horford may open the series checking James, Boston’s personnel allows them to try different wrinkles over the course of the series.

Marcus Morris has expressed confidence in his ability to slow down the King, and the numbers back that up. During his last 11 games against Morris’ teams, James averages just over 21 points per game and has never topped the 30-point threshold. Moreover, two seasons ago Morris was the league’s best ‘LeBron stopper’, holding the Cavaliers forward to only 20.5 points per 100 possessions.

Jaylen Brown is among the league’s most promising young wing defenders, but Stevens has preferred to stick him on spot-up shooters so far this postseason in an attempt to erase their effectiveness. If Brown can slow down Kyle Korver or JR Smith, he makes James’ job that much harder. Marcus Smart plays in the mold of Lance Stephenson, a bigger guard who would like nothing more than to get into LeBron’s head. Semi Ojeleye, who has seen limited minutes thus far, has the ideal physique to battle with LeBron down low. Although all of these guys are likely to take a stab at LeBron, Stevens must also be willing to send double teams when LeBron catches fire, which will inevitably happen multiple times throughout the series. Dwane Casey refused to change his strategy even as LeBron hit turnaround after turnaround in the second round, humiliating Casey’s team and ultimately costing him his job. Stevens has shown an impressive ability to maximize his team’s potential on both sides of the ball, and he will be ready to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the King in the conference finals.

Still, LeBron has played like a man possessed for most of the playoffs, and when he is on his game, no one can even hope to contain him. The key for Boston is going to be to stick to Smith, Korver, and Kevin Love, mix up their coverages against LeBron and then hope that he comes back down to earth and misses a few shots. If that happens, Boston has a puncher’s chance. If not, this series may be a repeat of last year’s.

2) Who among the Cavaliers’ ‘others’ will step up?

The difference between Cleveland’s seven-game slog against Indiana and their blow-the-doors-off sweep versus Toronto was the play of the guys on the roster not named LeBron James.

Kevin Love averaged just 11.4 points in the first series before stepping up his game and  putting 20.5 a night against Toronto. Kyle Korver jumped from 8.3 points to 14.5 from round to round, and JR Smith improved from 8.6 to 12.5 point per outing.

If they are able to repeat their exploits from the conference semifinals, Cleveland should be the heavy favorites against Boston. However, unlike against a upstart Pacers squad, a one-man wrecking crew may not be enough to overcome this overachieving Celtics group.

Love is the most important piece. His combination of outside shooting and interior touch (which he demonstrated consistently for the first time in a long time against the Raptors) makes him a difficult matchup for anyone. If Cleveland plays him at the five, Aron Baynes will likely to relegated to a bench role and only see minutes when Tristan Thompson is on the court. Al Horford is a solid antidote to Love, but his defense might be needed to slow down James, meaning Love can exploit whichever smaller defender Brad Stevens put on him. If Love does this, he opens up even more opportunities for Cleveland outside threats.

Korver, Smith, George Hill, or whichever  wing Ty Lue chooses to play are going to be the more crucial components in this series. If Stevens and his bevy of wing defenders can limit these guys’ open shots, it will greatly impact the series. A combination of Smart, Brown, and Terry Rozier are more than capable of completing that goal.

Just like Boston’s ultimate goal will be to make LeBron–and only LeBron–beat them, Cleveland will look to replicate the team-wide success from the series against Toronto. A lot of that will depend on a very simple question: whether or not the Cavaliers’ supporting cast can hit shots.

Outside of that, Lue may need to play more guys that can create their own shots and aren’t quite as dependent on James to do so for them. Jeff Green has been a surprising contributor over the course of the season and Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood were picked up to give that kind of boost off the bench, although they have so far been unable to adequately perform that role.

None of the Cavaliers’ role players can be reliably counted on the produce what is needed of them. Instead, they need to take turns of assisting James and Love with production. Cleveland has had two series thus far in which the performance of their ‘others’ could scarcely have been more different. If they perform as they did in the second series, Cleveland should knock out Boston with relative ease; if not, this series could shock a lot of people.

3) Can Clint Capela successfully switch onto the Warriors perimeter players?

Although Houston’s potent offense and a large talent gap with their opponents have continued to propel their success thus far in the postseason, the spectacular play of Clint Capela on both sides of the ball has been the key to their dominance through 10 games in the playoffs.

Capela has always been a serviceable player in the Rockets’ rotation, as he can catch lobs, grab rebounds, and protect the effectively. However, where he has been most useful of late is in his ability to switch onto opponents perimeter players and therefore unleash so much of what makes Houston so improved defensively.

James Harden is at his best when playing defense in the low-post and Mike D’Antoni switch everything defense allows him to be in that predicament essentially every time that the opponents runs a pick-and-roll. Most teams have plodding centers who make this game plan nearly impossible to execute, but Capela has so far stifled Jeff Teague and Donovan Mitchell enough to make the scheme worth it.

However, Mitchell and Teague are no Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Capela can expect that Steve Kerr will put those two supreme scorers in a number of pick-and-rolls in hopes to take advantage of Houston’s defensive approach. Capela has an ability to be a game changer in this series with his shot-blocking ability and his rim running on offense, which can ease some pressure on Chris Paul and James Harden. However, if Capela is consistently exposed by Curry or Durant, his spot on the court may be untenable. Houston may try to counter this by playing a smaller lineup with PJ Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah Moute, and Trevor Ariza, three long and versatile forwards in the frontcourt, which is possible because Golden State’ four traditional centers are offensive non-factors.

That choice could open up a whole new can of worms for Houston, because it allows Golden State to comfortably play their ‘Hampton Five’ with Draymond Green at center. Therefore, Capela’s ability to defend on the outside and not sacrifice his other abilities, will be of the utmost importance for Houston. Capela’s presence on the court can give them at least a minor advantage over the Warriors’ death lineup.

Unlike against every other team in the league, Houston is inferior talent wise when matched up against Golden State. Therefore, they have to be able to capitalize on any minor advantage that they have. In this series, that includes maximizing on Capela’s ability and hoping that he can be a defensive disruptor and an offensive weapon that the Warriors cannot match. Thus far, Capela has performed his role admirably, but it gets that much harder against a team that can hurt you in so many ways. Capela is the key to this series, and the key to his individual performance might be found in the answer to our fourth question.

4) How healthy is Steph Curry?

Although Curry’s numbers since returning from a sprained MCL are pretty much on par with his normal production on a per-36 minute basis, the eye test tells a slightly different story. Curry, despite his shot looking as nice as usual, has struggled with creating separation and moving quickly laterally to guard opposing players.

In 2015-16, Curry’s numbers throughout the postseason would equally impressive, but he was clearly gimpy and his inability to create space against bigs like Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson made the end of the Warriors historic season a historic disappointment. Of course, some guy named Kevin Durant has joined the fray since then and alleviates some of the pressure of Curry to create for himself.

Although Curry has had a nice week-long layoff since the Warriors knocked out the Pelicans in five games, it remains to be seen if he has returned to full strength. Even with Curry at 85%, Golden State will be favored to win this series, but a suboptimal Curry does open up more options for Houston on both sides of the ball.

On defense, the Rockets will benefit greatly from being able to use Capela to slow down Curry, and therefore not have to adjust too much of their defensive schemes from the rest of the season. Furthermore, a Curry who cannot switch direction as quickly as usual will also allow Mike D’Antoni’s team to pressure him and force him into making quick decisions, and hopefully keep the ball out of his hands.

Offensively, Houston will want to attack Curry, who acknowledged earlier this week that it is harder to get back up to speed on defense because he is not fully in control of his body’s movements. Harden or Paul will look to exploit this advantage, and if Curry is not at full health, Steve Kerr might look to hide him on Tucker or Mbah Moute, both of whom are rarely tasked with handling the ball or creating offense.

Much like Cleveland and Boston, this series will be one of give and take. Boston is going to have to give up something, whether it be LeBron in one-on-one situations or his teammates getting open looks. Cleveland will need to take advantage of whatever is given to them. Similarly, Houston will look to continue to switch everything on defense, and Curry’s health is of paramount importance if Golden State is going to exploit this scheme.

Golden State and Houston have hid so much of what they do best from one another during their regular season matchups, and for the Warriors to be able to add as many wrinkles to their offense as possible, Curry needs to be able to play his best basketball. The fate of this series is not entirely dependent on the point guard’s health, but Golden State will be able to rest far easier if they know that their co-star is ready to go.

 

The Frozen Envelope’s First Round Playoff Predictions

(1)Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves

This is an unfortunate draw for both teams involved. Houston has been the best team in the league since the all-star break, yet they run into a team that is drastically underseeded because Jimmy Butler missed 23 games with a knee injury. With Butler healthy, Minnesota went 37-22, a 51-win pace, which would have placed them third in the Western Conference. Instead, the Timberwolves had to win a hard-fought, overtime contest with Denver just to get into the playoffs. Their reward? A date with likely MVP James Harden and the Rockets.

With a fully healthy roster, Houston has looked virtually unbeatable this season, amassing a 41-3 record when Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all suit up. The Rockets are the perfect model for modern NBA basketball. They isolate their guards, either Paul or Harden, two of the best one-on-one players in the league, especially against switches, and let them go to work. Their personnel allows the Rockets to spread the floor to give them space to operate. Both Harden and Paul are capable of playing off the ball, and the rest of the lineup is either knock-down three-point shooters, rim-running big men, versatile defenders, or some combination of the three. Throw in offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni as head coach and Houston has crafted a historically potent offensive attack.

Minnesota does have three edges that make this matchup more uncomfortable than some others. First off, Jimmy Butler is one of only a tiny number of wings who can at least try to guard James Harden. He’s strong, physical, and quick, and his ability to fight through screens will be crucial to fending off a dreaded switch that would leave slow-footed bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns or Taj Gibson to try to contain Harden. Secondly, Minnesota in used to playing their starters heavy minutes, perhaps more so than any other team in the league. Harden and Paul have done some of their best damage going against their opponents’ second units, with rotations shortening in the postseason, those options will be more limited. Against a Tom Thibodeau -coached team, they may be nonexistent. Finally, Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the biggest nightmare matchups in the league. He can score from anywhere on the floor, and his three-point shooting will draw Clint Capela away from his preferred position under the basket. Since Houston usually only has one big man on the court at once, Towns can open up driving lanes for Butler and Jeff Teague, guards who do their best work around the basket.

Still, Minnesota will be extremely hard-pressed to find a way to knock off the Rockets. Despite having Butler, Minnesota is not a strong defensive team. Between Towns, Teague, and Andrew Wiggins, there are far too many defensive weaknesses for this dominant Rockets offense to exploit. Tom Thibodeau is not known as a master adjuster, and is unlikely to shift from his rigid rotations. Minnesota’s small ball options are limited, but playing Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Nemanja Bjelica together, as he has  throughout the season, is not going to work against Houston. Houston has too many offensive weapons for Minnesota to deal with, and their much improved defense should carry them over the top. The Timberwolves would have had a fighting chance or better against any of the Western Conference’s six other playoff teams, including the Steph Curry-less Warriors. Towns and Butler could steal a game or two, but Houston will eventually prevail. Rockets in six.

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs

Boy, did the Warriors dodge a bullet here. With Steph Curry out hurt the Warriors have struggled mightily, and with him presumably missing the entirety of the first round, the defending champions seemed as vulnerable as they have since Steve Kerr came aboard. Minnesota would have been scary, as would have Utah or Denver. Playing the Thunder would have been even more dangerous. Instead, Golden State drew the San Antonio Spurs. If the Warriors made a list of who they wanted to play in the first round, the Spurs would likely have been at the top of that list.

Kawhi Leonard has been the x-factor in the Spurs success for the duration of the season. At this point, however, it seems safe to assume that the two-time defensive player of the year is not going to appear in a game this season. What San Antonio has accomplished in Leonard’s absence has been remarkable. They clinched a 21st consecutive postseason berth in a brutal Western Conference, and came within three wins of yet another 50-win campaign. The Spurs accomplished this despite an utter lack of offensive playmakers, especially from the perimeter, where career reserve Patty Mills is arguably their greatest threat. In the era of three point shooting and guard oriented play, the Spurs seem like an anachronism. They don’t shoot many threes, instead choosing the midrange. They start two traditional big men and run their offense through LaMarcus Aldridge in the mid post. One year after being almost forgotten down the stretch of the season, the ex-Trail Blazer has bounced back admirably, averaging over 23 points on better than 50% shooting. Aldridge’s supporting cast plays solid defense and can shoot well, but defenses can focus almost their entire attention on the power forward. Gregg Popovich has once again proven that he can squeeze success out of any personnel, and it is crazy how he can pile up wins despite changing his system dramatically. Over the past two decades, Popovich has gone from a defensive team with an offense that fed Tim Duncan in the post, to a team centered around a Duncan-Parker pick-and-roll, to a ball-movement heavy offense, to running his offense through Kawhi Leonard isolations, and has now circled back to his team priding itself on its defense and feeding a power forward on the block. This time around, though, Aldridge is not as good as Duncan and a team with a purely defensive identity cannot win as easily as in the early parts of the decade.

The Warriors are limping into the postseason. They have gone 11-9 in their past 20 games, and 4-6 in their past 10. That record is only respectable because they have piled up wins against the league’s bottom feeders. Golden State has dropped nine of their past 10 games against teams that made the postseason. Kevin Durant has produced well, as he should, but his exploits have not yet translated to team success. Durant prefers to operate out of isolation situations, but Golden State has remained true to its offensive system. Doing so is incredibly difficult due to the lack of shooting on the court when Curry is out. Klay Thompson and Durant are the only two rotation players for Steve Kerr who can space the floor effectively. Still Golden State has played a lot of basketball over the past three seasons. They appeared tired and burnt out. The playoffs should reinvigorate them. Durant will be the best player on the floor at all times, and Thompson and Draymond Green will be three and four. An uptick in defensive intensity and offensive execution is all the Warriors really need to ensure a win in this series.

In order to beat Golden State in a playoff series, a team either needs firepower or a physical defense. San Antonio has neither. Absent Leonard, they have no one who can hope to contain Durant. For all of Danny Green’s defensive prowess, at 6’6’’, he is simply too small to cover Durant. Although Curry’s injury changes some things, we saw how this book ends in last season’s Western Conference Finals, which, to put it mildly, was not close. Don’t expect this year’s version to be as lopsided, but the Spurs will struggle to score enough to keep up with Golden State. I’ll give them one game out of respect to Popovich, but I would be shocked if they came away with any more than that. Warriors in five.   

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans

This has the potential to be a great series. Both Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis led their teams to impressive second half runs to change the narrative of their seasons. The Blazers have struggled to escape the lower half of the Western Conference for much of Lillard’s tenure, and another season stuck in place was understandably frustrating for Lillard. After a mid-season meeting with owner Paul Allen to discuss the future of the franchise, the Blazers have been on a tear, going 18-7 to shoot up the Western Conference standings. Lillard has been the catalyst, averaging over 28 points during that run. On the other side, the Pelicans were written off after DeMarcus Cousins went down with a devastating achilles injury. Davis, though, had other ideas, averaging over 30 points and 12 rebounds over the last 32 games as New Orleans solidified their postseason position.

