Culture of Hoops

13 Questions About the NBA Playoffs

As I was planning what to do for this column I said to myself “I wonder what it would look like if I wrote an NBA Playoff column for twelve straight hours.” I’m not even messing around. I spoke those words to myself. That was real life internal dialogue. And since I’m on Easter Break (meaning I didn’t have to clock in at an elementary school at 7:20 am) and because my girlfriend worked all day and night yesterday, that’s exactly what I did.

With the exception of Dinner time, bathroom breaks and one 30-minute trip to the grocery store, I worked on this column non-stop from noon until midnight with the sole intention of answering as many Playoff-related questions as I could. However many questions I ended up answering in those twelve hours would be the length of the column. I didn’t concern myself with a word limit or anything of the sort. For the next two months, all I’m concerned with is the NBA Playoffs; the greatest two month stretch of the year. Let’s get after it.

1: Do the Cleveland Cavaliers have a switch they can flip? 

Maybe this will come off as homerism or bias or just plain shortsightedness because the Cavaliers are my favorite team and I would calf punch a baby if LeBron James told me he wanted me to … but I don’t understand why people (basketball fans and experts alike) are in a deep state of panic in regards to the defending NBA Champions. Yes, the Cavs have played mediocre basketball for the majority of the last two months. Yes, their defense has looked dreadful in that stretch, particularly recently. Yes, their bench is thin and Tristan Thompson is banged up and Kevin Love doesn’t look 100 percent right after a knee injury and LeBron James has played an ungodly number of minutes and Ty Lue might not be a great coach …

And most of that stuff will not matter now that it’s mid-April. You know, I find it funny that so many people were up in arms when the Cavs rested LeBron and Love and Kyrie Irving, yet they’re forgetting why this was done in the first place. Cleveland has been to back to back NBA Finals, and LeBron James has played into June six straight years when you consider his Miami tenure … these guys within the Cavs organization know the end game. They know the title isn’t won in March. They know that games 62-82 don’t really matter. They also know that they can win on the road against any team in the Eastern Conference, as we saw last week when the Cavs systematically dissected the Celtics in Boston and LeBron turned in one of those “Did you actually think I don’t have another level I can get to?” performances.

But hey, if you need to pretend like the Cavs don’t have a switch they can flip just to add some extra drama to the Playoffs, be my guest. I won’t even say I told ya told so.

2: Is there any reason to believe the Golden State Warriors won’t win the NBA Title? 

I mean, you really need to stretch your imagination, think outside the box and project a lot of things to go not just wrong, but bad for the Warriors if you are expecting a result in June other than Golden State winning the NBA Title. They’re ceiling is just so much higher than everyone else’s and they have so many ways they can beat you; the most notable and the one they most commonly use is by simply overwhelming every opponent with a barrage of once-in-a-generation shooters and scorers who are playing alongside a multi-faceted do-everything role players who embrace perfecting the small stuff for a coach who actually makes a difference.

Theoretically, could they be challenged anywhere along the way? Sure, I suppose. Utah could put up a better fight than the Clippers would just because they could slow the pace, defend the rim and give the Warriors more looks than the Clips could. But is it even reasonable to think that Utah could take a series against the Warriors beyond five games? The Spurs smoked the Dubs on opening night and won in San Antonio when both teams sat virtually all starters, but the Warriors beat San Antonio three weeks ago without Kevin Durant in the line-up. The Spurs can challenge the Warriors if Kawhi Leonard continues to ascend and if LaMarcus Aldridge can carry San Antonio’s offense for stretches like he once did as a member of the Trailblazers.

The Houston Rockets, in my opinion, have the better chance to hang with the Warriors than any other Western Conference opponent does just because even if the Dubs score 130 points a night, Houston can be right there with them. The Rockets launch a ton of three’s and attack the basket … if they could out-shoot and out-analytic the Warriors enough times in a seven game series, it could be competitive.

And then there are those Cavaliers, who do indeed have to get through three Rounds in an improved Eastern Conference, who will presumably be waiting for the Warriors at the finish line. The Cavs would be massive underdogs in a Finals series against the Warriors, but Cleveland did beat Golden State on Christmas Day at Quicken Loans Arena and they did climb back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals last year. Were y’all aware of that? Yeah, the Warriors were leading the NBA Finals 3 games to 1, and blew that lead. The proof is on YouTube and everything!

I need to make these jokes while I still can. I only have about two months left before the Cavaliers aren’t defending NBA Champions anymore.

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

If you’re looking for teams that could make the leap from lottery to the Playoffs, you need to ask yourself these five questions:

Do they have a potential superstar?

Do they have young assets?

Do they have cap space?

Will the top of the roster remain unchanged?

Do they have a very good to great Head Coach?

If they hit at least two of those boxes, they deserve slight consideration. If they hit three, it’s a pretty safe bet they could improve by a tier. If they hit four or five, start saving your money now so you can make some sort of pre-season wager on their win total.

The Minnesota Timberwolves check all five boxes. Karl-Anthony Towns just completed one of the greatest sophomore seasons ever, becoming the first player in NBA history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 100 three-pointers in a season. Andrew Wiggins is a fine number two option alongside Towns and Ricky Rubio just completed his best season to date. Zach LaVine tore his ACL mid-season, but if I were Tom Thibodeau (who we should’ve expected would need at least one year to get a young team to buy into what he wants to do) that wouldn’t stop me from shopping him. The Wolves don’t have a ton of cap space, but they could certainly improve the middle of their roster in a meaningful enough way where they could be a Playoff team.

The Denver Nuggets missed the Playoffs by a single game this year and they should be right back in the hunt next year. From the time Nikola Jokic became a full-time starter the Nuggets went 31-26. On the back of Jokic (who averaged 19 points, 11 boards and 6 assists per in those 57 games) the Nugs were one of the most potent offensive teams in the league. Only Philadelphia and Brooklyn have more cap space heading into the Summer, and Denver still has a treasure chest of trade chips on the roster.

The Philadelphia 76ers have more cap space than anybody else in the NBA, potentially two lottery picks in a stacked 2017 NBA Draft (which could be turned into an already established Superstar), a hopefully healthy Joel Embiid, the should-be 2017 Rookie of the Year Dario Saric and 2016’s #1 Pick Ben Simmons. It’s safe to say we should have been trusting the process all along.

 4: Say you were compelled to spend a little bit of time with a significant other instead of watching the NBA Playoffs … which three 1st Round match-ups could you go out of your way to avoid in an attempt to make your lover happy? 

Yeesh … do we actually have three bad 1st Round match-ups this year? I guess if I had to eliminate any trio of match-ups I’d say get rid of Atlanta/Washington, Memphis/San Antonio and Portland/Golden State. The first two will likely be the two least aesthetically pleasing series of the 1st Round and I expect that both will be closed out in five games. I bumped Portland/Golden State out too because we’ll have the opportunity to watch the Warriors for three more rounds, so don’t sweat missing out on their sweep of the Blazers.

5: Say you were compelled to spend a little bit of time with a significant other who is a HUGE basketball fan … which three 1st Round match-ups would be most fun for you if you weren’t an NBA fan yourself, but you wanted to make your lover happy and remain relatively entertained?

Trick question! You watch every game with them and learn to love basketball.

6: Have the Top Two MVP vote-getters ever played each other in Round 1 before? 

Since the NBA-ABA merger we’ve seen twelve meetings between the Top Two MVP candidates in the Playoffs. Here’s the complete list, with the winner of the MVP mentioned first and the winner of the series is in Italicized Text:

2015 – Stephen Curry vs. James Harden (Western Conference Finals)

2012 – LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant (NBA Finals)

1998 – Michael Jordan vs. Karl Malone (NBA Finals)

1997 – Karl Malone vs. Michael Jordan (NBA Finals)

1992 – Michael Jordan vs. Clyde Drexler (NBA Finals)

1991 – Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson (NBA Finals)

1986 – Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins (Eastern Conference Semi’s)

1985 – Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson (NBA Finals)

1984 – Larry Bird vs. Bernard King (Eastern Conference Semi’s)

1981 – Julius Erving vs. Larry Bird (Eastern Conference Finals)

1980 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Julius Erving (NBA Finals)

1977 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Bill Walton (Western Conference Finals)

Seven of those meetings came in the NBA Finals and there has never been one before Round 2. We haven’t even seen a Round 2 showdown since 1986, so yeah, any and all hype thrown in the direction of the upcoming Oklahoma City Thunder/Houston Rockets series is warranted, especially once you start to consider the breakneck pace these games might be played at and how that means Russell Westbrook and James Harden could both end up putting up video game numbers for the next two weeks as the Thunder and Rockets compete in one of the most must-watch 1st Round series in recent memory. Sign me up.

7: Excluding Russ vs. Harden, what’s the tastiest and most important individual match-up in Round 1? 

The Honorable Mentions: The Splash Brothers vs. Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollumDeAndre Jordan vs. Rudy GobertGiannis Antetokounmpo vs. DeMar DeRozan … Skip Bayless vs. Common Sense
The Pick: LeBron James vs. Paul George. George is one of the few players in the league who has repeatedly proven to be totally unafraid of standing toe to toe with LeBron James, and because of that, we typically see a heightened, exceedingly locked-in version of LeBron too. Just check the video for evidence:
If the Cavs do indeed have a switch — and as you may remember, I theorize that they do — we might not get more than five games in this series. However long it goes, George will be on LeBron’s heels and LeBron will be on alert … and we’ll have the pleasure of watching it go down.

8: Which upcoming Free Agents can make themselves the most money during the Playoffs? 

I’m not talking about a guy like Otto Porter Jr.; we’re going to hear a bunch of times over the next month or so how Porter is a Free Agent and how this postseason will be his push for a big contract … he’s going to get a big contract regardless. Remember what a nightmare Harrison Barnes was last year in the Playoffs? Then remember how a month after he was so dreadful the Mavericks gave him a 4-year, $95 million max deal? Harrison Barnes could have taken an actual shit on the floor during Game 7 of the NBA Finals last year and he still would have gotten a max contract over the summer. That’s just how it works for young, athletic wings. Porter is next in line, even if he shits on the floor. Anyway, three guys I’m looking at are:

Nikola Mirotic: Mirotic is a scalding hot 46 percent from three-point range ever since Fred Hoiberg inserted him in the starting line-up one month ago. It’s not a coincidence that the Bulls are 8-4 in that stretch. Chicago needs Mirotic to remain a flamethrower if they are going to have a fighting chance against the top-seeded Celtics.

Tim Hardaway Jr.: Like Mirotic, Hardaway Jr. has been on a nice contract run since Mike Budenholzer inserted him into the starting line-up in early February. Over a two and a half month sample size, Hardaway has been scoring 18 points per game with 47-38-84 shooting splits. The Hawks will need some perimeter scoring punch if they want to compete with the Wizards in Round 1. Hardaway gives them their best chance of matching the output of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

Patty Mills: The best Point Guard on the San Antonio Spurs roster, and a saving grace for the Spurs because if they had to rely on the aging (or depending on how you feel about him, fully aged) Tony Parker, they would be in serious trouble against Houston in Round 2 AND they would have their hands full with Mike Conley in Round 1. Parker might not have the legs to play the pace Houston will try to play or keep up with the speedy Conley. Mills is well-equipped to do so, and even though the league is super-duper deep at Point Guard, Mills should be a starter somewhere.

9: Is this finally the make or break year for the Los Angeles Clippers? 

Yeah, this is the last hurrah. Unfortunately it might end up resembling The Undertaker’s last hurrah in the WWE, minus the standing ovation after the final buzzer has sounded. The old and battered Undertaker struggled through the final match of his career against Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 33. It was hard to watch, and both sad and relieving to see him go because it was abundantly clear he had nothing left to give. The Clips, as currently constructed, have nothing left to give. If they can get past Utah in Round 1 (not a sure thing by the way), they’re set to do battle with the Golden State Warriors who would be more than happy to pound the final nail in the metaphorical coffin of their first rival in the Steph/Klay/Draymond era.

10: So if the Clippers “break” what do they do? 

I wouldn’t rule anything out this Summer. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick could all end up being Free Agents, and it’s conceivable that none of the three could be Clippers at the start of the 2017-18 season. Could Chris Paul take off to San Antonio and play alongside Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge to give himself a better chance to challenge the Warriors? Could the Oklahoma City Thunder put together some sort of package to acquire Blake Griffin in a sign and trade? Could Carmelo Anthony end up in LA alongside his Banana Boat buddy Chris Paul? Would the Clips bring back Chris Paul and Blake Griffin but shop DeAndre Jordan? Almost everything is in play.

11: Which late season standings shift will prove to be most crucial? 

Everybody had the Miami Heat pegged as the most dangerous potential foe for Boston (or Cleveland) in Round 1, and this may have been the case if Dion Waiters had returned to Miami after healing an injured ankle on Waiters Island, but don’t assume that the Chicago Bulls will just roll over in Round 1. The Bulls have been frustratingly inconsistent and downright uninspiring for large chunks of the year, but they head into their series with the Celtics with a bit of momentum built over the last two weeks and enough variables in their favor that could make them a tricky out in a seven game series.

Jimmy Butler could be the best player on the court in any given game no matter who he’s staring down on the other side (in this case, if he’s staring down Isaiah Thomas, he’ll be staring right over Isaiah’s head … I feel like this gives him some sort of psychological edge). Dwyane Wade will always feel like he’s the best player on the floor too, even if it’s clear to everyone else that he’s past the point in his career where this is often the case. Rajon Rondo is cut from the same cloth as Wade in that respect, but as a former Celtic and annually an overachiever in the Playoffs, I’d expect to see him turn in a vintage performance at least once. Between those three and the potential for a series-long Mirotic heat-check, the Bulls won’t go out easy.

And remember, for all of the praise we’ve bestowed upon Brad Stevens (most of which is well-deserved), he’s still yet to win a Playoff series. This isn’t a Celts squad that has had an overwhelming amount of postseason success, nor is it a group that has ever played with a target on their back in the Playoffs.

12: How likely is it that Giannis Antetokounmpo begins his evolution from Greek Freak to Greek God earlier than expected and carries the Bucks past the Raptors in Round 1?  
Pshh! Come on! That’s about as likely as 22 year-old finishing an NBA season in the Top 20 in Points, Rebounds, Assists, Steals and Blocks.
Ah fuck … Giannis already did that. Well, I guess this is in play then.

13: So how does this all shake out? 

Round 1: Golden State over Portland (4-0), Los Angeles over Utah (4-3), Houston over Oklahoma City (4-3), San Antonio over Memphis (4-1), Boston over Chicago (4-2), Washington over Atlanta (4-1), Toronto over Milwaukee (4-3), Cleveland over Indiana (4-1)

Round 2: Golden State over Los Angeles (4-0), Houston over San Antonio (4-2), Boston over Washington (4-3), Cleveland over Toronto (4-2)

Conference Finals: Golden State over Houston (4-2), Cleveland over Boston (4-2)

NBA Finals: Golden State over Cleveland (4-1)

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