Prognosti-Ranking the 2012 Playoffs: Part I

Posted on Sat 28 April 2012 in 2012 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

I wasn't entirely sure how we should do playoff previews here at the Gothic. I knew how they were going to start, with Thursday's piece about the New Orleans Hornets and how one of my fondest wishes was that there was one underdog in the 2012 playoffs that approached the contest with the dedication and grit with which the Hornets approached their doomed season. That's a start, but certainly not a finish -- I do have picks, after all, and opinions as well. I tried to think of original ways to present my picks, and settled upon this not-particularly-creative way to do it. Here's what I'll do. I'm going to prognosticate which teams will be the best in the playoffs, starting from the predicted worst first-round out to the team I think will raise the Larry O'Brien this year. So, a prognosticated ranking. A prognostirank. (I'm bad at words.) For each team, I'll do my interpretation of why they should be higher than they are, and why they should be lower than they are. Not particularly original, I realize, but it gave me a platform to share my oh-so-dear opinions, and hopefully, it'll be of interest to you guys. On with part one of our preview, from the 16th worst projected team to the 11th worst.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: They aren't going to win a series, but Stan Van Gundy can be -- at times -- an absolute maestro at getting career performances out of neglected bench players. Look at their 2009 Finals run, for pete's sake, or the incredible job he did with the 2004 Heat. Van Gundy is a fantastic coach. I feel bad predicting that he'll be swept, because a coach of his caliber doesn't really deserve to be swept. Their best case scenario, alas, is winning one or two games against an excellent Pacers team. Even at their best, they'd still be one of the three worst teams in the entire playoff picture.

WHY THEY'LL DO WORSE: ... well, you can't actually do worse than getting swept, so we'll just discuss why they'll do this badly. Look. The Magic are a relatively flawed team, as they're currently constructed. They're Dwight Howard and a bunch of players that fit well around Dwight Howard. In last year's playoffs, Howard's supporting cast put in one of the most pathetic performances by a supporting cast of all time. It's rare that any NBA player deserves a Razzie, but the Magic's supporting cast would've swept the balloting for "worst supporting actor in a drama" if the world was just. Not one of Dwight's supporting rotation players shot over 40% from the field (against a relatively weak Atlanta defense), and the Magic's awful end-of-season spill without Howard doesn't help matters. Nor does it help that their current 2nd best player after Ryan Anderson -- Glen Davis -- is currently out injured. This is the closest thing to a first round bye the Pacers could possibly get.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: While you need to reach a bit to come up with a scenario where the Sixers actually BEAT the Bulls in the first round, you don't need to reach to figure out how they might at least make it a competitive series. By point differential, they're one of the best eight-seed teams the East has seen since the 90s. Their anemic offense was going to be a problem no matter who they faced, but their defense -- among the best in the league -- is actually rather well tailored for stopping the Bulls attack. The Sixers make their bread off of eliminating the spot-up shot, with teams shooting 39.7% on the season against the Sixers in spot-up situations. Sebastian Pruiti went over it the phenomena in his excellent playoff preview -- if the Sixers make the series competitive, it'll be on the back of neutralizing the Bulls' spot-up attack and engineering the most offensively ugly first round series in the history of the human race.

WHY THEY'LL DO WORSE: ... On the other hand, have you seen the Sixers this month? They look about as bad as a team could possibly look. I realize they went on a tidy little 4 game winning streak to end the season, at least before the unmentionable blowout to the hands of the Detroit Pistons on closing day. The Sixers haven't won in regulation to a playoff team since March 31st, and since the all-star break the Sixers are 6-12 versus other playoff teams. Unless Collins pulls some magic fairy dust that turns the Bulls into a creampuff team the likes of which the Sixers feasted on to get their absurdly high point differential, they aren't going to outperform last year's Pacers. That means they're out in 5, and even that's kind of pushing it.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: Now we start to get into some realistic scenarios. I'm a Spurs fan, and I don't think Utah is anywhere near as deadly as the Grizzlies were last year. However, this Jazz team isn't quite as soft as some have noted. While their defense is poor, the Jazz offense has been positively humming to close the season. They've been offensively brilliant using monstrously huge lineups that -- while not great at covering quick guards on defense -- have absolutely dominated on the offensive end of the floor. The recent Jazz experiment with using a super-big lineup of Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Al Jefferson was the fifth most efficient lineup in the league per Basketball Value, sporting an offensive rating of 121 points per 100 possessions scored and a defensive rating of 80 points per 100 possessions allowed. Very good stuff. And to a Spurs team that was shocked by a monstrously large frontcourt a year ago, a bad thing to read about.