Davis’ supporting cast has produced fairly well this season. Jrue Holiday has established himself as a more than competent starter in the NBA, pouring in almost 20 points per night while becoming one of leading candidates for a spot on the NBA’s all-defensive first team. Rajon Rondo has undergone some kind of rejuvenation, and, while inconsistent, is still capable of putting together the occasional brilliant performance. In his last ten games to close out the season, Rondo averaged approximately 11 points and 10 assists per game. E’Twaun Moore and Nikola Mirotic, who appears to have rediscovered his shooting touch, are important floor stretchers. Even Emeka Okafor has done his job rebounding the basketball and diverting shots when inserted into the starting frontcourt alongside Davis. Despite the admirable effort of the rest of the undermanned Pelicans’ roster, Davis does the heavy lifting. That will need to continue, and perhaps even increase, if New Orleans wants a chance to knock off the Blazers.

While Lillard will need a big performance as well if the Trail Blazers are to win, his roster is able produce with more consistency. CJ McCollum is a bona fide second star who can produce efficiently with the ball in his hands or off the catch. He can relieve Lillard of ball handling and creating duties when necessary. Jusuf Nurkic is much improved, and has been the key to Portland’s much improved defense this season. He can score from inside, is a rebounding machine, and is an excellent passer out of the pick-and-roll. As long as the rotation of wings who get minutes–Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Mo Harkless (if healthy), and Pat Connaughton–can produce reasonably well, Portland has the ability to make some noise in the playoffs.

Davis is clearly superior to Lillard because he can score from any spot on the court and he is the far better defender, but they will more or less cancel each other out. This series, ultimately, will come down to the ‘others’. In that department, the Blazers have the edge. They have more shot creators, more athletic players and a higher rated team defense. Anthony Davis deserves all the plaudits that he has received this season, but he really doesn’t have quite enough help. Trail Blazers in six.

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz

The underperforming Thunder won against Memphis on Wednesday to jump up the standings and avoid Golden State or Houston in round one. Their first round series, though, will be no walk in the park. Utah has rebounded from the offseason loss of Gordon Hayward and overcame a tough start, going 30-8 since Rudy Gobert returned from his second extended spell on the sideline. Since his return, Gobert has anchored the league’s stingiest and catapulted himself onto the shortlist for Defensive Player of the Year. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, have not lived up to lofty preseason expectations, but still found themselves in the fourth seed. They have shown glimpses of their potential in a number of impressive wins and a few long win streaks.

Westbrook, who clinched his second consecutive triple-double average in the season finale, is going to need to focus more on getting his teammates into a rhythm come playoff time. Paul George has shown signs of improvement after a difficult run of shooting to end March and open April, averaging 28 points over his final five games. Carmelo Anthony has been a yearlong disappointment, but if Billy Donovan insists on playing him extended minutes, Anthony has to start hitting shots and at least try to play some defense. Steven Adams has often kept the team afloat this season, growing into the third best player on the roster. He rebounds as well as any other player in the postseason and has a nice touch around the rim. The Thunder will count on their physical center to make life difficult for Gobert. There isn’t much else in terms of shot creation on the Thunder roster, but the bench has shown some improvement over last season. The success of the Thunder is going to come down to two things. Firstly, how locked in the team, especially Westbrook and Anthony, are on defense against a team that passes and moves at an elite level. Secondly, they will need to diversify their offense and move away from Westbrook creating everything in order to crack the code that is Utah’s defense.

Utah is almost the opposite of Oklahoma City. They have few superstars, but their team works well together. They move the ball selflessly and rely on body movement to create open shots. They lost a star small forward this summer and were expected to drop off significantly, but have instead performed at about the same level as last year. Although Donovan Mitchell is a revelation, and even if all the credit he has been given is justified, Utah really puts forth a team effort. Rubio runs the offense very effectively, and he is scoring and shooting at a career best clip. Joe Ingles is a secondary playmaker whose passing, shooting, and defense make him a useful, versatile tool. Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder bring toughness off the bench. Gobert is the NBA’s ideal defensive lynchpin. Mitchell eases a lot of the pressure on the Jazz’s offense because he can score so effortlessly, especially for a rookie. Utah was expected to be a tough out, but it is Mitchell’s surprising brilliance that shot them into the middle of the playoff pack. Quin Snyder’s team is one of the most well coached in the league and have had a successful season regardless of the series result.

This is a difficult choice. It should be the most closely contested series of the first round. As much as Utah has defied expectations and proved that it belongs among the West’s best teams, I tend to side with top-end talent come playoff time. If Billy Donovan shortens his rotation, there should never be a time when his team doesn’t have the best player on the court. Utah will make it extremely tough, but Westbrook and George will do enough to close out the series at home. Thunder in seven.

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards

The Eastern Conference is looking mostly wide-open and almost every series should be competitive. Toronto will enter this series as clear favorites, but Washington should not be counted out. The series will be determined by which version of the Wizards shows up. The entire season has been uneven from them, but they were especially poor to end the year, going 7-14 in their final 21 games. Toronto, meanwhile, has coasted to the finish line after clinching the Eastern Conference’s top seed weeks ago. They will enter this postseason looking to exorcise past demons.

Toronto’s core has remained mostly intact from the team that got swept by Cleveland to close last season. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and Serge Ibaka remain the four leading scorers and all have done their jobs well this season. What has propelled Toronto to their current standing, though, is a new offensive philosophy instilled by head coach Dwane Casey and much improved depth. In fact, their depth may be unmatched throughout the league. Toronto currently rosters eleven players who contribute over five points per game. Their bench lineup is among the most effective five-man units in the game. Toronto has been collecting athletes in the draft for years, and their strategy finally appears to be paying off. If the team does not succumb to playoff pressure, Toronto will be tough for any team to beat.

Washington, not Toronto was expected by many to be the team that would challenge Cleveland and Boston in the East. Instead Washington has spent the season losing to tanking teams, engaging in intra-team fights on twitter, and failing to adapt to a rapidly evolving league. For a time, it seemed as if the Wizards were playing better without star point guard John Wall, but once defenses adjust, Washington fell into an offensive rut. Wall has played well since returning, which should give the Wizards some hope. However, he has not yet played any back-to-back games and running mate Bradley Beal has looked absolutely gassed down the stretch. Otto Porter continues to do his job, but no one else on the roster has put together a prolonged stretch of good basketball over the past 20 games. Kelly Oubre and Markieff Morris will need to find their strokes for Washington to have a shot. Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi simply do not pass the test as rotation-worthy centers and scoring is difficult to find on the bench unit.

Three years ago, Washington entered the playoffs after rough stretch to close the year and promptly swept the fourth-seeded Raptors. This year is different. Wall and Beal are in questionable physical shape. Toronto’s offense is better equipped to deal with increased playoff intensity. Although this Wizards team might have the talent to spring an upset, they have not shown much on the court over the past month to show that they will win any more than one or two games against Toronto. Raptors in five.

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks

This series will serve as an intriguing look at what matters in determining NBA playoff success. In terms of star power, the Bucks are far ahead of the Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving-less Celtics. Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the perfect position to dominate this series. Even though Boston is a very sound defensive team, they have no rim protector to deter the Greek Freak from attacking the basket. However, Boston makes up for this by having far superior coaching. Brad Stevens has already shown his ability by guiding this team to the second seed, but this series against the talented Bucks will present a new set of challenges.

In addition to Irving and Hayward, Boston will likely be without Marcus Smart for this series, as well. Stevens has had to navigate a litany of injuries so far this season, and the Celtics have acquitted themselves well. They are smart, tough, and selfless. Defensively, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier hound opposing guards, and Al Horford is a defensive swiss army knife who makes all sorts of things possible for Stevens on that side of the ball. Offensively, the Celtics have struggled without their primary shot creators. Horford is solid and can create some plays, but he isn’t going to suddenly turn into a go-to guy. Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum have shown big-time potential but it’s unrealistic to count on such a young duo in the postseason. Greg Monroe was a good addition because he can score with ease out of the post, but he is a defensive liability and may be unplayable if Joe Prunty chooses to send out lineups with Antetokounmpo at the five.  Outside of those four, none of whom can be depended on consistently, Boston’s offense is entirely dependent on Brad Stevens’ schemes. There is only so much even the best coaches can squeeze out of limited roster. If Boston is going to win this series, it will have to be on the back on swarming defense and timely shooting.

