I. For the first time in 14 years LeBron James isn’t in the NBA Playoffs … how weird is that?
Over half of my life has come and gone since a LeBron James-led team did not make the NBA Playoffs. To put that in perspective, this is what the world looked like in 2005:
- I was still three years away from [redacted] and four years away from [redacted] and seven years away from [redacted].
- Mike Krzyzewski was still a good basketball coach.
- The Sopranos was on a hiatus between their 5th and 6th seasons. That means Tony Soprano was still a year away from being shot by Uncle Junior, and two years away from being killed in Holsten’s diner.
- The SuperSonics had yet to be yanked out of Seattle and sent to Oklahoma City and turned into the Thunder. .
- The first Survivor couple, Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich, had their wedding televised in a two-hour CBS special. It was adorable and it’s on YouTube if you’d be interested in watching it!
- 50 Cent was featured on five of the top 25 songs of the year, per Billboard.
- Vince Young was on the verge of leading the University of Texas to a National Title. Tim Tebow had not yet made his debut at the University of Florida.
- Triple H and Batista headlined WrestleMania (ah shit, they actually did that this year too)
- Donald Trump was just a trash pile hosting the 3rd Season of The Apprentice (Today he’s a trash pile in his 3rd year of Presidency … 2005 was a better time)
So yeah, a lot has changed since LeBron last failed to play basketball into the month of May. It was inevitable that it would happen eventually … as they say, Father Time is undefeated, and it was only a matter of time until he stole a round from King James, who had been dishing out some serious punishment over the last couple of years in this bout against F.T.
Am I worried that this will be the end of LeBron James’s time at or near the top of the NBA? I’m probably less worried than I rightfully should be, yet more worried than I was one year ago at this time. There hasn’t been a truly troublesome, age-related decline in play yet — Bron’s lack of defense has more to do with night to night boredom/a feeling that the Regular Season doesn’t matter than it does that LeBron is 34 years old; I’d still bet that in a meaningful Playoff series he could dial it up to the point where he wouldn’t be a minus defender — but the groin injury is alarming. For a decade and a half LeBron seemed as close to indestructible as we’ve ever seen a professional athlete. He walked off badly rolled ankles, finished at the basket through hundreds of shots to the face and head, and only momentarily had to be removed from a few games because of cramping issues (and from experience I can tell you that if you are severely dehydrated and your body locks up, it doesn’t matter how tough you are or how badly you want to be competing or how much water you drink, your muscles will not allow you to move until there is an IV pumping fluids into your body).
The groin injury made me realize that LeBron isn’t invincible. It made me realize that as he gets older, even if he ages gracefully, it’s going to be more difficult for him to shake off the nagging aches and pains, and it will be more difficult for him to remain fully healthy throughout the long 82 game season. With that said, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if a rejuvenated LeBron re-asserted himself as the best player in the world next year. But until then, LeBron’s title as the NBA’s best is officially up for grabs this postseason.
II. Without LeBron in the picture, how do the TV ratings for the Playoffs look?
My guess is they will be slightly down in comparison to last year, but I think that has just as much to do with A) Warriors fatigue, B) Casual fans not realizing that the top of the Eastern Conference is drastically improved. There’s still a perception that the Eastern Conference is a mid-major conference of some sort, and while the bottom half of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture may be uninspiring, once we get to the 2nd Round it’s going to be a damn bloodbath on the East Coast.
An additional guess: After dipping slightly in the regular season from last year, I think TV ratings bounce back next year in a pretty noticeable way. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in New York (sorry, I’m not pretending that this isn’t what’s about to happen in three months), the arrival of Zion Williamson (the Wet Dream for the Execs at Turner, ESPN and NBA TV), and a truly wide open NBA Title picture (there will be at ten teams you can talk yourself into winning the 2020 Championship and it’s going to be glorious), there is going to be another popularity explosion for the NBA.
III. Before we get to the Playoffs, do you care to share your NBA Awards Ballots with us?
Without any further explanation:
Coach of the Year: 1. Mike Budenholzer, 2. Doc Rivers, 3. Mike Malone
All-NBA 1st Team: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Joel Embiid
All-NBA 2nd Team: Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Jokic
IV. What are the most important pre-existing injuries heading into the postseason?
Victor Oladipo‘s leg injury happened too long ago to really count here, but man, for a while there it was looking like we were in store for a five team sprint toward preferable seeding in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Oladipo missed an 11 game stretch from mid-November to mid-December, but Indy survived his absence, went 7-4 in those 11 games, and were 32-15 (3rd in the Eastern Conference and only 2.5 games out of 1st place) when Oladipo was lost for the year during a win versus Toronto.
Indiana has played 46 games so far without Victor Oladipo, so it’s not as if they are unequipped to play without him. I saw them in person back in early February and they operate nearly the same as they did with Oladipo. The perimeter defense isn’t as tight, the offense isn’t quite as explosive, but it’s still a well-coached, hard-nosed basketball team that will give you problems if you don’t bring your best effort. What they lack now is an alpha dog; someone who can put up 30-12-6 in a Game 7 against someone like LeBron James, which is exactly what Oladipo did last year.
Three other injuries to lower-profile players seem important to mention. Within the week the Boston Celtics announced that Marcus Smart could be out for potentially two rounds. Smart is Boston’s best perimeter defender, a steady secondary ball-handler and a drastically improved three-point shooter — the jump from 30 percent last season to 36 percent this season on triples was not expected.
Jusuf Nurkic was in the midst of a career best season, one that warrants some 3rd Team All-NBA/Most Improve Player buzz, but a gruesome lower leg injury suffered a few weeks back will keep him sidelined until hopefully sometime next season. Truth be told, I don’t know quite how bad the injury looked since I went out of my way to avoid watching it. Regardless, the drop off from Nurkic to the Zach Collins/Enes Kanter duo is steeper than most will realize.
In mid-March the Milwaukee Bucks announced that guard Malcolm Brogdon was out indefinitely with a Plantar Fascia tear in his right foot. Unofficially Brogdon was expected to miss six to eight weeks, meaning there is a possibility that he could return sometime soon. A fully healthy Brogdon raises Milwaukee’s ceiling to a level no other team in the East can reach. In his 64 starts, the Bucks averaged 120 points per 100 possessions (best in the league by far) and were 11.4 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent. Not only did Brogdon join the 50/40/90 Club — 50 percent field goal, 40 percent three-point shooting, 90 percent from the free throw line — he held opposing guards to just 44% shooting this season, per NBA Stats.
V. What was the most noteworthy late-season standings shift?
The consequences of all of the maneuvering at the back end of the East don’t mean much here since everybody has been expecting that regardless of 1st Round match-ups, the 2nd Round would feature Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston. Brooklyn is likely the trickiest 1st Round opponent any of those top four teams could face, but there’s little doubt on my end that Philadelphia will advance to Round 2.
The only standings shift to note here is what came as a result of two furious comebacks in the final window of games of the 2018-19 Regular Season. As a result of a 28 point 2nd half comeback in Portland — led by Anfernee Simons (37 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists) and Skal Labissiere (29 points and 15 rebounds in a revenge game against the Kings!) — and a 15-0 run to end the game by the Denver Nuggets versus Minnesota, the Houston Rockets, who could’ve ended up the 2 seed in the West, slipped to 4th and will have to face Utah in Round 1 (brutal) and then Golden State in Round 2 (devastating).
Denver ends up the big winner here. By coming back from 11 down with just minutes to play against the KAT-less Timberwolves, the Nuggets ensured themselves the two seed. When the Blazers — who only played six guys on Wednesday night — secured a win over Sacramento, the Nuggets avoided having to potentially play Houston (who they were 1-3 against in the regular season) in the 2nd Round. Instead, if they take care of business against the San Antonio Spurs, they’ll face either Portland (3-1 in the regular season) or Oklahoma City (4-0). It’s not a particularly rough path to the Western Conference Finals.
VI. Can you rank the 1st Round series in terms of intrigue and watchability and competitiveness?
8. Boston Celtics vs. Indiana Pacers – This one moves up to #4 on the list if Oladipo were around. Boston would also officially be on upset alert if this were the case. But since Indy is shorthanded, this is the least compelling 1st Round series to me. This has “4-1, Boston advances” written all over it.
7. Toronto Raptors vs. Orlando Magic – This is the series that 90’s diehards will look at and say “See! The league was so much better and deeper in the 1990’s than the league is now!” In retort, Vin Baker, Terrell Brandon and Christian Laettner were Eastern Conference All-Stars in 1997. Though in fairness, if there were such a channel as NBA TV 2, the league would probably broadcast this entire series there.
6. Milwaukee Bucks vs. Detroit Pistons – The Greek Freak has elevated himself to must-watch basketball status, and Blake Griffin’s shocking transformation into the human embodiment of basketball evolution has been a fun subplot to follow this season, but in four regular season meetings Milwaukee is 4-0 and has won each contest by an average of 15 points per game. This series will have it’s moments, but I doubt that it will be close.
5. Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers – The least compelling 1st Round series out west for two reasons: First, there’s the chance that the Warriors could be in fifth gear already and they’ll sweep the Clippers out of the Playoffs quicker than you can say, “How crazy is it that the Clippers are by far the more stable NBA franchise in Los Angeles?” Second, the Warriors just don’t bring the same sort of entertainment value to the table, even in blowout wins, as they did before Kevin Durant entered in the picture. Thank goodness that all changes after July 1st this Summer. Have fun in New York, KD. I’m ready for the Warriors to be fun again.
4. Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs – I just have so many questions. What does Playoff Jokic look like? Did DeMar DeRozan bring his postseason baggage with him to San Antonio? Is LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Paul Millsap sneakily one of the most exciting individual match-ups of the 1st Round? How does everyone not named Jokic or Millsap perform for Denver? How big of an edge does Gregg Popovich have over Mike Malone? My interest is piqued.
3. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets – I’m not prepared to say that Philadelphia is on upset alert here, I’m just saying that Brooklyn and Philly split their season series and even though the 76ers have a clear-cut top-of-the-roster talent advantage, I need to see a round of cohesion and fit before I’m sold on the Embiid-Simmons-Butler-Harris quartet being able to potentially make a deep run. More than anything, I’m just excited to watch Joel Embiid (if healthy!), the well-coached Nets, surging D’Angelo Russell, and the chemistry experiment that will determine Philly’s ceiling.
2. Houston Rockets vs. Utah Jazz – Houston and Utah have the two best records and net ratings post All-Star Break. We’re being spoiled getting this match-up in Round 1. The Rockets and Jazz played in Round 2 last year, a 4-1 Houston victory, but the season series was split at two wins a piece, and it’s easy to argue that the Jazz are better and Houston is worse than they were last season. There are bits of tasty basketball goodness littered all over this series: Will Jae Crowder take Patrick Beverley‘s advice on how to defend James Harden? What does the Clint Capela/Rudy Gobert match-up look like, and more importantly, how many pick and rolls will Houston make Rudy Gobert defend? How much does Chris Paul have left in the tank? Is Donovan Mitchell ready to make another postseason leap? How long until someone tries to fight Joe Ingles?
1. Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – There’s just so much to love here. The Blazers and Thunder are two teams dealing with Playoff demons that date back to 1st Round Playoff exits last year. Portland was mollywhopped by New Orleans and the Thunder were dealt an L by Utah. I had picked both teams to advance to Round 2. This year, one of these two teams are required to advance to the 2nd Round. The Nurkic injury puts a bit of a damper on the whole thing — the Nurk/Steven Adams battle in the paint would’ve been an enjoyable individual match-up to track — but we’ve still got three of the fifteen dudes who will make All-NBA this year involved (Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard). The Thunder took all four match-up’s during the regular season and they enter as the Vegas favorite to win this series. I’m not totally sold. Just as was the case with Portland’s 3/6 series last year, I think this series is a long, fun one. As I’m typing I still don’t know who my picks will be.
VII. 1st Round Predictions?
Shit, I guess it’s about that time, huh?
Eastern Conference: Milwaukee over Detroit (4-0), Boston over Indiana (4-1), Philadelphia over Brooklyn (4-2), Toronto over Orlando (4-0)
Western Conference: Golden State over Los Angeles (4-0), Houston over Utah (4-2), Oklahoma City over Portland (4-2), Denver over San Antonio (4-2)
VIII. Looking ahead to Round 2, what should we be interested in?
Well thanks to that wacky final Wednesday of the regular season, we’re getting either Golden State/Houston or Golden State/Utah in Round 2. I don’t think it’s out of the question to suggest that Houston and Utah may be the 3rd and 4th best teams in the NBA at this present moment — apologies to Toronto, Denver, Philadelphia and whoever else feels entitled to those spots. Utah snagged one out of their three meeting with Golden State last year, but they would have a season series edge if it weren’t for a Jonas Jerebko buzzer-beater on the 4th night of the regular season.
Last year I wasn’t exactly shy about my belief that Houston would beat Golden State in the Playoffs and win the NBA Title. I remain convinced that if Chris Paul hadn’t injured his hamstring in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Houston would’ve entered this season as the defending NBA Champions. I don’t like this Rockets team as much as I liked last year’s squad, but if James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela are all healthy, the Rockets will have a fighting chance against Golden State.
The Eastern Conference, for the first time in a number of years, may actually be more interesting than the Western Conference beyond Round 2. Boston vs. Miami was a delightful and competitive Conference Finals in 2012, and the Celts had the Cleveland LeBron’s on the ropes last year, but there will be four teams entering the 2nd Round of the Playoffs with Finals or Bust mentalities this Spring.
All year long I’ve claimed that I believed all four teams — Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston — have equal odds of reaching the NBA Finals. It’s a cute thing to say, but for me it was legitimate. At this present moment, things have changed slightly, but it wouldn’t be at all shocking if any of those four teams were representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
Boston badly underperformed during the regular season, but are we positive that a switch can’t be flipped? Nobody believes in Toronto, but their length/athleticism presents problems for everybody. And let’s not forget, the roster has upgraded via two trades — Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the offseason, Marc Gasol prior to the trade deadline — and as a result of the emergence of Pascal Siakam as something much more than an experiment on the wing.
