I feel like I write about this a lot, but one thing I always want to avoid in my posts is complaining about sports as entertainment. Too many people do it and it serves no purpose other than to inform readers of said writer’s inflated sense of entitlement. Not everyone is going to find everything equally or 100% enjoyable, there’s no reason to rant and rave about it like professional athletes owe you anything more than their best effort, and even then it should be saved for when you attend live games.
All that said, I have to make an exception here, because holy sh!t did the NBA limp into the post-season. Unless you are a Jazz/Rockets/Mavs/Suns fan, every game was more meaningless than usual these last two weeks. Outside of players missing games due to legitimate and fake injuries alike, the biggest story this last month has been whether or not the Charlotte Bobcats will turn out to be the worst team in NBA history (spoiler alert: they are). Yeah, its been like that these past couple months.
But now we’re heading into the NBA post-season with all our teams and seeding confirmed. The NBA is probably one of the more underrated post-seasons. The NFL is popular because it’s the NFL, people almost exclusively watch the baseball post-season because it’s short and has a storied history, the NCAA Tournament is appreciated because of its one-and-done nature, everyone seems to love the NHL playoffs because, as an outside observer, seeding seems to be completely irrelevant; and the BCS can’t be underrated because it’s so regularly disappointing (though people get entirely too emotional complaining about it).
The NBA playoffs, however, are a symmetrical balance of upsets and dynasties, and the better team prevails 95% of the time because they play a full seven-game series. Unlike hockey, where it seems absurd to call any lower seed winning a series an “upset”, the same can’t be said for when the Mavericks make the Finals, or when the eighth-seeded Warriors or Grizzlies beat the one-seeded Mavs or Spurs in 2007 & 2011. There are countless, noteworthy examples from the past ten years. In short, it seems healthy when upsets count for something, and basketball seems to have this quality over every other sport except maybe college football, whose landscape is entirely too inequitable.
So let’s rank these teams, similar to how we’ve done a couple times throughout the regular season. Again, these rankings are who’s more likely to WIN the NBA title, not simply get to the Finals. We’ll make picks in a separate post.
Oh my, do I hope I’m wrong about this. And there’s a good chance that I am. The Heat have looked pretty average down the home stretch. Part of that is not caring, in fact I’d venture to guess most of it is not caring (hence the #1 seed), but this team has shown stretches of vulnerability all season. I’m not excepting that to become an issue until they get to the Finals because all the teams in the East are fare more flawed and, fundamentally, nothing has changed about any of the teams they will play in the East except Chicago added Rip Hamilton, Indiana made a leap from fringe playoff team to having one of the best records in the league, and the Celts have reinvigorated their bench. Oh, and the Knicks have changed their coach and rotation about three dozen times.
Absolutely none of this (with the exception of maybe the Pacers, which we’ll get to Later) should alter Miami’s success from last year. I expect them to coast to the Finals, the question then is will they piss it away again? But that’s really the only question, which earns them the top seed here.
Ron Artest really isn’t all that important to this team anymore. Sure, he still offers a defensive presence that opponents may find intimidating, but even that’s more of a Mike Tyson effect than anything else. He’s basically interchangeable with Matt Barnes at this point, and Barnes is a far better three-point shooter. The reason the Lakers should be considered the second most likely team to win the title, and why their record isn’t an accurate reflection of how good they are, is one reason and one reason at all: Ramon Sessions. We’ve written about his effect before, but acquiring him so late in the season leads me to believe the Lakers are ready to return to their old selves. Between adding Sessions, Gasol and Bynum being the best big man tandem in the league, a deep bench, and Kobe being almost certainly taking it personally that everyone his counting out his team for daring to miss the Finals for the first time in three years, I think we have a Finals pick.
There’s a couple elements that could easily keep this team out of the Finals and a six title in 12 years, not the least of which is Mike Brown. I’ve seen him self-destruct the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron at least once against the Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. In a far more competitive 2012 Western Conference, he’s likely to do it again. Another reason is crucial and often overlooked: Chemistry. Andrew Bynum almost certainly hates Mike Brown, Ron Artest isn’t exactly a calming presence, Kobe is too often a volatile personality, I’m almost certain Gasol has issues stemming from being fake-traded, and Mike Brown wants to prove he’s Phil Jackson by managing all of this. The bad news is, Mike Brown is no Phil Jackson.
Mind you, that’s a lot of fu<k!ng reasons, but the Lakers are pretty much running in a dead heap with the next four Western Conference teams to be named.
3)Oklahoma City Thunder
Much like the Miami Heat, this team is the 2-seed and easily the most talented team in their conference. Also like the Miami Heat? Their two best players seemingly struggle to play alongside each other, often in the most important of times (as in, crunch). The Thunder are everyone’s darling this year, and they have essentially the same chance of making it as the Lakers, but in these scenarios I favor experience over youth, and with Sessions the Lakers can maintain a similar tempo to the Thunder if need be. I still like the Thunder and their second round series with the Lakers, should it come to fruition, will inevitably be seven games either way. But lack of low-post scoring options coupled with a relatively limited bench outside of James Harden, and they’re vulnerable to be dispatched in either the second or third round.
