Culture of Hoops

2016 NBA Playoffs: 10 Important Questions

No need to waste too many words with an introduction. The NBA Playoffs start tomorrow, and I have ten big questions to ask and ten equally big answers to give.

1: Is the Eastern Conference already locked up?

You’re gonna want to kill me since it’s the first question and I can’t even give ya a straight-forward answer, but I’m gonna say it’s kinda-sorta locked up. Last year it didn’t matter that Kevin Love missed nearly the entire postseason and Kyrie Irving was hobbling on one leg during the Eastern Conference Finals … the Cavs (i.e. LeBron James) were better than the field regardless of how short-handed they were. This year, even though Cleveland has been miles more consistent than they were last season, the conference as a whole is much deeper. Atlanta feels just as dangerous with 48 wins as they did with 60 last year. Toronto got better over the last calendar year, as did Boston. The 8th seed in 2015 was a crummy Brooklyn Nets team. Now it’s a frisky Detroit Pistons squad. You see, the road to the Finals is much bumpier for the Cavs this time around.

But if the Cavaliers manage to stay healthy, and if LeBron avoids having one of those meltdowns like he did in the 2010 East Semi’s against Boston or the 2011 Finals versus Dallas, you’d be right to assume that Cleveland will be representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals for the second straight season. That means LeBron would be playing in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals, one of the most remarkable feats of durability and excellence in NBA history.

2: Did you know since 1980 only two teams that didn’t have one of the five best records in the regular season have won the NBA Championship?

Yes, that’s a fact that I stumbled upon while doing some research for a massive writing project that will be coming in the not-so-distant future. Those three teams were the 1995 Houston Rockets and the 2004 Detroit Pistons.

3: Are there any teams outside of the top five who have a shot this year?

None to win the NBA Finals, but I do have one sleeper in the Eastern Conference that worries me as someone who doesn’t have a terrific track record of handling LeBron James postseason defeats all that well. You may have noticed I conveniently left out the Miami Heat in my blurb about whether or not the Eastern Conference was locked up. With all due respect to Boston, Toronto, Atlanta and others, the only team that really worries me in a seven game series against Cleveland is Miami … for three reasons:

a. Here’s a power rankings of the coaches involved in a hypothetical Cavaliers/Heat series:

1: Erik Spoelstra

2: LeBron James

3: Ty Lue

That’s a problem.

b. Miami is just as deep as Cleveland is, and equally flexible in terms of the number of lineups they can play and be effective. If you haven’t seen the Heat play that often then you don’t really have a grasp on how quirky they are; when Dwyane Wade‘s on the floor the Heat play a half-court, slow-it-down style that barely resembles what it’s like when Wade’s on the bench and Miami is pushing the pace with Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside, or some combination with similar pieces. They play different variations of big and small line-ups, with anywhere between zero and five lefties on the floor at once. It’s fascinating to watch.

c. The LeBron James/Dwyane Wade dynamic is worrisome. No, I’m not worried about Wade outplaying LeBron in a Playoff series. Don’t be silly. I’m worried about Wade and LeBron buddying up too much between games and it numbing LeBron. You know what I’m saying?

Series is tied 1-1 heading back to Miami. LeBron and D-Wade get a chance to hang out between Games 2 and 3. They do some elaborate handshake routine before the Game 3. All of LeBron’s Cavs teammates are sitting there thinking, “Wow, he really does like him more than us.” Now all of the sudden LeBron is playing passive, trying to get guys involved but they’re all missing jumpers, not running back on defense, no longer giving a shit. The Heat fans that have actually made their way into American Airlines Arena are going nuts.

It’s in play. And that’s a scarier for Cavs fans than any other single playoff subplot that doesn’t involve facing Golden State or San Antonio in the NBA Finals.

4: Rank the 1st Round Matchups from “Must-Watch Television” to “Just Spend Time With Your Significant Other While These Teams Are Playing”

1: Atlanta/Boston – Two well-coached competitive teams with a bunch of underrated gamers. This is the only series I had a hard time picking a winner for.

2: LA Clippers/Portland – It’s either going to be the most competitive Western Conference series, or the refs will allow Chris Paul to mug Damian Lillard and it will be a sweep. There might not be any in-between.

3: Golden State/Houston – Even though Golden State should make quick work of Houston, the Warriors on their own are must-watch, Harden iso-ball be damned!

