The long NBA regular season is finally over. We’re now getting to the nuts and bolts of the Association’s year. A total of 15 teams vying to unseat the Cleveland Cavaliers as champions.
Out west, the Golden State Warriors earned a 65-plus win regular season for the third consecutive year — the first team in NBA history to accomplish that feat. Though, Steve Kerr and Co. will be facing a tough first-round opponent in the form of the up-and-coming Portland Trail Blazers. Could an upset be on the horizon there?
Meanwhile, the young Utah Jazz are looking to make their impact felt against a Los Angeles Clippers squad that might be seeing its championship window close.
Back east, there’s more of a competitive feel to the playoffs than in previous years. Can the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas take out LeBron James and the Cavaliers?
Thomas, who has flown under the radar for most of his basketball playing life, will now be on that shining stage and ready to prove his worth among the game’s best. The same can pretty much be said about John Wall and the surprising Washington Wizards, who surely look primed for a deep playoff run.
These are among the top-10 storylines heading into the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
1. Potential first-round upsets in the cards
We have to start out west with the two-time defending conference champions. The Golden State Warriors head into the postseason having won 65-plus games once again and playing their basketball basketball of the Steve Kerr era. That’s a scary proposition considering how good the Warriors have been under Kerr.
Despite this, Golden State didn’t exactly draw the best of cards for the first round. It will have to take on a Portland Trail Blazers squad that played the team tough in the Western Conference Semifinals last spring. With elite-level matchups across the board here, one could easily draw the conclusion that Blazers two-guard Damian Lillard might be able to get hot and make a series of this.
Add in the presence of fellow rising star C.J. McCollum in the backcourt, and the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson won’t have an easy time of it here. We’re not projecting a Blazers upset, but also don’t expect a Warriors sweep of Portland in the first round. This will be a very competitive series.
Back east, one could easily draw the conclusion that Cleveland is in trouble. The defending champs pretty much conceded the No. 1 seed to Boston after a historical meltdown at the hands of Atlanta on Sunday. Boasting a sub .500 road record and with a losing mark since March 1st, the Cavaliers are surely vulnerable here.
Meanwhile, Cleveland will now be forced to take on a dangerous Indiana Pacers team that’s led by All-Star Paul George in the first round. Indiana ended the regular season on a five-game winning streak, clinching the seventh seed with a win over Atlanta on Wednesday evening.
If nothing else, the matchup between LeBron James and George should be something to focus on here. We also shouldn’t forget about the presence of Lance Stephenson on the Pacers. One has to wonder whether he will look to get into James’ head by blowing in his ear once again. That will surely be a fun first-round series.
2. Another NBA Finals rematch?
While we did focus on Golden State and Cleveland potentially facing difficult first-round matchups, one of the biggest stories here is whether we will see a third consecutive Finals between the two teams. Some may conclude that it would be overkill, while others claim that one more matchup between this generation’s top-two teams will finally decide who is better. It really just depends on the way you look at it.
Fans in Cleveland and Oakland will definitely want to see who will come out on top in a third consecutive NBA Finals matchup between the two teams. For those of the more objective variety, enough is enough.
Out west, there’s some new blood in the form of the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers looking to blaze new trails (pun indented). Back east, the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors have more than proven themselves capable of hanging with Cleveland.
There are, however, two different issues here. Both are really important to look at before we draw the conclusion that Golden State and/or Cleveland will be unseated. The Warriors boast a 24-8 mark in the Western Conference Playoffs over the past two years. Meanwhile, Cleveland is 24-4 back east during that span.
While Steve Kerr and the Warriors head into postseason basketball on a hot streak, the Cavaliers boast a 10-14 mark since March 1st. That might give other Eastern Conference contenders false hope that LeBron and Co. are not the same as the teams that dominated over the past two playoff runs. Then again, Cleveland simply might not be the same team. We’ll touch on that a bit later.
As it is, there’s two different train of thoughts here. For some, it would be awesome to see these two duke it out in the Finals for a third consecutive season. For others, it is time for some new blood. It will surely be interesting to see how this aspect of the Playoffs pan out.
3. Free agents playing for cash
From Andre Iguodala and Patty Mills out west to the likes of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver in the Eastern Conference, there are a ton of soon-to-be free agents potentially playing for big paydays in the playoffs.
There’s no telling whether Iggy will take a lot less cash to return to Golden State next season. What we do know is that he’s proven himself to be worth a nice little contract before the former NBA Finals MVP calls it a career.
With Kevin Durant out of the mix for a month-plus late in the season, Iguodala proved himself capable of taking on a larger scoring role. Add in his defense, passing ability and leadership, and there are surely teams willing to pay him $10-plus million per season — money the Warriors can’t match. How Iguodala performs in the playoffs will likely dictate whether there’s even a chance he remains with the Warriors.
On the other hand, there’s very little doubt that Mills could play a larger role on a lesser team. As with Iggy, the question here is whether he will take a pay cut to remain in San Antonio. At 28 years old and coming off a 2016-17 regular season that saw him shoot 41 percent from distance, Mills might want to finally cash in on the open market.
The same can pretty much be said about Jeff Teague of the Indiana Pacers and Otto Porter Jr. in Washington. Teague played pretty well in his first season with Indiana, averaging 15.3 points to go with a career-high 7.8 assists. Considering the free-agent market will be filled to the brim with elite poing guard talent, how Teague performs in the playoffs will go a long way in determining his summer payday.
For his part, Porter Jr. is in a different situation. He’s slated to become a restricted free agent during the summer. About as automatic as it gets from three-point range this season (44 percent), the former top-five pick brings a lot of value to the table on offense.
Add in the fact that he’s only 23 years old and teams will be blowing up his phone during the summer. Having to pay the likes of Bradley Beall, John Wall, Ian Mahinmi and Marvin Gortat a combined $70 million next season, a strong playoff performance from Porter Jr. may lead to his departure from the nation’s capital.
4. Competitive Eastern Conference
Joining Cleveland as serious conference title contenders are the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors. All four of these teams could claim to be the best in the conference, but the playoffs themselves will ultimately decide who comes out on top. This is a marked difference from the past two seasons, where Cleveland seemed to be heads and shoulders above the rest.
Boston heads into the playoffs with home-court advantage in the east. The primary issue with Boston is matchups. Including a 23-point home loss earlier this month, Isaiah Thomas and Co. were 1-3 against Cleveland during the regular season. Boston also split with Washington while losing three of four against Toronto.
For their part, the Cavaliers have proven themselves capable of getting up against the best the east has to offer. They were a combined 8-3 against the other top four seeds during the regular year.
The interesting dynamic here (and what makes it so competitive back east), is that fact that Cleveland struggled against those who inched into the playoffs. It was swept in four games by Chicago during the regular year and lost three of four to Atlanta. That’s where things could turn ugly for LeBron and Co. early in the playoffs.
With the top seed back east having won 53 games, it’s nowhere near as top heavy as the Western Conference, where both Golden State and San Antonio won 60-plus. That should make for a much more interesting slate of action, the first round itself included.
5. The Los Angeles Clippers’ dynamic
Chris Paul will opt out of his contract and become a free agent this summer. The expectation here is that J.J. Redick, also a free agent, will look for greener pastures elsewhere. Meanwhile, Blake Griffin has been bandied about in trade talks and head coach Doc Rivers has found himself linked to a return to the Orlando Magic.
Could this really be the end of what was once a promising run for the talented Clippers? With a first-round matchup against a tough Utah Jazz squad, there’s definitely a chance Rivers and Co. could go down early in the playoffs.
Even if they were to advance, Golden State would be waiting in the wings in the conference semifinals. Los Angeles has lost 10 of 11 against the two-time defending west champions.
It’s an unfortunate situation the Clippers find themselves in. Despite winning 50-plus in each of Rivers’ first three seasons, Los Angeles has failed to make it to the conference finals. That came on the heels of the team going a combined 96-52 in Vinny Del Negro’s final two seasons as its head coach. The furthest Los Angeles advanced during that span was the conference semifinals as well.
At some point an organization has to come to the conclusion that the status quo simply isn’t working. With Golden State and San Antonio set to be around for a while atop the west’s standings, the Clippers may be nearing that boiling point. Add in the improvements we’ve seen from Utah and Houston as well as the young talent in Portland, and this is magnified even further.
That’s the biggest storyline in Southern California. Can the Clippers make that first deep run into the playoffs? If not, will owner Steve Ballmer decide to blow this whole thing up?
6. Coaches on the hot seat
Could Rivers be shown the door if the Clippers were to fail in the playoffs once again? Maybe he will want out of dodge himself. What about Fred Hoiberg’s status in Chicago following a disappointing regular season? Sure making the playoffs will help these coaches potentially return to their teams in 2017-2018, but it most definitely isn’t a foregone conclusion.
Teams like the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards are building something for the long term. Conversely, the future is now for both Los Angeles and Chicago.
We have already focused on the Clippers here, so it’s high time to give the east some due. Unfortunately, it starts with one of the most-disappointing teams in the conference.
Chicago entered the season with conference championship aspirations after adding the likes of Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez to the mix. It might have been a foolhardy expectation, but those within the organization believed the Bulls were indeed going to turn the corner.
Instead, Chicago sold off two important pieces in Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott during the trade deadline. That came after a drama-filled first half of the season that saw Rondo act like his normal thorn in the side. Meanwhile, real questions were raised about Jimmy Butler’s long-term future in Chicago and Hoiberg’s ability to lead this team from the bench.
Now heading into a first-round playoff matchup against Boston, it will be important for the Bulls to keep their late-season momentum going.
Chicago is a city of NBA champions. Its fans won’t continue to accept mediocrity. And in reality, Bulls general manager Gar Forman will want his own fall guy should things go south within the front office. This clearly places Hoiberg on the hot seat heading into the postseason.
As it relates to Rivers and the Clippers, most of the talk has surrounded the head coach potentially opting to move on himself. Though, a first-round exit against Utah could force Ballmer and the Clippers’ upper-management to make that decision for him.
If the Clippers are indeed looking to start anew, it won’t simply begin and end with the core players on the court. That’s most definitely something to keep an eye on during what promises to be an entertaining first-round series between the Clips and Jazz.
7. Kevin Durant’s health
Durant looked darn good in his regular season tune ups after returning from a month-plus absence. And while his jump shot was a bit off, Durant looked to be 100 percent recovered from the sprained MCL he suffered.
More than anything, Durant’s long-range game and ability to play defense will be important for Golden State in the playoffs. These are also two things that he struggled with since returning.
It might not matter against Portland, but Durant’s ability to help out against small forwards and power forwards later in the playoffs could loom large. After all, Golden State is looking at a potential second-round matchup against either the Clippers or Jazz. That will bring the likes of Blake Griffin or Gordon Hayward opposite the former MVP.
It will also be important to see how Durant meshes with the Warriors’ other stars. He played less than two games with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to close the season. Golden State spent the earlier part of the year acclimating Durant into the system.
If the team has to do this once again in the playoffs, it could lead to some initial struggles. If so, Portland will surely be ready to pounce.
8. Isaiah Thomas’ shining moment
We covered Thomas as a potential MVP candidate earlier in the month. That might have been thrown out the window following Russell Westbrook’s absurd end to the regular season, but Thomas himself will definitely be in the limelight when Boston opens up the playoffs against the Bulls.
Overcoming Cleveland to earn the top seed back east was a huge regular season accomplishment. Thomas and the Celtics should be happy about that. But the MVP candidate is surely looking at the larger picture here.
The last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings, this smallish 5-foot-9 guard had to overcome a lot to make it in the NBA. He was thrown to the side in typical Kings fashion, only to be shown the door in Phoenix after one season.
