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Thursday, April 11, 2019

2018-19 Playoff Predictions

"In basketball, the adjustments that you get to make in a series are a lot of fun. You don't find that in college sports. You don't find that anywhere but here in the NBA where basketball is played as a game of chess. As a coach, it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of effort. For the players, there is much more intensity involved. They're much more alive; they're much more active. What you can get from the players, energywise, is a lot more fun for a coach, because they're not thinking about an 82 game schedule any more. Now, it's do-or-die, basically. That's why it steps up to a different level, and that's why it's a lot of fun to be coaching." Phil Jackson, during the 2002 playoffs, as his L.A. Lakers were en route to winning their third straight NBA championship.

The playoffs are here! This is the best time of the year to be a basketball fan. There will be many interesting and competitive matchups, including some in the first round.

The 2018-19 NBA regular season included some spectacular individual and team performances, plus some surprising individual and team performances--some good, some not so good. Before turning our full attention to the NBA playoffs, let's take a look back at how we got here.

The Golden State Warriors, winners of three of the last four NBA titles (including two in a row), added All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to their roster without giving up anything. Cousins sat out the first portion of the season to complete his rehabilitation from the ruptured Achilles tendon that he suffered last year and the Warriors were not as dominant as they have been in recent seasons, but they still posted the best record in the Western Conference. For significant stretches of the season, it looked like the Warriors were coasting and/or bored but when they were focused they showed flashes of just how powerful they can still be.

Some nonsense has been written and said about Cousins holding the Warriors back and not fitting in but the reality is that he will play a major role in the team's drive to the 2019 title. He provides a post-up threat that the Warriors never had before, he is a very good passer and he can even stretch the defense by making three pointers. No, he is not a great defender, but he has quick hands and he has provided solid effort at that end of the court. In 30 regular season games, Cousins averaged 16.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.5 bpg and 1.3 spg in just 25.7 mpg. He did not play enough games to qualify for official leaderboards but he posted the team's top averages in rebounding and blocked shots.

The Warriors' Big Three came through as well: Stephen Curry averaged 27.3 ppg (fifth in the league), Kevin Durant averaged 26.0 ppg (eighth in the league) and Klay Thompson averaged 21.5 ppg (18th in the league).

Russell Westbrook has now averaged a triple double for three straight seasons. Meanwhile, in other news...Yeah, that is about the level of enthusiasm far too many media members have regarding this unprecedented accomplishment, which included just the second 20-20-20 game in pro basketball history. It is difficult to understand why Westbrook is not more appreciated, and it seems likely that if anyone else had averaged a triple double for three straight seasons that player would receive much more love than Westbrook gets. Westbrook led the league in assists for the second time, and he is the only player in pro basketball history who has won multiple scoring titles and multiple assist titles.

It would be unfortunate and unfair if Westbrook slips out of the top five in MVP voting (he finished fifth last season after winning the award in 2017) and if he does not make the All-NBA First Team (he made the Second Team last year after earning back to back First Team nods in 2016 and 2017). Westbrook's numbers are integrally connected with winning, and always have been: historically, the Thunder have an elite winning percentage in his triple double games but they have a much worse winning percentage when he does not have a triple double.

It must also be emphasized that Paul George not only chose Russell Westbrook over LeBron James but George then posted the best season of his career, refuting the misguided notion that Westbrook is a bad teammate or a teammate whose style of play does not bring out the best in others.

Speaking of James, "Days of Our Lives, Lakers Style" could be a prime time soap opera and/or a very long article unto itself. We will just touch on some of the issues here, and then explore them in more depth after the playoffs, as a playoff predictions article is not the place to extensively discuss a non-playoff team.

The L.A. Lakers' four year, be patient LeBron James plan soon turned into a one year train wreck, with no relief in sight: James suffered the first significant injury of his career, when he was on the court he often seemed indifferent, when he was off the court he threw his teammates under the bus (both directly and also in his trademark, indirect passive/aggressive style) and by the end of the season the Lakers had missed the playoffs. James' attempt, through his subordinates, to force New Orleans to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers turned out disastrously for all parties involved. New Orleans fired General Manager Dell Demps in the wake of the Davis fiasco and earlier this week the Lakers' Magic Johnson abruptly publicly resigned as team President before even letting the Lakers know that he was leaving.

Say what you want about Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they put enough talent around James in his two stints with the franchise to advance to the NBA Finals five times and win one championship, which is more than most organizations have accomplished during the past 10-15 years. The Lakers supposedly pulled off a coup by convincing James to commit to multiple seasons as opposed to signing a series of one year deals (which James did in Cleveland, hurting the team's ability to recruit free agents who were uncertain about James' long-term plans), but it may very well turn out that the Lakers are now saddled with an aging, disinterested and cranky former superstar who is more interested in building his post-NBA brand than in winning an NBA title. James' physical health and his state of mind are the two biggest questions looming over this franchise and the answers to those questions will in turn play a major role in determining who will be the next team President, whether or not Luke Walton remains the coach, and whether or not any free agent who has viable alternative options will choose to play with James.

Switching to the Eastern Conference, the story of the season is the Milwaukee Bucks. Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo--who should win the regular season MVP--the Bucks posted the league's best record, 60-22. The Bucks are elite both offensively and defensively, thanks to the best player on the planet, a very smart coaching staff and an underrated (or, at least, not well publicized) supporting cast. Anteokounmpo is a 21st century combination of Shaquille O'Neal and Scottie Pippen; he has the height, paint scoring dominance and rebounding skills of peak O'Neal, but he also has the ball-handling skills, passing flair and defensive versatility that Pippen showcased during his prime. It would be unusual for a team to leap from no playoff success to a championship without having intermediate steps/failures but the Bucks have the blueprint in place to be a contender for many years, and they could pose a serious threat to the Warriors in this year's NBA Finals.

The Toronto Raptors replaced DeMar DeRozan with Kawhi Leonard and had a very good, if somewhat odd and under the radar, season. The Raptors finished second in the East with a 58-24 record, and they have to like their chances to make noise in the playoffs now that they don't have to deal with LeBron James, their primary postseason nemesis. Leonard missed 22 games, mostly because of "load management," but the Raptors did quite well without him (17-5, for a .773 winning percentage that exceeded their .683 winning percentage with him).

Boston is the Eastern Conference's mystery guest in the playoffs. It would not be surprising to see Boston in the NBA Finals but it also would not be surprising--disappointing, but not surprising--to see Boston lose in the first round. I expected Boston to be the East's best team this season but that did not pan out, at least during the regular season. A heavy funk seems to hang over this team, relating to controversies/issues such as playing time, shot attempts and whether Kyrie Irving will stay or go. Anyone without inside access to the team who boldly declares with certainty how Boston will do in the playoffs is just blowing smoke. I have some thoughts (see below) but I will not even pretend to be certain.

The 2018-19 NBA season will always be remembered as the last campaign for two all-time greats, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade. Nowitzki has been a shell of his former self physically for the past few years, but he can still shoot, as I witnessed in person during Nowitzki's Madison Square Garden farewell; he is not only one of the greatest players who I have ever seen in person, but he is easily one of the top 50 players of all-time. Casual fans may primarily think of Nowitzki as a shooter but he was also a very good rebounder--particularly in the playoffs during his prime--and he was a clutch scorer who could produce points in a variety of ways. Nowitzki is one of just four players in pro basketball history to have career playoff averages of at least 25 ppg and at least 10 rpg (Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon are the other three). Some of Nowitzki's other playoff rebounding feats include:
Wade--who also must be considered a top 50 player--first separated himself from the pack when he won the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, taking advantage of Dallas double-teaming Shaquille O'Neal to put up huge scoring number as Miami overcame a 2-0 deficit to win the title in six games. Wade won two more championships (2012, 2013) by teaming up with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Perhaps the greatest thing that Wade did was to realize, a la David Robinson playing with Tim Duncan, that James was the team's best player; Wade not only deferred to James but he encouraged James--who does not have the killer mentality of a Bill Russell, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant--to accept and embrace the responsibility of being the best player on the court.

Wade bounced around the league a bit as his career wound down (from Miami to Chicago to Cleveland before going back to Miami after being willing to accept a reduced role), he never developed a consistent three point shot, and his defense dropped off as he aged, but he will always be remembered for relentlessly attacking the hoop despite barely standing 6-4, and for often coming up with big shots in clutch situations. It would have been interesting--and frightening for the rest of the league--to see a player who combined LeBron James' size and physical tools with Wade's warrior mentality.

Here are my first round predictions:

The Milwaukee Bucks have the best player in the NBA and they are an elite team at both ends of the court. Some media members may try to drum up interest in this series versus Detrot by pointing to the Bucks' relative lack of playoff experience, but the Bucks are clearly the superior team and I expect them to demonstrate that in convincing fashion. Detroit's Blake Griffin is hobbled and Milwaukee won the regular season series 4-0. Milwaukee will win in five games at the most, and possibly four games if Griffin's effectiveness is significantly limited due to injury.

The Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard to get them over the hump in the East and then they treated him like a delicate flower, sitting him out for nearly a fourth of the regular season--but the Raptors actually posted an even better record without him than they did with him! Presumably, "load management" will be two words that we mercifully will not have to hear again until next fall. The Orlando Magic split the season series with Toronto (2-2) but the Raptors are clearly the superior team and they will beat the Magic in five games.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a high-powered offense featuring five players who averaged at least 16.9 ppg (Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons) but their defense is mediocre and they have been shaky down the stretch, going 3-6 in the final nine games of the season. The Brooklyn Nets are one of the most pleasantly surprising teams this season, ending a long playoff drought by grabbing the sixth seed. These teams split the season series 2-2. The Nets have enough tenacity to extend the series and make things interesting, but they do not have enough talent to prevail. The 76ers will beat the Nets in six games.

The Boston Celtics made it to game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals last year without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Can they really be a worse playoff team after adding both of those guys to the rotation? The Marcus Smart injury (he may not be available until the Eastern Conference Finals, assuming that Boston survives that long) hurts the Celtics in terms of defense and toughness but could possibly help in terms of opening up some minutes for the young guys who pout about not having enough playing time. The Indiana Pacers looked like they were cruising to the third seed before Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending injury. The Pacers will play hard and compete until the end but, like the Nets, they just don't have enough talent. Boston won the season series 3-1 and the Celtics will beat the Pacers in six games.

Just like last year, the final seedings in the Western Conference were not settled until the final moments of the final games on the last day of the regular season. Certain teams made, shall we say, interesting choices in terms of who they played and who they sat, as it appeared that some teams were trying to arrange to play specific opponents in the playoffs. There is a saying that if you mess with the game then the game will mess with you. Portland really seemed to not want to play Oklahoma City but that matchup happened anyway.

It is not clear if the Houston Rockets had a preferred opponent but they had a disastrous final two days, dropping from potentially being the second seed (and thus avoiding Golden State until the Western Conference Finals) to being the fourth seed facing a Utah team that has proven that it can win on the road in the playoffs. If the Rockets survive that series, then they will likely see the Warriors and--despite the hype--that series will not last seven games before the Warriors advance. Houston's demise was quite fitting, as in the waning moments of their final regular season game versus Oklahoma City James Harden drew a foul by putting Dennis Shroder in a headlock and then Harden got away with a blatant offensive foul before launching the potential game-winning jumper; despite those shenanigans, Harden missed that jumper (after also missing a key free throw) and the Rockets ultimately dropped three spots in the standings after all the dust settled.

The Golden State Warriors coasted during the regular season but there is little doubt that they will be focused and ready during the playoffs. The condition of Stephen Curry's sprained ankle could be cause for concern, but not in the first round. The L.A. Clippers had a remarkable season, making the playoffs despite not having one current or former All-Star on the roster. Doc Rivers has now led the "heart and hustle" Orlando Magic to the playoffs, won a championship with the Boston Celtics in dominating fashion and then guided the Clippers to the playoffs despite the perception/belief that the Clippers were tanking. I wonder if Bill Simmons will ever retract the nonsense that he repeatedly wrote about Doc Rivers not being a good coach? The Clippers are a nice story and they will play hard until the end but they do not have the talent to hang with the Warriors, who won the season series 3-1 and will win this series in four games.

It has become popular to suggest that Gregg Popovich's coaching wisdom and San Antonio's experience will pose problems for the upstart Denver Nuggets, who did not even make the playoffs last year. Perhaps that will turn out to be true, but the Spurs have been an inconsistent and unpredictable team all season; they could easily get a split in the first two games in Denver and then lose two games at home. The teams split the regular season series 2-2. This playoff series could be a little funky considering San Antonio's inconsistency and Denver's lack of playoff experience but ultimately Denver will win in six or seven games.

Oklahoma City has not looked very good or consistent since the All-Star break but the Thunder rallied in the last week or so to drag themselves up from eighth to sixth, a very significant move. Instead of facing Golden State in the first round or the second round, the Thunder can now avoid the Warriors until the Western Conference Finals. Portland is a very good matchup for Oklahoma City; the Thunder won the season series 4-0 and Portland has serious injury problems: center Jusuf Nurkic is out with a broken leg, guard C.J. McCollum is hobbling and guard Damian Lillard has a right hand injury. Portland also suffered an embarrassing and unexpected first round sweep last year despite having homecourt advantage versus New Orleans. On the other hand, the Thunder's Paul George is nursing two shoulder injuries and is a less than reliable playoff performer even at full strength. A couple weeks ago, I was prepared to pick against Oklahoma City in just about any conceivable playoff matchup but, while I may regret this in a couple weeks, I am picking Oklahoma City in six games. 

The best first round series may very well be Utah versus Houston. The Jazz have proven that they can win on the road in the playoffs and last year they gave the Rockets everything they could handle before being stricken with too many injuries. The teams split the season series 2-2. Houston's James Harden pushed and traveled his way to a record-setting scoring season but he is a known and proven playoff choker. He will have at least one 40 point playoff game but he will also have his share of games in which he shoots something like 6-20 from the field and/or commits 8-10 turnovers. Chris Paul's playoff career has consisted largely of disappointing losses and/or injuries. Coach Mike D'Antoni, who hopefully will be fully recovered from his recent stay in the hospital, has helmed several very talented teams but has yet to advance to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, Utah is a very strong defensive team. Whether or not the Jazz can generate enough offense is a valid question but I think that the Jazz can steal a game in Houston and hold serve the rest of the way to beat the Rockets in six games.


Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Milwaukee-Boston, Toronto-Philadelphia, Golden State-Utah and Denver-Oklahoma City. 

We all know that Boston has enough talent to advance to the NBA Finals but all season long their group has not been as cohesive, tough and focused as the Bucks have been. Milwaukee will avenge last year's first round loss to Boston. 

The 76ers will probably be happy about avoiding the Celtics--who always seem to have their number--but dealing with Leonard and the Raptors will hardly be a stroll in the park. I don't trust any Sixer other than Jimmy Butler in the last two minutes of a close game. At least some of these games could be close but if they are close the Raptors will win. Toronto will advance in less than seven games.

Utah can be gritty and pesky but it takes more than gritty and pesky to beat the Warriors, who will eliminate the Jazz in five or six games.

Oklahoma City fell into a good first round matchup but the second round matchup with Denver is bad news for the Thunder, who went 0-4 versus the Nuggets this season. The Thunder are a hard team to read sometimes; maybe they will pull it all together and really challenge the Nuggets but I suspect that this series will result in a Denver victory in five games.

The conference finals will be exciting and competitive. Milwaukee-Toronto is a "pick'em" but I will go with Milwaukee based on having the best individual player plus home court advantage in game seven if the series goes the distance. Denver is not afraid of Golden State and could possibly even win a couple games against the Warriors but the Warriors will ultimately prevail.

We have never had a Warriors-Bucks NBA Finals, though both teams won titles just four years apart in the 1970s. The Antetokounmpo-Durant matchup will be epic. The coaching chess match will be great. The Bucks have a puncher's chance but the Warriors have just a bit too much talent and experience to be denied and they will become the first franchise since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics to win four titles in five years.


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

In my 2018-2019 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2018-2019 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2018: East 6/8, West 6/8
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 83/112 in the East and 90/112 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .772.

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

2018: 11/15
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: 158/210 (.752)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 14 years I have correctly picked 16 of the 28 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 14 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 four times: 2007, 2013, 2017, 2018.

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 @ 3:11 AM



At Thursday, April 11, 2019 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I agree with all your predictions, though I wouldn't be astonished if San Antonio or Houston pulled out their series (Houston is still good enough defensively to cause problems for Utah's unreliable offense).

OKC sure lucked out with Portland. Nurkic is their only particularly good two-way guy, and he's out. If he were healthy (and especially if Dame/CJ weren't hobbled) I'd be tempted to take Portland based mostly on how potent their home court tends to be, but they really couldn't be much more banged up.

Do you think Malcolm Brogdon's injury materially hurts Milwaukee? I don't think it matters in round 1 but I suspect they'll miss him after that.

At Friday, April 12, 2019 11:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I do not think that Brogdon's absence will matter much in round one, and my understanding is that he could be back for round two. If he is not back for round two then his absence would be mentioned in that series preview.


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