4)San Antonio Spurs
Yet again the one-seed, yet again not inspiring anyone. Personally, my dream scenario would be the Spurs making one last trip to the Finals and knocking off the Heat in rather anti-climactic fashion, but the match-ups would have to be favorable. They won’t lose in the first round like they did last year, mostly because they’re fully healthy and the Jazz this year aren’t nearly as good as the Grizzlies last year (though they do play a similar style) and it isn’t in the Spurs constitution to screw up twice in such spectacular fashion. Also, they could play the Grizzlies again in the second round, which, even with a healthy Ginobli, poses somewhat of a threat.
The good news is they re-acquired Stephen Jackson to help on the perimeter. He’ll help to counteract what Rudy Gay contributes, who didn’t play last season. Besides, the Grizzlies are probably going to have a seven game series with the Clips while San Antonio should wrap up the first round in 4-6, which is imperative for the Spurs. More than anything else, this team needs rest.
Like stated earlier, I don’t think another year of chemistry and a shell-of-his-former-self Rip Hamilton is going to be enough to get Chicago over the 4-1 series they lost to Miami last year. Man, I want to like this team, as they’re the Heat’s primary rival. Like, I really do. But they’re just so monotonous on the court. Derrick Rose is exciting at times as well as Taj Gibson & Noah (I guess), but everyone else looks like a robot out there going through pre-programmed motions This could be a good thing, we can’t be sure. And since I have no emotional connection to anyone or anything pertaining to the Bulls, they’re just some elite team I expect to get bounced before everyone else does. Also, they’re lucky Indianapolis got up to the three-seed, because the Pacers could beat them in the second round. Boston is going to be a challenge but the Pacers play Chicago better than anyone else, it seems.
Essentially, I think they beat the Clippers but fall to the Spurs. San Antonio has too much firepower this year and Randolph is still recovering from his knee injury. Even with Rudy Gay, between the acquisitions the Spurs made and the fact they got the one-seed while regularly resting their players for the past month, leads me to believe Z-Bo needs to be in peak form to repeat last year’s magic.
For two straight rankings I had the Clippers as the second most likely team to win the title, but then they lost Billups, hit a cold streak, had Reggie Evans speak out against their second best player’s lack of personal accountability for his own agency, still haven’t come together defensively and are stuck with a half-witted coach who would have been fired halfway through the season had anyone else owned the team other than Donald Sterling (but then Del Negro probably wouldn’t have been hired in the first place). But, the Clips still have the best point guard from this season, one of the more explosive post-players since Shawn Kemp, and a bevy of good to great role players in Mo Williams, Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Foye, Simmons & Martin. With the west spread so thin, if they catch fire they can make a push at the Finals.
This is more a reflection of who they’ll have to play than where I think they stand in the NBA. But given that they’re almost unavoidably playing the Heat unless the Knicks can pull off a minor miracle (and enough people comically think this is in the Knicks capacity), Miami will be Indiana’s second round opponent. Now, they’ve seemed to improve over the course of the season against the Heat. Losing by 35, 15, then 2 in overtime, before winning their fourth match-up at home by 105-90, the same score they lost their second game to Miami. So clearly they’ve improved immensely. But going back to last year, they’re 2-5 against them and while we can all hope that progress will be a good indicator for how a second round playoff series will unfold, I’m not quite as sold. Let’s just hope Indiana doesn’t panic in the off-season and make some ill-advised, unnecessarily drastic move.
They might be ranked too low here at nine. After some rotation shake-ups, The Celts have been on something of a tear, giving considerable minutes to unsuspecting players like Avery Bradley and the big, clumsy looking white guy from Wisconsin whose name I can’t remember. They play Atlanta in the 4-5 match-up and it’s been a funny evolution with these two teams over the years. As far as the regular season is concerned, as little as a couple years ago Atlanta always used to beat Boston, given that Boston was old and veteran-savvy, while Atlanta was an up-and-comer, the Hawks had a considerable athletic advantage on them.
But the two years passed, Atlanta never got over the hump, and suddenly they’re old as well. Now without any discernible athletic advantage, the Celts win more often than not. I expect the same thing to happen here. They’re second round match-up is with the Bulls, and the Celtics are more than capable of beating the Bulls. For Boston, if they play Miami in the Conference Finals, if Wade can’t manage to take Rondo out of the series with an injury, this team could yet again be in the Finals. They’re ranked below Chicago because, well, of the four favorites that are likely to make the Finals out of the West, Boston can’t hold a candle to any of them.
