At long last our 82-game NBA purgatory comes to a close Wednesday night. The remaining loose ends, most of which pertain to playoff seeding and ping-pong balls, will be decided, and hopefully the 2013-14 season will spring anew the next two-plus months.
Because what we've seen since late October has been far from ideal. Sure, Kevin Durant is the best offensive force the game has seen since Jordan, the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors proved tanking ain't as easy as it seems and LeBron James continues to be a nightly freakshow we do not appreciate nearly enough.
But even the biggest League Pass lurker isn't sad to say goodbye to a regular season that dragged its feet to the finish. Rampant injuries to stars, rampant sprints to non-competitiveness and a dreadful Eastern Conference will forever leave a lasting stain on whatever good we can remember.
And as someone who masochistically forces myself to check in on every team, I'll selfishly acknowledge I won't shed a tear about avoiding Boston, Philadelphia, et al. for the next few months.
Luckily, the playoffs have come to save the day. For all the unfair criticisms of NBA players sleepwalking through the regular season, the playoffs are really a different animal. The intensity never wavers, the rotations are shortened and seven-game series engender rivalries that carry over into the following fall.
The structure and basketball's inherent predictability (relative to other sports) make upsets typically rare, but typical seasons don't have 49-win teams hanging in the No. 8 seed.
Any of the top-four seeds in the Western Conference are good enough to win the NBA championship. The East has only two true contenders (Miami and Indiana), yet the Chicago-Brooklyn pair poses a giant looming threat in Round 2.
There are numerous big-picture and microscopic subplots heading into the weekend. Let's take a look at a few that aren't getting nearly enough attention at the moment.
Are We Underrating the East?
In December, the Eastern Conference was on pace for historic levels of putridity. The Pacers, Heat and Hawks were the only three teams sitting above .500 on Christmas Day. Atlanta was just two games above the poverty line. There was a muck of teams hanging just below the league's mark of mediocrity, but all anyone seemed preoccupied with was what an affront the East was to basketball.
The Nets and Knicks were dumpster fires. The Bulls were headed in a downward spiral after losing Derrick Rose. The Raptors were ready to tank their season. Things had reached such a low point that serious discussions were had about whether a Rajon Rondo return could send Boston to the playoffs.
Times were bad, man.
Things have gone decidedly better since the jolly fat man in the red suit came through. Only one Eastern Conference playoff team is now under .500. There is some obvious noise in those records because they're buoyed by not terrible East teams beating up on NBA bottom-feeders, but the conference is not a resourceless hellscape any more.
Along with Miami and Indiana, Toronto, Chicago and Brooklyn have turned their respective seasons around to become difficult second-round outs.
The Bulls rebuilt themselves in the image of Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau, punching you in the mouth from the opening tip and not taking a second to bask in their solid right cross before doing it again. Only the deepest appreciators of team defense actually enjoy watching the Bulls play, but neither Indiana nor Miami wants to see Thibs for a seven-game slog.
The Raptors have been borderline great since their season-altering trade with the Sacramento Kings.
Sitting at 7-12 with Rudy Gay officially on the roster, Toronto has gone 41-21 since—equivalent to a 54-win team over the course of a full season. And the underlying numbers say this isn't a fluke. The Raptors have outscored opponents by five points per 100 possessions since the Gay trade, sixth-best in the NBA and second behind only Miami in the East.
Brooklyn's season was also defined by addition by subtraction—though it felt far from it at the time. Brook Lopez's season-ending foot injury seemed like the death knell for an already embarrassing campaign.
The Nets' high-priced roster had failed to coalesce, turning into a flaming pile of basketball only matched by their cross-city rival. Lopez's injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing Jason Kidd to realize his team's destiny as this small-ball/long-ball hybrid that gives teams fits on both ends.
Given Indiana's on-court struggles and internal strife, it's not outlandish to wonder if one of these teams could push the Pacers to seven games. Chicago is the likeliest culprit in what would be a fantastic '90s throwback.
Picking anything but an Indiana-Miami conference finals is still bordering on nuts and would be a disappointment with the amount of emotional gravitas we've invested in their regular-season meetings. Still. The possibility isn't as crazy as it seemed a few months ago.
We're Going to Have a Playoff Breakout Star This Season, Right? RIGHT???
Last year, Harrison Barnes and Kawhi Leonard played their way into the national conversation with surprise breakout performances that left both Golden State and San Antonio feeling like they'd nabbed franchise cornerstones.
Barnes and Leonard proved this season how much matchups and small sample-size theater can cloud our judgement.
Barnes took a massive step backward in his development and has become an active negative on both ends of the floor for Golden State. Leonard is a very, very good basketball player, but he is who he is—probably not a guy with a Paul George-level leap in him. (That's fine, by the way. Leonard is awesome; he's also a victim of our unrealistic expectations.)
Looking for this year's Leonard or Barnes isn't as easy as it sounds. Barnes broke out in large part because he morphed into a small-ball 4 due to David Lee's injury. Leonard was only slightly better than his regular-season self and garnered so much attention mainly because of the stage.
Similar factors will play a factor in determining the dude we expect way too much from next season. But I took the liberty of combing a few rosters in an attempt to pinpoint the most likely candidates a little early.
Terrence Ross (Raptors): Ross already had his mini-breakout during the regular season with his still-to-this-day-inexplicable 51-point game against the Clippers in January. There is a possibility he could do something similar, but Ross could very easily break out just doing the same things he's done during the regular season. The second-year wing has already developed elite catch-and-shoot skills, is a ridiculous athlete and should see a ratcheting up in playing time. Dwane Casey played Ross 30 or more minutes only 31 times during the regular season. I'd be shocked if he's not in for 30-plus in every Raptors playoff game.
Bradley Beal (Wizards): Everyone knows John Wall. An overwhelming majority of hoops fans know Beal. I'm not sure how many know how ridiculously good Beal can be at times. He still needs to work on being more consistent and needs to stop taking so many mid-range jumpers, but Beal can fill it up in a hurry when he gets hot. The former Florida standout has one of the game's prettiest jumpers and can really get into a two-man game zone with Wall. Defensively Beal is solid with the exception of isolation situations—opposing players are shooting 51 percent against Beal as the primary iso defender, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). If the Wizards want a chance to advance, Beal is going to have to be the best version of himself.
Jae Crowder (Mavericks): Seems unlikely. Would probably take a Shawn Marion injury for him to even have a chance of cracking significant postseason minutes. For a guy who's scored a total of seven points in April despite averaging almost 13 minutes a game, Crowder is worth monitoring. At least respective to others within that strata.
Mason Plumlee (Nets): Plumlee is what Plumlee does. Or something. It took Kidd forever and a day to dust him off the bench, but the Nets coach is sure glad he did. Plumlee plays with the same infectious energy and ridiculous athleticism he did at Duke, and much like his brother in Phoenix, the game plan has worked. Plumdog has been brilliant with his April minutes increase. He's scored at least 16 points in his last four games and is one of a handful of players who could match Joakim Noah's frantic movements in a playoff series.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Bobcats): Call me a sucker. I'm not ready to give up on Kidd-Gilchrist being a two-way contributor yet. He's already a young Tony Allen-esque stopper on the perimeter. There are numerous All-Defensive team awards in his future if he can stay in an NBA starting lineup—which is almost wholly dependent on his development offensively. Kidd-Gilchrist is still a miserable jump-shooter. Teams readily ignore him to double down on Al Jefferson or help on a pick-and-roll, and the Bobcats are already a spacing-limited team. I'm just not ready to sell stock yet. Call this my pet pick.
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