What's at Stake for Every 2014 NBA Playoffs Team

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

What's at Stake for Every 2014 NBA Playoffs Team

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    NBA teams are getting set for the playoffs. They all have the same goal of a championship, but they don’t all have the same stakes. Some have more to lose if they don't win than others. 

    There are several things that determine what’s at stake for each team. How many times has the team been to the postseason before? How far did it go? In what stage of their careers are its star players? How much money has been invested? Is it in “win-now” mode?

    Depending on all of those factors, different teams have different things to win or lose. Some have their legacy at stake, others have their future at stake. Some have only the present to play for. One team even has absolutely nothing to lose.

    Here is what every team has on the line. They are listed according to their seeds, bottom to top, Eastern Conference first and then Western Conference.

    All stats are provided by NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise stated. All salary information is from Sham Sports.

Atlanta Hawks (East No. 8): House Money

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    The Atlanta Hawks' chances of beating the Indiana Pacers in a seven-game series are roughly equal to their chances of encountering and surviving a Sharknado attack on their charter flight to Indianapolis for Game 1.

    Let’s not pretend here. The Hawks have absolutely no business being in the playoffs. If they were in the West, they wouldn’t even be sniffing the postseason. In fact, they’d be 11th in the standings and 12 games out of the hunt.

    In the sense of competitive balance between conferences, that’s ridiculously unfair. But, if you’re Atlanta right now, it means you’re playing with house money. The Hawks have absolutely nothing to lose.

    The worst that can happen is they get obliterated in four straight games, which is more or less what everyone expects to happen. They could drop four straight by 25 and not be a disappointment.

    But there’s this very slim chance the Hawks can make trouble for the Pacers. They did split the season series with them and outscored the Pacers by 15 points in the four games they played.

    All the pressure is on Indiana, which has shown cracks of late. It staggered down the stretch, going just 16-14 after the All-Star break.

    If the Hawks give the fans something to cheer about and take a game or two at home, it would be more than anyone expects. If they take the first game in Indianapolis, they could do even more than that.

    Playing with no pressure and no expectations might allow for that possibility. They have everything to win and nothing to lose. Beware the Sharknado!

Charlotte Bobcats (East No. 7): Ticket Sales

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    It wasn’t that long ago the Charlotte Bobcats were the worst team in the history of the league, “boasting” a winning percentage of just .106 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

    Just two years later, they shocked the world by getting back to the playoffs and posting a winning record. Per SB Nation, Vegas set the over/under for Charlotte this year at 26.5, an expectation it exceeded by 16.5 games.

    Last offseason, the Bobcats added two key pieces: Al Jefferson, who will probably get some down-the-ballot MVP votes, and Tom Thibodeau protege Steve Clifford as head coach.

    Then, Charlotte learned how to win over the course of the season. Very quietly, it was the second best team in the East after the All-Star break with a 20-9 record.

    Yet, in spite of the Bobcats' turnaround, they didn’t see much of an impact in ticket sales. The city of Charlotte doesn’t seem to be quite on board yet. The Bobcats are just 25th in home attendance this year, per ESPN.com.

    It’s unlikely the Bobcats win their series with the Miami Heat, but it’s not impossible they make things harder than Miami wants them to be. It’s more than possible they end their 16-game skid versus the Heat.

    While Miami swept the regular-season series, two of the games were close. One was decided by a point, and another went to overtime.

    The Bobcats could steal a game, especially since the Heat have struggled with less-capable centers than Al Jefferson in the playoffs. If the Bobcats can win a couple of home games, the city might finally get on board, and that could turn into season tickets being sold next year.

    That probably matters more to the future of the franchise than winning this series.

Brooklyn Nets (East No. 6): $186 Million and the Future

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    John Minchillo

    The Brooklyn Nets paid a lot of money for their current roster. After taxes, they're in the neighborhood of $186 million, per Eric Freeman of Yahoo Sports.

    And that’s not all they’re paying either. In order to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics, they traded away three first-round draft picks (2014, 2016 and 2018). They also gave the Celtics the right to swap spots if the Nets have a better selection in 2017.

    Then they handed the team over to a novice head coach, Jason Kidd.

    At the start of the season, that looked like a laughably stupid decision. The Nets appeared headed for the lottery. But, then they got their act together.

    Since the start of the calendar year, the Nets have gone 34-17, the sixth-best record in the NBA and second-best record in the Eastern Conference.

    So, were they a team that just needed all the new parts to jell together, or are they a team destined for a first-round exit? And, is even getting to the second round enough?

    Brooklyn paid a huge sum, both in terms of current payroll and future draft picks, to win in the present. This isn’t like a young, building team where progression from last year is part of a process. The age of this team (Garnett is 37, Pierce 36, Joe Johnson 32 and Deron Williams 29) doesn't lend itself to a long-term building plan.

    The Nets are more likely to regress than improve, and when they decline, they won’t have the normal options available to them to improve via the draft. That’s what happens when you trade your picks away. Just ask the neighboring New York Knicks.

    This may be the Nets’ best chance to win a title, and it’s not great.

    The higher-seeded and underrated Toronto Raptors will be Brooklyn’s opening-round opponent, and they are a viable threat to send the Nets home early.

    And, if they don’t make it past the first round, the most expensive egg in the history of the NBA will be on their proverbial face.

Washington Wizards (East No. 5): The Right Education and Experience

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    Alex Brandon

    The last time the Washington Wizards were in the playoffs was the 2007-08 season. The last time they won a playoff series was 2004-05. The last time they made it past the second round was 1978-79. Jimmy Carter was president.

    That was back in the franchise glory days when guys like Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld were still on the team and it was called the Bullets. 

    The current version of Washington is led by its star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, but both are young with no postseason experience.

    Only two of the Wizards' current starters have ever started a playoff game: Trevor Ariza (29) and Marcin Gortat (1). They do, however, have some postseason experience on the bench, most notably Andre Miller and Nene. Ariza earned a ring with the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers.

    Barring trades, the only player in that group guaranteed to be back next season is Nene. Miller has a player option. Ariza and Gortat are unrestricted free agents.

    It is unlikely the Wizards make the second round but not impossible. The Chicago Bulls have more experience and a defense that is hard to see the Wizards being able to exploit from game to game. 

    To predict they get past the second round would stretch credulity. That would probably mean winning a seven-game series against the Pacers following a series against the Bulls. Even the Miami Heat barely escaped that kind of punishment en route to last year’s championship.

    The Wizards aren’t in this thing to win it, though, so it’s OK.

    What they can do is gain valuable experience and education. Their youngsters have the opportunity to learn from their veterans, particularly Ariza, how to play in the postseason.

    What’s not often stated is that experience isn’t always a positive thing, and learning doesn’t always mean you learn the right lessons.

    The young Wizards need to make the most of this opportunity by approaching it with a right frame of mind. The best players don’t necessarily make the best leaders. If Wall and Beal can lead on the court but follow in the locker room, they’ll gain the most value from this postseason, win or lose.

Chicago Bulls (East No. 4): 2014 Offseason

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    The Chicago Bulls' season is stuff of legend now. Howard Beck of Bleacher Report writes eloquently of their mentality.

    The Bulls remember. They remember your slights and your doubts, your disturbing lack of faith. They seem dedicated to a singular mission—to defy expectations, crush conventional wisdom and obliterate everything we think we know about the NBA.

    Those “slights and doubts” came early in the season when Derrick Rose, their former MVP, tore his meniscus on Nov. 22.

    The team spiraled horribly. From that game through Dec. 19, the Bulls were 3-12. But they started to bounce back when waiver-wire acquisition D.J. Augustin got the start for the injured Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls won five of seven.

    Then, on Jan. 6, the Bulls announced the trade of their longest-tenured player, Luol Deng. It looked for all the world like a tanking move.

    A team that should have been devastated showed even more resolve, though. Since that day, only the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies have won more games than the Bulls, and Chicago owns the best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference.

