Pro Bono Baller: 2018 NBA Playoff Preview

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The NBA Playoffs are just about to begin. Starting on April 14, we’re going to get top tier basketball until June. We may even get a different Finals than Warriors-Cavs this year. Let’s take a look at the teams, and then make some predictions for the first round.

Western Conference

Houston Rockets

Houston brings a lot to the table, and are a strong contender for an NBA Finals run and championship. Houston added Chris Paul to their lineup over the off-season, and the result is the most efficient offense in the NBA. Houston averages 115.2 points per 100 possessions, almost a point better than the number two team (Golden State). Houston is also a very good defensive team, only giving up 106.2 points per 100 possessions (seventh best in the NBA).

How does Houston do this? Harden and Paul are both excellent shooters and shot creators that can score in just about every way possible. Houston’s roster is loaded with either mobile big men that can screen and finish on pick and roll sets, as well as a collection of three and D players that defend and hit their open threes (such as Ariza,  Tucker, and Mbah a Moute). Like the Warriors, Houston prizes ball movement to get set, open jumpers.

Golden State Warriors

Golden State is an injury riddled version of the team that demolished the rest of the NBA last year. The most significant injury, possibly in the entire NBA, is Curry’s sprained MCL. It’s possible Curry is coming back by the second round, and the Warriors’ chances of repeating as champion likely hinge on his ability to return to his pre-injury production (averaging 26.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game).

Even without Curry, the Warriors still have Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Durant is one of the top scorers in the NBA and can likely carry the Warriors in Curry’s absence. The real question is how far Durant can carry them either without Curry or with a hobbled Curry. Thompson remains ones of the NBA’s top three point shooters. Draymond Green is one of the NBA’s top defensive players, and is a talented creator on offense. Combined with their highly efficient offensive system, the Warriors can likely survive early challenges in the first and second rounds. The real question is whether they can get past the Rockets.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers as a good defensive team? That actually happened this season. The Blazers’ offense remains the same as it was the last three seasons: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum provide scoring from pretty much everywhere past the half court line. Last season, the Blazers added a talented post player in Jusuf Nurkic, a 14 point, 9 rebound per game presence who supplements the high scoring guards. The defense, however, is much improved. The Blazers were ranked 24th in the NBA last year in defensive efficiency (at 110.8 points per 100 possessions) and jumped all the way up to 8th this year. A lot of that improved defense comes from the guards. Lillard and McCollum went from turnstiles to committed defenders. I don’t think anyone would confuse them with a prime Gary Payton, but neither player is a defensive liability anymore.

That guard play, on top of a deeper rotation that includes Al-Farouq Aminu (a defensive big who can play perimeter defense and hit the occasional three), Evan Turner, and an improved Shabazz Napier, should allow the Blazers to win their first round matchup against a much thinner Pelicans team. Lillard and McCollum are offensive powerhouses, and Lillard is talented enough to close out games against even top level competition. The Blazers finally being a decent defensive team also addresses their major weakness from past seasons, which should make their level of play in the playoffs more consistent.

Oklahoma City Thunder

This season was supposed to be different from last season for the Thunder. OKC added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and many talked about them as a potential threat to the Warriors this season. That didn’t materialize. The Thunder instead struggled to figure out how to get Russell Westbrook (one of the NBA’s most explosive players) to fit with George and Anthony. Anthony, in particular, seems to not fit particularly well. Melo is used to having the ball in his hands, and seems to not know how to move off the ball to get his shot. George has been hot and cold this season, though his three point shooting is good overall for the season (40.1%).

Ultimately, the Thunder aren’t much different than last year. Westbrook dominates the ball, and provides a large chunk of the scoring and playmaking (averaging a triple double again this season). George is the next best offensive player, receiving most of the passes off of Westbrook’s dribble penetration. Both players run pick and roll sets with Steven Adams, who scores almost all of his points either on rim runs or put backs. Melo is still a very gifted scorer, though he went from taking the most shots on the team to the third most (which is probably for the best, given his age and style). The Thunder are not very deep, with only Jerami Grant and Raymond Felton providing any bench production. Their series against the Jazz should be very interesting, as it matches one of the NBA’s best offensive players against one of the NBA’s best defenses.