4: Cleveland/Detroit – As someone who is interested in seeing the Cleveland Cavaliers do well, I was really hoping Indiana would fall to the 8th seed. Detroit worries me.

5: Miami/Charlotte – I have a sweet spot for both of these teams. Between Miami’s versatility, Dwyane Wade’s old man game, Jeremy Lin‘s hair and Kemba Walker‘s onions, this series has quite a bit to offer.

6: Oklahoma City/Dallas – I don’t have the same hopefulness that Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki could work some magic in a Round 1 upset as I did last year when the Mavericks faced the Rockets in the 1st Round. Even if the Mavericks can’t hold up over a seven game series, there should be a lot of points put on the board each game.

7: Indiana/Toronto – It’s just one of those series that doesn’t have all that much appeal. The games will be plenty competitive, but there just isn’t as much star power or stylistic goodness in play here.

8: San Antonio/Memphis – My cousin Gianni is a huge San Antonio Spurs fan. Has been since Tim Duncan‘s rookie season. Gianni and his wife Kayla just had a baby boy. He now has another week and a half where he only has to worry about his newborn son, and not the Spurs.

5: Which non-Playoff team(s) will make the Playoffs next year?

Two days ago I gushed about Minnesota’s Playoff chances next season, and I stand by my gushing. I’ll bet money on it. I’ll bet my reputation as an NBA fan on it. I’ll continue to bring it up in everything I write. I won’t let it go. It will be so bad that people will assume I’m a huge Prince fan because I’m spewing so much love for the Minnesota Timberwolves (in reality, I actually am a huge Prince fan, so their assumptions would be correct). And I’ll be the first to say “I told you so” when the Wolves wins 50 games next year. They are going to be scary next season.

Outside of the Wolves it’s largely dependent on how the first two weeks in July go. What happens if the Lakers are actually a player for Kevin Durant? Or maybe more realistically, what if the Wizards take a big swing for Durant and actually land him? Are the Bulls going to part ways with Derrick Rose and/or Jimmy Butler? Will the Knicks deal Carmelo? There are so many variables to try to navigate through, but in Minnesota it’s simpler than bolstering a roster through Free Agency. It’s all about how quickly Wiggins and Towns turn into superstars. My gut says they aren’t that far off.

6: Which Playoff team most needs to make a big splash in the offseason?

The Grizzlies can’t get much more out of their Gasol/Conley/Randolph core than they have already. At their best Memphis was only a fringe title contender; they never had a ceiling that resembled that of a real title contender, although we may have talked ourselves into the idea that they were something more at the time. They need to make a splash, but in reality, they needed to make a splashy move three years ago.

The Los Angeles Clippers are the team that needs to do something over the summer. It might be silly for me to sit here and say that the Clippers were any more of a real title contender than Memphis has been for the last five years, especially considering they haven’t won more seven games in a given postseason during the Lob City era. That’s right, seven. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers haven’t gotten half-way to an NBA title. After five years of coming up that short, you have to do something. The good news: there’s an avenue the Clips can travel down, a secret pathway that nobody is discussing (yet), that could flip the NBA upside down.

7: How serious is the possibility of this LeBron-Paul-Wade-Carmelo Superteam?

Imagine that we’ve taken a time machine back to April 14th, 2010. We have no recollection of what has happened from April 15th, 2010 to now because, well, it hasn’t happened yet. And now, let’s pretend I wrote the following:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be upset in Round 2 of the Playoffs. About two months later LeBron James, on national television, will announce he’s leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hold on, there’s more. LeBron’s going to join forces Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Yeah, I know, it seems nuts. But they’ll all take a little less money, and Miami will gut their roster so the numbers work out.

Remember, there was no traction to this Miami thing until a couple of weeks before free agency started. It didn’t seem like a legitimate possibility until maybe a day before LeBron’s decision. There wasn’t a great understanding of how the numbers would work in a situation like that, and there had never been a case of three players, in the prime of their career, deciding in free agency that they would play together.

