Hoops Lab: NBA-Playoff Edition
Cheat Sheet below:
The Real Season Begins
The NBA season is loooooooong. As fantasy owners, we know it more than most since we are probably more interested in the daily goings on in the NBA than many of the players are. People call the playoffs the REAL season because that's when things are ultimately decided. But in the NBA it's more than that - the playoffs are the real season because it is the first and only time all year you can be sure that everyone is going all out on a nightly basis. And thus, the playoffs every year are the only time when you can gauge just how good your favorite players really are.
Your favorite players, and your fantasy squad.
Because thankfully, just because the marathon regular season is over, we don't have to stop playing fantasy. NBA-playoff fantasy hoops leagues are offered in many formats, and in a lot of ways they are even more fun than the regular season. No more Dwyane Wade or Josh Smith missing games to rest for the postseason. No more 27-minute nights for Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. No more having to scan the waiver wire for back-ups that could be potential studs when the nominal starter shuts it down for the year. No, in the postseason you'll be getting everyone's max effort, which will make a big difference.
But the second big difference is that, in many NBA postseason leagues, you have to choose your players based upon who you think will do the best in the postseason, before the playoffs even begin. And games count, so it does little good to pick the No. 1 fantasy player in the league if he's out in the first round after five games. Instead, it might be smarter to invest in a top-20 guy who has a shot to make the Finals and play in 20-plus games. NBA postseason fantasy leagues make you, the fantasy owner, try your hand at predicting what will happen on the court with consequences if you're wrong. As I owned up to a couple weeks ago, predicting the basketball future is hard work, so I like that you guys will have to walk in my shoes in picking your team.
But, as always, we're not going to make you go into it empty handed. Below are my predictions for how I believe the Playoffs will play out, with my estimates for the number of games players on each team should amass. Then, based on those predictions, I'll give you a cheat sheet of who should produce the most this postseason. Without further ado...
The First Round
1 vs 8: Bulls/Pacers and Spurs/Grizzlies - The Bulls should have no trouble with the Pacers, the only sub-.500 team to make the postseason. Outside of record, the Pacers set up perfectly for the Bulls. Indiana is a team that relies on pace and long-range shooting to win games. Meanwhile, the Bulls are one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the league, they are one of the best at limiting the 3-point shot and the game naturally slows down and gets more physical in the postseason. None of this bodes well for Indiana, making this a potential sweep. I'll estimate Bulls in five.
Meanwhile, as usual, the eight seed in the West is more like a four or five seed in the East, which makes San Antonio's first round series more like a second round matchup. The Grizzlies are dangerous, they are balanced with good interior scoring and excellent perimeter defense, and they enter the postseason having won nine of their last 11 games before the two meaningless losses as they rested players. The Spurs are even a bit vulnerable, having taken their foot off the gas for the past month and now dealing with an elbow injury to the vital Manu Ginobili. Nevertheless, if the Ginobili injury is minor, and he can go, the Spurs should be fine in this series. With Tim Duncan playing 35 minutes instead of 27 their interior defense is shored up, and they have too much talent and experience to go down to the Grizzlies. Give me the Spurs in 6.
2 vs 7: Heat/76ers and Lakers/Hornets - Despite what the season records and playoff seeds say, the Lakers and Heat are the two teams considered by most to be favorites to meet in the Finals. Most of the major sports sites have dedicated space all season to a "Heat Index" or "Heat or 3Peat" tracker to follow these teams through the year. And for the first round of the playoffs, at least, that attention will be well warranted. The 76ers are a scrappy team, but they are exactly the type of team Miami is built to crush in the playoffs. Philly isn't big in the middle, they don't have a dominant low-post scorer, and they don't have a penetrating point guard to expose the Heat's own defensive weaknesses in the paint. In short, they might steal a game or even two, but at the end of the day Miami should win easily. Heat in five.
Meanwhile, out West, the Lakers get to face off with a Hornets squad missing its second best player. While it's true that Carl Landry is a bit of a David West look-alike on the court, the Hornets would have needed their full squad at max power to have a chance against the Lakers. Chris Paul, who was the No. 1 rated fantasy player in many leagues this season, has to face a squad with a very strong interior defense to cut down his drives and that may just put Kobe Bryant on him if the need arises. I don't see this one lasting that long, which means the No. 1 regular season fantasy player shouldn't be a first rounder in the postseason draft. Lakers in five.
3 vs 6: Celtics/Knicks and Mavericks/Trail Blazers - This is where it gets interesting. Both of these matchups have upset potential, so let's start in the East. For the second straight year the Celtics have played an extended period of .500 basketball leading into the postseason, and for the second straight year prognosticators like Charley Rosen are predicting their demise. With all due respect to both the Knicks and Mr. Rosen, there's no chance the Knicks win this series. I foretold way back in August of last year what the Knicks were going to look like once they got Carmelo Anthony and a star point guard (I wrote about Chris Paul, but Chauncey Billups is a decent stand-in): a lot of offense, a lot of publicity, no defense, and no chance against the Celtics, Heat or Lakers. Rajon Rondo's eyes light up in the playoffs against teams with no interior defense, Kevin Garnett always gets up to play Stoudemire, the Knicks have no one that can slow either Paul Pierce or Ray Allen, and the Celtics swept the Knicks 4-0 this year. Celtics in five.
Meanwhile, out West, I think the upset alert is warranted as the Trail Blazers could absolutely defeat the Mavericks. Zach Lowe writes a nice break-down of the matchup in which he ultimately picks the Mavs in six, and I'd like to agree with him. I have long believed that Dirk Nowitzki is on the short list of best players of this generation, and after the huge start the Mavs had I would like to think Dirk will still be there to face off with the Lakers in round two. But it just FEELS like Portland is going to win. They have so many advantages. They were a solid, scrappy team that allowed LaMarcus Aldridge to develop into a superstar with a cast of good role players all season. Then, in the last two months, they absolutely heisted Gerald Wallace from Charlotte and then got Brandon Roy back, admittedly in a lesser capacity, but still. In the postseason with no back-to-backs and no tomorrow, Wallace and Roy constitute adding two borderline All Stars to an already strong team. Portland is trending up and dangerous, and I'll pick them for the upset. Blazers in seven.
4/5: Magic/Hawks and Nuggets/OKC - Despite the seeding, there's nothing to see in the East. The Hawks just aren't good, and the Magic should dispatch them in five games. Out West the Nuggets have been on fire since trading Melo, and the Thunder have re-gained their toast-of-the-town feel since the Kendrick Perkins deal. I've enjoyed watching the Nuggets season play out, and they will be scrappy, but they have the feel of a college team that has played to its full potential down the stretch. The Thunder should have the talent to take this one. Thunder in six.
Second Round: I won't do as much analysis for these match-ups since they're hypothetical, but I will predict the winners.
Bulls/Magic: I'm not convinced on the Bulls. They're a very good team with a good structure and the likely MVP in Derrick Rose, but in the postseason I'm inclined to trust the Magic a bit more as they've been there and done this a few times. Give me Orlando in seven.
Heat/Celtics: For the third time in four years, I think the Celtics vs LeBron matchup in the second round will be the de facto Eastern Conference Final. Most pundits will have the Heat as the favorites, but I've long been on record saying that the Celtics are built to take advantage of the Heat's weaknesses. Celtics in seven.
Lakers/Trail Blazers: Keep in mind, this could easily be Lakers vs Mavericks. That said, I think Portland is one of the few teams out West with the talent, size and moxie to actually beat the Lakers. I'm not confident enough to predict it, but if it happens just know I won't be shocked. Lakers in seven.
Spurs/Thunder: The old guard vs the new. To me, it all comes down to health. If Duncan and Ginobili are healthy, the Spurs take it. If not, the Thunder could take the next step. I think the Old Dogs can keep it together this season. Spurs in seven.
East: Winner of Heat/Celtics over winner of Bulls/Magic in six.
West: Lakers over Spurs in six.
NBA Finals: Celtics vs Lakers in the rubber match. A healthier Garnett means this time the Celtics take it in six.
Game Count tiers: I'm not just going to count up my predicted games, because no one's predictions are that precise. Instead, I'll break it down into tiers of teams that I think have a chance to play similar numbers of games.
Tier 1: Lakers, Celtics, Heat, Spurs. These are the four teams that I think could legitimately win the title this year.
Tier 2: Bulls, Magic, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Mavericks. These are the teams that I think have Conference Finals upside.
Tier 3: Nuggets, Knicks, Grizzlies, Hornets. I don't see it, but at least there is an outside chance that some of these teams make the second round.
Tier 4: Hawks, 76ers, Pacers. First-round fodder.
For most playoff leagues, the easiest and most common format is a points based system where, for example, a point is worth one point, a rebound worth two, a three pointer worth two, an assist worth two and a half and a steal or block worth four. Or something like that. For the sake of simplicity, we're going to assume that there are no averaging metrics or categories like field goal percentage, free throw percentage, etc. We're going to further assume that players cannot be added, dropped or traded during the course of the playoffs.
Here's how we rank them:
Best players on tier 1 teams