Mazurek: Making sense of wide-open NBA
Marek Mazurek | Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Don’t look now, but this is the most wide open year the NBA has had in a long time. Gone are the days when Lebron and the Heat were all but guaranteed to make the Finals and the only ones to stop them were the Thunder or the Spurs. Lebron’s Cavaliers are not far over .500, Father Time continues to ravage the Spurs lineup and Oklahoma City is currently out of the playoff picture.
As I write this column, the Atlanta Hawks, of all teams, have the NBA’s best record and the Golden State Warriors, with first-year coach Steve Kerr, lead the Western Conference by three games. With many preseason favorites struggling, here are my predictions for some of the NBA’s more interesting teams.
The Hawks are currently first in the Eastern Conference, but how far will they go in the playoffs? The Hawks are lacking in quality playoff experience and have an unproven head coach in Mike Budenholzer. They have a good one-two punch inside with Paul Milsap and Al Horford and the NBA’s best 3-point shooter in Kyle Korver. The Hawks’ bench in solid and they play team basketball better than anyone in the league. Yet will all that be good enough against the depth and playoff experience of teams like Chicago or Cleveland? I say no — the Hawks will only make it to the second round of the playoffs.
The Raptors are currently seven games behind the Hawks in the East, and their playoff fate will be closely linked to their seed. If they fall any further, they will have to play either Chicago, Washington or Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs and a victory will be far from a given. Therefore, Toronto’s top priority for the rest of the season needs to be to maintain its second seed. I like point guard Kyle Lowry’s toughness and Jonas Valanciunas gives them a reliable post threat, but against more complete teams, I think they will struggle.
The Bulls came into the season as a favorite to make it to the Eastern Conference finals. Halfway through the year, that outcome is still highly probable. Yes, the Bulls are currently fourth in the conference behind Atlanta, Toronto and Washington, but they are only three games behind Toronto. Additionally, the Bulls are the only contender in the East with meaningful playoff experience. The core of Chicago’s roster has been to the Eastern Conference finals and Pau Gasol won championships with the Lakers. Finally, the Bulls have the best coach in the East in Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau knows how to get the most from his players and win long playoff series, whereas the rest of the coaches in the East still need to figure that out.
Ah, Lebron. The Cavs have been playing well since King James came back from his injury, and they will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. Simply put, Cleveland will be fine — it has the best player on the planet and that alone guarantees the Cavs the second round. Once they are in the second round, their fate depends largely on who they play. Chicago’s tall, deep front court will give them trouble, but they should be able to win a hard-fought series against Washington, Toronto or Atlanta. This season will make or break LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland (again) or not.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are currently leading the Western Conference, and it seems likely they will represent the West in the NBA finals. The Warriors have too much talent in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut to lose to anyone else. The Spurs are too old, the Thunder aren’t healthy and Memphis hasn’t improved its lineup enough to be a serious contender in my book. The only problem I see with the Warriors is that they rely heavily on the fast break. In the playoffs, breakaways are less common and Golden State could be beaten in a seven-game series if it is forced to play half-court offense.
The only other team in the West to watch is Memphis. The Grizzlies are currently only three games behind the Warriors, and if they grab home-court advantage, things could get interesting. Memphis has arguably the best front court in the NBA with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol as well as the core of the team that went to the Western Conference finals two years ago. Memphis’ toughness could cause Golden State problems should the squads face each other in the playoffs, and though Steve Kerr has done a great job for Golden State, it is not certain that he will continue to perform at a high level in the playoffs. Watch out for Memphis.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.