Ranking the Most Overrated and Underrated Teams in 2014 NBA Playoffs
Come one, come all, you're just in time to sift through the potential of half the NBA's playoff teams.
Postseason basketball is a time to appreciate the good of the Association. Only the strong remain. Lottery teams and general failures have been put in their place. Every team still alive—save for maybe the Atlanta Hawks—is playing for something special.
As always, though, there are different levels of playoff contenders.
Certain teams are right where they need to be, perceived as whom they actually are. The Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, for instance. They, among a few others, are seen as they should be seen.
Not every postseason contingent is so lucky. Their potential is downplayed because of where they finished in the standings or because we have a natural tendency to dismiss them.
Some factions are too lucky. They're seen as something they're not, held to a standard they shouldn't be, generating optimism that doesn't suit their potential.
Which playoffs teams are these?
If only I could tell you.
Oh, wait, I can. And I will.
No. 4 Underrated: Dallas Mavericks
Offensive Rating: 109.0 (3)
Defensive Rating: 105.9 (22)
Net Rating: 3.1(11)
Where there's a Dirk Nowitzki, there's probably some sort of awesome haircare product. I refuse to believe it's that bouncy naturally.
Oh, yeah, and there's also a way.
Barring Tony Parker and Tim Duncan abruptly retiring to pursue careers as professional water-slide testers who moonlight as mimes, the Dallas Mavericks aren't going to beat the Spurs. For once, the Spurs aren't underrated. They're title favorites, because they're supposed to be. They're the Spurs.
The misconception that Dallas cannot push their limits, though, is absurd. Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes believes the Mavs will fall in four. I'm going to respectfully disagree. San Antonio is that good, but Dallas enters the playoffs boasting an all-galaxy offense.
Combining the new drive-and-kick-heavy stylings of Monta Ellis with Nowitzki's sweet shooting was a stroke of genius. The Mavs rank second in three-point percentage (38.4) behind only the Spurs themselves (39.7), and there are times when they turn even the most tried-and-true defenses into heaping masses of fried ant eggs.
Those who have watched the Mavericks extensively—I myself am particular to high-powered offenses headlined by 35-year-olds who flirt with 50/40/90 seasons—know their defense will invariably betray them. They're terrible at getting back in transition, often winding up as helpless onlookers of highlight dunks and easy layups. The Spurs' ridiculously efficient offense will make them pay to some degree.
But the Mavs haven't lost four games in a row all season. They're not going to start now.
This is one eighth-place opponent the Spurs won't breeze through.
No. 3 Underrated: Chicago Bulls
Offensive Rating: 99.7 (28)
Defensive Rating: 97.8 (2)
Net Rating: 1.9 (12)
We need a statistic that measures fire, because Joakim Noah is fire. And heart. And grit. And everything you want in an effective leader, ponytail and all.
On paper, the Chicago Bulls shouldn't even be in the NBA playoffs, let alone be tied for the Eastern Conference's third-best record. Derrick Rose is out. Luol Deng is gone. Their leading scorer is D.J. Augustin, who averages 14.9 points per game. They shouldn't be good.
Of all bottom-six offensive teams, only the Bulls are in the playoffs. The other five consist of the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics—all tank jobs that also rank in the bottom six of net rating.
Yet there the Bulls are, in the top half of net rating, playing playoff basketball.
No one reason explains why the Bulls are, as Bleacher Report's Howard Beck described in great detail, the "team no wants to face." Their defense is incredible, but their offense is indifferent to scoring points. Chicago is deep yet devoid of the star power that's viewed as a necessity in today's NBA. The Bulls are 1-2 against the Washington Wizards this season, yet you still cannot help but feel bad for the Wiz in their best-of-seven series.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau explained it best when telling Beck why the Bulls are where they are:
They're going to believe when no one else believes. You have to make a decision: Are you going to accept the fate that others are trying to tell you you have? Or are you going to have a will and determination to overcome whatever circumstances you're facing? And these guys have chosen to fight.
Battle they have. Continue to fight they will—more than anyone can feasibly understand.
No. 2 Underrated: Brooklyn Nets
Offensive Rating: 104.4 (14)
Defensive Rating: 104.9 (19)
Net Rating: -0.5 (17)
There are two things you should never, ever bet on: Chuck Lorre creating a melancholy and boring sitcom, and Paul Pierce's team laying down in the playoffs.
Statistically, the Brooklyn Nets haven't been great overall. Their offense and defense are both run-of-the-mill and a $102.8 million payroll, per ShamSports, should buy more than 44 wins.
But the Nets have also been a different team since Jan. 1, their end-of-season tanking excursion notwithstanding. Since the turn of the calendar, they rank in the top half of both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com (subscription required). They're also the same team that has more wins over the Heat this season (four) than 18 of the other 28 teams have since the Big Three's inception (2010-11).
Reintegrating Kevin Garnett into the lineup will be an issue. Brooklyn is just 2-3 in the last five games he's played in.
At the same time, the Nets didn't look like a team playing to win. Their late-game shot selection was worse than questionable and head coach Jason Kidd only intermittently went with his best players down the stretch.
Brooklyn knew the stakes. Dropping to sixth place could be by design, a ploy used to avoid the Bulls in the first round.
By no means are the Toronto Raptors pushovers, but they're young and inexperienced and already playing well above their projected ceiling. The Nets stand a better chance of pulling off the "upset" against them than they did the Bulls. They were 2-2 against Toronto this year, and just 1-2 versus Chicago.
Beyond that, the Nets aren't limited to doing damage in the first round alone. If and when they dispatch the Raptors, there isn't a team they cannot push to the brink, the Heat and Indiana Pacers included. If Deron Williams decides to play like almost $100 million worth of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson keeps being clutch and Pierce's postseason scowl is in top form, these Nets can go places.
Think big, Brooklyn. Because "big" is possible.
No. 1 Underrated: Memphis Grizzlies
Offensive Rating: 103.3 (16)
Defensive Rating: 102.1 (8)
Net Rating: 1.2 (14)
Careful now. The Memphis Grizzlies bark. They bite. They crush. They destroy.
Since Marc Gasol's return, the Grizzlies have been basically unstoppable, grinding out victories at an alarming rate. According to NBA.com (subscription required) they have the league's second-best defensive rating to go along with the third-highest winning percentage (71.7) since Gasol rejoined the lineup.
Although their offense remains awkwardly primitive, they're hardly inept. In Grizzlies country, that's a great thing. Their defense is so good. All they need is an offense that can score more points than most junior varsity basketball teams and they're fine. So, they're fine.
Going 1-3 against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the regular season doesn't incite confidence in their ability to pull of the upset, but things are different now. Only one of those losses came by double-digit point margins, and it was in December when Gasol was still on the sidelines.
Memphis is also a whiz at swallowing predictable offenses, which is just what Oklahoma City is: predictable. Head coach Scott Brooks' playbook isn't deep; it's paper-thin. Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant are going to attack and shoot. The end. Well, almost the end.
If there's an upset in the works out West, it's here. The Grizzlies, with their impregnable defense and pace-debasing tactics are built for the playoffs. They're the most underrated bottom-two-seeded team since, well, the 2010-11 eighth-place Grizzlies, who upset the top-seeded Spurs.
Watch out, Oklahoma City. The barking and biting, crushing and destroying, Grizzlies are coming.
No. 4 Overrated: Golden State Warriors
Offensive Rating: 105.3 (12)
Defensive Rating: 99.9 (3)
Net Rating: 5.4 (6)
For the record, I hate myself. This designation is coming from someone who predicted big, big things from the Golden State Warriors. In many ways, I, along with many others, still do.
That's the problem.
Andrew Bogut's rib injury doesn't make this team stronger on the defensive end, where they've been mostly spectacular this season. The Warriors won playing small without David Lee in the playoffs last season, but that was a different player and a different team.
Harrison Barnes doesn't appear set to light the world on fire anytime soon, and head coach Mark Jackson's propensity for playing four to five reserves at once has somehow increased. Bogut didn't sound like a guy who planned to play again this season either, per Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears.
"I'm going to dedicate the summer to learning how to play while avoiding contact at all costs, I guess—moving out of the way, not taking charges and not trying to block shots," he said.
Golden State's big man sounds more like a player resigned to watching the Warriors' playoff run from afar, which isn't a good thing. Their already elite defense allows two fewer points per possession with him on the floor, per NBA.com (subscription required). He's a huge loss.
Lee can play the 5, that's for sure, but according to 82games.com, opposing centers notch an above-average player efficiency rating per 48 minutes when going up against him. That's something to consider.
The Warriors are facing the Los Angeles Clippers, who rank in the top seven of both offensive and defensive efficiency. They cannot afford any pivotal missteps.
To be sure, the Warriors could actually wind up being underrated. But after consulting with Bleacher Report's residential Warriors experts, Zach Buckley and Hughes—who were split on this matter—it still seems the expectations for this team without Bogut are a tad lofty after they barely landed the No. 6 seed with him.
If I'm wrong, then I'm wrong. You know, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and stuff.
No. 3 Overrated: Toronto Raptors
Offensive Rating: 105.8 (9)
Defensive Rating: 102.4 (9)
Net Rating: 3.4 (9)
Look at me, still hating myself and stuff.
Few teams have been as fun and surprising to watch as the Raptors, who finished third in the Eastern Conference by way of winning a tiebreaker over the Bulls.
Exactly what is so special about them is difficult to pinpoint. They're scrappy and consistent and can win games on both ends of the floor. Ranking in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency is always a good way to elevate your playoff ceiling.
Unfortunately, I can't shake this feeling that the Raptors are too inexperienced and frankly, not good enough to make substantial playoff noise.
Making it out of the first round is a definite possibility (though I don't see it happening). But the extent of their potential ends there.
Bear in mind, the Raptors capitalized on playing in an NBA-worst Atlantic Division that contained two deliberate tank jobs (Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics), and one accidental disgrace (New York Knicks).
By and large, the Raptors struggled against good teams. They went 16-25 when facing clubs above .500, a troubling mark considering none of their potential postseason opponents will have losing records (yes, I'm going out on a limb and saying the Hawks won't make it past the Pacers) .
Toronto made a name for itself this season. It did what no one expected it to do by making the playoffs.
Expecting it to do much else or go much further would be a mistake.
No. 2 Overrated: Indiana Pacers
Offensive Rating: 101.5 (22)
Defensive Rating: 96.7 (1)
Net Rating: 4.8 (7)
Hopefully you saw this coming. If you didn't, my apologies for being the bearer of bad, overrated news.
Loads of people are acknowledging how awful the Pacers have been of late, hence them not finishing No. 1, but not few are taking their demise seriously enough.
Heading into the postseason, the Pacers barely resemble the juggernaut we prematurely crowned kings of the Eastern Conference. Since losing to the New York Knicks on March 19, this team has regressed in almost every area imaginable, most notably in chemistry and on offense.
Over the last 15 games of their season, the Pacers ranked dead last in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com (subscription required). Dead. Last. Defensively, they remain elite. But defense alone won't win championships.
Imbalanced displays are dangerous in the playoffs, where, as Hughes previously found, it takes both offense and defense to win championships:
Based on Paine's work, many have concluded that a good defense is marginally more important than a good offense, but Alvarez's research suggests the difference is practically negligible. What matters is effective, top-10 ratings on both ends of the floor.
So, defense does win championships, but only if it's paired with a good offense. How's that for a revelation?
Put simply, the Pacers cooled off at the wrong time. Their 33-7 start to the season is history. Faith has been replaced with doubt. Roy Hibbert is missing. Buckley even entertained whether he should start coming off the bench. That's how bad he's been.
Collectively, the starters have been awful. They're either exhausted or disengaged, or both. Paul George, George Hill and Hibbert all shot under 40 percent from the floor in Indy's final 15 games, per NBA.com (subscription required), through which the team went 6-9.
This is bad. Real bad. The Pacers have gone from beloved darlings to fallen giants who are both overrated and more inclined to meet their doom before the Eastern Conference Finals than most care to realize.
No. 1 Overrated: Portland Trail Blazers
Offensive Rating: 108.3 (5)
Defensive Rating: 104.7 (16)
Net Rating: 3.6 (8)
Personally, I'll be shocked if the Portland Trail Blazers make it out of the first round against the Houston Rockets. Even after falling to the No. 5 seed following a long, surprising stint atop the Western Conference, the Blazers have exceeded their potential for this season.
Not many people lined up ready to claim they were a top-five team last summer. The idea of them finishing in front of both the Grizzlies and Warriors was laughable. In some ways, after what transpired during the latter half of this season, it still is.
The honeymoon ended long ago for Portland. Making it out of the first round would be a shocker. The Blazers are 2-12 against Western Conference playoff teams since Jan. 20, their defense is a mess and their offense is a solvable equation predictably loaded with pick-and-rolls and drive-and-kicks.
Minutes management has also been an issue for this team. According to Sportando.com's official Twitter account, the Blazers are the fifth team in NBA history to have four players—Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez—start all 82 games of the regular season.
All four of those players averaged at least 31.7 minutes per game. Four of their five starters—LaMarcus Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Matthews—actually logged at least 34 minutes a night for the season. That's an inordinate number of minutes and amount of wear and tear that comes with them.
Now, the Blazers are relatively young, so that helps. They're also shallow, facing a more balanced Rockets team and close to inept outside Portland. The latter is huge since they don't have home-court advantage and their defensive rating skyrockets on the road, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
Let us not belittle what the Blazers did this season. They were fun and made great strides. But let's not throw wrapping paper around used shoelaces and call it an immaculate birthday present either.
Should the Blazers' postseason push last six games, consider it an accomplishment.