Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
The NBA would think that I was stepping out on her if I didn’t show her some attention soon. With the regular season winding down, the playoffs will be upon us before we know it and unless you live in “The Bay”, San Antonio, or are a “LeBron” fan you are trying to decide what you want to happen in the postseason. Hopefully, this will help make some of your decisions a little easier. Special thanks to Derek Hernandez, founder of No Coast Bias, for the topic idea.
Best/Worst 8 Seeds
Best Case- Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets
Indiana’s place on this list is contingent upon Boston keeping the one seed and Cleveland staying at two, because otherwise the pick would be Miami. The first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs is going to be barely watchable for even a diehard NBA fan, let alone your casual observer. So, we need some cute storylines to follow. Indiana vs. Boston would give us the Larry Bird going against the Celtics thing. Miami vs. Cleveland would give us the LeBron vs. his old team thing, and maybe even more importantly Dion Waiters vs. his old team.
There are basically two teams who can get the 8 seed out west at this point: Portland and Denver. A few other teams are mathematically still alive, but it’s a major long shot. The Nuggets are the more fun team of the two and no one in the eight seed this year is going to legitimately threaten the Warriors, so let’s pull for the most fun team we can to get there. Watching how the Warriors defend Nikola Jokic would be interesting, because he is one of the most unique players in the NBA and plays the position that Golden State struggles to guard the most: center. Also, Denver is in a position to make the playoffs despite employing two players over the age of 40: Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller.* Speaking of Miller, he is going to make $3.5 million this year and is playing 5.4 minutes per game, which equates to roughly $8,500 per minute. Keep gettin’ dem checks Mike!
Worst Case- Chicago Bulls and Portland Trailblazers
Even though Chicago beat Cleveland last night, haven’t we already seen Chicago play Cleveland and Boston and every other Eastern Conference team enough this year? Other than maybe the Los Angeles teams, no team has been less deserving of the number of nationally televised games the Bulls have been awarded this season. Their locker room drama is obnoxious. Their playing style is trash. And honestly, if I wanted to watch grown men have a pissing match on T.V. then I’d watch “The Bachelorette”.
Portland honestly wouldn’t even be a bad scenario here, but they aren’t quite as fun as the Nuggets. The Blazers scoring backcourt of Lillard and McCollum could have at least one electrifying night in the first round which would make that series worthwhile. However, the Blazers are basically a “lite” version of the Warriors and are so bad on defense that pretty much everything you’d really want to see from this series will end up in a 10-minute YouTube video shortly after each game ends.
*Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller are actually 35 and 37 respectively, but admit it you would have fully believed that they were over 40.
Best/Worst Potential First-Round Upsets
Best Case- Thunder over Jazz and Bucks over Raptors
Neither of these matchups would be taking place in the first round if the season ended today, but both are very real possibilities so we’re rolling with it. Nothing against the Jazz, but the playoffs needs Westbrook vs. Durant. This is basically the only way we are going to get that, so my apologies to Utah, but you have to be sacrificed for the greater good. However, I will say that seeing the Jazz try to prove their worth against the Warriors in the second round wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize. They are an underrated team, partially because they don’t make it into the national television schedule often enough.
Toronto is a good, not great, team and they actually managed to push the Cavs to six games in the Eastern Conference finals last year. It seems like time for some fresh blood to take a crack at the Cavs in the East this season, though. The Raptors are 7-3 in their last ten games so they are playing well which makes picking against them a little bit tougher, but who wouldn’t want to see the Greek Freak get to take on LeBron in a playoff series? Anybody? Bueller? That’s what I thought. Unless you are from Canada, a Bucks vs. Cavs series is more fun than re-running Cavs vs “The North”.
Worst Case- Clippers over Jazz and Hawks over Wizards
I have honestly seen enough of this iteration of the Clippers over the last five months to last me a lifetime. Plus, they haven’t even been competitive against the West’s elite lately going 2-6 since the start of January against the top four teams in the West. The only thing remotely fun about the Clippers making the second round would be to watch Golden State or San Antonio mop the floor with them, but we already get to see that every other Thursday night anyway. No, let’s try something fresh. Seeing the underrated and unheralded Jazz get their shot would be infinitely better than having to suffer through 4-5 more “Lob City” games.
In a similar vein, the Bulls are probably the only potential playoff team from the East that is less watchable than the Hawks. It’s actually kind of sad to see Paul Millsap toiling away while his teammates get downgraded all around him. Plus, this fun Washington-Boston rivalry that has flared up this season would make for a great second round series or even an Eastern Conference Final if Cleveland can’t get it together. Dwight Howard is also a guy that nobody will miss watching in the playoffs should the Hawks get sent packing in the first round.
Best/Worst NBA Finals
Best Case- Cleveland Cavaliers vs. San Antonio Spurs
Full disclosure, I don’t love either one of these teams. However, I do think this provides the most compelling NBA Final. Sure, we could get Warriors vs. Cavs: Part III, but the Spurs vs. LeBron is not only the final we need, it’s the final we deserve. San Antonio has been the ultimate foil for LeBron his whole career. They swept him out of the playoffs in 2007, arguably beginning his “Decision” to bolt for Miami. THEN, they spoiled his three-peat in a revenge series and drove him back to Cleveland. So, it only makes sense that the LeBron get another crack at his old nemesis.
An added perk for this series would be watching Kawhi Leonard defend LeBron. Leonard is the only player in the NBA currently, besides maybe Kevin Durant, who can consistently guard LeBron semi-successfully and contribute on offense for 40 minutes. He used his last NBA Finals appearance to take home a Finals MVP award and make the leap to bonafide star. Now, we need to see him take on LeBron again, this time fully in his prime.
Worst Case- Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Los Angeles Clippers
This took several minutes of long, hard thought, but ultimately the decision was so easy. First, if Boston or Washington make the Finals it will be fun to watch new guys get their first taste of the grandest stage and have a shot at a title. That means the only “worst case scenario” can include a ho-hum Cleveland matchup. That’s when the Clippers popped into my brain and I thought in my best Clayton Bigsby voice, “Look no further fella you found ’em.”
Any of the other four teams in the West going against Cleveland gives the Finals a compelling storyline: Warriors vs. Cavs Part III, Spurs vs. LeBron Part IV, Harden vs. LeBron, Jazz vs. Best Player in the World Part III (throw it back to the 90s and short shorts). Oklahoma City would even give us a show worth watching with Westbrook trying to single handedly flamethrow his way to a title and then give KD the greatest “eff you” in sports history….nay world history. That leaves the Clippers as the only team in the Western Conference that fail to bring any kind of palpable tension and excitement to a 7th straight LeBron Final.
Best/Worst NBA Lottery Results
Best Case- 1. Celtics 2. Pelicans 3. Timberwolves
This is an incredibly unlikely lottery scenario, but it would be the most ideal for fans of a league with more good teams. First, the Celtics get the chance at another potential stud to help them continue to challenge LeBron in the East. Then, the Pelicans and Timberwolves get the second and third picks. Both of these teams have two legitimate star players. Adding a third player who could bud into a star would put these teams into position to be perennial playoff teams and make the first round of the Western Conference more entertaining for the next several years, and maybe finally give us a chance to see Boogie in the playoffs. Am I the only person out there still pulling for Boogie in the playoffs? Another added bonus is that this scenario screws the Lakers.
Worst Case- 1. Lakers 2. Knicks 3. Celtics
For starters, can anyone think of a fishier lottery scenario than three of the NBA’s cornerstone franchises getting the first three picks in the most loaded NBA draft since 2003? Second, why do the Lakers and Knicks need anymore help? They have literally everything to attract top-level free agents and are in the two biggest markets. They don’t deserve to be bailed out like this. James Dolan and Jim Buss were handed the keys to a 1964 Aston Martin and they ran it off the edge of a cliff, and they deserve to bear the consequences (even if Buss already has in a way). What kind of message is it sending to my imaginary kids if the Lakers and Knicks get the top picks in the draft? Think of the children Adam, don’t let the evil Stern on your shoulder freeze the envelopes.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports