How the NBA Playoffs Would Have Played out Without Injuries to Stars
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That's right. The NBA playoffs with no injuries. How great would that be? For once there wouldn't be any second-guessing or any talk of asterisks being thrown onto titles. We would definitively know the best team in the NBA.
Of course, since that's never going to happen, we'll just have to dream it up instead. Let's start by re-seeding each conference. If each team is perfectly healthy, the regular season standings change quite a bit and the playoff seeding has to reflect that. We'll start with the East.
- Miami Heat
- Chicago Bulls
- Indiana Pacers
- New York Knicks
- Brooklyn Nets
- Atlanta Hawks
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Boston Celtics
The top three seeds are cemented.
We know that Miami's good for 60-some wins, and Chicago's good for around that as well, so they're an easy choice for the top two seeds. Indiana gets third since it's way scarier with a healthy Danny Granger in the lineup—he provides just the kind of outside shooting they need (38 percent from three last year) and Paul George has proved that he can play the 2 and the 3 interchangeably (per 82games.com).
New York and Brooklyn both slide down to their respective spots, setting up a fun first-round matchup. Atlanta gets Lou Williams back, but still slips to No. 6 in the new standings, and at No. 7 sits our lone new entrant in the East, the Andrew Bynum-led Philadelphia 76ers!
Obviously we don't really know how the 76ers would do with Bynum at the helm, but he is one of the best offensive centers in the game and certainly a better defender than Spencer Hawes (though Spence can give him a run in the hair department). Since the 76ers still run a a bizarre (read: terrible) offensive system that favors mid-range jumpers (per NBA.com), the seventh seed seems about right.
Boston at No. 8 might sound weird—injuries hurt this team a lot, and Rajon Rondo is a legitimate superstar. But the Celtics were 20-23 before Rondo's injury and significantly better offensively with him on the bench (per NBA.com). It's hard to imagine them missing the playoffs with or without him, but anything higher than No. 8 would be a stretch.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- San Antonio Spurs
- Denver Nuggets
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Minnesota Timberwolves
- Golden State Warriors
- Los Angeles Lakers
You could make a case for San Antonio as the first seed if Tony Parker is healthy for the whole season, but other than that, the first five seeds are easy picks. Minnesota makes the biggest jump of any team in the league since Kevin Love, Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy (just to name a few) all missed significant time this year.
A 31-win season may not sound all that impressive, but no team was hit harder by injuries this year. Minnesota was getting serious minutes from the very, very end of their bench. Fully healthy, the Timberwolves absolutely could have been a 50-win team. They get the sixth seed.
That knocks Golden State down to No. 7 and leaves the eighth seed open for...the Los Angeles Lakers. The Dallas Mavericks come close—they won nearly 60 percent of their games after Dirk Nowitzki returned to the starting lineup—and the Houston Rockets are also in the mix. But the Lakers were hit hardest by injury and squeak into the playoffs despite some big roster issues.
Sorry, Mavericks and Rockets fans. Better luck next year.
Now let's get to the games.
Miami Heat over Boston Celtics, 4-2
Even a healthy Rondo isn't likely to save the Celtics from the Heat, but Boston could still give Miami a hell of a series. The Celtics have always played this Heat team close, and Avery Bradley and Jeff Green guard Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as well as or better than just about anyone.
Plus, playoff Rondo is a one-of-a-kind game changer/triple-double machine. But even in a tight series, the Celtics just don't have the athleticism or speed to keep up with the Heat over seven games.
Chicago Bulls over Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1
Not a lot of good for Philadelphia in this series. The Bulls match or exceed the 76ers in their two main areas of strength (point guard and center), but they have a significantly better defensive and offensive system. The Bynum-Jrue Holiday pairing is enough to steal a game in Philly, but this series is all Bulls.
Indiana Pacers over Atlanta Hawks, 4-2
For obvious reasons. Sorry, Lou Williams. I'm sure you tried your best.
New York Knicks over Brooklyn Nets, 4-2
Now this would be a fun matchup. Brooklyn and New York split the regular season series 2-2 and looked pretty evenly matched throughout.
On paper, the Nets look more than capable of beating the Knicks. Deron Williams is still a top-flight point guard, Brook Lopez is arguably the league's best scoring center and Gerald Wallace is a big wing defender who won't get bullied in the post by Carmelo Anthony. Looks pretty good.
However, the Nets also finished 20th in the league at defending the three-point line (per NBA.com)—a huge liability against the sharp-shooting Knicks. It's also hard to look at the Nets' lack of depth (glaring) and repeated meltdowns against the Bulls (even more so) and expect too much from them.
Oklahoma City Thunder over Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1
This is pretty much the nightmare of all matchups for the Lakers, who just can't compete with the Thunder's athleticism and prowess in transition. Dwight Howard has had some struggles against Kendrick Perkins historically, and Steve Nash has virtually no chance of even slowing down Russell Westbrook.
OKC is also deeper and younger, and its small-ball lineups can murder Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant is always good to steal a game or so, but the Lakers don't have much of a chance in this series.
San Antonio Spurs over Golden State Warriors, 4-1
Yeah, yeah, Golden State just took two games off of San Antonio. But here's the thing—that was without David Lee. With Lee healthy, the Warriors are actually less likely to beat the Spurs.
It's not like Lee is a bad player. Sure, he's a poor defender, but he's a good low-post scorer, has a solid mid-range game and is an excellent passer for his size. However, it wasn't until Lee was injured that the Warriors discovered just how much better they were when Stephen Curry had the ball in his hands.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote after Game 2 of the Warriors-Spurs series:
Giving Curry the ball more, and allowing him a certain degree of selfishness, has turned out to be a brilliant idea. That one change, and all the ripple effects that stem from it, have absolutely broken two very good NBA defenses through eight postseason games — an admittedly small sample size. A 45 percent 3-point shooter given total freedom to shoot off the dribble on the pick-and-roll is an anomaly for which NBA defenses just aren’t prepared. It is a glitch in the program.
Basically, no one knew how to defend stuff like this.
Danny Green was eventually able to bottle up Curry and help secure a Spurs series victory, but the Warriors discovered their true identity after Lee's injury. They're a small-ball team that excels thanks to Curry's off-the-screen brilliance and its top-ranked three-point shooting. The team's just plain better with Curry running the show. So they only take one game from the Spurs.
Denver Nuggets over Minnesota Timberwolves, 4-2
Minnesota certainly has the best player in the series in Kevin Love, but Denver is still ridiculously deep and a league best 38-3 at home. In fact, if the Nuggets' schedule wasn't absurdly difficult to start the year (17 of their first 23 games were on the road), they would have easily been in the mix for the top seed in the West.
The Nuggets also have far more small-ball options with a healthy Danilo Gallinari, and the Timberwolves won't be able to run with them or protect the rim for a full 48 minutes. Minnesota's superior passing and outside game would be fun to watch, but the Nuggets take the series.
Memphis Grizzlies over Los Angeles Clippers, 4-3
Yet another series that actually happened. Blake Griffin's improved health is enough to steal the Clippers another game, but everything we saw a few weeks ago suggests that Los Angeles has no answers for the Grizzlies' physicality and lockdown perimeter defense.
Miami Heat over New York Knicks, 4-2
New York won the regular season matchup handily, but the playoffs are a whole different ballgame and not one that favors the Knicks' offense. As we're seeing against the Pacers, the Knicks just can't score when they're not hitting threes.
The Pacers protect the three-point line better than anyone, and they've held the Knicks to 33 percent shooting from behind the arc (per NBA.com). Miami doesn't have quite the defense Indiana does, but it's just as athletic (if not more so) and after struggling to start the year was among the best teams at defending the three-point line by its end (per NBA.com).
It's worth pointing out that the Heat don't have an elite defensive big to funnel ball-handlers towards like the Pacers do, but their pressure defense would also be a big nuisance to the Knicks' pick-and-roll attack. And that means a lot of Carmelo Anthony isos. Maybe he can go supernova every game (as he did against them earlier in the year), but it's not something to count on.
Chicago Bulls over Indiana Pacers, 4-3
This is clearly a defensive battle and one in which Chicago has to be slightly favored. Slightly.
The Bulls have two elite wing defenders to throw at Paul George and Danny Granger, and their defensive strategy is actually perfect against a team like the Pacers. Chicago collapses hard on any dribble penetration and forces ball-handlers to kick the ball outside or take a heavily contested shot at the rim. It doesn't work against a great three-point shooting team, but against a team with one or no knockdown shooters...it's devastating.
It's hard to see the Pacers mustering up enough points to knock off the Bulls even if the series is tightly contested. And since Derrick Rose finally gives Chicago the shot creator they beyond desperately need, they have just enough firepower to win a grind-it-out series.
Oklahoma City Thunder over Memphis Grizzlies, 4-2
Russell Westbrook gives Oklahoma City a fairly hefty edge here.
Memphis murdered the OKC starting lineup without Westbrook, holding them to a net rating of -17.7 for the series (per NBA.com). Basically, the Grizzlies were able to roam free of almost every other Thunder player on the court. They'd double team Kevin Durant off of picks, trap him, collapse on him every time he drove...not a fun series for the Thunder star.
Westbrook changes all of that. With Westbrook, the OKC starting lineup was second best in the league statistically (via NBA.com), putting up a net rating of 12.3. Not only does Westbrook take some play-making pressure away from Durant, he's also a sneaky good off-ball player, and he and Durant have a great two-man game established.
The series is still closer than the final tally would indicate, but Westbrook is more than enough to push the needle OKC's way.
Denver Nuggets over San Antonio Spurs: 4-3
This is a tough one. San Antonio's a well-rounded machine, but Denver was a second-half juggernaut (they went 34-9 following Wilson Chandler's return) and has all the tools to beat them.
Chandler and Danilo Gallinari give the Nuggets nearly unmatched flexibility when they go small, something that the Spurs can't match even with Kawhi Leonard at the 4. San Antonio's also surprisingly weak in its transition defense, giving up the sixth-most fast-break points per game (via NBA.com). Not great against a team that likes to run as much as Denver.
San Antonio does have the advantage in the half-court, but Denver was much-improved by the end of the year, and the Spurs have a surprising tendency to get mid-range dependent against good defenses. Denver takes it and finally gets the “stars don't matter” win George Karl has always wanted.
Miami Heat over Chicago Bulls, 4-3
Derrick Rose and Luol Deng obviously provide Chicago a huge boost and make the series a whole lot tighter. But in the end, the Bulls are still faced with the same problem they had when they lost to the Heat in 2011—they have no other playmaker to take pressure off of Rose.
There's nothing to stop Miami from keying on Rose and forcing the other Bulls to create their own shots, which as most people have noticed, they can't really do. Nate Robinson might be the exception, but a Robinson-Rose backcourt would get chewed up defensively no matter who's on the floor with them.
This Chicago team, when healthy, is better than the 2011 team. But the Heat have taken a big step forward too, and the holes in its roster are much smaller than those of Chicago. The Bulls fight hard all the way, but come up short in a tight series.
Oklahoma City Thunder over Denver Nuggets, 4-3
As good as a healthy Denver squad is, a healthy OKC squad is even better. That's all there really is to it.
The Nuggets actually won a really close regular season series 3-1, but playoff basketball is very different, and the Thunder neutralize a lot of their biggest strengths. Not only does OKC have the athletes to run with Denver, it actually has even better small-ball options.
Anytime Denver goes small, OKC can simply counter by throwing Durant at the 4, where he's been absolutely petrifying this season (per 82games.com). The Nuggets thrive on their smaller lineups, and with that advantage out the window, they're pretty vulnerable.
Of course, that's assuming that Scott Brooks actually chooses to go small rather than just play Kendrick Perkins, which isn't totally out of the question (more on that later).
The Thunder have by far the two best players in the series. Ty Lawson has always been strangely passive when he faces Russell Westbrook (he averaged just 12 points and five assists per game against OKC this season via ESPN) and Durant in particular has had some big playoff moments against Denver in the past. The Nuggets are near unstoppable at home, but it's not enough to take down the Thunder.
Miami Heat over Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-2
NBA Finals rematch!
It's worth mentioning that last season's Finals was much closer than it appeared. Every game was tight and swung on three or four plays despite the fact that James Harden had a truly terrible series (so even his loss doesn't really factor in). It's genuinely a pretty even matchup.
So why do the Thunder lose in six? Because they play big too much, that's why. When the Heat go small (which they do roughly 80 percent of the time), the only way to beat them is to match their speed, athleticism and outside shooting or to go big and hope to crush them on the glass.
OKC seemed to try the latter last season, playing Kendrick Perkins nearly 25 minutes per game in the series. Perk certainly has his value, but it lies in his post defense, not in his rebounding (he averaged just six boards per game this season). He wasn't able to defend Chris Bosh at the elbow, and offensively he was a non-factor. It was a disaster.
That was last season, but after witnessing the Thunder lose to the Memphis Grizzlies in five, it's clear that nothing has changed. Perkins still plays too many minutes in games in which he doesn't provide much value, and the Thunder suffer because of it.
That's the biggest reason the Thunder don't beat Miami in these imaginary Finals. In last year's Finals, Durant averaged a scorching 31 points per game on 55 percent shooting and Westbrook had a pantheon performance in Game 4, and it still didn't matter.
The pair could probably surpass those numbers this season, but it doesn't change the fact that the Thunder don't always have the right guys out on the floor or that LeBron James happens to be really, really good at basketball. Miami takes it all.
It may not be the most exciting conclusion, but there it is. Miami takes home the trophy. Whether or not that's what's going to happen in the real playoffs...only time will tell.
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