Previewing the 2016-17 NBA Postseason
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Journey with Bleacher Report as we take you far past this year's playoffs, into the future.
The 2017 playoffs will look nothing like this year's edition—but no less amazing. And who knows: Maybe some of our basketball fantasies will be dreams come true for your favorite team.
Since the 2012-2013 season, which feels like forever ago, virtually every major NBA star has changed teams—and most of them are leading their new squads into the NBA postseason.
We'll help you keep track of who's where—and who's got the best chance to win it all.
With the exciting matchups coming your way, these NBA playoffs are guaranteed to be in your face—whether you're still watching on old-fashioned giant flatscreens or you've made the switch to video glasses.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Detroit Pistons
3. Toronto Raptors
4. Boston Celtics
5. Orlando Magic
6. Indiana Pacers
7. New York Knicks
8. Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8):
Breakdown: In an NBA year filled with incredible stories, one of the most satisfying has been LeBron James' triumphant free-agent return to Cleveland. James acted as his own agent, extending an exclusive offer to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert while refusing to negotiate with any other team. James' actions went a long way toward healing the divides created by his departure seven years earlier.
Statistically, James has meshed remarkably well with Kyrie Irving, the league's preeminent point guard, and three-time All-Star Dion Waiters.
In his 14th season, LeBron has turned back the clock, averaging 30 points for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign. The only thing he hasn't been able to turn back is his hairline: we've all been Witnesses as James has taken to wearing a headband with a sewn-in do-rag to cover his male pattern baldness. He still visits his favorite neighborhood barbershop, but now it's just for conversation.
Last year's league MVP Irving led the NBA in assists for the third straight year, while rookie center Tyler Jackson was third in the league in rebounds per contest, while single-handedly bringing the time-honored mid-range jumper back into vogue. The Cavs also led the league in fewest points allowed per game.
The Cavs won three of the four matchups this year.
Breakdown: Derrick Rose gave new life to Carmelo Anthony who signed as a free agent prior to the 2015-16 season. Rose-to-Anthony was the NBA's premier pick-and-roll combo. When Rose went down with a knee injury in January, rookie guard Joseph "JoJo" Anderson and his superb court vision filled Rose's shoes nicely, but Chicago still limped into the playoffs, going 18-22 in their last 40 games.
Without Rose and departed center Joakim Noah, the Bulls have little punch beyond Anthony.
The Bulls made the playoffs in dramatic fashion, beating the team ahead of them, the Philadelphia 76ers, on the last day of the season to make the postseason by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker. The game even ended dramatically: Shot-swatting Sixers center Jeff Withey appeared to cleanly stone Anthony at the final buzzer but was called for a foul, sending Anthony to the line. 'Melo's two free throws gave the Bulls a one-point victory.
Outspoken first-year Sixers coach Charles Barkley filed suit against the NBA after the blown call, but it was thrown out of court after the judge called Barkley's case "tuhribble."
Regardless of how the Bulls fare in this series, the future looks bright: the Bulls have the Miami Heat's first-round pick, and should the Heat win the upcoming draft lottery—they have the most ping-pong balls by virtue of their 20-62 record—the Bulls will likely wind up with massive center Thon Maker out of Michigan, the consensus number one selection.
Prediction: Cavs in five
Detroit Pistons (2) vs. New York Knicks (7):
Breakdown: There is no finer frontcourt in the league than Detroit's 1-2-3 punch of Andre Drummond at the 5, Greg Monroe at the 4, and Otto Porter at the 3. All have All-Star appearances (three for Drummond, two for Monroe, one for Porter); Drummond is a two-time All-NBA first teamer; Monroe a two-time second-teamer, and Porter was a third-teamer last year. Drummond was second in the league in blocked shots and rebounding, while Monroe was fifth in scoring.
Guard Brandon Knight never reached the potential ascribed to him, but after the retirement of Jason Terry, teaming with rookie scoring machine Malik Newman seemed to energize BK7. The combo gave the Pistons their best starting five since the 2003-04 campaign. Jrue Holiday's younger brother, guard Aaron Holiday, stepped up as the team's sixth man, providing reliable offense.
The Pistons come into the playoffs on an 18-game winning streak, portending a very realistic shot at repeating as champions. Their competition in the East this year, however, is stronger and more diverse than last year, so the Pistons are not a sure thing even to make the Finals.
The Pistons and Knicks split their four matchups this year.
Breakdown: Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald scored a major coup when he landed Charlotte's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the trade deadline last year, and signed him to a max free-agent contract in July.
MKG has been a revelation with 40 double-doubles this year. Adding copious amounts of MSG to MKG's game has proved to be a recipe for success as well. The Knicks were a sparkling 34-7 at home, though they struggled on the road. Kidd-Gilchrist was Jeremy Lin's favorite assist target, helping the prodigal point guard to his best year since Linsanity.
Hell-for-leather power forward Andre Roberson was the team's rebounding leader, and coach Mike D'Antoni's return, improving last year's 25-57 record by 17 wins, was an unmitigated triumph.
The bulk of the Knicks' entertainment value came from three-point specialist Marshall Henderson, who made the most of the training-camp tryout New York offered after Henderson went undrafted and bounced from team to team.
In an emergence almost as unexpected as that of Lin back in 2012, Henderson sank 44 percent of his three-pointers as a longball specialist and was warmly embraced by New York fans for his bad-boy attitude, which stands in stark contract to Kidd-Gilchrist's and Lin's graceful presences.
Henderson was suspended twice this season, once for throwing Gatorade onto the court and once for biting teammate Zach Randolph on the ankle, which led ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith to call Henderson, "A straight-up punk. And you better believe the city of New York loves a punk."
The Knicks are a team on the rise, and will give Detroit trouble, but in the end the Pistons will simply be too dominant.
Prediction: Pistons in six
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Indiana Pacers (6):
Breakdown: The Raptors took the league by storm this year, leading the NBA in victories until mid-February. Free agent signee Joakim Noah and returning star Rudy Gay led the way, with help from silky-smooth point guard Lorenzo Brown and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan.
The real surprise of this club was the maturation of Aaron Gordon. Much was expected last year of the freakishly athletic Gordon, who led Arizona to two Final Four appearances. But the small forward rarely saw court time, unable to beat out an unimpressive Alonzo Gee. Many proclaimed him a bust. This year saw Gordon prove his doubters wrong, as he averaged 14 points, six rebounds and three assists per game, while firmly establishing himself in the starting rotation in the process.
And of course, the biggest story in sports this year, Brittney Griner, sparkled off the bench for the Raptors. After the WNBA folded in the summer of 2015, Griner called every American NBA franchise for a tryout and was rejected. But the Raptors gladly brought her in, where she beat out Charlie Villanueva to make the Raptors' roster and become the first woman in the NBA. Her 20-point, five-block night in late January led to the Toronto media calling her "She-N," a play on the tallest building in Toronto, the CN Tower.
A string of injuries hit the team starting in late January, and in March the Raptors actually played a game with four of their five starters on the injury list. The latest is Noah, who sat out the last seven games with a herniated disc, but should be back at full strength for this first-round series.
The Raptors won all four matchups with the Pacers this year.
Breakdown: After Chris Paul's three-year stint in New York failed to produce a championship, the point guard extraordinaire was traded to the Indiana Pacers. He expressed massive discontent about the trade, and threatened not to report, but a phone conversation with coach Reggie Miller turned Paul around. The results have been undeniable: Teaming with forwards Paul George and David West, the Pacers made the playoffs again after a two-year drought.
It was touch and go during the months of March and April, as the Pacers dropped 20 of 25 contests, but Paul's closed-door meeting turned the tide. The team rattled off 12 in a row, much of it due to inspired play from brawny rookie shooting guard Isaiah Briscoe, who scored a Pacers rookie-record 47 points against the Bobcats and averaged 25 points a game over the win streak.
A heartwarming story was the play of former Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.
After retiring from football at the end of the 2015 season, Peppers, who played two years of college ball at North Carolina, tried out for both the Bulls and the Charlotte Hornets. After getting rejected twice, Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who had run into Peppers when they were both working in North Carolina, got him a tryout with the Pacers. Peppers made the team, and saw action in 30 games this season, acquitting himself quite nicely with a per-36-minute stat line of 15 points and 9 rebounds.
Much-traveled point guard Kyle Lowry and intense forward Shabazz Muhammad provide punch off the bench. Like the Knicks were during his three-year stay, the Pacers are a team fueled by the presence of Paul. This is not their year, but it'd be tough to predict against them next season.
Prediction: Raptors in five
Boston Celtics (4) vs. Orlando Magic (5):
Breakdown: Kevin Love and the Boston Celtics have been a match made in heaven. Love's second year has been a healthier one both physically—he played in 78 of his team's contest this year after lacing up for just 50 last year—and statistically: Love was a 25-and-15 guy with stunning regularity this season, leading the league in double-doubles with 55.
Sports commentator Bill Simmons said, "Watching Love on the Celtics is like watching Hoosiers except it's actually happening right there in front of me. It's Bird redux. It's beautiful, man. I can't decide if I want to cry or go play slots in Vegas."
The team chemistry hasn't quite been there, though, as first-year coach Kevin Garnett had to quell squabbles between Love and Rondo, who by all accounts resented each other's popularity with fans. Love blamed Rondo for last year's first-round sweep loss to the Cavaliers, saying Rondo "wouldn't know defense if it slapped him with a paternity suit." Rondo countered by threatening to step on Love's face.
Jeremy Lamb, who made little impact during his tenure in Oklahoma City, has laid claim to a starting spot, providing valuable scoring and a dash of athleticism. Veteran Jeff Green does a little bit of everything for the Celtics and, with improved defense, is a two-way threat on the perimeter.
The Magic won two of their three matchups with the Celtics.
Breakdown: Nikola Vucevic, fifth in rebounding in the regular season, has become one of the league's dominant centers, while supremely talented Andrew Wiggins made a bid for league MVP, averaging 27 points per contest. Ballhawking point guard Tyus Jones ran the team with poise in just his second year in the league.
The return of Stan Van Gundy as coach, though, has made perhaps the most notable difference in this squad's making the playoffs for the first time since Dwight Howard's exodus. Van Gundy was instrumental in the trade-deadline pickup of former Magic shooting guard J.J. Redick. Redick shot an incredible 48 percent from three-point range the rest of the campaign, helping the Magic to a 19-5 post-trade record.
Andre Iguodala heard his name in the trade winds every day until the deadline came and went. Unhappy about the Redick deal, Iggy nonetheless thrived in the resultant small-ball lineup, turning in an impeccable March and April; he'll get some Defensive Player of the Year votes.
With lightning-quick point guard Deonte Burton packing plenty of punch off the bench, this team could surprise.
Prediction: Magic in seven
1. Denver Nuggets
2. Houston Rockets
3. Portland Trail Blazers
4. New Orleans Pelicans
5. San Francisco Warriors
6. San Antonio Spurs
7. Los Angeles Lakers
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Denver Nuggets (1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (8):
Breakdown: Griner defied gender barriers, and LBJ defied expectations, but Greg Oden defied the odds. The center was given one-year contracts by the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but injuries prevented him from playing all but ten games in both years combined.
Disheartened, and with no other franchises showing interest, Oden had returned to school to obtain his long-sought-after dental degree. The Nuggets, desperate for a frontcourt presence, reached out to Oden—and agreed to Oden's request to wait until after final exams to resign him.
The rest is history: Oden has missed nary a game for his new team, while leading the league in both rebounds and blocked shots.
Kenneth Faried at the 4 and James McAdoo off the bench combine with Oden for a fearsome frontcourt rotation. Steadfast, unselfish point guard Joel Berry and fearless shooting guard Rashad Vaughn round out this squad, which is surprisingly complete and tough to beat when they're playing the team ball preached by coach Steve Nash. Nash, in his first season with the Nuggets, is a lock for Coach of the Year.
The Nuggets won all four matchups with the Thunder this season.
Breakdown: After Dwight Howard's meltdown last year with the Rockets, no one knew what his first year with the Thunder would be like. Turns out Howard had an issue-free year. His presence ably replaced Kevin Durant as the face of the franchise, even though his stat line could not.
Hardworking center Dakari Johnson had a career year on both sides of the ball, and has been very vocal about wanting the ball in crunch time: he shot a remarkable 70 percent from the floor with five minutes or less remaining.
Longtime Thunder players Russell Westbrook, who remains the catalyst for the squad, and Serge Ibaka continued their success. Westbrook will likely make All-NBA third team and Ibaka had his finest season ever, averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds per game. Josh Smith had his problems staying healthy, but remained a force while on the hardwood.
The Thunder bench is perilously ineffective, but still developing. Their frontcourt tandem of sure-handed Trey Lyles and strong shooter Karl Towns Jr. figure to step in as starters when Ibaka moves on and Howard inevitably wears out his welcome.
The Thunder staggered into the postseason with a seven-game losing streak.
Prediction: Nuggets in five
Houston Rockets (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (7):
Breakdown: The Rockets, winners of back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015, finally had to jettison Dwight Howard when his attitude problems resurfaced. Howard yanking relentlessly on teammate James Harden's beard to "see if the damn thing is a stick-on" during last year's playoffs was the final straw.
Speaking of The Beard, Harden has become the unquestioned premier shooting guard in the league; he averaged 40 percent or better from everywhere on the floor, and his improved defense will likely net him All-NBA third team honors.
Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik continue to star for the Rockets, and power forward Howard was ably replaced by explosive blocking machine Nerlens Noel, acquired in an offseason trade.
Daryl Morey stood pat at the trade deadline for the first time in his Rockets tenure, but signed free-agent point guard Raymond Felton to provide veteran insurance for athletic rookie phenom Jalen Adams.
The Nuggets won two out of three matchups with the Lakers this season.
Breakdown: The Lakers ended several years of floundering by signing free-agent Kevin Durant to the squad. Following Kobe Bryant's retirement and Dwight Howard's decision to bolt to the Rockets, the Lakers were left with Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Earl Clark and a peck o' trouble.
The resultant Lakers struggles were so pronounced, league commissioner Adam Silver almost lost his job after being caught on tape asking Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss, "What rules do you need me to change to make you guys competitive again?"
With cap room prior to the 2015-16 season, the Lakers resigned Gasol to a one-year deal and gave a max contract to Pau's brother Marc, hoping a uniting of the brothers would catch lightning in a bottle. But two Gasols proved too close for comfort, as very public squabbling about their roles made headlines in Los Angeles and led to Pau being dealt at the trade deadline for an aging Gerald Wallace.
Energizer buddy Cody Zeller and Marc Gasol combined with Durant to form a stout frontcourt, while throwback point guard Emmanuel Mudiay looks to be their leader of the future. O.J. Mayo, acquired at the trade deadline, looked revitalized after struggling with back injuries earlier in the season.
Coach Kobe Bryant has preached fundamentals and winning attitude, and it's caught on. This team is two years away from serious contention, but a semblance of normality in Lakers nation has been restored with their beloved team's return to the postseason.
Prediction: Rockets in five
Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. San Antonio Spurs (6):
Breakdown: Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge continue to anchor this squad, and this year they were joined in impressive fashion by wide-bodied center Jahlil Okafor and tenacious shooting guard Victor Oladipo.
Because of their superb record and glaring lack of controversy, the team's biggest headlines were made by 15th-man reclamation project Royce White, who wore out his welcome by claiming that the high number of sunless days in Portland were causing the Trail Blazers severe depression.
White was eventually released, and his spot given to fiery competitor Marcus Smart, who had gone unsigned after two lackluster years in Milwaukee. Smart finally found his stroke in Portland; his scoring, plus a combination of intuitive ball distribution and lockdown defense, made him an indispensable sixth man.
Huge-handed power forward Anthony Bennett and Brendan Haywood pound the boards, while Jamal Crawford remains a scoreboard stalwart at the ripe old age of 37. This team is tough to beat when they get it going; as evidence, one need look no further than their 20-3 record in March and April.
The Blazers won two of their three meetings with the Spurs.
Breakdown: For what seems like the billionth year in a row, the doubters were proved wrong as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker once again led the Spurs to qualify for the playoffs. Duncan incredibly became just the second player over 40 to average over 20 points per game (the other was Chicago Bulls majority owner Michael Jordan in 2003), with a 20.1 point average in 32.3 minutes per game.
Parker gave way in the starting rotation this season to newly signed Deron Williams, just two years Parker's junior. Parker's transition to the bench, where he teamed with the ageless Manu Ginobili, was an unquestioned success, as he led the league in assists per 36 minutes.
Ginobili, fresh off leading his Argentinian national team to another stunning gold-medal upset—his first was way back in 2004—had a career-best year from behind the arc, hitting 42 percent of his shots while playing 17 minutes per game.
Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green all return for the Spurs, who have such little turnover that they laid off the guy who scrapes the names off lockers; after all, he hadn't gotten off his chair in years.
Prediction: Blazers in six
New Orleans Pelicans (4) vs. San Francisco Warriors (5):
Breakdown: This Pelicans core—Greivis Vasquez, Al-Farouq Aminu, Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez—has remained intact for longer than any other starting four. Bradley Beal, the team’s shooting guard, is the only new starter. Davis is the enigma here; he has grown over the past few NBA seasons, but consistency remains a question mark. Davis puts up the numbers and makes SportsCenter on a frequent basis, but there are nights where he still disappears.
Versatile forward Jabari Parker, the team’s sixth man, plays starter’s minutes, scores seemingly at will, and is a shoo-in for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Shoot-first guard Isaiah Canaan is Vasquez’s adroit backup.
The Pelicans have come close, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals two out of the last three years, but they’ve always fallen short. This year, first-year coach Derek Fisher lobbied for experienced leadership, convincing 35-year-old Dwyane Wade to accept the veteran minimum in exchange for a shot at a third ring. Wade's presence has made a quantifiable difference, as Beal notched a career high in points, while the team went from 17th last year in defensive efficiency to third this season.
The Blazers and Warriors split their four meetings this year.
Breakdown: In honor of their new stadium on the other side of the Bay Bridge, the team changed its name back to the San Francisco Warriors. But it figured to be a long inaugural season when their new home city held a rally in an attempt to force the franchise to further change their name to the Peaceful Warriors. Newly acquired point guard John Wall actually turned public opinion in the team's favor when he stood up at the Golden Gate Park rally and shouted, "People, get a grip...it's not like we're the frigging Bullets!"
Wall had a superlative season stepping in for the outgoing Stephen Curry, who accepted the widely-criticized max deal offered by the Seattle Supersonics. The team managed to retain David Lee and Andrew Bogut. When the oft-injured Bogut went down in late November with a torn ACL, however, center Stephen Zimmerman stepped in and made the position his, playing virtually impenetrable defense while averaging over 11 boards per game.
Scoring dervish Devin Booker is the capable point guard, and combo forward Kevon Looney and agile and powerful center Julius Randle are the anchors off the bench. The Warriors missed a league-high number of games to injury this season, but other than Bogut, the roster is healthy now, so beware an upset.
Prediction: Warriors in five
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