Okay, I know I’m a little late with this as we are through Game 1 in every playoff series (I am typing this up in the middle of the Minnesota/Denver Game 1). So I’m going to cheat a little bit, but also, I made this bracket before the playoffs started and so these are my official picks, although I already am starting to regret some of them:
So I’ll just go through each series one by one and either explain why I made the pick I did, or explain why I am already starting to regret my pick.
Here’s my brief summaries of each series:
Western Conference First Round
- Wovles in 7 over Denver: I just think Gobert and Towns are too much for Jokic, Ant Man can matchup with Murray, and Kyle Anderson should be able to hold his own against Porter. Mike Conley is a really solid veteran point guard. Minnesota is underrated, man.
- Suns in 6 over the Clippers: I picked this exclusively because Paul George is out. No other reason. I still think the Clippers will give Phoenix a real run for their money. Now, after Game 1, I think the Clippers have a real chance to not only win this series, but get to the conference finals. The Clippers may just be the biggest threats to the Lakers in the West. Phoenix is just a team with zero grit, and that’s why I have concerns about them.
- Warriors in 7 over Kings: I still think Golden State wins this series, even after losing game 1, but they have no real answer for DeAaron Fox. The good news for Golden State is that they came close to winning that game on the road, and that was my biggest concern about them: they are 1-20 against winning teams on the road this year according to Nick Wright. Sacramento has the best road record in the Western Conference, and if they can hold down home court and steal a game in Golden State, Sacramento wins the series. But I just think the experience of Golden State is too much.
- Lakers in 6 over Grizzlies: Lakers have the two best players in this series, Ja Morant is overrated, immature and not a winning player, and this Grizzlies team just doesn’t have the interior size to deal with the Lakers. If Ja Morant is really hurt, then the Lakers may sweep this one out, or win in 5.
Eastern Conference First Round
- Bucks in 5 over Heat: This one might be in jeopardy. Miami was winning the game pretty much the whole way even when Giannis went down and held on for the game 1 win. I think Milwaukee is the better team, but what concerns me is that Giannis went to the locker room and was quickly ruled out for the rest of the game with a lower back contusion. If he is not 100% in this series, Milwaukee is at risk of losing. The Heat are not a team you can just sleep on, although they are limited on offense. I am going to say Bucks probably win this in 6, but it’s shaky now.
- Cavs in 7 over Knicks: I think the Knicks might win this series actually, after seeing Game 1. Cleveland’s backcourt is just small with Mitchell and Garland, and they don’t defend well. I think Knicks might bully them and win this series. Cleveland needs more toughness. Then again, I did say the series would go 7, so they have plenty of time to bounce back. I’m not sure they will, though.
- Sixers in 5 over Nets: The Nets just don’t have enough to deal with Philly. Philly might actually sweep this one.
- Celtics in 5 over Hawks: Boston is just too much for Atlanta. That was evident in Game 1. Atlanta might get one game in the series, though.
- Wolves in 6 over Suns: I’m assuming that if the Timberwolves get out of the first round, they might get Jaden McDaniels back for the second round, which would be great for them against a team like Phoenix. I just think Minnesota has more depth and size and toughness than Phoenix. Again, Phoenix has zero grit and you need grit in the postseason.
- Lakers in 7 over Warriors: This might be the best series of the whole playoffs. I see the Lakers as the better team with more length and size, as well as physicality. And I’m just not going to bet against LeBron and AD, even against Steph.
- Bucks in 6 over Cavs: I think the Cavs would get bullied in this series. But now I’m not even sure either team will advance.
- Celtics in 7 over 76ers: This, along with LA vs. Golden State, will be the marquee series of the playoffs. I picked Boston because I don’t trust Philly to stay healthy.
- Lakers in 5 over Timberwolves: Too much experience, too much size, and just like in almost every matchup they’re going to play outside of the Warriors series, the Lakers will have the two best players in the series.
- Bucks in 7 over Celtics: Okay, no. I actually lied. This will be the best series of the playoffs. This one will go 7 and be a true heavyweight bout. To me, it’s dead even, but I’m giving the edge to the team with the best player in the series and the team with home court advantage.
