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Saturday, August 15, 2020

2019-20 Playoff Predictions

Unprecedented and unique are overused words, but both are applicable to the 2020 NBA playoffs. This is the first time that the league suspended a season due to a pandemic, brought back 22 teams a few months later to finish a truncated season by playing eight seeding games per team (plus one play-in game to break a tie for eighth place in the Western Conference), and then attempted to complete a full slate of playoff games in one location, thus removing both travel and home court advantage as factors. The pandemic could end the participation of a player or possibly an entire team at any time--and, in the worst case scenario, the pandemic could shut down the playoffs; fortunately, that worst case scenario seems increasingly less likely as each day passes with no positive COVID-19 tests within the NBA's campus ("the bubble").

The 2019-20 regular season felt like two separate seasons. This feeling of separation is reinforced by the NBA's decision that all voting for postseason awards would take place before the seeding games were played. Thus, more than 10% of the regular season statistics for the 2019-20 season were not considered when the voters selected the MVP, the Rookie of the Year, and the rest of the award winners; those award winners will be announced later, though the NBA later decided to immediately announce award winners just for the seeding games.

Regarding playoff predictions, one should not place too much emphasis on what transpired in the first portion of the regular season; those playing conditions and circumstances no longer exist. However, one should also be cautious about reading too much into what happened during the seeding games, other than noting which players did not come to Orlando and which players will not be able to play in the playoffs; some teams used the seeding games to fine tune their rotations and their conditioning, while other teams had to scrap and claw during every game in order to qualify for the playoffs.

The following predictions are based on my analysis of what I expect to happen under ideal circumstances: in other words, if there are no further injuries and no pandemic-related disruptions, which teams are most likely to prevail in seven game playoff series held on a neutral court? In theory, without home court advantage to tilt a series in favor of the higher seeded team, we should see more upsets than usual, but after I analyzed the first round matchups I expect form to prevail with only two exceptions--and both of those are in the #4 versus #5 matchups that one would expect to be the most closely contested even under normal circumstances. However, in the subsequent rounds the absence of home court advantage could be a significant factor, as any seventh game will truly be a toss-up between teams that have proven to be evenly matched for the first six games; NBA road teams rarely win a seventh game, but "road" teams in the 2020 playoffs have a great opportunity to reverse that trend.

Here are my first round predictions:

Eastern Conference

#1 Milwaukee (56-17 overall; 3-5 in the seeding games) versus #8 Orlando (33-40 overall; 3-5 in the seeding games).

For most of the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks were clearly the best team in the league, and they were on pace to win at least 70 games. Some cracks started to show just prior to the NBA's shutdown in March, and those cracks were still visible during the restart; however, the Bucks had all but clinched the top seed in the East before the restart began, so they may have felt more of an incentive to stay healthy than to win every game. That loss of focus may hurt them later in the playoffs, but the Orlando Magic do not have enough weapons to seriously threaten the Bucks. The Bucks swept the regular season series 4-0, and it seems unlikely that the Magic can take a game from the Bucks even if the Bucks start the playoffs lethargically. Milwaukee will win in four games.

#2 Toronto (53-19 overall; 7-1 in the seeding games) versus #7 Brooklyn (35-37 overall; 5-3 in the seeding games). 

The Toronto Raptors are better than I expected, and they are one of the few teams that performed at a high level during both portions of the regular season. Not many teams can lose a player as great as Kawhi Leonard is and still maintain contender status. The Raptors are tough, smart, and well-coached. They play excellent defense, and they have an equal opportunity offense featuring several double figure scorers. Perhaps the one remaining question about the Raptors pertains to their ability to execute half-court offense down the stretch of a close game versus an elite team. Brooklyn is not an elite team. Injuries and COVID-19 have decimated the Nets' roster. The Raptors won the season series 3-1. It is tempting to predict a sweep, but it is difficult to sweep a team in the NBA playoffs, so Toronto will win in five games.

#3 Boston (48-24 overall; 5-3 in the seeding games) versus #6 Philadelphia (43-30 overall; 4-4 in the seeding games). 

The Boston Celtics have a nice mixture of youth and experience. They are an elite defensive team, and an above average offensive team. They have yet to prove that they are a legitimate championship contender, but they are a notch above the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers were an overly hyped, underachieving team even before Ben Simmons suffered a season-ending knee injury. The 76ers were not likely to go very far in the playoffs with Simmons, and it will be surprising if they beat the Celtics without him. Joel Embiid is the 76ers' best player, and when he is relatively healthy and properly self-motivated--two statuses that occur, at best, sporadically--he is capable of being one of the top five players in the NBA. In general, though, Embiid is a talented underachiever, and he sets the tone for the 76ers in that regard. The 76ers have not tanked to the top and they will not advance past the first round. The Celtics will win in five games.

