NBA Playoff Preview: Breaking Down the Contenders

The NBA has always been an extremely top heavy league: The last four champions and seven out of the last nine have been number one seeds. In fact, since the New York Knicks made the 1999 finals as an 8 seed only two teams (#4 seed Boston Celtics in 2010 and #4 seed Dallas Mavericks in 2006) have made the finals as a team seeded fourth or below. This all holds true again this season as there are only a handful of teams with legit shots at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Eastern Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers are everyone’s favorite to represent the East in the NBA finals and for good reason. Once again, the East is a weak conference. Yes, Boston, Toronto, and Washington are all legit contenders to Cleveland, but all the elite teams remain out west. You have to go back to the Celtics and Lakers finals match-up in 2010 to find an NBA finals that didn’t feature LeBron James. Cleveland has been scuffling of late though. Their 7-10 record in March was the first month since November of James’ rookie season in 2003 that a LeBron led team has had ten losses in a month. Cleveland’s sub-par March shouldn’t cast any doubt on their chances to win the east for a third straight year.

There is just too much talent between the trio of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and James for any other team in the east to handle. When Irving and James drive to the hoop, opposing defenses are forced to react. That leaves a plethora of open shots for sharpshooters Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith. Cleveland’s path might not be as easy this year, but the talent on this team should win out in the end.

Boston Celtics

When the Celtics are firing on all cylinders they’re an incredibly fun team to watch. With that being said, they have two glaring weaknesses that could be exposed in the playoffs. First is their last of rebounding: Boston is currently 27th in total rebounding and have the 5th worse rebounding differential in the entire league at -2.6 per game. This weakness got exploited in their first place showdown with Cleveland on April 5th when the Cavaliers out-rebounded the Celtics 51 to 38.

The Celtics also only have one consistent scoring option in Isaiah Thomas. Thomas is averaging around 29 points per game and when he’s on the Celtics are in good shape, but when he has a rough night or is being double teamed, the offense bogs down. Others such as Avery Bradley and Al Horford, who are averaging 16.4 and 14.0 points per game respectively, are going to need to step up offensively if the Celtics want to make a deep playoff run.

Toronto Raptors

This might be the most balanced team in the entire conference and could surprise a lot of people over the next couple months. The Raptors went a month and a half without their all-star point guard Kyle Lowry (wrist injury) but still went 14-7 over that span. Lowry returned on April 5th and didn’t look like he missed any time at all putting up 27 points and 10 assists. Jonas Valanciunas and mid-season acquisition Serge Ibaka are a formidable low post duo that can rebound and defend the basket. The all-star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Lowry can shred an opposing defense on any given night. With all that being said, it doesn’t appear they have enough firepower to take down Cleveland. This is a superstar-driven league and Toronto just doesn’t quite have the players that fit that bill.

Washington Wizards

At first glance, the Wizards aren’t a team that wows, but man, are they a scrappy pest of a team. They play with a lot of tenacity and are one of the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers. If Washington is going to make a run it will be on the strength of their dynamic backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Wall is currently second in the NBA in both assists and steals, trailing only James Harden and Draymond Green, respectively. Both Wall and Beal are enjoying the best offensive seasons in their young careers as well. Both will finish the season scoring slightly over 23 points per game. Washington’s frontcourt, while solid, is unspectacular. Washington has an outside shot at making it to the finals, but in the end, there’s just not enough around Wall and Beal to get past Cleveland.

Western Conference

Golden State Warriors

If you’re only looking at talent, you might as well cancel the playoffs and just hand over the trophy to Golden State right now. With four perennial all-stars, two of which are yearly MVP candidates, any team that steps on the court with the Warriors is going to be facing an uphill battle. No other team in the NBA could lose a player the caliber of Kevin Durant and still have a 13 game winning streak in his absence.

Opponents will have to slow the pace of the game against the Warriors, as no one can match the run and gun style of basketball Golden State plays. The Warriors can and will out run and out shoot their opponents every day of the week and twice on Sundays. The Warriors currently lead the NBA in points per game, field goal percentage, and are 3rd in three-point percentage. They’re also an above average defensive team, led by defensive player of the year candidate Draymond Green.

San Antonio Spurs

The calling card for the Spurs has always been defense and this season was no different. The longtime face of the franchise Tim Duncan is no longer on the roster after retiring in the offseason. The Spurs have done plenty, however, to keep their team in the upper-echelon once again. Pau Gasol was acquired in the off-season to replace Duncan. Even though he’s in the twilight of his career, Gasol has been able to provide a veteran presence in the paint this season.

Kawhi Leonard is a superstar in this league that doesn’t get the attention he deserves. Is that because he’s not a vibrant character like LeBron James or Kevin Durant and also plays in San Antonio? Probably. He’s turned into an offensive force this season to go along with his already stellar defense. Leonard routinely guards the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. He makes every shot, every pass, and every step difficult for the player he’s guarding. This is a deep, balanced team that will be very difficult to beat in a seven-game series.

Houston Rockets

The Western Conference is really a two horse race. If a team outside of the Warriors or Spurs were to make a run, it’d be the Houston Rockets. James Harden very well might be the most valuable player this season. He leads the NBA in assists at over eleven a game and only trails Russell Westbrook in the scoring department. The Rockets average better than 115 points per game which is second behind Golden State and lead the NBA in three-pointer made and attempted per game. If Houston is going advance out of the west they’re going to need to be efficient on the offensive end especially from downtown.

Conclusion and Prediction

Though there are a lot of good teams this year. In today’s game though, good isn’t good enough to win a championship in the NBA. The best potential series of the entire playoffs would be the possible (more like probable) Western Conference Finals matchup between San Antonio and Golden State. There’s just too much talent on Golden State for them to be beaten four times out of seven. The Spurs should make it a very competitive series but ultimately the Warriors will advance setting up Golden Stave versus Cleveland Part 3 in the finals.

NBA Finals Prediction

Golden State over Cleveland in six games. Kevin Durant will finally get his long-awaited ring much to the dismay of a certain former all-star teammate in Oklahoma City.

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