By: Griffin Finch
Another NBA regular season has come and gone and unlike last year where it was a foregone conclusion that the Warriors would dominate the league and come away with the crown from the moment Kevin Durant signed with them, this year has been full of surprises that nobody could have predicted. From just how well the pairing of James Harden and CP3 worked out, to both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward going down for Boston and the Celtics still looking like a tough matchup for any team in the league. All that in mind let’s take a look at the sixteen teams that earned a birth to the 2017-2018 NBA postseason.
Back in October before the preseason had started we all knew that the Toronto Raptors would be a team that would finish anywhere between the 2nd and 4th seed in the East, securing home court advantage and would most likely be eliminated from the playoffs in the second round or if they were lucky the Conference Finals. As the season began, everything pointed to that being the logical conclusion of Toronto’s season. Then all of a sudden, DeMar DeRozan started hitting perimeter shots at a rate he had never done before. This opened up the offense for Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valančiūnas and the rest of the crew. That combined with the excellent coaching from Dwane Casey who has the Raptors with a top five offense and defense. Toronto finished with fifty-nine wins and the first seed in the East this year and are expected to at least make the Conference Finals. However, in the past the Raptors have more often than not lived up to expectations in the postseason. Often looking like a shadow of the team we see in the regular season.
The Boston Celtics season has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride all year long. They had a dream like offseason that included trading for Kyrie Irving, signing Gordon Hayward and drafting a stud in Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick. Then within minutes of game one of the season Gordon Hayward breaks his ankle and would be out for the entire year. In spite of this fact the Celtics went ahead and started 18-2 in the first twenty games including a sixteen game win streak. Kyrie Irving was putting on a show all year until he went down. On April 5th, he underwent season ending surgery to repair his knee. Without either of the all-star offseason acquisitions the Celtics are still a very efficient defensive team that struggles desperately to score points. Boston should be an interesting team that might make some noise this postseason but unfortunately due to injury winning it all just isn’t in the cards for them this year.
The 76ers this season have over achieved this season beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Lead by Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Philly has secured the third seed in the East with fifty-two wins (two more than Lebron and the Cavs), and are favored in most match-ups throughout the Eastern Conference bracket. If Embiid comes back from his orbital bone fracture as his normal self and Markelle Fultz continues to play well off the bench, with Ben Simmons at the helm and maybe a little luck I see no reason that Philadelphia couldn’t find themselves in the NBA Finals this year despite their inexperienced roster. No matter what happens in April, May and June this campaign by the 76ers has been a resounding success. Whatever you think about Sam Hinkie and what he did over the last few seasons in the city of brotherly love it is clear that it worked and you should indeed trust the process.
The Cavs season has been rife with turmoil and turnover. The only constant throughout the year has been the stellar play of Lebron James. After getting devastated in the Finals in five games by Golden State, and Kyrie Irving demanding a trade Cleveland reloaded once again but this time with the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and future Hall of Famer Dwayne Wade. It looked like maybe the Cavaliers might be able to push the Warriors to six or maybe even seven games this time around. Cleveland struggled defensively out of the gates and at times looked like they couldn’t guard a JV High School team. People wrote this off saying to wait for them to build team chemistry and for Isaiah Thomas to come back healthy from his hip injury that he sustained in last year’s playoffs and everything will take care of itself. Soon after the Cavs started to play well, they went on a thirteen game win streak all still without the services of their all-star point guard. When Isaiah Thomas did come back it was believed that Cleveland would begin to truly dominate every team in the east. However the opposite happened. Isaiah was not himself at all and to make matters worse he and D-Wade began to cause chemistry issues in the locker room. It became evident that this experiment had failed so before the trade deadline the Cavaliers cleaned house doing a complete roster overhaul. They got rid of Isaiah Thomas and Dwayne Wade and several other pieces and replaced them with the likes of George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.. Admittedly the Cavs are looking better offensively but still struggle to stop people at the other end of the floor. Despite Lebron’s greatness he is not expected to make it to another NBA Finals this year, and there are some who believe he may even get bounced in the first or second round.
The Indiana Pacers have been one of the biggest surprises of this season. Over the summer they traded away Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in a desperate attempt to not lose him for nothing when he becomes a free agent this summer. Most people thought it was fairly obvious that the Thunder had won that trade pretty easily. But that was back in August. Now that it’s April things have changed a little. Oladipo has had a breakout season and is going to be this years Most Improved Player. Sabonis, Turner and fan favorite Lance Stephenson have all elevated their games as well this year, and have the Pacers playing as a team that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. They have finished with forty-eight wins and are expected to give the Cavs a good fight in the first round.
Similar to the Pacers the Heat are playing very well as a team and perhaps over achieving a little bit. Head Coach Erik Spoelstra has his team in peak form. With Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and other excellent complementary pieces Miami had the talent to maybe do something in the postseason. But with the trade deadline deal that sent Dwayne Wade back to Miami now they have talent and playoff experience. They have been a tough team all year and are a team that no one wants to meet in the playoffs. If things go right for them they could push any team in the East to seven games, maybe even luck up and win a series. But that is best case scenario. Most likely they will lose to the 76ers in five or six games in the first round.
Going into this year the hype surrounding Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo was immeasurable. Kobe had challenged him to win MVP and in the first few weeks of the season it looked like a real possibility. But with Jabari Parker injured again, the Bucks began to struggle. They traded for Eric Bledsoe giving the Greek Freak a bonafide point guard to help him on offense. Milwaukee improved as a result, but only marginally. If you were to examine the roster you may wonder how this team ended up as a sixth seed and you would be justified in having this question. Over the course of eighty-two games the Bucks seemed to drop a lot of games they should have won resulting in their less than glamorous record. However they are a very long and very athletic team with a transcendent talent in Giannis and very good pieces around him. This team has more upset potential than any other team in the East. Especially when you consider that they have drawn a depleted Celtics team in the first round.
Even more so the Bucks the Wizards have severely under achieved this season. They had not been a good team all year and most of the problems were attributed to a chemistry problem in the back court between John Wall and Bradley Beal. It didn’t help when John Wall got hurt and the Wizards went on a win streak and started playing well as a team. Now, John Wall is back and healthy and has something to prove. He wants everyone to know that he is a top guard in the league and that he can be the best player on a winning team. Washington plays Toronto in the first round and if Wall doesn’t show up in a big way it may be the end of an era in the nation’s capital despite him signing a 207 million dollar contract extension this past summer. I expect a very emotional series and one of the more entertaining top seed versus eighth seed matchups we have seen in a while.
In the gauntlet that was the Western Conference only two teams stood out from the rest of the pack. The reigning champion Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets (who won a franchise record sixty-five games and actually beat Golden State for the top seed in the West.) The pairing of Chris Paul and leading MVP candidate James Harden in Mike D’Antoni’s system has worked out better than anyone could have anticipated. They are so dominant this year that when the entire squad is healthy they have been practically unbeatable. Their pick and roll and isolation heavy offense is tailored perfectly to the personnel on the roster. Chris Paul has captained the defense to a respectable level with even Harden significantly improving on D this year. Right now the Rockets are favored in a hypothetical series against the Warriors but we have yet to see if The Beard can get it done in the playoffs. This is the best chance the Rockets have had at a ring since Jordan retired in the ‘90s. If they can get past the Warriors, they should be able to make short work out of anyone who comes out of the East.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors won the finals pretty convincingly in five games this past June and kept the core of their roster intact over the summer. At the beginning of the season they were the overwhelming the favorite to repeat as World Champs. A combination of an amazing season from Houston and getting hit with injuries left and right the dubs are in second place in the West. Stephen Curry is still out with injury and frankly without him they are just not the same team. They are barely above average and are lucky that Kawhi Leonard is out for the Spurs because otherwise the champs would be out in the first round. For now, the pressure is on Kevin Durant to prove that he can be the leader of the team at least until Steph returns. Once he does, if he is even seventy-five percent of himself Golden State should be able to get their third ring in four years.
Portland Trail Blazers
Another surprise this season has been the success of the Blazers especially after the all-star break. Portland is perhaps the most consistently underrated team in the league. Damian Lillard is always snubbed on everything from all-star games to all-NBA teams. Head Coach Terry Stotts doesn’t seem to ever get the recognition he deserves for the performance of his less than ideal rosters year in and year out. Somehow, they always manage to get it done and their top players consistently show up when it counts most. For this reason they will be a tough battle for the sixth seeded Pelicans. Keep in mind though that seeds three through eight are separated by only two games. So, all of the teams are pretty evenly matched. The parity between the second tier teams in the west this season have created a slate of first round matchups that are sure to be very entertaining.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Sam Presti is truly one of the best executives in the league. Just this past summer he pulled of trades for both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Two guys who are completely capable of averaging twenty-five points in their sleep. Combine them with the assassin that is Russell Westbrook and you truly have a three headed monster that should scare anyone. Give that monster an athletic supporting cast like the one they have and the Thunder could easily go to a seven game series in the conference finals. They are one of the scariest teams in the West because the game slows down in the playoffs and you need stars who can get buckets no matter what happens. The Thunder have three of the best in the world and have the talent to beat anybody. The problem is they tend to have issues in the closing minutes deciding who needs to take the last shot. If they can figure it out they could do big things this year.
After losing their star in Gordon Hayward to the Celtics in free agency along with many other key players, the Jazz were expected to be a team destined for the lottery. Instead against all odds the Jazz are the fifth seed in a loaded Western Conference. This is due in large part to the steal of the draft and Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell. He averaged twenty points as a rookie, combined with lock down interior defense provided by none other than Rudy Gobert, the Jazz finished the season looking very good and should be a formidable opponent for the Thunder in the first round.
New Orleans Pelicans
This season Anthony Davis has shown over and over again why, in the not to distant future, he will be the definitive best player in the world. Rajon Rondo has had a resurgence in his career with AD to pass the ball to. And the New Orleans front office has finally provided Davis with competent shooters. The only thing keeping them out of title contention this year is the season ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins. Before he was injured the Pelicans were a top four team in the west and trending upwards. After Cousins went down Anthony Davis started dropping forty point games every night it seemed like. It was performances like that that kept New Orleans in playoff contention and solidified Anthony Davis as an upper echelon player in the NBA.
San Antonio Spurs
This season more than anything has proved yet again that Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the league and it really isn’t even close. He took LaMarcus Aldridge and a roster full of savvy yet aging veterans and young undeveloped talent and still nearly won fifty games. If Kawhi Leonard had been healthy they could have probably won upwards of sixty-five games. Unfortunately, Leonard is out for the season and the most likely doesn’t stand much of a chance against the Golden State Warriors. But you can never underestimate Popovich, he always has some sort of trick up his sleeve. Plus the Warriors haven’t been playing their best basketball of late so maybe Pop sees something that he can expose in their game in order to upset them.
The T-Wolves went from being a lottery team to a team one game out of home court advantage in the West. They did this with the key additions of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. Combine them with the young stars in Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins and you have a very good team indeed. Unfortunately for them they play the Rockets who look absolutely unstoppable right now. If they want to even make the series interesting they are going to need to be firing on all cylinders and still get a little lucky. They are an extremely talented team so it is possible for them to take a game or two off of the Rockets. It’s too bad that they got matched up with the Rockets, because if it had been anyone else including Golden State their would have been a real possibility of an upset.
The eastern conference has no teams that stand out, and with the exceptions of Houston and Golden State the other six teams in the west are virtually equal. With all these seemingly evenly matched teams we as basketball fans should be in for one of the most exciting NBA postseasons in recent memory. For the first time in a long time it isn’t a lock that the Warriors will meet the Cavaliers in the Finals. This has generated a lot of interest that hasn’t been there in years past. This time around there are six possible finals match-ups each just as likely as the last. There are also several places where an upset seems very likely to happen in both conferences. I fully expect to see attendance records and TV viewership records to be broken this year. The NBA and basketball are the fastest growing sport in the world and as long as we continue to encourage parity, this is the year the NBA will soon be the biggest global brand in the sports world.