Playoffs 2017: Who’s In?

This upcoming NBA season has an ominous feel to it.  Many believe its outcome is a forgone conclusion: the super team Warriors will run roughshod over the entire league and coast their way to a second title in three years.  At the top of this list is ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who claims that he is “depressed” over the thought of the upcoming season.  On paper, it does seem like the Warriors being crowned champions is a mere formality.  But when’s the last time a team that good on paper lived up to expectations?  And what about the other 29 teams in the league?

So many teams, particularly in the East, improved greatly this offseason and will have a say in the playoff race.

While the third installment of Cavs-Warriors appears very likely, the playoff race and playoffs should be as intriguing as always.  Here are my playoff seeding predictions for this upcoming season.

Eastern Conference

1.   Cleveland Cavaliers.  Expect the Cavs to take the one seed for the second consecutive season and win it rather easily.  This year, the defending champs have a healthy Kyrie Irving, a full year of head Coach Ty Lue, a reinvigorated LeBron James, and an improved bench, headlined by the acquisition of Mike Dunleavy.  The Cavs are clearly the class of the Eastern Conference and by a wide margin at that.

2.    Boston Celtics.  The Celtics have high expectations.  The last two years of the Brad Stevens era have produced playoff berths, but they have been marred by first round exits.  This year’s squad led by Isaiah Thomas and newcomer Al Horford is expected to not only make it out of the first round, but give the Cavs a run for their money in the east.  The key for the Celtics this year could be mercurial shooting guard Marcus Smart, who is already a terrific defender but erratic shooter.  If Smart displays significant offensive improvement, look out.

3.   Indiana Pacers.  Besides the Warriors, the Pacers may have had the best free agency.  They traded for Jeff Teague and Thad Young, and signed Al Jefferson in free agency.  This group joins Paul George and the extremely talented Myles Turner.  Expect this group to continue to play stifling defense and improve offensively under new coach Nate McMillan.

4.   Toronto Raptors.  The Raptors finally got the playoff monkey off their back, making it all the way to the ECF last season.  They should have a healthy DeMarre Carroll for the whole season, which will only help their charge in the east.  Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan might just be the league’s best backcourt, but besides them, there’s not a reliable third option on the Raptors.  On top of that, they had an underwhelming free agency, with Jared Sullinger as their big acquisition.  With the teams around them better, I foresee the Raptors regressing in 2017.

5.   Detroit Pistons.  The Pistons are another team that had a nice free agency, signing Ish Smith and Boban Marjanovic to anchor their second unit.  They have another year of the lethal Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick and roll, and a full year of Tobias Harris.  Don’t forget about starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who showed great strides last season.  The Pistons are for real, and expect them to make some noise in the East.

6.    Atlanta Hawks.  Losing longtime center Al Horford was a big blow for the Hawks.  They offset it a little by bringing in Dwight Howard.  But at the tail end of his career and coming off of a down year, Howard is not the player that Horford is.  Plus, Howard can’t stretch the floor and pass like Horford, something paramount in head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense.  Further, it remains to be seen how Dennis Schroder will fare in a starting role with the trade of Jeff Teague.  This is still a solid team, but there are some real question marks, some that will lead the Hawks further down the conference ranks.

7.    New York Knicks.  Talk about a team with question marks.  Back in 2011, a starting five with Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, and Joakim Noah would be one of the best units in the league.  But alas, it is not 2011.  Here in 2016, Rose is a shell of himself who can’t stay healthy and Noah is coming off a lost season cut short by injury.  In addition, the Knicks have to acclimate themselves to new head coach Jeff Hornacek’s offensive system, which is a far cry from the triangle offense they ran the past two seasons.  Nonetheless, the 2016 Noah and Rose, assuming they can stay healthy, a star in Carmelo Anthony, and another year of Kristaps Porzingis, should be enough to get the Knicks into the postseason.

8.    Chicago Bulls.  The Bulls are finally Jimmy Butler’s team. But with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in the fold, they’re also a team that has one of the worst three point shooting backcourts in the league.  And in a league driven by the three ball, that is not a recipe for success.  Nevertheless, Butler’s excellence, and contributions from promising second year players Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic, there’s no reason that the Bulls shouldn’t be in the mix for the eighth seed this year.

 

Western Conference

1.    Golden State Warriors. The Warriors would have been the favorites to capture the one seed for the third straight year even before Kevin Durant decided to jump on the Warriors bandwagon.  Now, with KD in the fold, it’s a mere formality.

In the beginning, this bunch will have to acclimate to each other’s playing styles, so don’t be surprised if they get off to a sluggish start.  But once they get rolling, look out.  The Warriors have the potential to make 73 wins look like nothing.

2.     San Antonio Spurs.  There’s no organization more consistent than the San Antonio Spurs.  The Spurs have not missed the postseason since Tim Duncan’s arrival.  But even with the Big Fundamental retiring, the Spurs won’t skip a beat led by Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldrige, and free agent signee Pau Gasol.

Expect this season to be business as usual for the Spurs, winning over 50 games and making a deep run into the postseason.

3.     Los Angeles Clippers.  With the fall of the Thunder, the three seed is right there for the taking for this group. If healthy, the Clippers are dynamic, led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan.

The biggest problem for the Clippers in recent years has been their bench.  This upcoming season, the Clippers have a nice bench, anchored by a strong veteran presence with Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton Mo Speights, and Alan Anderson.  The pieces are in place, but can the Clippers finally put it together when it matters most?

4.    Memphis Grizzlies.  The Grizzlies were probably the biggest abusers of the inflated cap, when they signed Mike Conley to a five year $153 million contract, and Chandler Parsons to a four year $94 million contract.  Re-signing Conley was critical, and adding Parsons to a group that features Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, makes the Grizzlies a solid team.  If they can avoid the injury bug that bit them so badly last season, and if first year Head Coach Dave Fitzdale continues to harp on the grind-it-out philosophy, the Grizzlies will be in the mix.

5.    Portland Trailblazers.  The Blazers are coming off a year where many expected them to go south, but instead they surged and captured the fifth seed in the west.  This year, they have the target on their back, and their younger players, specifically CJ McCollum, will be under pressure to produce at a high level.  But with the incredible Damian Lilliard leading the squad, and newcomers Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, the Blazers look poised to have another successful season.

6.    Oklahoma City Thunder.  The fact that I expect OKC to get the sixth seed is a testament to Russell Westbrook’s greatness.

Without KD two seasons ago, Westbrook entered nuclear mode, dropping triple doubles almost every single night, while almost dragging the Thunder into the postseason.

I predict Westbrook will again put up mind-boggling numbers, so much so, I anticipate he will win the MVP.  As for the rest of his team, there’s really not too much to get excited about, besides the mustaches of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams.

7.    Dallas Mavericks.  The Mavs seem to have just enough—or just barely enough, depending on which way you look at it—to sneak into the playoffs year after year.  With Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut headlining a revamped starting lineup, expect this year to be no different.  But like so many seasons in recent memory, the Mavs lack of a true point guard and aging roster will haunt them, and they won’t be a threat again.

8.    Minnesota Timberwolves.  Every year, there is a surprise team.  This year, I expect it to be the Wolves.

The Wolves are the envy of the rebuilding teams with a treasure trove of young talent that is poised to make the next step.  Having Tom Thibodeau as head coach this year will get the young Wolves to play significantly better defense.  Couple that with their dynamic offensive attack spearheaded by Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, this team is no joke.

 

photo via llananba