Milwaukee, along with Washington, is the most disappointing team in the East this season. This roster seems well built to be a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. Giannis is among the league’s five best players, and his impact can be felt on offense and defense. Khris Middleton can be productive without the ball and is an ideal complementary piece. Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker are each legitimate NBA starters, and Malcolm Brogdon, John Henson, and Tony Snell are solid role players. Still, Milwaukee never quite escaped the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee got lucky and was handed a favorable first round draw. Boston is a very weak seven seeds due to injuries. This is Milwaukee’s chance to show what they are capable of.

As I have already mentioned, I tend to lean toward star power in playoff series. This feels like it’s the rare exception to the rule, because Brad Stevens gives his team a puncher’s chance in most series. Still, I’m riding with Giannis. I see him absolutely dominating this series and taking advantage of Boston’s injuries to eke out his first playoff series win. Bucks in seven.

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat

Miami fought hard to earn the number six seed, but it is possible that they would rather have been in Washington or Milwaukee’s spot. Miami is a sneaky good team, and both Boston and Toronto are vulnerable as top seeds. Conversely, the 76ers enter the playoffs with an NBA-record 16-game winning streak. Their offense has been clicking on all cylinders and they are blowing out opponents even without Joel Embiid.

The Heat are going to be hard to beat mainly because anyone that they throw onto the floor can play, and most of them can shoot. Miami is deep, athletic, and vastly underrated. Eric Spoelstra does a tremendous job of putting his players into the best situation to succeed, and they have delivered, rostering eight guys who average double digits double digits (nine if you count Dion Waiters). Miami trots out some funky lineups, but they will all be able to make plays. Goran Dragic runs to offense and is surrounded by versatile wings like Josh Richardson, James Johnson, and Tyler Johnson. Hassan Whiteside is bound to give any opponent fits on the inside. It is impossible to know who will hurt you on what night when playing the Heat. Of course, the lack of a true go-to guy is glaring, because Miami can often get into a rut when their offense isn’t in a rhythm. Especially in the clutch, it is important to have guys who can be counted on to hit the big shot. Dion Waiters was that guy, but he got hurt after only 30 games this season. Dwyane Wade can try to rewind to his glory days, but he probably only has one good game or so per series in him.

Philadelphia’s offense is looking almost unstoppable. Ben Simmons is the ultimate match up nightmare. Due to his combination of height and ball handling ability, Brett Brown has the luxury of being able to play any combination of guys around him. Simmons on the low block against a point guard is a huge mismatch, and double teaming him leaves shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Robert Covington wide open. Throw in should-be-healthy Embiid and the 76ers can score on you anyway they please. When this offense is clicking, and his has been for the better part of the past month, it truly is a joy to watch. Simmons’ versatility also helps on the other side of the ball, where Philadelphia ranks among the league’s best. They are long and quick at almost every position.

Against Toronto or Boston, I would have tempted to go with Miami. But the Sixers are just too good. They have enough strong individual defenders to keep the Heat’s multiple threats at bay, and Embiid will hold it down in the paint. Regardless of what scheme Spoelstra comes up with, Simmons and his group are going to be difficult to stop. This figures to be a fascinating series, but talent eventually carries Philadelphia over the top. 76ers in six.

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

The Pacers situation is even worse than the Heat. They battled hard all season to get 48 wins, four more than last season with Paul George, and the fifth seed in the East. Now, they have to challenge the Best Player on the Planet in the first round. For Cleveland, this may be the ideal matchup. I don’t see any Eastern Conference team scaring the Cavaliers less than the Pacers.

Cleveland’s 50 wins marks only a one-game decrease from last season’s total, despite playing with a roster that was largely constructed on the fly at the trade deadline. Over the past three months, LeBron is playing some of the best basketball of his career, even as his supporting cast struggles to get acclimated to one another. That alone would be enough to take care of the Pacers, but Cleveland will also use this series to fine-tune their offense for the later rounds. Cleveland has struggled to find a third option to support James and Kevin Love, and one of Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, or Jeff Green needs to step up in the postseason. James’ presence ensures that points will come for Cleveland, but they also need to figure out a way to improve their defense. At the very least, expect LeBron to become more locked in and make a far more significant impact on that side of the floor.

Indiana is one of the happy stories of this wacky NBA season. After trading away Paul George, the face of their franchise, Indiana was expected to slide down the Eastern Conference standings. Instead, they got better, on the back of a career year by Victor Oladipo and crucial contributions from a number of veteran starters. Indiana has mostly toughed out wins, as they rank at just about the middle of both offensive and defensive rating. Indiana is not going to go all out easily, but it is in the playoffs that the real good teams separate themselves from the ones that just had a good season. Indiana does not create enough offense or make their opponents uncomfortable enough to really have a chance at knocking off Cleveland.

No one on Indiana’s roster is even mildly equipped to guard James. The Cavaliers, and especially LeBron, are known for kicking it into gear come playoff time They are 12-0 in first round games since LeBron’s return. The overachieving Pacers are not the team to end that run. Cavaliers in four.

The Frozen Envelope’s 2017-18 All-NBA Teams

First Team

G: James Harden, Houston Rockets

Harden has had a remarkable season. He is the best player on the league’s best team. He leads the league in scoring. Perhaps most impressively, there has not been a prolonged period of time this season during which he was not considered the MVP frontrunner. Harden is an offensive machine, recently becoming the first NBA player in history to both score and assist for 2,000 points in a single season. He is perhaps the league’s most unstoppable scorer, as he has scored more points in isolation situations than any other team in the league. Adding more perimeter defenders has also allowed Harden to spend more of his time on defense in the post, where he is both more comfortable and more effective. After years on the fringe, Harden has solidified himself as one of the league’s five best players. Houston has looked nearly unbeatable when their big three of Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela suit up, losing only three times in 43 games, and, at this point, are almost co-favorites with Golden State to win the title. The combination of personal and team success leave little to no doubt that Harden will be a member of the first team all-NBA for the fourth time in five seasons.

G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

The second guard spot has a number of competitors, but a combination of injuries to some of the other guys and Lillard’s second half explosion make him the frontrunner. Since the all-star break, the Blazers point guard has put up 28.5 points and 6.7 assists per game, while leading his team, supposedly stuck in neutral and unable to escape the bottom half of the playoff picture, into third place in the brutal Western Conference. Lillard is among the league’s most deadly three-point shooters, and he has coupled that with an improved ability and desire to get to the rim and the free throw line this season. He is currently shooting a higher percentage of his shots at the rim or from beyond the arc than either of the past two seasons, and his mid-range shooting has drastically decreased. Lillard is often at his best against the top teams and in the biggest moments, and his Blazers will be a team to look out for in the postseason. Lillard is not one of the two best guards in the league, but his performance this season more than warrants this spot.

F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

If anyone besides Harden has a viable MVP argument, it’s LeBron James. Over the past two months, James has averaged a 30-point triple-double while shooting over 54% from the field. The Cavaliers team has also rebounded after a rough January to find themselves in the same position as the start of the season: as the prohibitive favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference. James is playing with his worst supporting cast in years, but that has not slowed him down. In fact, he is currently putting up career-best assist numbers. For all the talk about Davis, Lillard, or Antetokounmpo carrying their respective teams, LeBron has a comparable roster and has collected more wins than any of those players’ teams.  I could go on and on about James’ mind-blowing numbers, but the bottom line is that he is still the unquestionable best player on the planet and there is no debate that he will earn all-NBA first team honors for an unprecedented twelfth time.

F: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

The question isn’t whether Davis belongs on this team but rather whether he should be considered a forward or a center. I have him slotted as a forward, where he has played 52% of his minutes this season and where he would have almost exclusively played had DeMarcus Cousins not torn his achilles in February. Davis’ performance since Cousins’ injury has been nothing short of spectacular. The injury was depressing for many NBA fans, mostly because Cousins was in the midst of a fantastic season and the injury was a devastating one, but also because of what it meant for the Pelicans as a team. At the time, New Orleans was in seventh place in the hotly-contested West, and their prospects of holding onto that spot looked slim. Instead, the team has gone 19-13 without the mercurial big man, and that has almost entirely been product of Davis’ dominance. Since Cousins went down, his frontcourt mate has averaged over 30 points and 12 rebounds per game. He also leads the league in blocked shots per game. This recent run has separated Davis from the pack and established him as the premier big man in the game. He earns this distinction for the third time in four years. (Note: If Davis is the center, Giannis becomes the second forward on the first team, Aldridge replaces him on the second team, and Jimmy Butler steps in on the third team. In this case, Jokic would miss out on all-NBA honors).

C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Although Davis is the league’s best big, Embiid has made a case that he is its best center. Although a late-season freak injury hampers his candidacy, the competition at center simply isn’t stiff enough. Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic are fantastic offensively, but struggle to handle opposing centers or protect the rim. The opposite holds true for Rudy Gobert. Embiid can do it all. Offensively, he can score from the perimeter, take his man of the dribble, face up from the mid-range, or dominate the low block. On the less glamorous side of the ball, he alters many shots at the rim and can adequately switch to the perimeter and cover guards.  In his first full NBA season (if 63 games can be considered a full season), Embiid has averaged about 23 points and 11 rebounds, along with three assists and two blocks per game. He has also authored a historic turnaround in Philadelphia, who sits fourth in Eastern Conference with 50 games and also sports a top-five defense, anchored by Embiid. It really is scary how good this guy is with so little professional experience, and if his growth continues at this trend, this will be the first of many such honors for the 76ers center.

Second Team

G: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Even though DeRozan is scoring at a lower and less efficient clip than last season, his evolution as a player has been crucial to Toronto’s unexpected first-placed finish in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan is currently blowing out his career highs in assists and three-pointers made, even though his perimeter shooting has lagged off after a hot start. Much of the credit for Toronto’s success has to go to the much improved bench, but DeRozan continues to demonstrate that he is one of the league’s most underappreciated stars. The numbers, especially compared to some other guys this season, may not be eye-popping, but guiding a written off Raptors team to regular season conference title is not small feat. DeRozan has had a viable argument as the league’s second best two guard for a number of years now, and he should finally get that recognition in the form of a selection to the all-NBA second team.

G: Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Oladipo has possibly authored the league’s most pleasantly surprising story of the season. After a lost season in which he played second fiddle to Russell Westbrook’s one-man show (if that’s even possible), the former number two overall pick finally followed through on the potential that many saw from him coming out of Indiana in 2013. The situation in Indiana struck a middle ground between unfortunate situations in Oklahoma City and Orlando. He has been the primary offensive threat, like in Orlando, but this time he was surrounded by a solid collection of B-level NBA starters. He has made the most of this opportunity, putting up career bests in scoring, assists, rebounds, and efficiency from the field and from three point range. Oladipo’s offensive game is very straightforward and ruthlessly efficient; he doesn’t waste dribbles and attacks the rim with vigor. He can score solidly from all three levels. He also led the league in steals and deflections and helped his Pacers team, supposedly in the midst of a rebuild, to the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed. Indiana has flown under the radar all season, but they have navigated a difficult end of year schedule to separate themselves from a pack of chasing teams and will next look to make noise in playoffs.  

F: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

After his jaw-dropping performance in the 2017 finals, many expected Durant to battle LeBron for the crown of world’s best player. Although he couldn’t quite accomplish that, the reigning finals MVP was able to continue his run of producing at a high level and helping his team pile up wins. Injuries have led the Warriors to their worst record in the Steve Kerr era, but it was still good enough to comfortably finish with Western Conference’s second-best record. Handed more responsibility within the offense with fellow superstar Steph Curry missing upwards of 30 games, Durant saw a slight uptick in his scoring and assists this season, while losing a bit of his unsustainably high efficiency from a year ago. Durant’s offensive game, at this point, is a finished product. We know what he can do, and, to date, he continues to produce. He will soon complete his tenth consecutive season averaging over 25 points per game. His big improvement this season came on the defensive end, where his combination of footspeed and length permits him to stay with quick guards on the perimeter while also being a more than competent rim protector. For a prolonged stretch of time this season, Durant led the league in blocks per game. While the former MVP’s production is worthy of a spot with the first team, the Warriors struggles without Curry in the lineup mar his candidacy a little bit, especially when compared to some of his competitors who had to carry their respective teams without the same level of help that Durant has. Durant will have to settle for the second team for a third consecutive season.

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The Greek Freak is another player whose production alone would merit him a place in the first five. Antetokounmpo has improved exponentially in each of his five NBA seasons, with his scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage going up in each year. The Greek Freak peaked this season, putting up 27 points and 10 rebounds on 53% shooting. At times this year, especially early on, Giannis looked virtually unstoppable, as he can effortlessly step through or around anything the defense throws at him. Antetokounmpo still struggles with his outside shooting, shooting 35% or below from all distances besides at the rim. Defenses managed to adjust a little bit later on the season, but Giannis still proved more than capable of putting up big numbers. However, the Bucks’ disappointing season makes it impossible for the Greek Freak to overtake Davis. Milwaukee has one of the most complete and talented rosters in the Eastern Conference, yet they are in a fight at the bottom of the playoff picture right now. The defending most improved player took another leap forward this year, but it was not quite enough to get him out of the all-NBA second team.

C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Towns’ numbers were bound to take a slight tumble with Minnesota bringing Jimmy Butler on board to take on some of the offensive burden. Still, Towns continues to demonstrate that he is one of the league’s most consistent players, pacing the league with 67 double-doubles en route to averaging over 21 points and 12 rebounds per outing. Towns is one of the most complete offensive bigs in the game, as he can score from all three levels and is virtually impossible to guard on the low block, due to his combination of size and soft touch. Among the upcoming crop of young star bigs who like to shoot the three, Towns is by far the most efficient, shooting a more than respectable 42% clip from downtown. Defensively, Towns has had his fair share of troubles, but he has showed signs of turning the tide late in the season. The final step to this season for Towns will be to knock out Denver in a winner-take-all game tomorrow to get his franchise to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, but he has done enough this year to earn a spot on the all-NBA second team.

Third Team

G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

On numbers alone, Westbrook’s second consecutive astonishing season would qualify him for the first or second team. However, we all now what Westbrook is capable of. Stats come easily to him. It is more important to judge such a unique individual talent by the success of his team. espite a much-publicized and much-improved roster, the Thunder will at best eclipse last year’s record by only one game. Westbrook continues to be inefficient and to make it difficult for his teammates to get into a flow. It is hard not to notice how much Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have struggled, especially when compared to Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, or even Enes Kanter, the guys they were traded for. Westbrook is a supreme talent, but unlike DeRozan or Oladipo, he does not maximize the ability of those around him. It was hard to notice last season when Oklahoma City had what appeared to be a thin roster, but Westbrook’s inability to adjust has been disappointing.