    While that was going on, superstars Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony—both players who might be on the move—were paying attention. The Bulls weren’t using adversity as an excuse for losing; they were using it as motivation for winning.

    Love is rumored to have included the Bulls in teams he’d like to play for, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles. Anthony is believed to be pondering what it’s like to play under Tom Thibodeau, per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

    With both players watching the postseason instead of participating in it, they’ll probably tune in to see the Bulls. What they see may be the greatest possible sales pitch.

    The deeper the “supporting cast” goes, the more potential for a championship.  If they could effectively add two superstars to the lineup with Rose and Anthony or Love, what limit would they have?

    With both of the interested superstars in position to make trade demands, and with the volume of assets the Bulls have at their disposal, the Bulls could be playing to land Anthony or Love this summer. Those chances increase the deeper they go into the playoffs.

Toronto Raptors (East No. 3): Their Best Season Ever—for Now

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    Carlos Osorio

    The Toronto Raptors have already had their best regular season ever. They’ve won more than they ever won with Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady or Chris Bosh.

    The Raptors' sole trip past the first round came in the 2000-01 season. If they can duplicate that feat—which they have a realistic possibility of doing—they’ll clinch their best season in history.

    What’s even more encouraging if you’re a Raptors fan is that this isn't a team that’s going to be blown up after the season ends, like the Chris Bosh version. Nor are they too old to grow, like the previous version with Mark Jackson, Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis that went to the second round in 2001.

    This roster is something the Raptors can build upon.

    According to Sham Sports, all the key players are under contract next year with the exception of Kyle Lowry. However, the Raptors have just $51.4 million in committed salaries for 2014-15, so keeping Lowry probably won’t be an issue.

    And, as Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun pointed out shortly before the trade deadline, no news is good news. Ganter, in discussing Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri's inaction, explains:

    If Ujiri believed there was zero chance of re-signing Lowry, you can bet a fair amount of money he would have found a way to get some return on Lowry before he jumped ship.

    The fact that he is still here at least suggests not only that Ujiri has in an interest in retaining him, but that he believes he has a fair chance of getting his signature on another contract.

    That means the Raptors have an opportunity to have their best season ever and then follow it up with an even better one. They’re on their way to being one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, and Raptors fans should enjoy this taste, but there’s no need to savor it. Even sweeter things will come.

Miami Heat (East No. 2): The Big 3-Peat

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    Lynne Sladky

    If you’re using winning to justify it, the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have vindicated coming together. They’ve been to the NBA Finals in all three seasons since they united, and they’ve won the last two titles.

    As they say, though, all good things must come to an end. They may end up playing just four seasons together—not five, not six, not seven…

    The realities of their opt-out clauses and the new collective bargaining agreement are too heavy to deny.

    Wade told ESPN The Magazine’s Darren Rovell (ironically on April Fools’ Day) about where he sits with this offseason:

    We've won multiple championships, so it's no reason where I need to think about that yet. I'm not at a point where we are a bad team and I need to think about the future, so right now I'm really focused on just enjoying this team, enjoying our quest to try to three-peat. And when the season is over, and whatever happens, then I will sit down with Chris and I will sit down with Bron and I will sit down and make the best decision for myself and my family.

    Feel free to believe that he’s really not thinking about whether his entire life will change in the next two or three months, but I have my hesitations.

    The fact is, even if the trio all decide to remain in their contracts, one of them will probably be traded. If they stay together, and teammates Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen also decide to exercise their player options, the Heat would be at $70 million already—almost to the tax with the need to sign five more players.

    That would also mean losing almost all of the remaining supporting cast, including Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Ray Allen.

    However, the Heat could retain those players using exceptions, and they would have their mid-level exception and biannual exceptions to use as well. But the higher up the salaries climb, the higher up the tax burden climbs. Next year, that will mean a repeater tax too.

    Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated estimates that if the Heat stay together, after tax, the total payroll cost will come in at around $141.3 million. According to Forbes, last year the Heat’s operating income was just $29.2 million with a $90 million payroll.

    Math says, if they add $50 million in payroll costs, they’ll be operating with a $20 million loss, even if they win a championship.

    In other words, this is probably the last season of the Big Three staying together. If the friends and teammates can add their names to the very small list of teams (1952-54 Minneapolis Lakers, 1959-66 Boston Celtics, 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, 1996-98 Chicago Bulls and 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers) who accomplished that feat, they’ll be listed with some of the greatest legacies ever.

    If they don't, they could be marked as a failure, bailed out from being a one-hit wonder by a Ray Allen dagger

Indiana Pacers (East No. 1): Identity

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    The Pacers established themselves as one of the favorites for the NBA championship by taking the Miami Heat to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

    The keys to their success are elite defense, the inside play of Roy Hibbert and the emerging stardom of Paul George. However, lately they’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis.

    Based on Player Impact Estimate, no starter in the league has been less productive than Hibbert since the All-Star break. His normally elite defense has been shaky too. Over his last 10 games, the Pacers gave up 105.6 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court, nearly 10 points more than the season on the whole.

    George has struggled as well, if not to the same degree. Since the break, only one of the 32 players firing off 15 or more shots per game has a lower field-goal percentage than George’s .396.

    The Pacers' vaunted defense has fallen off too, ranking just eighth-best in the NBA since the festivities, yielding 102.5 points per 100 possessions. Compare that with a stingy 93.6 during the season’s first segment. 

    Everything that has made the Pacers a successful franchise is suddenly fragile, and the team is going through an existential crisis. They rebounded slightly when they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 13 to preserve the No. 1 seed, but is that enough to salvage the season?

    The Pacers have shown that they can play as well as anyone in the NBA. They’ve also shown they are susceptible to cracking under pressure. Sooner or later, the Pacers are going to encounter major obstacles in the postseason. How they respond when they do won’t just determine the outcome on the scoreboard, it will determine the immediate future of the franchise.

    Per Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, head coach Frank Vogel could be on the hot seat. It won’t be long after that you hear rumors of Hibbert being on the trading block. They might have to let Lance Stephenson walk in free agency regardless of what happens in the playoffs.

    If it doesn’t handle adversity well, the very core of the team could be fractured. And if it is, breaking it up will be inevitable. This could be the end of the Pacers as we know them—or it could be the first NBA championship in Indiana history.

Dallas Mavericks (West No. 8): The Past and the Future

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    When Dirk Nowitzki moved into the top-10 all-time scorers this year, he did it with remarkably little fanfare. It’s sort of symbolic of what his Dallas Mavericks have done with him as their MVP.

    Since Nowitzki’s first full season as a starter, 1999-2000, the Mavericks have a .647 winning percentage. The only team that has won more is Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs. But, because Dallas has just one championship, the Mavericks' accomplishments get little attention.

    Nowitzki, after becoming only the third player over 35 to ever take 1,000 field-goal attempts and maintain a .600 true shooting percentage, is in the twilight of his career, but he is playing remarkably well for his age.

    Adding Monta Ellis has alleviated him of some of the scoring burden. Next year he’s a free agent, but per Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas, he plans to take less money to stay with the Mavericks for the chance to win another title in Dallas.             

    The Mavericks are locked into $31.3 million for next year. Not including cap holds, that gives them about $30 million to spend. Depending on how much of a pay cut Nowitzki is willing to take, they’ll have the chance to sign a max-level player. Or, they could keep most of their current core intact and try to add a second-tier star, such as two-time All-Star Luol Deng or restricted free agent Gordon Hayward.

    The Mavericks are playing for the past and the future. They’re playing for the past in the sense that their accomplishments have been overlooked over the last 15 years because they aren't the Spurs. Now, they have a chance to take a bite out of that image.

    They are playing for the future, because the better they play in the postseason and the further they go, the more appealing they look to free agents eyeing a championship run with the aging German star.

Memphis Grizzlies (West No. 7): Respect

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    Mark J. Terrill

    Does anyone even remember that the Memphis Grizzlies were in the Western Conference Finals last year?

    Unlike the other three teams that made it to that conference finals, though, not only are they absent in this year’s championship conversation, they don’t even seem to be in the dark-horse conversation.

    Sekou Smith of NBA.com asked a panel of 10 experts from around the world to name their dark horse. Not one of them referenced Memphis, not even to exclude it.

    Aretha Franklin sings anthems about this. Rodney Dangerfield’s whole bit was about this. The Grizzlies are asking for and getting no respect.

    Sure, the Grizzlies only have the No. 7 seed this year, but to just see them based on their seed is to underestimate them. This is in no small part due to some injury issues, most notably to their best player, Marc Gasol.

    Since Gasol returned from injury on Jan. 14, though, the Grizzlies have been fantastic. The San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers are the only two teams in the NBA with a better record than them. The Chicago Bulls are the only team with a better defensive rating.

    The Grizzlies are a battle-tested team with a championship-caliber defense. That they have gotten almost no respect is sad. But those who don’t respect the Grizz poke the bear, and we all know what happens when the bear wakes up.

    The Grizzlies probably have the best chance of an upset in the West in the first round, even if no one is talking about it.

Golden State Warriors (West No. 6): Mark Jackson’s Job

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    David Zalubowski

    I’m just going to say it: Sometimes people in the NBA are stupid. Like, Darwin-award winning, strap-helium-balloons-to-a-lawn-chair stupid.

    I’m not of the mind that Mark Jackson should be on the hot seat, but the owners are.

    The Warriors are making consecutive trips to the playoffs since the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons, way back when Jackson was playing with the New York Knicks and getting knocked out by Michael Jordan on the way to his first two titles.

    Between then and when Jackson became the Warriors head coach in the summer of 2011, Jordan had more retirements than the Warriors had playoff appearances.

    So why in the wide, wide world of sports would the Warriors even entertain the idea of letting go of Jackson? But inexplicably, they are. Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News asked co-owner Joe Lacob about Jackson, and this was the response:

    I think we’ll have to look back on a body of work at the end of the season and look at that and make an evaluation.

    I do think our coach has done a good job–we have had some big wins, a lot of wins on the road, and that’s usually a sign of good coaching.

    But some things are a little disturbing–the lack of being up for some of these games at home, that’s a concern to me.

    So, they make the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in almost a quarter century, and Lacob’s worried about whether his team is “up” enough for some home games? Ludicrous!

    However, if history has taught us anything, it’s that just because something is stupid, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Last year, the Coach of the Year, George Karl, was fired.

    Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, who “only” got to the Western Conference Finals and was unquestionably the greatest coach in franchise history, didn’t get his contract renewed.

    In spite of the fact that the Warriors have a core of predominantly one-way players, Jackson has managed to manufacture them into a team that plays well on both ends of the court. The Warriors are 12th in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating.

    Still, Jackson’s job might be in peril if the Warriors don’t have a successful postseason.

    The Warriors aren’t just playing for their coach; they’re playing for his job.

Portland Trail Blazers (West No. 5): LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Don Ryan

    Before the season started, a rumor came out that LaMarcus Aldridge wasn't happy and may be looking for a trade out of Portland if the team didn't win.

    There was this report from Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com:

    Does Aldridge want out of Portland? Yes and no, a source close to the 6-10 forward informed CSNNW.com. If Portland doesn't have plans to drastically improve its roster in time for the 2013-14 NBA season, Aldridge would prefer to be moved, and his first choice would be Chicago, the source said.

    I think adding 21 wins to last year counts as significant, but just getting to the playoffs probably isn’t enough to satiate Aldridge's desire to win. He’s been there three times before, but he’s never won a series.

    The Trail Blazers and Rockets will be locked into a high-scoring three-point war like none other.

    In the history of the NBA, only 20 teams have made 750 three-pointers in a season, with two of them being the Trail Blazers and the Rockets. Never before have two 750 three-point teams met in the postseason. This will be a shootout of monumental proportions.

    Whoever is hotter from deep will probably win the series, but whoever loses will probably feel frustrated. The problem with building teams around the deep ball is that it's easy to get frustrated when threes aren't falling, and the last thing Portland needs is Aldridge to end the season feeling frustrated. 

    Portland will be playing for more than a trip to the second round. It will be playing for Aldridge's heart.

Houston Rockets (West No. 4): The Plan

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    The Houston Rockets and their general manager, Daryl Morey, have arguably gone deeper into the analytics hole than anyone. Possibly they’ve gone too far.

    The Rockets are dead last in mid-range field goals made and percentage. It’s one thing to not make the shots because you’re taking the best shots, but it’s another to not be able to. The Rockets aren’t just getting fewer mid-range shots. They have less than half of what anyone else in the NBA has.

    They are thoroughly locked into the analytic notion that shots should come from behind the outer arc or inside the inner arc. The two most efficient areas of the court are the three, particularly from the baseline, and the shots inside the restricted area. 

    It's all true, but only to a point. And sometimes, analysts can get overly myopic on that interpretation. 

    The concern is that Houston may be avoiding good long twos to take bad three-point shots or bad shots at the rim. If you force challenged shots from efficient areas and bypass open shots from inefficient areas, you might be doing what you're trying to avoid doing. 

    Now, I know that’s not supposed to be possible. But it is. New tracking data made available from SportVU made available at NBA.com indicates that how a shot is made can make as much difference as where it’s made from.

    Allow me a slight tangent using Stephen Curry as an example to illustrate. I use Curry, because he's probably the best pure shooter in the league. 

    The best catch-and-shoot player in the NBA is Kyle Korver, who has an effective field-goal percentage of .714 on such plays. Curry is second with .690.

    Curry also has the best pull-up jumper in the game, but his effective field-goal percentage is only .534 on those plays. On drives, where there are no three-point shots, he shoots .516. That’s a difference of a percentage of .174 between drives and catch-and-shoots.

    Curry also has a field-goal percentage of .509 on two-point shots and an effective field-goal percentage of .636 on three-point shots. That’s a difference of .127.

    Curry is the best shooter in the game, and even with him, the type of shot he takes makes a bigger difference than where he shoots from.

    So with Houston, where are all those open mid-range shots?

    The absence of the mid-range is why the Rockets lose when they're not scoring from deep. When they shoot over .300 from deep, they’re outstanding, going 41-13 in such games. However, when they shoot .300 or lower, they are only 13-14.

    Sooner or later in the playoffs, you have to face a great defense that closes out hard on threes and challenges shots. What happens to Houston when it faces one of those teams? Does the offense have the versatility to adapt to what the defense is doing and make it defend the mid-range? If not, Houston has a problem. 

    The Rockets face the Trail Blazers, who gave up the second-fewest threes. They will probably face the Spurs, who gave up the fewest threes, in the second round. And while the Rockets have Dwight Howard in the post, it's questionable whether he has the skills to carry an offense and set up the outside shot by his inside play. 

    The Rockets could be in for an early exit, and if they are, Morey will have to re-evaluate his entire plan. 

Los Angeles Clippers (West No. 3): Chris Paul’s Legacy

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    Chris Paul is generally regarded as the third best player in the NBA behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. However, he has surprisingly little postseason success.

    He deserves his place in the elite conversation. Since Paul came into the league, the only player with more win shares is LeBron James. He is one of only four players in history to log 10,000 points, 6,000 assists and 2,500 rebounds during his first nine years.

    His postseason career is not nearly as magnificent, though. He’s played only 40 playoff games in his career, and his record is 16-24. He has only two series wins to his credit, and he’s never made it past the second round.

    For various reasons, Paul’s lack of postseason success is dismissed. He didn’t have enough help in New Orleans. His first two years in Los Angeles, he didn’t have the right coach. He’s never played with another superstar (until Griffin matured this year). 

    However, there are a couple of points to be made here. First, historically, other elite players who have been heavily criticized for not winning have had the same excuses, but they weren't given the same latitude.

    James, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had questionable coaching and a weak supporting cast on a team he took to the NBA Finals but was hammered for not winning there. Michael Jordan was bashed for not winning until Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen came along and provided the necessary help to win a title—or six.

    Even Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain faced criticism for accruing big numbers without championship rings back in the '60s. This is nothing new.

    Now, Paul doesn’t really have any excuses. He has a coach with a championship pedigree in Doc Rivers. He has a co-superstar: Griffin. He has a deep supporting cast, including defensive standouts like DeAndre Jordan and Matt Barnes, as well as gunners like J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford.

    If Paul doesn’t lead the Clippers to at least the Western Conference Finals this year, it’s time to start questioning whether he really has what it takes to lead a team to a championship.

Oklahoma City Thunder (West No. 2): Kevin Durant’s Historic Season

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    Sue Ogrocki

    Kevin Durant has had one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. He scored 32.0 points per game with a true shooting percent of .625. Of players who have scored 30 points per game, only Adrian Dantley had a better true shooting percentage in 1983-84.

    Durant’s all-around numbers were impressive too. He averaged 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Other players who have had 30-7-5 seasons are Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. That’s some pretty elite company.

    He’s the only player other than Jordan to ever have 2,500 points, 500 rebounds, 400 assists and 100 steals in a season.

    His 2,593 points were the second-most since the 1990-91 season, surpassed only by Kobe Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign.

    And then there was the whole streak thing. Durant had the third-longest streak of 25-point games, reaching that total 41 consecutive times—a full half of an NBA season. The only two players who have exceeded that total, Chamberlain and Robertson, played in a completely different era.

    Point being, Durant has had a positively historic season and should win the MVP (he got my vote in our Bleacher Report awards). However, his season’s true place in history is going to be judged based on what he does in the NBA’s second season, not what he did in the regular season, as magnificent as that was.

    Durant has made it to the NBA Finals before, but he hasn’t won a ring yet. The only satisfying end to this season for him must consist of doing something he hasn’t done before, and that can only mean winning everything.

San Antonio Spurs (West No. 1): Greatest Dynasty Ever?

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    Eric Gay

    Where is it written that a dynasty has to have consecutive championships? That is really the only way to exclude the Tim Duncan-era Spurs from the conversation of greatest teams in history.

    Why can’t longevity be a dynastic delineation? The Roman Empire is admired for how long it lasted, not how big it was. Endurance has its value too.

    Per Tim McGarry and Sean Highkin of USA Today, since drafting Duncan in the summer of 1997, the Spurs have not failed to reach the 50-win barrier or its equivalent in a strike-shortened season. That’s 17 consecutive years.

    Other than the Spurs, only three teams, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns, have surpassed that total in their entire history. The Spurs, sans Duncan, only have 10.

    The second-longest stretch is 12 years. The Lakers did that from 1979-80 to 1990-91, 12 years, the Magic Johnson years.  

    The Boston Celtics dynasty, with Bill Russell and his 11 championships, only had 10 straight seasons.

    Larry Bird’s rendition of the Celtics did it 12 times overall but only nine consecutively.

    The Suns' longest streak is seven straight, from 1988-89 to 1994-95.

    Michael Jordan only hit the 50-win mark eight times. The Bulls' longest streak lasted just five seasons—four of them with Jordan—beginning with the 1990-91 season.

    The magnitude of this is hard to appreciate in just the number of years.

    There are literally kids graduating from high school who weren’t born yet the last time the Spurs failed to hit 50. Many of next year’s “one and done” players have never seen the Spurs not reach that barrier. They’ve never experienced the Spurs not being a contender!

    How many players and teams have spanned not just a generation of players, but a literal generation with that kind of steady success?

    If the Spurs can win a title and bookend Duncan’s career with a fifth championship, it will give Duncan as many rings as Kobe Bryant. It would be hard to deny him as the greatest player of his generation after that. The Spurs' place along the greatest dynasties in NBA history would come with it.