WHY THEY WON'T: ... unfortunately for the Jazz, other than that lineup, they don't have_ a single other lineup_ that's played more than 50 minutes together that rates as league average on defense. They're facing the best offense in the league, and a coach that excels at lineup adjustments to handle poor defensive teams. The Jazz relied on an excellent offense and some great play from young players to reach the playoffs -- they've got the talent and the ability to take a game or two from the Spurs, but this shouldn't be all that close of a series when all is said and done.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: All things considered, the Mavs probably should be thankful they dropped into OKC's bracket. There's no other team in the west -- save the Jazz -- I'd consider taking the Mavs over in a series. The Mavericks are (as I noted earlier this season) impossibly old, extremely creaky, and lost the season series to the Thunder 3-1. But at least they played them close. If Dirk has a vintage, finals MVP-type series, it's possible the Mavs could push it to 7 and get close to an upset.

WHY THEY WON'T: I debated putting the Mavs under the Jazz, though the championship boost let them get a tad bit higher. Look. The Mavericks won an amazing title last year, and the 2011 Mavericks were a fantastic team. This year's edition, though? They're pretty damn bad. Offensively shiftless, with a defense that feasts on lower-tier teams and wilts against higher tier teams. Not only that, the Mavs have been gradually (and quietly) getting worse as the season rolled along, culminating in the team you see now -- one with very little identity and (frankly) a snowball's chance in hell of even putting up a competitive performance against the Thunder, let alone beat them. Dirk will win them a game, perhaps two, and (if he has an amazing 30-15 type series) maybe even 3. But no more than that, unless the Thunder beat themselves.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: The Knicks aren't exactly a team that's going to take you by surprise at this point. They over-saturate sports media like the best New York teams all do, and they've got a roster with significant upside. And in drawing the Heat, whether Knicks fans realize it or not, they've probably gotten the most favorable draw they could've. Assuming they had to choose between the Bulls and the Heat (and yes, they did -- it took one legendary collapse from Philadelphia for them to even move up from 8th, chalking in another for Orlando defies all logic and reason), I like the Heat as a better matchup. The excellent rebounding the Bulls could throw at the Knicks would make it virtually impossible for them to get second shot opportunities, Noah could keep Chandler from getting the touches he needs to contribute on offense, and the Bulls' stout defensive rotations could easily revert the Knicks into an iso-Melo team for the ages. Against the Heat, there are a number of cogent advantages the Knicks could potentially point to.

  • Tyson Chandler essentially beat the Heat at their own game last year -- he knows their defense and offense front-to-back, and was the head of the defensive attack that neutralized them late in games in last year's finals. He's a Knick.

  • In Iman Shumpert, the Knicks have one of the best defensive rookies of the current class. Theoretically, he could keep a hobbled Dwyane Wade from doing much of his damage in a full series.

  • In his career, Carmelo Anthony has always played supernaturally well against LeBron James on both ends of the floor -- perhaps because their old friends, perhaps because he knows him too well. But he does. If that translates to the playoffs, that could swing a series.

Which would all lead me to pick the Knicks over the Heat...

