On paper, trading Caron Butler for two nobodies seems like a bad move for the Phoenix Suns. Here’s my HoopsHabit article explaining why it was actually another great move for new GM Ryan McDonough.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the Western Conference, it’s time to take a look at the all-but-determined Eastern Conference. Nobody is predicting anyone but Miami coming out of the East, but I wouldn’t be so sure if the Knicks reach the conference finals. LeBron is on another level right now, but the Knicks are stubborn enough to believe they can win and if they reach that stage, a week or two of hot shooting could unseat the defending champs if they don’t stay motivated.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks:
Despite Brandon Jennings’ super-inspiring prediction that the Bucks will beat Miami in six games, I’m going to err on the side of realism here and not-so-boldly predict that Milwaukee is in for a quick first-round exit. Even though they’ve been resting their starters for a while now, which raises concerns about rust, the Miami Heat are a clear favorite in this series and the East in general. Rust or not, LeBron James is on top of his game and Milwaukee has no one that can even remotely slow him down. Dwyane Wade’s health is an area of concern, but as long as he can play, the Bucks have their own lingering injuries to worry about. As much as I love Jennings’ confidence, I’d be surprised if this series lasts longer than five games.
Keys to the series: Injuries and taking care of business. The only thing that can stop the Miami Heat from dominating the East is the Miami Heat or injuries. If the Heat get complacent or Dwyane Wade goes down again, this matchup may be more competitive. But as long as they stay healthy and keep the goal in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an incredibly boring sweep here. Jennings hasn’t played well in over a month, Monta Ellis is not good enough to beat Miami’s defense by himself and Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders may not even be fully healthy. Tune in if you want to watch LeBron James be LeBron James, or if you’re interested in Brandon Jennings’ trying to advertise himself to teams looking to pick him up in the offseason. But other than that, this series should be over quickly.
Prediction: Miami Heat in 4 games
(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics:
The Knicks are simultaneously being pegged as the only resistance the Miami Heat will face in the East and a potential first round upset. So which is it? I believe it’s the former, but a matchup with the Boston Celtics certainly isn’t favorable. The Knicks rely primarily on Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith’s new-found efficiency and 3-point shooting to win games. At least two of those three things aren’t guaranteed with the playoffs rolling around, especially against Boston’s lockdown defense and veteran savvy. The Celtics are known for making unexpected playoff runs on the shoulders of defense, experience and Doc Rivers’ superior coaching. And with the recent tragedies in Boston this past week, it’s impossible to deny that the Celtics are playing for something greater now. This kind of unity makes them a very dangerous squad that is very capable of pushing the Knicks to the brink, especially for the games in Boston if Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren’t hobbled. However, I still think New York is the better team and that unless Jeff Green goes beserk on both ends of the floor, Carmelo Anthony and Smith will be too much for the Celtics to handle.
Keys to the series: Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony and Jeff Green. We start with KG, who is essential to the Celtics’ hopes of a first round upset. Garnett anchors Boston’s defense and provides the leadership and experience needed for this team to pull it off. But he hasn’t played 30 minutes since March 10 and has dealt with lingering injuries over the past month. Can he really log playoff minutes and perform late in games after missing so much time? Garnett’s ability to perform while dealing with fatigue down the stretch in close games will be a factor here. Then we have Carmelo Anthony. As long as Melo continues to score at will as he has for the past month, the Knicks should take care of business. Even though TD Garden is already a tough place to play without the entire city having something to rally behind, I don’t know that the Celtics can stop New York’s ball movement that starts with Melo’s superb passing out of double teams. Finally, there’s Jeff Green, who must have a big series. He will be responsible for trying to slow Melo down and has to contribute points on the other end as well. Although New York appears like they are primed for the upset, I don’t think Melo’s lack of playoff wins will be a factor anymore.
Prediction: New York Knicks in 7 games
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks:
This Pacers-Hawks series joins the Nets-Bulls matchup in a tie for “most boring and ultimately meaningless first round playoff series.” Nothing against the Pacers and their stifling defense, but even if they do advance past the Hawks and the Knicks/Celtics in the following round, I don’t believe they have it in them to take out Miami without Danny Granger. Paul George has started to truly develop into a star this season, but Indiana would need him to shoot the lights out in a series against the Heat. I still believe New York is the only team built to contend with Miami and a lot of that is due to Roy Hibbert’s offensive woes and Indiana’s overall inconsistencies on that end. The Hawks are athletic and Josh Smith and Al Horford make up a formidable frontcourt, but Atlanta always hits their ceiling too early and aren’t built to make a playoff run. Roy Hibbert and David West should be able to limit Smith and Horford to some capacity, meaning Indiana’s advantage in the backcourt will give them an edge. The Hawks are too inconsistent to upset the Pacers and I expect this series to be a drawn out victory for Indiana.
Keys to the series: Backcourt production. As I’ve said already, Josh Smith and Al Horford will get theirs on the offensive end. But Roy Hibbert and David West make up a frightening interior defense and will limit them from taking over games and really hurting the Pacers in a seven-game series. So where else will the Hawks get production? Can we really expect Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris to score the points the Hawks need to contend in this series? Or is it reasonable to believe that George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Paul George make up a superior backcourt? Unless Horford and Smith torch the Pacers’ defense (which won’t happen), the Hawks will be going home early once again.
Prediction: Indiana Pacers in 6 games
(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls):
All year long we’ve had to hear about how good the Brooklyn Nets are. We’ve put up with the hype of a new team, the new logo, the new colors, the new arena, Jay-Z’s presence and the Brooklyn-New York rivalry. We’ve had to hear about how good a defender Gerald Wallace is, how Deron Williams is a great point guard and how popular the Nets are with their own television series. Well, enough is enough. Brook Lopez deserved an All-Star spot and Reggie Evans is a rebounding machine, but other than that, the Nets are one of the most overrated teams in the NBA. Deron Williams has only recently revived one of the worst seasons in his career. Joe Johnson has always been overpaid in my book. And Gerald Wallace’s numbers have deteriorated every year for the last four years. Nothing against Brooklyn, but the Bulls are fully capable of knocking this team out in the first round. There are some key factors that will ultimately decide whether they can pull it off, however.
Keys to the series: Joakim Noah, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose. People are desperate for Derrick Rose’s return and rightfully so. But I think that realistically, Joakim Noah’s return is much more important at this point. Noah is the anchor of Chicago’s interior defense and without him, the Bulls will have a hard time slowing down Brook Lopez in the scoring column or Reggie Evans in the rebounding column. If Noah can play in this series, I expect the Bulls to advance since they won the season series convincingly (3-1). The second major key to this series is whether or not the Bulls can slow down Deron Williams. This former All-Star was having one of his worst years until he revived his season after the All-Star break. But if Chicago’s perimeter defense of Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler can slow him and Joe Johnson down, the Nets won’t beat Chicago with Lopez alone. Finally, it has to be said: If Derrick Rose returns, interest in this offensively crippled series will be instantly revived. The odds are that he won’t return, but if he does, Chicago has a huge advantage on the offensive end. There are a LOT of “ifs” in this series, but for now I’m going with the defensive squad that will be a tough and scrappy team to face either way.
Prediction: Chicago Bulls in 7 games
For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!
In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:
Winners: New Orleans Hornets
No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.
Winners: Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.
Winners: Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.
Winners: Golden State Warriors
Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.
Winners: Milwaukee Bucks
With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.
Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder
They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.
Losers: Brooklyn Nets
This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.
Losers: Phoenix Suns
It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.
Losers: Los Angeles Lakers
I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.
Losers: Charlotte Bobcats
Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.
Question Marks: Boston Celtics
There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?
Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks
After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.
Question Mark: Indiana Pacers
The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.
Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves
With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.
Question Mark: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.
Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers
Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.
