Tier 3: *IT’S COMPLICATED*
These teams could win the NBA title. But they’d need a pretty big break to go their way. Maybe an injury to an opposition player, a bench clearing brawl which decimates the opponent, or a few friendly whistles from the officials. Ironically, two of these teams happen to be playing each other in round 1.
8. Dan picks: the LA Clippers
Los Angeles is abuzz with the Lakers, the NHL’s Kings and the Clippers all reaching the playoffs this year.
Yes, that’s right. The Clippers.
After making a lot of noise in the offseason with the acquisition of CP3, the Clippers find themselves back in the postseason for the first time since 2006. With some electrifying play from the likes of Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Nick Foye, Mo Williams and, of course, Chris Paul, the Clips have been more ‘Showtime’ this season than the Lakers themselves.
A riveting first-round matchup lies ahead with the Clippers facing the Grizzlies. This match-up, which the Clips won during the season 2-1, sees the league’s leaders in steals – Paul and Mike Conley – go head to head. Look for some great point guard play in this series as both men have an abundance of prolific scorers available to them. Another mouth-watering matchup is the slugfest set to ensure between Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph. Randolph exploded in last year’s postseason and Griffin and company are going to have to be in top form to contain him. This has the appearance of a series that could go the distance. The team that takes the series will face the winner of the Spurs-Jazz matchup and will be fatigued after a fast-paced, physical first-round.
In a series that could go either way, every detail counts. That said, the Clips must improve on their shooting from the foul line. They shot a meagre 68% during the regular season which amounted to the second worst in the league. Moreover, the team will sorely miss Chauncey Billups who suffered a season-ending achilles tendon injury in February. Billups is a proven leader (not to mention an NBA champion with Detroit in 2004) and his teammates will have to fill the void.
The Clippers have never advanced past the conference semi-finals stage since their inaugural season in 1970 and this season is their best chance of doing so to date. This is a team intent on making a statement this year and even though they have an uphill battle ahead of them, you can bet the Clips will do some damage and make more than a few highlight reels this postseason.
With the best supporting cast he has ever had, Chris Paul has ample opportunity to shine and with a good showing in this year’s playoffs, his team has a chance to make their case for being a franchise of the future.
9. David picks: the Memphis Grizzlies
Every year, there will be one team that isn’t quite elite but creeps up and surprises everyone in the playoffs. Last year, that team was the Grizzlies, and this year despite people actually paying attention to them, they still might surprise us again. I think they have a chance to reach the Western Conference Finals, not a big chance, but a chance nonetheless. Think of it this way, the Grizzlies could crush the Clippers in the 1st round. Stick Tony Allen on Chris Paul, and that Clippers team pretty much have no offense. If you’ve seen the Clippers play at all this season, you’d know they have major problems on defense. I can’t wait to see Zach Randolph eating up Blake Griffin and frustrating Griffin so much he actually tries to assault a ref. An underlooked storyline in this series is the possible reemergence of Agent Zero. If we know anything about Gilbert, it’s that he loves big moments. If the Memphis fans are anything like they were last year, Gilbert would flourish in that environment. Can anybody else not see him hit five 3’s in a row and announcing his grand return?
Oh, and by the way, the Clippers also have Vinny Del Negro. Next.
After chewing up the Clippers, they’re most likely to face the Spurs in the second round, and just like last year they could pull off another upset. Yes, the Spurs have a healthy Ginobili and acquired Stephen Jackson who is a big game player. Boris Diaw seems a little bit more motivated on the court now with the Spurs than his motivation to eat. But the Grizzlies also have Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph healthy and the experience from last year’s playoffs. The biggest weakness for the Spurs is their frontcourt defense, and with Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and a surprisingly good Maurice Speights, they could dominate the paint. Tony Allen has to spend every ounce of his energy in trying to stop Manu, and to be honest, I can see it happening. An aging Manu who’s suffered countless injuries will not have a clear advantage over Tony Allen. The reason why I don’t give the Grizzlies a big chance to reach the Western Conference Finals, is their absence of a franchise player. I mean, do you really trust a team where Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph are your best players? Gay scored more than 30 points only ONCE this whole season. And he’s supposed to be a scorer. Randolph was phenomenal in last year’s playoffs, but don’t be a prisoner of the moment. Apart from individual stats, Randolph has never helped his team win up until last year. It makes me sick how Randolph is considered a franchise-type player after one amazing playoff run. In the postseason, superstars are even more heavily relied on to produce and carry the team. Without a top tier player, who’s going to come through in crunch time? When the team is having an off shooting night, who’s going to create their own shot and keep the team in the game? If Gilbert Arenas was in his prime, I honestly believe the Grizzlies are heading to the finals, as a prime Agent Zero fits the description of a franchise player. Unfortunately for them, the Grizzlies still have no true leader, and history shows that no team without a superstar player apart from the 2004 Pistons have gone on to win the title. Although I only give the Grizzlies a slim chance to succeed, my gut instinct still tells me not to count them out. If anybody saw how the Grizzlies absolutely dismantled the Spurs last year, is it really that preposterous to think the Grizzlies could pull off another remarkable playoff run?
Jason: just to interject here, I gotta stick up for Zach Randolph. I don’t think people are suddenly all over him because of one 13 game stretch last year. The thing is, he’s always had the talent to do exactly what he did last year. What changed was his attitude, in that he applied his considerable skills efficiently to a team concept. This was apparent not only on the court, but it shone through statistically as well. Whereas in the past Randolph would put up inefficient 20/10s by shooting a lot, never passing, and turning the ball over too much, Randolph posted his second highest PER of his career last year, as well as a career high Offensive Rating (points produced per 100 possessions) and far and away his highest offensive Win Shares (estimate of wins produced through his offense). Just because it only happened once, I don’t see why it’s necessarily unsustainable and I think he’s capable of replicating it (if healthy).
Just had to stick up for my boy Z-Bo there. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
10. David picks: the New York Knickerbockers
Does anybody still have hope for this team? They’re facing the Heat in the 1st round, and all signs point to another first round exit and another failed draft in June. But MAYBE, just maybe, this year the Knicks will finally be the ones pulling off an upset, instead of their fans being upset at the team. I don’t see them going further than the 2nd round, but I do think they have a very slim chance at beating the “Mighty” Heat. Here’s how:
For once in what seems like generations, the Knicks have actually been playing great defense this year, and if Tyson Chandler doesn’t win the Defensive Player of the Year Award, I will consider this award invalid for eternity. After the firing of Mike Antoni (see what I did there), the Knicks look like a new team. Their defensive intensity is at an all time high, and Melo looks like he actually enjoys playing defense. Iman Shumpert, like Avery Bradley of the Celtics, has become one of the top young perimeter defenders in the league, and combined with the all out hustle of Jarred Jeffries, they create havoc for the opponent.
If anybody has the confidence that he can outplay LeBron and Wade, it’s Camelo Anthony. And with the way he’s been performing lately, that may not be such an outrageous statement. Melo certainly has it in him to win a game by himself. If Steve Novak and JR Smith go berserk from three in just ONE game, they could potentially clinch a game for the team. And then you add the MSG crowd’s influence and LeBron’s nerves in big games, and suddenly winning three game doesn’t seem out of reach. Shumpert will do everything he can to handle Wade, and with Wade looking hurt all year, he may just be able to achieve that. LeBron and Melo have always matched up well, and I’d still trust Melo over LeBron in the 4th quarter. Chandler could defend the whole Miami frontline by himself, and since everyone else on the Heat team are irrelevant, that leaves the matchup between Amare and Bosh. Amare has been so bad defensively this year, I’ve literally found myself throwing things at the TV in utter disgust at his defensive effort. It seems like he either stops playing defense, or he just fouls the opponent. It’s no coincidence that the 2nd game back after Amare’s injury against the Hawks, the Knicks let the Hawks score more than 110 points, despite playing elite defense in Amare’s absence. If Amare can transform into Vintage Amare (like with the Suns), he would run over Chris Bosh. So if all these things fall into place in this series, the Knicks could, astonishingly, upset the Heat in 7 games. But as history has shown, this isn’t likely. We are talking about the Knicks, after all.
Tier 4: *IN AN OPEN RELATIONSHIP*
These are teams that will tell anyone that will listen that they are legit contenders, but come on. You can’t say you’re with someone and yet still see other people – that just contradicts the whole idea of a relationship. In much the same way, these teams are very good but lack that little something that is essential for all true contenders: a reliable number one option.
11. Daniel picks: the Indiana Pacers
The heartland of basketball (arguably) is still without an NBA title. After the club’s inception in 1967, the Pacers constructed a dynasty in the ABA, winning championships in 1970, 1972 and 1973. They have not been able to replicate that success since the merger, despite the best attempts of Larry Brown and Reggie Miller (the Pacers most notably came closest in 2000, falling to the Lakers in a six-game Finals series).
The infamous Ron Artest brawl in Detroit during a regular season game in 2004 signalled a low point for professional basketball in Indiana. However, the franchise has since distanced itself from the event and the team is once again a contender. Larry Bird, the president of basketball operations, has done a fantastic job of shaping a new generation of Pacers who have now made the postseason two years running.
This year they comfortably wrapped up the third seed (very quietly, I might add) and have a strong case for being the league’s most underrated team. The Pacers’ first round opponent is the Orlando Magic but they will not have to account for Dwight Howard as he elected for season-ending back injury. Orlando without Howard is like The Beatles without Lennon and Indiana, with their well distributed scoring led by Danny Granger and David West, are favourites to advance.
In the event they do so, the Pacers will face the winners of the titanic Heat-Knicks series. We could well see Indiana suffer the same fate as they did in last year’s first-round (a five-game series loss to Chicago). The Heat won the season series 3-1 against Indianathis year and their first meeting was a complete demolition with Miami winning 118-83. Despite a good balance of offense-defense, the Pacers can appear overwhelmed at best when trying to hold-off some the league’s powerhouse offenses. In a crowded and competitive East, an Indiana title run would be highly improbable.
But hey, this is where amazing happens, right?
In any case, let’s hope that this postseason will help Indiana’s cause to get the respect and attention they thoroughly deserve.
Watch this space.
12. Dan picks: the Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are set to collide with the Celtics in the first-round and this matchup is loaded with history. Twenty four years ago (hell, I wasn’t even born yet but I’ve seen the tape, okay?) these two teams gave us one of the greatest playoff series ever seen. Atlanta and Boston met in the 1988 Eastern Conference semi-finals and with Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins going blow-for-blow it was no surprise that it went to a seventh game.
In a classic that has come to be known as the ‘Bird-Wilkins Duel’, the contest came right down to the wire and Bird and Wilkins were carrying their teams. The two stars exploded in the fourth quarter and Bird netted 20 points in the final period, edging out Wilkins’ 14 to lead his team to victory.
The final from the Boston Garden: Celtics 118, Atlanta 116.
The conference semi-finals have proven to be an insurmountable hump for the Atlanta Hawks over the years as they have never advanced further since the franchise moved from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968. Since the 1988 epic, they have appeared in the semi-finals six times but have an abysmal record of just 6 wins to their 28 losses.
After making it to this stage the last three years, will 2012 be the year the Hawks finally buck the trend and be one of the four remaining teams challenging for the title?
Well, it sure is a hard road ahead and the Hawks have to deal with Boston before they can even make it back to their seemingly annual roadblock. On paper, Atlanta has the firepower to pose a serious threat in the postseason this year. In fact, the roster is stacked with talent. Despite the loss of the energetic Jamal Crawford to Portland in the offseason (2010’s Sixth Man of the Year), the Hawks have not fallen out of step. They are especially well-covered at the guard spots, with Joe Johnson, Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich all performing decently this year.
In terms of bench contributors, the Hawks have hordes of experience at their disposal. Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse, Erick Dampier and Vladimir Radmanovic are all Atlanta Hawks, as strange as it may seem. But considering the age of these journeymen, it is essential that the starters stay healthy.
Al Horford has still not fully recovered from a shoulder injury he suffered in January and will miss the Boston series. Zaza Pachulia, who has performed well in Horford’s absence is also battling injury and Atlanta is running out of options at center. Will the third man on the depth chart – Jason Collins – be able to hold his own against a playoff-intensified Kevin Garnett? Not likely.
The Hawks have the talent but they are lacking the health necessary for a sustained postseason run. If Horford returns to his effective self and the core players steer clear of injury then maybe – just maybe –Atlanta can bring an end to its playoffs misfortune and claim unchartered territory.
13. Jason picks: the Denver Nuggets
Ty Lawson is one of my favourite players to watch. He has a 5th gear in the open court unlike anyone else in the league, and when he has a full head of steam he just whizzes past guys like he flipped on the NOS canister. He also looks like he should be dominating some prison league. I swear this isn’t meant to be racist. But considering how he looks completely ageless (if you told me he was anywhere between 23 and 45 years old I would believe you), combined with his bulky build, the headband, and his blistering speed, and he just seems like a character out of a sports movie. It’s completely inexplicable but there you are. Wait what was I talking about again? Oh yeah that’s right, their second most effective player in “clutch” situations this year is Al Harrington. Lol GG Denver.
They are a great, tough, deep team with oodles of athleticism, and will no doubt be irritating as hell to play against. They go a legit 11 players deep (Lawson/Afflalo/Gallinari/Faried/Mozgov then McGee/Harrington/Brewer/Fernandez/Chandler/Miller off the bench).
But their fatal flaw will be their inability to answer back for every easy bucket Andrew Bynum gets in the halfcourt, when the game will inevitably slowdown in the playoffs, especially in crunchtime. Danilo Gallinari is meant to be the guy but he’s been fairly miserable in clutch situations so far this season (just 35% shooting). Their best scorers in crunchtime are Lawson, who shoots 40%, Andre Miller, who shoots 42%, and Al Harrington, who shoots just 35% but takes the second most shot attempts in late and close situations. Compare this to the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum in the same situations – he shoots a mind boggling 76% (!!!!!!) in late and close situations. Kobe is jacking it up at a 36% rate, but no matter how much us statheads point to Kobe’s inefficient crunchtime performances, I’d much rather have Kobe take crucial shots in late and close situations than someone like Al Harrington (a fine player who’s having a career season, but come on son).
Hopefully they can run the Lakers ragged for 6 or 7 games with Lawson abusing Sessions and Gallinari feasting with future HOFer Devin Ebanks guarding him, but I don’t believe they’re going to be making much noise at all this year.
Unlike a team like Philly though, this team has enough pieces to rely solely on internal development and possibly develop into a true contender next year. Afflalo is a really nice player, but he’d be better off in a poor-man’s Jame’s Harden role. A guy like Jason Terry could start for them and space the floor for their slashers. Gallinari needs to take another leap forward and become a reliable scorer (and stay healthy). Kenneth Faried is really a monster – is it crazy to think he can be maybe 80% as good as Blake Griffin by as early as next year (he’s already averaging 11 and 9 with a block and a steal on 59% shooting, in just 25 minutes a game in March and April)? Javale McGee is the wildcard – if he can develop into a real life NBA player and not just be a living breathing internet meme, then the Nuggets will have a defensive presence inside, rebounders, scorers, distributors, shooters, depth – the whole shebang, and be legit contenders come next year.
Tier 5: *JUST PLAYING THE FIELD*
These teams are just happy to be there and would be stoked if they can get any sort of hook-up (i.e. a win or two).
14. Jason picks: the Utah Jazz
Memphis has become the trendy dark horse team in the West. They have one of the few legit low post scorers in the game in Zach Randolph, and one of the few legit centers in the game in Marc Gasol. Their heart and soul is the tough-as-nails Tony Allen – a defensive menace and one of the few guys in the league who can be relied on to shut out the likes of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant with any regularity.
What’s puzzling though is why Utah hasn’t gotten the same buzz, when if you look up and down both rosters, they are constructed as near mirror-images of each other. Utah’s frontline features Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap – the former a low post scorer in the mould of Randolph and the latter a dominant rebounder and underrated offensive player. And unlike Memphis, Utah’s frontline boasts some scary depth, as they can bring in young, physical freaks like Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter off the bench to bang bodies and just generally use their size to be a nuisance for 15 minutes a night. After how much Duncan struggled with the sheer physicality of the Randolph-Gasol frontline, this can’t be good news for the Spurs.
Going on down the line, Utah’s Gordan Hayward has nowhere near the rep (or the contract) of a Rudy Gay, but in the last month of the season he has averaged 16.3 ppg on 49/50/83 shooting, with 4.2 reb, 3.4 assists, and 1.4 combined steals/blocks. Gay’s stats in the same time period? 19 ppg on 46/25/85% with half as many 3ptm and 6 reb 2.1 assists (to 2.2 to) and a combined 2.2 steals/blocks a game. Mike Conley averaged 12 points on 45/48/89 shooting with 4 assists and 1.4 steals in April. Devin Harris? 14.6 points on 44/42/72 shooting, 5.4 assists and 1.1 steals. And what’s more, Devin Harris has always seemed to relish going up against Tony Parker, dating back to his Dallas Mavericks days, and definitely has the speed to be able to keep up with him defensively (while making him work on the other end).
The key difference though, and the reason why the Jazz will fall just short of what the Grizzlies achieved last year, is defense. The Grizzlies’ identity came from Tony Allen and his tough gritty defense. That set the tone for the rest of the team and it was one of their greatest strengths. The Jazz meanwhile are pretty awful defensively. They’re even worse against the pick and roll, which is lethal considering it’s what San Antonio’s league-leading offense is built around. Al Jefferson has never been considered a great defensive player to begin with, but now he’s playing out of position at center, and will have to come out and defend the pick and roll against Tony Parker. Good luck with that.
Thanks to their impressive home court advantage I think they’ll take at least one, maybe 2 games in Utah, but fall in 6 games. They have a very solid foundation to build on for next year though – especially if Favors and/or Kanter can develop into a reliable defensive center. All they need is one more perimeter shooter/defender type, which combined with some internal development from their bigs, could result in a very scary team in the near future.
15. Jason picks: the Philadelphia 76ers
The one thing you can say for them is that their greatest strength on defense is closing out on spot up shooters, and Chicago’s offense is built around the drive and kick and hitting open spot up shooters. Plus Derrick Rose is still gimpy and has been banged up all season. But Philly just doesn’t have enough offense to beat the Bulls unless Lou Williams goes nuts, and that’s unlikely given his recent form. Iguodala can lock up Rose but this is a team that has somehow gone 18-9 without Rose this season. Their bench will come in and lock down the opposing second unit, while their irrational confidence guys (Watson and John Lucas III) will knock down shots. Deng, Rip and Booze will provide just enough complementary scoring. Philly will stay in the game all series but in the end Chicago are just too deep and too well coached to not pull it off in the waning minutes. 4 or 5 tight well fought games are all you can really expect of them this year.
What can they do to join the big boys next year then? I don’t think it’s true that your best player needs to be a traditional go-to guy on offense. I think they can still win with a core built around Iggy, but they need some offense plus one more blue-chipper. The good news is that this blue-chipper might be on the roster. Jrue Holliday is still only 22 years old, and Spencer Hawes might take another step forward and maybe into the Hibbert/Monroe level with another year of seasoning + good health. With a veteran offensive player like perhaps Jason Terry and internal development from Evan Turner, they could at the very least become a top 4 team in the East next year.
Tier 6: *FOREVER ALONE*
Poor Orlando had Shaq ditch them in 1996, and now they’ve had to deal with the Dwight Howard drama this year. Will they ever find true love (or in their case, a franchise center who isn’t a complete cunt)?
16. David picks: the Orlando Magic
Why are we even talking about this team? If franchise players can single handedly win a game for their team, then Dwight Howard just redefined “franchise player”, as he’s single handedly destroyed a whole season for their team. Yes, they made the playoffs. Yes, he’s a 20 and 10 guy. Yes, he’s still in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. But no player, not just in the NBA, no player playing basketball in any sort of team anywhere on this planet would want to play with someone who openly implies “my teammates aren’t good enough, I want to leave this team and go somewhere else where my teammates actually deserve to be paid playing basketball.” As much as I would like to see the Magic succeed without Dwight, it’s just not happening. A lineup of Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson, Glen Davis, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu just don’t have a chance in the playoffs. The Magic are already a jump shooting team with Dwight, now take Dwight out and they’ll have to shoot 40-50 threes a game to stay competitive. Because I’m so disappointed at Dwight for attention whoring this whole season, I’ll keep this segment short and play hard to get.
Pacers sweep Magic in 4. That is all, Dwight.