With the 2016 NBA playoffs starting Saturday, SI.com’s experts provide their predictions on which teams will be playing in June. The first round features several entertaining matchups and intriguing players sure to have an impact throughout the summer.
I realize I’m climbing out on a very long limb with some of these Eastern Conference picks so I’ll try to explain. Cleveland is clearly the best team and should make the Finals. So what if the Cavaliers have been a season-long soap opera? So what if they have seemingly clashed on the court and in cyberspace? Talented squads flip switches all the time. They win whether or not they happen to love each other. But the road becomes harder. They are more liable to fracture when tested, and the Cavs will be tested. The East is a jumble, and if Cleveland trips, the race opens. I am pegging the Hawks and Hornets to make deep runs, for similar reasons. They are supremely well-coached, they shoot the three (Atlanta ranks sixth in three-point makes, Charlotte fourth) and they have played well in the second half of the season (Atlanta has won 17 of its last 24, Charlotte 25 of 34). Maybe it doesn’t help that they also get along, but it can’t hurt.
I’m not picking against the 73-win Warriors so much as I’m stubbornly sticking with my preseason predictions. Out West, I like the Spurs to make quick work out of the ailing Grizzlies with their major talent and depth advantages before leaning on their experience and execution to take down the top-heavy Thunder. The Warriors went a combined 7–0 against the Rockets and Clippers this season and it would be a real surprise if either team took the defending champions past five games. Golden State owns major balance and commitment advantages over Houston and, unlike L.A. with Blake Griffin, it doesn’t face significant health and lineup fit questions.
Back East, I view the Cavaliers strolling past the Pistons and Celtics, two teams lacking in good individual matchups for LeBron James and any level of demonstrated postseason success. The Heat will have a tougher go on the other side of the bracket, but I trust that their second-half success, collective experience and coach Erik Spoelstra’s steady hand will be enough to get past the Hornets and Raptors, two teams lacking playoff pedigrees.
PHOTOS: NBA championship rings throughout the years
NBA Championship Rings Through the Years
2017-18 Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their third title in four years. The team got reversible rings with 74 sapphries on one side of the ring. The 74 represents the total number of victories the team earned during the regular season and playoffs in bringing home the franchise's sixth championship.
2016-17 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals to win their second title in three years.
2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA Finals MVP LeBron James and the Cavs defeated the defending champion Warriors in seven games for these rings featuring the Cavaliers’ “C” wrapped around the Larry O’Brien trophy.
2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors took home these beauties after upending LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games for their first title in 40 years.
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs
The Heat aimed to three-peat, but the Spurs had other ideas. Kawhi Leonard had a couple of breakout performances on his way to series MVP, and San Antonio ran away from Miami in five games.
2012-13 Miami Heat
These rings would have never seen the light of day had Ray Allen not made one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history. Thanks to Allen, the Heat rallied and defeated the Spurs in overtime in Game 6, and then won two days later to repeat as champs.
2011-12 Miami Heat
LeBron James got his first ring as the Heat overwhelmed the Thunder in five games. James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
Dallas won three straight games to erase a 2-1 deficit and squash the newly formed Miami Big Three's title dreams. This was also the Mavericks' first NBA title in franchise history.
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics held a 3-2 lead in this series, but the Lakers took care of business at the Staples Center in Game 6 and 7 to repeat as champs. This was the fifth and final set of rings for Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant.
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers survived in a pair of overtime battles and then pulled away from the Magic in Game 5 to win their first NBA title since 2002's three-peat. Kobe Bryant won series MVP with averages of 32.4 points and 7.4 assists.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
Acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen during the off-season paid off quickly for Boston. In their first year, Garnett and Allen teamed up with Paul Pierce to defeat the Lakers in six games and bring the Celtics new jewelry for the first time since 1986.
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs
LeBron James' Cavaliers broke through to the finals, but they were no match for the Spurs, who completed the sweep for their third title in five years.
2005-06 Miami Heat
In their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, the Heat became the third team in league history to win a championship after trailing 0-2. Dwayne Wade averaged 39.3 points in the next four games as Miami won the series in six.
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs
This series was almost as close as possible. The Spurs and the Pistons entered the fourth quarter of Game 7 tied, and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio in the fourth quarter to its third title under coach Greg Popovich.
2003-04 Detroit Pistons
Larry Brown had an NCAA title ring, and a 4-1 victory over the Lakers gave the coach his first NBA championship ring. Brown remains the only coach to win an NCAA and NBA title.
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
In one of the great all-time playoff performances, Tim Duncan fell barely shy of a quadruple double with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks in the series-clinching Game 6.
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers
The Nets did not put up much resistance as the Lakers completed a 4-0 sweep for their third straight title, giving coach Phil Jackson his ninth NBA title in 12 seasons.
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers
Allen Iverson carried the 76ers to a Eastern Conference title and Game 1 victory against the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were too much for The Answer. Los Angeles won the next four games, including three straight in Philadelphia, to win its second straight championship.
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers
In his return to coaching, Phil Jackson guided the Lakers to a 4-2 series victory against the Pacers, coached by Larry Bird. Shaquille O'Neal averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, earning his first of three straight Finals MVPs.
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs
In a battle of dominant frontcourts, David Robinson and Tim Duncan bested Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson as the Spurs defeated the Knicks in five games for their first NBA title.
1997-98 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan's jump shot with 5.6 seconds remaining in Game 6 gave the Bulls their second three-peat of the decade. Since then, Chicago has no NBA Finals appearances and only one conference finals appearance.
1996-97 Chicago Bulls
In a series featuring six Hall of Fame players, the Bulls defeated the Jazz in six games as Michael Jordan fought through food poisoning to lead Chicago to wins in Game 5 and Game 6.
1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Dennis Rodman tied an NBA Finals record in Game 2 with 11 offensive rebounds against Seattle and then did it again in Game 6, the series clincher, but Michael Jordan was once again the no-brainer series MVP, averaging 27.3 points 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
1994-95 Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon taught young Shaquille O'Neal a few lessons in this series as the Rockets swept the Magic for their second consecutive NBA title. The Rockets were the first No. 6 seed to win a Finals series.
1993-94 Houston Rockets
The Rockets ended a five-season title drought for the Western Conference as Hakeem Olajuwon charged victories in Game 6 and Game 7 in Houston.
1992-93 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls became the first team to three-peat since Bill Russell's Celtics in the 1960s. Chicago defeated Phoenix in six games, leaving Charles Barkley without a ring.
1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan shrugged his way to a NBA Finals record six first-half three-pointers in Game of 1 of this series, and the Bulls went on to win in six games.
1990-91 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls recorded their first-ever NBA title as Michael Jordan led the way averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks to defeat the Showtime Lakers in five games.
1989-90 Detroit PIstons
For the first time since 1979, the NBA Finals did not include at least one of the Celtics or the Lakers. The Bad Boy Pistons faced Clyde Drexler and the Trail Blazers, winning in five games for their second straight championship.
1988-89 Detroit PIstons
The Lakers led entering the fourth quarter three times during this series but could never hold on as the Pistons swept them in four games.
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers
This time, the Lakers got the best of the Pistons in a thrilling seven games series where the final two games were decided by a combined four points.
1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
In a high-scoring series, the Lakers and the Celtics each broke the century in the first five games. Then Los Angeles held Boston to 93 points to win the series in Game 6.
1985-86 Boston Celtics
The Celtics captured their second title in three years, defeating the Rockets in six games. Larry Bird fell just shy of averaging a triple with 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers
In a series that featured nine Hall of Fame players, the Lakers got revenge from one year earlier with a 4-2 victory against the Celtics.
1983-84 Boston Celtics
The Celtics came out on top in the first of three 1980s finals meetings with the Lakers. Larry Bird averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds, getting the best of Magic Johnson, who's Michigan State team got defeated Bird's Indiana State squad in the 1979 NCAA championship.
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
In a rematch of the 1982 finals, Moses Malone tore up the Lakers front line for 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game as Philadelphia swept Los Angeles.
San Antonio will need some help—injury-related or otherwise—to spring the upset on Golden State, but excellent home court advantage, a high defensive ceiling, a deliberate style of play and lineup versatility give the Spurs a fighting chance. I see LeBron James advancing to his sixth straight Finals by vanquishing his former team thanks to his unmatched individual prowess and a supporting cast that can match up big or small with any lineup the Heat runs out.
In the Finals, I see the Spurs besting the Cavaliers for three reasons: Kawhi Leonard will make James work on every possession and limit his overall impact, Gregg Popovich will exploit Cleveland’s defensive weak links like Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and the Spurs’ cohesiveness will ultimately win out over a Cavaliers team that doesn’t seem to trust each other quite enough to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy.
