NBA Power Rankings: Playoff edition
The NBA playoffs have finally arrived, meaning it’s time to say goodbye to the Power Rankings for the year, but not before one final playoff edition.
All 30 teams now have 82 games in the books, which should be more than enough for us to decipher the contenders from the pretenders. Winning streaks and losing skids have come and gone, No. 1’s have been crowned and dethroned and hot takes have proven scolding and cold.
But now that the postseason is here, it’s time to answer one final question. Who is the favorite going into the 2015 playoffs? None other than the San Antonio Spurs.
Golden State has sat atop these rankings for most of the season, but San Antonio has been the title favorite all along. The Spurs began the year at No. 1 and they’ll finish it there as well. So why am I ditching the Warriors at the altar?
[daily_cut]San Antonio is 46-18 with Kawhi Leonard in the lineup and held an 11-game winning streak as recently as last week. They have unparalleled postseason success, winning the title last year and five in the Duncan-Popovich Era. They also have experienced the pain of deep postseason defeat, two things the Warriors cannot claim.
Maybe I’ve been burned by the Spurs too many times to fall victim to the San Antonio snub again, but the defending champs are my favorite heading into the 2015 playoffs. We all know what Gregg Popovich thinks of the regular season, which is why we shouldn’t base our postseason projections entirely on the last 82 games. We also know what a well-paced Spurs team is capable of during the postseason.
Without further ado, SI.com’s NBA playoff power rankings:
(All stats and records through end of regular season)
The Warriors won the regular season, but the Spurs are the defending champions and get the nod entering the postseason. San Antonio won 11 straight games to close out the season before losing its finale. Over those 12 games, the Spurs led the NBA in net rating (17.9), offensive efficiency (113.3) AND defensive efficiency (95.4). That’s the holy trinity of domination and more than enough reason to believe the Spurs are the favorites to win it all.
The only thing missing from Golden State’s postseason resume is experience. They have the NBA’s best defense, an offense powered by the best backcourt in the league by miles, a host of versatile players and ball-stoppers on the perimeter, wing and post. The Warriors will have no trouble dispatching the Pelicans and could cruise to the conference finals, but the Playoff Version Spurs may prove too challenging.
Can LeBron James make his fifth straight Finals? He has his best Big Three yet at his side. James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were the highest scoring trio in the NBA (63.4 ppg) this season and figure to be relied on even more in the playoffs. David Blatt’s substitution patterns have been questioned, but his rotation will be tight come the postseason.
The Rockets managed to snag the No. 2 seed in the West despite playing the stretch run without Dwight Howard. That might not be enough to earn James Harden MVP, but it was enough to give Houston some breathing room in the playoffs. The Rockets downed the Mavericks in three of four games this season and will enjoy home court advantage at least until the conference finals should it prevail. It could even find itself hosting the defending champion Spurs if all goes to plan. For that to happen, Houston will need its All-Star center to pair perfectly with Harden, something he’s told SI.com he’s willing to do. The Rockets were great without Howard, but their ceiling is even higher with him.
How far can the NBA’s best offense carry the Clippers? L.A. ended the season winning 14 of its final 15 games, racking up an offensive rating (112.8) that was a full three points better than its league-leading mark (109.8) on the season. There is one potential dark cloud looming over the Clippers’ postseason hopes, and you can bet Popovich is eyeing it. DeAndre Jordan could be shamed off the court if his free-throw shooting (39.7%) continues to be stunningly unsightly. That invites opponents to foul away, sending Jordan to the line and stalling the Clippers’ game. One stat that plays devil’s advocate: The Clippers are 9-0 when Jordan attempts at least 14 free throws this season, despise the fact he shot just 42.6%.
The Hawks are the trickiest team in the postseason to peg. That’s usually not the case for No. 1 seeds. But despite winning 60 games, including 19 straight, and treating the rest of the East like a rag doll, Atlanta carries some concerns entering the postseason. For starters, its lost eight of its last 15, albeit while resting some players. They’ve also lost Thabo Sefolosha for the season, an important role player with postseason experience. Fate has them returning to New York to start the playoffs, the scene of Sefolosha’s injury and he and teammate Pero Antic’s arrest. Recent skids, injuries and distractions? That’s enough to at least cause hesitation. Atlanta shouldn’t have any problem in the opening round and it doesn’t have to face Cleveland or Chicago until the conference finals. We’ll have to wait a few more weeks to find out if the Hawks are true contenders.
The Grizzlies traded for Jeff Green with the hopes of becoming a more versatile team. Instead, he’s been the exact opposite: an awkward fit. Green has bounced between the three and the four for Memphis and not had much luck playing either. His net rating (-3.2) is the lowest of any player on the team to average double-digit minutes and the team is statistically worse on offense and defense when he’s on the floor. Some of that can be explained by playing with the Grizzlies’ second unit, but Green has also started 37 of 45 games with Memphis including its final eight games. It appears Green will stay in the starting lineup as the postseason begins, slotted at the three alongside Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. If he can round them out, the Grizzlies can grind with anyone in the West.
