Way-Too-Early 2019 NBA Playoffs Predictions

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 6, 2019

Way-Too-Early 2019 NBA Playoffs Predictions

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    We're little more than a month from the start of the 2019 NBA playoffs, which means we nearly have a full season's worth of information on which to base our predictions.

    Somehow, though, every one of the following forecasts still feels flimsy.

    By its nature, the postseason is unpredictable. No one knows which teams were playing possum for most of the regular season or which stars will wilt when the intensity ratchets up. There's no way to be certain about matchup advantages, injuries or coaching misfires.

    We can make our best guesses, but the playoffs have a way of disproving even the most informed theories.

    We'll start off with predicted seeding before opening up a grab bag of postseason prognostications. And yes, we'll even take a foolhardy leap and crown a champion.

Predicted Seeding

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    We can't get far with predictions if we don't first lay out the field. Here's our best guess at each conference's final standings with around 20 games remaining.

           

    Western Conference

    1. Golden State Warriors

    2. Denver Nuggets

    3. Portland Trail Blazers

    4. Houston Rockets

    5. Utah Jazz

    6. Oklahoma City Thunder

    7. San Antonio Spurs

    8. L.A. Clippers

            

    Prediction Notes

    • Oklahoma City slips here because it has the toughest remaining schedule in the West based on opponent winning percentage. Utah has the easiest by far, which explains its climb from its current No. 6 spot.
    • The Los Angeles Lakers are nowhere to be found. Betting against LeBron James has never been a good idea, but Saturday's loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns felt like a deathblow.
    • Sorry, Sacramento Kings. You've been a great story all season, and your time will come. But the league's longest postseason drought endures.

                  

    Eastern Conference

    1. Milwaukee Bucks

    2. Toronto Raptors

    3. Philadelphia 76ers

    4. Boston Celtics

    5. Indiana Pacers

    6. Detroit Pistons

    7. Brooklyn Nets

    8. Orlando Magic

           

    Prediction Notes

    • We shuffled some teams around, but the eight in our predictions are all currently in playoff position. This is more an indictment of the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat than an expression of confidence in the Magic or Nets.
    • It's difficult to convey the level of anxiety triggered by projecting the Celtics to finish ahead of the Pacers. Sure, Indy is without Victor Oladipo. But Boston reeks of internal dysfunction. If chemistry matters at all, this will be a mistake. Boston and Indiana's respective positions reflect faith in the value of talent. The Celtics just have more. The Pacers' remaining schedule is a bit tougher than the Celtics', which factors into the seeding as well.
    • The 2018-19 Orlando Magic: a playoff team! It helps that Charlotte and Miami have much scarier remaining schedules.

The Jazz Get Their Revenge

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    It isn't like the 2017-18 Jazz were an upstart unprepared for the big stage. Yes, they fell to the 65-win Rockets in five games, but that happened in the Western Conference semifinals. Utah had already won a series, downing the Thunder one round earlier.

    This time, things will go better for the Jazz. They'll take the Rockets out in the first round.

    Houston and Utah split the 2018-19 regular-season series at two games apiece, and the Rockets took the two most recent meetings. That's scary for the Jazz, and it makes this prediction feel bold.

    Mainly, this is a wager on Utah's sturdier all-around profile (and hunger for payback) winning out against the Rockets' James Harden-centric, offense-only approach. Could Harden score 50 per game and engineer another 4-1 series win? Of course! He averaged 45 in his two most recent games against the Jazz's vaunted defense, and if his minutes increase in the playoffs, the half-century mark is hardly out of the question. 

    But the Rockets don't profile as playoff-ready on D. They're 25th in the league (Utah is third), and much of what made Houston dangerous last postseason was its ability to get stops against the best offenses.

    Houston allows the second-highest corner-three frequency in the league, and no team's field-goal percentage allowed at the rim is worse. Utah's offense shouldn't have much difficulty generating looks with high expected point values. The only question will be whether it can convert enough of them?

    Donovan Mitchell can still shoot his team out of games, but he essentially had one great series and one bad one in his playoff debut last year. That's a heck of a result for a rookie leading an offense against opponents with time to game-plan against him, by the way. With fewer lockdown defenders on Houston's roster this time around, Mitchell could have more success working his way into the lane for layups, lobs to Rudy Gobert and kickouts to waiting shooters.

    Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver—this series will depend on you drilling treys.

    Houston's offense is up to second in the league on the season, and it's been better than anyone's over the last month. But the Jazz have scored at a top-10 rate since Feb. 1. If they can sustain that relatively modest level, there's a clear path to an upset.

Ben Simmons Will Average a Triple-Double in the 1st Round

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    Part of this prediction is based on some simple extrapolation. If Ben Simmons averaged 15.0 points (on 69.2 percent shooting from the field!), 9.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 33.3 minutes per game against Detroit this year, it's easy to imagine him bumping those rebound and assist averages up if he's logging closer to 40 minutes per night.

    The other element in play here is the Pistons' lack of matchup options against him.

    Detroit doesn't have a rangy wing to run with Simmons in the open floor, so the burden of guarding him could fall almost entirely on Blake Griffin. Griffin will have the luxury of ignoring Simmons off the ball in half-court sets, but it's a lot to ask of the Pistons' most important offensive player to keep pace with a point-forward churning pell-mell up and down the floor for an entire series.

    Simmons' average speed is third-highest among players 6'10" or taller, and nobody his size or larger logs more than his 2.51 miles per game. 

    Griffin has prolonged his status as a star by leaning on skill and mobility, but Simmons is on another level. The 25-year-old version of Griffin would have been up to the challenge, but some evidence suggests the current edition wears down over the course of a game. Griffin's field-goal and free-throw percentages dip in second halves. His turnover rate climbs, and his assist rate declines. Perhaps most indicative of fatigue, he commits fouls significantly more often after halftime.

    If he's tasked with being Simmons' primary defender, he may not have the stamina to prevent the Sixers star from putting up serious numbers.

DeMarcus Cousins Will Sit Out Every Big Moment

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    When the Warriors find themselves in close, late-game situations, DeMarcus Cousins won't be on the floor, regardless of the size of the opposing center.

    The flashes Cousins showed in his first few games back from a torn Achilles seemed too good to be true, and his recent play suggests they were. Players returning from this injury are supposed to be less mobile, if they come back at all. Maybe adrenaline fueled in those first few games, but whatever burst Boogie had is gone, replaced by defensive disengagement and an inability to leverage his size on either end.

    In six January games, Cousins' presence on the court coincided with a plus-12.6 net rating, headlined by a fantastic 97.9 defensive rating. The sample is small, and five-man lineup data makes it hard to apportion credit or blame (especially when you share a lot of time with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green at the start of first and third quarters), but there was no denying Cousins looked fantastic in those initial contests.

    Flash forward to February, and despite logging significant time with the starters, Cousins' on-court net rating was minus-6.7, the worst of any regular rotation player by a mile. Golden State's defensive rating with him on the floor was a shockingly bad 113.8 in February. And again, this is with four All-Stars surrounding him the majority of the time.

    Slow to rotate, prone to miscommunication and a clear target of every opponent's pick-and-roll offense, Cousins now looks like a guy working his way back from a serious injury—one who was never an attentive or consistent defender to begin with.

    Even if Cousins' play wasn't trending the wrong way, Draymond Green was always going to man the center spot in key moments. The Warriors have had too much success with him there to turn away from that tactic now. And keeping Andre Iguodala off the floor in crunch time was never a consideration, either. But with Andrew Bogut now ticketed for a return to Golden State, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes, it seems as though Cousins' role could be mostly ornamental going forward.

    Perhaps he'll continue to start, and maybe he'll keep seeing regular time with the second unit early in second and fourth quarters. But with the Warriors about to add another conventional big man—one whose career has been defined by excellent defense and slick passing from the elbows—it's hard to see a path toward meaningful postseason minutes for Cousins.

    The offseason signing so many lamented as unfair and/or league-ruining will turn out to be almost totally insignificant.

Pascal Siakam Will Play Center, And It Will Be Glorious

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    The samples are as tiny as they are intriguing, the potential as uncertain as it is tantalizing.

    Pascal Siakam, a 6'9" wing-big-deity hybrid with a top speed that suggests he drinks jet fuel instead of Gatorade on the sidelines, is going to see more time at the 5 in the postseason. When he does, you'll be witnessing the future of basketball.

    The Raptors have unleashed Siakam-at-center lineups for only 334 possessions this season with exceptional results. Those groups own a plus-21.3 net rating, score 123.7 points per 100 possessions and allow 101.8 while forcing opponent turnovers on a mind-boggling 19.9 percent of possessions. Every one of those figures would lead the league, but it's the combination of efficient offense and pure chaos-generation on D that best encapsulates what Siakam can do at the 5.

    For a Raptors team with dreams of a deep playoff run, units featuring Siakam at center may become a necessity. How else can they counter the Bucks when Giannis Antetokounmpo slides to the 5? And what better way to diminish the advantage of Draymond Green manning the middle for the Warriors? These are likely to be conference finals and Finals concerns, but if the Raptors need a jolt to swing an earlier series, they should know where to turn.

    The Raptors have a bevy of options with Marc Gasol slated for duty against old-school centers and Serge Ibaka stretching the floor (while still providing value as a roll man and rim-protector) against other matchups. But Siakam is the true ace in the hole. He can engineer transition blitzes against plodders and be part of a true five-out offense in the half court. Ibaka has the rep of a spacer, but Siakam has shot the deep ball far better this season. And if a switching scheme is necessary, there may only be one or two superior five-position stoppers in the league.