Much like Stephen Curry out west, no one thought Thomas had the build and frame to hold up in the NBA. And much like his fellow star guard in Golden State, Thomas has proven everyone wrong at every single turn.
The playoffs represent the first real shining moment of Thomas’ career. Can he continue his ascension among the game’s best on the grandest of possible stages? Can he take that next step and become the latest true superstar for a franchise in Boston that has been littered with them through its history.
This starts in the first round against Chicago, and hopefully for Boston, it will continue deep into June with yet another Finals appearances for the storied organization. A climb to the top for the Celtics after falling on hard times. A climb to the mountaintop for a player in Thomas that has defied all logic throughout his career.
9. The up-and-comers vs the proven
This is the same narrative that could have been thrown out there last spring. Portland taking on the defending champion Warriors with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum looking to make their mark on postseason basketball. All-everything scorer DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors attempting to unseat the Cleveland Cavaliers
We know how this turned out last season, but there’s surely a different feeling in the air heading into the 2017 NBA Playoffs. Portland gained valuable experience by defeating the injury-depleted Clippers in the first round last year. The team then played Golden State tough in the conference semifinals. Will that experience help Portland overcome seemingly unattainable odds to upset the Warriors?
What about Gordan Hayward, Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz going up against a Clippers squad that has been veterans of the Western Conference Playoffs? Can they make their mark on the postseason with a potential second-round matchup against Golden State looming?
Back east, we’re definitely going to want to see how Washington and Boston perform in the opening round. For the Wizards, it’s all about going up against a proven Hawks team that fell on rocky times this past regular season. Will the Hawks’ experience become a factor against a relatively green Wizards team with the likes of John Wall and Bradley Beal making a rare playoff appearance?
Boston’s first-round matchup is also interesting in that it pits the Celtics against a Bulls squad with a vast amount of postseason experience. Heck, Dwyane Wade was suiting up against the Celtics squads of the past that were led by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce with Doc Rivers manning the bench.
To put this into perceptive, Celtics forward Jaylon Brown was 11 when this team earned the title back in 2008. Think about that for a second.
Speaking of stunning realizations, Giannis Antetokounmpo is still only 22 years old. He will lead his sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks squad against a suddenly experienced Toronto Raptors squad. What better way for the Greek Freak to put Milwaukee basketball back on the map by defeating its neighbors to the north and setting into motion a potential second-round series with LeBron James and Co.? Whew.
There comes a time in every sport when stars of yesterday are replaced with stars of today. Stephen Curry and the Warriors proved this two years ago before LeBron told us a story of an “old man” that wasn’t quite down yet.
While Curry and his Warriors still have a wide open window to contend, time might be running out for James and his Cavaliers. The same could be said for the Clippers, Hawks and even the Spurs. It will surely be interesting to see how all this plays out with the young blood taking part in basketball’s grandest tournament.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers limp into the playoffs
We would be foolish not to conclude this article with the defending NBA champs. Boasting a 10-14 mark since March 1st, Cleveland enters the playoffs in a tough situation. It rested LeBron for the final two regular season games after the reigning NBA Finals MVP slowed down towards the end of the year.
How will that play out? Is James going to be rested or will he show rust against what promises to be a game Pacres team? James himself also covered in detail issues with his team’s bench at about the midway point of the season.
Sure Cleveland added Kyle Korver and Deron Williams to the mix, but it enters the playoffs with the worst bench in the Eastern Conference. In what promises to be a more grueling potential trek to the Finals, how will this situation play out?
There’s a lot of indicators that suggest the Cavaliers will fall short of their goal of earning a third straight NBA Finals appearance. First off, they decided to rest their stars with the No. 1 seed on the line late in the season. After posting a sub .500 road record during the regular year, this could surely come into play.
More than anything, James himself has shown flashes of frustration throughout the year. How will his Cavaliers handle adversity with everything on the line? Can they overcome a swoon of epic proportions that defined the final six weeks of the regular season? That’s a whole heck of a lot of questions headed in Cleveland’s direction with the playoffs set to start.