Quick Thoughts: Transactions

Now that the transactional stampede has slowed down, let’s pause to peek through some of what happened…

Nets trade Mikal Bridges to the Knicks for picks and salary slots to be determined

Nets trade the picks they own from the Suns to the Rockets for the remainder of the picks the Nets gave the Rockets in the 2020 James Harden deal

From the Nets perspective, these are good deals.  The choice was to pair Bridges with whatever star-ish level play they could get (Trae Young, Brandon Ingram, DeMar Derozan) and compete for the low-end playoff outcome while the picks Houston held ran off.  Evidently, Brooklyn must’ve told Houston that, unless the picks were returned, the Nets’ plan was sustained mediocrity.  This apparently convinced Houston that the Rockets would be better holding the high variance future Phoenix picks, rather than collecting Brooklyn’s middling picks the next few years.

As for Bridges, he had a real down year posting a career low in BPM (-0.4) and the eye test reflected his defense had slipped.  Bridges is turning 28 and it’s clear he’s stretched as a lead star and is a much better fit in an ensemble cast.  For the Knicks, the question was whether they should’ve spent the capital they had on Bridges or waited for a bigger fish that might become available.

This is a tough call.  We never know if a big star might become available and New York is a win now team.  On top of that, Bridges is a nice fit as another wing player who can play off Jalen Brunson’s primacy on offense.  It’s not clear to me how Tom Thibodeau will keep the players happy with playing time.  If Julius Randle loses minutes, there could be issues in the locker room (I’m assuming OG Anunoby is a lock for 35 mpg).  If the minutes come from Josh Hart or Donte DiVincenzo, adding Bridges may give nominal improvement because those two played so well last year.  In short, Bridges will clearly help but New York has a lot to figure out in how to implement this deep roster.  I would’ve probably held off for the bigger fish but the deal is definitely defensible and could help.

The Clippers negotiate weirdly with Paul George

Paul George came into the summer demanding a four year contract from the Clipps, who were adamant that they would only do three years at the max amount.  The Clippers stated rationale for their offer was that they feared the roster penalties that are incurred when a team payroll exceeds the Second Apron (draft picks are frozen and trades and signings are severely limited).

What many have pointed out, however, is that the offer that Los Angeles gave PG would put the Clipps in the Second Apron for three years anyway and that the fourth year is so far down the line, it’s not clear that the Clippers would be in that territory by then anyway.  This is a compelling point.  Something else had to be going on because the Clipps could’ve reduced their potential Apron exposure merely by declining to re-sign James Harden (he got a reported two years and $70 million) and paying PG.  George appears to have been acutely aware of the this fact when he recently said that the Harden trade hurt the team

Another odd fact was that L.A. was willing to give Kawhi Leonard a three-year contract, despite his long history of injuries, but drew the line at the healthier (but older) PG.  Let’s look at how Kawhi and PG have done since joining the Clipps:

Kawhi: 229 games, 33.6 mpg, 24.8 ppg, .614 TS%, 6.5 rpg, 4.4 apg, 24.9 PER, .209 ws48, 6.8 BPM, 17.2 VORP

PG: 263 games, 33.3 mpg, 23.0 ppg, .590 TS%, 6.0 rpg, 4.5 apg, 19.8 PER, .127 ws48, 3.6 BPM, 12.5 VORP

Yes, Kawhi is better but he has been unable to complete any of the last three playoff series he’s played in due to knee injuries.  If you are going to reinvest in Kawhi, why not continue to pair him with PG?  I can’t figure out an apparent reason for this menu of decisions but it’s clear they didn’t want George back.  Perhaps, they think they will be just as good with a bunch of role players and a cheaper second forward like DeRozan.  Given a binary choice between PG or Harden and DeRozan, however, I think PG is the better option. 

James Harden’s gambit recalculated

Now that Harden’s contract future is finally settled, it’s fair to say that he did a poor job of negotiating/leveraging his situation.  Let’s go back and see how much his tantrums cost him…

If you recall, in the summer of 2021, the Nets offered Harden three years and $161million to re-sign.  He declined the offer, ostensibly because if he played out the 2021-22 season, he would be eligible for a four-year $227 million deal afterwards and the Nets were likely to give it to him.  Things got weird and Harden forced a trade to Philly and did not terminate his contract and, instead, played out two more years of the existing contract, at a much lower number.  The speculation was that the 76ers had promised that supermax deal, at some point, because Harden was seemingly leaving a ton of cash on the table.

Whatever was agreed upon between the parties, Harden freaked out last summer and called Darryl Morey a liar, without really specifying the lies in detail.  Harden was able to force his way to L.A. but now we can tabulate roughly how much money he gave up with his shenanigans.

Here’s how much Harden could’ve made with the Nets’ offers approximately:

On the 3-year Deal

2022-23: $53.7 million

2023-24:  $53.7 million

2024-25: $53.7 million

2025-26: Would be a free agent but we can conservatively estimate he’d make the $35 million he got

Total: $196.1 million

On the 4-year Deal

2022-23: $56.75 million

2023-24:  $56.75 million

2024-25: $56.75 million

2025-26: $56.75 million

Total: $227 million


2022-23: $44.3 million

2023-24: $33 million

2024-25: $35 million

2025-26: $35 million

Total: $137.3 million

The decision to go to Philly and futz around cost Harden about $60 to $90 million.  Perhaps Harden valued happiness more than money and he was willing to accept the cost to get out of Brooklyn.  It’s not like he’s not going to be fine financially (he’s made $340 million so far as a player, without even considering endorsements.  Still, he probably should’ve exercised a little impulse control and locked in the Nets offer and figured out the details later.

Ranking The 2023-24 Celtics

How historically great were the 2023-24 Celtics?  It’s nearly impossible to compare teams from different eras on a head-to-head matchup basis because the rules and strategies have changed so much between generations.  It is not an apples-to-apples comparison when one wonders how the 1995-96 Bulls would play if they were magically teleported to the 2024 NBA.  There is also the thorny issue of whether the players are just better today, though I’m confident that the good players of the 1980s and 1990s would do just fine today.

I would love to see a magic world where the current Celtics could play the 1985-86 Bird Celtics team but, even if we could simulate this, the Bird team would have to totally change its offense just to keep up with the frequency of modern three-pointers.  I have no doubt that the Bird team could do this but it’s a fool’s errand to speculate how it would play out.  Instead, we are left with comparing how dominant the teams were against their peers and then, at the end, sprinkle in a little conjecture.  Let’s start with dominance…

Boston had a dominant team based on wins (64) and ratings (1st in offense and 3rd in defense).  The Celts’ SRS is fifth best ever (10.75) behind only true legends.  In fact, Boston is the first Celtic team with an SRS greater than 10 and only the eleventh team to ever post 10+.  Here’s the full list:

1. Milwaukee 1970-71, 119.92 (66-16)

2. Chicago 1995-96, 11.80 (72-10)

3. L.A. Lakers 1971-72, 11.65 (69-13)

4. Golden State 2016-17, 11.35 (67-15)

5. Boston 2023-24, 10.75 (64-18)

6. Milwaukee 1971-72, 10.70 (63-19)

    Chicago 1996-97, 10.70 (69-13)

8. Golden State 2015-16, 10.38 (73-9)

9. San Antonio 2015-16, 10.28 (67-15)

10. Chicago 1991-92, 10.07 (67-15)

11. Golden State 2014-15, 10.01 (67-15)

So, the Celts were dominant in the regular season, how about the playoffs?  It’s not their fault but Boston had a very easy playoffs schedule.  The Celtics went 16-3 and outscored opponents by 8.05 ppg, which ranks 15th of 70 title teams since 1954-55. Not quite as dominant as the regular season but still pretty high.  Here’s the full list of title teams with better playoff point per game margin:

1. Milwaukee 1970-71, +14.50 (12-2)

2. Golden State 2016-17, +13.53 (16-1)

3.  L.A. Lakers 2000-01, +12.75 (15-1)

4. Chicago 1990-91, +11.71 (15-2)

5. Boston 1960-61, +11.60 (8-2)

6. L.A. Lakers 1986-87, +11.39 (15-3)

7. Chicago 1995-96, +10.56 (15-3)

8. Boston 1985-86, +10.33 (15-3)

9. L.A. Lakers 1984-85, +10.16 (15-4)

10. Golden State 2017-18, +10.00 (16-5)

11. Philadelphia 1966-67, +9.33 (11-4)

12. San Antonio 2013-14, +9.30 (16-7)

13. Cleveland 2015-16, +8.62 (16-5)

14. Denver 2022-23, +8.30 (16-4)

15. Boston 2023-24, +8.05 (16-3)

The dominance review shows the current Boston team to be slightly below the best regular season teams and a solid tier below the best playoff teams (yes, the Celts’ 37-point loss to Dallas in Game 4 was anomalous but it still counts).

Now, for the last leg of the analysis, we do a slight bit of match up comparison.  Earlier, we wrote that it is silly to try compare teams from different eras, and this is largely true.   The one exception is top end talent comparison.  The NBA is a star driven league and the teams with the best players usually win.  The 2023-24 Celtics are deep team and their best player, Jayson Tatum, is great but doesn’t rate as quite other worldly compared to Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and other inner circle Hall of Famers.  By way of comparison, here are the best BPMs of other legendary teams:

1985-86 Celtics: Larry Bird 8.7

1986-87 Lakers: Magic Johnson 8.8

1995-96 Bulls: Michael Jordan 10.5

2000-01 Lakers: Shaquille O’Neal 9.3

2007-08 Celtics: Kevin Garnett 8.2

2016-17 Warriors: Kevin Durant 8.9

2023-24 Celtics: Jayson Tatum 5.1

This year’s Celtics are super deep and BPM is hardly the only or best way to evaluate players but it provides a nice short hand for player dominance and Tatum, while a great player, doesn’t quite measure up to these guys.

We are aware that the implication here is that if teams from different era were to play each other, the other teams are more likely to get buckets in close games than the Tatum Celtics.  Again, this is a futile exercise but it is a minor factor to be considered when ranking the greats of the greats.

In all, the 2023-24 Celtics were a worthy title team and as good as any other team that has played.  Having said that, for teams of the Three-Point Era, I see them as a notch below the 1985-86 Celtics, the 1986-87 Lakers, the top Jordan Bulls teams, the 2000-01 Lakers, and the Curry Warriors.  There are other teams that have arguments over this current Celtic team but it’s safe to say that they rank in the 10 to 15 range of the best teams of the last 45 years.

NBA Finals Preview 2023-24: Can Anyone Stop Luka?

At the beginning of the playoffs, Boston versus Dallas did not seem to be a likely Finals matchup but here we are.  Well, the Boston side of the equation was pretty predictable but Dallas has been a pleasant surprise.  Nevertheless, Dallas has shown itself to be a legitimate NBA finalist with Luka Doncic’s incredible shot making and a supporting cast that suddenly fits so well together.  Let’s run through the major issues of this series and see what comes of it…

Did Boston get here with a super easy path?

Definitely.  Boston earned an easy path by dominating the regular season and it got even easier when their playoff opponents all had untimely injuries.  The Ringer had a nice look at this issue and concluded that this year’s Celtics had the easiest path to the Finals ever (when you factor in injury bad luck of opponents).  My personal view was that, even with the injuries, Boston had an easy run but nowhere near as easy as the mid-1980s Lakers.  But it doesn’t matter either way.  A lot of the teams that have had easy paths to the Finals won the Finals or came damn close.  The aggregate SRS of the 1986-87 Lakers’ Western Conference foes was a shockingly bad -3.6.  They still won in the Finals and have been considered, by some, the best team ever.  Regardless of whom they have played, the 2023-24 Celtics have dominating team stats that are consistent with past dynastic teams (10.74 SRS, 1st in offense and 3rd in defense) and there is no reason to think they are a paper tiger.  Boston could lose to Dallas but the “easy path” narrative is fairly meaningless.

How will Boston guard Luka?

The Celtics have no weak defensive players in their top five but the real decision is whether you use a quicker guard, that Luka can shoot over and muscle, or a bigger player that might be more vulnerable to penetration.  There is no real way to stop Doncic but he clearly enjoys shooting over the smaller players.  I expect Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to split the duties, two players that can, at least, neutralize Luka’s strength game in the post to some degree.

This year, Boston won both games against Dallas fairly easily but they did not stop Doncic, who put up 35 ppg and had a triple-double in both games.  Boston will just have to make Luka work hard for his points and avoid giving him too many easy three-pointers.

What is Dallas’ best route to winning?

Obviously, the Mavs’ theory of the series is that they have the best player in Doncic and they just need Kyrie Irving to be effective and use their two-headed center of Daniel Gafford and Derrick Lively to dominate the paint on both sides of the court.  Still, Dallas has to watch Boston’s three-point barrage.  Boston can go cold at times (particularly Tatum) but they shoot the most threes in the NBA and make them at a high rate (.388%).  While there is higher variance on three-point shooting, Dallas will have to adjust its defense to make sure Boston doesn’t get too many uncontested threes as well.  Expect Boston to try to target Luka and the centers for easy three attempts.

The other factor to watch is the health of Kristaps Porzingis.  He’s been resting since the first round with a calf strain but, if he’s healthy, his size on defense and his stretch shooting on offense are nice counters to Gafford/Lively more short range abilities.  Assuming health, Porzingis will still be vulnerable to the Doncic pick-and-rolls (as all big men are).  Boston will have to try to configure its defense to allow Porzingis float elsewhere and avoid being on an island with Luka.

A few words on Kyrie

Kyrie is, and has always been, an amazing player.  No matter the outcome of the Finals, Irving’s season has been great and there are (and will be more) redemption stories after his washout in Brooklyn.  He deserves plenty of credit for his play (and by all accounts he has been a beloved teammate) but let’s remember the context of the trade last season.  Irving demanded a max extension after missing tons of time for all sorts of reasons that made Brooklyn queasy to reinvest in him and he refused to play out the season without that deal.  Conversely, Dallas had badly screwed up the Rick Brunson negotiations and had to take a risk on a talent just to keep Luka happy.  Irving’s trade market was small and this trade was rational for both teams and not some sort of a coup for either.

Dallas v Boston: A History

There is not a ton of history between Boston and Dallas.  Here are a few nuggets to munch on though:

-Boston leads the overall matchup 46-40.  Boston won the first 11 games played between the teams, and were 24-4 against Dallas through the 1993-94 season.  Through the years, Dallas has fought back to tie the series at 35-35 after the 2015-16 season.  The Mavs had won seven straight at that point.  The teams have gone back-and-forth since, with Boston currently on a four-game winning streak.

-Dallas’ first win against Boston came against the legendary 1985-86 squad by one point in Dallas on March 10, 1986.  Boston actually led the game by 13 points with six minutes to play but Dallas rallied to win.  Larry Bird scored 50 points but was needled by Bill Walton for his play anyway.  According to Peter May’s “The Last Banner,” Walton told Bird: “’You may have scored 50, but you were the worst player on the court.’  Bird agreed.  He knew, as Walton knew, that he had been going for points at the expense of the team—a move that was a typical of Bird.,,,[Mavs coach Dick] Motta was so pleased [about breaking the streak that] he gave his team the next day off.”

-That 50-point game was Bird’s high game versus Dallas, though he did go for 30 or more nine times and went 18-2 for his career against Dallas.

-In terms of trades, Dallas was kind enough to give the hapless ML Carr his best trade as GM of the Celtics.  After the 1995-96 season, Dallas was desperate for a center so they traded their sixth pick in the draft and an unprotected 1997 pick for the Celtics ninth pick in 1996 and Eric Montross, who had looked pretty solid in two years out of UNC.  Carr hyped the trade saying that “[w]e believe there’s a quantum leap from six to nine.”

Boston nabbed future All-Star Antoine Walker, while Dallas took a journeyman Samaki Walker at nine (they both passed on Kobe and other big stars but what can you do?).  Dallas had a miserable 1996-97 season and traded Montross after only a few months.  Boston nabbed Dallas’ sixth pick in 1997, which ended up being the star-crossed Ron Mercer.  But let’s give Carr some props for getting a lottery pick for a backup center.

Prediction:  Dallas can win this series.  They have the best shot maker in the NBA but Boston is a tier above the prior teams that the Mavs have played.  Unlike OKC and Minnesota, Boston has had several deep playoff runs and the taste of the 2022 Finals slipping away from them.  I thought the Celtics were the best team coming into the playoffs and I’m sticking with them.  Either way, this should be really fun.  Boston wins 4-2.

Playoff Quick Thoughts

So far, the Conference Finals have had some rousing moments but, ultimately, we have two 3-0 series.  Let’s quickly run through a few issues that have come up that interest me:

The Doncic Shot Over Gobert:  LukaDoncic’s step back three to win Game 2 was an incredible shot.  The isolation play was set up by a pick play that forced big Rudy Gobert to have to guard Luka 40 feet from the hoop in open space.  A review of the tape shows that Gobert did a relatively good job of staying with a smaller quicker player.  The only question is whether Minnesota should’ve anticipated the pick/switch and subbed out Gobert preemptively to avoid the match up.  I’m agnostic on this point.  Gobert’s contest was pretty good and it’s not like the regular match up had stopped Doncic anyway.  The best potential counter might’ve been to double Doncic hard on the pick and force him to pass to the rolling player Derrick Lively.  Luka would likely have found Lively but the risk of hitting a three-pointer and falling behind in the game would be lower.

Pacer/Celtics: The Pacers have blown two games but the overall sense I get is that the Celtics are the much better team and, whenever they dial up intensity on defense, the Pacers cannot compete with them.  The Celtics have been coasting through most of the playoffs so far and are just waiting for the Finals.  I don’t expect them to have this issue in the Finals.

Conference Finals Sweeps:  Despite the lack of drama, this year’s Conference Finals do have the chance to make history.  Since the Conference Finals have gone to a seven-game format, there have never been sweeps in both conferences.  In fact, the only dual Conference Finals sweeps since the shot clock was 1956-57, when Boston swept the Nationals and the Hawks swept the Lakers.

Casting a little wider net, having both Conference Finals go only five games (or fewer) is also exceedingly rare.  In the past 68 years, the Conference Finals have gone 4-1 or 4-0 in both conferences nine times.  Most recently, this occurred in 2016-17 when the LeBron Cavs dispatched a raw Celtics team 4-1 and the Warriors swept the Spurs (thanks to that major injury to Kawhi Leonard in Game 1).  Here’s the full list of such series:

YearECFPoint Diff.WCFPoint Diff.Total Diff.
2016-17CLE over BOS 4-120GS over SA 4-01636
2014-15CLE over ATL 4-013.3GS over HOU 4-18.221.5
2010-11MIA over CHI 4-12.2DAL over OKC 4-146.2
1985-86BOS over MIL 4-015HOU over LAL 4-13.618.6
1984-85BOS over PHI 4-15LAL over DEN 4-112.217.2
1979-80PHI over BOS 4-13.6LAL over SEA 4-13.47
1973-74BOS over NY 4-19.6MIL over CHI 4-014.223.8
1969-70NY over MIL 4-19.6LAL over ATL 4-08.718.3
1957-58BOS over PHW 4-17STL over DET 4-110.817.8
1956-57BOS over SYR 3-012STL over MIN 3-06.318.3

As can be seen, for about 25 years between 1985 and 2010, fans were guaranteed at least one decent Conference Finals series.  The award for closest abbreviated Conference Finals goes to 2010-11, where the Bulls and Thunder were pretty competitive for teams that lost 4-1.  The 1979-80 Conference Finals were also relatively close (the Celtics would close the gap a year later).

This year’s Conference Finals leaders have outscored their opponents by an aggregate 12.3 (Boston +8 and Dallas +4.3), which falls in the range of most of the above series.  We shall see if they can make a little history with the double sweep.

LeBron, the Lakers and Playoff Sweeps Examined

The Lakers are on the verge of being swept by the Nuggets for the second year in a row.  Last year, there was talk that, despite the sweep, that the Lakers were competitive and in every game.  For what it’s worth, this year, the Lakers have blown several big leads and are arguably just as competitive.  That got me wondering whether the 2022-23 Lakers were truly the “closest” sweep ever.  There are a lot of ways to quantify the competitiveness of a swept team but I thought we could measure it by the most conventional way, point differential.

