One of the complaints that people have with the NBA is that it can be predictable.
Predictably, this lifelong NBA diehard thinks that notion is overblown.
OK, sure, as the playoffs get set to commence on Saturday, it seems highly possible that we’ll end up with Golden State against Cleveland in the Finals come June. They’re the favorites for a reason.
And I get that the NBA playoffs, with its succession of best-of-seven series, isn’t liable to produce the same mystery that you get during March Madness. One-and-done doesn’t just refer to guys applying for the draft, you know? You’d see a lot fewer high seeds dropping if the NCAA tournament wasn’t win-or-go-home. (I’m not suggesting it should change, mind you. Both are beautiful in their uniqueness.)
So, why even play these NBA games? What do the next two months even mean, since the Warriors and Cavs are a dead-bolt lock to meet in the Finals?
Hopefully, your sarcasm detector is fully functional. Obviously I think the NBA playoffs contain more intrigue than advertised, or else I would have taken this column in a different direction three paragraphs ago.
Look no further than 2016. The Finals produced the matchup we all expected – Cavs-Warriors – and yet a surprise champion in Cleveland. Nobody thought the Cavs were going to take down the Warriors, who won an NBA-record 72 games in the 2016 regular season. You might puff up your chest and say now that you saw it coming all along, that you somehow knew LeBron James would chase down Andre Iguadola and come up with the block of his life, but the rest of us would smell the rubbish from here. Funny how clear everything looks through those Hindsight Brand Contact Lenses, right?
Look, I’m the guy who watches Philadelphia and Sacramento play on a random Tuesday night, the guy who asks for NBA League Pass for Christmas, and I can promise you I didn’t see that Cavs title coming.
Once again, in 2017, the Cavs are the beasts of the East. The Warriors, with the addition of Kevin Durant, who returned from a knee injury this week, are the best out West. The Vegas oddsmakers agree, installing Cleveland as a 1-to-3 favorite to win the East and Golden State as 1-to-4 in the West.
Yet even the bookies get it wrong sometimes. Behold, a few sources of possible intrigue:
The Spurs – Upended by the upstart Thunder in the playoffs last year, it’s easy to dismiss San Antonio as too old to get it done again. That would be a mistake.
Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s Bill Belichick, and the Spurs are the Texas cockroaches of the basketball landscape. Step on them, squish them all you want, but count them out at your own peril. They can’t be killed.
Kawhi Leonard has developed into the best two-way player in the league, a guy who can get buckets on one end and lock down his man on the other. LaMarcus Aldridge has the capability of taking over a series if he gets hot. Pau Gasol was a nice offseason acquisition, Manu and Tony should know all the old-man tricks, and players like Patty Mills, David Lee and Danny Green understand and accept their roles willingly.
Lord knows, Pop has the Spurs well-rested for the run ahead. They’re no pushover.
The Rockets – Am I delusional to think my favorite team might have a shot? Maybe.
There is no question that the pace of the game bogs down in the playoffs, and teams that defend and execute in the half-court are the ones who advance. So don’t fit me for that straitjacket yet, because I acknowledge all that.
Yet the Rockets still have an outside shot of getting out of the West – mostly because they can hit outside shots better than anyone east of Oakland. Rockets GM Darryl Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni have assembled the perfect backup band for James Harden, a collection of deadeye shooters who have the green light to fire away as long as they’re anywhere closer than the parking lot.
Harden has taken D’Antoni’s system to a new high, arguably playing even better than two-time league MVP Steve Nash did under D’Antoni in Phoenix. The Rockets are high-powered and heavily efficient, balancing the lower-percentage 3-point attempts with loads of layups and dunks. (Morey’s analytics suggest that the mid-range shot is inefficient, so the Rockets attempt very few of them). Add in the fact that Harden may be the craftiest guy in basketball history in drawing fouls, and you’ve got a formula that will outscore many teams.
The Rockets won’t have it easy in the first-round steel-cage match between Harden and the other MVP candidate Russell Westbrook of OKC. But if anybody can outshoot Golden State, it’s Houston.
Unexpected injuries – Nobody wants to see a star limp to the sideline. But it happens. Every year.
What happens to Cleveland if Kyrie Irving suffers another knee injury? Could Golden State withstand the absence of the underrated Klay Thompson? Or, worse yet, Steph Curry?
Even the deepest teams are a rolled ankle away from danger.
Wizards/Raptors/Celtics – I really should just label this entry “Cleveland’s Exposed Jugular.”
In the second half of the season, the Cavs are just 12-14. They’ve let late-game leads slip away in each of their last two games, losses to the Hawks and Heat. They’ve dealt with injuries on and off all year, including Andrew Bogut breaking his leg less than a minute into his Cleveland tenure.
They’re still deep – former all-star Deron Williams is the new backup point guard – and as long as LeBron is upright they’ll be the rightful Eastern Conference favorites. (Last time a non-LeBron team won the East? Way back in 2010).
But if the Cavs think they’re going to flip the switch and automatically blind everyone in the East, they’re fooling themselves. Those aforementioned Wizards, Raptors and Celtics aren’t scared of Cleveland anymore. Toronto would have a better shot with a healthy Kyle Lowry, but the emerging Wizards are especially intriguing. It’s worth noting that they zipped past the Cavs, 127-115, in the teams’ most recent meeting – in Cleveland, no less.
So, make your NBA Finals predictions now. I’ll even make mine – Warriors over Cavs in 6.
The simple fact that I could be wrong is reason enough to watch.