2023 NBA Finals
- Lakers in 6 over Bucks: The Lakers have two elite players, the Bucks have one. Both teams are deep, both teams are big, both teams are long, physical, tough, veteran, experienced and have Championship pedigree. But I think the Lakers have more overall athleticism, and more bodies that they can throw at Giannis. Khris Middleton isn’t the player he once was, Anthony Davis is arguably the only player in the NBA that can go toe-to-toe with Giannis. And here’s another thing: the Lakers have a lot of young guys while the Bucks are the oldest team in the league. I think the Lakers as a team might just have more stamina and fresher legs than the Bucks by the time the Finals roll around. Dead legs in the Finals is a real thing, although in fairness, the younger Celtics were the team that looked like they ran out of gas last year, not the older Warriors. The Bucks are the only team in the East that I think could beat the Lakers in a 7-game series, but ultimately I just trust LeBron and AD more than I trust Giannis. The Giannis vs. AD “Who can brick more crunch time free throws” contest in this series will be legendary for all the wrong reasons.
The Nuggets are one of the weakest #1 seeds in recent playoff history, and I can prove it with quantifiable numbers. It’s actually a fact.
Denver finished 53-29. This is the worst record for a Western Conference #1 seed since… well, since 2021, when the Jazz went 52-20 and were first in the West. But that was a 72 game season, and this was an 82 game season. Utah’s 72.2% win rate in 2021 put them squarely ahead of this year’s Denver team and their 64.6% win rate. The Lakers in the Covid-shortened 2020 season were 52-19 in the regular season en route to the #1 seed, a 73.2% win rate.
But for teams that played 82 game seasons–in other words, outside of shortened seasons 2021, 2020, 2012 and 1999–when is the last time the #1 seed in the West had just a 53-29 record, or worse?
Well, you have to go back a long ways. In 1984, the Showtime Lakes had the best record in the West at 54-28, still a game better than Denver this year. Finally we get to 1979, when the Seattle SuperSonics secured the #1 seed in the West with just a 52-30 record. And then in 1977, the pre-Showtime Kareem Lakers did it at 53-29. In 1975, the Golden State Warriors did it with just a 48-34 record.
You get back far enough to 1970, and they didn’t even have conferences; it was just two divisions, but they were all kind of jumbled up. For example, in 1970, the team that finished first in the Western Division was… the Atlanta Hawks with a 48-34 record. Guess who was second place? The Los Angeles Lakers! So 1970 was as far back as I went.
And this year’s Nuggets team is tied for the third-worst record to ever clinch the #1 seed in the Western Conference dating back to 1970, excluding the shortened seasons. But even those four shortened seasons–2021, 2020, 2012, 1999–the teams that finished with the #1 seed in the West all posted a higher winning percentage than this year’s Nuggets team.
And another thing: in most years, going 53-29 isn’t even good enough to guarantee you the #2 seed, either. Last year the Warriors went 53-29 and they were the #3 seed. But most of the time, there is at least a one 60-win team out there, and then a couple in the 56-58 win range, and thus 53-29 usually gets you the 4th or 5th spot.
Now, it must be said that last year, in the Eastern Conference, the Heat were the #1 seed with a 53-29 record, and they made it all the way to the final minute of Game 7 of the Conference Finals.
But I also think the Western Conference this year is tougher than the East was last year. Denver is going to have to beat some tough teams just to make it to the Finals, and then the question becomes, are they even capable of beating a Milwaukee, or a Boston, or a Philly in the Finals? I don’t think so.
Continuing off of this point about Denver being a historically weak #1 seed in the Western conference, it also follows that the seeds below Denver are weaker than usual. Memphis, as the #2 seed, only won 51 games. That usually earns you a seed in the 4-6 range, but this year in the West, it was good for #2. So Memphis is not a scary #2 seed. 51 wins in the East would get you the 4 seed (the Cavs were 51-31).
Just last year, Memphis got the #2 seed as well. But they were 56-26 last year, and 51-31 this year.
The #3 seed Kings were just 48-34. It wasn’t that long ago when 48 wins in the West barely even got you into the playoffs. In 2019, the West’s 7th and 8th seeds were both 48-34.
In the 2015 season, all 8 Western Conference playoff teams won 50 games or more!
Here’s another interesting fact about this season: 2023 was the first NBA season since 2001 in which there was no team in the league–East or West–that won 60 games or more.
Obviously we are excluding the shortened seasons (2021, 2020, 2012, 1999), but if we go by win percentage, it still holds true in three of the four shortened seasons. A 60-22 record comes out to a 73.2% win rate. In the four shortened seasons since 1980, the team(s) with the best record in the league had a win rate above 73.2% 3 of the 4 times: the Bucks in 2020 went 56-17 (76.7% win rate), the Bulls and Spurs in 2012 both went 50-16 (75.8% win rate), and the Spurs and Jazz in 1999 both went 37-13 (74% win rate). Only the 2021 Jazz, who went 52-20, had lower than a 73.2% win rate. 52-20 comes out to a 72.2% win rate, which would’ve put them on pace for a 59-23 record in an 82-game season. Close enough.
2023 and 2001 are the only NBA seasons since 1980 where no team in the league won 60 or more games.
You can say it’s parity, or you can say it’s a product of the fact that there are simply no great teams in today’s league. I think it may be a combination of both–no great teams as a result of parity.
The parity in the league is more skewed to the Western Conference side, for sure. But then we can get into the angle of injuries having a lot to do with the parity. LeBron missed 27 games this year for the Lakers–he and AD actually only played 36 games together total this season. Steph Curry missed 26 games this year, Andrew Wiggins has missed 45 games this year–you think those guys missing so much time has something to do with the reason the Warriors were just 44-38 on the year?
KD got traded in the middle of the season, so the Suns were a completely different team for most of the year. And KD has only played 8 games for Phoenix this year due to injuries.
Between trades vastly overhauling the rosters of teams like the Lakers and Suns, and the injuries that a lot of these teams in the West have had to overcome this season, it certainly had a lot to do with the way the standings shook out the way they did.
So I’m just going to say it now: I will have no hesitation picking upsets this year. Normally in the NBA playoffs, the strategy is to go chalk. But this year, particularly in the West, that’s out the window.
This is why I have no issues picking the Lakers to beat them. Memphis just isn’t a particularly scary team. The Lakers are a better team than they are. The Lakers have the two best players in the series, and now it’s even more lopsided with Ja Morant having what appeared to be a broken or at least sprained wrist.
This is why I picked the Timberwolves to beat the Nuggets. I just think Rudy Gobert and Karl Anthony Towns will be too much for Jokic to handle. Anthony Edwards can go toe-to-toe with Jamal Murray, and Kyle Anderson at 6’9″ should be able to hold up against Michael Porter Jr. decently well.
I would like Minnesota a lot more if they had Jaden McDaniels, and the reason I have them going to the conference finals is because I’m assuming he’ll be back for the second round.
(Currently as I type this, Denver is up 83-58 on Minnesota and Kyle Anderson just tried to fight Christian Braun, so maybe this pick of mine wasn’t the smartest! But hey, I’m going to stick with Minnesota. 7 game series, people!)
I am fading the Phoenix Suns. In my bracket that I made before the playoffs started, I had the Suns winning this series against the Clippers in 6, and then losing to Minnesota in the second round. But now I think the Clippers are more likely than not to eliminate the Suns in round one.
Jump shooting teams don’t win in the playoffs. Phoenix is a jump-shooting, finesse team. They don’t have rim protection.
And Kevin Durant-led teams don’t win in the playoffs. That’s the big thing here.
I have been trying to tell y’all this for years–other than his time in Golden State, Kevin Durant has no signature playoff moments, he does not rise to the moment, he is afraid to take over games.
KD has GOAT-level offensive talent but the mentality of a role player. The Brooklyn series against Milwaukee in 2021 was the only time in KD’s career where I genuinely felt like he played up to his full potential, but we’ve really only seen that once out of him.
For whatever reason, KD is either unable or unwilling to take over games in crunch time.
We have 8 postseason runs worth of data on Kevin Durant apart from Golden State, and he just has never been that guy.
Quick: excluding the Golden State years which don’t count and the Milwaukee series in 2021, what is Kevin Durant’s greatest postseason moment or run in his career?
You can’t think of anything, can you? Nothing really jumps to mind where KD had an iconic, historic performance that you will always remember. Right?
That’s because he’s simply not that dude. He’s afraid of greatness. He would probably say he just “plays within the flow of the offense,” but in reality he’s afraid to take over because he’s afraid of failure.
This dude would rather sit there and be a bystander down the stretch of playoff games than take over. He would rather watch his team lose a game than actually assert his authority and demand the ball.
If you don’t take over the game and demand the ball down the stretch, then nobody can blame you for missing shots, turning the ball over and failing in the big moment. So KD just doesn’t take over.
This is my theory on him, at least.
He would rather stand in the corner and watch his teammates lose. Just as long as he doesn’t make any bad plays that the media can point to as proof that KD was the reason his team lost.
The reason he was great in Golden State was because he had no fear of failure. He knew that team in 2017 was virtually incapable of losing, so he wasn’t afraid to let it rip. He didn’t have to worry about his missed shots costing his team the game.
The reason he was so great in the Milwaukee series with Brooklyn in 2021 was because Kyrie was out with an injury and Harden was severely limited. He knew the media couldn’t criticize him for losing because of his injured teammates. He wasn’t expected to win, so he had no fear of failure, and just let it rip.
But other than his time in Golden State and that one series against Milwaukee, he has been paralyzed by his fear of failure his whole career.
This is why historically, his teammates with more alpha/assertive personalities clash with him. It’s why Draymond eventually just exploded on him and called him a bitch. It’s why Westbrook would always be trying to take over games in OKC when they were together–because he realized KD wasn’t going to do it and he knew somebody had to try to step up.
In Phoenix’s Game 1 loss against the Clippers, he played 45 minutes and was just 7/15 from the floor. He did have 10 free throw attempts, but he had fewer shot attempts than both Booker and Ayton.
This is the guy the media tells us is the BEST IN THE WORLD?
45 minutes and 15 field goal attempts?
Get the fuck outta here.
This man KD is a fraud who has been propped up and covered-up for by the media for most of his career because of the simple fact that he’s not LeBron. The media loves to call KD the BEST PLAYER ON THE PLANET because they are both tricked by his POTENTIAL, and because if KD is the best player, then that by definition means LeBron isn’t. And there are a lot of LeBron haters in the media.
KD has GOAT-level offensive potential, and a lot of people get fooled by the potential.
People mistake the IDEA of Kevin Durant with the reality. They always predict his teams to win, and they just say, “Well, look at the guy: he’s a 7-foot shooting guard! How can he ever be stopped?!”
And then every year he disappoints them.
They talk about KD like he’s 24 years old and has so much potential.
People, he’s 34 years old. He’s been in the league since 2008.
He’s just not the guy that the media thinks he is, and I can’t believe they don’t realize it.
I wish I would’ve had the stones to pick the Clippers to beat the Suns in round one, because right now it certainly looks like the Clippers are the better team. Kawhi is better than Kevin Durant. He just is.
But I was just worried that not having Paul George would be the Clippers’ undoing.
I don’t think that’s an issue now. I really don’t. Kawhi can lock down on KD during crunch time, and if Russell Westbrook shoots better than 3/19 from the field (which he probably will going forward) the Clippers should win this series. They just have more depth than the Suns do, even without Paul George.
Chris Paul is just not the player he once was. He was 2/8 from the floor for 7 points in game 1.
Booker was 10/19 from the floor for 26 points, so he actually had a pretty decent game. I know he’s got a 40-burger or two in him, but it’s not like he played horrible or anything.
The way it looks now, Phoenix can’t win this series unless KD and Booker go crazy in every game.
But you can’t count on KD to do that when the pressure is on. He simply doesn’t want it.
I said immediately after the 2022 regular season had wrapped up that LeBron needed to get himself traded to the Miami Heat. I thought he needed to go back to Pat Riley because the Lakers were completely incompetent and totally unwilling to commit to building a Championship team.
I’m gonna take the L on that one.
LeBron is in a better situation with the Lakers. Officially.
I watched that Heat-Hawks play-in game on Tuesday, and I was thoroughly unimpressed with the Heat. They looked washed up, and not even a year after being a Jimmy Butler three away from making it to the NBA Finals.
The Heat look like an over-achieving roster. They’ve always kind of been that way since the 2020 season when they made a surprise run to the Finals in the Bubble, but now the deficiencies on that roster are really starting to show.
Miami got out-rebounded 62-39 by Atlanta in that play-in game. Atlanta looked more athletic, more talented, and just physically dominated Miami. This is what often happens to over-achieving teams.
