When the NBA playoffs kick off this Saturday, each team and player will have something to play for. Unlike in hockey, only a few teams have a realistic shot of winning the title each year, but that doesn’t make the playoffs any less important for the other teams. Some coaches are fighting for their jobs. Players are playing for new contracts. Teams are fighting for some validation that they’re headed in the right direction. Ultimately, what happens in the playoffs can address all of those concerns.
So let’s take a look at what each potential playoff team is playing for, starting with the Eastern conference.
Brooklyn Nets/Miami Heat/Indiana Pacers
These are three veteran teams competing for the eight see in the East and the right to be beaten by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. For the Nets, a potential trip to the playoffs is the most important since their future is so barren. They swap first rounders with the Hawks this year, lose picks to the Celtics in the next couple, and have one of the oldest and most expensive rosters in basketball. So just being able to sell playoff basketball to their fans is a big win in terms of keeping the team relevant.
The Heat are in a similar, although less bleak situation. They sent two first round picks to the Suns for Goran Dragic, and immediately gave themselves a starting five that they thought could compete in the East. Instead, Chris Bosh was tragically lost for the season with blood clots in his lungs (get well soon Chris!) and the rest of the lineup failed to gel in his absence. They’ll resign Dragic in the offseason and gear up for another run next season, but ultimately the title window in Miami is closing. Squeaking into the playoffs and putting a scare into the Hawks would show that maybe it’s a little more open than we thought.
Finally, the Pacers are basically playing with house money. This was expected to be a lost season when Paul George shattered his leg with Team USA, and the fact that they held it together for most of the season without him is a testament to how good of a coach Frank Vogel is. If they were to secure the eight seed, it would be a great opportunity to let George work himself back into game form in high intensity situations. Regardless, don’t sleep on the Pacers next season.
The fact that the Celtics are in this spot at all is borderline unbelievable. Over the course of the season they traded Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, lost Jared Sullinger to an injury, and still managed to consistently improve. I’d say that making the playoffs is a good chance to get some of their younger guys some big game experience, but I’m not sure who on this team projects as a part of the long term vision of the franchise. As nice as this little run has been, remember that Danny Ainge is playing chess, and that any of his pieces can be sacrificed at any time in order to get one step closer to winning the game. The only piece that’s truly locked in for the long term is Brad Stevens, and the playoffs will be a great chance for him to show casual basketball fans around the league that he’s one of the game’s best tactical coaches.
This one’s easy; let’s get excited for some playoff Giannis! Although he’s still learning to harness his superpowers, he can do some truly remarkable things on the basketball court; stuff that mere mortals like us can only dream of.
Getting him and the rest of the young Bucks some playoff experience will be important for when they’re ready to take the next step. Remember that this team will get to add the #2 pick from last year’s draft (Jabari Parker) to an already talented core next year.
Randy Whitman hot seat alert! Scottie Brooks East probably needs to get this team out of the first round or else he’s going to be looking for a new job next season. But should that even matter? Look at what Golden State is doing this season, and ask yourself if that was possible with Mark Jackson at the helm. Sometimes making the hard, unpopular decision is the one that pays the biggest dividends, and Whitman has held back John Wall and Co for too long.
The Raptors got off to a torrid 13-2 start, but sense than they’ve barely played .500 ball. Injuries have played a part, but ultimately no one expects anything serious out of this team in the playoffs. So what’s at stake? How about Massi Ujiri’s reputation as a genius general manager. Forget about the fact that he conned the Knicks into paying a ridiculous price for Andrea Bargnani; any deal involving the Knicks has to be taken with a grain of salt. Look at what’s happened with the Denver roster that he constructed. Look at how well Rudy Gay played out in Sacramento this year. Remember that he tried like hell to trade Kyle Lowry before the team started playing so well that that became impossible. Consider the ammunition that this team had its disposal in terms of picks and expiring contracts, and the fact that they did nothing at the trade deadline. We’re going to see the serious holes that this roster has come playoff time, and maybe Ujiri’s reputation will start to match up with his team’s results on the court.
Now we’re starting to get to the teams that have a semi-realistic shot at winning the conference. As usual, the Bulls have faced their fair share of injuries this year, with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson all suffering from various maladies. This of course, is the main problem with Tom Thibedau and the reason that there’s friction between him and the front office. Thibs is one of the few coaches who still believes in the importance of the regular season, and he routinely plays his starters 40+ minutes. Is the fact that his team is always hurt a coincidence or even that surprising for that matter? After seeing what’s happened to Derrick Rose and others, it’s no surprise that the front office is considering alternative measures. Unless Thibs can lead the Bulls on a run so deep that it literally changes management’s opinions on basketball, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll be coaching elsewhere next season.
Cleveland is interesting because for the first time in what seems like his whole career, the spotlight in this series really won’t be on Lebron James. It seems like he’s committed to Cleveland for the long haul, and losing in his first year back with the team won’t do anything to tarnish his legacy. The guys with the most to lose are the other two Cleveland newcomers, Kevin Love and David Blatt. Blatt in particular is in a lose-lose situation; if the Cavs don’t win the title it will be his fault, but if they do it’ll be because of Lebron. He’s the obvious scapegoat if things go wrong at some point.
Love on the other hand has to feel like this isn’t what he signed up for. Instead of throwing outlets, draining open three’s, and doing all the other stuff that we thought would make him Lebron’s ideal compliment, Love has spent the majority of the season as a glorified version of Shane Battier. He’s sacrificed a lot of his offensive game for the sake of the team (willingly or not), and if the end result isn’t a championship, he’ll have to ask himself if it was worth it. After all, there are plenty of teams who would love to pay him max contract money and let him go back to being the star he was in Minnesota. And not even just bad teams! Boston and Phoenix look like ideal landing spots to me, and both will have ample cap space to make a run at him should he become available. We all like to knock guys whose ultimate goal isn’t winning a championship, but in the end we’d all rather be Charles Barkley then Robert Horry.
Atlanta has been the most dominant team in the East all season, but they’ll enter the playoffs as underdogs to go to the Finals. That means that should they come up short, there won’t be a whole lot of shock and disappointment outside of the guys in the Atlanta locker room. What’s at stake is more about basketball philosophy in general. Stars win titles in the NBA. It’s that simple. When a team like the Spurs wins the title, we tend to write it off as an outlier for one reason or another. Even though the Spurs didn’t have a superstar in the trust sense of the word, they had plenty of guys who either were superstars in the past (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili) or project to be superstars in the future (Kawhi Leonard), and who played in a beautiful offensive system designed to maximize their strengths. It wasn’t a huge stretch to see them win it all.
But if the Hawks manage to do it? Forget about it. More and more teams will switch to the pace and space style, and teams will place an even larger emphasis on three point shooting. More importantly though is it will give rebuilding teams another blueprint to follow for success. Instead of tanking and trying to get lucky with lottery picks (Oklahoma City model) or trying to make a serious of moves one red paperclip style to acquire a superstar (Houston model), teams will have a viable third option. Atlanta became competitive by finding undervalued assets throughout the league (Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll), hiring the right coach, and placing them in the right system. I’m underselling how difficult that is obviously, but it’s no harder then what OKC or Houston did. Think about how lucky both of those teams had to get in order to end up where they are. Houston had to get lucky enough to get the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers vetoed, or else they’d have Pau Gasol instead of James Harden. And speaking of Harden, if OKC knew what was going to happen to the salary cap after the new TV deal, theres no way they ever trade him to Houston. OKC needed to land the biggest impact player since Lebron without having the #1 pick, and then get lucky with 3 subsequent lottery picks. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll happen, but you could argue that Atlanta winning the title this year would have the biggest impact on the future of the NBA.
New Orleans Pelicans/Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s sad to say it, but these teams feel like they’re going in the opposite direction. The Pelicans have a superstar in Anthony Davis who’s on the verge of becoming the best player in the league. Getting the eight seed and some playoff experience would mean a lot for him in terms of his development. Meanwhile the Thunder are a shell of what they used to be, and only negatives would come from them making the playoffs. Westbrook would try to take over games to the point where we should all fear for his safety, and it would give management another excuse to bring back Scott Brooks. Basketball fans everywhere should be rooting for Minnesota to bring it on Wednesday.
What in the world has happened to Rajon Rondo? All he’s managed to do since Dallas acquired him was torpedo one of the most exciting offenses in the league and clash with a well respected coach. He plays no defense, can’t make ones, twos, or threes, and isn’t even handing out assists like he used to. Based purely on this season’s performance, he’s as entitled to a max contract next year as Langston Galloway is.
But one thing can change all of that, and his name is Playoff Rondo. It’s been a while sense we saw the beast that was often better in a Celtics uniform then Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett, and if he can bring him out this season it will do a lot to repair his free agent stock. Teams will give him the benefit of the doubt, particularly star-starved teams like the Lakers and Knicks.
If this isn’t the year for the Grizzlies, they’re going to need to start thinking about their style long term. They already tried to switch it once when they hired Dave Joerger, but as long as they roster the same players that’s never going to be an option. The question they’ll have to ask themselves is if they’re content simply making the playoffs each year but never being a real threat to win it all. If the answer is no, it may be time to look at a rebuild.
Portland Trail Blazers
Ultimately, the Wesley Matthews injury means there’s really nothing at stake for this team in the playoffs. The more pressing questions will come in free agency, when negotiating with Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge is obviously the most pressing issue, but don’t sleep on the impact of Matthews; he’s an elite three point shooter and perimeter defender, two things that are super important in today’s NBA.
Los Angeles Clippers
It’s tempting to write that these playoffs are important for Chris Paul’s legacy, but ultimately that’s not true. Paul is one of the greatest point guards ever, and the fact that he’s never gotten his team to the NBA finals is more a testament to how good the Western Conference has been during his whole career. This could however be his last run with DeAndre Jordan, who is sure to get a max contract offer in free agency. If he leaves the Clippers, it will leave a massive hole in the middle of their defense, and it’s definitely not being filled by Spencer Hawes or anyone else currently on the roster. He’d probably have to take some sort of discount to end up back in LA, and that’s obviously easier to do for a team that’s successful.
These playoffs should also shine a spotlight on the work done by Doc Rivers. Doc has really done a terrible job; not necessarily as a coach, but definitely as a GM. He’s failed time after time to bring in any sort of help for the Clippers bench, and as a result it’s a major liability for the team. Signing Spencer Hawes has turned out to be a terrible decision, but it was one that’s at least defensible. Planning on Hedo Turkoglu playing major minutes? That’s not defensible at all. Same for trading for his son Austin, which was a move that just reeked of nepotism. Worst of all, the Clippers had to trade a first round pick just to have the Bucks take Jared Dudley off their hands, and Dudley would arguably be the best player on the Clippers bench outside of Jamal Crawford! According to Dudley, he played hurt last year at the Clippers request, so it shouldn’t have been that surprising that his results were down. Overall, it seems like GM Doc Rivers is in over his head, and maybe next year ownership will want to give him a little help in that department.
Houston has had a great regular season, but there are still plenty of questions the team needs to address in the playoffs. First, what does Dwight Howard have left in the tank? The Rockets really don’t need his offensive game anymore, but he’s super important as the anchor in their defense. If he can’t protect the rim, the Rockets will have a lot of trouble defending in the playoffs, especially without professional pest Patrick Beverley.
Second, is Kevin McHale the right coach going forward? Daryl Morey is supposedly a genius, so you would think he won’t get caught up in sentimentality when it comes to his team. After all, if he’s willing to ship out any asset as long as he’s getting a better one back, why shouldn’t that apply to his coach?
Finally, does they style of basketball that Houston plays translate to the playoffs? If they are bounced out early this year, expect to see a lot of that headline. Harden struggled in last year’s playoffs, and it seems like all the gimmicks he used to get to the line during the regular season failed to work. Whether it’s the increased defensive pressure or if the refs swallow the whistle a little more, like Billy Beane famously said, maybe their shit just doesn’t work in the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s crazy that the Spurs have gone from the seven seed out West to virtual favorites to win the title over the course of 2 months. Of course, we’re stupid for ever doubting Pop and the Spurs, who seem to cruise into peak form right before the playoffs start every year. After winning a title last year, there’s really nothing left for most of these guys to prove anymore. Popovich could retire tomorrow and go on the Mount Rushmore of basketball coaches. Tim Duncan will go down as a top 10 all time player. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker will probably be Hall of Famers themselves. That only leaves one guy with something left to prove.
Kawhi Leonard is freaking amazing. He’s a force on both ends of the court, and the future of San Antonio basketball. But for some reason I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as a superstar. I don’t think most casual fans would list him as a top 10 player right now because he doesn’t put up gaudy statistics. He missed a large chunk of the season due to injury, and struggled after he came back while learning to be a focal point of the offense. But once the Spurs started clicking? Kawhi turned into a destroyer of worlds. If he were to lead the Spurs to another title and win another MVP award though, people would have no choice but to start paying attention.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have completed a great regular season. They’re going to win 66+ games and finish with a double digit point differential. They may very well have the MVP, defensive player of the year, and coach of the year all on the same team. But to go down in the history books, they’ll need to cement it all with a title.
That’s not to say that this season would be a failure if they don’t win it all. After all, they’re a young team with a rookie coach; as long as they bring back Draymond Green they should be contenders in the West for a long, long time. But the bottom line is that without a title, this team will not get the credit it deserves in the future. We’ll talk about Lebron and his greatness, or the timelessness of the Spurs, but the all time great regular season the Warriors just had will be forgotten. In the NBA, we value winners plain and simple.