This article originally appeared in the April 20 issue of SI. The following is an extended version.
With the NBA playoffs approaching, SI assembled a knowledgeable group from all walks of the NBA to address some key questions about the coming weeks. The panelists: SI's Lee Jenkins, Hall of Fame member Isiah Thomas, former NBA coach and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, former All-Star Chauncey Billups and Pistons center Andre Drummond.
How much does experience matter in the playoffs?
Lee Jenkins, SI senior writer: History tells us that it matters, that you don't go from the No. 8 seed to the Finals unless you sign LeBron James and some other guys. Then again, a lot of the old playoff tropes—three-point shooting teams can't win, guard-centric teams can't win, teams without a dominant superstar can't win—have either been disproven or will soon.
Chauncey Billups, 2004 NBA champion: Experience is the best teacher. I worry about that for the Hawks and the Warriors. I don't think experience is overrated at all. Neither has been to the conference finals and they are going to face some tough series.
Isiah Thomas, 1989 and '90 NBA champion: The playoffs really are a game of intellect. History favors the team that makes the fewest mistakes, and that's where experience comes in. Pretty much every team in the West has experience except for the Pelicans. The Spurs obviously have the most.
Are the Hawks legitimate title contenders?
Billups: I see similarities between them and the Pistons' championship team I was on. They play hard on both ends of the floor, and they have a point guard in Jeff Teague who reminds me of myself. Al Horford is similar to Ben Wallace as the heart and soul of that team. You look at Kyle Korver and he runs the floor like Rip Hamilton. It's actually kind of eerie.
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Van Gundy: Atlanta has great players, and I have no doubt it'll make a run to the East finals. There are only four or five teams that are true contenders at this point, and the Hawks are one of them.
Jenkins: In a year the Hawks have gone from the 8 seed to the 1, even though their most significant acquisition was Thabo Sefolosha. Everything clicked for Atlanta this season, but oddly enough, the Sefolosha acquisition did not. He started only seven games, averaged fewer than 19 minutes and never made the impact that he did in Oklahoma City. Given the circumstances surrounding Sefolosha's injury, the Hawks could find themselves in the public eye for political reasons, but considering the way this season started, they're used to that.
Thomas: The Knicks won 37 games last year, the Hawks won 38. Both of those teams were injured throughout the year [last year]. The Hawks kept their team and brought back their healthy players, and they are the No. 1 team in the East. Regardless, they are an incredible story. The Knicks....
How do you like the Cavaliers' chances?
Andre Drummond, Pistons center: They are going to be tough to stop now that they've added J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Timofey Mozgov gives them a low-post presence they really needed, too.
Jenkins: I was talking with a former GM recently and he steered the conversation to the hot news story of the day, which was the revelation that LeBron calls a lot of the Cavaliers' plays. "Isn't that great?" he said. "As a coach, as a GM, that's what you always want—for your best players to take ownership of the system. It means he's made the emotional investment."
Thomas: Smith and Shumpert solidify their defensive perimeter play, which is so critical in today's NBA. I don't know if I've ever witnessed a time in my life when the perimeter defense was as bad as it is now. We rave about how guys can dribble and get to the rim, but there used to be a defender there! Shumpert is making a huge presence defensively and Smith is a very prideful defender. They've also changed their defensive schemes, which is leading to way more success. I don't want to harp on Shumpert and Smith too much, but these are two guys who helped win the Atlantic Division two years ago and played big minutes. They'll play critical roles this postseason. If Cleveland can get past Chicago, I believe the Cavs will come out of the East.
Van Gundy: This is a personnel league, not a system league. They've been dominant since going to their new eight-man rotation. I know we're only allowed to blame [coach] David Blatt for things, but the work he and [GM] David Griffin have done this season gets lost in the shuffle. If [Anderson] Varejão doesn't get hurt, I don't think they get Mozgov, and then they aren't good enough to contend. Blatt has made hard choices instead of trying to appease a lot of people, and that's always a sign of a great coach.
Billups: It's tough to pick against them. You're going to have to beat LeBron James four out of seven times. That's a tall order, man.
Most vulnerable team heading into the playoffs?
Jenkins:I’ll go with the Hawks, and not because they shoot too many threes or lack experience or don’t employ a megastar. From the beginning of February through the end of March, they lost some of their juice, going 16-11 in that span. Maybe they just got bored, or maybe they peaked early. Fortunately for the Hawks, they should skate to the conference semis, and you’d assume they’d cruise to the conference finals as well. But they have had a really hard time with the Raptors. They’re 1-3 against Toronto, and in the most recent meeting right after the All-Star break, they lost at home by 25.
Billups: Memphis. The Grizzlies haven’t played well lately, but I think their style translates to the playoffs. They are going to be rugged; they are going to call a play every time down the court and pound it in the post. I think they are a team that can get hot and upset and make it through if they can get their offense on track.
Thomas: I don't see anyone struggling, what I see is teams getting healthier. Chicago has struggled with injuries all season, but they're going into the postseason with a healthy roster. I think it'll be Cleveland in the second round and whichever team emerges will win the East.
Drummond: The Mavericks haven't been themselves the past few weeks, but I think they have all of the pieces to be a really good team. They added Chandler Parsons in the offseason and Amar'e Stoudemire down the stretch—those are two big pick-ups. If they are able to put those pieces together, they can play really well.
Who is this year’s Most Valuable Player?
Thomas: If you could ever have co-MVPs, this would be the year. I give the nod to James Harden over Stephen Curry simply because he’s done more with less. The injuries, the midseason trades, the loss to the Blazers last year—that team has showed resolve.
Billups: There’s really no wrong answer between Harden and Curry, but Harden is the pick because he’s kept Houston afloat by himself.
Jenkins: Without Harden, the Rockets are a lottery team. With him, they remind me of the 2011 Bulls, who had a defense that kept things close and a point guard who finished them.
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Drummond: LeBron James. He’s the best on a nightly basis. I don’t know if people are tired of voting for him or what, but he is who you expect him to be every night.
Van Gundy: I think awards don’t give enough credit to winning. I hope Curry wins, but if I’d vote for Harden just slightly over Curry and James. The Rockets have won at an extraordinary level despite a number of injuries.
Does the playoffs format need revamping?
Jenkins: Russell Westbrook is going to miss the playoffs and that's a shame. We need him on the big stage more than Avery Bradley or Joe Johnson. Everyone keeps waiting for the cycle to switch, and the East to catch up with the West, but it hasn't happened for two decades and there's no sign of it happening anytime soon. East teams already get the benefit of facing each other all the time. They shouldn't make the playoffs unless they finish with one of the best 16 records.
Billups: You've got 3-4 teams in the East that don't deserve to be in the playoffs. The postseason should feature the top 16 teams.
Van Gundy: Someone said this a long time ago and Daryl Morey once said it to me: 'Every organization needs a vice president of common sense.' Our playoff format, to me, needs one desperately. The only people who still think division tiles mean something is the league office. I don't understand the debate and why the top 16 teams don't make it. Trying to make the case that a worse team should be in the playoffs over a team with a better record just makes zero sense to me.
Drummond: I don't think so. I think the current format works.
What's one lesson you learned in the playoffs?
Billups: I learned one my first year going to playoffs in Minnesota. We played against San Antonio. They were a great team, we were the underdog. The first two games were on the road in San Antonio. I remembered playing them in the regular season and (we) actually matched up pretty well. But we started that first game, and they were up 25 just like that. You could tell that something was different. This was not the same team anymore. Same guys, same building, different team. I said to myself, 'OK, the playoffs are different.'
Thomas: You really have to lock in on your opponent. The game changes because it's slower and because the players now have time to prepare. Things you could get away with during the regular season because of travel, fatigue etc., you can't get away with now. There are no shortcuts.
Van Gundy: One of the biggest myths is that you can't play fast and win in the playoffs. I think you have to balance and be able to guard. But however you create good shots, if you can make them and have good enough shooting and can get to the line—you can win! If you can't create good shots, you're going to struggle, no matter the speed. You can still play with good pace and win big games. I wish in some way the "Seven Seconds Or Less" Suns would have won it all or gotten to the Finals, because then maybe that would have dispelled that you can't play a certain way in the postseason.
What's your Finals prediction?
Jenkins: I've searched for a reason to pick against the Warriors and I'm tapped out. In the NBA, unlike other sports, the best team is usually the one holding the trophy at the end. Golden State has the best team, by far. Warriors over Cavaliers.
Billups: The Spurs have championship DNA. The Warrior needs to get their heart broken one time to get over the hump. That's what happened with Cleveland when I was in Detroit. After losing to us, LeBron and the Cavs finally got good enough to get through to the Finals. They remembered that feeling and what it's like to lose and used it as motivation. Spurs over Cavaliers.
Van Gundy: I truly don't believe the Warriors will be challenged. I think Golden State is being undersold, and I really don't understand it. Teams as dominant as Golden State offensively and defensively win it all unless they have a major injury. In the East, I think the Hawks are going to upset the Cavaliers. They'll get it to seven and find a way. Warriors over Hawks.
Drummond: The Cavs are playing with unbelievable confidence, and I think with the momentum they have, they'll be tough to stop. Cavaliers over Warriors.
Thomas: I'm going to give San Antonio its due respect and pick the champions. In the East, Cleveland has the two best players on one team in Kyrie Irving and LeBron, but Chicago has the edge in the coaching matchup. I just think the talent factor gives them too much of an advantage. Spurs over Cavaliers.