WHY THEY WON'T: ... if it wasn't for the fact that, quite simply, this Heat team is just way better than this Knicks team. For the Knicks to win, they'll need LeBron James to have a series roughly as bad as last year's finals and for Chris Bosh to play awful basketball. Shumpert -- while a fantastic defensive talent -- is not going to be up to shutting Dwyane Wade down over a full series. Tyson Chandler is battling minor injuries and a bad flu. THE TEAM STARTS THE UNDEAD REANIMATION OF BARON DAVIS AT POINT GUARD (AND GIVES SIGNIFICANT MINUTES TO MIKE BIBBY). If this team beats the Heat, it's going to be a massive upset. And while their theoretical ceiling may be about as high as any of the teams I have pegged as first round outs (except for one), they're just as likely to get swept themselves as they are to beat the Heat in 6. And they'd need to. Other than Game 4 of the 2007 finals and Game 6 of the 2011 finals, neither LeBron nor Wade have ever lost a home elimination game in their lives. And those were the finals -- this is the first round we're talking about, here, and all the jitters that come from the Finals are essentially absent. I think the Knicks will win a game or two, and make the Heat sweat a time or two. But no matter how many advantages they theoretically have, I don't think they've got a legitimate shot at this series. I just don't. The Heat are too good.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: The next three teams on this list are all teams where I could realistically see them winning their series. In some cases, I could realistically see them winning several. But the prognosis is much less dire for these three than it is for the teams above. Starting with, of course, your AtLAAAAANta Hawks! It may be a surprise to you that I actually think they've got a nearly 50-50 chance to win their series with the Celtics, primarily because the prevailing logic around the Celtics is that they're the far better team. I don't necessarily disagree. There are, however, a few factors that run quite to Atlanta's favor.

  • Over the Big Three era, the Celtics are 13-22 on the road in the playoffs. In order to win this series, they'll need to have either a winning record on the road or -- at worst -- a 1-3 record on the road. While we spin yarns about the Celtics' veteran prowess, we generally fail to note that in the last four years the Celtics have never had a winning record on the road over a whole playoff run. The best was 2010, where they were 6-6 on the road. They actually did terribly in their 2008 title year, going 3-9 on the road over the whole playoffs (including 0-6 in the first two rounds). The Big Three Celtics are -- in general -- front runners. They aren't particularly great at winning playoff road games, and ceding HCA in this series by punting the game in Atlanta may prove to be an awful mistake.

  • The Hawks have played a ridiculous number of games against the Celtics in the Big Three era. The Celtics are 15-9 against the Hawks in the last 5 years, but just 4-6 against them in the last 3. One of those wins was an overtime game. While the Hawks did rather terribly against the Celtics in the first two years of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era, they've done pretty well for themselves over the last few years, and have begun to take the upper hand in the matchup -- at least in the regular season. Remains to be seen if they'll translate that to the playoffs, but it's a good trend for them.

  • While the Hawks have had some poor injury luck this season (for the first time in a few years), they'll enter the series as ostensibly the more healthy team. Greg Stiemsma (the Bill Simmons pick for the Dwight Howard replacement on Team USA -- and dear God, I wish I was kidding) is hobbling with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Additionally, Pierce has a sprained toe, Kevin Garnett has sore hips, Rondo has a sore back, and Ray Allen still isn't quite right from his midseason injury. The Hawks are missing Horford, but their key pieces -- Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Jeff Teague -- all enter the series relatively healthy. In a close series, the more healthy team generally wins, if they combine that health with home court advantage and experience with their opponent.

WHY THEY WON'T: For the same reasons the prevailing sentiment is that they'll be outclassed in the series -- the Celtics are playing some truly special defense right now. The Hawks are a decent team, but not a great one. The Hawks this season have been much like the Hawks every season for the last three years: win a decent number of games, utilize a non-creative offensive attack (though Drew's offense is still more creative than Woodson's iso-Joe stylings), beat the teams they're supposed to beat, play teams that are nearly as good as they are close, and lose miserably to teams that are better than they are. The Hawks winning this series depends on the Celtics being -- instead of the team we saw in the last month or two -- the team that they were over the whole of the season. Which is a team that's not quite as marvelous on defense, shiftless on offense, and roughly at the Hawks level overall. I wanted to pick the Hawks to win the series, and I see it as a strong possibility. But I just can't pick the Hawks to beat a team that's better than they are. They haven't done it yet, and without Horford, I don't think this will be their year. Celtics break the Hawks' second round streak, and beat them in six.

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Given the length, I'll cut this off here. We'll continue tomorrow with teams 10-5 (which will take us to our projected conference finalists), and Sunday with teams 4-1 (culminating in my prediction for this year's NBA title winner). Please note that all picks have already been made, and a draft of each post is done as well -- just because the last few teams will come up after a few games have been played doesn't mean I'm gaming the last few. Enjoy the playoffs, campers. I will.