In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:
- Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
- Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
- Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
- Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
- Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
- Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
- Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
- Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
- Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
- Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
- Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
- Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
- John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
- Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
- Royce White – Houston Rockets
- Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
- Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
- Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
- Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
- Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
- Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
- John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
- Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
- Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
- Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
- Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
- Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
- Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
- Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
- Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
- Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
- Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
- Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
- Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
- Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
- Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
- Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
- Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
- Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
- Kim English – Detroit Pistons
- Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
- Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
- Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
- Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
- Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
- Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
- Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
- Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
- Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
- Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
- Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
- Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
- Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
- Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
- Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
- Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers
Now this list can’t technically be fully complete since the playoff teams aren’t determined yet, but I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on which players have had the most meaningful seasons for their teams and which ones will be the most essential to both their team’s success and a viewing audience. So even though Milwaukee is only two games back and Utah is only half a game behind, for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume they don’t make it to the postseason. The Suns currently hold the eighth spot, owning a tiebreaker over Houston, and since they’re both so close to the Nuggets and Mavs, I included a player from each of those four teams just in case. Spoiler alert: the biggest snubs on this list are Dwyane Wade, Andrew Bynum, Russell Westbrook, Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin. Now that that’s out of the way, without further adieu, here are the top 20 players you need to watch in the NBA playoffs this year:
20) Steve Nash – There’s no guarantee this guy even gets a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, but if Phoenix does somehow maintain their current playoff standing, Steve Nash is the one you want to pay attention to. The way he facilitates and runs the point guard is absolutely gorgeous to watch, and if he takes a decent number of shots, he can be pretty entertaining in close games as well. Don’t count this championship-hungry point guard out just yet.
19) Andre Iguodala – I’m not big on the 76ers. The numerous posts I’ve written about them this year should have gotten that point across already. I didn’t even want to put anyone from Philadelphia on this list, because they don’t really have anyone exciting on their roster anymore, but if anyone in Philly were to help the Sixers finally get past the first round of the playoffs, it would be Andre Iguodala. The new A.I. has seen better seasons, but he finally hit the 20-point mark for the first time in 40+ games. If he can somehow put up solid numbers in multiple categories like he tends to do, who knows? Maybe Philly will be worth watching this year.
18) James Harden – What? Russell Westbrook gets snubbed and somehow James Harden makes the cut? Let me explain. While Westbrook is certainly one of the top players to watch every night for his pure athleticism and entertainment value, James Harden is the definitive role player to keep an eye on during the postseason this year. We’ve grown accustomed to both Kevin Durant and Westbrook going for 40+, but few people realize how vital James Harden’s scoring ability is for this team. Harden has been the perfect sixth man and third-best player on the Thunder, and if he plays as well as he has all season, I still think the Thunder are favorites to make the NBA Finals. Plus, for the millionth time, you can’t ignore that ferocious beard!
17) Paul Pierce – Rajon Rondo is running the show down in Boston as the ringmaster, but Paul Pierce is the main attraction. Pierce is the one who puts up big points, take game winning shots and usually rises to the occasion when matched up with another superstar at his position (LeBron James especially). Rondo is the one with the pretty assists making critical plays for his team, but Paul Pierce is the one knocking down threes and somehow getting around younger defenders to the rim to fire the crowd up.
16) Chris Bosh – Yes, I am fully aware the Dwyane Wade is probably the biggest snub on this list (Russell Westbrook is up there too), but from a team’s success standpoint, the Miami Heat always have the comfort of D-Wade showing up to play well. Saying Wade is going to play well in the playoffs is like saying the Bobcats are a terrible team; we already know that. But whether or not Chris Bosh shows up will be a huge question for Miami. If Bosh rebounds and puts up 20+ points a night, the Heat will be extremely tough to beat, but if he disappears, so will Miami.
15) Arron Afflalo – I wanted to give this spot to Danilo Gallinari, but with the way Arron Afflalo’s been playing lately, it’s impossible to deny that he is the player to watch on the Denver Nuggets this postseason. It’s hard to pick just one player on such a balanced team, but Afflalo’s been leading this team in scoring and playing very effectively. While I still think the Nuggets need Danilo Gallinari to play like an All-Star to win and even though Ty Lawson is prone to having big nights, Afflalo will most likely be Denver’s most consistent offensive weapon.
