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Friday, April 13, 2018

2017-18 Playoff Predictions

Before I make my annual playoff predictions, I will offer some comments about the 2017-18 NBA season.

This season's biggest story is the Houston Rockets, who finished with the best record in the league by far--65-17, six games ahead of the Toronto Raptors and seven games ahead of the defending champion Golden State Warriors. To put that in perspective, in each of the last two seasons, the Warriors finished six games ahead of the rest of the league.

The Rockets had a better season than I--or just about anyone else--expected or predicted. Much of the praise and attention is focused on James Harden, the presumptive regular season MVP. Harden had an exceptional season: he won his first scoring title by averaging a career-high 30.4 ppg and he ranked third in assists (8.8 apg). However, Harden has put up big numbers before and that has not led to this much team success.

The big difference for Houston is team defense. The Rockets are mediocre in defensive field goal percentage (.462, 16th in the league) but they force a lot of turnovers and thus they have vastly improved in points allowed: last season the Rockets ranked 26th out of 30 teams in points allowed but this season the Rockets vaulted to sixth in the league in that category. Mike D'Antoni-coached teams are always going to push the ball, score a lot of points and shoot a lot of three pointers but this may be the first D'Antoni team that takes defense seriously.

There is still a misconception in some quarters that Golden State's recent success is somehow a vindication of D'Antoni's "Seven Second or Less" Phoenix Suns teams--but, in fact, the Warriors took a much different approach. D'Antoni's Suns just tried to outscore teams and were largely indifferent to defense, while the Warriors individually and collectively are great defensively.

Chris Paul has always been a feisty, combative and effective defensive player despite his small statute. His mentality has had an impact in Houston, along with the addition of other tough-minded defensive players such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Clint Capela has blossomed into an All-Star caliber center for this era, a mobile big who runs to the rim on offense and who rebounds/plays defense.

The Rockets have shown over 82 games that they have enough talent to win it all. It will be very interesting to see how they do in the playoffs, especially considering the less than stellar postseason resumes of D'Antoni, Harden and Paul.

The second biggest story of the season is the under the radar individual excellence of Russell Westbrook, who won the 2017 regular season MVP after becoming the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season. Westbrook just pulled off an even more impressive accomplishment: he averaged a triple double for the 2018 regular season to become the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double in consecutive seasons (or two seasons at all).

I picked Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder to finish third in the West, so their fourth place finish in a very competitive conference is not terrible or surprising but some people talk like this team is a major disappointment. The reality is that last season Westbrook absolutely carried a talent-bereft team to the sixth seed in the West and this season he carried a more talented but still flawed team to the fourth seed. While the Thunder only added one win to their 2017 total, their relative standing in the conference improved.

Westbrook averaged 25.4 ppg (seventh in the NBA), 10.2 apg (first in the NBA and his fourth straight top four finish--not bad for a player often derided for allegedly not keeping his teammates involved) and 10.1 rpg (tenth in the NBA for the second year in a row, a remarkable feat for a 6-4 point guard). Westbrook improved his FG% from .425 last season to .449 this season, though his three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage both declined (from .343 to .298 and .845 to a career-low .737 respectively).

Westbrook is understandably resentful that he has been accused of artificially chasing certain statistics: "A lot of people make jokes about whatever, stat-padding or going to get rebounds. If people could get 20 rebounds every night, they would. If people could get 15 rebounds, they would. People that's talking or saying whatever they need to say, they should try doing it and see how hard it is. Since everybody wants to be talking, I'm tired of hearing the same old rebound this, stealing rebounds, all this (stuff).  I take pride in what I do. I come out and play, and I get the ball faster than someone else gets to it. That's what it is. If you don't want it, I'm gonna get it. Simple as that."

Westbrook's teams have always performed much better when he gets a triple double than when he does not, so even if it were true that Westbrook is "chasing" numbers that alleged "chase" has helped his team; the Thunder went 20-5 this season when Westbrook posted a triple double and 28-29 when he did not. In other words, when Westbrook is not playing at an Oscar Robertson Pantheon level, the Thunder are just a mediocre team.

The third biggest story is the unexpected rise of the Toronto Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Raptors went 51-31 last season before being swept in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers and it seemed as if Toronto's contending window was closing or closed. Instead, the Raptors posted the best record in franchise history (59-23) and secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. Fringe MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan led the way but he had a lot of help from a deep and versatile supporting cast. There will be justifiable skepticism about this team until it proves that it can maintain this performance level in the playoffs but the front office, coaching staff and players deserve credit for an outstanding season.

The fourth biggest story is the puzzling Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished fourth in the East despite the gaudy statistics posted by the seemingly ageless LeBron James. Ever since James returned to Cleveland, it has been obvious that he has a major say in the composition of the coaching staff and the roster. James always has "his" guys. Yet, the Cavaliers stumbled through this season while playing some of the worst defense ever for a team that fancies itself to be a championship contender. James' individual numbers look great (27.5 ppg, career-high 9.1 apg, 8.7 rpg) but his defensive effort has been subpar for most of the season and the Cavaliers actually went through a lengthy stretch of games during which they performed better when he was on the bench than when he was on the court.

James' extended run of individual greatness and team success is incredible but this has been an odd season in an often paradoxical career; James is so talented that he can consistently put up tremendous numbers regardless of circumstances (including age, injuries to his teammates, etc.) but team success does not always result from his efforts. He has been a dominant player on stacked teams for most of his career, so winning three championships is both an accomplishment but also perhaps something short of what should be expected of him.

Here are my first round predictions:

As noted above, the Toronto Raptors had a great season but in the past four years (since they became a playoff contender after missing the postseason for five straight years) they have only made it past the second round once. The Washington Wizards seemed to be poised to be one of the East's top teams but chemistry issues and an injury that caused All-Star John Wall to miss 41 games pushed them to the bottom of the conference's playoff pack. The Wizards went 2-2 against the Raptors during the season. Wall's late season return could make this series interesting but ultimately the Raptors are a well-balanced and focused team while the Wizards play in fits and spurts. Toronto will win in six games.

After finishing with the best record in the East last season, the Boston Celtics did a major overhaul with the goal of assembling a roster that can beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. Newly acquired Gordon Hayward went down with a season-ending injury in the opening moments of the first game but the Celtics still had the best record in the East for most of the year before being passed by Toronto. Losing All-Star Kyrie Irving for the stretch run and the entire postseason is a devastating blow but Boston is a well-coached, fundamentally sound team that should be able to get past a young Milwaukee team that features rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.8 apg) but ranked last in the league in rebounding and is not stout enough defensively to win a playoff series. The Celtics will win in five games.

Let's get one thing straight. The Philadelphia 76ers have not proved that tanking works; they only started to become good after they fired the tanking guru and put a real GM in charge of the team. That GM--Bryan Colangelo, the NBA's Executive of the Year in 2005 and 2007--changed the franchise's losing culture and assembled a legitimate NBA roster. The 76ers went 52-30 this season and set a franchise record by closing the campaign with a 16 game winning streak, breaking the mark set by the 1983 NBA championship team led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Pump the brakes on the idea that this team is even close to being as good as that team, though; it is sad to say that at least six of those 16 wins came against teams that are tanking at least as much as the 76ers were just a few years ago.

The 76ers' first round opponent, the Miami Heat, remain an inconsistent and hard to figure squad. Last season the Heat started out 11-30 and closed 30-11 to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. This season, the Heat--with a playoff berth at stake--limped to a 12-9 finish but ended up with the sixth seed thanks to even more desultory closing runs by the Wizards and Bucks. The 76ers and Heat split their season series 2-2 but on paper the surging 76ers should make quick work of the Heat; the one caveat is that the 76ers lack any meaningful playoff experience. The 76ers will win in six games.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the worst defensive team in the playoffs. The Indiana Pacers are perhaps the most surprising team in the East and they handled the Cavaliers 3-1 in the regular season. All that is well and good but do you want to pick against LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs? I don't. The Cavaliers will have some embarrassing defensive lapses but they will beat the Pacers in six games.

The final seedings in the Western Conference were not determined until the last day of the regular season. The Rockets had already lapped the field a while ago and the Warriors were safely ahead of the  rest of the pack but teams 3-8 finished two wins apart, with three teams tying at 47-35 and two others going 48-34.

