NBA Playoff Picture: Outlook, concerns for Warriors, Bucks and league’s other title contenders
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There is still a certain inevitability to the Golden State Warriors, despite the defending champions dropping games at home, failing to sustain defensive intensity and knowing that the team could look significantly different next season. At their best and healthiest, the Warriors remain a problem that hasn’t been solved since Kevin Durant arrived. In the upcoming playoffs, though, they will face a bunch of teams that have built their rosters with them in mind. No one else has a duo like Durant and Stephen Curry, but the whole league has watched them win titles on the strength of their like-sized wing defenders, spacing and unselfish style.
The Milwaukee Bucks, remodeled by coach Mike Budenholzer, have drawn comparisons to Golden State in Steve Kerr’s first season. The Houston Rockets almost won last year’s Western Conference finals by deploying a small unit of their own against the Warriors’ Death Lineup. As the playoffs approach, let’s take a look at those two teams and three more in each conference that are aiming high.
The beasts of the East
The outlook: Before recent injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, it was difficult to imagine the Mike Budenholzer era getting off to a better start. There is a strong argument that the Bucks should be considered the favorites to come out of the East based on their statistical profile, their roster balance and their superstar. Milwaukee’s ascension is a feel-good story for a team that had been frustrating in recent years despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s brilliance. Everybody around the league knew that Budenholzer would prioritize spacing on offense, but this has been a wholesale transformation on both ends. He should win Coach of the Year.
Adversity, however, is hitting the Bucks at an inconvenient time. In the playoffs, we will find out whether Budenholzer’s system — and an increase in Antetokounmpo’s minutes — can keep them rolling. In many ways, the season is already a massive success, but, given that Milwaukee could finish the season with 60 wins, there is some pressure to validate all of this with a long playoff run. It would be silly to say the Bucks have failed if they don’t make the Finals, but a second-round loss to the Celtics would feel like a disappointment, which is kind of wild when you think about how the teams were talked about in the preseason.
Fun stat: Brook Lopez, now universally beloved, leads the team in 3-point attempts, averaging 6.4 per game. The last Buck to average that many was Ray Allen in 2002-2003. Allen, however, played 35.8 minutes a night that season, compared to Lopez’s 28.6 minutes.
Biggest concern: At full strength, this is not a team that has many weaknesses, but there is some skepticism about Milwaukee staying this dominant. I anticipate opponents trying to shut down its secondary playmakers, closing off passing lanes and daring Antetokounmpo to do everything himself. If the Bucks get bogged down, we don’t know how they will respond.
Further reading: Antetokounmpo has a real shot at winning both MVP and DPOY, writes Danny Chau of The Ringer.
Games remaining: vs. Rockets, vs. Clippers, @ Hawks, @ Nets, @ 76ers, vs. Nets, vs. Hawks, vs. Thunder
The outlook: While they can’t claim to be the best team in the East, as they were in last year’s regular season, the Raptors have approached this whole deal with a big-picture mindset. Kawhi Leonard, such a fun guy, said weeks ago that he sees regular-season games as practices, which reflects a team-wide attitude that success outside of April, May and June means next to nothing. Considering Toronto’s recent history, this makes sense.
The Raptors have more high-end talent than ever, so old questions about past playoff demons and rarely having the best player in a series have been replaced by new ones: Are they at a disadvantage because of what Leonard and Danny Green’s former coach, Gregg Popovich, calls “institutional knowledge?” Are they cohesive enough? Will the reserves be reliable? Toronto optimists believe that coach Nick Nurse has what every coach wants in a postseason roster: two-way players, toughness and versatility. The challenge is that, while LeBron James is finally gone, the competition is formidable and the stakes are extremely high.
Fun stat: I am not sure if the Raptors have a reputation for this, but they’re all over the NBA‘s hustle stats leaderboard: per game, they are top-four in deflections, loose balls recovered, shots contested and box outs.
