Round 1 Neutral Viewer Enjoyment Series Rankings

Not all playoff series are created equally, especially in the first round. With that in mind, here’s a ranking of how much fun each series will be to watch for the unbiased observer.

8. (8) Brooklyn Nets vs. (1) Atlanta Hawks

Meh. The Nets snuck into the playoffs on the back of a resurgent Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, but that doesn’t mean they’re any fun to watch. Atlanta will eventually pass their way around the aging Brooklyn roster, and then we can all wake up in time for the 2nd round.

7. (5) Washington Wizards vs. (4) Toronto Raptors

This is a matchup of two teams who were much, much better earlier in the season. Injuries and general poor play have hampered them since, and this series could either end up being surprisingly entertaining or just sad depending on how things break. The Wizards will bring John Wall and Bradley Beal to the table, which is something to watch regardless of the quality of play of the rest of the team, and Kyle Lowry is a delight when he’s going as well, so it’s not all bad here, but this would have been a lot more fun to watch a few months ago.

6. (4) Portland Trailblazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

The other 4-5 matchup is hamstrung by teams that have fallen off over the course of the season as well. Portland’s demise has been precipitated by a rash of injuries, including to Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Only Matthews will be completely unavailable, but that’s still a pretty big hit to the Blazers’ chances of going somewhere in the playoffs.

Memphis has struggled of late as well, though without quite so many injuries. Add it all up and you get a series that will likely fall short of its tremendous entertainment potential. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol battling Damian Lillard and Aldridge will keep it from being boring though, and the ever-present threat of Lillard doing something ridiculous in crunch time keeps this one from being too bad of an option.

5. (7) Boston Celtics vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers

After the sadness of the 4-5 matchups, here’s a series in which the teams are actually trending up. Cleveland’s appeal is both easy to understand and a little complex: they face huge expectations, and not hitting them would be entertaining as hell if for no other reason than watching the blame get thrown around (probably at Kevin Love). The raw talent on the team and the huge offensive potential of a LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-J.R. Smith-Love group is absolutely riveting. Whether they play well or not, it’s a win-win.

Their opponent, the Boston Celtics, would have been a laughingstock in the postseason only a couple of months ago, but they’ve come on strong, and their backcourt is very exciting to watch thanks to Isaiah Thomas’s entire offensive game and the potential for Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to pressure ballhandlers over the entire court. The lack of good defensive options in the middle will also help the Cavs make a few highlights. This one probably won’t last long, but it will be fun while it’s still going.

4. (8) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (1) Golden State Warriors

Another series that should be short-lived, the main value of Warriors-Pelicans is going to be watching Anthony Davis try to carry his team to a couple of wins against the absolute buzzsaw that is this Stephen Curry-led Golden State team. Curry will rain fire from deep, Draymond Green will do Draymond Green stuff, and Davis will probably have to single-handedly counteract all of that. It won’t be the last time we’ll see him here, and seeing how he starts his playoff career will be great.

3. (6) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (3) Chicago Bulls

The highest-ranked Eastern Conference series (which is about like being the friendliest mountain lion) features two geographically close teams on very different trajectories. Milwaukee is coming up with a significant amount of young, lengthy talent, a group led by the ultra-long and athletic Giannis Antetokounmpo, who can create highlights on a whim. Meanwhile the Bulls are trying to see if Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, the current edition of Joakim Noah, and a hopefully rehabilitated Derrick Rose are actually enough to win a few series. The youth of the Bucks and the question marks on the Bulls should combine with a relatively close series to provide some of the only real intrigue in the East.

2. (7) Dallas Mavericks vs. (2) Houston Rockets

Finally, the good stuff. The playoffs in the West are always good, but due to seeding and injuries some of the sting has been taken out of Round 1. Not to worry though, this rivalry has our collective backs. Marc Cuban and Daryl Morey love to snipe at each other, Dwight Howard and James Harden are both available, and Dallas always makes for a surprisingly tough series thanks to Dirk Nowitzki, their vets, and the brilliant work of Rick Carlisle. Expect at least one massive tactical shift in this series as a result. The only thing dragging this one down is the fact that Houston will take 278 free throws and the games will last 7 hours each.

1. (6) San Antonio Spurs vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers

The Grizzlies’ last gift of the regular season was beating Indiana to pit the two most worthy challengers to the Warriors against each other in the 1st round. This series could have legitimately been a conference finals matchup if the seeding had broken differently, but there are a few perks to it coming about now.

First off, both teams are about as healthy as they can be, and both are playing well heading into the series. There’s also the added benefit of no other series having this much impact on who the eventual champs will be this early, a rare 1st rounder with legitimate implications on who will come out the West. The series should feature a lot of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard on Chris Paul, and the inside-out battle between Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Boris Diaw, and DeAndre Jordan will be a treat. All in all, no other series is going to be able to hold a candle to this Spurs-Clippers tilt.

New Orleans or Oklahoma City: Who Should You Want to Make the Playoffs?

It all comes down to this. One night’s games to decide which team will be going to the lottery and which will be mercilessly slaughtered at the hand of the Warriors in Round 1. The tiebreakers are pretty simple for this race by NBA standards. Each team goes into their respective game (the Pelicans will host the Spurs, while OKC is on the road to take on Minnesota) with a 44-38 record, so if either wins and the other loses the winning team makes the playoffs. If they both win or both lose, New Orleans will make it in thanks to owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.

While that Golden State series may not stand any chance of being close, it will provide some entertainment simply from watching one of these two fundamentally flawed, star-driven teams attempt to hold their own against a juggernaut.

The Thunder and the Pelicans have some notable similarities in their current incarnations, especially if you view each team as a single star and his supporting cast. That may be a little more fair to say of OKC than it is of New Orleans, where Anthony Davis does at least have a slew of decent veterans around him. Both squads are also more effective offensively than defensively, though some of that is again attributable to bad injury luck for the Thunder.

With Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant injured, Oklahoma City has become home to the Russell Westbrook show, which is not unlike watching Allen Iverson in his prime. Westbrook is incredibly talented. An absolute wrecking ball on offense, he hurtles towards the rim when he’s at his best, and hurtles the ball randomly at the rim at his worst. His motley supporting cast features a lot of all-offense, no-defense players like Enes Kanter, Anthony Morrow, and Dion Waiters. That style makes for some fun-to-watch 115-108 games, but it’s not the best for consistently getting wins. Losing two of your three best players will do that to a team.

New Orleans is undoubtedly led by Davis, who may already have the most complete game of any big man in the league. He can attack off the pick and roll, pick and pop, post ups, and face up drives, he rebounds, he gets steals, and he blocks shots. His teammates, while talented, are generally less well-rounded. Tyreke Evans is a slasher who can’t shoot, Eric Gordon is a shooter trying to re-establish himself after injuries derailed his career, and Quincy Pondexter is starting at small forward after showing up as a throw-in from a midseason trade. The Pelicans are also inexplicably bad at defense for a team featuring both Davis and Omer Asik.

For a neutral observer, the choice between the two is an idealistic one: do you prefer the promise of the future or the flames of a bastardized present?

Durant and Ibaka’s loss pushed Westbrook over the edge. He’s doing everything for the Thunder offense, and there’s the impression that he wishes he could do more. Never one to hesitate to put up a jumper or attack the lane with reckless abandon on offense or jump out of position to angle for a steal on defense, Westbrook is now all over the freaking place in all of the best and worst ways.

There’s some of that in Evans’ game, but he’s far from the only thing the defense will have to focus on with the Pelicans. Davis is already a polished player, and he will provide a steadying influence to the back line in New Orleans for years to come. He’s good at making the right play, and getting better all the time. His defense can squash drives or disrupt passing lanes, and his offensive game is varied and efficient.

That’s why Davis and the Pelicans would make for the best 1st Round series. Going against the Warriors he’ll be able to show off his game and battle against what is probably the best defensive frontcourt in the league. Westbrook’s mania might have some fleeting entertainment value, but in a series like this, against a team as organized as Golden State, every defensive lapse would be attacked, every bad offensive instinct Westbrook has encouraged by the defense.

Westbrook is great, and he’s done an amazing job keeping the Thunder afloat, but watching Davis take his first steps into the playoffs against a tough opponent offers a lot more potential for arbitrary viewing enjoyment.

The Price of Premature Success

The Suns and Hornets share a common problem. They were too good, too quick.

There exist certain expectations for a team going into each new season. They are based on last year’s performance, the addition or subtraction of key pieces on the roster, and, often, delusion.  These expectations can shift quickly given the right circumstances; usually this involves the availability or lack thereof of star players on a team’s roster. An early injury (think Paul George going down over the summer) or a trade involving the likes of Kevin Love or James Harden will raise or lower the bar for success.

Regardless of how exactly those expectations are formed, once the season starts it will be judged as a success or failure based on whether expectations are met or not. Therein lies the shared issue faced by the 2014-15 versions of Phoenix and Charlotte.

Each overperformed to a degree last season.

