For the first time in several years, the odds do not favor a Warriors-Cavs Finals. In fact, the odds probably don’t even favor either team making the NBA Finals. The Rockets appear to be a better (and healthier) team than Golden State, which has limped through this last month. In the East, the familiar axiom that LeBron James is enough to overcome the East’s best regular season may no longer apply.
The Warriors and Rockets are the class of the West by far and their Conference Finals matchup appears inevitable. The Rockets have been better (65-17 versus 58-24) but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the difference is overstated. First, the Rockets have outperformed their point differential (which has them as a 61-21 team). Chris Paul has had some injuries but the Rockets have been relatively healthy. The Warriors, though, have had more injuries (Stephen Curry has been out for most of the last two months and GS finished 7-10 with Quinn Cook manning the point). If healthy, the Warriors have a deeper roster. Of course, Curry is already out for the first round and we don’t know when he will be back. We may be robbed of that dream matchup if Curry can’t ready himself.
In the East, it’s all about LBJ versus the Raptors. Will LeBron finally be knocked off? We go through this each year. James has, so far, been able to overcome bad looking team stats. Here are LeBron’s teams versus its main rivals in the East the last few years:
-2014-15: Cavs 53-29, 4.08 SRS, Hawks 60-22, 4.75 SRS (Cavs beat Hawks 4-0)
-2015-16: Cavs 57-25, 5.45 SRS, Raptors 56-26, 4.08 SRS (Cavs beat Raptors 4-2)
-2016-17: Cavs 51-31, 2.87 SRS, Raptors 51-31, 3.65 SRS, Celtics 53-29, 2.25 SRS (Cavs beat Raptors 4-0, Cavs beat Celtics 4-1)
LeBron has done some great things for Cleveland but the fact is the Cavs haven’t really faced a truly dominant team over that span. The best team during that time was the 2014-15 Hawks and they appeared to be playing a bit over their head. This year there are many teams with better stats on paper than Cleveland:
-2017-18: Cavs 50-32, 0.59 SRS, Raptors 59-23, 7.29 SRS, 76ers 52-30, 4.30 SRS, Celtics 55-27, 3.23 SRS, Pacers 48-34, 1.18 SRS
The Raptors are far better than any other team in the East the last four seasons and the 76ers are as good as any other non-2017-18 Raptors team. The competition in the East looks better and the 2017-18 Cavs are way worse than any of the previous incarnations. This is primarily because Cleveland’s defense has been so bad (29th in the NBA). There is an argument that the Cavs can outperform these bad team numbers: (a) Cleveland traded for some more active players the last few months (Larry Nance Jr. in particular), which should mean the defense has improved and (b) Kevin Love is back.
Having identified the major questions of the playoffs, let’s go on to the specific predictions….
- Raptors v. Wizards: The Wiz are better than an eight seed and have actually played the Raptors pretty tough this year. Still, Toronto is really good and Washington’s limp finish (and internal dissension) is not a good indicator. Prediction: Toronto wins 4-0.
- Celtics v. Bucks: Boston doesn’t have Kyrie Irving and, even if they did, Milwaukee has the best player on either team (and the best player perhaps in the whole Eastern Conference). Without Irving, the Bucks were 9-5 to close the season but that included a loss to the Bucks. The Bucks have Giannis Antetokoumpo and an improved team since Jason Kidd was fired (21-16). The series is pretty much a tossup but, when in doubt, go with the Greek Freak. Prediction: Milwaukee wins 4-2.
- 76ers v. Heat: With or without Joel Embiid, Philly is really good defensively. Miami is pretty good defensively but has trouble scoring (22nd in the NBA). If Philly doesn’t have to worry about being outscored, it’s hard to see how Miami can win. Prediction: Philadelphia wins 4-1.
- Cavaliers v. Pacers: The Pacers aren’t a great match up for Cleveland. The Cavs poor perimeter defense against Victor Oladipo has spelled trouble for Cleveland in the past (Indiana won three out of four games this season). On the other hand, the teams haven’t played since the Cavs big makeover and Indiana is not exactly a dominant team. Outside of Oladipo, the roster is filled with decent vets who played better than expected well (Darren Collison, Thadeus Young). Cleveland could lose this series but LBJ usually just doesn’t lose in the playoffs to teams unless they are much better than Indiana has been this season. Prediction: Cleveland wins 4-3.
- Rockets v. Timberwolves: Minnesota was good enough to be a four seed in the East but what can you do? Prediction: Houston wins 4-1.
- Warriors v. Spurs: A lot of moving parts here. Curry is likely out for the series and Kawhi Leonard probably isn’t playing. The Spurs have retreated to their old defense-first identity and are pretty formidable still. Formidability aside, the Spurs are not good enough to beat even the Curry-less Warriors. GS was 3-1 this season versus the Spurs and the one loss came without any of the GS All-Stars. The Spurs post season is screwed by losing that tiebreaker and not drawing Portland. Prediction: Golden State wins 4-1.
- Trail Blazers v. Pelicans: Portland is a good team but really not much better than the fourth to ninth best teams in the West. The fact that Blazers continue to outperform their apparent talent is a credit to Terry Stotts. The reward for this over-performance is a good match up in New Orleans. As great as Anthony Davis is, New Orleans is very average team. The Pels rate only ninth SRS in the West and have a very weak supporting cast. AD can dominate but the Blazers have enough bodies up front to bother him. Conversely, New Orleans, has an older Rajon Rondo against Dame Lillard. Doesn’t sound good. Prediction: Portland wins 4-1.
- Thunder v. Jazz: The recent controversy about Russell Westbrook being a stat hog is stupid. If other players could do what Russ can, they would. Fact is, no player since Oscar Robertson has even come close. Silly stats arguments aside, OKC has quietly put together a pretty nice season. Utah has put together an even greater season. Without Rudy Gobert, they weathered the storm with the second best defense in the NBA (and a very slow pace factor). OKC took three out of four but the teams haven’t played since December oddly enough. That is a lifetime ago and Utah is very deep. Absent a Westbrook freak out, Utah should take control. Prediction: Utah wins 4-2.
-Toronto beats Cleveland, 4-1
-Philadelphia beats Milwaukee, 4-1
-Houston beats Utah, 4-2
-Golden State beats Trail Blazers, 4-3
-Toronto beats Philadelphia, 4-2
-Houston beats Warriors, 4-1
-Toronto beats Houston, 4-2