#4 Indiana (45-28 overall; 6-2 in the seeding games) versus #5 Miami (44-29 overall; 3-5 in the seeding games). 

The Indiana Pacers have been hit hard by injuries, with 2019 All-Star Victor Oladipo returning to action recently after missing most of the season, and 2020 All-Star Domantas Sabonis missing all of the seeding games and likely missing the playoffs as well. Despite that, the Pacers solidified their status as a playoff team during the first portion of the regular season, and they moved up from fifth place in the East to fourth place after going 6-2 during the seeding games. In a normal postseason, having the seventh game at home would be a huge advantage, particularly in a matchup of two teams with nearly identical records. In this postseason, that advantage does not exist.

In any event, this series is unlikely to reach a seventh game. The Heat won the season series 3-1, with the only loss coming in the final seeding game on August 14 as the Heat rested their best players; when the teams played at full strength on August 10, the Heat won, 114-92. The Heat feature two 2020 All-Stars (Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo) surrounded by a young and energetic supporting cast. Miami will win in five games.

Western Conference

#1 L.A. Lakers (52-19 overall; 3-5 in the seeding games) versus #8 Portland (35-39 overall; 6-2 in the seeding games; won play-in game versus Memphis). 

LeBron James' Lakers played the seeding games in what James has previously called "chill mode," though he did not publicly use that expression this time. The Lakers' strategy after clinching the top seed in the West appeared to be to shut things down and wait to ramp up until the playoffs begin. As I have made abundantly clear many times, I hate tanking, "load management," and anything other than players and teams giving their best at all times; trying less than your best is disrespectful to the game, and it cheats the fans. It also usually backfires, as Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts repeatedly proved.

All of that being said, LeBron James remains an MVP-caliber player at 35 years old in his 17th season. That is incredible. Anthony Davis is one of the five most talented players in the NBA, although he displayed "chill mode" tendencies even before teaming up with James. It would be shocking--and inexcusable--for a team featuring two MVP-caliber players to lose in the first round of the playoffs, let alone to lose to a sub-.500 team. The standard for a team that has two MVP-level players plus a good supporting cast is to at least make it to the NBA Finals.

Damian Lillard earned seeding games MVP honors--yes, the NBA created and officially sanctioned these awards at the last minute--after averaging 37.6 ppg and 9.6 apg as the Trail Blazers went 6-2 to move up to the eighth seed and qualify for a play-in game versus the Memphis Grizzlies, who went 2-6 in the seeding games to fall from eighth place to ninth place. In the final three seeding games, Lillard scored 51 points versus Philadelphia, tied his franchise single game record with 61 points versus Dallas, and then scored 42 points with 12 assists versus Brooklyn. Portland won all three of those games. Lillard cooled off in the play-in game, but still finished with a team-high 31 points on 6-15 field goal shooting (including 5-14 from three point range) and 14-14 free throw shooting.

Lillard is without question a tremendous player who can score and pass at an elite level. He is also an undersized guard whose teams advanced past the first round of the playoffs three times in his first seven seasons. Portland made it to the Western Conference Finals last year, but this year the Trail Blazers are a sub-.500 team that went 4-6 in the 10 games before the NBA shut down in March; if the league had not shut down and then ended the season with the seeding games/play-in format, the Trail Blazers would have probably missed the playoffs.

Media narratives are fascinating to observe. Carmelo Anthony has been correctly portrayed for several years as an aging, one dimensional, and declining player who puts up individual numbers but does not contribute to team success. This season, Anthony's field goal percentage (.430) was worse than his career average (.448), though he offset that a bit by shooting better than usual from three point range (.385 compared to his career norm of .349). His rebounding (6.3 rpg) was solid--if not great--and he did not pass much (1.5 apg), though to be fair he is not used in a playmaking role at all while playing alongside Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Anthony's plus/minus number was .3. Yet, Anthony is now being portrayed in the media as a player who has revived his career while making a significant contribution for a playoff team. While it is true that Anthony's career has been revived in the sense that he is in the league as opposed to begging a team to sign him, and it is correct that he is a starter for a playoff team, Anthony is at best the fourth option on a sub-.500 team; he deserves credit for being persistent enough to make it back into the league, and for--belatedly--accepting a role other than primary scorer, but it is possible to accurately give Anthony credit for what he is doing without vastly distorting his role and his impact on winning.

Anthony is perhaps just one beneficiary of a general wave of hype about Portland. TNT's Charles Barkley has predicted that the Trail Blazers will not only beat the Lakers but also advance to the NBA Finals, but let's be clear: if the Trail Blazers beat the Lakers without the Lakers suffering injuries, suspensions, or the loss of key players for some other reason, this would qualify as the biggest first round upset--if not the biggest upset, period--in pro basketball history. Damian Lillard will score a lot of points and create a lot of highlights, and the Lakers appear to lack the necessary focus and discipline to sweep a vastly inferior team, but the Lakers will win in five games.

#2 L.A. Clippers (49-23 overall; 5-3 in the seeding games) versus #7 Dallas (43-32 overall; 3-5 in the seeding games). 

Neither the Clippers nor the Mavericks looked great during the seeding games, but the Clippers were the better team all season long, and that figures to hold true during this series as well. The Clippers went 3-0 head to head versus the Mavericks, with two wins during the regular season and one win during the seeding games.

As I noted after the 2019-20 season opener (which seems like it happened 10 years ago), Kawhi Leonard is the "dynasty killer." Leonard has taken out the Heat and the Warriors in the NBA Finals, and his departure from San Antonio marked the end of the Spurs' run as a championship contender after more than 20 years of being an elite team. I don't like Leonard's "load management" tendencies during the regular season but he has a proven track record of high level playoff success. Luka Doncic is a sensational player who may someday win a regular season MVP, but Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP who is an elite player at both ends of the court. It is difficult to picture Doncic outplaying Leonard in a playoff series, and it would be very surprising to see a Leonard-led squad lose in the first round of the playoffs. The L.A. Clippers will win in six games.

#3 Denver (46-27 overall; 3-5 in the seeding games) versus #6 Utah (44-28 overall; 3-5 in the seeding games). 

Denver posted the second best regular season record in the Western Conference in 2019, and finished third in 2020. The Nuggets have emerged as a top level team after missing the playoffs for five straight years. They are missing something--either playoff experience, or perhaps one more really good player in their seven/eight man rotation--necessary for championship contention, but they will not be an easy out for the Lakers or Clippers.

The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah's second leading scorer (20.2 ppg), to a season-ending wrist injury, was a major blow for the Jazz. The Jazz insist that reports of chemistry problems on their team are false, but--even accounting for the absence of Bogdanovic--they did not look great during the seeding games. It had been reported that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell did not get along very well even before Gobert's now infamous conduct just prior to testing positive for COVID-19--Mitchell later tested positive as well, though it is not clear whether or not Gobert infected Mitchell--and there is good reason to wonder if the two of them are on the same page now, not only off the court but also in terms of who is the team's star; that "Who is the man?" nonsense has broken up teams a lot more talented than this one, and there is at least some reason to believe that such tensions are affecting the Jazz now.

The Nuggets swept the season series 3-0, though all three games were close, including a two-overtime thriller during the seeding games portion of the season. This series will be competitive. Denver will win in six games.

#4 Houston (44-28 overall; 4-4 in the seeding games) versus #5 Oklahoma City (44-28 overall; 4-4 in the seeding games). 

The Rockets moved up to fourth place in the Western Conference during the seeding games, but that accomplishment is neither significant nor relevant. Houston, Oklahoma City, and Utah each finished with 44-28 records, but the Rockets owned the best three-team tiebreaker. As noted above regarding the Indiana-Miami series, the fourth seed has no advantage over the fifth seed during this year's playoffs. Further, without the injured Russell Westbrook, the Rockets are definitely not the fourth best team in the West, and they probably are not the sixth best, either. Westbrook's MVP caliber play was crucial for the Rockets after they went in-all with small ball. Westbrook provided speed, rebounding, and essential scoring/playmaking. With Westbrook, the Rockets had a puncher's chance in any given game; without Westbrook, the Rockets are a severely undersized team that will watch James Harden possibly set playoff scoring records in the first four or five games of the series before he flames out with missed shots and turnovers in the elimination game.

It looked like the Thunder were heading for the Draft Lottery and a rebuilding process after they lost Russell Westbrook and Paul George while obtaining Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a bunch of draft picks; it was widely assumed that Paul would be dealt for more draft picks, but that did not happen and Paul meshed well with the young, talented players around him. The Thunder are without question the most surprising team that qualified for the 2020 playoffs, and Paul deserves a lot of credit for that success, even if he is not the best leader in the NBA (notwithstanding Charles Barkley's insistence otherwise). It is clear that Coach Billy Donovan is able to extract the maximum from whatever roster is handed to him.

If Westbrook returns to action prior to the Rockets falling too far behind in the series, and if Westbrook is able to immediately play at a high level, then the Rockets may win this series in seven games, but I make my predictions based on what we know now, not what may happen later. The Rockets have announced that Westbrook will miss at least a few games, and that means that even if Westbrook returns he will not be able to save Houston. The Rockets have lost in the first round of the playoffs three times in the past seven years; pencil Harden and company in for four first round losses in eight years. Oklahoma City will win in six games.      


Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Milwaukee-Miami, Toronto-Boston, L.A. Lakers-Oklahoma City and L.A. Clippers-Denver. 

The Heat will not back down from the Bucks, and it would not be surprising to see the Heat win two games, but Milwaukee will win in six games or less.

The second round of the playoffs is where the wheat really starts to be separated from the chaff. Are the Raptors a legitimate championship contender even without Kawhi Leonard, or will the absence of an established superstar prove fatal versus a very talented Boston team? I expect Toronto to win in seven games.

The Lakers' superior talent will prevail versus the surprising Oklahoma City Thunder. 

As mentioned above, the Nuggets have established themselves as a solid playoff team after spending half a decade in the wilderness. However, they do not have enough firepower to contend with Kawhi Leonard and crew. The Clippers will win in six games.

It will be fascinating to watch a conference finals round in which home court advantage does not exist. The whole concept of the home team needing to win the first two while the road team is trying to get at least a split is null and void. In theory, this should make upsets more possible, if not necessarily more probable. In the conference finals, the lack of home court probably helps the Raptors the most; winning a game seven on the road without a top five player is difficult, but they will not have to go to Milwaukee if that series lasts seven games. I do expect that series to go seven games, with Milwaukee avenging last year's loss to Toronto, and advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. Regarding Lakers versus Clippers, this boils down to who you trust the most in the fourth quarter of a close playoff game. I do not trust Anthony Davis or Paul George very much. LeBron James has been awesome sometimes, but missing in action on more than one occasion. Kawhi Leonard is steady and consistent. The Clippers will win in seven games, with Leonard outdueling James down the stretch.

I look forward to seeing two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard battling 2019 (and, presumably, 2020) regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA Finals. Antetokounmpo is bigger than Leonard, and his ceiling is higher than Leonard's--but Leonard has proven that he knows how to do what it takes for his team to win at the highest level. Leonard does not put up the gaudiest scoring numbers, but he scores in clutch situations when his team needs scoring. He does not put up the gaudiest rebounding numbers, but he gets key rebounds. He does not put up the gaudiest assist numbers, but when he is your team's best player you know that your team is going to be running an efficient offense. He does not put up the gaudiest numbers for steals or blocked shots, but when the chips are down he may be the best defender in the NBA. Leonard's greatness is not defined by individual numbers. That is not to say that individual numbers do not matter, nor is it to say that Antetokounmpo is not a great player; Antetokounmpo has been, without question, the best regular season player in each of the past two seasons. Leonard's game provides a good reminder that there is more to player evaluation than just numbers, and specifically that there is more to skill set evaluation than just numbers; some players chase assists but are not really great passers, while other players are great passers--and, more significantly, are great at creating open shots for their teammates--without posting eye-popping assist numbers. The Clippers will beat the Bucks in six games to claim the franchise's first title.


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

In my 2019-2020 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of this season's eight playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2019-2020 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2019: East 6/8, West 7/8
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 90/120 in the East and 96/120 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .775.

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

2019: 10/15
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: 168/225 (.747)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 15 years I have correctly picked 17 of the 30 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 15 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 when the playoffs began.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:17 PM



At Monday, August 17, 2020 7:24:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

I like what you said about Kawhi Leonard at the end. When he's not load managing of course, he has a laser-sharp focus and doing whatever it takes to help his team win and there is never any doubt as to whether or not he left it all on the floor. He can impact the game in so many different ways and he simply doesn't seem concerned about his own personal narrative other than just winning. I know that some people accused him of quitting on the Spurs but that appears to be highly debatable and who knows what actually happened there. I'm open to the possibility that the Spurs played a significant role in alienating him. I was listening to an interview with his coach from San Diego State and he knew that Leonard would have a very solid NBA career but he never imagined anything like this. I can't remember the last player who went from being a role player to winning multiple Finals MVPs/Defensive Player of the Year awards.

At Tuesday, August 18, 2020 10:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't see any evidence that Kawhi Leonard quit on the Spurs. The publicly available information suggests that the Spurs misdiagnosed his injury, and threw him under the bus during his recovery/rehabilitation. This was perhaps the biggest mistake of the Popovich era, and it could end up costing the Spurs multiple championships.

At Tuesday, August 18, 2020 12:24:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

I agree that this is the most likely explanation for what happened. There were some questions about the role that Kawhi's camp played in his departure from the franchise and their motivation to get him in Los Angeles but the evidence points to the arrogance of the Spurs being the actual reason why Leonard left, specifically the arrogance of Popovich. Alienating Leonard was the biggest mistake he made since not having Duncan in at the end of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals when Ray Allen made the three (and then illegally substituted him back in during the review of the shot), a move that cost them an actual championship.

At Tuesday, August 18, 2020 1:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that any questions that may have been wrongly raised about Leonard's camp have been found to be baseless.

You are correct that Popovich's mistake with Duncan is probably Popovich's biggest mistake ever, though it should be noted that the Spurs still had a chance to redeem themselves in game seven, and even though they failed in game seven they did win the 2014 title. On the other hand, losing Kawhi Leonard is a mistake from which it will be very difficult to recover.


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