1. New blood replaces blue blood
Up was down and down was up in 2013-14 for marquee franchises like the Lakers, Celtics and Knicks, and the 2014 playoffs will mark the first time ever that all three teams miss the postseason in the same year. With Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Rajon Rondo all watching from the sidelines, a new crop of fresh faces will get the chance to enjoy the bright lights of the postseason.
All told, five of the 16 playoff teams -- the Raptors, Wizards, Bobcats, Blazers and Mavericks -- are new to the playoffs after missing out last year. That number is above average during the post-Michael Jordan era, and there are a number of up-and-coming stars to thank for the turnover. Let's start with three first-time All-Stars: Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, Wizards guard John Wall and Blazers guard Damian Lillard.
In Toronto, DeRozan has emerged as a top-10 scorer and a Most Improved Player candidate by filling out his offensive game around his absurd athleticism. In the nation's capital, Wall has vaulted into the "top five point guards" conversation and delivered on his 2010 No. 1 overall draft pick status, by virtue of averaging 19.1 points, 8.7 assists, four rebounds and 1.8 steals. Across the country, Lillard has settled into life in the Rose City, pairing with three-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge to give Portland a potent one-two punch and ranking among the league's most voluminous three-point threats.
There are stories to track in Charlotte and Dallas, too. Al Jefferson, signed by the Bobcats last summer, will get his first chance at leaving a major impact in the playoffs after finishing the season as one of just five players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds this year. All eyes in Texas will be on the "reformed" Monta Ellis, signed last summer. The mercurial scorer has upped his shooting numbers this season, and he will need to have a huge series in support of Dirk Nowitzki if the Mavericks are to avoid a quick exit against a more balanced Spurs team.
The sidelines will be teeming with new faces, too. Six of the 16 teams represented in the postseason are coached by men with no playoff experience as head coaches: Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta), Dwane Casey (Toronto), Steve Clifford (Charlotte), Dave Joerger (Memphis), Jason Kidd (Brooklyn) and Randy Wittman (Washington). Four of those coaches -- Budenholzer, Clifford, Joerger and Kidd -- are in their first year on the job. Additionally, Blazers coach Terry Stotts will also enter the postseason with a +.500 team for the first time in his career, and Clippers coach Doc Rivers will be entering his first postseason in L.A.
2. Power imbalance
Whatever you do, do not immediately give up on the first-round of the playoffs after watching the early games featuring teams from the East. Go West, young man, if you're seeking real thrills.
The West's dominance has been an ongoing story all year, and now that the regular season is complete, we can tally up the damage. The average record of the eight West playoff teams? 55-27. The average record of the eight East playoff teams? 47-35. The league's top three records all reside in the West, the league's top four point differentials all reside in the West, and Dallas, the West's No. 8 seed, finished with a better record than Toronto, the East's No. 3 seed.
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The disparity is actually even worse than it looks, because each teams plays more games within its conference than against the opposing conference. West playoff teams won nearly three-quarters of their games against all East teams this year, running up a combined 181-65 (.736) record. Conversely, East playoff teams won less than half of their games against the West, going a combined 119-121 (.496).
What does this imbalance mean? Well, it guarantees that for every East snoozer there will be a West thriller. The West's eight playoff teams include six of the league's seven best offenses, with Memphis standing as the only team with an offense that failed to crack league average. Expect fearless offense, intense match-ups and prepare for the possibility of an upset, as the West's field may include some flawed teams, but there are no true weak links.
3. Upset specials?
Last year's playoffs produced three first-round upsets: Warriors over Nuggets, Grizzlies over Clippers, and Bulls over Nets. All three series provided memorable moments, thanks to Stephen Curry, Zach Randolph and Joakim Noah, among others. Will there be similar surprises in order this year?
Perhaps. Point differential suggests that the 2014 postseason field is actually more evenly matched than 2013. The eight favorites last year entered the playoffs with a point differential that was, on average, 4.5 points better than their opponent. This year, that disparity is down to 3.4.
There are a few explanations. First, both Miami and Oklahoma City were out of this world good during the 2012-13 regular season from a point differential perspective, and both regressed this season. As a result, their first-round match-ups are both tighter on paper. While no one is expecting the Bobcats to shock the world against the Heat, the Thunder will almost certainly be pushed harder by the Grizzlies this year than they were by the Rockets last year, even taking into account the loss of Russell Westbrook last year.
A second factor at work: Bulls/Wizards and Rockets/Blazers are both exceedingly tight 4/5 match-ups. Chicago and Houston enjoy point differential advantages of just 0.58 and 0.57, respectively. Those are much smaller margins than any of the 2013 favorites enjoyed, and that could wind up making for two very competitive 4/5 series.
Go up and down the playoff field, and you will find so many teams whose season has been a "tale of two halves." Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago and Memphis have all turned it on after righting the ship midseason, while Atlanta, Indiana, Miami, Portland and Oklahoma City endured more ups and downs during the stretch run.
Interested in who pulled themselves together during the second half of the season and who limped to the finish? Here's a look at each team's winning percentage before and after Jan. 1. Click here to enlarge.
Brooklyn, Chicago and Memphis have all been totally different teams in recent months than they were early on. There are obvious explanations -- injuries to Derrick Rose, Marc Gasol and a host of Nets players, plus transition periods that followed -- but all three have sustained really strong play for months now. If you're looking for three teams to outperform their seeds, these are three pretty good choices, as they have shown improvement (in some cases, major improvement) on both sides of the ball.
Off. Eff. ranking -- Before Jan. 1: 17 | After Jan. 1: 12
Def. Eff. ranking -- Before Jan. 1: 29 | After Jan. 1: 12
Off. Eff. ranking -- Before Jan. 1: 29 | After Jan. 1: 26
Def. Eff. ranking -- Before Jan. 1: 4 | After Jan. 1: 1
Off. Eff. ranking -- Before Jan. 1: 19| After Jan. 1: 16
Def. Eff. ranking -- Before Jan. 1: 24 | After Jan. 1: 3
Interestingly, the top two seeds in both conferences -- the Heat, Pacers, Thunder and Spurs -- have all slowed down somewhat since the calendar flipped. Was that slippage caused by boredom, especially in the East? Can we attribute Oklahoma City's drop to injuries? Is this a real cause for concern, or will the "momentum" talk prove meaningless once the playoffs start and every game matters? We'll find out soon enough. By the way, it sure says a lot about how great the Spurs have been that they can enjoy a perfect March and still not have match their fast start through November/December.
Knock on wood, but the top contenders all enter the postseason in relatively good health.
In the East, Heat guard Dwyane Wade was able to return to the lineup for the last week of the regular season after missing an extended stretch with a hamstring injury. The Pacers have enjoyed good stability all season -- with all five starters playing at least 76 games -- and C.J. Watson recently returned to the lineup after suffering a hamstring to help stabilize the second unit.
Out West, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook has been taken off of his minutes restriction after undergoing multiple knee surgeries this season, and he's played well since returning in February. Although Kendrick Perkins (groin) and Thabo Sefolosha (calf) both missed all of March, they returned to the court in April and enjoyed meaningful pre-playoffs minutes. The Spurs have kept their rotation in pristine condition, with no single player averaging more than 30 minutes per night, and Tim Duncan avoided a late-season knee scare. Finally, the Clippers have recently welcomed the returns of J.J. Redick (back) and Jamal Crawford (Achilles), while the Rockets got both Dwight Howard (ankle) and Patrick Beverley (knee) back in the lineup this week.
Names to watch on the injury front include...
Andrew Bogut, Warriors: Golden State's hopes of making noise in the playoffs suffered a crushing blow when their Australian center and defensive whiz suffered a fractured rib just days before the start of the postseason. He is out indefinitely and is not expected to return, forcing coach Mark Jackson to turn to Jermaine O'Neal and/or small ball lineups.
Patrick Beverley, Rockets: Houston's pesky point guard played in the final three games of the regular season after missing roughly two weeks with a meniscus injury. Doctors decided that surgery wasn't absolutely necessary, and Beverley welcomed the opportunity to play. He's a key cog for the Rockets, and faces the prospect of guarding Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, and Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook if Houston wants to make a dark horse run to the Finals.
Nene, Wizards: The Brazilian big man returned to the court in April after missing roughly six weeks with a knee injury. He logged limited minutes in his four appearances, but registered double figures in all four games.
Kevin Garnett, Nets: The 37-year-old big man sat out all of March with a back injury and has grabbed 10 rebounds just once since the All-Star break. Brooklyn has fared surprisingly well without him, but let's not forget that KG had five double-doubles in six games for the Celtics against the Knicks in the 2013 playoffs.
Greg Oden, Heat: Another oft-injured center, Oden has logged just 13 minutes since a Mar. 26 loss to the Pacers in which he was dominated by Roy Hibbert. Will Oden crack Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's postseason rotation? On the season, the 2007 No. 1 overall pick averaged 2.9 points and 2.3 rebounds in 9.2 minutes per game over 23 appearances.
Andrew Bynum, Pacers: Picked up midseason, the oft-injured center played just two games for Indiana before going back on the shelf with knee issues. Coach Frank Vogel has ruled out Bynum for the first round.
Joel Freeland, Blazers: A second-year reserve forward/center, Freeland missed more than two months with a knee injury before returning in the final game of Portland's regular season. The British national is Portland's best option as a third big, and coach Terry Stotts said he would be able to play Freeland with "no reservations" against the Rockets, but also left the door open for reserve forwards Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson.
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