Now with an exploding cap and the idea of a LeBron-Paul-Wade-Carmelo Superteam already out there in the open, isn’t it more likely that we could see these four friends come together to play with each other than it was in 2010, when this Superteam idea seemed foreign and the numbers were much more difficult to come to because the cap was $30 million less than it is now? I’d say yes, and I’d venture a guess that we’re a lot closer to this four-man Superteam being formed than we all realize. Here’s how it happens this summer, in Los Angeles, where all four of these super-friends have homes:

The Salary Cap is going to jump to roughly $90 million this upcoming summer. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be free agents this summer. The Knicks will likely investigate possible trades for Carmelo Anthony. The Clippers already have Chris Paul under contract. And if the Clippers weren’t to resign any of their free agents this summer (the only ones worth mentioning are Jeff Green and Jamal Crawford), the Clippers will have just under $83 million on the books next year.

Step 1: Trade Blake Griffin to New York for Carmelo Anthony. Even if James and Wade aren’t to follow along, this trade is sitting there for the Clippers and Knicks to make. So let’s say the deal is something like Blake Griffin and Paul Pierce for Carmelo Anthony, Jerian Grant and a future Clippers pick … that adds $2 million to the Clips salary.

Step 2: Since LA would still need to dump some salary, they’d have to trade DeAndre Jordan. There are more than enough teams that will have plenty of cap space that could feel like acquiring Jordan for some spare parts could elevate them to a higher tier. My personal favorite that I could find was a deal that would ship DeAndre to Portland for Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh, which clears up roughly $15 million in cap space.

Step 3: In case you got confused with the math, we’re down to about $70 million for the Clippers salary. The rest of this is dependent on how large of a pay cut Wade and LeBron would be willing to take, and don’t forget, LeBron did say he’d take one to play with these three.

Sure, I’m grasping for more straws than a waitress at an 24-hour diner does, but there is a path where this could happen. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. There are two months of Playoff basketball, and eight more questions to preview the postseason to come!

8: What was the best moment of the regular season?
It was one night; one 150-minute window. The final night of the regular season was the greatest regular season night in NBA history, and that 10:30 pm EST window of games was the most historically significant ever. We saw Kobe Bryant score sixty points in the final game of his career, and come through with half-a-dozen clutch shots down the stretch to get the Lakers a win in the worst season in their franchise history and give his occasionally hard-to-watch farewell tour a memorable final chapter. And while all of this was going on, we didn’t even notice that the Golden State Warriors were out there whooping the Memphis Grizzlies and capping off the single greatest regular season ever. 73 wins, 9 losses. Single digit losses. And Stephen Curry created the 400 three-pointer club too. Guys, all of this shit happened in less time than it takes to watch The Godfather. I adore the NBA. Someday I’m going to write way more about April 13, 2016. I promise.

9: Which player can be trusted most in the Playoffs?

Even though Stephen Curry will win a second consecutive MVP Award, even though he should have been Finals MVP last year, even though he just completed arguably the greatest regular season in NBA history … I still trust LeBron James in the Playoffs more than anybody else in the field.

The narrative that LeBron comes up short in the postseason is a falsehood, created by individuals who would tell you it’s better for a player’s legacy if he gets bounced in Round 1 of the Playoffs than if he loses in the NBA Finals. The body of work speaks for itself. LeBron has won more games in the postseason than anyone else in the last ten years. He’s averaging 28-9-7 in 178 Playoff games, and he’s had more clutch moments and delivered more big performances in vital Playoff spots than anyone in the 2000’s (yes, even more than Kobe).

LeBron James is the one variable people aren’t talking about enough. You’ve heard about Golden State winning 73 games and going for GOAT status. You’ve heard about San Antonio going for a sixth title in the Duncan/Pop era and being the last true threat to the Warriors quest for a second straight title and how a Spurs/Warriors Conference Finals would be “the real NBA Finals.” You’ve heard about how Oklahoma City is the team that we’re sleeping on. Nobody is talking about Cleveland. Nobody is talking about LeBron James. This is unfamiliar.

10: So, umm, who is going to win the NBA Title?

1st Round: Cleveland over Detroit (4-1), Boston over Atlanta (4-2), Miami over Charlotte (4-2) Toronto over Indiana (4-2), Golden State over Houston (4-1), LA Clippers over Portland (4-2), Oklahoma City over Dallas (4-1), San Antonio over Memphis (4-0)

2nd Round: Cleveland over Boston (4-2), Miami over Toronto (4-2), Golden State over LA Clippers (4-1), San Antonio over Oklahoma City (4-3)

Conference Finals: Cleveland over Miami (4-2), Golden State over San Antonio (4-2)

NBA Finals: Golden State over Cleveland (4-2)

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