The NBA playoffs are underway, and we already have some very exciting series to watch. All this was set up by an ultra competitive regular season in both conferences. Today, I’ll look back at the seasons of each playoff team and grade them based on; roster, how well they met or exceeded expectations, consistency and chemistry, and health going into the playoffs.
16. Washington Wizards
The Wizards’ season was one of extreme ups and downs, and ended with them losing five of their last six games including losses to, the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, and Chicago Bulls. Known for having one of the most talented back courts in the entire league, the Wizards lacked consistency from All-Star guard John Wall who missed half the season. During the season we saw Wall’s teammates take subliminal shots about the team’s success while he was sidelined. Since his return the Wizards are 2-5 including their two playoff losses to Toronto. If Wall and Beal can regain some semblance of chemistry it’s possible for the Wizards to take a couple games from the Raptors, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up for much more than that.
15. Miami Heat
A season ending injury to Dion Waiters derailed what was a great start for the Heat. Last season we saw this same Heat team start 11-30 then go on to win 23 of its next 28 games. That was no fluke; remember when people used to say Erik Spoelstra’s success was only a product of having LeBron James? While ‘The King’ did indeed have a huge effect on the Heat’s run of four straight finals appearances, we haven’t seen him respect a coach the way he did Spoelstra. Now with James gone, we have seen him take the next step to becoming a top tier coach. This team doesn’t lay down for anybody, and is loaded with veterans that know what it takes to make a run. However, experience can’t make up for their lack of elite talent. Hassan Whiteside often times looks like a shell of his former self, and Dwayne Wade, as great as he is at 36, can no longer lead a team to 4 wins by himself.
14. Milwaukee Bucks
It may seem unfair to refer to a playoff team as a disappointment, but that’s the exact feeling I get with the Bucks. There are still reasons to be optimistic as a Bucks fan, and most of them revolve around the ‘Greek Freak’ taking another huge step. Giannis’ dominance early on this season was enough to convince management to go out and get Eric Bledsoe. The two of them have made the Bucks a lethal fast break team. When the game slows down Giannis showed the ability to shoulder the scoring load, while not allowing it to have a negative effect on his defense. A healthy Jabari Parker would have been huge for them but we’ve seen him come back and not look quite the same yet. They aren’t a team that’s going to light it up from deep, ranked in the bottom third of the league in 3-point shooting, and that lack of shooting tends to hurt their spacing. Giannis is not a primary facilitator and because teams know that their best chance against him is to sag off and go under screens it clogs the paint. There is still a lot of potential on this roster but they may be one more piece and one healthy season away from doing some real damage.
13. San Antonio Spurs
This season saw the Spurs’ incredible streak of 18 straight 50-win seasons snapped, and that wasn’t even the strangest thing to happen with the team. The entire season left us wondering what in the world is going on with Kawhi Leonard. Last season, Leonard became the teams alpha male, and we saw him embrace the role by playing the best defense of his career while averaging a career high 25.5ppg. During Game 1 against the Warriors, Leonard and the Spurs were in full control of the game until he injured his ankle and was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs. Conflicting reports about Leonard’s relationship with head coach Gregg Popovich have left fans confused about this lost season. Meanwhile, The Spurs found a way to get back to the playoffs, again, without Kawhi, and based on reports it may not be a guarantee that Kawhi ever comes back to the Spurs. Lamarcus Aldridge is an all-star caliber player, but this team just doesn’t have enough firepower to truly contend in a stiff Western Conference.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves
Maybe the most difficult team to peg on this list, the Wolves should be better than their record indicates. Karl Anthony Towns has established himself as a top tier big man, and the addition of Jimmy Butler proved to be a good one. Having two all-stars in the West is not easy when you consider Golden State is almost certainly going to have four. Still, with Butler out with an injury for the back end of the season the Wolves fell off from their early season success. The most troubling part of this season was the regression of Andrew Wiggins, now in his fourth season. For each of his first three years, Wiggins increased his scoring average while not seeing much improvement in other parts of his game. However, this season his scoring dipped under 18 points for the first time since his rookie season. This could be attributed to the addition of a star player like Butler, but Wiggins also tied a career low for assists and saw his free throw percentage take a major hit. After the Wolves extended Wiggins this season by giving him a max contract, I’m sure they hoped he would continue to develop and give the team a third all-star. This team has the weapons that give it the potential to beat anybody on any given night, but falling to the eighth seed puts them up against a Rockets team that they are just no match for.
11. New Orleans Pelicans
Coming into this season, the Pelicans were a team to watch, and it wasn’t because anyone thought of them as a title contender. The interest stemmed from them having two superstar big men on their roster, and the belief that one would be traded if the team faltered. However, up until a devastating injury to Demarcus Cousins, the Pelicans were showing major signs of improvement. More importantly, it seemed as though Anthony Davis and Cousins were finding a way to coexist and dominate. The team as a whole is still very incomplete outside of those two and point guard Jrue Holiday, who signed a five-year extension with the team this past offseason. Rajon Rondo has been a contributor, and the addition of Nikola Mirotic was a very solid one. Down the stretch we’ve seen Davis assert himself as the most dominant big in the league, and carry this team to a better end result than many thought when Cousins went down. If the Pelicans can resign Demarcus Cousins and add a quality starter on the wing, plus depth, they have a legitimate shot at a high seed in the west next season.
10. Indiana Pacers
Who had the Pacers winning 48 games before the season started? After shipping Paul George off to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, some thought of this season as a rebuild for a Pacers team that added some young talent. Oladipo turned into the NBA’s most improved player turning all of his potential into production and was rewarded with his first all-star selection. I thought the Thunder were a little quick to give up on Sabonis, but when you have the chance to trade for an established star you don’t worry too much about potential. This too worked in favor of the Pacers as Sabonis had what was really an excellent season primarily coming off the bench. Between Oladipo, Sabonis, and Myles Turner, this team has a good mix of young talent and savvy veterans. This season was a huge success for them, and they’ll go into the offseason hoping they did enough to entice a marquee free agent. A long series against LeBron James and the Cavs in round 1, and possibly an upset, might do the trick.
9. Utah Jazz
The Jazz are another team that exceeded expectations after losing star forward Gordon Hayward in free agency. A large part of this is thanks to the huge production they got from rookie Donovan Mitchell. The biggest question mark for the team after Hayward’s departure was do they have enough scoring on the roster to win games. Rudy Gobert anchored an elite defense, and Mitchell provided a team high 20.5 ppg. Elsewhere, the team has solid role players and veterans that help make the Jazz a contender in any game. A slow start to the season was mitigated by an 11-game win streak, and a strong push in the second half of the season that catapulted the Jazz as high as the 3rd seed. Their first round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder will be as interesting as any first round series across the league. We’ll see if the Jazz have enough to stop a group of experienced stars that can light it up.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Transitioning to a team with high expectations, the Thunder sometimes left us with a little to be desired. I give them credit, after losing Kevin Durant a couple seasons back they did a good job to trade for Paul George, and add Carmelo Anthony while dumping the salary of Enes Kanter. Adding two big name stars to a team that already has a superstar of their own can sometimes be a difficult transition. We saw as much in the first half of the season when the Thunder were fighting to keep a playoff spot. Russell Westbrook got back to playing his game instead of trying to make sure PG and Carmelo got their shots, and that to me was the real turning point of this team. Instead of seeing an offense where the Thunder big 3 would basically take turns shooting the ball, we saw a much more cohesive unit once Westbrook asserted himself as the lead dog. This team could be poised to make a strong playoff push if it can overcome it’s inconsistencies.
7. Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard is a perfect fit for the Trail Blazers because they both seem to always fly under the radar. The lack of recognition that Lillard gets around the league has been well documented, and this season may have been his best one as a pro. This team showed it can score with ease whether that be in the half court, or playing at a fast up and down pace. Ranking in the top 10 in both offense and defense, the Trail Blazers can beat you in a variety of ways even if their elite back court duo of Lillard and C.J McCollum has an off night. They have a lot of money invested in some pieces that may not be worth their price tag, and they have been trying to find a third piece to pair with their two guards. A defensive minded big man with the ability to finish at the rim on pick and rolls could put them in a great spot moving forward.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers
Could this finally be the year LeBron doesn’t lead his team to the finals? This seems to be the narrative each year, but when looking at the roster he’s working with, we see the lack of a star running mate that LeBron has become accustomed to having. The Isaiah Thomas experiment failed miserably, and the Cavs quickly moved him in a rash of trades right before the deadline. The result has left the Cavs with more quality role players than any team hoping to contend should have, and a lack of star power around the best player in the world. LeBron doesn’t seem too enthusiastic about the way things have gone this season, and an early playoff exit could cause him to look elsewhere this summer. Still, in his 15th season he looks as dominant as ever, and you can never count him out from taking any team much further than they should.
5. Boston Celtics
Danny Ainge is making all the right moves and has given the Celtics a future as bright as any team if the pieces fall into place. However, this season has been an extremely unfortunate one for Boston, after Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome injury in his first game with the Celtics. Still, the Celtics persevered, led by Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and the addition of rookie Jayson Tatum. When you look at their roster you see how loaded they are with quality talent. Defensively, this team is a nightmare to play when they slow the pace down and force other teams to operate in the half court. Jaylen Brown and Tatum are so versatile in defensive matchups that they can still get after you with smaller lineups. A finals appearance was not out of the question for them until the injury to Kyrie that will keep him out of the playoffs. Even with all these great young pieces, it is hard to imagine the Celtics making the same kind of impact in the playoffs as they would if healthy. Still, there is plenty to be excited about as a Celtics fan in the short term and long term with this team.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
After four long seasons of losing streaks and G-League rosters, the Sixers made a quantum leap this season. Joel Embiid began playing back to backs and continued to be a dominant force on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, rookie Ben Simmons was a revelation at the point guard spot looking like a potential transcendent player for years to come. The front office did a good job surrounding the team with veteran shooters, and the additions of Marco Bellinelli and Ersan Illyasova helped lift a struggling bench. The season didn’t go exactly as planned from a roster standpoint, first overall pick Markelle Fultz struggled with an injury that created a hitch in his shot. Many believed he would be shut down for the season but came back for the last 10 games of the season and has added great depth playing as Simmons’ back up. They ended the season with an NBA record 16 straight wins that included blowout after blowout. Experience could be an issue for the Sixers in the playoffs, and an orbital fracture for Embiid could keep him out of play for longer than the team hopes. Still, the Sixers went from 46 wins in their past 3 seasons to just their 3rd 50-win season in the past 20 years. They could be a dangerous team playing at a breakneck pace if they keep rolling.
3. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors were left with an interesting decision this past off season, all-star point guard Kyle Lowry was a free agent and many questioned whether he’d be back at the price he was asking for. Their front office made it clear how much they valued Lowry and decided to resign him on a 3-year $100M deal. The problem with the Raptors in years past has been the dropoff in their play come playoff time, but this team showed it could be different this year. Dwayne Casey has made a strong case to win this years Coach of the Year honor, as he kept his squad more consistent than any other team in the East. Again, everything comes down to how they perform in the playoffs for these guys, but their regular season was fantastic as they finished with the best record in the conference. Lowry and DeRozan can give anyone problems, and they have great depth at every position. This team does not miss a beat when it’s starters go out, their bench is very capable of not only holding leads but also extending them. This could be a good year for the Raptors.
2. Golden State Warriors
The defending champs came into this season as the favorite to win it all once again and for good reason. Everything about this team has been well documented, with possibly the greatest roster of all time it is hard to imagine this team losing to anyone four times in a series. However, the season wasn’t as smooth as many thought it would be. The Warriors, like many other teams, were bit hard by the injury bug and at times played games without Durant, Curry, Thompson, or Green. 58 wins would be a great total for any other team in the league but for the Warriors it makes it obvious how much injuries affected them. Their most recent injury to Curry was the biggest because it will cause him to miss at least the entire first round of the playoffs. If Curry can come back healthy, and playing like himself, this team should still be considered the favorite to repeat. For now, Durant and company should be able to weather the storm until Curry returns. Must be nice.
1. Houston Rockets
At the beginning of the season, some questioned how well Chris Paul and James Harden could play next to each other. Those questions were quickly silenced once Harden and Paul showed how deadly a team with two elite facilitators that can get to any spot on the floor can be. This team is the definition of the new generation of NBA basketball, becoming the first team in league history to attempt more 3-point shots than 2-point shots. Harden had another MVP caliber campaign, and chances are he actually wins it this year. The greatness of this team doesn’t just stop with the best back court in basketball, they are built to shoot and everyone on the team knows their role when they get on the floor. Much has been made about Chris Paul’s inability to reach the conference finals and beyond, but this has been by far the best team he’s ever been on. Playing next to an elite talent like Harden has allowed Paul to play with much less responsibility and a brand of basketball he was built for. You can’t let up for a second against this team or else a 5 point lead can turn into a 10 point deficit in the blink of an eye.