The Heat, in the first round of the playoffs last year, absolutely dominated this Hawks team in a 4-1 series win. But now the Hawks look way better than the Heat.
As a result of this, my faith in the great Pat Riley is a bit shaken. I think he may have lost his touch. And it’s no surprise why: he’s 78 years old! Eventually he’s going to hit a point where’ he’s no longer the best in the business at running a team. That point may be here now.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Pat Riley is an absolute legend of the game, and his name is right there with Red Auerbach, Jerry West and Phil Jackson as one of the greatest coaches, executives, team builders, leaders and basketball minds in the history of the league (although Phil didn’t have anywhere near as much success as an executive).
There is perhaps no other figure in the history of American sports in general that I think more highly of than Red Auerbach, and I place Pat Riley right there next to him, so that should tell you how much respect I have for him. The guy has a championship ring as a player, as an assistant coach, five as a head coach, and 2 as an executive. His nine total Championships at various levels are tied with Jerry West (1 as a player, 8 as an executive), and behind only Phil Jackson (13: 2 as a player, 11 as a coach) and Red Auerbach (16: 9 as a coach, 7 as an executive).
I mean, gosh, the NBA has been around 75 years and those four guys right there–Auerbach, Riley, West and Jackson–combine for 47 of the 75 Championships. Those four guys run or have ran the entire league, basically. Hell, the more I think about it, the more it seems silly for us to be debating which players are the best–it really looks like the players are just pawns on these guys’ chessboards. These guys are and have been the real masterminds behind virtually every great team in the NBA dating back to the 1950s. Basically, everything other than the Spurs dynasty and a few one-off Championships here and there over there years, like the Raptors in 2019, the Cavs in 2016, the Mavs in 2011, the Pistons for their three total championships, the Hakeem Rockets, the 1983 Sixers, a few random teams in the 1970s, which was a strange decade in general.
Other than those few teams, The Big Four have been behind just about every great NBA team since the ’50s: the Celtics from Russell to Cowens to Bird; the Showtime Lakers; the Jordan era Bulls; the Shaq/Kobe and then Kobe/Gasol Lakers of the 2000s; the LeBron/Wade Heat; and yes, even the Golden State Warriors (that was Jerry West–he was with the Warriors in an executive advisory role from 2011-2017, reporting directly to, and only to, team owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber.)
(In an interesting analogy to war, we rarely ever talk about the greatest or most valiant soldiers–other than fallen heroes like Chris Kyle. When it comes to war, we talk almost exclusively about the generals.)
But here’s the thing: Red Auerbach died in 2006. Phil Jackson hasn’t held an official NBA executive title since 2017, although he is on as sort of an unofficial advisor/svengali role with his former fiancee and owner of the Lakers, Jeanie Buss.
Riley is still in charge of the Heat, and West is still on as an executive with the Clippers.
But Riley is 78, West is 84, and Jackson is 77. They’re old men now. We are nearing a point–if we’re not already there–where the Big Three no longer run the league. It’s going to happen sooner or later.
The moment the alarm bells started going off for me was around the trade deadline, when a story surfaced in the Miami Herald that Pat Riley may have been asleep on deadline day, and that’s the reason the Heat didn’t make a trade. They were expected to trade Kyle Lowry to the Clippers, but the trade, for whatever reason, fell through. Obviously the implication is that the old man was snoozing on the job.
Now, in fairness to Riley, the story seems a bit ridiculous on its face. What, Pat Riley didn’t delegate to somebody else before he took a nap? He rules that organization with such an iron fist, and everyone is so terrified of him, that not only did he not task somebody else with working the phones while he caught some Zzz’s, everyone in the organization was too scared of him to actually wake him up and let him know the trade deadline was fast approaching? The story doesn’t really add up, in my view.
There is no way the Heat as an organization would allow this to happen. What, they were all just waiting outside his office as the minutes ticked away? Pressing their ears to the door, straining to hear any signs of the old man stirring from his slumber? Repeatedly glancing at their watches, shooting incredulous looks to each other in silence, shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders, powerless to avert disaster as the deadline drew ever closer, as the old man just kept sawing logs?
Is that how it went down? I seriously doubt it.
And if it did go down that way, that’s on the Heat as an organization for nobody having the balls to either wake him up, or just take the reigns themselves.
But while I’m skeptical of the story, it did make me start to think about whether or not Pat Riley has “still got it” and is still the best in the business. And if he is still the best, how much longer will he truly remain the best? Surely no more than a few years, right? 3-5 at most, I’d guess.
Here’s what really concerns me about the Heat: their roster is, outside of Jimmy Butler, Bam and Tyler Herro, pretty bereft of blue chip talent. The Heat are mostly over-achievers. Max Strus can play, but he was undrafted. Same with Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Haywood Highsmith. Then you’ve got the cast-offs/past their prime guys, like Victor Oladipo, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry.
It’s great to find these diamonds in the rough, these over-achievers, and these cast-offs with chips on their shoulder. But you saw, against Atlanta, the limitations of such a roster. Most of Miami’s players could not compare with Atlanta’s players athletically. Undrafted guys can and often do shock the world and have amazing careers, but at the same time, it’s also true that they were undrafted for a reason. And that reason is usually that they’re undersized or not quite athletic enough.
And even the Heat’s best players are really not quite on that elite level. Jimmy Butler elevates like crazy in the postseason, but I think we’d all agree that he’s a tier below the best of the best players in the league. On top of that, he’ll be 34 in September. Bam Adebayo is incredible on defense, but I think we’re all still waiting for him to take that leap offensively.
Yes, Miami has one of the best coaches in the league in Spo, and they are always going to play tough defense. But over-achievers who are well coached, disciplined and play tough-nosed defense are only going to get you so far in the NBA. The NBA is, always has been, and always will be a star-driven league, and the Heat really don’t have the star power.
And here’s the thing: nobody knows this better than Pat Riley. I’m going to share an excerpt from a book I’m reading, a biography called “LeBron”, written by Jeff Benedict. Benedict recounts LeBron’s first meeting with Pat Riley during his free agency recruitment period in the summer of 2010, just before he joined the Miami Heat. There was one thing that Pat Riley said to LeBron that really sealed the deal:
“…Riley reached into his briefcase, removed a small mesh bag, and placed it on the table.
‘What’s in there?’ LeBron asked.
Riley pushed the bag across the table.
LeBron opened it up and rings spilled out. He picked one up. ‘What are these rings?’ he asked.
Riley explained that they were a collection of his all-star rings, championship rings, and Hall of Fame ring. Over his career as a player and a coach, he had amassed six titles with the Lakers and one with the Heat. Every championship team he’d been a part of, he explained, included one star and two superstars.
LeBron understood what Riley was implying–he and D-Wade were superstars, Bosh was a star, and in Miami, the three of them could play for an organization that was helmed by someone who had won seven championships.
‘It’s essential,’ Riley said. “You’re not going to win a championship just bringing in guys. Cleveland has tried to do everything for you. But they just could not break loose with the players they needed to win a championship.’
To LeBron, Riley stood out from everyone else he had met with. He knew what it took to win championships. He had the jewelry to prove it. And he’d done his homework in terms of how to make room for the salaries to accommodate LeBron, Bosh and Wade. Without a doubt, Miami was the clearest path to a championship.”‘LeBron’ by Jeff Benedict, page 347
Pat Riley won a Championship as a player on the 1972 Lakers, one of the greatest teams of all time with the fabled 33-game winning streak. That team had Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West as its superstars, and Gail Goodrich as its third star.
Riley won 5 Championships as a coach with the Showtime Lakers: Magic and Kareem, Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott.
Obviously Pat Riley knows the formula for winning in the NBA.
But his team right now does not really reflect that. They’ve got maybe one superstar in Butler, and I don’t even know if you can call him a superstar, quite frankly. Again, I think he’s just a notch below.
Pat Riley may have a trick or two up his sleeve this offseason. If the Heat add a true, legitimate superstar, I think they’d become a title contender.
But I’m wondering if Pat Riley has still got it, you know?
And so all this is to say, LeBron is in a better situation with the Lakers. Once Rob Pelinka sprung into action and started furiously making deals at the trade deadline, once Anthony Davis made it clear that last season was an anomaly and he’s still HIM–I think it’s a no-brainer that the Lakers are a better situation for LeBron than the Heat.