Utah Jazz

After losing Gordon Hayward to free agency, the Jazz were expected to spend the year rebuilding. Instead, Donovan Mitchell emerged as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate (and probably would be Rookie of the Year if Ben Simmons weren’t eligible) and the team added Ricky Rubio during the off-season. Rubio is a well rounded point guard capable of running an offense and providing defensive pressure. He’s also gradually improved his major weakness (shooting) to the point where he is serviceable. The Jazz’s other big move during the season was trading Rodney Hood and George Hill to the Cavaliers for Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose (who was immediately waived). Crowder turned out to be a better fit for Utah than Cleveland, recovering his three point touch while still providing his hardnosed defense.

Defense defines this Jazz team. Rudy Gobert, a 7’1″ center with an enormous wingspan, is a shot-blocking terror around the rim. Gobert averages 2.3 blocks per game. This is a bit of a regression from his previous year, but is still one of the league’s highest block rates. Rubio is an underrated on ball defender, capable of getting into his opponent’s chest and bothering their ability to dribble and pass. Mitchell is also a high risk, high reward defender who sometimes gambles too much for steals. The Jazz also have great depth, with six players averaging double figures for the season. How the Jazz’s defense deals with the individual playmaking of Westbrook and George makes their series against the Thunder one of the must-watch series of the first round.

New Orleans Pelicans

New Orleans consists of Anthony Davis and little else (at least since DeMarcus Cousins’ season ending Achilles injury). Davis is one of the top young talents in the NBA, an athletic big man with good shooting touch, ball handling skills, and post play. Davis is also one of the NBA’s best shot blockers, averaging 2.6 blocks a game.

After Davis, the Pelicans get thin. Their next best player is Jrue Holiday, an experienced combo guard averaging 19 points per game. E’Twaun Moore provides some shooting and scoring punch, but the team’s roster gets very thin at that point. The Pelicans play fast (first in overall pace), but are an average team on offense and defense. A lot of that averageness is due to the superior play of Davis. While the Blazers will likely struggle to defend Davis, it’s hard to see the Pelicans’ perimeter defense do much to stop Lillard and McCollum over the course of a seven game series. At best, Davis will keep those two away from the rim enough to open up other options defensively. In reality, Lillard and McCollum will likely wear down the Pelicans’ perimeter players on defense if they get contained at all.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have not been themselves this season. Long the NBA’s paragon of roster development and managerial competence, the Spurs have struggled to put together a winning roster for much of the season. Losing Kawhi Leonard, one of the best two way players in the league, to an injury is bad enough. The Spurs appears to anger Leonard through their management of his injury, and possibly have lost him for good. Without Leonard, the Spurs play an old lineup based around antiquated basketball strategies. That they have made the Playoffs at all is an accomplishment.

The Spurs depend heavily on LaMarcus Aldridge for scoring, at 23 points per game. Aldridge relies heavily on midrange jumpers and post play, and takes the most shots of any individual player. After him, the Spurs get scoring from Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol, and Patty Mills. Only Mills (at 29) is under 30. The focus on Aldridge also takes away from the Spurs traditional strength the past few seasons: ball movement. The Spurs still get a decent number of assists, but the kind of rapid passing that defined their past late Duncan era teams isn’t there. The age and lack of depth likely indicate that this team will struggle against the Warriors in the first round. While Popovich has pulled off miracles before, it’s safe to say that this year’s Spurs team will, at most, be a tough first round out for the Warriors.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves finally managed to end the NBA’s longest playoff drought. After 13 seasons, the Timberwolves snagged the 8th seed in the West on the final game of the season. The Wolves upgraded their roster significantly during the off-season, snagging Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson from the Bulls (and reuniting them with their old coach Tom Thibodeau). Anchored by Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Butler, the Wolves run an efficient offense based around their stars’ unique scoring abilities. Towns, one of the rising stars in the NBA, is a seven footer capable of posting, driving, and hitting threes. Towns has shot 42% from three this season, making him almost impossible to defend. Wiggins, while less efficient, is a high volume scorer who gets to the rim almost at will.

While the Wolves are a young and fun to watch team, they likely will not get past the Rockets. The Wolves can score but cannot defend (ranked 27th in the NBA in defensive efficiency). Against a team like the Rockets, that is likely fatal. The Wolves also tend to under utilize their bench, which is a shame when their bench contains some solid players (like Bjelica, Tyus Jones, and Gorgui Dieng) that could make them better against the NBA’s best.

Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors

Toronto underwent a sea change this past year, becoming one of the Eastern Conference’s big surprises. Toronto previously relied heavily on their scorers, DeMarr Derozen and Kyle Lowry, to score in the mid-range. Serge Ibaka provides rim protection and shooting. The team would supplement that with stout defense. This year, the Raptors play much faster (going from 24th to 14th in pace between 2017 and 2018) and in a more modern NBA offense (emphasizing spacing, ball movement, and three point shooting).

The Raptors also trot out one of the NBA’s best benches. Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and Pascal Siakim provide efficient scoring off the bench, and allow the Raptors to wear other teams out by keeping constant pressure on other teams. The Raptors’ second unit averages 42 points per game and plays the second most minutes of any bench in the League.* The importance of a bench tends to diminish a bit during the playoffs, when teams tend to play their starters more minutes. How much the Raptors utilize their bench, and its effectiveness against the top Eastern Conference teams, will determine their playoff odds.

*Source: https://www.theringer.com/nba/2018/3/28/17171424/nba-icymi-20180327

Boston Celtics

The Celtics’ season has been rocky since the start. After losing Gordon Hayward during the very first game of the season, the Celtics went off on an impressive win streak before cooling down shortly before the All Star break. Since then, the Celtics have struggled with injuries. They lost Kyrie Irving to a knee injury for the rest of the season, and Marcus Smart to a thumb injury (that will likely keep him out for the start of the Playoffs).

While diminished, the Celtics are still a dangerous team. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are two strong young wings that present matchup issues on both ends of the floor. Al Horford remains an underrated big man capable of anchoring a defense and stretching the floor with his shot. The Celtics have gotten a surprisingly strong season out of backup rookie point guard Terry Rozier as well.

In addition, Brad Stevens is one of the finest coaching minds in the game. Stevens’ system, like the Warriors and Rockets, prizes ball movement, off-balls screens, and astute passing. Unlike those two teams, the Celtics prefer to play much slower (24th fastest pace in the NBA) and emphasize defense, surrendering 103.5 points per 100 possessions. This team would probably contend for the Eastern Conference crown at full strength, but is still quite dangerous even now.

Philadelphia 76ers

After years and years of tanking, the Sixers are finally ready to participate in the Playoffs. The Sixers roster, headlined by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, is a far cry from the garbage dumps of the past half decade and is good enough to push the East’s best.

Embiid anchors this team, particularly on offense. Embiid is a multifaceted center, a 20/10 player that can occasionally come out to the three point arc for the occasionally three. His length and mobility makes him a force on defense as well, averaging 1.8 blocks and 8.7 defensive rebounds per game. Ben Simmons, however, is the player that makes this team go. While Simmons is almost entirely incapable of shooting, but scores efficiently (16 points on 12.4 shots per game) by powering his way to the rim. Simmons’ vision and passing are what set him apart. Simmons can make incredibly difficult passes in traffic, while averaging 8.2 assists per game. Rounding out the roster is JJ Reddick, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric all of whom provide good to great three point shooting and play their roles well.

This team still lacks enough depth to really challenge the East’s better team, though its young roster may develop in the next few years (such as Markelle Fultz). This year though, they will likely win a playoff series before losing to either the Raptors or the Cavs.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland has LeBron James. That automatically makes them a contender no matter who else rounds up the roster. LeBron, even at 33, remains the NBA’s best player and fiercest playoff presence, a multifaceted player who can pass, score, and defend at the highest levels. LeBron comes as close to being able to win games singlehanded as any individual player in the NBA. The only real question is whether he can still do so through four playoff series.

After a mid-season rebuild, this year’s iteration of the Cavs is almost entirely different from the Finals team from last year. Though Kyrie Irving demanded a trade to Boston, Kevin Love is still on the roster. The Cavs have experimented with playing him at the 5 at points this season, with mixed success depending on specific matchups. A series of trades made the Cavs much younger, and better defensively (though the defense is a matter of degree…they’re still ranked 29th overall for defensive efficiency). The Cavs’ basic offensive approach hasn’t really changed much despite the roster turnover: spread the floor with shooters and let LeBron work. That this generally produces points is a testament to LeBron’s abilities as a player.

The Cavs big question mark is the health of Rodney Hood, who is expected to suit up despite an injured Achilles. Hood (along with Love, Jordan Clarkson, and George Hill) provides some much needed scoring from players not named LeBron. Despite this team’s substantial weaknesses, it’s hard to pick against LeBron for the East’s NBA Finals appearance. Expect LeBron to be there again.

Indiana Pacers

Indiana is one of the big surprises of the season. After trading Paul George during the off-season, Indiana was expected to be in full tank mode this season. The emergence of Victor Oladipo from discarded trade piece to legitimate All Star elevated the Pacers significantly.  Oladipo is a hyper-athletic two guard who can hit three’s at a decent clip and provide strong two way play. The Pacers lean heavily on his ability to create in order to generate points, and this will likely become more pronounced against the Cavs. The Pacers will likely go as far as Oladipo can carry them.

Miami Heat

Miami, in the post Big Three years, has reinvented itself as a young defensive minded team. At the start of the season, the Heat seemed like they would build around Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic (particularly their pick and roll play). As the season has gone on, the Heat have reduced Whiteside’s minutes and played smaller. Injuries also loom large over the Heat this season. A season ending injury to Dion Waiters took away one of the Heat’s major offensive forces, which in turn requires the team to rely heavily on Dragic and Whiteside to provide any offense.

The Heat generally win their games on the defensive end. They throw a lot of length and wing athleticism at their opponents, with Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, and Tyler Johnson. The Heat have a defensive efficiency of 106.3 points per 100 possessions (7th in the NBA), and their ability to take away passing lanes and protect the rim (when Whiteside is in) is excellent. Their lack of offense will likely cause them to struggle against the Sixers, though Spoelstra will likely have a solid game plan set up.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks begin and end with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis is a 23 year old force of nature, with unparalleled athleticism, reach, and wingspan. Few players match Giannis’  ability to disrupt their opponents on both ends of the floor. While not a great shooter, he can use his athleticism to score fairly easily. Unless LeBron is on the floor, he’s likely the best player on the floor on any given night in the Eastern Conference.

While Giannis is the Bucks’ best player, he’s not the only talented player on their roster. Eric Bledsoe is a pretty good combo guard, Malcolm Brodgon provides a steady hand on both ends of the floor, and Khris Middleton provides solid three point shooting (36%). The guards’ various kinds of scoring keep the defense from double and triple teaming Giannis, while providing length and on ball pressure on defense. The Bucks also contain a number of decent scorers, with a relatively young core. This team will probably grow a bit over the next season or two, but they will likely not survive the first round.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards remain a talented mess of a team. John Wall and Bradley Beal are two of the top backcourt duos in the NBA. Wall has been injured most of the season, and has only recently re-entered the lineup. The Wizards also have two wings, Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre, that provide shooting and defense. Post play comes primarily from Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahimi, neither of whom are particularly good post players. Markieff Morris, a stretch-4 who brings a decent amount of rebounding and defense (on top of some scoring ability), rounds out the lineup.

While Wall was out, the Wizards embraced a style Beal called “Everybody Eats”. Everybody got to touch the ball, and the Wizards would generate their offense through making several passes and giving everyone a touch. The Wizards found a decent amount of success this way. Since Wall came back, the team has regressed to its previous style. The chemistry issues and problems with Wall’s reintegration make the Wizards’ playoff odds very long.

Predictions

Warriors versus Spurs – Warriors

While the Spurs are well coached and will likely be well prepared, it’s hard to pick against the defending NBA champions here. The Warriors are younger, more talented, and have a style of play that allows them to easily exploit those advantages. The only major factor in the Spurs’ favor is the absence of Steph Curry, and even that will only allow them to steal a game. Expect the Warriors to win in 5.

Raptors versus Wizards – Raptors

The Wizards are not without talent, and have shown an ability to stymie Derozen and Lowry in the past. However, the Raptors’ depth and improved offensive efficiency prevents the Wizards from falling back on their usual game plan with the Raptors. The Wizards are also, to put it mildly, a mess at the moment. The Raptors also have a 2015 sweep to avenge and will likely be motivated to play hard in this matchup. The Raptors will finish the series in no more than 6 games.

Sixers versus Heat – Sixers

The Heat and Sixers split their season series, which is usually an indication of a close playoff matchup. The Heat are a classic overachieving regular season team that got by on stout defense and extra effort. Those advantages disappear in the Playoffs. Embiid is out for the time being, and that may even the odds a tad. The Sixers still play a talented offensive lineup, and the Heat really have no answer for Ben Simmons (even in his first playoff series). Sixers in 6.

Blazers versus Pelicans – Blazers

The Pelicans don’t go much beyond Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. In contrast, the Blazers have a deep, experienced offensive lineup and have finally learned how to play defense. With no answer for both Lillard and McCollum, the Blazers should seal this series quickly (around 5 games).

Celtics versus Bucks – Celtics

The Celtics come into this series with significant injuries (no Irving or Hayward), but likely still have enough to dispatch the Bucks without too much of a worry. Giannis Antetouknmpo will likely put out an amazing effort, and give the Celtics heartburn every game (frankly it may be worth watching the series just for him). The Celtics counter with a well constructed, well-coached team (they still have Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier) that should be able to produce enough offense to take this series in 6 or 7 games.

Cavaliers versus Pacers – Cavaliers

This prediction requires Playoff LeBron to emerge and overcome a lot of the Cavs’ deficiencies. The Cavs can score, but they’ve been a miserable defensive team for most of the season (even with the completely different core of players after the trade deadline). The Pacers have a significant drop-off in the quality of their players after Oladipo, but could push the Cavs to 6 if the Cavs’ defense remains terrible. More likely, Playoff LeBron gets this series done in 5.

Thunder versus Jazz – Jazz

This will likely be the most competitive series in the first round. What the Jazz lack in offense, they make up for with stifling defense and rim protection. The Thunder, in turn, are a flawed team that rely a lot on the scoring of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. The Jazz will have to rely a lot on rookie Donovan Mitchell to put up enough points, and this series really could swing either way in my opinion. The Jazz’s defense is a differentiator, so they get the edge in this column.

Rockets versus Timberwolves – Rockets

The T-Wolves have some great talent (Towns, Wiggins, and Butler) that speaks to how tough the Western Conference was this season. However, they are a fairly poor defensive team going up against the best offense in the NBA. Even good defensive teams struggle with all the Rockets’ pick and roll and off ball screen action, and the T-Wolves got swept in the season series due to an inability to defend those plays. Expect the Rockets to win this series easily, in 4 or 5 games.

All stats provided by basketball-reference.com

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