The Suns, led by new coach Jeff Hornacek, were the more publicized story. Pegged as a definite lottery team, and one that would be bad enough to potentially land in the top 5 of the draft, the team was instead in the playoff hunt until the final days of the season, racking up 48 wins in the process. Utilizing a free-wheeling, mostly two point guard system driven by Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, with Channing Frye spacing the floor and Markieff Morris having a great season off the bench. Their 48 wins saw the Suns land one game outside of the playoffs in the West, but it would have been good enough to tie for the 3rd best record in the East.

Benefitting from that weaker Eastern Conference were the Hornets, who rode a surprisingly effective defense to the 7th seed and 43 wins. Steve Clifford worked some impressive magic in fielding a team with Al Jefferson at center and still managing to land 6th in defensive efficiency. That defense was helped along greatly by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s fantastic perimeter work and Josh McRoberts’ solid season playing next to Jefferson.

This season was only supposed to see each team take further steps forward. Charlotte acquired Lance Stephenson to bolster their offense without sacrificing the strength of the defense. They did lose McRoberts, but were able to replace him with Marvin Williams, who the team hoped could provide floor spacing around Jefferson’s post-ups. That, combined with another season of improvement from MKG and the hope of contributions from Cody Zeller and 1st rounder Noah Vonleh, was supposed to result in another playoff berth at the very least.

The Suns brought in Isaiah Thomas to double down on the multiple point guard lineups, and were counting on the growth of young players to cover up for the loss of Frye in free agency. Alex Len and Miles Plumlee would man the middle with the Morris twins and P.J. Tucker at the forward positions.

Neither team’s season went as planned. Stephenson never fit on a spacing-starved Hornets team that also saw Jefferson, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Kemba Walker all miss time with injuries. That led to a lot of leaning on Gerald Henderson, Bismack Biyombo, and a surprisingly effective Mo Williams, who was acquired midseason via trade. The quality defense took a hit without MKG and with Jefferson ailing, but Jefferson’s issues (and the need for more Biyombo) cratered the offense.

Meanwhile the multiple point guard system in Phoenix ended up alienating all of those point guards, leading to Dragic and Thomas being shipped out at the deadline for Brandon Knight, while the loss of Frye has robbed the attack of some of its potency. Rather than competing for the playoffs, they’ve been limping towards the end of the season as a sub-.500 club.

All told, both seasons were disappointments, but only because each team was ahead of schedule last season. By overperforming last season, both teams put themselves in the position of needing to do more this year to match pre-season expectations. When the reality of playing time discontent and injuries set in, the die had already been cast, and Hornacek and Clifford are left looking as though they’ve led underperforming teams.

In reality, neither is as good as they seemed in 2013 or as bad as they seem now. They both have faults, but given another season – one with better injury luck and roster stability – either or both of these coaches could find themselves leading a playoff team. One down year with this many extenuating circumstances shouldn’t decide a coach’s fate.

Nets vs. Knicks: The Dark Depths of League Pass

It’€™s a quarter to 10 on a Wednesday, and Nets/Knicks is the must-watch League Pass game of the moment. Ok, maybe not must-watch. The Mavs and Thunder are, after all, tied at 101 at the end of the 3rd – Russell Westbrook, Anthony Morrow, and Enes Kanter all have at least 20 so far, but Dallas has maintained a slight edge most of the way, and in any case the largest lead for either side was 9, making this the sane viewing option – but the “€œbattle” at the Garden has undeniable appeal.

The hapless Knicks have fought back from a significant deficit to make it to this point, down only 3 with three and a half minutes left.

A win tonight would be their 15th. Brooklyn, meanwhile, is trying to hold on for the win, which would allow them to maintain their tenuous hold on the 8th seed in the East. That battle deserves it’€™s own set of derisive apostrophes, but it has managed to make the typically dreary waning days of the season at least somewhat entertaining.

With a little over three minutes left, Jason Smith drives past Brook Lopez, forcing Lopez into an awkward reach-in that results in a foul. Smith sinks both free throws. The Nets’ lead stands at one.

Lopez’s resurgence over the past weeks has lifted the Nets back into playoff contention, along with the likes of Boston, Charlotte, Miami, and Indiana. He has scored at least 20 points in each of the 6 games leading into the matchup with what’€™s left of the Knicks. By the end of the night he would extend that streak to 7 games. The playoff push holds special value for the Nets, not because they have any shot at going anywhere should they get into the postseason, but because there’€™s no reward for missing out, or at least not one they’€™ll get to enjoy, as their draft pick will be going to Atlanta.

Lopez sinks a layup off a pass from Deron Williams with just over a minute left, dragging the lead back to 3.

The Knicks can sympathize with the loss of suddenly valuable first-round picks, or they would if they weren’€™t so busy building through free agency. Thanks to trades with Toronto and Denver New York was without its pick in 2014 and will be again in 2016. Through bad management, bad luck, and, paradoxically, some serendipitously good luck, they do possess their pick this season, when their horrible play has turned it into a major asset. They’€™ll probably trade it away.

