2022 NBA Season Review & Playoff Predictions

Hey, the NBA finally brought the old Finals “script” logo back. It’s a bit different than it was before, but it’s still much better than the absolute abomination of a “logo” the NBA used from 2018-2021:

That looks like some shit I could make with clip art. It has no character or personality at all. The Script Finals logo, on the other hand, has character. It’s bold.

One thing I’m starting to hate about marketing and branding these days is that everyone’s trying to be as minimalist and “sleek” as possible. So many companies want to be “modern” and copy off of Apple’s aesthetic, and it’s turning everything into this bland, lifeless, colorless airport terminal where everything is a safe, neutral color and nothing has any actual personality.

So good for the NBA bringing back the old Script Finals logo. I know the Script logo only dates back to 2004, but in my mind, and for my generation, it’s synonymous with the Finals. The NBA Finals are not the NBA Finals without the Script Logo, and I wish the NBA had never moved off of it for the previous 4 years. What a mistake that was.

At any rate, our 4 year nightmare is now over. The Script logo is back where it belongs at center court of the Finals, and all is right in the NBA once again.

However, before we start talking about the 2022 Finals, we’re going to rewind back to the regular season and work our way all the way up to the playoffs, and then make some predictions.

With the 2022 NBA season concluded and half the play-in games settled, we are on the verge of the start of what should be an extremely entertaining playoffs. Even though the playoffs won’t feature LeBron James for the first time since the 2005 season, the NBA is in such a great place right now with so many incredible star players, both veteran and young alike, that I think we’ll still have a memorable and highly competitive postseason.

Every year, there is always one playoff series that is completely bonkers, and I expect this year to be no different. Last year we had that incredible Milwaukee-Brooklyn series that went 7 games, had the infamous KD “foot on the line” shot that altered the course of NBA history, in 2020 in the bubble, we had the Clippers blowing the 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the second round. In 2019, there was the sensational Raptors-Sixers series that featured Kawhi’s Game 7 buzzer beater (“The Luckiest Shot in NBA History”). 2018 had the Rockets-Warriors Western Conference Finals series. 2017 was the only playoffs where there was no real signature moment–the Warriors were just so dominant it was kind of a foregone conclusion the whole season. In 2016 we obviously had the Finals, and in 2015 the Finals were highly entertaining as well. The point is, there is always some crazy stuff that pops off in the playoffs. There will in all likelihood be one series that goes down as an all-time classic that no one will ever forget.

I couldn’t be more excited for it.

Before we get into the playoffs, I want to briefly touch on a few storylines from the regular season that I thought deserved mention:

  • The Lakers: The most disappointing team in NBA history? Probably. At least the 2004 Lakers with Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton made the Finals. This Lakers team didn’t even make the playoffs. LeBron, at age 37, put up ridiculous numbers and was only a few games away from winning the scoring title, but it was nowhere near enough to overcome Russell Westbrook and his extremely inefficient play. The Lakers were hampered by injuries all year: LeBron played 56 games, and AD played just 40 games. It is what it is, though. No use in spending much more time talking about a team that went 33-49.
  • The Celtics: One of the greatest in-season turnarounds I’ve ever seen, this year’s Celtics squad was just 23-24 as of January 21. They finished the year 51-31, meaning that from January 21 until the end of the regular season, they went on a 28-7 run. Clearly making a change at head coach from Brad Stevens to Ime Udoka has been a smashing success for Boston. They have been blowing everyone out, and are elite on both ends of the floor. However, they will now face the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, meaning this Celtics team will be put to the test right off the bat. They’re missing Robert Williams, who by my estimation is their second-most important player. He doesn’t score as much as Jaylen Brown, but he’s an elite defensive big man–he ranked #1 in the league in Defensive Rating and #4 in the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus–and the Celtics this year were +9.9 when he was on the floor. Losing him is a huge blow to their interior defense.
  • The Suns: They set a franchise record for most wins in a season, finishing 64-18. The 2022 Suns are now one of just 25 teams in NBA history to win 64 games or more in a season. 18 of the 24 teams prior to this year that won 64 games or more made the NBA Finals, and of those 18 teams, 15 went on to win the NBA Championship. So history tells us we should expect this Suns team to at least make it to the Finals. However, there are some high-profile examples of elite regular season teams flaming out in the playoffs, notably the 2018 Rockets (went 65-17, had a 3-2 lead in the WCF over Golden State but lost in 7), the 2016 Spurs (went 67-15 but lost to the Thunder in 6 in the second round), the 2016 Warriors (went 73-9 and obviously lost in the Finals in 7 games), the 2009 Cavaliers (went 66-16, lost in the ECF to the Magic in 6 games) and the 2007 Mavericks (went 67-15, lost in the first round to the We Believe Warriors). Obviously Chris Paul was on that 2018 Rockets team so he knows full well that having a historic record in the regular season doesn’t guarantee you a thing. The Suns seem like a team on a mission to avenge their loss to Milwaukee in last year’s Finals, but only time will tell if they can get the job done.
  • Luka Doncic’s Calf: A surprising amount of sports pundits are predicting the Mavericks to make a dark horse run to the Finals this year, with Luka pulling a 2007 LeBron. However, Luka hurt his calf in the final game of the regular season, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll miss time in the playoffs. The Mavericks run one of the most heliocentric offenses in the NBA today–it all goes through Luka. He’s the primary scorer and playmaker on that team. Without him, the Mavericks are as good as toast. His calf injury is one of the most important factors in the Western conference playoffs.
  • Nikola Jokic’s Historic Season: He’s going to win MVP again, and he absolutely deserves it. He deserved it last year, and his stats this year were significantly better than last year. He finished with an On/Off +/- rating of +16.4, meaning the Nuggets were 16.4 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the floor vs. when he was off it. His overall +/- on the year was +8.4, meaning when he was on the floor the Nuggets were +8.4 points better than their opponents over every 100 possessions, and when he was off the floor, the Nuggets were -8. That is absolutely ridiculous. Jokic set league records for Box Plus/Minus (best ever) and PER (best ever), and by my measure (Hard Carry Rating), he had the third-best individual season of the past 25 years with a Hard Carry rating of 59.991, behind only Chris Paul in 2009 (HC rating 61.610) and LeBron in 2009 (61.208). Jokic in 2022 is right about on par with Kevin Garnett’s stellar 2004 season, and Steph Curry’s unbelievable 2016 season. Here’s the list of the top 25 since 1997, which is as far back as the play-by-play data goes on Basketball Reference. Gold name means the player won MVP that year:

The only other thing I want to add in regarding the regular season is the final Hard Carry Rating Top 150 for 2022. I did top 150 because in theory it would cover all 5 starts for all 30 teams (obviously it doesn’t work this way in practice since there are vast differences between the teams, but the idea is that if you’re in the top-150 you are a starter-level player in the NBA). The thresholds were that you had to play in at least 50 games, and you had to average at least 18 minutes per game to qualify. The reason Jokic has a different score here than above is that the list above is adjusted for pace of play to make comparison between different areas fair, while the list below is unadjusted (because it’s all from the same season).

Big yikes for Julius Randle, who comes in at #147, meaning barely a starter-level player.

There are a few stand-out names, like Jrue Holliday and Darius Garland in the top-10, so I’ll try to justify it: the ratings factor in a player’s On/Off Plus-Minus number, and those two rate very highly in that category. It’s why they’re ahead of Luka: as great as Luka is, his plus/minus numbers aren’t all that impressive. The Mavs were only +3.6 when he was on the floor, and his overall On/Off is just +0.2, meaning the Mavs were still +3.4 when he was off the court. Compare that to a guy like Darius Garland: the Cavs were +6.7 when he was on the floor, and -5.4 when he was off the floor, for an overall On/Off rating of +12.1 for the season. Jrue Holliday was a similar story: the Bucks were +9.4 when he was on the court, and surprisingly -4.3 when he was on the bench, giving him a total On/Off rating of +14.

Jrue Holliday’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider the Bucks are arguably one of the best teams in the league, and they have arguably the best player in the league, Giannis. Jrue Holliday had an even higher Plus/Minus and On/Off rating than Giannis (+8 and +11 respectively).

These ratings attempt to show a player’s value beyond just scoring. They value completeness. And if your team sucks, you’re going to suffer for that. For instance, LeBron had an incredible season, but his team sucked, so his overall On/Off rating was just 2.1, and that’s way below other MVP-level players like Giannis (+11), Jokic (+16.2), Embiid (+11.5) and Durant (+11.9). That’s why LeBron was down at #9 on the ratings. If LeBron had an On/Off rating of, say, +11, he would vault up into the top 3-4.

My Hard Carry ratings are not the be-all, end-all. I’m sure there are flaws in the formula that people can take issue with. But they’re not meant to be definitive player rankings–they’re just meant to show you how much players contribute to their teams in terms of quantifiable statistics.

With that, I want to get into the final 2022 team ratings. The list is based on the Hard Carry ratings of each playoff team’s top-5 players.

As we can see, the Bucks are by far the top-rated team, and Giannis has the #1 rated supporting cast. Boston comes in second place in both categories, followed by Phoenix and Philly. Denver is ranked #5, but Jokic has an extremely weak supporting cast. The Nets are #6, but KD’s supporting cast beyond Kyrie is pretty awful.

This next list is my team ratings based off of select statistical categories:

I want to vomit seeing the Jazz up there at #1, but hey: they do rate very highly in a lot of categories. I know everyone hates the Jazz and we’re already writing the obituary for the Mitchell-Gobert-Quin Snyder era, which in many people’s minds has already been blown up, but I think they have more of a chance than people are giving them. I obviously don’t think they’re the #1 team in the NBA, in fact I think they’re close to #16 which is where my Hard Carry Ratings have them. This is why I like to have two separate rating systems for NBA teams.

Anyway, let’s get to the playoff series predictions.

The Playoffs

Now with all the statistical stuff out of the way I wanted to go into the playoffs, series-by-series, and give my thoughts on the first round matchups. There are still two more play-in games to be played tonight, and they’ll decide the 8th seeds in each conference, so I’ll update this post after those games.

We’ll start with the West.

1. Suns vs. 8. Pelicans/Clippers winner: I don’t think it really matters who wins tonight’s play-in game, the Suns are beating them no matter what. Phoenix is too good to lose in the first round to either of those teams. Devin Booker is an MVP candidate, Chris Paul is Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton is one of the best offensive big men in the league, Mikal Bridges is a DPOTY candidate, and Jae Crowder is a nice stretch 4 who, while not the most reliable three point shooter (34.8% on the year), is streaky from three. The Suns are going to win their first round series. But, I don’t know if I trust them to win the whole thing. They have a great team, I’m not denying that. But they don’t have a Giannis, or a KD, or a LeBron, or a Steph. They don’t have a guy that can put the team on his back when things get hectic deep in the playoffs. They have a system, and it runs great most of the time. But there will come a time in the playoffs where that system breaks down and somebody will have to step up. I don’t know who That Guy is on their team. I’d like to say it’s Booker, but I just haven’t seen enough proof that he’s That Guy. I guess I’d say my main concern with this Suns team is that they just don’t have that elite, A+ level superstar player.

2. Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves: This is going to be a fun series. There are just so many great young players–Ja, KAT, Ant, D-Lo, Jaren Jackson. Plus the Pat Bev factor. I know it’s weird to say given that the T-Wolves won their play-in game over the Clippers, and I’m not trying to be the “act like you’ve been there” police, but after seeing the way the T-Wolves celebrated that game like they just won the NBA Finals, I kind of lost some confidence in them. I just don’t think that team is ready to win in the playoffs. They’re so young and inexperienced. But, that said my team Hard Carry ratings have the T-Wolves as the far superior team. My ratings don’t really buy into Ja Morant as an elite player just yet, and while the Grizz may be a deeper team than the Wolves, the Wovles have more top-end talent. I’m going to call the upset here: T-Wolves will win this series in 6 games. Again, I don’t know if they’re emotionally ready to win in the playoffs, but I think they have the talent to do it.

3. Warriors vs. 6. Nuggets: Without Jamal Murray and MPJ, I fear Nikola Jokic’s incredible season will be cut short in the first round. My team ratings have the Nuggets as the better squad, but most of that is Jokic. I like the depth of the Warriors so much more than the singular brilliance of Jokic. Steph, Draymond, Klay, Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Looney, Kuminga–the Warriors just have more dudes than the Nuggets do. I think it’s possible for Jokic to elevate his team, but not enough to win a playoff series against this Warriors team. I have Golden State winning in 5.

4. Mavericks vs. 5 Jazz: The Mavs are the trendy pick here, and I know everyone is down on Utah–and for good reason. But with Luka being hurt, and the fact that the Mavs are so reliant on him, I don’t see how Utah can squander this series. Donovan Mitchell is a big time playoff performer, the Jazz are one of the highest rated offenses in the league, and I think if Luka misses a game or two, the Jazz will take this series. I am not high on the Jazz at all, but I think they’re at least good enough to beat the Mavs without Luka, or at least with a less than 100% Luka.

Now for the Eastern Conference, which in my view is more interesting than the West. The East was a lot harder to pick than the West.

1. Heat vs. 8. Cavs/Hawks: I don’t want to pick against Trae Young because of what happened last year, but then again, this Heat team is way better than last year’s Knicks team that Trae bounced in the first round–and the Heat will not choke like the 76ers did last year. I’m giving Atlanta some respect because of what they did in the playoffs last season, but Miami is ultimately the better team. I’m going to take Miami to win this one in 6 games. If it’s Cleveland that comes out of the play-in tourney, then I have Miami winning in 5 games.

2. Celtics vs. 7. Nets: Boston is playing so well right now and they have a rock-solid starting 5. Even though Robert Williams, their second-most important player, is going to be out for the series, I don’t think it’ll hurt them that much against the Nets because Williams is an interior guy and the Nets are a perimeter team. I don’t think the Williams injury will be the Celtics’ demise. But that doesn’t mean I think they’ll win this series. It’s a whole different ballgame in the playoffs. I know the Celtics, young as Tatum and Brown may be, have had a lot of experience thus far in their careers, but this is KD and Kyrie we’re talking about. They have been here before plenty of times–this is when the season really begins for them. Now, of course the Nets have almost no depth and they’re pretty abysmal on defense, especially with Kyrie on the floor (he has a Defensive Rating of 114 this season). But when I get down to it, and it’s time to make my pick in this series, it’s hard for me to make any pick that results in a Celtics win. Celtics in 4? No way. Celtics in 5? Come one, KD and Kyrie will win more than one game in this series. Celtics in 6? Eh, maybe, but I don’t think so. The only thing I can really see is potentially Celtics in 7, but then again, would you bet against KD and Kyrie in a game 7 against this Boston team? I don’t think I would. I’m going to go Nets in 7 here. I think this will be a great series.

3. Bucks vs. 6 Bulls: This is an easy one. The Bucks are going to steamroll here. I respect that the Bulls have turned things around and are now a respectable team once again, but they’re about to run into a juggernaut. They say on a clear day you can see Milwaukee from the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago, as Milwaukee and Chicago are only 81 miles apart as the crow flies. I don’t know if this is actually true, and in fact the more I think about it the less I believe it, but the point is these are very close cities. I wish this was more of a rivalry, honestly. Chicago vs. Milwaukee is only really a rivalry in baseball, but even then, the Cardinals are bigger rivals for the Cubs. This will not be a series, though. Bucks in 4.

4. 76ers vs. 5. Raptors: I see a lot of people taking the Raptors to win this series. I get it; Harden looks cooked and he’s been putting up “Concert Tour Dates” shooting numbers (e.g. 4/17, 12/28, 7/20, etc.) as of late. We all know Embiid is going to get hurt at some point in the playoffs, and even if he doesn’t, there’s questions about whether he has the stamina for a full four-round playoff marathon. Doc Rivers is a known choke artist going up against Nick Nurse, one of the best coaches in the league. Matisse Thybulle (third-highest DBPM in the league this year) won’t be able to play in games in Toronto because of the vaccine rules in Canada. And, on top of all this, they had the second-highest Free Throw rate in the NBA during the regular season (behind only Orlando) at 28.4%, and refs generally swallow the whistle come playoff time which makes it harder for teams that rely on shooting a lot of free throws to replicate their success. I get it. I understand why people are fading Philly. I would love to see them lose, too. I just don’t like James Harden personally. I like Embiid, but I personally want to see Philly lose. But I just don’t think Toronto has the star power to win this series. I think Siakam is very good and highly underrated, as is Fred VanVleet, but I think Philly will be able to get just enough out of their stars to win this series in 6. Also, I’m too chicken to pick Toronto even though I really want to do it. That’s really what it is.

So in the West, I’ve got (1) Phoenix, (7) Minnesota, (3) Golden State and (5) Utah advancing.

In the East, I have (1) Miami, (7) Brooklyn, (3) Milwaukee and (4) Philly.

In the next round, we have the 1 vs. 8 winner against the 4 vs. 5 winner, and the 2 vs. 7 winner against the 3 vs. 6 winner. So that would give us, in the West:

(1) Suns vs. (5) Jazz

(3) Golden State vs. (7) Minnesota

I’m going to take the Suns to win easily against the Jazz.

As for the Minnesota/Golden State series, I think that one will actually be interesting. For some reason I think Minnesota will win that series. I feel like an idiot picking Minnesota to get to the Western Conference Finals, but whatever. D’Angelo Russell revenge series!

And in the East:

(1) Miami vs. (4) Philly

(3) Milwaukee vs. (7) Brooklyn

As much as I hate the pick, I’m actually going to take the 76ers to beat Miami in the second round. I will take Milwaukee to beat the Nets, probably in 6-7 games.

So this sets us up with conference finals of:

Phoenix vs. Minnesota

Milwaukee vs. Philly

Milwaukee will take care of Philly, and I think the scrappy T-Wolves’ cinderella run ends with Phoenix.

We then get a Finals rematch of Milwaukee vs. Phoenix.

I’m going to take Milwaukee to do it again. Like I said earlier, as great as Phoenix is, they don’t have an elite, A+ level superstar. Milwaukee does. The Greek Freak is the difference. He collects his second ring, second Finals MVP, and starts to creep into that top-20 or arguably even top-15 discussion in the all-time player rankings.

Are these predictions sure to go wrong? Absolutely!

But I went with my gut feeling on every pick. I didn’t overthink anything; I just sized up the matchups and whatever my inner voice was telling me, that’s what I picked.

Now, I do think there’s a chance the Suns could beat the Bucks in the Finals. As I said earlier, they’re on a mission. But they didn’t have an answer for Giannis last year, and I don’t think they have one this year.

I also think the Suns are a risky pick to make the Finals given the near certainty of a Chris Paul injury at some point during these playoffs. That’s why I think the West is very wide open.

Regardless, I can’t wait for the playoffs to start.

I have no idea which playoff series will turn out to be the Totally Insane All-Time Classic, but if I had to guess I would say it’ll be the Celtics vs. Nets first round series. It’s the only one I picked to go 7, and I think it’ll be a lot of fun.

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