Favorite sleeper team
Jack Rieger: Of all the lower seeds in the playoffs, I think the Pacers have the best chance of upsetting their opponent and possibly upsetting a second opponent. They have the best player in the series in Paul George, who had a very underrated year, averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists. George is also an All-NBA defender and he’ll be matched up on Toronto’s X factor, DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan earns his paycheck in the midrange portion of the floor, and George’s combination of length and quickness makes him a matchup nightmare against DeRozan, who’s about two inches shorter. Myles Turner and Ian Mahinmi are two really underrated big men on Indiana’s roster, and they should defend Toronto’s center Jonas Valanciunas well. Once again, Larry Bird has put together a competitive, athletic team in Indiana.
I’m not sold on the Raptors at all as a contender in the Eastern Conference for a few reasons. For one, they haven’t won a playoff series in 15 years. That seems like an unfair thing to hold against a team, but experience matters in the NBA playoffs. Also, Toronto’s coach Dwane Casey hasn’t proven he’s able to effectively manage an NBA roster during the playoffs. He will be exposed against Frank Vogel, one of the cleverest coaches in basketball.
Neil Patrick Healy: I’m expecting the Miami Heat to really contend in the Eastern Conference this postseason. The Heat did damage control after Chris Bosh went down to injury and make for a very interesting No. 3 seed. With Dwyane Wade still playing at a high level, the midseason acquisition of guard Joe Johnson and the emergence of Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson really makes the potential matchup of Cleveland and Miami look really sexy. Luol Deng has really flourished while he’s been playing the four spot and the team is getting hot at the right time.
The Heat matches up well with the Cavaliers in a potential conference final. Whiteside is a nightmare for Tristan Thompson on the block and Wade is better than any guard the Cavs have. ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan was the only ESPN personality to pick the Heat to win the Eastern Conference and people said he was crazy. Doesn’t look too crazy now.
Non-Warriors pick to win the championship
JR: Barring an injury, the Warriors are the heavy favorites to repeat as champs. But let’s remember that Steph Curry has had surgery on both of his ankles and the playoffs warrant a different level of physicality. The Spurs were clearly the second best team in the league this season, but I’ll go with the Cavs because their road to the finals is less challenging. Also, they have a guy named LeBron James who has appeared in six straight finals.
In the first round last year, the Cavaliers offense really found its rhythm against the Celtics. That was with both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving playing at full strength, but in game four of the series Love separated his shoulder and the Cavs offense regressed. Funny things happen when the playoffs start, when teams stop holding back and the goal of winning every night has meaning. The Cavs offense, which has been criticized for its inability to incorporate Love effectively, can hang with anyone when operating like it was against Boston last season. Can they figure out when and how to play Love against the Warriors smaller lineup? That’s the question Tyronn Lue will need to answer.
NP: Isn’t this an obvious pick? It has to be the San Antonio Spurs by a mile. The Spurs arguably play the best defense in the league; they have the deadly combination of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard and only lost one game at home all season. Despite the Warriors having a historic regular season, they didn’t clinch the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference until the final two weeks of the season. The point differential and points per 100 possessions are dead even between the Warriors and the Spurs, so this is going to be an epic series that will more than likely determine the winner of the finals.
I don’t have faith in the Cavs to beat either team from the West because there still seem to be chemistry issues with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Spurs are the favorite to win the finals right behind the Warriors.
First team All-NBA
PG: Steph Curry
SG: Russel Westbrook
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: LeBron James
C: Draymond Green.
There are three interesting things about this team. Russel Westbrook is not a shooting guard, Draymond Green is not a center and Kevin Durant was left out. In the case of Westbrook, the guy plays like a shooting guard in terms of shooting volume and movement off the ball. The dirty little secret in the NBA is that there are almost no really good two-guards. James Harden showed up this season fat and out of shape and his team crawled into the playoffs, so there’s no chance there. Klay Thompson is not getting in over Westbrook, who is having one of the best statistical seasons in the history of basketball.
Draymond Green is redefining the center position in basketball. The guy is 6’7”, yet shuts down opponents six inches taller than him. His defense, motor and speed are critical to Golden State’s “lineup of death.” And finally, Kevin Durant is not on the list, which is unfortunate, but who am I supposed to take off? Kawhi Leonard is the best player on a 67-win team and also the best defensive player in basketball. LeBron James is the only guy to consider, and you could make a convincing argument. Durant is averaging more points and rebounds, but his field goal percentage is lower and the Thunder lost way too many games it should’ve won this season. I’m biased to the king.
PG: Steph Curry
SG: Russell Westbrook
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: LeBron James
C: DeMarcus Cousins
There are two players missing from my All-NBA team that will get people talking: James Harden and Kevin Durant. With Harden, he is a prolific scorer who turns the ball over too much. He has more turnovers this season than any player in league history. That was an easy pick for me because the Rockets have had a disappointing season and the turnovers are too much for me.
As for Durant, I struggled with this, but I have to put Leonard here because he’s the best two-way player in the league. He is arguably the league’s best defender and leads the Spurs in points, steals and blocks. He gets overlooked sometimes because he doesn’t play in a big market, but Leonard is the real deal. Durant was so close to getting first team, but I have to give it to Leonard.
Where does Kobe rank all-time?
JR: Kobe Bryant’s last game in the NBA was representative of the guy’s entire career. Selfish, relentless, yet so unbelievably dramatic and awesome. He scored 60 points on 50 shots and I don’t remember if he passed the ball. He played absolutely zero defense and made no one around him better. But at the same time, he played 42 active minutes as a 37-year-old with 19 years of NBA miles and made some really difficult, game-changing shots down the stretch. If anything he was memorable, and undoubtedly a winner.
But there are plenty of things to be skeptical about regarding Kobe’s career, especially lately. He took a max contract at the age of 35, which ultimately handcuffed the Lakers into being incapable of acquiring any type of exterior talent. While he’s often thought of as a clutch player, Kobe’s field goal percentage at the end of games is actually really poor. In the last 30 seconds of post-season games, with a shot to tie or take the lead, Bryant is 25 percent from the field. LeBron is 49 percent in that same situation. That being said, the guy won five rings with two very different teams. He’s a legend in the world of basketball and you can’t refute that. I’ll say he’s the seventh greatest player ever, behind Tim Duncan and in front of Lebron James and Larry Bird.
NP: Kobe is fighting for top 10 all time. I have No. 1 through No. 8 solidified: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Shaquille O’Neal. Eight through 10 is where he may fall, but is he better than Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Jerry West? And that doesn’t even account for LeBron James when he retires and where he’ll rank all time.
I know the citizens of Kobestan are jumping up and down in fury, but he isn’t better than the eight listed before. I think he falls at No. 10 behind Duncan and Olajuwon. Don’t get me wrong or label me as a hater because I respect his game. There have just been a lot of great players in the NBA. Don’t let the loud citizens of Kobestan or the nostalgia of the Mamba’s retirement cloud your vision. Debatable top 10 is where he lands.
Jack Rieger can be reached at Jrieger@sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @JackRieger. Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.