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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Playoffs are Coming

All 16 invitations to the NBA's postseason party have now been issued, but the seating arrangements (seeds) will be determined in the next few days as the regular season concludes. The Eastern Conference playoff teams are division winners Detroit, Miami and New Jersey, followed by Cleveland, Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee and Chicago; the Western Conference playoff teams are division winners San Antonio, Phoenix and Denver, followed by Dallas, Memphis, L.A. (Clippers), L.A (Lakers) and Sacramento. I will post my playoff predictions as soon as all of the matchups are finalized. Meanwhile, now is a good time to look back at my predictions for this season, which can be found to the right of this post in the four articles listed under the title "2005-06 Regular Season Predictions."

My 2005-06 predictions can be divided into three categories with self-explanatory titles: "hits," "misses" and "partial credit."

HITS

1) Successfully identifying 12 of the 16 playoff teams

I did not list the teams in the order of seedings but rather by how highly I rated their chances to win the NBA title. Still, I correctly listed division winners Miami, New Jersey, San Antonio, Phoenix and Denver ahead of everyone in their divisions (I discuss the Central Division in "misses"). How does this compare to other predictors? In the 2005-06 Sporting News Pro Basketball Preview, Sean Deveney was correct about six of eight Eastern Conference playoff teams (including two of three division champions) and four of eight Western Conference playoff teams (including all three division champions); the 2005-06 edition of Athlon Sports Pro Basketball was correct about seven of eight Eastern Conference playoff teams (including two of three division champions) and five of eight Western Conference playoff teams (including all three division champions); Street and Smith's 2005-06 Pro Basketball Yearbook was right about five of the six division champions, six of eight Eastern Conference playoff teams and six of eight Western Conference playoff teams; Lindy's Pro Basketball 2005-06 (for which I wrote the Denver Nuggets preview) correctly picked all six division winners. Lindy's top six Western Conference teams made the playoffs, as did their top four Eastern Conference teams (Lindy's picked the Knicks to be fifth in the East). After that, matters become a little murky, because the magazine assigned a point value to each team, resulting in a five way tie for 6-10 in the East and a five way tie for 7-11 in the West.

2) Picking the Lakers to return to the playoffs

None of the magazines listed above picked the Lakers to be a playoff team but I expected Kobe Bryant and company to win at least 45 games, which will happen if they win their final regular season game.

3) Picking the Bucks to make the playoffs

I wrote that Andrew Bogut, T. J. Ford and Bobby Simmons would be worth the 10-15 additional wins that Milwaukee would need to move into the top eight in the East; Milwaukee has won nine more games than last season with two games left.

4) Picking the Suns to be a legitimate contender even after Amare Stoudemire had knee surgery

I wrote my season preview articles after Stoudemire had microfracture knee surgery. At that point, a lot of people doubted that Phoenix could be successful with him out of the lineup for an extended period. The consensus seemed to be that Phoenix would struggle to be above .500. I acknowledged that Stoudemire's injury was a "devastating blow" to Phoenix but still picked the Suns to have the best record in the Pacific and ranked them as one of the top five contenders in the West.

5) Picking New Jersey to be the second best team in the East

I wrote that if Jason Kidd stayed healthy and the Nets received any production from Jason Collins and Nenad Krstic that they could "terrify opposing teams" with their fast break attack of Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. I picked the Nets to win at least 50 games; they are 49-31 with two games to go.

6) Picking the Cavs to finish fourth in the East

A lot of people expected the Cavs to be better this season and to qualify for the playoffs but I felt very strongly that the Cavs would obtain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs if they could keep LeBron James, Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas healthy. As it turned out, the Cavs held on to the fourth spot despite Hughes missing a lot of games, thanks largely to James' stellar play and the great midseason acquisition of Flip Murray.

7) Predicting a tight race for the last Eastern playoff spots

I picked Chicago to finish with 38-40 wins and said that the loss of Hughes would drop Washington into that range as well. I said that neither team would make the playoffs but that they would be in the mix until the end. As it turns out, they will finish in that win range but due to the weakness of the East that will be enough to make the playoffs. I said that Orlando would finish with 30-35 wins; the Magic are 36-44 with two games to go (if I had known that Steve Francis would be traded I would have moved that estimate up). I was right that Boston would drop out of the playoffs but stay within sight of the eighth spot, which they did until the last few games.

MISSES

1) Picking New York to make the playoffs

I'm not the only one who "drank the Kool Aid" on this one, but I really thought that Larry Brown would coax this team into the eighth playoff spot, particularly because I foresaw that the East would not be very deep. The Knicks won 33 games last year and I expected that Brown would be worth 8-10 more wins. I've never been a fan of Stephon Marbury and his tendency to overdribble but I thought that he would at least make an effort to play the right way after seeing the success that Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups had under Brown's tutelage. If only Isiah Thomas could demote Marbury and Francis to the And 1 Tour and get their salaries off the books.

2) Picking Detroit to fall in the standings

I expected Detroit to fall in the standings after Flip Saunders replaced Larry Brown, but they won the Central Division and will finish with the best record in the NBA. The Pistons have a lot of strong personalities on their roster and Saunders' inability to keep the Minnesota Timberwolves going in the right direction after they tasted a little playoff success suggested to me that he might not be the right man to control Detroit's locker room. To this point he has proven me wrong, although recently there have been some discordant rumbles emanating from Detroit; Ben Wallace responded angrily when Saunders removed him from a recent game and refused to return to action when Saunders later asked him to go back in the game. This could be nothing or it could be the start of trouble. I would heartily endorse Saunders as Coach of the Year based on what the Pistons have done in the regular season but I am still skeptical that the Pistons will return to the Finals. Let's see how this team reacts when they face some adversity in the postseason. Meanwhile, I offer a hardy mea culpa and congratulations to the Pistons for their success during the regular season.

3) Leaving the Clippers and the Grizzlies out of the playoff picture

I thought that Sam Cassell had run out of gas but he proved that he still has something left in the tank. He means as much to the Clippers as the more celebrated Elton Brand does and if you don't believe that just wait and see what happens in the playoffs if Cassell gets in foul trouble or suffers an injury. I admitted in my preseason article that Memphis puzzled me; they made several moves and I wasn't sure if they got any better or not. Obviously, they remained good enough to earn a playoff spot.

PARTIAL CREDIT

A lot of observers were impressed by the performances of Chicago, Seattle and Golden State last year but I expected all three teams to regress this season. I had Chicago falling out of the playoffs, Seattle dropping to eighth in the West and Golden State not making the playoffs in spite of their high expectations. I was completely right about Golden State--the fashionable "sleeper pick" after running off a string of late season wins last year--but Seattle fell even more than I expected, dropping out of the playoffs, and the Bulls rallied recently to return to the playoffs after being on the outside looking in for most of the year. I had the right general idea about Chicago and Seattle, but the weakness of the East (particularly Philadelphia's collapse down the stretch) and the strength of the West (the eighth seed in the West will have a better record than the fifth seed in the East) enabled Chicago to sneak in and kept Seattle out of contention.

I had high expectations for Houston but I'm going to take a mulligan on that one. Injuries to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming wrecked the Rockets, who played well on the rare occasions that McGrady and Yao were on the court at the same time. Yao had a breakout year and the Rockets could have been a monster in the second half of the season if McGrady would have been playing alongside him.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:19 AM

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