Biggest concern: In a word, cohesion. Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam have only played 38 games together, and Marc Gasol has played 10 games with that trio. Lowry’s usage rate is just 16.1 when Leonard and Siakam are on the floor with him, and while he influences the game in lots of ways, it’s fair to wonder how playmaking will be distributed in the postseason. The Raptors are not the Rockets, where everyone knows what’s coming and it doesn’t matter because it’s so hard to stop anyway. They want to be more like the Warriors, who are unpredictable and can hurt you in all sorts of ways. It is not easy to play that way.
Further reading: The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur on the underappreciated production of Playoff Lowry.
Games remaining: vs. Bulls, @ Knicks, @ Bulls, vs. Magic, @ Nets, @ Hornets, vs. Heat, @ Timberwolves
The outlook: The good news is that their killer starting five has now played 150 minutes together and still has a plus-15.7 net rating. This is a small but promising sample, and it supports the idea that Philadelphia raised its ceiling with the Tobias Harris trade. Recent wins against the Bucks and Celtics were encouraging, too. The big question, however, is whether or not the team can coalesce into something special.
The Sixers are not the only team on this list that has a significantly different roster than it did five months ago. No team, however, has done anything as drastic as they did — at the beginning of the season, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington and Dario Saric were starters. Their relatively new four-star look makes them endlessly interesting, but it also makes things complicated. Philadelphia is an unpopular pick to come out of the East not necessarily because its star power is being underestimated, but because other teams feel like safer choices.
Fun stat: The Sixers average 1.89 dribbles per touch, which means they dribble less than every team in the league except Golden State. This is not inherently good — Houston leads the league in this category, and its offense better than every team in the league, except, again, Golden State — but it reflects how coach Brett Brown wants the team to play. While Philadelphia now employs multiple players who are capable of making plays off the bounce, its attack is predicated on ball movement, player movement and misdirection.
Biggest concern: A series of smaller concerns — trouble containing dynamic guards, Joel Embiid’s past struggles against Al Horford and Marc Gasol, Ben Simmons‘ turnovers against Kawhi Leonard and a shaky bench, to name a few — add up to one big question: Can sheer talent can outweigh matchup problems? The answer is sometimes yes, but the Sixers’ talent will be tested.
Further reading: Zhaire Smith has been through hell, and Rich Hofmann of The Athletic got the story.
Games remaining: vs. Nets, @ Timberwolves, @ Mavericks, @ Hawks, vs. Bucks, @ Bulls, @ Heat, vs. Bulls
The outlook: Who knows? If the Celtics make it to the NBA Finals, every moment of this soap operatic season will be framed as necessary adversity from which they emerged stronger. If they don’t, then the drama and disharmony will be seen as damning.
I tend to think that their plus-4.7 net rating, which ranks sixth in the league, is more indicative of who the Celtics are than any of the alarming quotes that have come from their postgame scrums. If they are healthy (note: it has become impossible to ignore how important Aron Baynes is to this team), they check just about every box for playoff success. On offense, they have an absurd amount of weapons and a closer who has made clutch shots in the most pressure-packed situations imaginable. On defense, they have a collection of versatile wings, rim protection and a center who can capably switch onto smaller players. But there is a world of difference between their on-paper profile and the confusing experience of watching them all season.
Fun stat: Per Cleaning The Glass, glue guy extraordinaire Marcus Smart is in the 98th percentile of a stat I’ve never seen cited: assist to usage ratio. His is 1.18 percent. As you can probably tell from its name, this stat compares a player’s assist rate to his usage rate. (You will not be surprised to learn that Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Joe Ingles are also elite in this category.)
Biggest concern: Coming into the season, Boston’s challenge was to embody the underdog spirit of prior Brad Stevens teams despite the fact that it had a star-studded roster. This has definitively not happened. Stevens recently said that this is the first team he’s ever coached that is “solely reliant on whether you make shots or not.” If the Celtics are going to live up to their potential, they have to be way less rickety than they’ve been.
Further reading: That Stevens quote came from a piece about Boston’s inconsistency by The Athletic’s Jay King, in which Marcus Morris says other teams’ coaches keep asking him why things aren’t working for the Celtics.