The days of Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls being a defense-only team are long gone. Chicago actually ranked higher in offensive efficiency (No. 10) than defensive efficiency (No. 11) this year, a sign that the Bulls have diversified their skill set. Of course, they’re a shadow of their former self without Derrick Rose, who missed 31 games this season. But with him, they’ve been a stunning force (33-18) even though he hasn’t always been at his best. Rose will need to be just that for Chicago to get past Cleveland in the second round. The Bulls have a deep frontcourt that should be able to take advantage of the Cavaliers’ thin iffy interior defense.
The deck may be stacked against the Blazers making it out of the first round for the second straight year. Although Portland is the No. 4 seed, it surrenders home court advantage to Memphis, which owned the better regular-season record. Worse, the Blazers were swept by the Grizzlies (0-4) during the season. Wes Matthews is out for the season, LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing hurt for months and Portland saw not one, not two, but three players suffer injuries in their regular-season finale. Portland pulled off postseason magic last year with Damian Lillard’s series-winning three against the Rockets, but it’ll be tough to pull off the same theatrics once again.
The Mavericks dealt for Rajon Rondo with the intentions of going all in on this season, but they enter the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the West and outside the conversation of contenders. Their starting lineup is among the NBA’s best on paper, but the results are closer to the middle of the pack. Dallas is just 17-14 when starting Rondo, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. To make matters worse, Dallas has struggled against Houston this season, going 1-3. In order for the Mavericks to make some magic, they’ll need their starters to finally click.
If New Orleans has any chance of hanging with Golden State, it’ll need Anthony Davis to take his game to new heights, which is cliché but also virtually impossible. The 21-year-old led the league in PER (30.8) and blocks (2.9) while averaging 24.4 points and 10.2 rebounds to boot. He might also be the only player in the league the Warriors can’t match up with (not that anyone else can either). As elite of a defender as Andrew Bogut is, he doesn’t have the range or dexterity to keep up with the fleet-footed Davis. The Pelicans need big performances from their three-pronged backcourt as well, but the key to their future rests on The Brow.
Two things plagued Toronto this season: Injuries and defensive issues. The former has been taken care of. The latter remains to be seen. Toronto’s offense is one of the five best in the league, but its defense has been its Achilles heel all year. The Raptors allowed the worst opponent-field goal percentage (42.4%) of any playoff team and the second-worst defensive rating (104.8). The good news is they’ve had success playing against the Wizards, sweeping the season series 3-0. If that trend continues and Toronto’s defense holds up, it could advance to the second round for just the second time in its 20-year history.
It took the Wizards 30 games to reach eight losses this season, but they managed to rack up another eight defeats in just their final 14. With the team drifting in the wrong direction at the wrong time of the year, Paul Pierce attempted to wake up his young teammates with some blistering Truth to ESPN.com Unfortunately, he might have riled up the wrong people. John Wall was forced to defend himself and the Raptors and Nets gained bulletin board material. For Washington to win its first-round series, its going to need to produce more than headlines. The Wizards rank No. 26 in offensive efficiency since the All-Star break, behind lottery teams like the Timberwolves, Lakers and Magic.
Here’s what we know: The Celtics won six straight to close the season and and 15 of 21 to close out the year. Their head coach would be a Coach of the Year front-runner in almost any other year and their sixth man would be taking home hardware too if he had more than 21 games with the C's under his belt. Boston has a playoff-worthy defense and an offense that … has several players. The Celtics are a feel-good, underdog story, but the book only has four, maybe five, more pages.
Milwaukee faces an ideal first-round opponent in Chicago. The Bucks have plenty of size and depth to give the Bulls a serious challenge if their offense stalls out. Milwaukee hasn’t been able to replace Brandon Knight’s production since its midseason makeover, but Michael Carter-Williams has stepped up of late, scoring 30 points twice in April and shooting 50.9% from the field (compared to 39.6% on the season). Offense remains elusive for Milwaukee (No. 26 in efficiency this season) and it’ll need MCW’s best to upset the Bulls.
The Nets are a playoff team whether you like it or not. Brooklyn lost four of its last seven games, yet still prevailed in the East’s “playoff race,” if you can call it that. Maybe I’m just being negative because I’m used to roasting teams from New York at the bottom of the list, but every time I watch Deron Williams turn it over or Joe Johnson clank a long two off the rim, I’m going to think about the fact that the Nets are a playoff team and the Thunder, who won seven more games and possess the most electrifying player in basketball, will be spending this spring at home. The only solace is the 2015 Eastern Conference playoffs will likely be more than enough to convince Adam Silver to look at postseason reform.