Without LeBron James, there is hope for each contender in the East. But with the Warriors still in-tact and still on a quest for posterity, there is only one analysis that matters for any team vying for the 2019 NBA Championship:
Can you beat them?
Eastern Conference: The Top
1 – Milwaukee Bucks
Can they win the East? Yes. Can they beat the Warriors? Yes.
For the first time in years, the entire top-half of the Eastern Conference is comparable to that in the West. Though they won’t have to beat LeBron—a feat that no Eastern Conference team had accomplished since the Celtics in 2010—the Bucks will have had to go through, in all likelihood, Boston and either Toronto or Philadelphia just to get to the Finals. The problem is that the same can be said for Golden State, and any team surviving the East will represent the last hurdle for the Warriors, perhaps in their curtain call as one of the greatest teams of all-time.
But Milwaukee’s 60 wins cannot be taken lightly. The Bucks led the league in point differential, outscoring their opponent by just shy of nine points per game, the highest by a team not named the Golden State Warriors since the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012-13. They won 45 games by double-digits, a feat accomplished by only seven other teams, all of whom went on to win the NBA Finals.
2 – Toronto Raptors
Can they win the East? No. Could they beat Golden State if they did? Yes.
They will win a series, undoubtedly, but they will not be the ones to make it through the Eastern Conference gauntlet. If they do, however, they can shock the Warriors. They play great team defense as well as having strong perimeter defenders, and thanks to guys like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, they actually have championship mettle.
3 – Philadelphia 76ers
Can they win the East? Yes. Can they beat the Warriors? Nope.
The Sixers should be the best team in the East. But its moments like these where we find out whether players like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are what they are supposed to be. The NBA has always been a league where even the best of all-time meet obstacles and experience failure—some more than a few times—before ultimately succeeding. The difference from last season is the addition of Jimmy Butler, who has already proven to be the man in pressure scenarios, and who has the ability to dominate not just a game but a series. They may not be ready to take down Golden State, but if they are who they say they are, then there should be a leap for these Philadelphia 76ers.
An appearance in the Finals has to be that leap.
4 – Boston Celtics
Can they win the East? Yes. Can they beat the Warriors? Yes.
It stands to reason that the only thing separating the Celtics—without Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving—from the NBA Finals last season, was LeBron James. Now, with James out of the picture, Kyrie and Co. stand poised to finish what they started. And the Celtics, with their stock of quality, versatile perimeter defenders, have matched up well over the years with the Warriors. Since 2015-16, Boston and Golden State have played 7 times now, splitting the first 6, with both teams winning games on the road, and the Warriors taking the 7th in Boston in January.
Eastern Conference: The Bottom
In the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, the questions change. The quality is not the same as 1-4, and the only thing to really ask is: Can they even win a series?
5 – Indiana Pacers
Can they even win a series? No.
They won’t be an easy out for the Celtics, but a season that looked so promising before Victor Oladipo’s ended prematurely in January will end admirably but on disappointing terms.
6 – Brooklyn Nets
Can they even win a series? No.
If you haven’t watched the Brooklyn Nets this season, you missed out.
Consider this: The Nets went 42-40 this season, with an average score of 112.2 for the Nets and 112.3 for their opponent.
For Nets fans everywhere, the 0.1 overall scoring differential feels exactly right.
7 – Orlando Magic
Can they win a series? No. The games in the series against the Raptors will be close. The series will not.
8 – Detroit Pistons
Can they win a series? No, and they will be lucky to win one game. The storyline would be much more compelling had the Pistons been able to usurp the Magic for the seventh spot, as Pistons Coach Dwayne Casey would be pitted against his former team the Toronto Raptors, who he was fired by after winning NBA Coach of the Year.
Instead, Casey will have to manage his team to four straight losses to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Western Conference: The Contenders
1 – Golden State Warriors
Duh. The Dubs may be cracking, and as a result may be a very different unit after this season. But believe Draymond Green when he answers questions about Kevin Durant and team chemistry and how much it really matters.
The Athletic, Jan. 21, 2019
“Whatever happens this summer happens. Whatever the hell he do, he does. If he go, he go. If he stay, he stay. But while he’s here, we’re going to win another championship. It’s just that simple. Nothing else matters.”
Even as the Warriors distance themselves from the pack with each title they win, the actual talent gap between Golden State and the competition is not what it once was. There are all-time players, like Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston, and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, who are reaching their point of no return, and are as hungry and as worthy as they’ll ever be to pounce on a weakened Warriors squad.
They were pushed to the brink by the Rockets last season, overcoming a 3-2 series deficit in the Western Conference Finals. We will likely see Golden State with their backs against the wall again at some point this postseason; putting them away remains the hard part.
For each contender, after each team’s great season there is still only the one question: Can they beat them?
4 – Houston Rockets
Say hello to the one true contender. James Harden joined Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan as the only players to average at least 36 ppg, but it has been since the return of Chris Paul and Clint Capela that the Rockets have experienced lift-off. Paul’s command of the ball from one end of the court to the other, and Capela’s ownage of the area above and around both rims have made the Rockets nearly unstoppable. At times.
They were one win away from dethroning the Warriors a year ago. If they get another chance, can they finish the job this time? Yes.
5 – Utah Jazz
Quin Snyder’s club is among the most efficient teams in the NBA, on both ends of the floor. Besides having a generational talent in Donovan Mitchell, in C Rudy Gobert the Jazz have the most impactful defensive player you’ll ever see. Gobert dominates the rim, single-handedly lowering opponents FG percentage and eliminating offensive rebounds, all while scoring 16 PPG, shooting 66% from the floor, and setting killer screen after killer screen for Mitchell, Ingles and Co.
The Jazz are not a team to sleep on, but they’re stuck playing the Rockets, who will be wide awake. And while they may challenge Golden State if given the opportunity, can Utah actually beat them? No.
6 – Oklahoma City Thunder
Fear this team. Year after year after year of 82-game excellence notwithstanding, the time is approaching for Russell Westbrook to stake his place, or not, in NBA postseason history. Is this the year when Russ gets that look in his eye? Can he take over a series?
If he’s good enough to decide to average triple-doubles, and to put up 20-20-20 in someone’s honor, can he change the narrative by deciding to win a championship?
Can the Thunder beat the Warriors? They can, and they don’t even have to go through Houston to get the chance.
Western Conference: The Rest
2 – Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets won 54 games, contending with Golden State for the top spot all season, ultimately finishing just 3 games back. But 34 of those Nuggets’ wins came at home, and at 20-21, Denver was one of just two teams in the Western Conference to make the playoffs with a losing record on the road. The other one? The Nuggets’ first round opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, at 16-25.
Without being able to win away from home, Denver will be stretched to the limit in each round, and after the last 3 matchups handily to the Warriors, its hard to believe the Nuggets are a serious threat.
3 – Portland Trailblazers
All may not be lost after a devastating leg injury to C Jusuf Nurkic, as mid-season addition Enes Kanter steps in with a similar, albeit less imposing, skill set. The problem for the Blazers in postseasons past has been where do they go when the defense sells out on Damian Lillard?
Like Terry Stotts, I don’t have an answer. Have they matched up well with Golden State? Yes. Can they beat them now, in the playoffs? No.
7 – San Antonio Spurs
The strangest stat going into the playoffs is the road records of Denver and San Antonio, respectively. Denver was 34-7 at home and 20-21 on the road. San Antonio went 32-9 at home but netted only the 7-spot in the West thanks to a 16-25 road record. 32 wins at home and 16 on the road is truly two different teams.
That being said, is there anybody outside of Colorado who is absolutely certain that the Nuggets will beat the Spurs? It may be that in Gregg Popovich we still see the Spurs who won 5 NBA Finals, despite the fact that aside from Paddy Mills, this team is a completely new entry. Fortunately for Pop, despite their 2nd place finish, Denver’s playoff experience is lacking, giving the Spurs a wonderful chance at an upset.
Can they win a series? Sure. Can they beat the Warriors? With a 16-25 record on the road, surely not.
8 – Los Angeles Clippers
Easily the biggest surprise of the 2018-19 regular season, the Clippers at one point late in the season sat as high as 5th, but ended the season holding the short straw.
In an example of what just talking about winning can do, the Clippers have been able to trade their franchise player (Chris Paul), then their leading scorer (Tobias Harris), and never fall out of the mix. Regardless of what each move seems to (and maybe should) symbolize, enthusiastic owner Steve Ballmer has insisted again and again that the Clippers will always remain trying their best to win games. The result is that they’ve continued to do so, and if they had a different opponent, they may be able to actually win a series.
Can they beat them? No. Can they scare them? Yes. The Clippers shouldn’t have any chance against the Warriors. But “shouldn’t have any chance” has been the Clippers’ middle name all season long.