As the postseason tips off over the weekend, will the Warriors take a third straight title or can Giannis Antetokounmpos Bucks step up?
It feels incredibly strange to look at the NBA playoffs and realize that, for the first time what seems like a lifetime, LeBron James wont be a part of the proceedings. Thanks to a freshman campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers that was so stressful that team president Magic Johnson shocked the basketball world by bailing on the team, Jamess preposterous streak of eight straight appearances in the NBA finals ended before the postseason even began. With James and the Lakers out of the picture, heres this writers ranking of the teams that actually did make it, based on their regular season performance and the opponents that they have drawn.
1) Golden State Warriors
So they didnt even finish with the best regular-season record in the league this time around and had to settle for simply topping the Western Conference, but the Warriors are still the most dangerous team in basketball. After all, they can deploy a starting rotation with five All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins. They fought off a resurgent Denver team for the top seed in the conference and can rely on home-court advantage through the playoffs. If you were a betting man, the best odds would be on June ending with the Warriors celebrating their third straight championship (and then probably losing Durant to free agency).
2) Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have secured the top overall seed in the playoffs after going 60-22 in the regular season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been at the top of most MVP conversations for most of the season and the team has made moves to improve the supporting cast around him. Although the Eastern Conference playoffs are not going to be a cakewalk, Milwaukee should be considered favorites. Their main issue right now? Health. Starting guard Malcolm Brogdons timetable to return is uncertain thanks to a foot injury. Nikola Mirotic, who came in at the trade deadline to boost their roster, is just hopeful for Game 1 of their first-round series against the late-qualifying Detroit Pistons while Tony Snell is out. That likely wont hurt them in the opening round, but if these injuries linger throughout the playoffs, it could be a concern.
3) Houston Rockets
Antetokounmpos most credible rival in the MVP race is the Rockets James Harden, who continues to put up dazzling numbers on such a consistent basis that even his legion of haters have been browbeaten into silence. Largely thanks to him, and of course point guard Chris Paul, the Rockets have the best chance of knocking the Warriors out before the championship rounds. They also should be highly motivated. Had Paul not been injured last season or had they managed to not miss more consecutive three-pointers than any team in postseason history in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals the Rockets likely would have advanced to the 2018 finals at the expense of the Warriors. Good news: theyre in a fine position for a do-over with the two teams on a collision course in the second round unless the Jazz spoil the party.
4) Denver Nuggets
Every year theres an NBA team that ends up a surprise contender despite not having that one marquee player that everybody knows. This season thats been the Nuggets. Now,keep in mind, that no marquee player bit is not going to be true for very long, since center Nikola Jokic is slowly building a reputation that suggests that stardom is around the corner. The Nuggets battled with Warriors for the top spot in the Western Conference for stretches of the regular season, but ended up having to settle for the second seed. Now comes the big question: How much will their lack of playoff experience hurt them, especially since their first-round opponent, the sixth-seeded San Antonio Spurs, is hardly lacking in that category?
5) Toronto Raptors
Look at that: the second-best team in the Eastern Conference secured its second seed. Sometimes the regular season standings dont lie. Clearly the franchises fortunes turned over the summer when they swapped mainstay DeMar DeRozan for the Spurs Kawhi Leonard. Thanks to months of lineup tinkering, the current Raptors are something of a patchwork outfit, filled with familiar faces (Leonard, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka) in unfamiliar territory. Point guard Kyle Lowry, whose production has dipped some from his All-Star peaks, remains the Raptors most important holdover, although his position has been challenged by Pascal Siakam, potentially this years Most Improved Player. Maybe the turnover will work in their favor, as those older Raptors teams were all too familiar with painful early playoff exits.
6) Philadelphia 76ers
It wasnt quite the year that Philadelphia were hoping for, but the third seed in the East still isnt shabby. If they can find their rhythm and start coming together as a team, they absolutely have a shot of representing the Eastern Conference in the finals. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler make up an incredibly talented core as the Process approaches full bloom. At the very least, they should have a relatively easily time with the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, although Embiids suddenly up-in-the-air injury status is worrying. The center, who is battling a lingering knee issue, remains the face of the franchise and its most important player. As good as the rest of the team is, Embiid has to be sturdy enough to carry them.
7) Boston Celtics
If it werent for LeBrons Lakers, there wouldnt be a more disappointing team during the regular season than the Celtics. They were a game away from the NBA finals last year without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, so it was easy to imagine them taking advantage of Jamess absence and becoming the team to beat in the East with the two of them healthy. Instead they struggled to find an identity and had to fight for their lives just to get home-court advantage against the Indiana Pacers in the first round. If Hayward can regain his Jazz form, however, its not impossible that they could transform into the dangerous team everybody was expecting in the summer. Absent defensive stalwart Marcus Smart for the first two rounds thanks to a torn oblique, however, could be hard to overcome.
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