Games remaining: @ Cavaliers, vs. Pacers, @ Nets, vs. Heat, @ Heat, @ Pacers, vs. Magic, @ Wizards
The best of the West
Golden State Warriors
The outlook: The Warriors stunk it up against Dallas at home on Saturday, losing 126-91 with Stephen Curry sitting out. The next day, after a 121-114 victory against Detroit, coach Steve Kerr said this: “It’s hard for anybody to understand what these guys go through physically, emotionally, spiritually, trying to defend the crown, trying to win the title, trying to stay on top of the mountain. It’s hard. And last night they had nothing. They had nothing in the tank.”
The Mavs game was less surprising to Kerr than the lack of blowout losses in the first three years of his coaching career. It is worth remembering that Kerr was part of the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat, and, when he was an analyst for TNT in 2013, he (correctly) predicted the Miami Heat wouldn’t win their third title in a row, citing emotional exhaustion and nonstop scrutiny. He knows that he has to be patient and that if Golden State raises its game when the time is right, none of its challengers can reach its level. The Warriors will be vulnerable if their defense remains average in the postseason, but do you really expect that to happen?
Fun stat: As a team, the Warriors have made 45.8 percent of their midrange shots, which leads the league. For context, master of the midrange, LaMarcus Aldridge has made 44.2 percent of his.
Biggest concern: Basketball-wise, it’s about the depth and the defense, but the biggest issue might be simpler than that: Do they have enough juice to go all the way again? As easy as it seems like it should be for a collection of future Hall of Famers, the Warriors have almost always had to deal with some sort of adversity on the way to the title. The rest of the league is hoping that this time, they will not only stumble but fall.
Further reading: The Athletic’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss on the return and rejuvenation of Andrew Bogut, who lost weight playing at home in Australia despite adding “a whole lot more beer to my diet.”
Games remaining: @ Grizzlies, @ Timberwolves, vs. Hornets, vs. Nuggets, @ Lakers, vs. Cavaliers, vs. Clippers, @ Pelicans, @ Grizzlies
The outlook: Compared to where they were a few months ago, everything is rosy. In a total reverse of last season, the Rockets struggled early on, particularly relative to expectations and the talent on the roster. They waived Carmelo Anthony, cycled through role players, suffered through injuries and asked James Harden to do almost literally everything. Harden kept them afloat, and now that Chris Paul and Clint Capela are playing like themselves, they have won 14 of their last 16 games.
On a recent Lowe Post podcast, general manager Daryl Morey said that “we feel like we will be better than last year’s team going into the playoffs.” That’s a tough sell with Trevor Ariza gone, but, if midseason acquisitions Austin Rivers, Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried earn Mike D’Antoni’s trust, perhaps this Houston team will be willing to go more than seven or eight deep in important games this time around. One thing that seems certain: Danuel House, an incredible find by Morey’s front office, will be in the rotation.
Fun stat: The difference between their league-leading 44.7 attempts from 3-point range per game and the second-place Bucks’ mark of 38.1 is the same as the difference between Milwaukee and the Nuggets, who rank 16th in that category.
Biggest concern: Even with Harden’s defensive improvement, Houston has allowed 110.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 21st in the league. This doesn’t preclude the Rockets from playing elite defense when they need to — they are third in defensive rating since the All-Star break — but, if you have less confidence in them getting stops than you did last season, I can’t blame you.
Further reading: I wrote about P.J. Tucker, who is indispensable to Houston because he has made himself into one of the league’s best defenders.
Games remaining: @ Bucks, vs. Nuggets, vs. Kings, @ Kings, @ Clippers, vs. Knicks, vs. Suns, @ Thunder
The outlook: No longer a fringe playoff team, the Nuggets might also wind up with the top seed in the West. I don’t know an NBA nerd who doesn’t love watching them play, mostly because of the pass-first center who inspired this did-he-really-say-that quote from Bill Walton: “When you see someone like a Nelson Mandela or a Martin Luther King or a Mahatma Gandhi, someone who sees the future before anyone else does, knows how to get to where they need to be, where they want to be, that is Nikola Jokic. Happiness begins when selfishness ends. In a game that has been taken over by incessant dribbling for yourself, Nikola Jokic is such a breath of fresh air. And it’s his imagination. Watching him play basketball is like watching Bob Dylan come up with a song.”
It’s not just the Jokic show: Jamal Murray has made strides, Paul Millsap has done what Denver hoped he would and Monte Morris has come out of nowhere. The Nuggets are deep, and, after missing the playoffs by one game two years in a row, they knew they could no longer be pushovers on defense. There is a sense, however, that their record is more impressive than it is convincing. Aside from Millsap, hardly anyone has significant playoff experience. Depending on their first-round opponent, there might be some expert-led momentum to pick against them.
Fun stat: A floater master, Morris has made 55 percent of his short midrange shots, per Cleaning The Glass. Among players who have logged a minimum of 600 minutes, that leads the league.
Biggest concern: Will the defense translate? Teams will target Jokic and try to exploit Denver’s lack of size on the perimeter. There is no denying that it has committed to getting stops and massively improved, but the playoffs require schematic adjustments and versatility. The Nuggets might not be built for that.
Further reading: SB Nation’s Paul Flannery on Denver’s trajectory.
Games remaining: vs. Pistons, @ Rockets, @ Thunder, vs. Wizards, @ Warriors, vs. Spurs, vs. Blazers, @ Blazers, @ Jazz, vs. Timberwolves
Oklahoma City Thunder
The outlook: The Thunder might not deserve to be on this list right now, but they’re on it out of respect for what they looked like earlier this season when their defense was tops in the league and Paul George was in the MVP conversation. At their best, they were fast, physical and relentless, the type of team you’d hate to play against. For a while they even made you think shooting wasn’t going to be a much of an issue. Based on their recent play, however, it is reasonable to wonder whether we’ll see that version of the team again.
Oklahoma City has lost five of its last six games, including a total stinker in Memphis on Monday, and has fallen all the way to eighth in the West. It has an offensive rating of 105.2 since the All-Star break — only New York has been worse — and, since the beginning of the calendar year, its defensive numbers have resembled last season’s: good, not great. George has shot poorly for the last month, especially for his standards, and, while he said he is not concerned about his shoulder issues, Thunder fans surely are.
Fun stat: After making 25.9 percent of his corner 3s last season (15-for-58), Jerami Grant has made 38.5 percent of them this season (50-for-130). There hasn’t been much Most Improved Player buzz about him, but he has done everything OKC could have asked for in his new starting role.
Biggest concern: Aside from George’s health, it is the same as it always is: shooting. The Thunder are 25th in the league in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage, and all the teams below them are headed to the lottery. Russell Westbrook’s percentages have risen since the All-Star break but he is still having a wildly inefficient year overall. Oklahoma City’s philosophy is to force turnovers, grab offensive rebounds and get to the free throw line so it doesn’t have to rely on missed shots, which makes sense if you have an average-shooting team. This is less viable if your shooting is awful, as the Thunder’s has been recently.
Further reading: The New York Times’ Scott Cacciola on George’s career season — and the little pond behind his house.
Games remaining: vs. Pacers, vs. Nuggets, vs. Mavericks, vs. Lakers, vs. Pistons, @ Timberwolves, vs. Rockets, @ Bucks
The Indiana Pacers are still fourth in the East, two games ahead of Boston, and if that’s the 4-5 matchup, they are the team less likely to combust. I dig essentially everything about them, but I could not credibly call them contenders. The Portland Trail Blazers are only half a game behind the Rockets, and yet, even before Jusuf Nurkic’s season-ending injury, I could not argue that they are the same sort of threat to Golden State.
The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs are all jumbled up in the standings, and while I could see any of them potentially beating a non-Warriors opponent in the first round, they were not included here because they don’t have Denver’s record or Oklahoma City’s upside. I feel particularly bad about excluding the Jazz, who have the same net rating as the Nuggets and the second-best defense in the league. This exercise was much simpler last year.