NBA Playoffs Power Rankings: Can the Rockets prevent Warriors vs. Cavaliers IV?
The NBA playoffs begin Saturday, and this is how the teams are looking as they enter the playoffs
The NBA playoffs are finally upon us. The NBA's eight best teams from each conference will line up for a two-month race to determine a champion. Of course, not every team is as good or bad as their record says. The standings say a lot about the regular season, but they miss the finer details that will decide a playoff series.
What's great about the NBA playoffs is that the best team usually wins. In a seven-game series, there isn't much room for upsets and shenanigans. Teams have time to analyze each other, find weaknesses, counter those weaknesses, and the great teams do that better than anyone. Talent prevails over lucky shooting and good coaching is never more important. Injuries can play a factor in some cases, but more often than not it's the best team of them all that comes away with the championship.
Does this create repetition? Yes, but that's what makes these playoffs so exciting. Golden State has a challenger out west and Cleveland looks vulnerable. This could finally be the season someone puts an end to the three-year run of Cavaliers vs. Warriors NBA Finals.
Here's a look at who's going in the right direction heading into the playoffs and how that projects to their overall postseason chances:
|No. 1 seed in the West: The Rockets were the top team in the regular season. They come in with the NBA's best net rating, second-best offense, and sixth-best defense. This is a complete team that excels on both ends of the floor, and it has a chip on its shoulder from last year's miserable playoff exit. If anybody is going to challenge Cleveland vs. Golden State IV, it's the Rockets. That is if Luc Mbah a Moute comes back healthy. Houston can handle the first round (vs. the Timberwolves) without him, but the Rockets' defense needs him back for the tougher challenges.|
|No. 2 seed in the West: The Warriors are the defending champs and have won two of the past three titles. They still have the best collection of talent in the NBA, and their boredom in the regular season should not reflect the team that will be seen in the playoffs. Even with their late-season struggles and injuries, they still finished with the NBA's best offense and rank second in net rating. When healthy (Stephen Curry's injury looms large) and focused there is nobody better. If only they were healthy.|
|No. 4 seed in the East: Have the Cavaliers done it again? Did they flip the switch? It sure looked like it towards the end of the regular season. Their defense is still an utter train wreck, but it made some improvements, and they're going to outscore anyone who gets in the way. Larry Nance Jr. has been the key to their turn around, and LeBron James in the playoffs hits another level. However, with a suspect defense and the No. 4 seed, this is the most vulnerable Cleveland has looked entering the postseason since James' return.|
|No. 3 seed in the East: The 76ers enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the NBA. They won 16 games in a row to close out the season -- the most in NBA history -- and they have the fourth-best net rating and third-best defense. This isn't a young team that's just happy to be here. There's serious potential for Philadelphia to make a run. However, there's also a chance for inexperience (or Joel Embiid's injury) to catch up to them. The playoffs are different. Teams play to exploit your weaknesses and that's something a young team like this will have to adapt to fast.|
|No. 3 seed in the West: Portland could have finished the season stronger, but how the Trail Blazers played after the All-Star break speaks for itself. They were one of the NBA's best rebounding teams and had both a top-five offense and defense. Damian Lillard has looked like an All-NBA Team candidate as he's led the charge. This team feels different from previous ones. It's built on defense rather than offense, but can they translate this success into the playoffs?|
|No. 5 seed in the West: When the Jazz (and rookie Donovan Mitchell) found their groove this season, they became a completely different team. They have the second-best defense in the NBA and the best net rating, after the All-Star break. A healthy Rudy Gobert turned them into a wall that was just impossible to score on, while Mitchell scored more than any rookie on a playoff team since Carmelo Anthony. However, the Jazz offense has been sketchy all season, and their lack of creators beyond Mitchell could be a problem in a playoff environment.|
