It’s been ages since Jordan and Julius have brought you a J&J’s Top 5 NBA article, so here’s one just in time for the most wonderful time of the year: the Playoffs. The teams have been chosen to battle it out for NBA Title, so here’s Jordan and Julius’ picks for the best teams in the NBA Playoffs.
Julius’ Top 5 Playoff Teams
5. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls would be much higher on my list if it weren’t for all the ambivalence surrounding the team. Despite, the injury-riddled season that Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and even Mike Dunleavy have endured, the Bulls are seemingly entering the playoffs at full strength, which makes them a very formidable club, but only if they are healthy. Among all the aforementioned players, the Bulls’ success in the postseason will be incumbent on former-MVP Derrick Rose’s effectiveness at the point guard position. At this point it feels like the rose injury narrative is beginning to feel stale, but the fact that the Bulls finished with 50 wins and the third seed in the Eastern Conference, illustrates that if Rose can vaguely resemble the 2011 version of himself, the Bulls can make challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for the conference championship. In addition to the bevy of established players recovering from injury, the Bulls also have Pau Gasol, who led the NBA in double-doubles this season. Furthermore, the Bulls also feature dark horse rookie of the year candidate Nikola Mirotic, who has been averaging 17.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game since March 1. Between Mirotic, the rest of the bench, and a supremely talented starting five, the Bulls appear to be title contenders. However, the only thing holding them back is the tenuous health of key contributors and whether or they can gel after not being on the floor with each other for most of the season.
4. San Antonio Spurs: When Spring usually rolls around, there are three things everyone can count on: warmer weather, flowers blooming and the Spurs heating up for another championship run. This year, that adage has proven to be true again as the Spurs are 19-4 since March 1, good for second best in the NBA. However, a loss on the final day of the regular season dropped the Spurs from the no. 2 seed to the no. 6 seed in the Western Conference, which set them up with a difficult first round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers. Had the Spurs drawn almost any other team (with the exception of the Warriors) the Spurs might be first or second on this list of playoff contenders, but since it is such a shaky matchup, the Spurs’ playoff hopes seem a little more grim. Although the Spurs do have to face a young and explosive Clippers squad, that doesn’t change the fact that they still have the best coach in all of basketball, the best power forward of all time, two other potential hall-of-famers, and maybe the best young player outside of New Orleans’ Anthony Davis. The headlines will surely revolve around the San Antonio’s playoff savvy vets, but it is fourth-year forward Kawhi Leonard that makes this aging roster so dangerous. Since March 25, Leonard is averaging 18.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, and consequently the Spurs are 11-1 in that span. On top of Leonard and the marquee veterans (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) the Spurs have a great set of complementary players in Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Cory Joseph, all of whom provide a special skillset that hold the Spurs together. After back-to-back finals appearances, it’s obvious that this team is no stranger to playoff success. But at this juncture of the San Antonio dynasty, they will younger guys like Green, Leonard, and Mills to carry them for extended stretches to return to promise land.
3. Los Angeles Clippers: Four years into Chris Paul’s tenure with the Clippers, and they still have not made it out of the second round of the playoffs. So what’s different this year? The difference this year is DeAndre Jordan’s ultra-emergence this season, especially with the absence of Blake Griffin. This season has seen DeAndre Jordan post career highs in points (11.5 per game), rebounds (15 per game), and player efficiency rating (21.05). Jordan’s dominance on the boards and on the defense, paired with Blake Griffin’s offensive variety, all under the command of Paul and head coach Doc Rivers, spells a special postseason for the Clippers. Though the Clippers may run into some snags and matchup problems in the postseason, considering their funky collection of reserves, they still have the best offense top to bottom in the league. That was not a typo; the Clippers are actually tops in the NBA in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) with 109.8 points. In addition to their penchant for scoring points, the Clippers also take care of the ball, as they boast the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA, meaning that the Clippers will not beat themselves in any game. Despite missing Blake Griffin for 15 games, the Clippers still finished tied for the third best record among all teams (56-26), which should say that the this team, and particularly Chris Paul, is on a mission to finally get over the hump.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: Any team that has LeBron James is automatically a championship contender. But a team that has James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a supporting that would rival that of The Departed, well, that team should be a championship favorite. And in the final month of the season, the Cavaliers have demonstrated that they are indeed one of the two teams that should be slated to win a championship this season, as they finished 11-4 in that span. Theoretically, the Cavaliers have it all, a solid rim protector (Timofey Mozgov), perimeter defenders (Iman Shumpert, LeBron James), shooters (J.R. Smith, Mike Miller, Irving, Love, James Jones), and superstars (Irving, Love, James). With that said, why aren’t the Cavs no. 1 on this list? For starters, they have not been to the playoffs together, so how they react is a complete unknown—especially for Love and Irving—and they’ll be sure to face teams that have endured several playoff disappointments, at the ends of LeBron nevertheless.
1. Golden State Warriors: From the moment the ball tipped on opening night, Golden State Warriors have been the most dominant team bar none. At 67-15, they have not shown any signs of decline, or even slowing down, at any point this season, so there should be no reason to believe that they’ll do so in the postseason. On offense, the Warriors have an arsenal of players that can score all over the floor, making them seemingly unguardable on that side of the floor. The array of scorers they possess are headed by the two-headed backcourt monster that is potential MVP Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, both of whom average over 21 points per game, have PERs of over 20, and have scored over 50 points in a game this season. It’s hard to imagine that any team can bank on stopping both of them from erupting for four out of seven games, even without bringing up established scorers like David Lee, Andre Igoudala, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston and Marreese Speights. Beating the Warriors seems like a daunting task considering their offensive fluidity, but when their stingy defense is factored in, it’s difficult to imagine any team getting the best of them in a seven-game series. The Warriors pair their second-best offense with the best defense in the league, as they have the best defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) allowing only 98.2 points. With a coach who has championship pedigree in Steve Kerr, the most gravitating superstar in the league in Curry, and defensive goons like Bogut and forward Draymond Green, the Warriors seem most poised to work their way past every opponent to another championship.
