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B/R NBA Exec Poll: Which Likely Play-in Team Scares Insiders the Most?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IMay 5, 2021

Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala (28) talks with center Bam Adebayo, left, forward Jimmy Butler (22) and guard Goran Dragic (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Miami. The Heat won 116-111. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

LeBron James' words hold tremendous weight when it comes to NBA issues on and off the court.

So it's no surprise that his public disdain for the NBA's play-in format this year, which may very well include him and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, has generated a lot of attention.

Never mind the fact that a year ago, when the Lakers captured the franchise's 17th NBA title, James was one of the play-in format's more outspoken supporters.

The Lakers want no part in being a play-in participant. It would be a tremendous fall from grace for the defending NBA champions, who have been ravaged by injuries to their two stars, James (right ankle sprain) and Anthony Davis (right calf strain and Achilles tendinosis).

But there are a number of teams embracing the opportunity presented by the expanded postseason field.

And while there are a number of teams capable of shaking up the playoffs as a play-in participant, league executives and scouts believe the Miami Heat—more than any other team—have the greatest potential to make a strong postseason run if their starting point is the play-in game.

Miami (35-30) entered Tuesday sixth in the East, a game ahead of the Boston Celtics (34-31). But the Heat have the potential to move up just as easily with the Atlanta Hawks (36-30) only a half-game ahead of them in the fifth spot, while the New York Knicks (37-28) have a two-game edge on Miami for the No. 4 seed and with it, home-court advantage in the first round.

That's in part why league executives and scouts are confident that the Heat can be a tough team to put away, even if they end up dropping into the play-in. 

"Winner-take-all and Jimmy Butler's playing? I like Miami's chances," one Eastern Conference scout said.

"If there's a team built for this kind of scenario that can get hot, it's Miami," an Eastern Conference executive noted.

The Heat are a clear-cut example of how one player's presence goes far in determining wins and losses.

When Butler has played this season, Miami has a .604 winning percentage. If they won at that clip all season, they would have the fourth-best record in the East behind Philadelphia (.677), Brooklyn (.662) and Milwaukee (.625).

When Jimmy Butler has played for the Heat this season, Miami has a .604 winning percentage. If they won at that clip all season, they would have the fourth-best record in the East behind Philadelphia (.677), Brooklyn (.662) and Milwaukee (.625).
When Jimmy Butler has played for the Heat this season, Miami has a .604 winning percentage. If they won at that clip all season, they would have the fourth-best record in the East behind Philadelphia (.677), Brooklyn (.662) and Milwaukee (.625).Chris Carlson/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He makes them go," a second Eastern Conference scout said. "And he doesn't need big numbers to do it, either. That team, those guys, they play better as a group when he's on the floor with them."  

League executives also point to the Heat as being one of the better defensive teams in the East, which bodes well for their chances to advance beyond the play-in format.

Miami has a defensive rating of 110.0 which ranks eighth in the NBA. Only three teams in the East—Philadelphia, New York and Milwaukee—have a better defensive rating this season.   

But the wild card in Miami's postseason chances, according to league executives, is coaching.

They believe head coach Erik Spoelstra makes Miami a dangerous team regardless of when you see them in the postseason.

"He's seen it all, done it all," an Eastern Conference GM said. "There really isn't a scenario that you can create or put in front of that team that Spo either hasn't seen or isn't prepared to handle. If you need to absolutely win one game, just one game, Erik Spoelstra's the guy you want."

When it comes to teams to worry about in a play-in scenario, Miami was the leading answer among league executives and scouts polled by Bleacher Report. However, there were others that received votes as well.

 

Play-in Honorable Mentions  

Charlotte Hornets: "They're a fun team to watch. They play such a carefree brand of basketball, which makes them scary in a winner-take-all game because they're not going to play with the kind of pressure to win that a lot of teams will. And with LaMelo Ball back, they could really shock some teams." — Eastern Conference executive

Washington Wizards: "If you had to do a top-5 MVP race for the final month of the season, Russell Westbrook is in there. Great scorers with him and Bradley Beal, underrated role players. The kid they got from Chicago, the Gafford kid [Daniel Gafford] has been a steal.  And now they're winning, they got confidence that they can beat anybody, anytime. Nobody wants that kind of smoke in a play-in game." — Eastern Conference scout

Golden State Warriors: "Steph Curry is the one guy none of these teams want to see in a one-game, winner-moves-on kind of format. No one is scared of Golden State. But Steph in a play-in game? Be afraid; be very afraid." — Western Conference scout  

Portland Trail Blazers: "I don't know what to make of this team, and that's what makes them a play-in, wild-card kind of team that I could absolutely see winning a couple games and lock up the seventh or eighth seed." — Western Conference scout

Boston Celtics: "Brad Stevens' days at Butler and prepping for the NCAA tournament, should come in handy right about now. Even if they get through the play-in, I don't see them doing much if anything after that. There's something off about this team; has been all season, really." — Eastern Conference scout.

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