It was tempting to call a Celtics playoff run. The team is geared for the postseason, Brad Stevens is impressive, and Boston vs the Warriors would be a lot of fun. The C’s perimeter defenders and unconventional bigs gave Golden State trouble this season. Still, it’s hard to see Boston beating Cleveland in a 7-game series. The Hornets are another team that should fare well, and they should take the first round series in a mild upset. Other than that, it feels like a whole lotta chalk, ending with another Cavs-Warriors matchup that, while entertaining, will likely end with Steph Curry drenched in confetti. This is the Warriors’ era, and they’ll stake their claim to greatness with a repeat.
Although a few teams have the potential to prevent a Warriors-Cavs reunion in the NBA Finals, no challenger is compelling enough to pick as an outright favorite in their respective conferences. Golden State remains unsolvable. Give the defending champs three games or so against most any strategy and they’ll pick it apart. Even San Antonio—an alltime great team in its own right—appeared to be at a loss in its efforts to contain Stephen Curry and Co. There are strategies the Spurs might use to gain ground in a series, though seemingly none that could throw the Warriors sufficiently off balance.
Cleveland is significantly more vulnerable. Yet for all of the profound weirdness surrounding the Cavaliers—the disjointed play, the poor body language, the veiled shots fired—every other East contender comes off as less reliable. LeBron James raises the baseline of Cleveland’s play. Even if the ball movement and defense aren’t as finely tuned as they should be, James is dominant enough to propel the Cavs through round after round in the Eastern Conference bracket. Not that it much matters; the Cavs would be at a disadvantage in a Finals series against any of the three top teams in the West and against a healthy Warriors team most of all.
Unlike the annual crapshoot that is the NCAA tournament, it’s tough to pick an upset in the NBA playoffs. You’re basically banking on a team becoming something they haven’t been all season. A seven-game series is a great way to take chance almost entirely out of the question. Then again, chalk doesn’t always prevail. Players catch fire, strategy trumps talent, injuries and fatigue set in. But I can’t imagine a scenario where the Warriors and Cavaliers don’t meet once again in the Finals. While the Spurs got the Warriors to play their style of basketball in late-season meetings, Golden State proved it’s better at San Antonio’s bread and butter. The East has plenty of feel-good stories, but is short on feel-good upset picks. I’m predicting another year of LeBron and Steph in the Finals and back-to-back titles for the Warriors. It’s a boring pick, but it won’t be boring to watch.
As a logical, levelheaded human being, it’s impossible to pick against Golden State. Watching Stephen Curry and the Warriors march toward 73 wins and their own piece of NBA history this season has been incredible. The experience could only be topped if the Warriors, like the Bulls in 1995–96, complete their mission with an NBA title in June. The climb for Golden State will not be without adversity, as they are likely to face the Rockets, Clippers and Spurs before even reaching the Finals.
There, if my expectations hold true, they will encounter LeBron James and the Cavaliers for a second straight season. Unlike the Warriors, the Cavs face a relatively easy task in the Eastern Conference, but their journey through the playoffs is unlikely to serve as proper preparation for the flame-throwers at Golden State’s disposal. As well-rounded as any team to ever play, the Warriors are built to combat a singular talent like James, and I think they will do so in more impressive fashion than they did in 2015.
I feel terrible going mostly chalk early, and deathly boring rolling with Warriors over Cavs. It’s just an inevitable feeling. I saw Batman vs. Superman earlier this week and from the mess came away with a loosely-derived metaphor. We’ve spent 80% of the time this season closely watching these two familiar, highly-bankable properties, knowing they will eventually get to slam each other through walls and generally make a scene. Just look at Steph and LeBron: one is an overpowered alien life form whose mere existence has dictated the dialogue surrounding the world’s recent state of affairs as we know it, the other an increasingly-mortal man who’s spent a decade mostly taking care of business, but is morally incapable of killing.
It says plenty that this thought didn’t spoil a single thing about the movie’s plot, and similarly, I’m calling no big-picture surprises. I do like both five-over-four “upsets”—I’ve never felt too confident in this Clippers team, and I’m buying playoff Brad Stevens. I believe the Heat have another deep run in the tank, and think the Spurs can execute enough to push the Warriors to seven games. But Golden State’s charmed run doesn’t feel like it’s stopping anytime soon, the Cavs are still the East’s most talented team for all their absurdities, and one of these two teams is significantly improved from last year’s Finals, while the other is simply not. It might just be that simple.