Sporting a misrepresented record due to a season of plagued injuries. They’re deep up front and at point guard, the 2-guard is their biggest liability but Aaron Afflalo is better than most casual observers will realize. But yeah, they’re basically the Indiana Pacers without being as deep and youthful, and without an offensive option as good as Danny Granger.
11)New York Knicks
Also sporting a record that’s misrepresenting their actual talent level since they went through about two dozen different transformations to get to this point, and it seems to be their most successful iteration. But they still are thin at point guard (though Lin coming back would help matters) and I’m not certain how long Melo can keep up this current run. Based on what I said about people comically believing in this team’s chances of beating Miami I obviously don’t think they’re going to fare all that well, but they could beat most of the teams that are about to follow.
This is almost a courtesy ranking for being the defending champions. They’re matched up with Oklahoma City in the first round, which somehow went from being a team you knew Dallas would beat in the Conference Finals last year to a team that Dallas has no shot against this year. Funny how that happens, with no preseason, no motivation, and you replaced your best streak scorer, three point shooter and defensive player with a rapidly aging Vince Carter who never worked on his game, so it’s fading with his athleticism and a disgruntled Lamar Odom who isn’t on the team anymore because he really resents being landlocked. So, yeah, they got their title and cleared some cap space, good luck next year with Deron Williams.
If they had a capable, pass first point guard who could involve every player in the offense, they’d be higher than the 7th or 8th seed. Instead, they are saddled with fantasy bust and wasted potential extrodinaire in Devin Harris, who can’t really transition from attempting to score to distributing, and just seems like an all-around bad fit for this Jazz team. Hey, remember when everyone said how hosed Mark Cuban was when he traded Harris to New Jersey for an aging Jason Kidd? You probably don’t because its been a long time since anyone’s said such a thing.
Anyhow, with their bevy of low-post players who are either all-star contenders or promising relative newcomers (Milsap, Favors, Jefferson & Kanter) along with Gordon Heyward and about four…respectable guys off the bench to spell their starters, Utah could win a couple games, but they’re not getting out of the first round. Things like what happened for Memphis last year against San Antonio require more stars to be aligned, and playing a fully healthy San Antonio with a mediocre point guard doesn’t qualify.
I still don’t think there’s anything more pointless than an Atlanta sports team’s post-season bid. Even when they’re the best in their league/conference record wise, they managed to shit the bed. The Falcons have done this pretty regularly with Matt Ryan, the Braves are legendary for disappointment (essentially the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, particularly in the 90′s), and the Hawks are no different.
Or rather, the way they disappoint is different. While the Falcons and Braves lose in relatively dramatic fashion, the Hawks disappoint with their front office, then somehow stumble into a world-class of talent, yet come up short Every. Single. Year. Mostly through indifference and every player on the team believing they’re better than they actually are. Anyhow, this year might be a tipping point as they’re playing Boston in the first round, so they probably won’t even get that second round birth after playing an entire series on NBA TV. In fact, since they’re playing Boston, they’ll manage to avoid both those fates this year.
This team stayed identical to what they were last year, as they have too many redundancies at too many positions. They don’t need both Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner, nor do they need Jrue Holiday, Louis Williams and Jodie Meeks. These are all really good players, and if you package two or three of them together you should be able to bring in a second or third-tier post player. Because as much as I like Spencer Hawes & Elton Brand, they can’t be your starters when Iguodala is your best option, and you aspire to someday when an NBA title.
Anyhow, their inaction will result in a hard-fought, five game series loss to the Heat or a six-game loss to the Bulls. And three days after they bow out of the playoffs, everyone can go back to forgetting they exist.
And at the bottom of the barrel, here are the Orlando Magic, who currently stand as the sixth seed in the East without their best player, who doubles as a top-five NBA talent as well as a top-three disruptive locker room presence. I mean, Stan Van Gundy doesn’t seem like he’d be the easiest person in the world to play for, but there isn’t anyone else on that team that hates him so fervently. The Magic have a lot of issues to sort out, and one of them is to just get as much as they can, from whoever they can, for Howard. As a result, it doesn’t seem like the Magic will be overly focused or soundly-equipped to make a playoff run.
On the other hand, Bill Simmons referenced his ever popular Ewing Theory in his latest column, and it certainly made sense. To summarize, the Magic have more talent surrounding Howard than anyone, including Howard, believes them to have. And they are playing a completely untested Pacers team, who while I admittedly like them, they are rather under-developed and new to this sort of stage. But let’s say they beat Indiana in the first round, does anyone give them a glimmer of hope to beat the Heat in the second? Of course not. This is a franchise in surprisingly dire straights for having made the playoffs for seven straight years. I imagine Magic fans would appreciate it if they finally ended their gradual self-implosion during the off-season.
OK, that’s the end of our playoff team rankings. To see our playoff picks, click here.