14) Tony Parker – Someone from the Spurs had to make the list, and since Tim Duncan is so fundamentally sound that his dominance has become boring to us, I had to go with Tony Parker. Parker has had an All-Star season and is probably the most exciting player to watch on a very mundane Spurs team. San Antonio has never been the most entertaining team to watch, but if they want to avoid another first-round playoff exit, they will rely on Tony Parker to run the offense and pump up the fans.
13) Goran Dragic – Now everyone in the NBA knows what Phoenix Suns fans have known for years: Goran Dragic is a quality point guard who should be starting somewhere. Now that he’s gotten that chance in Houston, he hasn’t disappointed expectations, averaging 19.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.4 rpg and 2.0 spg in April. He was a terrific replacement when Kyle Lowry was out with a bacterial infection and is keeping Houston in the playoff race as a starter even with Lowry playing again. Dragic is exciting, athletic, attacks the basket and has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the league. Keep your eye on this kid, he can score points in bunches.
12) Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay is Memphis’ main main and can get a crowd on their feet extremely fast with one his signature high-flying dunks. Marc Gasol will need to keep performing consistently and I almost gave this spot to Zach Randolph because of how badly the Grizzlies need him to play well again, but Rudy Gay will be leading his team in the playoffs this year, for better or worse.
11) Rajon Rondo – Paul Pierce connects better with the crowd, but Rajon Rondo’s tendency to rack up triple doubles and find the open man with fancy passing and dribbling makes him the show-stopper in Boston. Rondo doesn’t always put up big scoring numbers, but the way he runs the point powers this Celtics team and is worth noticing.
10) Josh Smith – Josh Smith is Atlanta’s Do-It-All Guy. The Hawks really don’t look like they’ve improved much over the past few years and seem primed for a first-round playoff exit (again), but if they somehow do compete, it’ll be behind superhuman performances from Atlanta’s high-rising, all-around stud Josh Smith. Smith can score, rebound, block shots and do whatever else his team needs to win. Joe Johnson used to be the alpha dog in Atlanta, but Smith has taken over that role now.
9) Dirk Nowtizki – Don’t forget the guy who’s the main reason we refer to the Dallas Mavericks as “defending champs.” Dirk has struggled at times this season, but if he finds the right motivation, he can single-handedly keep his team in games down the stretch. Dirk is nearly impossible to guard, so when he’s starting to get hot, you can almost guarantee audiences are in for something special.
8) Dwight Howard – After a drama-filled season, Dwight Howard almost needs to come back and play. Herniated disk in his back or not, Superman has to show up and play his heart out this postseason to save his team and his reputation. The Magic have been on the steady decline with Howard sitting out, and after all he’s put the Orlando organization and fanbase through this season, the least he could do is come out and roll over every center unfortunate enough to cross his path. Dwight Howard flip flopped on staying in Orlando. He was involved in rumors that he wanted Stan Van Gundy fired. He mailed-in an awful, half-hearted performance the day those rumors surfaced. He owes the Magic everything he’s got and if he’s healthy (big IF there), we could be in for a treat.
7) Danny Granger – Danny Granger never gets enough credit for being the superstar that he is; he didn’t make the All-Star team this year getting completely snubbed, yet he’s led the Pacers night in and night out. Indiana still isn’t getting credit as a tough postseason matchup, yet they’re third in the Eastern Conference and find a way to just keep winning thanks to Granger’s consistent scoring every game. The Pacers were my sleeper team before the season even began, and rightfully so after they gave the Bulls all they could handle in the first round last year (Chicago won in 5, but had to work for all of those wins). If the Pacers turn out as dangerous as I think they are, Danny Granger will be the guy to keep an eye on.
6) Kobe Bryant – Kobe Bryant is always a player to watch come playoff time, but this year his story will be more interesting based on how he deals with that shin injury that has sidelined him for five games now. Make no mistake, Kobe has no problem playing through pain. So with him missing so much time, he is either in a lot of pain or he’s really making a commitment to being 100% for the playoffs. Either way, how Kobe comes to play this postseason will be worth following, especially now that the Lakers have established some chemistry and have been able to win without him on the floor. Andrew Bynum was a big snub, especially considering his temper and what he did in the postseason last year, but Kobe is still the biggest reason to watch the Lakers and that won’t change even if Bynum is still a head case.