We took a look at all the seven-game series sweeps since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84 (h/t Basketball-Reference).  We found 75 sweeps during that span and the average point differential per game was about 12 points per game. Here are some notes on the data:

-The 2022-23 Lakers were on the pretty competitive side for a swept team.  They were outscored by six points per game, which ranks sixth out of 75 teams over the past 40 years.  This year’s Lakers are currently being outscored by 6.7 points per game, which is roughly the same spread.  But not the best of the sweepees.

-The closest sweepees were actually the 2016-17 Pacers, who lost to LeBron’s Cavs in the first round by a mere four points per game.  Close behind at 4.5 points per game were the infamous 2021-22 Durant/Irving Nets, who freaked out after this sweep.

-The biggest margin of victory belongs to the 2009-10 Magic, which whipped the Hawks by 25.3 points per game in the second round.  It could’ve been worse but Orlando won Game 4 by “only” 14.  The 2018-19 Pistons were blown out by 23.8 points per game against the Bucks.

-Forgotten crazy sweep: Shaq and Kobe faced the Tim Duncan/David Robinson Spurs in an anticipated Western Conference Finals in 2000-01.  The Spurs had the one seed but had lost their best perimeter player, Derek Anderson, on a cheap shot foul the previous round.  Still, the Spurs were blitzed so decisively that Anderson wouldn’t have helped.  They lost the first two games at home by about 10.5 points per game.  It got even worse in Los Angeles when the Lakers won 39 and 29 the next two games.

-The Jordan Bulls legendary sweep of the Bad Boys Pistons in 1990-91 was by 16.7 points per game, which was the most dominant Conference Finals sweep besides the 2001 Lakers/Spurs sweep mentioned above.

-Of the five Finals sweeps, the Spurs/Cavs in 2006-07 was the closest at six points per game.  The 1988-89 Pistons sweep of the hobbled Lakers was nearly as close.

-The franchise with the most sweeps: the Cavs with 10 (nipping the Spurs who had nine). The Hawks, Hornets/Bobcats, Grizzlies, Clippers, Blazers, and Kings haven’t yet won a seven-game sweep in the past 40 years.

-The most swept team over this span is the Lakers, with six sweeps, and they are working on a seventh this year.

Full data below:


NBA Playoffs 2024: Quick Thoughts

It feels like old times!  In olden days, the NBA was a little more predictable than it has been since Covid hit in 2020.  For the first time since 2018, coming into the playoffs, the likely NBA Finals match up seems relatively clear.  The Celtics have been so dominant that it would be a huge upset if they don’t cakewalk to the Finals.  Out West, Denver is the best playoff team and they have more competition but I agree with the consensus that they should be meeting Boston in June.

This doesn’t mean the 2024 playoffs will be boring.  Sometimes, the journey is its own reward.  Several teams have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in showing some playoff success.  Making the second round or the conference finals might be enough to keep a team paying the tax.  At least as important as the money are the emotions and effort some big stars have invested in not crapping out in the first round (or not getting swept in the second round).  Eruptions from disappointed owners or huge stars are inevitable.  So, these stakes are high, and they make these playoffs fascinating to watch.  Having said all this, let’s dive in and give our quick two cents as to what we think will happen…

Eastern Conference First Round

1.  Boston v. Miami:  I realize the Heat have tortured the Celtics in the playoffs for years.  The Heat are without Jimmy Butler and, even if he were healthy, Boston has hit another level.  The Celtics went 64-18 and had an insane 10.74 SRS, fifth best of All-Time.  The Heat have moxie, but they are running into a buzzsaw that is particularly pissed about last season’s upset.  Prediction: Boston wins 4-0.

