20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Monday, March 27, 2023

The Final Push for Playoff Positioning

Here is what we know, what we think we know, and what we don't know about playoff positioning with less than 10 games remaining in the 2022-23 NBA regular season:

What We Know

In the past 30 years, one NBA team added a Hall of Fame caliber player in midseason, finished lower than fourth in the conference standings, and won the NBA championship: the 1995 Houston Rockets, who acquired Clyde Drexler in a midseason trade, finished sixth in the Western Conference, and then survived elimination games in the first and second rounds before eventually sweeping the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Other than the addition of Drexler (and subtraction of Otis Thorpe), the Rockets had the same nucleus that won the 1994 championship--most notably Hakeem Olajuwon, the most dominant player in the league during Michael Jordan's first retirement.

In short, championship teams tend to have roster stability, and they tend to do well during the regular season; the notion that this season's championship is up for grabs because so many teams made high profile midseason trades will likely be proven false during the playoffs. I actually think that this season's championship race is less wide open than the championship race in many previous seasons, despite the fact that there is not one clearly dominant team.

The 2023 NBA champion will almost certainly be Milwaukee, Boston, or Denver. The Milwaukee Bucks won the 2021 championship, probably would have won the 2022 championship if not for Khris Middelton's injury, they have been the best team in the league--albeit by a small margin--for a substantial portion of this season, and they are at full strength as the season winds down. The Boston Celtics reached the NBA Finals last season, and they have reached the Eastern Conference Finals four times in the past six seasons. They have proven that they are an elite level playoff team. The Denver Nuggets reached the  Western Conference Finals the last time that they were at full strength (2020), they are at full strength now, and they have been the best team in the West for most of this season.

What about Philadelphia and Cleveland in the East, and Memphis and Sacramento in the West? 

I have made my positions about Joel Embiid and James Harden crystal clear: I don't believe that Embiid will lead a team to a title because he is too injury-prone and because he does not consistently produce in the playoffs, and I also do not trust Harden in the playoffs because he may be the worst postseason choker among perennial All-Stars in pro basketball history. Embiid and Harden have not proven me wrong yet, and I am not losing sleep about them proving me wrong in the 2023 playoffs.

The Cavaliers are very good defensively, and they have a legitimate star in Donovan Mitchell, but I just cannot see this team beating either Milwaukee or Boston in a seven game series--and in order to reach the NBA Finals as the fourth seed in the East they would likely have to beat both the Bucks and the Celtics.

The Grizzlies are all talk and no action until proven otherwise. They impressed me last season as a young, upcoming team, but this season they have had some well-documented problems on and off the court. 

Mike Brown is a vastly underrated coach who should be given a lot of credit for the Kings' rise, but the Kings are young, inexperienced, and not very good defensively. That counts as three strikes and you're out in terms of advancing past the second round of the playoffs.

What We Think We Know

The regular season matters more than many people realize or are willing to admit. Paraphrasing a famous Denny Green quote, most of these teams are (and will be in the playoffs) who we think they are.

Much has been said about teams such as the L.A. Clippers, Golden State Warriors, or L.A. Lakers flipping a proverbial switch and becoming the dreaded "team no one wants to face." I say it every season, and I will say it again this season: if I were a coach or player, I would want to face most so-called teams no one wants to face. I cannot recall such a team ever doing much damage in the playoffs.

The Clippers have load-managed their way through the season, and as a result they lack chemistry at both ends of the court but especially on defense. Despite all of the load managing, Paul George is injured and it is not clear when/if he will return. Why should anyone believe that the Clippers are going to suddenly find the health and chemistry that has eluded them for more than 70 games thus far?

The Warriors are terrible on the road, they are small, their defense is inconsistent (and horrific on the road), they turn the ball over too much (particularly in clutch situations) and it is not clear when/if Andrew Wiggins will return. As the defending champions whose core players have won four titles overall, they may be closer to actually potentially being a team no one wants to face than any other team that has been described that way--but I still expect the Warriors to be first or second round fodder based on who they have shown themselves to be for more than 70 games.

The Lakers shipped out scapegoat Russell Westbrook and, all of the post-trade hype notwithstanding, they are clinging to a spot in the Play-In Tournament--not the playoffs, but the Play-In. Cue Jim Mora screeching "Playoffs?!" The Lakers are not good defensively, and their three point shooting is not any better post-Westbrook than it was when Westbrook was on the team; not counting October 2022--when they only played six games--their month by month three point shooting percentages this season are .354, .355, .335, .343, and .359. The team was so energized by LeBron James' much hyped return to the lineup on Sunday that they lost 118-108 to the equally mediocre Chicago Bulls. Is it possible that LeBron James will play defense again, that Anthony Davis will not get injured tripping over himself, and that the journeymen the Lakers acquired after getting rid of a first ballot Hall of Famer will make significant playoff contributions? Reread that sentence again, be honest with yourself, and you know the answer. 

The Phoenix Suns could be dangerous if Kevin Durant gets healthy and stays healthy, if Devin Booker stays healthy, if Deandre Ayton does not land in Coach Monty Williams' doghouse, if someone can fill the role of defensive stopper on the wing, and if Chris Paul stays healthy/does not disappear down the stretch of close playoff games. Maybe all of those things will happen, but right now the Suns are clinging to the fourth seed and do not look at all like a championship team.

Do I really need to explain why any team not mentioned above has zero realistic chance of winning the 2023 NBA title? I would be surprised if any team not mentioned above is playing in the second round of the playoffs.

What We Don't Know

We don't know who will get injured, who will recover more quickly or to a greater extent than expected, and who will render themselves unavailable due to foul trouble/being suspended.

We don't know if a young star who has not previously made a deep playoff run will do so for the first time (a la Stephen Curry during the Warriors' first championship run in 2015).

We don't know how the media will figure out a way to blame Russell Westbrook for the Lakers' imminent failures in the Play-In Tournament (and the playoffs, if they make it that far), but we do know that the media will most certainly blame Westbrook. It is a given that if the Clippers do not win the championship--which they were not on pace to do before acquiring Westbrook--then Westbrook will be blamed for that as well.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 10:20 PM



At Tuesday, March 28, 2023 4:04:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hi David,

The season is not yet over but I feel like the most logical choice for the championship out of the three truly elite teams is already the Bucks. Barring any sudden injury, they thankfully have shown no signs of dropping in seeding just to avoid a matchup this year and should have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

I would think the Nuggets come out of the west if they also remain healthy. I like and respect Jokic a lot but I think Giannis is the better overall player and matches up well with Jokic, who seems to struggle with physicality at times. Beyond that, I believe the Bucks are also better from #2 downward generally as well.

At Tuesday, March 28, 2023 4:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that the Bucks are the best team. I think that the Bucks would have won last year if Middleton had not been injured.

Giannis is the best all-around player in the NBA. It seems like the voters have predetermined that either Embiid or Jokic will win the award this year, but the voters often display weird biases and unusual thought patterns.

At Wednesday, March 29, 2023 2:35:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...


As a longtime reader of your blog - I recall your post about a decade ago when you remarked that Westbrook would take Bryant's mantle in terms of the elite guard who endures harsh media criticism - I can't help but be bewildered at how Russ gets mistreated by these so-called journalists and experts who cover the game. Yes, his productivity has declined in recent years, a combination from losing athleticism plus being mismanaged in an unfavorable setting/roster, but Russ is still a phenomenal leader/positive locker room presence according to former teammates of his. It's such a shame as to how corrosive modern-day coverage of the NBA has become, along with the actual NBA product itself too.

I agree with you general views about how the Play-In Tournament/Seeding is not really a strong incentive to maintain competitive balance. This move looks to be in place indefinitely moving forward since the NBA cares only about its revenues. Just like the NBA All-Star Game in recent years has become a farce, the league should also consider scrapping the Conferences altogether and just have its top 16 teams make the playoffs, instead of the "20" that includes the Play-In contending teams.

Maybe I am biased since I grew up watching and idolizing the elite players/legends of the 2000s decade, but this modern-day era of the NBA has become too watered down in so many ways (e.g., load management, players not improving after scoring mega contracts, etc.). I miss the days of when elite players took immense pride in playing all 82 games or at least attempting to play 75+ games.

But all in all, I also agree with your contention about Giannis and the Bucks as the title contending favorites. It's an absolute joke that he is not a favorite to win MVP (best player on the best team) when also taking into consideration he's been producing at such a level with Khris Middleton in and out of the lineup pretty much all season. A healthy Brook Lopez has also been an instrumental factor for their success this year; he was not effective due to injury last year. The Bucks look hungrier than ever and should look to win their second title in three years. I personally would love to see Giannis and company go match up against the Suns (for another 2021 Finals rematch) and beat Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Devin Booker again just like he beat all three in the 2021 postseason.

At Wednesday, March 29, 2023 4:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for your kind words.

It is bewildering that Westbrook receives so much unfair criticism, but I can't say that I am surprised--after all, as you noted, I predicted that this would happen!

I agree with your comments about the Play-In Tournament, and the NBA being watered down, and I also would like to see Giannis lead the Bucks to another title. Giannis is a hard-working, low maintenance superstar, and that makes him different from many of the league's other high profile players (not all of whom are superstars, even if they think they are superstars and even if they are hyped up as superstars).


Post a Comment

<< Home