5) Chris Paul – There is one player you need to watch during the playoffs this year on the Clippers, and no, it isn’t Blake Griffin. I’m sure Griffin will provide us with plenty of Lob Alert specials on SportsCenter’s Top Ten, but Chris Paul is the player to watch for LAC this season. CP3’s complete control of the game has been quintessential of what a true point guard does: managing and facilitating, deferring to teammates for the majority of the game and taking over in the fourth quarter when they need it the most. If there’s a close game for the Clippers, notice how it will come down to Chris Paul’s heroics.
4) Derrick Rose – The Bulls success this postseason is contingent upon one thing: how Derrick Rose fits in with Chicago’s new team chemistry. Everyone knows the Bulls won’t win a championship without D-Rose, but it’s also pretty clear they can’t win if he’s taking too many shots or not 100% up to speed. Because of all the time he’s missed with injury, D-Rose has to make sure his own skills and play are up to par as well as fit in with the team dynamic again. The Bulls are the best team in the league as of right now, so if Derrick Rose can elevate his game again and if Chicago’s supporting cast can play as well as they have without him on the court, the Windy City might get its first championship since the days of Michael Jordan.
3) Carmelo Anthony – Here’s his recent resume: over 30 ppg and 7 rpg in the month of April, singlehandedly turned New York into the most dangerous underdog in the East, inspired the entire city’s hope in a Knicks team with an interim coach, finally started playing like the top 5 superstar he was down in Denver, played much better defense, looked like he cares about both sides of the court, developed into a leader for a team without Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, and finally looked happy playing the game again. I’d say that sounds like a player worth watching when the playoffs roll around. Based on how everyone in the NBA is playing right now, if I had to pick one guy to lead this Knicks team to a first-round upset over the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls (their most likely opponents as of right now), it’d be Carmelo Anthony. I told you Melo wasn’t the problem!
2) Kevin Durant – People have been saying it all season long: This is Oklahoma City’s year. This is Kevin Durant’s year. The Thunder have handled all that talk all year long and have done it well until recently when they dropped a few games. But OKC still sits atop the Western Conference and anything less than the Western Conference Finals would be a big failure for them. Kevin Durant has stepped up in big games all season long, can score from anywhere on the court and electrifies audiences and home crowds with elite crunch-time performances. Durantula is one of those players that you just sit back, relax and enjoy.
1) LeBron James – LeBron might be the number one guy to watch this postseason. Not only because of his MVP season that he’s had this year, but because this year, LeBron NEEDS to win it all to save his name, his reputation, his Decision and possibly even his legacy. The fact that Miami didn’t win it all last season was disappointing, but not inexplicable; it was only their first year together. But this year, after having a whole season to improve with that thirst and anger after losing last year, falling short this year would be indefensible. So now everyone will tune in to watch LeBron James either finally succeed, score in the crunch time and prove everyone wrong, or they will watch as LeBron shies away from the fourth quarter spotlight, the Heat implode and revel in watching this misunderstood superstar fall flat again. Either way, you know you’re going to be watching.
Happy Easter, NBA fans! Just in case you haven’t been following all the recent developments in the league this week, here’s a quick rundown of where everyone stands:
Chicago Bulls – The Bulls still have a three-game lead over the Miami Heat for the first seed in the Eastern Conference. But in addition to all this news is that Chicago’s star point guard Derrick Rose is hopeful to play today against the New York Knicks after missing 12 games with a groin injury. If D-Rose can mesh with the team chemistry the Bulls established without their MVP on the court, look out for this team in the playoffs.
Miami Heat – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have dropped some games this week, raising concerns about whether or not this team will be peaking at the right time. People are right when they say that you can’t just turn it on and off, but if any team can, it’s the Heat. Despite getting smashed by the Grizzlies, keep in mind that Memphis is the sleeper team of the West and it was only one game. Miami and LeBron made a statement in a win over the Thunder on Wednesday and should be comfortable entering the postseason with the two seed.
Indiana Pacers – Despite dropping a game against the Celtics at home in an ugly offensive performance, the Pacers have taken the three spot in the East like I predicted they would. The Pacers were on a five-game winning streak until their off-night against Boston and have looked impressive with wins over Houston, New York and OKC. Danny Granger has been a terrific leader and has stepped up his offensive production when Indiana has needed him to. Don’t be surprised if this sleeper team makes some noise in the playoffs as the third seed.
Boston Celtics – The Celtics have been on the rise in the past few games thanks to Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, but you can expect them to lose a fair amount of games down the stretch because of their tough remaining schedule. The Celtics have a two-game lead over the 76ers for the fourth seed and the top spot in the Atlantic division, but with their remaining schedule, it’s even money on who takes this spot. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Celtics did hang on, if only because of how bad the Sixers have been lately.
Atlanta Hawks – While the Hawks haven’t proven much in their three-game winning streak (they beat Charlotte twice and Detroit), they are only a half-game behind Indiana for the third seed. Josh Smith has been playing like a man possessed this month, doing it all for Atlanta. The Hawks’ remaining schedule is pretty favorable, but it remains to be seen how this inconsistent team will fare once the playoffs roll around.
Orlando Magic – After a tumultuous week of friction, media criticism and poor play, the Magic ended their five-game losing streak with a much-needed win in Philadelphia. Even though Philly isn’t playing good ball right now, the win was impressive because Orlando was without Ryan Anderson and Hedo Turkoglu, as well as the fact that Dwight Howard has been getting hammered for the past few days. Superman responded with a statement game: 20 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks. As long as Stan Van Gundy and D12 focus on playing basketball, the Magic will at least compete.
Philadelphia 76ers – The Sixers have lost three straight and four of their last five. I predicted this team was a pretender, but I didn’t think they’d collapse like this heading into the postseason. Philly has an easier remaining schedule than Boston, but the way they’re playing right now, with Andre Iguodala getting booed at the free throw line at home, things are looking good. All this combined with their ever-present inability to score should make for a first-round exit in the playoffs.
New York Knicks – The Knicks are playing great basketball right now and Carmelo Anthony has finally started to play like the quality superstar fans have waited for since he first came to New York. It took almost an entire season, but Melo is finally in shape and shooting well, so even with Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire still sidelined, the Knicks are in good shape. Iman Shumpert and the rest of the Knicks’ role players have all stepped up, but New York still has to keep winning because of how good the Bucks are playing. The Knicks are only one game behind Philly for the seventh seed but are just one game ahead of Milwaukee for the final playoff spot.
Milwaukee Bucks – The final playoff-contending team in the East is doing everything it can to catch the Knicks for the last postseason spot, but the Knicks are doing extremely well in winning to keep Milwaukee at bay. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis look like they’ve grown acclimated to each other and form one of the most formidable backcourts in the NBA. Jennings, Ellis and Ersan Illyasova, along with a suddenly lively bench, will keep them in the playoff hunt until the end.
Reggie Miller, the star of a frequently competitive Indiana Pacers squad in the 90’s, will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year. Miller played for the Pacers for his entire 18-year career, leading his team to the NBA Finals once and the Eastern Conference Finals numerous times. Miller was never able to win himself a ring, losing to Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers in 2000, but his battles with the New York Knicks in the 90s, his crunch time play, and his ability to take over games and demoralize opponents with 3-pointers will never fade and make this a well-deserved induction.
Miller’s legacy has a slight blemish in that he never won a championship, but his determination, competitive fire, pure shooting ability and many memorable clutch performances will ensure that Indiana’s most beloved basketball superstar stands the test of time. Most memorable were Miller’s intense battles with Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in the mid-90s, which included two of his most historic moments. The first came in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, when Miller swung momentum back to the Pacers with an incredible shooting performance in Game 5, leading Indiana with 39 points, 25 of which came in the fourth quarter. Miller’s performance and animated trash-talking with Spike Lee was on the NBA’s most memorable trash-talking sequences of all time, as Lee’s taunting pumped Miller up and set off the incredible hot streak that buried the Knicks. Unfortunately, the Pacers were unable to finish New York off and lost in seven games.