Jordan’s Top 5 Playoff Teams:
5. Memphis Grizzlies: Welcome to postseason basketball where the tempo slows down and teams struggle to score. Though the Grizzlies are the 5th seed in the western conference, their style of play is tailor-made for postseason basketball. Led by the two-headed tenacious monster that is Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies are in prime position to make a deep playoff run once again. Last year, in the first round, they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder despite playing their type of grind it out series, but what has always plagued the Grizzlies is their offensive consistency. This should not be the case this year with the additions of Vince Carter and Jeff Green. These two are legitimate offensive threats who can score in bunches and add capable offensive versatility, which is necessary in the last five minutes of games. All-Star center Marc Gasol has improved his offensive game, averaging a career-high 17.4 points, while his frontcourt mate Zach Randolph posted another double-double season with 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds. Point guard Mike Conley, unlike his teammates is day-to-day, nursing a foot injury and if value means anything, then the Grizzlies do not make a deep playoff run without him on the floor. Conley is a defensive pest who’s able to disrupt and annoy these western conference point guards, this is the most prized asset you can have. If the Grizzlies depth and new acquisitions play to their capabilities, then I find it hard to believe the Grizzlies won’t have success this year. Anybody who enters the ‘Grindhouse’ is going to have a rude awakening because, in the last four years, FedEx Forum is the epitome of how home court advantage can dictate a series.
4. Atlanta Hawks: There’s an old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, well if the Hawks follow that, then they should be just fine. Coming off a year where they squeaked into the playoffs and battled the one seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games, the Hawks returned better than anybody could have predicted. Posting the best record in the Eastern Conference (60-22) the Hawks have shown in a league riddled by superstars and super teams, you can win without either. Six Atlanta players are averaging double figures and four of them made the All-Star team. If you think they didn’t deserve it, well I guess a 35-6 home record was not deserving either? The sharpshooting of Kyle Korver has been key to their success. He leads the NBA, of players who’ve averaged 30+ minutes, in three-point field goal percentage at .492. The Hawks one glaring flaw, in people’s minds, is who’s going to be the guy to make the big shots in close games. I actually think that’s their biggest strength because Atlanta has five guys who can take over that role, making them more dangerous. This team doesn’t blow you away with name recognition and status, but the obvious team cohesion makes them a top five team heading into the postseason.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers: There are four reasons the Cavaliers are this high on the list. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and the Eastern Conference. In a conference plagued by injury and lack of talent, the Cavaliers should emerge as the easy winners despite the non-playoff experience of Irving and Love. After losing nine of 10 games in late December people we’re doubting this big three just like LeBron’s previous trio. The Cavaliers hit a groove mid-January winning 17 of 20 games and the doubters’ questions became silent. In the race for the second seed, the Cavaliers edged the Chicago Bulls and will face a young unexperienced Boston Celtics team in the first round. Yes, James, Irving and Love are the key reasons why Cleveland have been successful, but in the playoffs they’re going to need help. With free agent acquisition Shawn Marion and the mid-season additions of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, the Cavaliers have the much needed depth to sustain a long playoff run. We know what LeBron can do in the playoffs and what playoff experienced guys like Smith and Shumpert can do, but what about the others. Can Irving and Love contribute heavily in the postseason? How will the team jell together? All of these are legitimate questions and ultimately wastes of time. This team is too talented in a decimated eastern conference to not have playoff success and with LeBron at the helm, Cleveland is as close to a sure thing as there could be.
2. Golden State Warriors: A 67-15 overall record and 39-2 at home, talk about insane. Led by the Splash brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors have looked absolutely invincible this season. Curry and Thompson have gathered plenty of accolades. Both are top 10 scorers and top five in three-point percentage. Golden State could have a lot of individual hardware coming its way because most experts have stated cases for head coach Steve Kerr as a favorite for the Coach of the Year award, Curry as a favorite for the MVP, Draymond Green a favorite for Defensive player of the year and Andre Iguodala for Sixth-man of the year. Despite, the individual accolades, this season would mean absolutely nothing if the Warriors do not take care of business in the postseason, where they have struggled the last three seasons. Early exists have afflicted them, but with the deepest bench in the NBA, I cannot see why the Warriors will not make a deep playoff run. With the regular season success they had, there will be no excuses. The Warriors are the second team on this list because they haven’t proved they can win when it matters most and Anthony Davis won’t make it easy in the first round, but now is the time to turn it around.
1. San Antonio Spurs: They’re too old. They’re past their prime. There’s no way they can make a postseason run again and blah, blah, blah. We hear this heading into every season about the San Antonio Spurs and every year they silence those critics. Head coach Greg Popovich is the biggest x-factor of playoff basketball because in every series he usually noticeably out-coaches his counterparts. The emergence of the young star Kawhi Leonard is a hefty jolt into the Spurs organization and his presence allows the older guys on the team to be able to get much needed rest because he’s able to handle a bulk of the workload. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are still playing at an efficiently high level, where they are able to impact the game enough to disrupt opposing team’s game plans. This team is going into the postseason relatively healthy compared to the start of the season and in their last 25 games they won 21, while ending the season with a 12-1 record. This is dangerous territory for other playoff teams because the Spurs have peaked at the right time and are now poised to make yet another deep postseason run, despite being the sixth seed. The Spurs have everything they need to repeat as champions and until proven different I cannot see how they are not the number one team heading into the playoffs.
Honorable Mentions: Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls