There are no Cinderellas in the NBA Playoffs.
I went to Wikipedia to prove my point and was shocked by what I found. In this millennium, only one team below a fourth seed has made it the Conference Finals. As in, every year for 14 years the entire lower half of the bracket has failed to win two rounds, with the exception of the 2013 Grizzlies. They were a fifth seed, and they beat the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder in the second round before getting curb stomped by the Spurs, 4-0, in the Conference Finals.
If you’re a fan of a playoff team without one of the four best records in its conference, now would be a good time to start steeling yourself for the inevitable. Enjoy the playoff games your team takes part in and then start thinking about next year.
Or if you, like me, prefer to torture yourself by rationalizing why you still have a chance, read on. I’m going to break down every team I see as potential sleeper. (Celtics and Pelicans fans can stop reading now. Neither team has a chance of winning more than two games against the Cavs and Warriors.)
The Case For: The Wizards starting lineup has only played together in 40 games. For the non-mathematically inclined, that’s about half of 82, which makes it hard to rack up an impressive win total. All five guys are finally healthy, though, and that lineup is killing dudes when they’re on the court together. They outscore opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions, which is right there with the Hawks’ starters for sixth-best starting lineup in the NBA. In the playoffs, when starters log more minutes, and coaches tighten up their rotations, having the best five-man unit matters more than ever. And while the win total may have fallen short of certain irrational fans’ expectations, it’s still, amazingly and depressingly, the most the Wizards/Bullets have had since the 1978-1979 season.
The Case Against: Randy Scott Wittman.
The Wizards’ strategy offensively often seems to be to make things as hard on themselves as possible. John Wall’s good enough to bail the Wizards out, but it’s a constant uphill battle.
This stuff isn’t that complicated. Everyone knows threes are effective. And yet despite the Wizards putting up the 9th best percentage from deep, they’re 27th in the league in attempts. The only teams with less are the Kings (dysfunctional), the Grizzlies (can’t shoot), and the Timberwolves (terrible basketball team). Factor in that no D.C. team has ever and will ever make it past the second round of the playoffs, and things become very, very grim.
Prediction: The Wizards beat a not-that-great opponent in the first round for the second year in a row, thanks to the blessing that is the East’s lack of talent. In Round Two, Wittman stares at the Hawks’ movement with a look on his face that says, “I’m trying to pass off my confusion as frustration.” The Wizards lose despite Wall being the best player on the court.
The Case For: All year the Bucks have been perched on an island of their own in the East between the five playoff locks above them in the standings and the garbage churning through the last two playoff slots below. After finishing with the worst record in the NBA last season (it’s easy to forget Milwaukee finished with four less wins than Philadelphia), that’s a huge accomplishment, but at no point did I give their playoff chances any thought. It just had “nice story” written all over it.
And then you start to picture the reality of a Bulls-Bucks playoff series. Are the Bulls really that much better than the Bucks? Both teams’ pride themselves on their brick-wall defenses. The Bucks defense is second only to Golden State, who lead the league in every category and don’t count, while the Bulls come in at 11th (the Bucks allow 2.2 less points per 100 possessions). The difference between the two is that when everyone’s healthy, the Bulls can score and the Bucks can’t. But hoping the Bulls will be healthy is like hoping Demarcus Cousins will stop sulking. For brief stretches it looks possible, but the other shoe is always waiting to drop. If Rose, Noah, and Gibson are all at least 90%, the Bulls will win this series. If not, anything can happen.
The Case Against: The Bucks had the worst record in the NBA last season and don’t have appreciably more talent now than they did then. Oh, and they have only two more wins than a Celtics team whose starting lineup is the fantastically underwhelming Marcus Smart – Averly Bradley – Evan Turner – Brandon Bass – Tyler Zeller combination.
Prediction: The Bucks burst onto the national scene as America finally gets to see them fly up and down the court dunking and screaming. They take a perpetually banged-up Bulls team to seven before caving in.
The Case For: You really, really believe in Joe Johnson. And you think that even though most of the season the Nets’ players have looked like they no longer enjoy playing basketball, it’s a team with a decent amount of talent that may be finally playing up to its potential. That potential is still well below any chance of ever winning a title, but it’s good enough to win a playoff series in a bad conference. So why not get excited Nets fans? It’s not getting any better than this (not for a long, long, looooong time).
The Case Against: Brooklyn has not been good all year and is only in the playoffs because six games below .500 is good enough for the playoffs in the East.
Prediction: Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez put up nice stats, the Hawks blow by the Nets easily, Lopez leaves in free agency, and the Nets take mediocrity to previously unseen heights in 2016.
Well this is awkward for my gimmick. The Blazers are the fourth seed, thanks to a weird quirk in the rules that says that if you win your division (because there are still divisions) you can’t fall below the fourth seed. The Blazers don’t, however, have home-court advantage, because home-court is determined by record, and the Grizzlies have a better record. All of this is stupid, so I’m going to follow the spirit of the rule and not include teams that are title contenders. That means no Grizzlies (5) or Spurs (6). Which leaves just one real option.
The Case For: Exactly what people feared might go wrong after the Rondo trade went wrong. No matter how you twist the numbers, the Mavericks offense with Rondo is significantly worse than it is without him. In such a loaded conference, that drop is enough for most people to cross Dallas off the list.
While that’s probably fair, it might be missing the big picture. The details are an average record and offensive struggles since the trade deadline. The big picture is that this is exactly where the Mavs were last year, when they were a 49 win eighth seed and somehow took the Spurs to seven in a series most people thought would be a sweep. The Spurs went on to blow away their next opponents in five, six, and five games on their way to the title, so the Mavs performance is only more impressive in hindsight.
And unlike that Dallas team, this one actually has some talent outside of Dirk and Monta. Forget Rondo for a second. Adding Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons, while losing basically nobody, is a massive upgrade. Combine that with Carlisle and Dirk’s recent playoff record, and the fact that this Rockets team without Motiejunas and Beverly isn’t nearly as strong as last year’s Spurs, and the Mavs might be a legitimate sleeper.
The Case Against: Basically the reasons I led in with. The numbers are bad, and everything looks off. Every run of success comes to an end with a thud, and this has the makings of a loud thud.
Prediction: Dallas puts up more of a fight than people expect in the first round, but go down in seven against a Rockets team that is just a little better than they are.