Continuing from Part I of this series, I’m going to prognosticate which teams will be the best in the playoffs. I started from the predicted worst first-round out, and I'm going to go all the way to the team I think will raise the Larry O’Brien this year. Thus, a prognosticated ranking. A... prognostirank! (I’m still 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. Yesterday, I went over teams 16 to 11. On with part two of our preview, from the 10th best projected team to the 6th best -- in other words, the two best first round losers, and all but the best of our projected second round losers.
• • •
WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: Chris Paul is the greatest point guard in the game today, and Memphis really isn't that much better than they are. The Grizzlies have -- hilariously enough -- gone from "hideously underrated" going into last year's playoffs to incredibly overrated now. The difference between these two teams is minimal. The Grizzlies are a better defensive unit while the Clippers are a better offensive unit, and they play different styles. It remains to be seen if Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can really cook at the Memphis pace, but it also remains to be seen if Zach Randolph can really come back and contribute to the Grizzlies' in any tangible form. If Chris Paul plays to his talent level, and Blake Griffin does enough to make life difficult on the Grizzlies' bigs? The Clippers will win this series, and could potentially win against the Spurs as well (a team they match up surprisingly well against, and a team that they would've led 2-1 in the season series if the Spurs hadn't won a miracle overtime game at Staples earlier this year.
WHY THEY WON'T: Although Paul always gives his team a chance, this Clippers team simply isn't very good. Blake Griffin is exactly the kind of big man Zach Randolph makes his bread defending, and the general makeup of this Clipper team is unremarkable. The Grizzlies are an extremely well built team, and in Tony Allen the Grizzlies have exactly the type of defender that can make Chris Paul's life hell. Given that, I see this series turning out more akin to the 2009 Hornets-Nuggets series. The Nuggets -- for that series only -- played smashmouth basketball and beat Paul up. Despite being (roughly) equally good teams, the Nuggets roughed up Paul and dealt that incarnation of the Hornets one of the worst series losses in the history of the franchise.
I see the Memphis style -- all grit, grind, and hustle -- causing the Clippers as many problems as those Nuggets caused the Hornets, and leading to a relatively easy six game victory for the Grizzlies. And on a tertiary note... the Clippers have the worst coach in the league. By a larger margin than you think. That hurts them, in a matchup with a coach that's had a fantastic two-year streak and makes excellent in-game adjustments. And in the end, it's the main reason I'm not even sure this series is going to be close. How does a Vinny Del Negro team make the defensive adjustments needed to shut down Gasol and Gay over a full series? How does Blake cover Randolph? I don't have a good answer to any of these questions. So, yeah. I think the Clippers lose it. In six games, in fact. Now, Chris Paul, feel free to make me look incredibly silly.
• • •
WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: At their peak, this isn't a first round exit sort of team. This Laker team has their flaws, but they're also a team that includes one of the most confoundingly dominant post scorers in the NBA in Andrew Bynum (a player who shoots an insane league-leading 82% from the floor in the last 5 minutes of a game within 5 points), a still-criminally-undersung star forward in Pau Gasol, the unconscionable Kobe Bryant, and a better-than-you-think Ramon Sessions manning the point. They also happen to match up rather well with the two best teams in the conference, with Bynum able to bully the Spurs and the Thunder as though they're a JV team, when he's locked in. This Laker team beat the Nuggets 3-1 in the regular season, and Bynum scored 30 the last time they met. What's stopping him from averaging 25-15 and crushing the Nuggets in 5? Not all that much, and given that, there's ample reason to think the Lakers will not only outperform this particular prediction but also win the whole shebang. How do they lose this series?
WHY THEY WON'T: ... You know, if you ignore the other factors at play here. While I don't think the Lakers are a bad team (nor do I think the current incarnation of the Nuggets are a particularly great one), I really don't like this matchup for them. Without Artest's havoc on defense, this Laker team doesn't really have an answer for any of the Nuggets' three leading scorers; Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, or Arron Afflalo. Or my favorite not-Kawhi/not-Kyrie rookie, Kenneth Faried (who I drafted in fantasy in every league this year, because I love his game. Then Karl proceeded to not play him until I dropped him. DAMNIT, KARL!) One of the Nuggets' biggest flaws (and one that led to quite a few lost games throughout the season) is their defense of the three -- they allowed the highest percentage from three point territory in the league, which generally would be a terrible thing in the playoffs. Not so against this Laker team, who were the 26th worst team in the league at shooting behind the arc (and were dead last as late as halfway through the season). If there's one team that can't take advantage of the Nuggets' largest defensive weakness, it's the Lakers.
And all this ignores the gigantic elephant in the room, and the big reason why I don't feel I can pick the Lakers in this series. Minutes, minutes, minutes. The Lakers are not a young team -- other than Bynum, they don't have a single rotation player under 27, and their two non-Bynum superstars (Pau and Kobe) both played an insane number of minutes this season. To wit: Pau Gasol is pushing 32, yet played the 2nd most minutes in the league this year (despite missing a game). He's the only person above 30 in the top 10. Kobe is #11. Combined, the Pau/Kobe duo represent the only players over 30 in the top 20. Overall, there were 45 players who played over 2000 minutes this season -- just eight of those were over the age of 30, and none of them played as many games as Pau. His numbers have been down this year, overall, and we've seen this story before. In 2011, Phil Jackson ran Pau into the ground, prompting some to think he may be due for a poor playoffs. He responded by putting up by far the worst playoffs of his career. He's a year older, and despite the lack of rest and compressed schedule, he actually played more minutes per game this year than last year.
Atop all that, Kobe is a year worse, and while Bynum is a great deal better, the 2012 Nuggets are a much better team than the Hornets team that pushed the Lakers to 4 in the first round. The Nuggets have had less of a home court advantage than expected in this year's regular season, but I don't see that continuing into the playoffs. The Nuggets have historically had a stronger home court advantage than can be expected by their point differential, and I see a reversion to the mean on that front in this year's playoffs. Which means I don't see the Lakers winning in Denver. And if I don't see that happening, the series depends on whether the Nuggets can get a win at Staples. Fortunately for the Nuggets, they're the only western team with a winning road record outside of the Spurs and the Thunder. And, to make matters worse for the Lakers? The Nuggets are playing about as well as the Lakers right now, going 11-5 in their last 16 games to the Lakers 11-6.
It comes down to this. I don't think the Nuggets can shut down Bynum. But if Pau has a disappointing series and Kobe isn't quite as good as he was last year? It probably won't matter. I'll take the Nuggets in 6, knowing full well that if I'm wrong (and I think I have a 50% chance of being wrong), the Lakers have a good shot to win the title.
• • •
WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: This is about as far as anyone has them going. But, theoretically, if the Nuggets get this far they'll be playing a second round series against a Thunder team that they're not all that poor of a match for (while they went 1-2 against them in the regular season, one was an overtime game and the other was a home blowout that happened in the depths of their most injury-riddled act of an underwhelming Denver season). They're better than they were last year, though the Thunder are as well. Honestly, though -- I don't see the Nuggets going any farther than the second round, and while I think they'll beat the Lakers, I don't see them beating the Thunder. Does anyone?
WHY THEY WON'T: I covered this rather heavily in the Laker section, but it bears mention here too. The Nuggets can't stop Andrew Bynum. Getting past the Lakers at all is going to be tough for the Nuggets, though I think they've got the power to hack it. Going farther than that would require two of three things to happen:
- Gallinari has the series of his life, and thoroughly outplays Durant.
- Ty Lawson and Andre Miller combine to undress Westbrook on defense and thoroughly win the matchup.
- JaVale McGee needs to outplay the Ibaka/Perkins bashers.
I don't think any of these are going to happen, let alone two of them. The Thunder beat the Nuggets 4-1 last year, and while the series was closer than that, the Thunder are a lot better than last year's incarnation. The Nuggets are different, but fundamentally the same team. I love Karl, but getting the Nuggets past the Thunder is a step too far. I have them losing in five, giving the Thunder an 8-2 postseason record entering the Western Conference Finals.
• • •
WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: The Celtics are an interesting team. They started out this season playing some absolutely abhorrent basketball -- at one point, they had a <50% chance of making the playoffs in both the Hollinger playoff odds and the STEVE NASH playoff rankings. Then, when we'd all left them for dead, they pulled a fast one on us. Avery Bradley began his defensive renaissance and Kevin Garnett pulled a 2012 Tim Duncan on the league from the center position. Suddenly, the Celtics weren't a bad team -- they weren't even a shaky one. They were a defensive juggernaut, and what they did over the last two months defies logic entirely. After starting the year completely unable to get off the ground, Garnett found his lift and with it his defensive dominance. The second-half Celtics posted -- in one brilliant 15 game stretch -- a defensive rating of 92.9 points per 100 possessions.
Let's try to help you grasp the significance of that figure. The 2012 Charlotte Bobcats -- the worst offense since the 2003 Denver Nuggets -- averaged 95.2 points per 100 possessions. The Celtics -- for 15 games -- held opponents to an average offensive efficiency worse than the average Bobcats game. In this stretch, they faced 10 playoff teams, including 3 of the top 4 offenses in the league. The defensive numbers the Celtics put on the floor in the second half of the season were absolutely legendary stuff. If the Celtics put up defensive numbers like that in the playoffs? They'll essentially need to play offense that's barely as good as the Charlotte Bobcats if they want to win the title. Think about that. Put that in context. That's insane. And the fact that they've shown the capacity this season to play defense that good would tend to indicate that anyone picking against them is partly insane.