Cleanthony Early quickly responds to the Lopez layup with a deep three to tie the game. Anything is possible now.

There is a perverse pleasure in watching the Nets, who spent so extravagantly on veterans only to end up in a half-hearted race for the playoffs. They have no reason to lose with their pick on the way out of town, but staggering amounts of money have failed to ensure that they’€™re any better than the rest of the rabble fighting for the last playoff spot in the inferior East. Lopez, a lingering draft pick whose spot in the starting lineup was usurped by a Plumlee and who was nearly traded for Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline, has been the main thing dragging the team towards that 8th seed.

After trading empty possessions and bad shots from the likes of Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young, and Early, Lopez puts back a missed Williams floater with 2.0 seconds left. The ensuing Early jumper hits nothing. Lopez keeps the Nets in 8th. On his birthday.

With the twisted pleasure of Brooklyn’s potential plight resolved for the night, that Mavs/Thunder tilt retakes it’s rightful spot as the game to watch.

Where’s the Love?

It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. 

Listen to me Kevin. It’s not your fault.

Kevin Love is a limited big. He doesn’t have the length or the instincts to be a rim protector or an above-average defender in any real sense. Teams will focus their attack on him, attempting to isolate him and feast on his weaknesses while simultaneously pulling him out of position and wearing him down.

His offensive game at the best of times consists of a combination of low-post magic and strong shooting from the perimeter. Love is one of the best pick and pop bigs in the league, and his perimeter and post games can complement one another beautifully. Love is able to open space for himself to face up and drive from the perimeter based on his deadly shooting when he starts on the move. It’s not the speed that’s important, which is good, because outrunning every defender isn’t an option.

His combination of power and skill is the real key. Coming off a pick, the option for his defender to hang back toward the rim doesn’t exist; that’s just conceding points. Instead, defending bigs have to close out, and quickly, allowing Love to put them on the wrong foot and get a path to the lane. From there his size, post skill, and superior passing make him a nightmare for defenses. The dream in Minnesota was always for these skills to combine with Ricky Rubio’s slick passing to give the team an unstoppable pick and pop attack. That didn’t consistently happen for a number of reasons, but of all the decisions made by the T’wolves over the past several years, that’s one of the few that made any sense.

The Cavs have nearly eliminated that part of his game, instead placing him on the weakside perimeter as Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are operating with the ball. Spot ups have accounted for nearly a quarter of Love’s chances according to stats.nba.com, and the trickle down effect on his game is measurable.

Love is averaging by far the fewest offensive rebounds of his career on account of being so far from the rim when a shot goes up. He’s also shooting just 43% from the field, a turn of events that can be directly traced to the drop off in the number of shots he is attempting at the rim.

Posting him up gives some similar advantages to the pick and pop, mostly thanks to the double teams he can draw, but at least the Cavs seem interested in exploring that possibility, with another quarter of his possessions being counted as post up opportunities. Nonetheless, positioning Love as a safety valve for long stretches is a waste of his enormous talents.

A team could absolutely build an elite offense around Love, and could easily support him on defense. Such a team would need solid rim protection at center, a good pick and pop guard or two, and sound shooting and defense on the wings. That’s basically the strategy every team is gearing themselves toward anyway.

The best current real-world example of such a team is probably the Grizzlies. Replace Zach Randolph with Love and Memphis would be as good, if not better, than they are now. Randolph benefits from having Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, and Marc Gasol around him. He too is limited (even more so than Love in some ways), but the team is set up to limit his weaknesses and highlight his strengths.

There are certain guys – the aforementioned LeBron and younger Gasol are probably the best examples in the game – who would fit in with any team. You do not need to worry about how LeBron’s game will suffer under various circumstances; it won’t. These players are all at least average at every relevant skill, and as a result there’s no weakness to hide, no quirks that need to be indulged to maximize their abilities.

These are complete players, and they are fantastic to have on your team, but there simply aren’t enough of them to go around. Love’s game may not totally mesh with Cleveland at the moment, but it may be in their best interests to involve him more directly in ways that prop up his particular approach to the game. LeBron will be fine, but there’s so much more to access from this inside-out offensive machine than what the Cavs are currently getting.

Love shouldn’t be blamed for his dropoff in production after spending a season in a system that basically only used him as a floor-spacer for long stretches. We’ve all been deprived of seeing a fully-utilized Love doing all of the crazy things that he can do. The 80 foot outlet passes are still there, and whether he seeks out another team that can support him better or Cleveland learns to integrate him more fully, hopefully the rest of his immense skills can be put on display again in the near future.