Miller’s other incredible performance came in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals, in which Miller miraculously scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to give Indiana an improbable win in Madison Square Garden. With 18.9 seconds left, Miller hit a three to cut New York’s lead to 105-102, stole the inbounds pass, backed up and hit another three to tie it. Indiana’s Sam Mitchell made the poor decision of fouling John Starks to send him to the free throw line, but Starks and all of Madison Square Garden were so stunned it was no surprise that he missed them both. Miller eventually got the rebound and was fouled with 7.5 seconds left, sank both free throws, and gave the Pacers one of the most unlikely and impossible last-minute wins in NBA history. Miller and his Indiana team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, but lost to the Orlando Magic.
Miller had many other significant moments, such as his game-winner against Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals (the Pacers took the Bulls to Game 7 and gave them everything they wanted before Jordan won his final title) and his heroic performance against the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the 2002 playoffs (a ridiculous 3-point bank shot to send the game to overtime and a dunk over three Nets to send it to double-overtime). Miller received the respect of his teammates even near the end of his career, most evident when Pacers’ star Jermaine O’Neal agreed to be taken out of a game with 1:43 on the clock after scoring 55 points against the Bucks in order to preserve Miller’s franchise record of 57 points. Miller remained a go-to guy at crunch time and became a great NBA commentator for TNT. He held the record for most 3-point field goals in league history (2,560) before Ray Allen broke it in 2011.
Miller will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with coach Don Nelson, four-time NBA champ Jamaal Wilkes, and Ralph Sampson.
Two players are probably done for the rest of the season this year, and the news comes as a devastating blow to each player’s team vying for a playoff spot. The first is Jeremy Lin, who will be out for six weeks because of a small chronic meniscus tear in his left knee. Lin is scheduled to have surgery on it next week, but those six weeks put him at a projected return date of mid-May. The regular season ends on April 26, meaning the only way Lin’s amazing season will continue is if New York is able to advance past the first round of the playoffs (most likely meaning a victory over Chicago or Miami). New York is currently only two and a half games ahead of Milwaukee for the eight seed in the East.
Meanwhile, a huge contributor for the Phoenix Suns will also miss significant time because of a medial meniscus tear in his right knew. Grant Hill, who is no stranger to season-ending injuries, underwent successful knee surgery yesterday but will likely have to sit for the rest of the Suns’ season. Hill said he wants to be back on the floor in two weeks, but at his age this injury might mean the end of his season. This is another unfortunate chapter to add to Hill’s book of injuries, especially considering the fact that the Suns need his offensive production and lockdown defense to make one final push for the postseason. Phoenix is currently two and a half games out of the playoffs in the West. Hill’s injury could mean the end of not only his season, but that of the Phoenix Suns as well.
I’ve already given my picks for who will make the playoffs in the West, but now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. The East is a little bit easier as far as picking which eight teams will make the cut (only the Milwaukee Bucks are even remotely close to the Knicks for the eighth spot), but things get a little bit trickier in deciding who will end up where. Here’s where I think the eight Eastern contenders will end up when all is said and done:
1) Chicago Bulls – If the Bulls can win without their reigning MVP point guard, nobody is catching Chicago at this point. The Bulls currently have a 3 and a half game lead over the Miami Heat for the top spot, which is particularly impressive considering Derrick Rose has been sidelined for their last eight games. I still think this team won’t go very far in the postseason without D-Rose, but Chicago’s incredible team play almost made me reconsider it. CJ Watson has been perfect for running the offense as a true point guard while Luol Deng has stepped up as Chicago’s alpha dog. Nobody’s running with the Bulls for the top spot this season.
2) Miami Heat – The Heat are currently 3 and a half games behind the Bulls for the first spot in the East, and although I’m picking them to go to the NBA Finals over Chicago, I don’t think they’ll rack up as many wins as they’d need to take that one seed. When the Heat lose games, they have a tendency to go on losing streaks, even if they’re only small slumps. The Bulls, on the other hand, have yet to lose back-to-back games this season. Miami will grab the two spot, but that really doesn’t matter much for this heavy postseason favorite.
