Sizing Up the 2023 NBA Playoff Field

Okay, the play-in round starts tomorrow night and then the playoffs begin on Saturday. We are in it now, folks. The NBA playoffs are my favorite of any sport.

The NFL playoffs are just too short, too fleeting. There are only actually 13 NFL playoff games each year. It’s like once you hit Divisional Round, there’s only a few more games left and that’s it.

I like the College Football playoff a lot, but again, there’s only 3 games. I can’t wait for the expanded playoff, but that’s still nearly two years out.

College basketball, I’m losing interest more and more every year. I just don’t know the players. It’s not interesting to me. All the upsets this year were actually terrible–I don’t think I’ve ever cared less about an NCAA tournament in my life, which is kind of sad because I used to live for March Madness when I was younger. What really hurts the sport is that the top two picks in the draft next year–Wemby and Scoot Henderson–didn’t play college basketball. It was hard for me to get interested in college basketball when the best players weren’t even playing college basketball.

The NBA playoffs are the best, though. We are now strapping in for a ride that will take us into mid/late June when it’s all finished, and that’s just glorious to think about. Every sport calls their playoffs the “postseason,” but in the NBA, it really is a whole new season. The regular season is a marathon, and the playoffs themselves are a marathon.

Nothing better, man. Nothing better.

Before the play-in games, I want to size up all the teams and just give my initial thoughts, and then later in the week I’ll give my predictions.

Likely Lose in Play-In

Thunder: They’re a surprise, they’re young, they’re ahead of schedule, and it would be something else if they actually had Chet Holmgren this year. But they are not ready for the postseason. Their average age this season is 22.8, second youngest in the league behind Houston (22.2). But the NBA is a league dominated by veteran players and veteran teams. The average age of an NBA championship team dating back to the merger in 1976 is 28.3. The youngest-ever? The 1977 Blazers at 24.5, but they were an extreme outlier, because the second-youngest is the 1980 Lakers at 26.2. The only team to average under 27 years old since 2000? The 2015 Warriors at 26.6. The good news is the young Thunder are already way ahead of schedule. The bad news is that they are likely still 4-6 years away from truly contending.

Pelicans: When is Zion coming back? Is he coming back at all? If he comes back for the play-in, will he be at his best? Doubtful but you never know. The Pelicans have actually managed to stay more than afloat over these past few weeks even when people predicted they’d fall off hard. It helps that most of the teams they played were sitting their best players and/or tanking. Still, I just don’t think have the experience to beat the real veteran teams out there. I tried to set the tone early with my paragraph about the Thunder: I discriminate heavily against younger, inexperienced teams when it comes to the NBA playoffs. The Pels have an average age of 25.8, which is middle of the road in the league, but the reason I doubt them is more because I can’t trust Zion than anything else.

Raptors: Toronto has some solid pieces–Siakam, FVV, OG, Barnes, Poeltl–but it feels like their head coach Nick Nurse already has one foot out the door, talking about how he’s going to take some time off after the season to reevaluate things. Huh? Your team is about to qualify for the play-in tournament, and you’re acting like the season is over. Strange look. I think the Raptors could certainly win their play-in game just because they have talent, but it feels like their coach is already checked out. I’ll never cast my lot behind a team like that.

Bulls: The Bulls are another team that could certainly advance past the play-in game. They have some nice pieces, although they don’t really fit together all that well. I just don’t know what this Bulls team’s identity is, you know? I think it’s been a challenge for Billy Donovan to get them to mesh, and most Bulls fans want the front office to blow it up and start over. They’re another team like Toronto that feels like they want to move on to the offseason and perhaps start over, but because of the play-in tournament, they’re still alive. It’s kind of strange. I think I like the play-in tournament, but I also feel like there are teams that make it every year that really weren’t planning on making a postseason run and really have no business playing in the postseason, like for instance, the Spurs last year at 34-48 made the play in, and it just felt like the league was making them do an encore performance when nobody–including the Spurs themselves–wanted them to do it. You have 20 teams now qualifying for the postseason in a 30 team league, it feels like a bit too much for me. I think the play in should probably just be a one-game single elimination game between the 8 seed and the 9 seed. 10 teams per conference is too much.

Likely One and Dones

Nets: They’re hoarding all the 3&D wings. Mikal Bridges is averaging–get ready for it–27.6 points per game since being traded to the Nets. Is he a legitimate star player? We already know he’s an elite wing defender, and the Nets turned down 4 first round picks, I believe, from the Grizzlies for him. I think Bridges could possibly be a legitimate second star in this league. He shoots 40% from three. Could he be maybe a skinnier Jaylen Brown? Is he that good? Remains to be seen, but this Brooklyn team just doesn’t have the star power to advance in the playoffs. It will be funny, though, if they make it further than both KD and Kyrie’s teams. Kyrie’s Mavs missed the play-in altogether, while I think there’s a very real chance KD’s Suns lose in the first round. If the Suns get either the Warriors or the Lakers in round 1, I’m picking the Suns to lose without hesitation. The Nets have a tall order with Philly. I don’t think the Nets can beat Philly, in fact I think Philly probably wins in 5. But we do know that Embiid and Harden are both pretty injury prone stars. If the Nets somehow win and make it further than both KD and Kyrie’s teams, it would be hilarious.

Knicks: Classic Thibs team– try harder than everyone else in the regular season but run into a wall in the playoffs because you lack that extra gear and you’ve probably tired yourself out already. It will be an interesting playoff series against the Cavaliers just because of the Donovan Mitchell aspect, but I think the Cavs are just a better team. I trust Donovan Mitchell way more in the playoffs than I do Julius Randle, however, the Knicks are 3-1 against the Cavs this season, and the Cavs haven’t won since the very start of the season on October 30. The Knicks have won the past 3 games in the series by an average of 12.3 points a game. Does that sway me? Maybe a little, but the playoffs are a different animal.

Kings: Hey, it was a nice season. You lit the beam plenty of times, you ended a playoff drought that went all the way back to 2006–the longest active drought in professional sports–and you were one of the funnest, most likeable teams in the league this year. But you don’t play defense, you don’t have a true elite superstar, you’re one of the youngest teams in the league. (average age: 25.4), you have no playoff experience, and you simply aren’t built to go far in the playoffs. However, I will just say this: the Kings have the best road record in the West this year, and are close to having the best road record in the whole league (only the Bucks are better). If they get Golden State, and they can steal a game on the road, we know Golden State is horrible on the road themselves, so that could be an interesting series. I’d still choose Golden State in 6, but Sacramento’s strong road record gives me some hesitation.

Hawks: What a bizarre situation in Atlanta. I’ve never seen a team change coaches mid-season. I’ve seen a team fire a coach midseason and promote a guy to interim head coach from within (in fact the Cavs did it when the won the Title in 2016; David Blatt got fired and Ty Lue was promoted). But the Hawks fired Nate McMillan and hired Quin Snyder, who was was completely outside the Hawks organization. I’m going to be honest, I don’t really pay attention to the Hawks, so I don’t know much about this team. But it feels like Trae Young’s star is fading a bit and he’s kind of on the outs in Atlanta. Yes, he’s had to share the ball with Dejounte this year, but I don’t think they’ve had any major injuries or any real roster turnover, and they’re still barely .500 on the year. I don’t see them going anywhere. I think they should get through the play-in tourney, but that’s about their ceiling. They’re about to prove 2021 was a fluke.

Wolves: I do think after they lose to the Lakers, the Wolves will beat either the Pelicans or the Thunder in the second play-in round (technically the third game). But that’s it. Without Jaden McDaniels, their best defender, they are in serious trouble. And now it looks like Rudy Gobert is an outcast on the team and they’ve got major chemistry issues. If they get out of the play-in to match up with the Nuggets, I think they’re going down, although they do, on paper, have the horses to compete with Denver. But not having McDaniels to defend against Murray and Porter, absolute disaster.

Clippers: This depends a lot of Paul George coming back from that knee injury, but here’s the thing: they have Russell Westbrook, and Russell Westbrook does not play winning basketball. You cannot win a Championship with Westbrook as your 1, your 2, or even your 3. He will prove to be a massive liability in the playoffs.

Now it looks like Paul George might be able to come back midway through the first round series against Phoneix, although that depends on how long the series actually goes, and you don’t know what sort of health level George will be at when he does come back. I’m assuming if they’re down 2-0 and in serious trouble, he’s going to rush back, which is a recipe for disaster.

But here’s the thing: the Clippers fucked up royally. Their goal going into the last game of the regular season should have been to avoid the #5 seed, at all costs. You cannot play Phoenix without Paul George. You just can’t get yourself into that situation. Their entire goal in that game against, coincidentally, Phoenix, should have been to simply buy Paul George some time to come back. In other words, get the #6 seed. They should have been monitoring the scores of the Warriors and Pelicans games, and once they got to halftime, whipped out their phones and saw the Warriors were up 84-53 on Portland at halftime (not a typo), then Ty Lue should’ve said, “That’s it, Kawhi you’re done for the day, all the starters are done for the day, we’re packing it in here and letting Golden State get the 5 seed.”

It’s not that the Clippers should be trying to duck Phoenix. It’s that they should be trying to avoid the scary teams–Phoenix, Golden State, Lakers–until Paul George gets back.

Plus, forcing Golden State into the #5 spot to play Phoenix is just good strategy. If you are the Clippers, you probably feel like those two teams are your biggest threats in the West, right? Maybe the Lakers, too, but you’ve beaten them 11 times in a row, so you probably like your chances against them.

The Clippers had the power to ensure one of Phoenix or Golden State got eliminated in the first round, and the Clippers let them both off the hook. Now you have to beat Phoenix, and then if you somehow manage that, Golden State will still be lurking out there (probably).

It’s not bitch-made to duck Phoenix when you’re missing your second best player and you’re trying to buy time for him to come back in a couple of weeks. Ty Lue, you fucked up big time, buddy.

Might Win a Series or Two

76ers: Embiid should hang on to win MVP. I doubt he stays healthy in the playoffs because history tells us he probably won’t. James Harden is not a playoff performer. Philly has been arguably the best team in the league over the past 50 games or so, but does anybody really feel good about their chances in the playoffs? Come on, man. We all know it’s going to be the same old song and dance with this team. It would be cool to be proven wrong, and by no means do I think Boston and Milwaukee are unbeatable. I just have zero faith in Embiid’s ability to stay healthy for a playoff run. Zero.

Nuggets: I actually like the Denver trio of Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr., but I just think there are better teams in the West and that the Nuggets really don’t stand much of a chance against any of them. If they play the Lakers, AD is going to feast on Jokic. Denver could beat the Warriors, but I don’t think they will do it 4 times in 7 games. Phoenix is probably the team Denver has the best chance at beating, but I also don’t know if they will be able to do anything to prevent KD and Booker from going crazy all series.

Suns: Somehow this team is favored to win the West. Yet again, people overrating Kevin Durant. I swear, people will never stop buying into KD as a top-3 player in the league no matter how many times he fails to live up to the billing. The guy is soft to his core, has never won anything outside of Golden State, and is now more injury prone than ever. Chris Paul is old, Devin Booker is a front-runner, and Deandre Ayton is a Chris Paul Merchant–he can’t score unless Chris Paul is setting him up every time. This team has very little depth, and they don’t have the physicality it takes to win in the playoffs. They do not have bangers and toughness at all. They are a finesse team, and I think if and when they match up with either the Warriors or the Lakers, they’ll lose.

Look, the Suns are a jump shooting team. You think they have interior scoring but they honestly don’t, Ayton is heavily dependent on lobs. He’s not going to pound it down low. Chris Paul is going to run out of gas like he always does in the playoffs. KD does not have that ability to apply rim pressure anymore–that’s why he’s become the best midrange jump shooter in the league, because he had to. KD is primarily a shooter now. I do not see a jump shooting team winning a championship. This Phoenix team is going to get pushed around, I’m telling you.

Cavs: They’ve got the best net rating in the league this year, but does it really feel like they can make it to the conference finals? I’m not buying it. And I probably shouldn’t because after all, they’re in 4th place in the West.

Heat: They’ve been flying under the radar all season, but we know they turn it up in the playoffs. They’ve got experience, they give effort on defense, and Playoff Jimmy is a real dude–he steps his game up a whole level once the playoffs start.

Grizzlies: People are high on them, but you are not winning a Championship with Ja Morant as your best player. He’s just way too immature. I do like Jaren Jackson’s physicality and defense, and he’s become a majorly important player for them. But I just think this team’s offense will bog down in the playoffs and they don’t have the star power to make a run. Ja is a massively overrated player.

Legitimate Title Contenders

Celtics: I wavered a bit on putting them into this category. For one, they are only team in this top tier that hasn’t won a Championship in the past few seasons. Second, while Tatum and Brown are great players, I don’t think they’re quite on the level of the superstars the other teams in this tier have (Steph, LeBron, AD, Giannis). Third, while Joe Mazzula has done a nice job taking over on short notice for Ime Udoka, I don’t think he’s quite as good a coach as Ime was. The first half of the month of March was pretty rough for Boston, as they went 5-6 from February 27 to March 21, but they seem to be back on track now. I am not confident enough to pick them to win the whole thing, but I am pretty confident they are one of the two best teams in the East. The one thing that gives me major pause with them, though, is the Jaylen Brown situation. Why are all these rumors now floating around about how he’s unhappy there? It seems like he’s got designs on leaving, and this is not a good thing to have surrounding your team going into the playoffs.

Warriors: After missing 21 games, Andrew Wiggins is finally coming back. The Warriors don’t feel like their normal scary selves, and it’s probably because they were an abysmal 11-30 on the road this season. That’s obviously a big issue for the playoffs, as if the trend continues it basically means if they drop a home game in a series they’re done for. But Steph is healthy, Klay Thompson leads the league in made threes with 290 this year (Steph is in 3rd with 259, albeit in 14 fewer games than Klay; and for good measure, Jordan Poole is 11th with 205), they’ve got Draymond, they’ve got Wiggins, they’ve got Looney, they’ve got Kuminga, Divincenzo is sneaky good, Gary Payton II is back–they’re legitimately 8 deep. They have the Championship pedigree, they have the best coach in the NBA (although Warriors fans have raged about him at times this year for the small lineups), they have arguably the best home court advantage in the league. In my view, there is no team in the league that–whether they’d admit it or not–would feel an abundance of confidence going into a playoff series against Golden State. Now, I’ve always been critical of Jordan Poole, and I think he’s too inconsistent to trust in the playoffs, but he will absolutely win them a game or two in a series when he goes off. The West is much tougher this year than it was last year, but the Warriors are absolutely still capable of winning it.

Lakers: I can’t believe I’m saying this after the 2-10 start, the disaster that was the first 60% of the season, and the fact that there was almost a full-blown mutiny in the fanbase against Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss (and I was fully on board with those frustrations). But the Lakers are probably the scariest team in the West, if not the whole league. Because the Bucks have Giannis, and Giannis is scary, but the Lakers have LeBron and AD. Two scary players is scarier than one. The only thing that could derail them is health, and that’s a real concern. AD, I’m holding my breath every time he falls to the ground. And LeBron is 38, I think he ruptured a tendon in his foot and somehow came back after 4 weeks–he doesn’t look like the player he was before the injury (i.e. how he was playing after turning 38, when he was averaging 34-9-8 on 52% shooting). I am not sure if LeBron is ever going to get back to 100% this season, people are saying he will probably have surgery on his foot in the offseason.

But if the Lakers stay healthy their ceiling is winning the Championship. That is a BIG if, and I probably won’t pick them to win the Championship just because I have so little faith in their ability to stay healthy. However, they are stupidly deep now, their chemistry is coming together, and they have a ton of size and physicality. The reason I might like them to come out of the West is because the only team that could even hope to match their size and physicality is Memphis, but the Lakers are far better offensively than Memphis is. If healthy, the Lakers bully everyone in the West. I do wonder about their playoff rotation, though, as this group has only been together about 2 months.

Bucks: The reason I like the Lakers so much is their size and physicality, right? Well, the Bucks might be the one team out there that has them beat. They legitimately go 9-deep, and they might have 3 of the 5 players on the All Defensive First team: Giannis, Brook Lopez (league leader in blocked shots), and Jrue Holiday. Jevon Carter and Grayson Allen were cast-offs elsewhere, now they’re playing important roles in Milwaukee. Bobby Portis provides size and physicality off the bench. Am I a bit concerned that they lost by 41 to Boston the other night? Sure. But I don’t think anybody wants to play this team in a 7 game series, East or West. Of all the superstars on top teams in the East–Giannis, Embiid, Tatum, Donovan Mitchell–I trust Giannis the most by far. Khris Middleton has only played 32 games this year, and basically missed all but 7 games up until mid/late January, but he had 34 the other night and seems to be rounding into form in time for the playoffs. Milwaukee has a beastly starting 5 with Giannis, Jrue, Middleton, Lopez and Grayson Allen. It’s going to be very hard for anyone to go toe-to-toe with them in a 7 game series.

I love teams that are big, old (in the veteran sense, not like the 2022 Lakers old), experienced, can rebound, can defend, are physical and can bully you. This is what wins in the NBA playoffs: toughness, size, rim protection. Back in the mid/late 2000s, when Steve Nash was winning MVPs and the Suns were the greatest offense since the Showtime Lakers, guess who beat them every year in the playoffs? The Spurs. The Spurs with their size and rebounding and veteran experience and toughness and physicality. That’s what wins in the NBA playoffs.

The reason I’m so dismissive of the Suns this year is because they are the opposite of the Bucks. They don’t have that toughness, that physicality, that size. They’re not a bullying team; they’re a pull-up jump shooting team. Their front line isn’t scaring anybody.

Regarding the Dallas Mavericks…

Okay, they traded for Kyrie Irving and wound up missing the play-in tournament altogether. People are saying it’s this huge disaster, biggest bag fumble ever, etc.

It is true that since they traded for Kyrie on February 5, they have compiled a record of just 10-17, and they are 8-12 with Kyrie in the lineup this year. On the day of the trade, Dallas was the 6th seed in the West prior to the trade, now they are 38-43 and eliminated from playoff contention altogether.

But it ain’t like they were doing much before the Kyrie trade! They were 28-26, they didn’t have Jalen Brunson anymore–they were barely treading water.

It’s not like Dallas was about to go on some special playoff run this year prior to the Kyrie trade. They were a middling team in a highly competitive Western Conference–a Western Conference that is much more competitive now than it was last year when Dallas made a surprise run to the Conference Finals.

Last year, the Lakers were horrible and missed the playoffs. The Suns, who the Mavericks famously upset in the second round, now have Kevin Durant. The Nuggets now have Murray and Porter back and fully healthy, and are the #1 seed. Sacramento is good now. The Clippers have Kawhi back.

Between the Lakers, Nuggets, Kings and Clippers, that’s four teams that were not in Dallas’s way last year that would now be in their way this year. And again, Dallas had Jalen Brunson last year.

Dallas was going nowhere even before the Kyrie trade.

The West is a lot tougher this year than it was last year. It’s just a fact. Maybe Luka would’ve averaged a 34 point triple double in the first round and they would’ve upset somebody, but this year, losing in the second round was their ceiling.

They made the Kyrie trade to see if it could elevate them into contender status. It was kind of a gamble since they were losing some good defenders, particularly Dorian Finney-Smith. But in theory adding a second star player would raise the team’s ceiling above where it was pre-trade–in other words, adding Kyrie was the only way the Mavs would actually have a chance to make a real run.

It didn’t work out for them this year, but if they are able to retain Kyrie and make some upgrades to the roster in the offseason, they are in a much better position to contend in the West going forward.

Mark Cuban and Nico Harrison (the GM) had to show Luka that they were capable of surrounding him with legit help, or else they were going to lose him. They still might lose him as early as next summer, and people are rumbling about Luka eventually ending up in Miami.

But they were going to lose him without a Kyrie trade, too.

So I think Dallas kind of had to make this move for Kyrie. They were in a bad spot, they were going nowhere fast, and trading for Kyrie at least gives them the ability to say to Luka, “Look, we are trying.”

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