WHY THEY WON'T: I'm a bit shaky about this pick. But the biggest problem the Celtics are facing right now? First, as I discussed in the Atlanta Hawks column, they've ceded home court advantage. If they can get past Atlanta (a 50-50 proposition, given the customary road woes of the playoff Celtics), they're facing Chicago in the 2nd round. For all the positive talk we can give about their defensive statistics (and it's considerable), the Celtics have kept one of their early-season mainstays constant throughout the year. They've been absolutely atrocious on the offensive end. In fact, the Celtics were actually worse on offense after the all-star break than before it, and finished the season as the 25th worst team on offense in the league. They're the worst playoff team by two points per 100 possessions -- that's the same gap that separates the 15th ranked (among playoff teams) Mavericks from the 8th ranked Lakers. That's... not good.
In the second round, the Celtics will be facing the 3rd best defensive team in the league. Even though Rose's injury should make the Bulls offense a bit less potent, their defense has easily held the court with Rose off the floor this year, and has actually performed 5 points better per possession with Rose off the court (in a significant sample size this year, given his injury woes). And even referring to the Bulls offense, it wasn't THAT much less potent -- without Rose on the court, this year, the Bulls' offense was 5.3 points per 100 possessions worse. But you could make the case (as I made on twitter yesterday) that the less ball-dominant stylings of the sans-Rose Bulls may match up better with the Celtics defense than an offense that relies on a single creator to form the crux of the offensive attack -- Bradley and Rondo could conceivably combine to shut down Rose, but the whole team defense of the Celtics is going to need to be sharper than a few standouts to shut down the Rose-lacking Chicago offense (which also runs a genuinely more complicated playbook than the Bulls do when they're using Rose as a crutch).
But even if you get past the offense, the real question remains -- how do the Celtics score on the Bulls? The Bulls absolutely dominated low-tier offenses last season, no matter whether Rose was in or out. The Celtics have the worst offense in the playoffs. That's really not a good combination for the Celtics, even if they do stop Rose's offensive attack. It's worth appreciating the incredible strides the Celtics got to get us this far. But all things considered, their chances of upsetting the Rose-less Bulls aren't nearly as good as the consensus would indicate. I think they fold in 6, moving the Bulls on to a Ewing Theory powered slot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
• • •
WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: When I put together my original rankings last Friday, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't change them. So imagine my dismay when I watched the Pacers give up an 11-0 run to the Magic in the last 5 minutes of their game 1, in Indiana. That was pretty harrowing, and the overall complexion of the upset was based exactly in what I feared -- Stan Van Gundy coaching the HELL out of his Magic team, and running circles around Frank Vogelsong (... wait) in crunch time of a close game. I still think the Pacers win the series in 5, perhaps 6. They're a markedly better team. But the Magic were exactly the team I wanted in my previous paean to the Hornets, and I'm really happy to see it.
As for why the Pacers go farther than the second round? The Pacers are rather underrated, relative to the actual quality of their team. The Grizzlies get a lot of dap for their slowdown style, and it's truly a wonder to watch. But the Pacers may very well have the best non-Laker frontcourt in the playoffs. Roy Hibbert was a worthy all-star this season, and has made his mark as one of the 5 best centers in the league. David West spent most of the season a shiftless vagabond unsure of his role or his place, but as the season ended he got into a great rhythm with Hibbert and Granger, and entering the playoffs he's playing better basketball than he's played since early 2011. He's also -- interestingly enough -- forming a considerably strong defensive pairing with Hibbert. If there's any two-man unit of big men that can replicate what last year's Grizzlies did, it's the Hibbert-West pairing.
Not only that, but unlike the Lakers, the Pacers have high-upside guys at every guard position. Collison has been a disappointment this season, but were he to return to his rookie form, he'd be one of the 3 best point guards left in the East. George Hill may be an artificial point guard -- the singularity, some could say -- but he's an excellent defensive presence and he's found a great rhythm on this Pacers team. Paul George would be my most likely pick for "surprising, remarkably unexpected star" of this year's playoffs -- he certainly has the talent for it, and he's shown flashes all year. Danny Granger is the only member of the team I'm not completely sold on, but if he plays as he has the last month, the Pacers are as good or better than every single team in the east. I'm not usually high on teams with admittedly low downsides just because their upside is so incredible -- but with this Pacer team, a top-10 offensive unit and a top-10 defensive unit, I can't help it. This is a team that could very well make the finals.
WHY THEY WON'T: ... if they weren't facing Miami in the second round. In the playoffs, Miami is a markedly better team than they are in the regular season. If they were facing the Bulls or the Celtics, I probably would've picked them to go to the conference finals (and perhaps even the finals). But they're facing the best team in the east. They don't have serious playoff experience, and (as the Orlando series has already shown) they don't have a coach who's great at in-game adjustments yet. I love Vogel as a full-season players coach, and I think he has promise as a play-caller -- but at the moment, he's eminently beatable from a strategic perspective, and I think the criminally underrated Spolestra is licking his chops at the matchup. I think the Pacers will make the Heat sweat, much like the Grizzlies did to last year's Thunder. But no more than that. Heat in 7, with the Pacers wondering how exactly the series slipped away.
• • •