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Previewing the 2017 NBA Playoffs

Khari

Khari

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For fourteen NBA teams, basketball season will end on April 14th. Some will hear Maui calling their names; others may feel the sting of mediocrity more and will use their pain as fuel for intensive offseason training and self-reflection. Regardless, their only involvement in NBA basketball for the foreseeable future will be in watching it from their couches.

For the remaining sixteen, a whole new season will commence on April 15th. With the postseason just around the corner, the top eight teams in each of the Western and Eastern Conferences are set to engage in a wildly entertaining, storyline-rich battle royale for the next two months, at the end of which only one will be able to claim supremacy over the basketball world.

Of course, not all playoff teams are created equal. Due to the breadth of the contending field, the odds of each team realistically achieving their ultimate playoff goal of winning the 2017 NBA Championship vary greatly. Therefore, to provide a clear picture of what educated viewers’ expectations should be going into the postseason, the rest of this article places each team in the playoff bracket into a category, with each successive category representing teams with increasing odds of emerging from the field victorious.

The “Just-Glad-To-Be-Here” Crowd

Portland Trail-Blazers/Denver Nuggets: The race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West will likely go down to the finish, with either the Blazers or the Nuggets pulling ahead in the final couple of games of the regular season. Big things were expected out of the Blazers after upsetting the No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of last year’s playoffs and giving the defending champion Golden State Warriors a battle in the second. But, despite being a lackluster defensive team for much of the season, point guard Damian Lillard has put his team back in the hunt with a strong post-All-Star-break surge.

The Nuggets are an intriguing story. Many expected them to be at least a couple years away from being playoff contenders, but rookie phenom Nikola Jokic, affectionally nicknamed “The Joker”, has catapulted Denver’s offense to new heights and has them playing creative, entertaining basketball. With the young Serbian center in the fold, the Nuggets have the look of a future power out West.

Regardless, whichever of these two teams emerges will have only four games of playoff sunshine before getting slaughtered by the Warriors.

Chicago Bulls/Indiana Pacers/Miami Heat: With these three teams within a half game of each other in the standings, two will enter the playoffs as No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. The Chicago Bulls have talent, mostly in the form of star two-way wing Jimmy Butler, but have largely been a mess both on and off the court this year, with frustrating on-court results leading to fractious relationships off of it.

The Indiana Pacers can be aptly described as consistently mediocre. Like the Bulls, they too have a two-way star wing in Paul George, but a lack of overall talent around him makes them far from threatening.

The Miami Heat have a case for being the most inspiring team to watch this season. After residing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the first half of the season, they have one of the best win-loss records in the league since the start of the new year. With excellent head coaching and savvy, veteran team, they stand the best chance of giving the No. 1 seed Cleveland Cavaliers a sweat.

Milwaukee Bucks: The upstart Bucks are set to square off with the No. 3 seed Toronto Raptors in the first round. Milwaukee’s season has been mostly a mixed bag, as evidenced by their unimpressive 40-39 record. But with a superstar-in-waiting in Giannis “the Greek Freak” Antetokounpo and a young nucleus, this is likely the first of many playoff appearances to come in Milwaukee.

The Tough Outs

Memphis Grizzlies: An old-school, grit-and-grind team, the Grizz refuse to let the high-flying, free-flowing pace of the modern NBA displace them. A lack of offense explosivity will ultimately doom them, but armed with defensive grinders at every position, they’ll assuredly make life miserable for their opponent in the process.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Triple-double machine Russell Westbrook has been the main season-long storyline for the Thunder, following the highly publicized departure of former homegrown star Kevin Durant in the offseason. Westbrook has done an admirable job getting his team this far in Durant’s absence, but a lack of support will make them victims of the first-round.

Utah Jazz: Another slow-paced, defensive-minded team, the Jazz have quietly building this playoff-caliber roster for the last several years. With an All-Star in Gordon Hayward and an ideal playoff roster composition, they are trendy pick to reach the second round.

Los Angeles Clippers: In what could be the final run with their current core, the Clippers will have to come to grips with their past playoff demons if they have any hope of making postseason noise. Should they advance to the second round, a meeting with the Warriors, a team they haven’t beaten in over two years, awaits.

Atlanta Hawks: All the credit goes to head coach Mike Budenholzer for keeping the Hawks in playoff position despite an underwhelming roster and a management that can’t seem to decide between contending and rebuilding. Still, with a dearth of weapons, they likely won’t be able to compete at the same level as their first-round opponent.

Close But No Cigar

Houston Rockets: The Rockets surprised many people this season by winning 53 games and seizing control of the No. 3 seed in a tough Western Conference, after most predicted them to finish with no more than 41 total wins. With legendary offensive mind Mike D’Antoni running the team from the sidelines and MVP-frontrunner James Harden running things on the court, the Rockets have the firepower to give the top contenders a run for their money. Now, if only they could play some defense…

Washington Wizards: The Wiz have a starting lineup that can compete with anybody. With the explosive capabilities of their backcourt combo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, they match up well with their Eastern Conference rivals. Unfortunately, teams without depth tend to get exposed in the playoffs; thus will be the Wizards’ fate.

Toronto Raptors: When healthy, the Raptors have a well-rounded, battle-tested lineup that is both heady and talented enough to warrant contender status. The problem lies in the fact that they simply don’t match up well, at least personnel-wise with the other Eastern contenders, which will likely seal their demise.

Boston Celtics: One of the NBA’s most storied franchises, the Celtics have regained their place as one of the league’s best behind the shrewd scheming of general manager Danny Ainge. Spearheaded by diminutive MVP-candidate Isaiah Thomas, the Celts have a bevy of youthful guards and wings to throw at their playoff opponents. A lack of experience, though, will probably delay their ascent back to contender status.

The Contenders

San Antonio Spurs: Since the turn of the century, you could have penciled the Spurs in as contenders every year when the playoffs begin to roll around. They’re led by arguably the greatest coach of our time – Gregg Popovich. Under his leadership, they churn out 60-win seasons as easily as breathing, all while experiencing significant roster turnover every year. This year’s iteration has seen Kawhi Leonard, heir apparent to Tim Duncan’s throne as the face of the Spurs’ franchise, rise to new heights as a legitimate MVP candidate. The Western Conference crown will come down to them and the Warriors.

Cleveland Cavaliers: More often than not, it’s a given that the defending champion retains its status as a contender the following year, and the Cavs certainly fit the bill. After pulling off a comeback for the ages in last season’s Finals against their Californian rivals, they’ve certainly given their critics plenty of ammunition with their uneven play during the regular season. A lack of defensive intensity and stale offensive playmaking briefly opened the door to other Eastern teams to try and pry the No. 1 seed away from them. But, with the world’s best player in LeBron James still at their disposal, there’s no reason to suspect they won’t be ready to defend their crown come April 15th.

The Favorite

Golden State Warriors: It’s a dangerous thing to make definitive statements in sports, but the Warriors winning the NBA championship in June may be the exception. Simply put, they’ve changed basketball forever. Walk into any gym and you’ll see more kids running to the three point line than running for a layup. Every team preparing for the annual NBA Draft these days is looking for the next Stephen Curry, the next Draymond Green, the next Klay Thompson. Throw one Kevin Durant into the mix, and you’ve got yourself the likely hoisters of the 2017 Larry O’Brien trophy.

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Previewing the 2017 NBA Playoffs