Before this season, the calculations seemed pretty simple. LeBron James plus anyone else equals the postseason. That equation has checked out for the last 13 years, but for the first time since his sophomore season, it won’t add up that way. Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and the Lakers were utterly convinced they had assembled a team that would help keep James’s playoff streak going. At one point during the preseason, Johnson even said the roster had been assembled based on what they saw from watching last year’s postseason. It was easy to laugh at then; now, with the Lakers’ offseason moves leaving them woefully short on shooting and thin at center, it seems downright hysterical. And yet, at the time, I was convinced that it wouldn’t matter. LeBron would will the Lakers to the playoffs because that’s what he’s always done. But what we learned this season is that James, now 34, needed help—and he didn’t have nearly enough.
Conversely, it was less than a year ago that a lot of us looked at the Celtics roster and figured Boston would dominate the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future, especially after Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward recovered from injuries. Their incredible depth seemed like it would be overwhelming—and it has been, but more so for the Celtics than the competition. The only consistent thing about the Celtics this season has been the internecine squabbling and their inability to get all that talent to regularly translate from the paper to the floor. It was only two months ago, after one of Kyrie Irving’s many self-aggrandizing sermons, that Terry Rozier said the problem was the Celtics were too talented. That seemed counterintuitive at first, but Boston keeps bobbing up and down in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, unable to rise to the top of the standings as expected.
As the playoffs approach, I’ve been thinking about how difficult and delicate roster construction is and wondering which teams don’t have enough talent to make a serious push in the postseason, which teams might have too much talent and will get in their own way, and which teams have just the right mix. It’s sort of a basketball Goldilocks proposition. (It occurred to my editor, Chris Ryan, that we might need to “spell this out for any of the millennials who haven’t read Goldilocks.” That was a sobering, soul-sucking thought, but I refuse to shake my old-man fist and blame kids these days for killing off childhood fairy tales. I don’t have much faith in them, but I have a little.)
To reach verdicts on each of the (potential) playoff teams, I used charts, graphs, and proprietary algorithms—by which I mean I looked at the rosters and the standings and consulted with NBA.com/Stats and then tilted my head and eyeballed my conclusion. It’s all very scientific. I’m the new Zach Kram.
Apologies to the Magic and Hornets, who might make a late-season dash and reach the playoffs. At present, the Heat are the last team into what is a tepid postseason pool in the East. Miami has had a weird season. The Heat went from trying to trade Josh Richardson for Jimmy Butler to realizing Josh Richardson might be a 25-year-old Jimmy Butler on a much better contract than 29-year-old Jimmy Butler. Of course, they also have Hassan Whiteside, who is on a very different kind of killer contract, and who is forever upset about everything and anything and played all of five minutes in a win over the Thunder on Monday. After being sidelined with an injury, Miami got Goran Dragic back following the All-Star break. Before that, Dion Waiters—who was out with an ankle injury—returned to the team. Dragic said it would “take time” to play like himself again; Waiters went a different way and declared “fuck patience” when Erik Spoelstra didn’t immediately give him the heavy minutes he wanted. The Heat have won seven of their last 10 games, but they still have a sub-.500 record and a 0.0 net rating. The Heat are a walking push, which is not what Pat Riley wants. He’s already daydreaming about 2020, when the team will have two max slots and he can set fire to much of the roster. Burn it down, Pat. Burn it all down.
Verdict: Not enough. The supporting cast is intriguing, but there’s no one to headline the marquee.
Detroit has won 14 out of its last 20 games, which sounds good until you consider it got stomped by the Nets and Heat last week by a combined 62 points. They also decided to sit Blake Griffin against the Cavs on Monday to rest him for the playoffs—and then promptly lost to the Cavs. It is awfully hard to lose to the Cavs, even sans Blake, when the Cavs are trying to lose themselves. De-trooooit basket-baaaalll. When he’s not letting Joel Embiid rent out space in his head, Andre Drummond leads the team in PER, rebounds, steals, and blocks. He’s also working on adding a stepback to his game; on behalf of NBA Desktop, I would like to thank Drummond for the excellent content. Beyond his best two players, Dwane Casey doesn’t have a ton to work with. Click on their depth tab and you’ll quickly realize they don’t have any. Someone recently said to me “Who would have thought Wayne Ellington would be the answer for the Pistons?” First, my apologies to that person, because I do not remember who said it. (I am old and washed.) But secondly, and more importantly, I do remember laughing at that person’s statement. Because whatever the question is, Wayne Ellington has never been the answer.
Verdict: Not enough. The Pistons are the team equivalent of a new arena with too many empty seats.
Spencer Dinwiddie is back from a thumb injury. I like Spencer Dinwiddie. Caris LeVert is back from a foot injury. I like Caris LeVert. I also like D’Angelo Russell, who is having his best season as a pro. But the Lakers had to trade him because they had to consider chemistry. Never forget what dastardly D’Angelo did to poor philandering Nick Young. (But at least we got a good commercial out of it.) The Nets are finally healthy, and they’re poised to make the postseason for the first time in four years. The previous front-office regime had a policy of trading away draft picks, but then general manager Sean Marks opted for a radical strategy of not doing those things. He’s a visionary. It would not be all that wild to imagine the Nets winning a first-round series in a 3-6 matchup against either the Sixers, Pacers, or Celtics. The Nets are a good story, but for the purposes of this particular exercise, they’re hard to pin down. I could see them winning a round, which should eliminate the “not enough” categorization—except I don’t think even the most optimistic Nets fan would look at this team and declare it has “too much” talent or describe the roster as “just right.” The Nets are an enigma. I thought hard about this one for upward of 10 seconds.
Verdict: Not enough. Feels like the Nets are primed to overpay for a disaffected semi-superstar this offseason. Jimmy Buckets in Brooklyn, anyone?
I recently wrote many words about what a delightful shitshow the Celtics have been this season and how greatly entertaining they’ve been as a result. I hope they re-sign Kyrie and he spends the next five years playing the disappointed father figure who makes the young kids on the roster want to wear all black and go through a Goth phase because I hate your guts, Dad.
Verdict: As Rozier said, too much. Which, for everyone who doesn’t root for Boston, means just right.
The roster is full of good, not great, players—which is part of the problem here. I’m not sure who the Pacers’ best player is these days, since their best player, Victor Oladipo, is out for the season with a ruptured quad. Darren Collison, Thad Young, Wes Matthews, Myles Turner, and Bojan Bogdanovic all average between 28 and 32 minutes per game. They all have better-than-league PERs between 16 and 18 (with the exception of Matthews, who trails the pack at 10.7). It’s a group of competent professionals who know how to play together. (They’re third in defensive rating.) The Pacers are like if patting a kid on the head and telling them “good job” became a team.
Verdict: Just right. Unless you’re talking about actually watching them, at which point not nearly enough. I’m sorry, Indiana. I’m sure warm whole milk is delicious, but it’s not for me.
This is a tough one. As of Wednesday, the Sixers were 37-19 since acquiring Jimmy Butler and 12-5 since trading for Tobias Harris. Joel Embiid is having the best season of his career and, when healthy, he’s one of the most unstoppable players in the league. Even without a jump shot, Ben Simmons can influence a game in so many ways. JJ Redick admitted he went through a bit of a shooting funk, but for my money he’s the best combo guard (3-point marksman and podcaster) in the league. He also got a haircut that is perfect for Philly and allows him to blend in with the locals.
Did JJ Redick recently move to the Northeast? he looks like every dude that’s ever gone to Father Judge. pic.twitter.com/AaLKFZ4X9W— L. Ron Chubbard (@chubber_lang) March 6, 2019
Smart. There’s a case to be made that the Sixers have the best starting five in the Eastern Conference and maybe the best anywhere outside of the Bay Area. Since the trade deadline, Philly has quality wins over the Nuggets, Heat, Thunder, Pacers, and most recently, the Bucks. But, and here come the caveats, they also lost to the Rockets, Bulls, Blazers, and Celtics over the same stretch. For the season, they are tied for eighth in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating, which is … fine. They are also 25th in turnover rate, which is … suuuuper not fine. Meanwhile, since the All-Star break, Butler has boycotted the 3-point line for some reason, making just five shots from distance. In terms of top-tier talent, they are undeniably better with Butler and Harris—but they are also undeniably thinner. After the first five guys, Brett Brown’s options include Jonathon Simmons, Boban Marjanovic, T.J. McConnell, Jonah Bolden, Amir Johnson, and Mike Scott (who is not good at basketball but will forever get a pass from me because he likes to drink a beer while playing basketball). This is a team that really misses Landry Shamet. That statement is both ridiculous and true. As Brett Brown told Zach Lowe, the Sixers are still figuring it out. It’s mid-March. They should figure quicker. If they don’t, there’s a chance that Butler’s self-destruction protocol kicks in at some point and the whole thing goes boom.
Verdict: Not enough and too much. The Sixers remain the most extra team in the league.
This is what real depth looks like. The Raptors are seventh in defensive rating and sixth in offensive rating, and they’re tops in the league in transition. Kawhi Leonard has fit in so well it’s almost laughable. Despite suffering from what Jason Concepcion refers to as RFD, Kyle Lowry is having another efficient, no-fat season (though he just suffered an ankle injury). Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have blossomed. Danny Green, Pat McCaw, and Jeremy Lin have provided value as quality know-your-role contributors. And Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka can match up with different big men and protect the rim without sacrificing outside shooting. The Raptors can land blows against opponents of different fighting styles (unless we’re talking about Ibaka in a literal sense).
Best of all, their postseason nemesis, LeBron James, plays in Los Angeles now and is powerless to single-handedly fell them.
Verdict: Just right. They are really good without being really showy—which makes them the perfect team for Canada. That is either a compliment or an insult. Possibly both.
This season, the Bucks went from a team with promise to a team with the best record in the NBA and the best odds outside of Golden State to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Bucks have the best defensive rating in the league and the third-best offensive rating. Mike Budenholzer went all mad scientist and cooked up a system that complements Giannis Antetokounmpo’s skill set. Mainly, he encouraged everyone who is not Giannis to do what Giannis can’t do, which is shoot from the outside. Last season, the Bucks were 25th in 3-point attempts per game and 22nd in 3-point percentage. This season, they’re second and tied for 17th in those categories, respectively. He might be the worst Rookie of the Year this side of Michael Carter Williams, but losing Malcolm Brogdon was a blow to the Bucks. Brogdon, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe have been the perfect running mates for Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez has been the long-distance shooting center the Bucks needed all along—and a guy Luke Walton reportedly still pines for. Milwaukee did a great job surrounding its superstar with a system and a roster that’s allowed everyone to thrive. The Bucks are basically the anti-Lakers that way.
Verdict: Just right. I want to gobble this team up. They’re the cheese curds of the NBA (which probably means I’ve doomed them to die a premature postseason death).
Los Angeles Clippers
Lou Williams has been a beautiful blur and has emerged as the favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award. Danilo Gallinari is having arguably his best season as a pro. Montrezl Harrell is criminally underrated. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ivica Zubac, and Shamet are promising young pieces. Patrick Beverley has done his entertaining Patrick Beverley routine and clowned the Lakers (which makes him just like everyone else, come to think of it). The front office is stockpiling picks and got the Sixers to overpay for Tobias Harris, who was almost certainly walking in the summer. The organization is primed to court two max-money free agents this summer. But before they get to hot stove time, they get to have a little fun: They’re gonna be a tough out if a team other than the Warriors draws them in the first round. The Clippers have done everything right. In the history of the NBA and the English language, no one ever put those six words in that order to make a sentence before now.
Verdict: Just right. I believe in the Clippers; my whole life has been a lie.
Going into Wednesday’s game against the Knicks, the Jazz won seven of their last 10. They have a suffocating defense (only the Bucks have been better per 100 possessions). Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have settled into a nice inside-outside one-two punch. Joe Ingles is an underrated shooter and passer. And as a longtime and unrepentant Ricky Rubio stan, I feel obligated to endorse the Jazz based on his involvement alone. Depending on the first-round matchup, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Utah advances. Despite all that, I’m still not sold on the overall upside with this team. To make a run in the West, they’ll need real contributions from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, and Kyle Korver. You know whom I would not want to rely on for real contributions in the playoffs? Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, and Kyle Korver. They just lost Dante Exum to another injury, which doesn’t sound like that big a deal until you consider that Royce O’Neale will have to soak up minutes now. I can already see Quin Snyder stressing and running his hands through his league-best coach’s hair.
Verdict: Not enough. Though the Jazz might lead the playoff entrants in slogans: #TakeNote is as good as #CusCrise is bad.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs corrected their early-season struggles and started playing like the Spurs at the exact moment that I declared no cavalry would save them this season. (The Ringer curse is real and NBA teams should pay us protection money.) I’m still confused how a roster built around DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay can be this good, but here we are. The Spurs are playing their best basketball at the perfect time. They’ve won nine of their last 10, including an impressive victory over the Warriors in San Antonio on Monday when they closed with a lineup of DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay, Davis Bertans, and Derrick White. They couldn’t be more on brand at this point unless they dusted off Bruce Bowen. Since the All-Star break, they have a top-10 defense per 100 possessions. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are in the playoffs again. It took me a while, but I learned my lesson. The Spurs don’t need the cavalry to come save them; they are the cavalry.
Verdict: Just right. Always and forever. I will never doubt them again.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers got lucky that CJ McCollum’s recent injury was just a knee strain and not more serious, though being without him even for a week is less than ideal. If McCollum returns sooner rather than later, the Blazers have a shot to avenge last year’s disappointing playoff performance and actually win a round. But my position on Portland has less to do with their on-court effort than their off-court entertainment value. The Blazers have treated us to some quality content this season, from Damian Lillard breaking sports media news, to Jusuf Nurkic warring with Iman Shumpert (who he said should retire soon) and Ben Simmons (whom Nurkic got so angry that Simmons responded by hilariously calling him “ass”), to McCollum instigating Kevin Durant into giving us the all-time great line “I just did your fucking podcast.” As for actually winning a playoff round, they’re trying, Jennifer.
Verdict: Just right. Forget about this website forever trying to break up the Blazers. Keep them together forever.
Oklahoma City Thunder
I desperately want the Western Conference playoffs to be something other than another Golden State Warriors coronation. To that end, I was talking to a friend of mine who also happens to be an NBA writer and we thought maybe the Thunder could match up with the Warriors and, if not beat them, then give them some trouble. Paul George has had a fantastic season. Russell Westbrook is a pest who might be able to annoy them into some mistakes. And they’ve been really good defensively (fourth per 100 possessions). By the end, we were starting to convince ourselves … then the Warriors beat the Thunder by 22 in OKC over the weekend. Then the Thunder followed that up by losing to the Heat at home.
Verdict: Not enough. If they get bounced in the first round again, will Nas still play a party at Russ’s house or was that a one-time deal?
The Rockets just beat the Hawks in Atlanta on Tuesday, which means Houston has won 12 of its last 13 games. The only smudge against that run was a two-point loss to the Warriors. After a slow start, the Rockets are now killing it. Before the Hawks game, they were second to Golden State in offensive rating and 11th in net rating. James Harden is nigh unstoppable. And Chris Paul—whom I saw punch Rajon Rondo in person, which was truly an all-time career highlight for me—has really taken to this post-prime/pre-washed phase of his career better than I ever expected. Considering how they’re playing and how the rest of the conference is a total toss-up, the Rockets are the only team other than the Warriors that I feel confident will win a round in the West. If only Melo and MCW could see them now.
Verdict: Just right. Up to and including the reported budget cuts and new owner Tillman Fertitta channeling James Dolan and calling the journo a “fraud.” [Extremely Jason Concepcion voice] Tillman Fertitta, come on NBA Desktop.
They’ve been a pleasant surprise all season, and they’ve done so while battling injuries to Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap (and also Isaiah Thomas but no biggie). They’ve developed Monte Morris and Malik Beasley into valuable pieces, thereby improving on an already deep team. And Nikola Jokic took another step forward as one of the best unicorns in the league. The Nuggets are really good and really entertaining, which is a tougher combination to pull off than it seems. (That was not another dig at the Pacers. I assure you.) If you told me they’re going to reach the conference finals and give the Warriors some serious heat, it would not surprise me. BUT. But it would also not surprise me if they lose to the Spurs, Jazz, Thunder, or Clippers in the first round. Can they count on Jokic to carry them in the postseason when things get tight? And, if not, who’s their second-best and most reliable option after the Joker? I’m not sure about the answers to either of those questions. Somehow, the Nuggets have a roster that is perfect and yet potentially lacking.
Verdict: Just right and not enough. However, they get full marks for just beating the Celtics in Boston on … [checks notes] … Isaiah Thomas … [checks notes again] … appreciation night. Paul Pierce nearly stroked out on national TV when they forced him to talk about it. Again. It was incredible.
Golden State Warriors
Unlike the Celtics, their unending bickering and clog of top-tier talent won’t be their undoing. Nor will it matter that they added “an assole sense of humor” to an increasingly fragile workplace atmosphere. [Long exhale.] They’re gonna win it all again. Someone make it stop.
Verdict: Just right. To borrow from Steve Kerr, I too am so fucking tired of the Warriors.