G: Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors

Despite having only played 51 games this season, Curry has a viable argument to being on the all-NBA third team. Firstly, his production alone is easily worth a first-team spot alongside Harden. He bounced back from a slightly disappointing 2016-17 to look like a lower-volume version of his two-time MVP self. In fact, Curry is currently registering a career-high true shooting percentage of 67.5%. Curry has also demonstrated his value to the Warriors, who have not looked like the same team–by any stretch of the imagination– when he has not suited up. Finally, his closest competition for the spot have not been healthy either. Although they have not missed as many games as Curry, both Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul have missed over 20 games, and neither has been nearly as productive as Curry. It is likely that some voters will leave Curry off of their ballot because he has not reached the 60-game threshold, but he has done enough to earn this recognition.

F: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

It feels a little weird having George in this spot. As discussed earlier, he has seen a drop in production and efficiency from last season. George had been touted as the ideal complementary piece, one who could thrive both with and without the ball. Instead, the Thunder offense has remained Westbrook-centric and George has floated in and out of rhythm. However, George has had some hot streaks and his one consistent has been on the defensive end of the floor, where he is among the league’s steal leaders and where Oklahoma City has performed strongly all year. The forward pool from this season is thin, and George’s closest competitor, Jimmy Butler, has missed time with an injury. Despite coming up short up expectations, George did average over 20 points and helped the Thunder turn around a potential disastrous season to at least reach the playoffs. George, who has struggled down the stretch, will have a chance to justify this spot by putting together a strong postseason.

F: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

Aldridge, on the other hand, has been performing at a high level all year for the San Antonio Spurs. Top to bottom, this is not a very good team. Without Kawhi Leonard, they do not have enough guys who can create their own shot, which leaves that entire responsibility to Aldridge. He is just 0.1 points short of his career high of 23.4, and is doing so at better than 50% from the floor. Aldridge, never known for his defense, as also been a solid presence at that end of the floor for the league’s second best defense. Aldridge thrives in isolation out of the midpost, and surrounded by fundamentally sound shooters, instead of shot creators, that has been his primary situation this season. Despite a trying season last year at the end of which he demanded a trade, Aldridge has bounced back to reach a likely fifth all-NBA selection of his career.

C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Jokic continued to grow in his third NBA season, following through on many of the flashes he showed late last season. He has piled together 10 triple-doubles, and is averaging over 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists per game this season. He is the ideal center to run a an offense through, and the Nuggets front office has done a nice job surrounding him with selfless guys who cut well and can score from both inside and outside the paint. Jokic has established himself as one of the very best offensive centers in the game. He still struggles on defense, but has shown signs of improvement. Jokic’s brilliance has mostly translated to team success, as it appears as if the team is at its most devastating when the center is given free reign. However, the Nuggets will need to win their season finale against Minnesota to reach the postseason.

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA, 3/31

Treadmill to Success

The past four seasons for the Toronto Raptors has followed a seemingly identical trajectory. First, they would start the season fast, and and raise hopes that this could be their year. Then, they would slip up a little bit and start to struggle. Come playoff time, Toronto could occasionally outplay a clearly inferior team, but consistently struggled and would eventually get knocked out.

In 2013-14, Toronto took a 3-2 series lead over the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets, but failed to close out. The Raptors even had a shot to win Game 7, but Paul Pierce denied Kyle Lowry’s attempt. Pierce once again played the role of villain for the Washington Wizards the following season, as Washington swept Toronto 4-0, despite coming it as the lower seeded team. It was an especially tough series for Lowry, who averaged only 12.3 points per game on 31% shooting from the field. The next year, the team struggled through back-to-back seven-game series despite winning 56 games during the regular season. They were promptly knocked out by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in what can only be described as the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history. Last year they outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks in a series that most fans don’t remember. This time the Cavaliers did in reality what they had done in spirit the past season, wiping out Toronto is four games.

Increasingly, after each disappointing exit, the offseason would be filled with intrigue. The Raptors were stuck on the so-called ‘treadmill of mediocrity’ unable to push past the league’s elite, but also unable to properly retool the roster because they had quality players on big contracts and consistently low draft picks. Should they blow it all up? Trade Lowry or DeMar Derozan? Fire Head Coach Dwane Casey?

Instead, Toronto preached strategic patience. They kept much of the core intact, but made moves to improve their depth and add complementary pieces like Serge Ibaka and CJ Miles. They drafted a bunch of smart, athletic players and let them develop together.  They continued to tinker with the supporting cast around their backcourt and center Jonas Valanciunas.

This year, they might have struck gold. In fact, the advantage of this year’s version of the Raptors is not the strength of their stars, but rather that of their bench. All eleven of the guys solidly in Casey’s rotation average over 5.5 points per game. The bench ranks within the NBA’s top five in bench scoring, rebounding, and assists. They are the only playoff team who can say that and one of the three who are top five in any. The unit ranks a comfortable first in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  

The five man squad consisting of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl plays basketball the right way, moving the ball, moving without it, and locking down on defense. That unit has a great mix of shooting (VanVleet, Miles), athleticism (Siakam, Wright) and post offense (Poeltl). All five guys can play good defense, and since none of them are particularly skilled at creating their own shot, ball movement is the name of their offensive game.

Toronto’s starters are no slouches, either. Kyle Lowry’s scoring numbers are down, but so is his load. He was never fully suited to carry an offense despite his impressive output, and he has thrived this season while holding the ball less often. Same goes for DeMar Derozan, who is shooting almost three shots less per game, but is still putting together an MVP-worthy season by increasing his three-point shooting and his assists. Jonas Valanciunas is producing at a similar level to the past four seasons, and is a nice third option. Ibaka has rebounded from a slow start to become a solid catch-and-shoot option who serves as the rim-protector over the less nimble Valanciunas. Rookie OG Anunoby has gone the opposite way, especially with his shooting, but his defensive ability will always be valued in a lineup with four other guys who can handle the scoring load.

Casey’s deserves a boat load of credit, too. Toronto had developed a reputation as an iso and mid-range heavy offense that was low on ball movement. In other words, they represented the antithesis of the modern NBA. That has more than shifted this year. Toronto has jumped from 22nd to fifth in three pointers attempted this season, and from dead last to sixth in assists.

Toronto is currently in first place in the East, sitting pretty at 55-20, which is unchartered waters for the Raptors. The franchise has never finished first in their conference, and, barring a collapse, will breaking the franchise record of 56 wins this season.

In the past two seasons, Toronto has looked completely outmatched against the Cavaliers. Although Toronto has surely not played up to their potential in those series, the truth is that those teams were simply not even close to as good as their opponents.

This year, that part might not be true anymore. Toronto has constructed a roster that top-to-bottom is stronger than the roster that Koby Altman put together on the fly at the trade deadline. They are more cohesive and are far more deep. Still Toronto has to contend with both its history of coming up short in the postseason and some guy named LeBron James, who is the great equalizer in almost any series he plays in.

I fully expect the Raptors to handle any team it comes up against in the East outside of Cleveland. Even if Toronto is only the second-best team in the East, and even if they once again fall short against the Cavaliers, they have built a team with realistic NBA Finals aspirations, and have demonstrated that there is something to say for calculated aggression when chasing success in the NBA.

Where do we go from here?

There are very few teams in the league who should view this as a completely wasted season, meaning that not many franchises in the NBA are firmly stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. In fact, the only team that will reach the postseason for a fifth season or more in a row and is not a realistic title contender is the San Antonio Spurs, and they are dealing with an injury to one of the league’s ten best players and are in the midst of one of the most impressive streaks of consistency in NBA history. They will never have a reason to blow up a roster so long as Gregg Popovich is around.

The rest of the teams in the playoff picture either harbor realistic aspirations for a title,to varying degrees, (Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers Raptors, Celtics, Thunder), have a young core reaching the postseason together for the first time (Timberwolves, 76ers), have shown marked improvement from past seasons (Trail Blazers, Pelicans) or have greatly exceeded preseason expectations (Heat, Pacers, Jazz). That leaves the Bucks and Wizards, who will be both be mid to low seeds for the second consecutive season with almost identical corps to 2016-17. However, neither team seems ready to blow it up and both will leave this season feeling as if they could have performed far better. There is an argument to be made that with one more big move, both franchises could contend for an Eastern Conference crown.

So, the teams that are really in a pickle are the ones who are neither currently in the playoff picture nor one of the many that are currently tanking for a high draft pick. There are an unusually small number of teams in that predicament, with only the Pistons, Hornets, Clippers, and Nuggets holding that distinction. Whether they swing for the fences and make a big move, trade away their best players for future assets, or stand pat and run it back next year is the question that all four of these teams will have to answer.

The Hornets were probably a long-shot to make the postseason since the opening game of the season, but Kemba Walker’s presence on the roster made it impossible for the team to tank. Over the course of the point guard’s career, Michael Jordan and the rest of Charlotte’s front office have proven wholly unable to construct an adequate roster around him. Trade rumors were swirling around Charlotte in February, and they are unlikely to cease come summer. Walker will likely be one of the bigger names available via trade. He is only under contract for one more season, and has expressed frustration at his team’s inability to play deep into the season. Charlotte is the team most likely to look to rebuild and restart this offseason.

The Clippers have already embarked on a quasi-rebuild, unloading former franchise cornerstones Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for a bevy of solid complementary pieces over the past few months. Despite these moves and a long list of injuries, the Clippers have remained surprisingly competitive. Trading away Griffin’s monster contract was likely partially aimed at opening up cap space to chase a big name this summer. Of course, if Jerry West can land Paul George or another all-star, he already has a solid base in place next to him. If however, no one can be lured to LA, it would make more sense for the Clippers to let DeAndre Jordan and start over from scratch.

The Pistons already took their swing for the fences and connected with nothing but air. The trade for Griffin did not move Detroit up in the standings, and now Stan van Gundy may be facing unemployment this summer. The Griffin-Drummond experiment is an interesting one, and, especially in a more or less open Eastern Conference, breaking it up after half a season seems a little rash. The guard and wing play on Detroit’s roster is not good enough; it was unrealistic to expect too much from such a thin roster this season. Either van Gundy or a new executive will have to fill out the roster around the frontcourt duo and see what they can accomplish with a offseason together under their belts.

The most disappointed team on this list has to be the Nuggets. They entered the season after closing out 2016-17 on a nice run, and added versatile four Paul Millsap to the equation. Nikola Jokic is a ideal big to run an offense through, and he surrounded by a bunch of guys who know how to get a bucket, including Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Wilson Chandler. At times, they offense flows so seamlessly that it looks like they could be a scary playoff opponent for any high seed. However, they struggle mightily to get stops, and have hit a rough patch at the worst imaginable time. If Mike Malone cannot this roster to the postseason, he is probably on his way out. Denver has all the required pieces, and with many of the centerpieces still being young, it is unlikely that Nuggets make any major changes outside of the coaching department.

In Defense of Tanking

The small number of teams that could consider this season an abject failure means that a large number of teams were content to pile up losses this season in order to chase a high pick in what looks to be a stacked draft class.

Many, notably the league office, have publicly come out against the tanking epidemic, going so far as to calling out the Chicago Bulls for resting healthy veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday. Still, a number of teams have made no secret out of the fact that they have no interest in playing their best players or winning any games.

There have been many proposals aimed at curbing this trend, including a minor fix that will begin next season, in which the team with the worst record will no longer have the best odds at the first pick. Instead, the three worst teams in the league will share the odds of landing the top choice. Instead of trying to fix what is clearly a flawed process, I will attempt to present a defense of tanking.

The lottery, and, by extension, the draft, is often the only way for a team to escape from the depths of the league standings. For teams like Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta, and Chicago, who were recently playoff mainstays but didn’t have any shot at winning the title, the fact was that their act was growing stale and only a top-tier star could change that equation. Outside of Chicago, those other teams have a tough time luring big names. The draft presents that opportunity.

Those teams are obviously putting out a sub-par product right now, but the alternative is not all that much better. The optics on a team sitting their best players down the stretch in a close game are ugly. However, Dallas is not accomplishing anything of note for their franchise by giving Wesley Matthews significant minutes. Tanking allows them to develop their young talent without hampering their ability to add more young talent in the near future.

Although their version was extreme, the 76ers has shown the path forward for a tanking team. Former General Manager Sam Hinkie, now a folk hero in Philadelphia, outlined his belief that in order to win in today’s league you need multiple superstars. The only way to acquire multiple superstars is by having multiple high draft picks. Sixers fans suffered through injuries and a number of misses in the draft, but they ended up with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two of the brightest young stars in today’s league.

The Minnesota Timberwolves also landed one cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns, turned their one star into another number one pick, and then, once those two developed, added an established star by flipping two other young assets. Those two teams have demonstrated a blueprint for how tanking can create a solid winning foundation.

Of course, a number of teams, like the Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, and Phoenix Suns have tried this strategy and have swung and missed on a number of draft picks. They have taken very few steps forward in the past few seasons.

Tanking is not a foolproof method. It takes good scouting and good development of young players, which many teams have proven inadequate at doing. The 76ers success, though, has made fanbases more open to tanking. In fact, nothing frustrates a fanbase more than an inability to make any progress. Losing and drafting players with high potential keeps those fans engaged and hopeful.

Teams rarely tank blatantly early in the season. They may not construct a great roster, but they will play their best lineups and see what they have. It is usually not until after the all-star break, when a team realizes that they have no shot at reaching the postseason, that they begin to go into all-out intentional losing mode. It might even be better for the league if team’s keep their fan bases intrigued by playing young guys and drafting potential studs. Tanking is not perfect. Neither is mediocre basketball with a number of teams who have no shot at winning, but are instead stuck in the mud. A front office’s ultimate goal is to contend for and eventually win championships. Losing for a few years and eventually landing a star might be the best recipe for succeeding in this way.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA, 3/21

Injuries, Injuries, Injuries

For all of the great moments and entertaining storylines that the first seven-eighths of this NBA regular season has brought us, a large number of injuries have been an unwanted stain on the year. The epidemic started right out of the gate, when Gordon Hayward shattered his ankle during the season opener.

The strange cases of Kawhi Leonard and Markelle Fultz, who seem to be dealing more with psychological blocks more than physical shortcomings, have lingered throughout the season. John Wall, Rudy Gobert, and Jimmy Butler have missed large chunks of the season. Both DeMarcus Cousins and Kristaps Porzingis were ruled out in devastating fashion in the midst of career years. Most of the Clippers’ roster seems to have spent time on injured reserve.

Recently, the problem has ramped up even more. The Celtics recently played a game against Washington without Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis, and Marcus Smart. Brad Stevens’ guys took the Wall-less Wizards to double overtime despite trotting out a starting lineup of Shane Larkin, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes. Some guy named Abdel Nader (might as well have been Ralph Nader) played 24 minutes and scored 10 points in that contest.

Of course, the most impactful series of injuries has taken place in the Bay Area. Steph Curry is currently recovering from his fourth sprained right ankle of the season. Klay Thompson is out with a fractured thumb in his shooting hand. Draymond Green has been banged up for much of the season, and just recently returned from a sore shoulder. Kevin Durant has just been ruled out for two weeks with fractured ribs.

Although it is possible that all four of them are not back fully healthy by playoff time, it appears as though Golden State is locked into the second seed, and Steve Kerr will not rush back his players in order to be rested and ready for the postseason. Golden State, though, is not as deep as in past seasons. Mostly that is due to Andre Iguodala decline, but with Nick Young struggling with his shot, the Warriors currently have no outside shooting outside of the big three. With the way Houston has looked for the entire season, if Golden State does not bring its ‘A’ game, the Rockets will have more than a fighting chance. If any of the big four is absent, the series becomes a toss-up. If that player is Curry or Durant, Houston is, to me, the clear favorite.

The Western Conference Finals is shaping up to be the de facto NBA Finals, and if Houston holds onto the first seed, which, barring something miraculous, will be the case, they will have to like their chances.

It is important to note that in both of their championship runs, Golden State has had tremendous luck with regards to injuries. While Steph Curry did miss a number of games in their run to a Finals loss in 2015 -16, the Warriors have benefitted from the absences of such stars as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Rudy Gobert, and Kawhi Leonard, as well other important role players.

This is not to diminish what Golden State has accomplished. They are in the midst of one of the best four-year runs in NBA history. If fully healthy, they have to be considered the favorites to win a third title in four years. However, this season, injuries may leave the door ajar for another team to take advantage. And that wouldn’t be completely unfair.

Latecomers to the MVP race?

As I wrote in my post last week, James Harden has all but taken home the Most Valuable Player award for this season. To recap: He has finished runner-up in the two of the past three seasons, so the very important MVP narrative is in his favor, he is the best player on the league’s best team, he is putting up eye-popping numbers and has developed into the most unstoppable offensive force in the game. And last week, his put the exclamation mark on the whole thing by humiliating Wesley Johnson into another time dimension.

Although Harden still has the Rockets rolling, two players have at the very least crept into the discussion to who gets to accompany Harden to the useless new NBA Award show (seriously, I am sure that James Harden won’t want to have to sit and listen to jokes one month after choking away a late lead in Game seven of the Western Conference Finals, in Houston, against the Warriors).

Damian Lillard has long felt like he is one of the league’s most disrespected superstars. He had only been an All-Star twice despite averaging 22.4 points and leading the Trail Blazers to the playoffs in four of his five NBA season.

This season, everyone is on notice. After receiving his third All-Star nod, Lillard really took off, as he has put up 29.3 points in the last 30 days while leading his Trail Blazers on a tear that has left them in third place in the crowded Western Conference.

Although there was bound to be much movement between the third and tenth seeds in the West bloodbath, Portland would be one of the last teams I would envision making the jump to third when I wrote my playoff predictions just a few short weeks ago.

Although Portland lost a tough one to Houston, snapping their twelve-game winning streak, this is a team that no one wants to face come playoff time. That is mostly due to Lillard who is shooting the three very well, and can also attack the rim and create for his teammates. Most importantly, Lillard thrives in the big moments and can be counted on to take and make the tough ones down the stretch.

CJ McCollum does not need the ball in order to be effective, making him an ideal backcourt complement to Dame, and Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic are dependable role players. Still, Portland’s offense depends on Lillard. Without’s Harden’s remarkable exploits, Lillard would have a strong case for league MVP, and he should at least have clinched a spot alongside the Beard on the first-team All-NBA (note: this would not be the case if Curry had played closer to a full season). Perhaps no star has changed how they are viewed around the league in any one-month span this season as Lillard has since returning from the festivities in LA.

Anthony Davis presents a perhaps even more compelling case. Davis has been great and improving pretty much since the first time he stepped onto an NBA court, but when the Pelicans have needed him most recently, he has upped his game. Ever since DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn achilles and everyone wrote the Pelicans playoff chances off, Davis has been downright incredible. His numbers are almost video-game like, as he has put up over 31 points and 12 rebounds per game, and, though they have slowed down a little, the Pelicans are winning some games, too. They are currently tied for fifth in the West. While Lillard’s whole team has gotten hot at the right time, Davis seems to be doing a lot of damage single-handedly.

After flying under the radar for a while, Davis has re-established himself as the league’s best young player (it really freaks me out that the guy only just turned 25 less than two weeks ago). New Orleans doesn’t have the depth to contend in the playoffs, but what Davis has accomplished is remarkable.

Realistically, the writing has been on the wall for the majority of the season. When it’s all said and done, Harden will be the MVP. However, just one month ago it seemed unlikely that Lillard and Davis would be his closest competition. I can’t wait to watch these two show that they have reached elite status by consistently putting on great shows against great opposition come playoff time.

Reverting to Old Ways

The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the season retooled and recharged. They were hungry, and team now had shooters and playmakers surrounding MVP Russell Westbrook. The acquisition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, for what (wrongly) seemed to a unassuming return, made the Thunder a trendy choice the contend for the NBA championship.

However, by altering the lineup, the Thunder also had to revamp the way they played. Last season, the offense was all Russell Westbrook, all the time. He obliterated NBA records for usage as the Thunder offense run solely through him. Now, he had to adapt to players who, while they could be effective off-ball, had grown accustomed to being primary options over the course of their respective careers. The transformation was never going to easy, as Westbrook had played the first seven seasons of his career alongside Kevin Durant and had one one Finals game win to show for it. Now, he had experienced freedom and had to reign himself in for the good of the franchise.

Oklahoma City experienced a bumpy start, but the team teased their potential.They would alter impressive wins and confounding losses. They snapped a four-game losing streak with a 20-point win at Golden State, but also bookended a three-game winning run with losses to Orlando and Brooklyn. They already have two streaks of four or more losses in a row and three instances in which they have won four or more games consecutively.

All three superstars demonstrated their ability to succeed, both as isolation scorers, but also together. However, at times they reverted into your-turn, my-turn, making the plays that they had consistently made while alone last season. Even though Oklahoma City had pushed their way firmly into the playoff picture, they were unable to consistently put together cohesive team performances. It seemed as if only their talent level was keeping them afloat.

Sitting at 37-29 and in a dogfight for their playoff lives, Oklahoma City has reeled off six wins in their best seven games, and it should have been seven in a row, given that they blew a six point lead in the final 24 seconds of their loss to the injury-plagued Celtics. However, during this run, the Thunder seemed to revert back to last season’s strategies. Westbrook collected five straight triple-doubles while twice putting 30 points while George averaged 17 per game and Anthony nine during the win streak. George had two games where he scored below 12 and Carmelo had a pair in single digits. This is not a sustainable blueprint for success going forward.

As I previously mentioned in an earlier post, the Thunder can hide behind Westbrook’s ability to put in full effort every night and pile up wins. After all, they collected 47 last season when Westbrook had far less help. They are on pace to win about 48 this season, which might be enough to grab home court advantage in the first round.

In the playoffs though, this strategy will not work. We’ve seen that movie before. Against Houston or Golden State, the Russell Westbrook show will not suffice. They will need to get George and Anthony their touches, both in isolation and as a part of their offense. When he was acquired this summer, George was touted as the ideal complementary star. He has all the ability to take over games, but doesn’t constantly need the ball in order to be effective. The Thunder offense needs to allow him to showcase that ability.

Westbrook needs to be a threat  off the ball, diving hard to the rim when defenders forget about him. Although strong shooters are usually seen as the ideal off ball threat, LeBron has demonstrated how timely and incisive cutting can get a freak athlete like him or Westbrook eight-to-ten easy points per game. Instead of taking advantage of that ability, Westbrook essentially fades out of the offense once he gives the ball up.

If Oklahoma City can integrate more ball and body movement into their offense, they have a strong enough combination of shooting, slashing, size, and playmaking ability to be a scary team. All year long, they have been dubbed as the team that no one wants to run into in the playoffs because if they ever do figure it out, they will be a tough out.

They seemed to have abandoned complicating their offense in order to ensure playoff positioning. For now, that’s fine. But if Oklahoma City has any hopes of making noise in a month’s time they will have to make adjustments and find a way to incorporate all of their pieces more cohesively.