Philadelphia has the most talented starting five in the Eastern Conference, but how do those pieces mesh in the Playoffs? In 161 minutes together during the regular season, Embiid-Simmons-Butler-Harris-Redick are outscoring opponents by 19.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that tops the best higher-usage line-ups in the league. If that figure maintains, Philly will cruise to the Finals. But we saw the struggles Philly had scoring in the postseason last year. Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler were brought in to be the antidote to those offensive woes.
And then there’s Milwaukee … a regular season juggernaut that employs maybe the best all-around player in basketball. I so badly wanted to pick Milwaukee to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals before the season started and I didn’t have the stones to do it. I’m feeling regretful.
IX. When the Golden State Warriors win the NBA Title, what does that do for the legacy of this group?
Wait, are we sure the Golden State Warriors are winning the title? Let’s try this again.
Maybe this is the easiest way to put it … I’m more sure that the Warriors will win the Title this year than I was last year, but not as certain as I was two years ago. I was totally convinced that the Rockets would eliminate Golden State last May. I was totally convinced Golden State would roll to a Title two years ago. This year, I view the Dubs as the favorite, but the past, present and future all tell us that they are not an overwhelming favorite.
Past: The past suggests that it’s very difficult to win an NBA Title. It’s even tougher to win three titles in a row and reach five consecutive Finals, which is what the Warriors are attempting. Additionally, we rarely see the end of basketball dynasties coming, and they don’t often end on a high note. The Celtics and Lakers of the 80’s … the Big Three era Heat … the Bad Boys Pistons. Those runs ended on losses. The closest comparison I see for these Warriors are actually the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. I don’t know that the bad blood between Durant and the Warriors locker room is anywhere near what it was with Kobe and Shaq in the end, but it’s bad enough that people are talking about it.
Despite all of the animosity in the Lakers locker room heading into the 2003-2004 season, the Lakers remained the Vegas favorites in the pre-season, before the start of the Playoffs, and before the NBA Finals, where they opened as a -700 favorite over the Detroit Pistons. One day shy of a month after losing in the NBA Finals Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat. The Lakers dynasty was over.
Present: The present suggests that this version of the Warriors just isn’t as dominant as past versions have been. I present the following numbers, and to be honest, these are the only numbers that (in my opinion) truly matter when it comes to the Golden State Warriors title chances.
Warriors Death Line-Up in 2015-16 – +44.0 Net Rating in 172 minutes in the regular season
Warriors Death Line-Up in 2016-17 – +23.0 Net Rating in 224 minutes in the regular season
Warriors Death Line-Up in 2018-19 – +13.7 Net Rating in 268 minutes in the regular season
When the Warriors went to their death line-up in the past, it used to mean that the game was about to swing in their favor in a truly unprecedented way. Now, when the Warriors play their five All-Star line-up, they top out as a very good NBA line-up. Very good is a whole lot different than historically great.
Future: The future suggests that this is not only the last hurrah for the KD/Steph Warriors, it also suggests that there is a youth movement on the horizon, and it’s led by the league’s eventual MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo and a large handful of young stars who are ready to be the one to carry the league into the 2020’s. The franchise that was once light years ahead of the NBA is still in the lead, but the rest of the pack is catching up. Kevin Durant is a free agent this Summer and likely heading to New York with Kyrie Irving. Stephen Curry is 31 years old. Draymond Green is declining.
Meanwhile, the Bucks have built a modern contender around a basketball Unicorn — some ungodly lab experiment who is equal parts Shaq, KG, Dr. J and Zeus. The Philadelphia 76ers have moved their chips to the center of the table for this year, and they’ve got a Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons duo to fall back on if they fall short this year. If the Raptors can retain Kawhi Leonard in Free Agency they’ll remain a Title contender for years to come. And if Kevin Durant does leave the Bay Area for the Big Apple, the Knicks will be in title contention immediately. These are just the challenges in the Eastern Conference.
The Nuggets, Thunder, Blazers, Jazz and Rockets have built teams that are designed to win now or win soon. The Clippers are convinced they’ll be major players in Free Agency this Summer. The Lakers employ LeBron James, who I’m convinced has one more Finals run left in him. Father Time will soon catch up to the Warriors, and it will do so disguised as the rest of the NBA.
With that said, I think the Warriors are a comfortable enough distance ahead of the pack to hang on for one more title.
X. Later Round Predictions?
Round 2: Golden State over Houston (4-2), Oklahoma City over Denver (4-3), Milwaukee over Boston (4-3), Toronto over Philadelphia (4-3)
Conference Finals: Golden State over Oklahoma City (4-1), Milwaukee over Toronto (4-3)
NBA Finals: Golden State over Milwaukee (4-2)