|No. 1 seed in the East: Believing in the Raptors is hard. Especially when the way they played in April was very reminiscent of the group that usually struggles in the playoffs. Toronto can put all the doubters to bed immediately by rolling through the first round (vs. the Wizards) with no problems. Just give people a reason to believe that their new 3-point centric offense and dominant bench weren't regular-season trends.|
|No. 4 seed in the West: On star power alone, the Thunder wouldn't shock anybody with a deep run. However, if they're going to go on that run, then Russell Westbrook needs to look less like empty calories and more like a superstar leading his team. Paul George has been phenomenal in spurts, but he and Westbrook haven't been enough to make the Thunder look any better than an above-average playoff team. There is nothing elite about the Thunder.|
|No. 6 seed in the West: The Pelicans were assumed to be dead in the water when DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon. Then, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday played the best basketball of their lives. Davis has been playing through what feels like every injury on the planet to help New Orleans reach the playoffs, and he's been rewarded with a somewhat favorable series vs. the Blazers' unspectacular frontcourt. He's going to be the best player on the floor, and that's an advantage the Pelicans can use.|
|No. 5 seed in the East: The Pacers were not supposed to be as good as they were this season, but they cruised to the No. 5 seed. Victor Oladipo blossomed into a superstar, and he is the reason the Pacers are at this point. They started off the year with a prolific and fast-paced offense, but they slowed down and started to rely on their defense more by the end of the season. They have a chance to be a really pesky playoff team, but drawing LeBron James in the first round likely gives them a short expiration date.|
|No. 2 seed in the East: This season was never title or bust for Boston, but the hot start gave the Celtics hope that maybe they could jump-start their plan a year early. Then everybody on the roster got hurt at the same time, and the Celtics offense regressed into mush without Kyrie Irving. Boston is good enough to get out of the second round, but injuries have denied them a chance at their ceiling.|
|No. 7 seed in the West: This has been the weirdest Spurs season in the Gregg Popovich era. They didn't win 50 games for the first time since 1999 (when the season was only 50 games total), and there has been strife over star Kawhi Leonard's quad injury. LaMarcus Aldridge has been incredible for San Antonio this season, and it's a testament to their system that they've won 47 games, but this isn't the Spurs' year. They have a 21-28 record against teams .500 or better and have Golden State in the first round.|
|No. 8 seed in the West: The Timberwolves are in the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. Their stone-age offense and pitiful defense do not matter. Almost falling out of the playoffs and barely winning on the final night of the season is inconsequential. Their lack of depth due to a horrible bench is not an issue. The Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. That is accomplishment enough. And there aren't many star duos stronger than Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, so that helps, too.|
|No. 6 seed in the East: Nobody has fewer stars than the Heat. In some ways that's an advantage, because the depth on their roster gives them a lot of versatility. They can counter what's thrown against them and not lose a step in the process. On the other hand, Miami just doesn't have many reliable options. Josh Richardson is a great defender. Goran Dragic has been great all season. Dwyane Wade is old but crafty. The Heat do have experience, and that's something their first-round opponent (the 76ers) lacks.|
|No. 8 seed in the East: The Wizards completely tailspun into the playoffs and missed their chance to move up in the standings when they lost to a nothing-to-play-for Magic team in the season finale. Yet, Washington is a team that has shown in the past it is better in the playoffs. John Wall is healthy again, and there have been flashes of what the Wizards want to be with him on the floor. They're playing a Raptors team that they swept in the 2015 playoffs. This could be the beginnings of a legendary 8-seed run. It could also be a spectacular flameout similar to a supernova.|
|No. 7 seed in the East: The Bucks are a mess. They have the second-best player in the Eastern Conference on their team, and that should be enough to give them a punchers chance. Antetokounmpo is one of those players that can win a series all by himself, but Milwaukee's holes might be too big for even his long arms to cover. The defense is a mess, and coach Joe Prunty is very temporary. They drew a favorable series in the injured Celtics, but the Bucks' schematic problems are too much to overcome.|
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