Yesterday, I went series by series with how I thought things would turn out in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Today, I’m going to do an overview, from 16 to 1, of the teams with the best chance to win it all. Let’s start at the bottom.
16. Chicago Bulls- Unlike last season, Chicago is neither playing well enough, deep enough, talented enough or has a favorable first round matchup to do anything but win more than a game or two, if they’re lucky.
15. Milwaukee Bucks- If only Andrew Bogut were healthy and playing. One of the hottest teams down the stretch could well have caused some serious problems for Atlanta and made some noise in the next round. But, alas, he’s not and they won’t. There’s always next year.
14. Miami Heat- Sure, if Dwayne Wade is spectacular every night, this seriously under-manned team could upset well-aged Boston. But there’s no way they can handle the much deeper teams they’ll meet later on if they do. Honestly, without the great late-season push, the Heat really are little better than a .500 team led by one superstar and a high lottery pick of a roster. They won’t get past Boston.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder- This team made great strides this season, but they are too young, too inexperienced and, despite winning 50 games, got the unenviable task of facing the defending champs in the first round. Kevin Duarnt is heading for superstar territory, but these guys need a little more talent and a lot more experience before he makes the playoffs his playground. One and done.
12. Portland Trailblazers- With Brandon Roy, maybe they had a long, outside shot of pulling this off, but he’s out, possibly to return in later rounds hobbling around after knee surgery. Not a good thing. Still, Portland is game, and they got a good first round opponent in massively over-rated Phoenix. They could possibly struggle out a seven game series upset, but I think they are just too thin to get it done. Again, wait ’till next year.
11. Utah Jazz- If not for the injuries, to Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer, Utah could have been dangerous. But their first round matchup with Denver is not a good one for them, even at full strength. Even if they somehow manage to get past the Nuggets, and they won’t, they simply don’t have enough to stay with the top teams out West. A little off-season restructuring is in order.
Slightly Better Than A Snowball’s Chance
10. Charlotte Bobcats- Charlotte is deep enough, focused enough defensively, and playing a team that will eventually need to rely on consistent playoff choker Vince Carter at some point in this series. If they do manage to pull the upset, they match up favorably with either Boston or Atlanta in the second round, and they played Cleveland very tough, perhaps tougher than any other team in the league all season. It’s a reach, especially if Stephen Jackson is seriously hurt, but not altogether impossible.
9. Phoenix Suns- Steve Nash has been playing great, Amare Stoudemire really wants a big free-agent contract, and they’ve been playing better defense than they have in years. Still, they lost game one at home to an under-manned Portland team, giving up 105 points. So much for that defense. They should ultimately beat Portland, but they are set for a thrashing in the second round. Say what you want about the Suns enjoyable style of play, but you just don’t win big in the playoffs that way. The second round is about as good as it will get.
8. Atlanta Hawks- The Hawks have depth, talent, and not enough size, or defensive intensity to overcome Orlando or Cleveland in the East, let alone whoever emerges from the West. A little more size and a little more defense, and these guys could be serious contenders next year. This year, a better performance in the second round after getting swept by Cleveland there last year is progress to build on.
7. San Antonio Spurs- You’ve all heard it–the Spurs are too old, they can’t hold up, they don’t play stifling defense like they used to. All are valid points, still, if Duncan, Ginobli and Parker are right, they can beat anyone. They caught a bad break drawing Dallas in the first round, as I think the Mavericks depth will be too much for them, but an upset is definitely a possibility. If they do get past them, a matchup with the Phoenix-Portland winner can punch their ticket to the West Finals against the winner of what will certainly be a Denver-L.A. slugfest. Would you count out the Spurs at this point? I wouldn’t. Possibly the best number 7 seed ever.
6. Boston Celtics- Just like San Antonio, a lot depends on how healthy the core parts are, and if Ray Allen can avoid the prolonged playoff disappearances that have plagued his years in Celtic green. The playoffs, especially the later rounds, slow down considerably, and Boston still has the personnel to play shut down defense for long stretches. The real question is can they score enough to overcome deeper teams in Orland and Cleveland. It’s entirely possible they put on a warrior’s show of it and fight their way through some seven game series to advance. Then again, Garnett and/or Pierce could go down tomorrow, and they could lose to the Heat. My guess is that will be a very serious challenge to whoever they play, and if someone does beat them, they will have earned it.
5. Denver Nuggets- Still too whacky, inconsistent and defenseless for my taste, but the Nuggets have most all of the raw materials to end up hoisting the trophy at the end. A big part of it will depend on whether they can be the aggressors against L.A. this time out, unlike last season when the Lakers cut their heart out late in the series and ended up cruising to the Finals. They can get the job done, but they could implode, as well, especially if George Karl isn’t there when the going inevitably gets tough.
Gold Standard Contenders
4. Orlando Magic- I wanted to put them higher, but I just can’t get past the fact that Vince Carter will eventually kill them when they need him the most. They may be deep enough that they can win despite some of his well-established playoff mediocrity, but then it will be a dogfight in every series. Still, they should be able to dispatch a game Charlotte team, they should be able to battle past Boston, and, as they showed last season, Cleveland is no lock to defeat them. This season, they are deeper and more experienced, so the Finals blowout of last year won’t happen again. The entire key is V.C. I’d still rather have Hedu Turkoglu.
3. Los Angeles Lakers- What, third, you say? Yes, I do. L.A. won game one against OK City, but they didn’t exactly light it up in doing so, even at home. Plus Kobe was very, very average. I have to wonder if he’ll be able to carry the load against the much better, and much more physical teams they’ll face later. My first instinct was to have them lower, maybe even outside of the Gold Standard contenders, but they are still the defending champs until someone beats them. It is completely possible that they pick up the slack and end up winning another title, but it won’t be nearly as easy as last year, and every extra game they play (even at their best, the Lakers always played more games than they had to) is an added risk that Bynum will go down again, or Kobe’s problems will get worse. If those things happen, they might not make it out of the second round.
2. Dallas Mavericks- This team is getting little or no love. After the trade with the Wizards that netted Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, the Mavs have possibly the deepest roster out there. Plus, they are largely healthy, unlike some of their other playoff competitors. So long as they make it past San Antonio in the first round, I think they’ll roll right intro the Finals. In fact, don’t be surprised if their first round series is the toughest one they face. And this time, they’ll be the underdogs in the Finals, a much better position to play from that the prohibitive favorite role that ate them up against Miami a few years back. Dirk Nowitzki winning the title may not make the pundits who have long discounted his fantastic, Hall-of Fame play happy, nor will Mark Cuban lording over that trophy likely bring a smile to David Stern’s face, but this could very well happen.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers- Barring some serious injury issues, I just don’t see Cleveland losing to anyone. Unlike last season, their roster is much deeper and more versatile, they can play any style and beat anyone. And don’t underestimate the sense of urgency for all involved with the pending free-agent madness surrounding Lebron James. If the Cavs have any chance of keeping Lebron, they need to win now, and they know it. Another disappointment might ultimately be the impetus for him to take his constantly improving game to another city. Still, I think this is the year Cleveland gets it done. It won’t be easy, and they will be tested, but unlike last season when Orlando sucker punched them and they couldn’t recover, this is a much different, and infinitely better Cavs team. Title number one for Lebron.