Dec 10, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) controls the ball against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Happy Monday, Fanatics!
This new week brings with it one of the best periods in sports — the NBA Playoffs.
For the 26 year-long NBA fans in the state of Iowa (or 27 if you include Chris Williams strictly for the playoffs, as Iowa NBA fan club president Brent Blum said when I texted him to verify numbers), this means a time for celebration and a culmination of an entire year of watching the best basketball players on the planet go head-to-head on a nightly basis.
For everyone else, this might be the first time they’re engaging with the NBA this season, bringing to an end the apathy that tends to set in during the long and often monotonous regular season.
The folks in that latter category are in luck as I’ve got eight points with some thoughts on what you will see from the league over the next several months leading up to the NBA Finals in July before I make my picks for the postseason that are almost guaranteed to be super wrong.
1 — The Cyclones are well represented
There will be five former Cyclones with a chance to help their team make some waves during the playoffs.
The three most notable of that group are the Utah Jazz’s Georges Niang, Denver Nuggets’ Monte Morris and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Talen Horton-Tucker. Still, Matt Thomas could potentially see the floor for the No. 1 seed in the West Jazz and Abdel Nader could get into games for the Phoenix Suns (although he hasn’t played since mid-March, so that’s probably unlikely).
This was a career year for Niang as the fifth-year forward averaged 6.9 points, grabbed 2.4 rebounds and shot 42.5 percent from 3-point range while appearing in all 72 games for the Jazz. Each of those numbers are career highs.
Morris has battled injuries for part of the season after signing an extension with the Nuggets in December. He appeared in 47 games, starting 13 of them while averaging 10.2 points, 3.2 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game for the third-seed Nuggets. The Flint, Mich. native appears to be good to go for the playoffs after playing in three of the team’s final four games.
Horton-Tucker, who is slated to become a free agent this summer, is one of the league’s great revelations this season as he’s averaged 9.0 points, 2.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and a steal in 65 games for the LeBron James and Anthony Davis led Lakers this season.
The second-year player from Chicago posted perhaps his best performance of the season in a win over Houston as he tallied 23 points, 10 assists, two rebounds and two steals. Regardless of the outcome of the playoffs, THT stands to make a whole bunch of money once he hits free agency.
2 — LeBron, Steph and the play-in
The NBA couldn’t have asked for a better debut for its playoff play-in scenario.
It was not long ago a matchup between Steph Curry and LeBron James in the playoffs meant we had already arrived at the NBA Finals. Now, that matchup will have a hand in determining the seventh and eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Steph has a strong case to be the league’s MVP this season. The former unanimous MVP and three-time champion has put together a tour de force of a year while averaging 32 points per game to win his second scoring title.
He’s done this without the help of his Splash Brothers running-mate Klay Thompson, who has missed the entire season due to injury.
On the flip side, LeBron was having an MVP-level season of his own before a right ankle injury forced him to miss basically the entire last two months of the regular season.
Finally, LeBron appears to be healthy, and the same can be said about his running-mate Anthony Davis just in time to defend their title.
The first order of business on that journey is getting past Steph and the Warriors to clinch the seventh seed on Wednesday night in a game that is sure to draw some of the league’s best television numbers of the year.
3 — The year of the big man
When we thought the big man’s role in the modern NBA was only going to continue to diminish — along comes Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.
We’ll get to Embiid in a few points. This is all about Jokic, the presumed MVP of the league this season, which is insane considering he’ll be the first center to win the award since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-00.
Big men dominated the league and its MVP award for the early portion of its history. Centers have combined to win the MVP 25 times since the award was first handed out in 1956, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone combining to win it 18 times.
A center was named the MVP in 22 of the first 28 years the award was handed out. That honor has gone to a center three times in the 36 years that followed.
Three!! Until Jokic.
The 25-year old from Serbia posted a preposterous 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists this season with shooting splits of 56.6 percent from the field, 38.8 percent from 3-point range and 86.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Jokic has literally been the center of everything the Nuggets have done offensively on their way to earning the West’s No. 4 seed. That’s especially been the case since Denver lost Jamal Murray for the year with an ACL tear.
He’s solidified himself as the best passing big man on this side of Bill Walton and has prompted some folks to ask if we’ve ever seen a player like him. The simple answer to that question (at least on a statistical front) is a resounding no.
I’ll break it down for you this way…
According to Stathead, only three players in NBA history have posted a season averaging more than 25 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists per game. Jokic is one of those three.
The other two are Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
Only one player has posted that stat line while shooting better than 55 percent from the field, 35 percent from 3-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line.
His name is Nikola Jokic and he’ll soon be crowned as the MVP.
4 — All that Jazz
While Jokic was the statistical king of the regular season, the Utah Jazz carries that mantle as the league’s most consistent team from start to finish.
Led by Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and a resurgent Mike Conley, the Jazz finished the regular season with a league-best 52-20 record to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference by one game over the resurgent and incredibly fun Phoenix Suns.
Utah has done this by fostering one of the league’s best offenses, averaging a Western Conference high 116.4 points per game, while maintaining the West’s second-best defense at 107.2 points per game.
Gobert has been the anchor of that defensive effort once again and has a solid chance to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award plus is likely to land the fourth All-NBA nod of his career behind Jokic and Embiid.
Mitchell will have a shot at earning All-NBA honors of his own after posting a career-high 26.4 points and 5.2 assists per game in his fourth season out of Louisville.
The Jazz shoot the three more than any team in the league, with snipers like Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neale, Niang and Conley surrounding Mitchell and Gobert.
How far the Jazz goes in the postseason will probably depend largely on how well the team can continue to defend even once opposing teams attempt to put Gobert in less than ideal situations by trying to draw him away from the basket with pick and rolls or by playing small consistently.
Regardless, the Jazz earned the right to be referred to as the West’s best team by being the best team in the league from the day the season started.
A first-round series between the Jazz and Steph’s Warriors or LeBron’s Lakers could be unbelievably fun.
5 — Beasts of the East
A decade-plus after the start of Sam Hinkie’s “process,” the Philadelphia Sixers are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and the fruits of the process are the biggest reason why.
Embiid very well may have been on his way to winning the MVP award before an injury that held him out for most of March. Still, Embiid is a sure-fire All-NBA pick after posting 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 blocks per game.
Ben Simmons still can’t shoot the basketball, but he scored 14.3 points and dished 6.9 assists per game while putting himself into the Defensive Player of the Year consideration with his play on that end of the floor.
Tobias Harris has gone from looking like he had one of the worst contracts in the entire league to posting one of his best (and most efficient) seasons by averaging 19.5 points on 51 percent shooting.
Second-year guard Matisse Thybulle looks like he’ll be an All-Defensive team mainstay in the near future. Seth Curry and Danny Green have prospered with Embiid, Simmons and Harris drawing the attention of defenders to shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range this season.
The Sixers defend as well as most any team in the league and have the third-best defensive rating in basketball. That will give them a great chance against any team they run up against in the playoffs.
Best of all, Philadelphia is finally healthy and primed to make the kind of run Hinkie imagined when he started the tanking process all those years ago.
6 — Brooklyn state of mind
If you’re looking for the Sixers’ No. 1 challenger, you won’t have to search long.
The Brooklyn Nets are the No. 2 team in the East behind their big-three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The Nets have the most efficient offense in basketball with a league-leading 118.3 offensive rating.
Durant has thrived in Steve Nash’s system averaging 26.9 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range. Irving is the newest member of the 50/40/90 club after averaging 26.9 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the field, 40.2 percent 3-point range and 92.2 percent from the free-throw line.
Harden did what James Harden does since being traded from Houston by scoring 24.6 points and 10.9 assists per game.
Can the Nets defend well enough to win a title? That remains to be seen, considering they posted the league’s No. 23 defensive rating, but we sure as hell know they can score, and they’ll look to out-gun any team that stands in their way.
The Nets’ first huge task will likely be getting past the No. 3 seed Milwaukee Bucks, and perennial first-team All-NBA superstar/former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in a potential second-round matchup, but a Philly and Brooklyn Eastern Conference Finals would be EPIC.
7 — Wild West
The Western Conference Playoffs feel like they could go so many different directions that it is nearly impossible to nail down.
I mean, the defending champions and still one of the favorites to win the entire thing could end up being the freaking eight-seed.
I could see so many of these teams making a deep run. Phoenix is very dangerous with Devin Booker, Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton. Jokic will make the Nuggets a tough out in any series.
We haven’t even mentioned the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers here. That’s another team with the pieces needed to win a title despite being the fourth seed in the conference.
Luka Doncic and the Mavericks could have something to say about that in a first-round series, though. Don’t sleep on Damian Lillard and the six-seed Portland Trailblazers in the first-round series with Denver.
The Blazers won eight of their last 10 games in the regular season.
Of the eight teams in the West, I think anywhere from four to six of them could make the finals, and it wouldn’t shock me at all. Every series in this conference will be must-see TV for basketball fans.
8 — The Knicks!!!
The New York Knicks made the playoffs. Julius Randle looks like a potential star. Tom Thibodeau might be the coach of the year in the NBA.
I have no other analysis to offer on this point. I can’t believe the Knicks are back in the freaking playoffs after being one of the most inept organizations in American sports for basically my entire life outside of a short stretch with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudamire.
Their preseason over-under for wins in Vegas was 21.5 and they won 41 games. Unreal.
Extra Point — Sure to be super wrong picks
Pacers over Hornets
Celtics over Wizards
Wizards over Pacers
Grizzlies over Spurs
Lakers over Warriors
Warriors over Grizzlies
East First Round
Sixers over Wizards
Knicks over Hawks
Bucks over Heat
Nets over Celtics
West First Round
Jazz over Warriors
Clippers over Mavericks
Nuggets over Trailblazers
Lakers over Suns
Eastern Conference Semis
Sixers over Knicks
Nets over Bucks
Western Conference Semis
Clippers over Jazz
Lakers over Nuggets
Eastern Conference Finals
Nets over Sixers
Western Conference Finals
Lakers over Clippers
Nets over Lakers