3) Indiana Pacers – This is by far the boldest pick I’m going to make, but I think the Pacers can edge the Magic for the third seed in the East. If not for the rule that the winner of a division must get at least a four seed, the Pacers would already have that position locked down, only trailing the Magic by one game. Instead, because of that rule, either Boston or Philly has to get the four seed. That fact, along with the misfortune of having the league-leading Bulls in the same division, means Indiana will have to battle to get the quality seed they deserve. However, the Pacers’ remaining schedule is definitely in their favor as the really only play San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Philly twice and Chicago (last game of the season). The rest are very winnable games, so if Indiana keeps their focus they could quickly turn into the squad I projected as my sleeper team at the beginning of the season.
4) Philadelphia 76ers – Philly dropped all the way to the seventh spot in the East last night after an awful loss to the Washington Wizards in which they could only tally 76 points. While other contending teams in the East seem to be peaking at the right time, the Sixers are fading fast (like I predicted they would). However, this is still a good defensive team, and that will usually keep you in games. Despite the fact that I think the Sixers will make a quick first-round exit no matter what seed they get, I think Philly will win the division and grab the fourth spot, if only because of Boston’s formidable remaining schedule.
5) Orlando Magic – The Magic currently have a one-game lead over the Pacers for the three seed, but Orlando is not playing good basketball right now. Their last two games were a blowout loss in New York and a disappointing loss at home against Dallas in which the Magic led for the majority of the game. Orlando also has a much more challenging road to the end of the season than the Pacers, and while their phenomenal 22-3 record against teams below .500 should almost guarantee a few wins, their unimpressive 10-17 record against teams above .500 won’t help them when nine of their last 14 games are against opponents in that category.
6) Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks are a paltry 9-17 against teams above .500, and 7 of their last 13 games come against teams who fit that qualification. Even though Atlanta has a pretty favorable remaining schedule, I don’t see the Hawks outwinning the Pacers or the Magic and will likely be pushed back to the sixth seed. Their inconsistent play against teams that matter has always kept this team from reaching the upper echelon of the NBA they easily qualify for. I expect it to hold them back a little bit here as well, even if Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are both playing great ball right now.
7) Boston Celtics – If the remaining schedules were different, I would favor Boston over Philly in a heartbeat. Philly’s defense is good but I can’t buy in to their ability to score when their leading scorer comes off the bench. However, the Celtics have the misfortune of perhaps the ugliest remaining schedule in the NBA: Miami three times, Chicago, Indiana, San Antonio, Philly, Atlanta twice, Orlando and New York. As much as the Celts have proved me wrong this season by battling through trade rumors and an aging Big 3, and as much as Rajon Rondo has played like a superstar after being snubbed for the All-Star game (he ended up going anyone in Joe Johnson’s place, but he was upset about not getting voted in), I just don’t see Boston winning enough of these games to oust Philly from atop the Atlantic division (remember, the winner of this division will get the four seed).
8) New York Knicks – Injuries are starting to take their toll, and despite the fact that New York somehow has still been able to win (that Orlando blowout was particularly impressive), eventually the Knicks will miss Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. Carmelo Anthony can only continue his elevated play for so long, especially with some particularly nasty matchups coming up soon when Amare (and possibly Lin) will still be sidelined: Indiana, Orlando and a back-to-back with Chicago. Although they are currently only one and a half games ahead, the Knicks should be fine in keeping their distance from the Bucks for the last playoff spot, but I don’t expect them to climb any higher than the eight seed.
Didn’t make the cut: Milwaukee Bucks
9) Milwaukee Bucks – Milwaukee is only one and a half games back right now, but the Bucks will have problems with their remaining schedule (OKC, New York, Indiana twice, Philly and Boston). I’m excited to see Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis continue to develop together with surprise sensation Ersan Ilyasova, but I don’t think it will result in a playoff appearance this year. New York just has too much talent to allow the Bucks back in the playoff race.
So there you have it, my predictions for the Eastern Conference standings for the playoffs. Where do you have everyone in the East finishing?