Editor-in-Chief Justin Guglielmetti gives his take on what will transpire in this year’s NBA playoffs.
How disappointing. This was supposed to be the first season since LeBron James first took his talents to South Beach eight years ago where a legitimate threat to one of his teams existed in his own conference. There have a been a few pretend contenders over that span to be sure — memorable teams like the 2014-15 “Spurs-East” Hawks, the Paul George-Lance Stephenson-Roy Hibbert Pacers, the last gasp of the Big Three Celtics. But not since the Chicago Bulls of Derrick Rose’s 2011 MVP campaign has there been an Eastern Conference team that a substantial amount of people believed could top King James’s squad in the playoffs. The additions of All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to a Celtics team that finished with the top seed in 2016-17 was supposed to change that, but alas, the injury bug hit Beantown hard. With Hayward still out after his devastating ankle injury in the season opener and Irving on the mend from a recent knee surgery, the path once again looks clear for the Cavs to advance to the Finals.
That sound you hear is the gnashing of teeth of millions of mildly irritated Canadians, who just can’t understand why nobody gives the top-seeded Toronto Raptors a fair shake. It’s a perfectly reasonable annoyance, especially given the overall lack of attention paid to the Raps by the American media and the tremendous season had by the team. I don’t want to take anything away from their franchise-record 59 wins, or Dwane Casey’s long-overdue embracing of the three-point revolution, or the continued excellence of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Their vaunted bench mob is so deep (why did the nickname Marianas Bench never catch on?) that at one point they had 11 players averaging at least six PPG. So what’s the problem? As starters eke out a few more minutes per game in the postseason, depth becomes less important than top-heavy talent, and Toronto lacks the personnel to handle a deadly lineup type they will see against the Cavs: four shooters surrounding LeBron with Kevin Love at center. The poor matchups combined with the fact that LeBron has drunk the Raptors’ milkshake over the past several years means this thing will go five games max when they square off in Round 2.
Across the rest of the conference, the Bucks’ clogged-toilet offense will sink their first-round chances against the depleted Celtics, although Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level play will surely be enough to counter the strategic genius of Brad Stevens to steal a few games. The profoundly mediocre Pacers, Heat and Wizards hardly deserve mention in such a brief preview, which leaves the only dangerous Philadelphia 76ers. Riding a sixteen-game winning streak, a few optimistic pundits think that the culmination of the “The Process” — a trip to the NBA Finals — could be in store as soon as this year. Color me skeptical, although the lengthy and versatile Sixers present the nearest thing to a threat to the Cavs this year. I think they make the conference finals, then lose in six.
For the first time since the mid-1990s, the Western Conference had fewer 50-win teams than the East, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the conference was weaker as a whole. This bracket is going to be a bloodbath, and I’m not sure any team is safe past the second round.
Yes, that includes the dominant Warriors and Rockets. Though these two teams should be considered the prohibitive favorites to advance to the conference finals, neither has a clear-cut path to get there.
For Houston, that early challenge will come in the form of the surging Oklahoma City Thunder, led by the Big Three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams (sorry, ‘Melo). The Thunder have underachieved as a whole, and in the tight confines of the West’s standings, were in danger of missing the playoffs entirely as recently as two weeks ago. But they are peaking at the right time and have the type of superstar talent that wins out disproportionately in the postseason. Westbrook is always a threat to go full supernova and tally a 35-17-17, and toward the end of the season, he got off his ass on defense for the first time in years. He and Adams have reached Stockton- and Malone-levels of synergy on the pick-and-roll, which warps defenses away from the three-point line and opens up room for bombers like George.
Nonetheless, we can’t get ahead of ourselves and assume that the Thunder will even make it past the Utah Jazz in the opening round. Donovan Mitchell has exceeded all expectations and firmly established himself as a young superstar; I’m still waffling on whether I support him or Philly’s Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year. With a roster that many thought was more likely to tank than compete, the Jazz are once again a defensive juggernaut, anchored by the perpetually underrated Rudy Gobert. They switch across all five positions and play physical, in-your-face D that can disrupt even the smartest offensive scheme.
Even without Stephen Curry, the Warriors should have no trouble getting past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs. Gregg Popovich can only eke so much out a roster featuring LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay as its best players. Beyond that, however, their success will depend on the Baby-Faced Assassin’s effectiveness upon his return from a knee injury. Golden State theoretically has enough raw talent to win it all even without their foundational superstar, but so much of their identity is predicated on Curry’s incomparable gravitational pull around the perimeter. Without him, the team reverts too much to an isolation-heavy style similar to how Kevin Durant played in OKC. That could hurt them against the dangerous Pelicans, who could feature the best player in that series in Anthony Davis.
In the end, though, I don’t feel comfortable picking anything besides a Warriors-Rockets series. When healthy, these two are just a tier above. If you will allow me to hedge my bets a bit, I’ll say that if Curry comes back fully healthy, he will lead the Dubs back to the Finals for a fourth consecutive contest against the Cavs. If he remains hobbled, Chris Paul will make his life hell, James Harden will crossover and Eurostep fools into oblivion, and the Rockets will set the playoff record for three-pointers per game to win in six (the latter two are likely to happen anyway). Too vague a prediction? Whichever one emerges takes down the Cavaliers in five.