    This prediction may not be the most likely in the bunch, but it's the one we should all root for the most.

The Warriors Will Lose Only 1 Playoff Game Against the West

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    Golden State's Finals sweep obscured the fact that it lost five postseason games before summarily trouncing the Cavs in 2018. Houston beat the Warriors three times (and easily could have made it four), but the Pelicans and Spurs also logged a win apiece in the earlier rounds.

    FiveThirtyEight projects the Warriors will finish with a 59-23 record, one victory better than they were a year ago, but this isn't really about the Dubs. It's about a West bracket that is shorter on serious threats.

    Last year's Rockets finished with a plus-8.4 net rating and were purpose-built to match up against the Warriors. The West's postseason field this year lacks such a foe. Add to that the "last ride" feel this season has taken on in the wake of Kevin Durant's uncertain future, and you could imagine a renewed sense of urgency propelling the Warriors, keeping them fully engaged against a softer slate through the first three rounds. If this is the final run with KD, it'd make sense for both him and the team to squeeze every last drop of greatness out of the partnership.

    There's also a flip side to that thinking. If Durant is halfway out the door, that lack of unity could corrupt Golden State's chemistry and produce several early-round losses. That's why this is a prediction and not a guarantee. There's risk here.

    Still, it seems as though the combination of a weaker field and the sense of finality attached to this particular roster could lead to an inspired run—one marred by no more than a single pre-Finals slip.

Giannis and the Bucks Will Vindicate the Numbers

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    The tradition of incremental playoff success should result in the Milwaukee Bucks losing well before the Finals. This team hasn't even made it out of the first round the last two years, so it'd be exceedingly rare if Milwaukee skipped several seasons' worth of steps by winning three consecutive series.

    But these Bucks are exceedingly rare.

    Milwaukee currently owns the 14th-best average margin of victory in the three-point era. Of the 13 teams ranked higher, nine won rings. The top half of the East features plenty of dangerous teams, and the indomitable Warriors loom as the West's most likely Finals entrant. But if statistical precedent is any guide, not only should the Bucks buck (sorry) the trend of advancing a round or so per season, but they should also be considered true championship threats.

    It's fair to wonder if the Bucks' lack of experience will hurt them, or if their somewhat gimmicky defend-the-rim-at-all-costs defense, which leads the league this season, will surrender too many clean threes in a playoff series.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is progressing as a three-point shooter, but can he frighten defenses enough to keep them from sagging off? Can a team without a true second star compete against late-round opponents that'll have two or three transcendent talents?

    There are so many reasons for skepticism, but Milwaukee's historically significant regular-season dominance can't be ignored. Predicting a run to the Finals and a pitched battle against whoever comes out of the West (it'll be Golden State) is a bet on numbers over narratives. The Bucks hypothetically should need another year or two to figure things out, but the stats suggest they've already figured out enough.

    Milwaukee will end up where it ought to: squared off against a dynastic opponent in the Finals, with a real chance to start a reign of its own.

The Warriors Will 3-Peat

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    We laid out the seeds earlier, but with so much subject to change, it doesn't make a lot of sense to predict how each series will play out. Half of the early-round matchups we've forecasted may not even materialize.

    That fine, though, because it's the Finals that truly matter. And there, we're prepared to get specific.

    The Warriors will take down the Bucks in six games.

    Antetokounmpo is a two-way physical force the likes of which the Warriors have never seen. Except...they actually have. LeBron James hasn't turned in a start-to-finish defensive effort like Giannis in years—maybe ever. But he routinely channeled maximum effort on D when the Finals rolled around. And though Antetokounmpo's relentless drives and physical profile give him advantages against rangy wings and stouter forwards, that's exactly the challenge James presented to Golden State in four straight Finals matchups.

    The Warriors won three of them.

    Though you could argue Antetokounmpo's length makes him different, do you want to devalue James' ability to think the game? He controlled the proceedings mentally, dictating pace, setting up teammates with three-steps-ahead thinking and an innate sense of when and how to attack. How soon we forget his genius.

    Saying Antetokounmpo falls short of James' Finals greatness is hardly a knock. Everyone fails in comparison to the greatest player in history when he's fully engaged. Antetokounmpo is a superstar, a still-ascending talent, a physical marvel who'll never stop barreling into the lane and making good things happen.

    It's just that the Warriors have dealt with this before.

    Milwaukee, in contrast, is in for something different. It hasn't felt the toll of tracking Curry as he zips all over the floor in a series. It hasn't seen playoff Andre Iguodala's hands stripping every exposed basketball. It hasn't dealt with game after game of Klay Thompson's quick-trigger sniping. It will be taken aback by Draymond Green's ability to materialize in the right spot every...single...time.

    Though the numbers say the Bucks are title-worthy, this will be where experience determines the outcome.

    The league may belong to Giannis soon, but the Warriors won't let him have it just yet.

                

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Mar. 5.