2.  New York v. Philadelphia:  Pity the Knicks.  They do everything right in terms of team building and refuse to tank out of the two seed and the reward is having to play the best player in the conference in Joel Embiid.  New York is the slowest paced team in the NBA and relies heavily on Jalen Brunson’s creativity in the half court, coupled with the best offensive rebounding in the NBA.  The key question will be whether Embiid is healthy.  He looks slower than pre-knee surgery but here’s how the slower Embiid has done before and after surgery:

Pre-Surgery: 34 games, 34.0 mpg, 35.3 ppg, .533 FG%, .366 3FG%, 11.3 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.8 bpg, 3.7 topg, 2.9 pfpg

Post-Surgery: 5 games, 30.5 mpg, 30.4 ppg, .495 FG%, .481 3FG%, 9.2 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.2 bpg, 4.8 topg, 2.8 pfpg

Embiid is quite rusty but the rusty version is still an inner circle star (though he is clearly shooting threes to avoid contact on offense).  Even diminished, Embiid could be enough to win this series himself.  The problem is Embiid seems to get hurt every playoffs, even when he enters healthy.  My sense is that this pattern will continue.  This issue combined with the fact that Philly is playing a good and deep team, with home court advantage, means New York is the favorite.  These are probably the second and third best teams in the East but one will go home early.  Prediction: New York wins 4-3.

3.  Milwaukee v. Indiana:  This could be a bit ugly.  The Pacers’ high-octane offense and weak defense usually doesn’t translate well in playoffs and Tyrese Haliburton was gimpy in the second half.  Nevertheless, the Bucks’ awfulness in the second half cannot merely be expressed with stats.  They seem old and tired and have repeatedly blown huge leads and lost to terrible teams.  Giannis Antetokounmpo’s calf injury further mucks the Bucks’ outlook.  Under normal circumstances, Milwaukee should win this series, but they seemed to have surrendered already.  Prediction: Indiana wins 4-2.

4.  Cleveland v. Orlando:  This series is a throwback series to the 1990s.  We have two defense-first teams that score just enough to win.  Orlando’s defense is better (2nd to 6th) but their offense is worse (22nd to 18th).  The teams split their season series 2-2 as well but haven’t played each other since February.  The other factor is whether Donovan Mitchell, by far the best scorer in the series, is healthy.  Assuming moderate health for Mitchell, I think Cleveland has a few more efficient scorers and that will be the difference.  Prediction: Cleveland wins 4-3.

Western Conference First Round

1.  Oklahoma City v. New Orleans:  We have two young and athletic teams but OKC’s stars will be available, and Zion Williamson will not.  Even if Zion would be available, the Thunder is the better team.  OKC’s weaknesses are lack of size up front and relative playoff inexperience but they won’t be tested here.  Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 4-1.

2. Denver v. L.A. Lakers:  The Lakers are legitimately a good team, but this is a horrible match up.  Anthony Davis, an incredible player and the core of the defense, just isn’t big enough to stop Nikola Jokic (few are).  What LeBron does after losing the series will be more interesting than the series itself.  Prediction: Denver wins 4-1.

3.  Minnesota v. Phoenix:  The key stat seems to be that the Suns went 3-0 against Minnesota, including a big win to the end the season.  All three wins were by at least ten points.  That seems like a bad indicator.  Despite these facts, I remain a skeptic of the Suns’ depth, as well as whether Kevin Durant has enough gas in the tank for a long playoff run (he averaged over 37 mpg this season).  For the Timberwolves, this just appears to be a bad match up and, absent injuries or Anthony Edwards going crazy, they are going home early.  Prediction: Phoenix wins 4-2.

4. L.A. Clippers v. Dallas:  This is another intriguing match up between teams that are deep with stars but seem headed in opposite directions.  At one point, the Clipps were 34-15 but they finished up 17-16 and now Kawhi Leonard’s troublesome knee is acting up again.  Conversely, Dallas started out 26-23 and finished up 24-9 and Luka Doncic is nigh unstoppable.  If Kawhi is healthy, the Clipps could win but this seems like everything is pointing Dallas.  Prediction: Dallas wins 4-2.

Second Round

Boston over Cleveland, 4-1

New York over Indiana, 4-2

Oklahoma City over Dallas, 4-3

Denver over Phoenix, 4-2

Conference Finals

Boston over New York, 4-1

Denver over Oklahoma City, 4-2


Boston over Denver, 4-3