Houston manhandled Minnesota in the regular season, sweeping the series 4-0. I don't trust D'Antoni, Harden and Paul in the playoffs but I am not foolish enough to think that an eighth seed that needed an overtime win on the last day of the season to even make the playoffs is going to threaten them. The playoff history of Houston's main trio is so checkered that I would not be surprised if they stumble out of the gate and lose one of their first two home games but the Rockets are so much better than the Timberwolves that even if that happens it will not change the outcome of the series. Houston will win in four games.

A healthy and focused San Antonio team is a serious threat to the Golden State Warriors, as we saw during last year's playoffs before Golden State's de facto playoff MVP Zaza Pachulia delivered a cheap shot to Kawhi Leonard from which the Spurs still have not recovered. The Warriors took the season series 3-1 and they will beat the Spurs in five games.

During last year's playoffs, Portland was first round 4-0 roadkill for the Golden State Warriors but this season the Trailblazers seized the third seed and homecourt advantage in the first round. New Orleans' Anthony Davis has been on a tear since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles but Davis has exactly zero playoff game wins so far in his career; that run of futility figures to end soon: he will get a win against Portland (and probably two) but not four. Portland will beat New Orleans in six games.

In one game, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a threat to anyone, including the Rockets and Warriors. Unfortunately, the Thunder often play down to their competition and they close games about as smoothly as a jalopy going uphill after a wheel fell off. If Carmelo Anthony or Paul George are isolated at the end of a playoff game with the Thunder trailing, I am turning the TV off; if George and Anthony do what they are supposed to do--carry some weight in the first three quarters so that the Thunder can build and maintain a lead without running Westbrook into the ground--then the Thunder could make some noise. Westbrook will play hard 100% of the time--which should go without saying about all NBA players but sadly does not go without saying--but I just don't trust this squad when the chips are down. However, homecourt advantage and some late heroics by Westbrook should be enough for the Thunder to beat the Jazz in seven games.


Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Toronto-Cleveland, Boston-Philadelphia, Houston-Oklahoma City and Golden State-Portland. The Cavaliers have eliminated the Raptors in the playoffs the past two years, winning eight of the 10 games, but it is hard to picture a team as bad defensively as Cleveland making it past the second round. The caveat, of course, is that James and the Cavaliers are capable of flipping the switch like no other team. This series is a great opportunity for Toronto, though. James has a long track record of quitting as an underdog when physical and/or psychological pressure is placed on him. If Toronto takes care of business at home in the first two games then the Raptors could advance and that is what I expect will happen.

If the Thunder can get a split in Houston then they can really put pressure on D'Antoni, Harden and Paul--but the Thunder will probably go down 0-2, rally to tie the series and then fall in six games. I never thought that I would pick a D'Antoni-Harden-Paul squad to get past the second round but this seems to be their year.

Boston-Philadelphia is one of the NBA's great historic rivalries. This looks like it will be a seven game war but I like Boston’s defense and veteran toughness making the difference in game seven at home.

Golden State should be at full strength by the second round and that is too much for Portland, who will fight valiantly before falling.

The conference finals--the NBA's version of the Final Four, though no one calls it that--will be fun as always. A full strength Boston team probably would have won the East this year but with both of their All-Stars sidelined the Celtics' playoff run will end in Toronto.

Houston should beat Golden State. The Rockets have homecourt advantage, they have health (barring something unforeseen happening) and they should be more hungry than the two-time champions--but I just cannot pick D'Antoni-Harden-Paul to win a conference finals until I see it happen.

The Warriors are gunning for their third championship in four years but it seems like they have almost been an afterthought this season. They will not be an afterthought after they beat Toronto in six games in the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant will capture his second straight Finals MVP.


Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2017-2018 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2017-2018 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2017: East 5/8, West 7/8
2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 77/104 in the East and 83/104 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .769.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2017: 14/15
2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 147/195 (.754)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 13 years I have correctly picked 15 of the 26 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 13 years (including 2016 and 2017) I got both teams right and twice I got both teams right and predicted the correct result (2007, 2017). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began three times: 2007, 2013, 2017.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM