The NBA’s All-Star Weekend and Trade Deadline just ended so now seems like the perfect time to get way ahead of ourselves and breakdown hypothetical conference finals series between the top two teams in each conference to this point. As a disclaimer, let me be clear that I’m not necessarily saying that I think these will be the conference finals matchups, but it certainly has to be plausible considering they have the best records in their conference to date. Let’s start with the wild, wild west.
Spurs vs. Warriors
By now most of you who are reading this are big enough NBA fans to know that Golden State handled San Antonio fairly easily in their first game back on January 25th. That doesn’t necessarily reflect what would happen in a playoff series, but it isn’t as irrelevant as some would have you believe either. The fact is that right now Golden State is the best team in basketball and it would be remarkably difficult to pick anyone to beat them in a seven game series, but at the same token there’s no guarantee that the Warriors are playing this kind of basketball in May.
The “Splash Brothers” are the best backcourt in basketball right now too, but Kawhi Leonard is also the best perimeter defender in the game. Is he so good that he can completely take out either Klay or Steph for 4-7 games? No. Nobody is. However, he will have more success against them than anyone else. If I were Gregg Popovich, and make no mistake he is 1000% a better basketball mind than me, I would strongly consider letting Kawhi guard Curry and putting Tony Parker/Patty Mills on Harrison Barnes/Andre Iguodala.
There are two big issues with that though. The first, as all of you probably guessed, is that Barnes is much bigger and more athletic than Mills or Parker and he could post them up over and over again. The odds that they’d lob into the post for Barnes as their primary offense are pretty slim though I think. San Antonio is also as good at help defense as anybody, and who would you rather force to beat you: Steph Curry or Harrison Barnes/Andre Iguodala? The second problem with that is that Golden State’s pick-and-roll offense is designed to get a team’s preferred defender off Curry and they are pretty darn good at doing it. Which begs the question of, does it even really matter who starts guarding Curry? (That question is only about 73.8% facetious).
Draymond Green is one of the most versatile frontcourt players in the NBA, and his jack-of-all-trades game is really the roster piece that sets the Warriors apart from everyone else, even more so than Steph Curry. Green’s value on the defensive end is maybe only paralleled by Kawhi’s to San Antonio. Draymond would probably end up guarding LaMarcus Aldridge/David West. On the other end, Aldridge and West are both good enough away from the basket to believe that they could be reasonably effective both guarding Draymond and working in the pick-and-roll game against the Curry-Green PNR.
From a depth standpoint, these two teams are fairly even, at least from the perspective of having the same number of guys who can be relied on to play minutes in a playoff game. A coaching edge still has to go to the Spurs and Popovich. Steph Curry is the best player in the game right now and the Warriors starting lineup is a little better than the Spurs, at least right now. If this series started tomorrow, and assuming everyone healthy, I’d take the Warriors in six. Right now there just isn’t anyone beating them, and I honestly don’t think anyone is taking them to seven games at this point in the season.
Cavs vs. Raptors
The consensus seems to be right now that even a deeply flawed Cavs team is still the best in the East. They have won eight of their last ten and handled their business against the Bulls last night. However, the team that just hosted NBA All-Star Weekend is probably the most improved team in the league and might actually stand more than a puncher’s chance against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
LeBron and Kyrie Irving are the two most talented, and arguably best, players in almost any playoff series they would play before the NBA Finals. Here’s the list of teams that’s not definitely true for: Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards. That’s it, and one of those teams probably isn’t even going to make the playoffs. Paul George and John Wall are both guys that are at least in the conversation for being as good as Irving. At one point in time, the Heat would obviously go there with Wade, but I think that time is passed. (Although, it should be noted that Wade is having a phenomenal and healthy season).
Toronto has a very good team and has some pieces that might make them a major foil for Cleveland. Kyle Lowry, or as he has come to be known in 2016 “Slimmed Down Kyle Lowry”, is one of the toughest defenders at point guard in the NBA, despite standing at only 6’0″. One worry would be that Irving is four inches taller than Lowry, so physically it is a mismatch, but Lowry more than makes up for his slight (by NBA measures) stature with incredible tenacity.
DeMar Derozan is one of the most underrated scorers in the NBA, and would probably have to be defended by LeBron in a playoff series. The question would be if he would be asked to guard James? That will depend on DeMarre Carroll’s health I’d imagine. Carroll is easily the player on Toronto most suited to guarding LeBron when healthy, and unfortunately anyone else would pretty much require a constant double team when LeBron gets within fifteen feet of the basket with the ball. That’s a major problem for Toronto and might be big enough to make it impossible for them to win a series barring a LeBron injury.
Jonas Valanciunas is a sold low-block scorer and wouldn’t be bullied by Thompson and Mozgov down there. The problem is that he seems to be much more bark than bite on defense and he and Scola are one of the worst defensive starting frontcourts of a playoff team. That, paired with the guarding LeBron issue, makes it really hard to imagine the Raptors beating Cleveland in a playoff series. Also, it should be noted that we’re still not 100% positive that Toronto’s coach is better than Cleveland’s even though the latter fired a coach a month ago. If the series started today, I’d pick the Cavs in five, but if Carroll is healthy I’d give Toronto an extra game.
It should be noted that to date, the season series is split between Toronto and Cleveland 1-1 and they play the rubber match for their regular season series in Toronto next Friday, so stay tuned.
Trade Deadline Thoughts
- Tobias Harris was a great acquisition for the Pistons, and a paving of the way for Aaron Gordon for the Magic.
- Courtney Lee helps Charlotte’s spacing. Brian Roberts adds point guard depth for Miami. The Grizzlies get essentially lots of cap clearance.
- Jarnell Stokes for a conditional second-round pick is more or less a wash.
- Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton quickly make Detroit one of the biggest “win-now” winners at the trade deadline. It’s clear Detroit desperately wants to make the playoffs. Houston gets an additional first-round pick (as long as its outside top 8). Philly gets another pick for Hinkie and Joel Anthony…moving on.
- Shelvin Mack for a second rounder is about right.
- Channing Frye is a poor man’s Kevin Love, but it might help to have a bench rotation piece that mimic’s Love game so they can play a similar scheme even with Love off the court. Anderson Varejao is a chemistry loss, and will be a good veteran locker room presence for the Blazers. The end of the first-round pick is a chance to add more young talent next to Lillard and McCollum. Jared Cunningham is officially a journeyman.
- Randy Foye is a buy-low acquisition for the Thunder, and clears space and a lane for Cameron Payne playing time. The Nuggets add depth and a veteran point guard to go alongside Mudiay.
- Whoops! That depth point guard depth Miami added just went out the door to Portland. Miami is clearing Durant space now, and they’ve succeeded.
- Markieff headed to the nation’s capital!!!!!! Let’s hope he isn’t an example for our nation’s congressmen and women on how to negotiate. Phoenix got Kris Humphries (nee Kardashian), DeJuan Blair and a protected-first rounder. Good haul for a disgruntled chemistry killer.
- The Kirk Hinrich era in Chicago is over. All good things really do come to an end.
- Jeff Green will help the Clippers, and Lance wasn’t doing much. On the other side, this is a pretty un-Memphis move, but they will add a late first-rounder.
Credit Cover Photo to Ezra Shaw/Getty Images