The wait is finally over. We once again have NBA basketball back in our lives. Televised scrimmages began Wednesday and I know many people like myself felt like a little kid on Christmas. With less than one week until re-opening night, I decided what better time than now to unveil my full predictions for final eight games and playoffs.
8 seed in the West
New Orleans Pelicans – With recent news of Zion leaving practice due to leg cramping, the Pelicans odds have jumped up to anywhere from +240 to +310 depending on where you are betting. This is an absolute no-brainer to me.
The Pelicans have by far the easiest eight remaining games of the 22 teams in the bubble, with their schedule looking like:
- July 30 vs Jazz
- August 1 vs Clippers
- August 3 vs Grizzlies
- August 6 vs Kings
- August 7 vs Wizards
- August 9 vs Spurs
- August 11 vs Kings
- August 13 vs Magic
To qualify for the play-in game(s) for the eight seed, New Orleans must be within 4 games of the eight seed (will be the Grizzlies unless all hell breaks loose), and have a higher season-long winning percentage than Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix.
The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of Memphis and the teams competing for the eight seed have the following win percentages:
- Grizzlies: .492
- Trail Blazers: .439
- Pelicans: .438
- Kings: .438
- Spurs: .429
- Suns: .400
Then to actually win the eight seed, the Pelicans will have to beat the Grizzlies (or whatever team is currently the eight seed) in back-to-back games.
Sure, that all may sound like a tall task, but the Pelicans are a combined 7-0 on the season against the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, and Kings. Not to mention, those seven games were played without Zion. Another thing worth considering, the Suns are missing Kelly Oubre, the Spurs are missing LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Trail Blazers are missing Trevor Ariza. As of right now it appears the entire Pelicans roster is ready to go for the rest of the season, other than Zion who may miss the first game or two.
This is a team that had a miserable first half of the season, but found their groove and hit their stride in the second half. After the 13 game losing steak that lasted for almost a month long in November and December and left the Pelicans with an astoundingly atrocious 6-22 record, this team went 22-14 (11-8 with Zion). They also had the easiest remaining schedule in the league by far. The Pelicans were going to absolutely cruise into the eight seed before COVID made the world stand still. There is no telling how this mid-season halt will affect the team, but with veteran leaders like Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick, combined with the insanely talented and hungry young players, New Orleans should be the favorite for this final playoff spot.
Most Surprising Teams (good or bad)
Dallas Mavericks (good) – Depending on how good of shape Luka is really in, the Mavs have a chance to move up a couple seeds going into the playoffs. They are a mere 1.5 games behind the Rockets and Thunder (who currently hold the five and six seeds) and only 2.5 games back of the Jazz (who are missing their second-leading scorer and best shooter).
Dallas played much better basketball this season than their respective 7th seed ranking suggests. This team was still finding its groove with Luka and KP on the court when the season abruptly came to a halt and I promise you this, all of the top seeds in the West are hoping they don’t run into the Mavs with their first-round match-up.
Look for Dallas to play their way up to the middle of the pack in the Western Conference and win their first round series. Yes, I said they will win their first round series. Just wait on it.
Houston Rockets (bad) – The Houston Rockets are tied with the Utah Jazz for “most likely to fall to the seven seed and get beat by the Clippers in six or less”. They are only a game and a half up on the Mavs, have one of the toughest remaining schedules, their two best players just recently recovered from COVID-19, oh and they don’t have any bigs on their roster.
I fully expect to see the small-ball, Westbrook and Harden experiment to disastrously come to an end with a quick first-round exit, followed by the firing of Daryl Morey. These other Western Conference teams are simply too good and too deep to be beaten in a seven games series by another one-dimensional Mike D’Antoni team that doesn’t even have any players over 6’8″.
Milwaukee Bucks (bad) – I do not see the Milwauke Bucks walking through the Eastern Conference like most people, including Vegas, are predicting. Yes, this team was great in the regular season, but that means nothing. The playoffs are a totally different brand of basketball. They are where Giannis has struggled the most over his young career. He is going to see “the wall” again this postseason and at some point, he is going to have to rely on the players around him to get it done. This man is going to be double and triple-teamed every time he gets a foot in the paint and I just don’t like the weapons around him enough to believe this team can get it done.
The player I liked the most on the roster outside of Giannis was Malcolm Brogdon, who is now an Indiana Pacer. I like Middleton and think he is a great 3-and-D player, but I don’t think he is what the Bucks are going to need in the playoffs when Giannis struggles. They need a savvy, disciplined ball-handler who can manage the game and control the tempo. Of course, Eric Bledsoe is there and will act as the primary ball-handler, but he is no Brogdon. I saw my fair share of Bledsoe in Phoenix, and there is a reason I wasn’t upset to see him and the Suns part ways.
This might be the hottest take in the entire article, but I see the Bucks losing in the conference semi’s to either the Celtics, Heat, Raptors, or 76ers.
Denver Nuggets (good) – Skinny Jokic, healthy Bol Bol, and potentially an unleashed MPJ? What is not to like with this Nuggets team.
Obviously the Clippers and Lakers essentially have the Western Conference locked up, but Denver is incredibly intriguing. They are going to look like an entirely different team potentially. Everything from rotations, to floor-spacing, to roles guys are playing are going to be different. I know Jamal Murray did not play in their first scrimmage, but holy cow did you see their starting lineup?! A wave of severe anxiety must have came over Daryl Morey after seeing a starting group featuring five players who are each taller than every player on the Houston roster.
I am not expecting Denver to make the Western Conference Finals or anything like that. Although, I do love the new toys this team has, especially Bol Bol, and think they can make some noise and surprise a lot of people with some eye-popping lineups.
Jazz (bad) – The Utah Jazz are in trouble. They are currently the fourth seed in the West, but during the hiatus they lost their best shooter and second leading scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic. We also know about the rift that has grown between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert over the last few months. These two guys are Utah’s only hope of making it out of the first round and they have not exactly been seeing eye-to-eye. I like Mitchell’s game a lot, but he has only shot the ball at 39% in his two playoff campaigns. I like Gobert’s game as well, but defensive-minded centers never provide the value in the playoffs that they do in the regular season. He might not even be on the court in the final minutes of some games.
Going into the season I liked the Jazz a lot. I thought the Mike Conley pick-up would take them to the next level, but if anything it did the opposite. This team lost their identity and really struggled to find their rotations throughout the year.
Even before the Bogie injury, I expected the Jazz to struggle in the Western Conference playoffs mainly due to the fact that they do not have enough offense to hang with these high-powered teams in a seven game series. Now I am almost certain they will struggle. With a schedule that has them facing the Pelicans, Thunder, Lakers, Grizzlies, Spurs (twice), Nuggets, and Mavericks, I only seeing them being able to get two or three wins at best.
I am fully expecting Utah to fall to the six or seven seed in the West and be handled easily in the first round by whoever they face.
Finals Match-up and Winner
Out of the East: Miami Heat – The Heat are a team that got a lot of love in the first half of the season, made some roster moves, and struggled a little bit after the All-Star break before the hiatus began. When you make as many rotation-altering moves as the Heat did, you are bound to struggle. Even though it looked a little rough the first few games, I absolutely love the additions of Iguodala and Jae Crowder. You can never have too many wings that play mean defense and have playoff experience.
Due to the season coming to a halt in the midst of Miami’s struggles, not many people are giving the Heat much love. Their odds to come out of the East are astoundingly high, hovering around +1100. This team is full of tough-minded competitors who don’t quit, along with a top five coach in the league. The Miami Heat are going to surprise a lot of people over the next few months.
Out of the West: Los Angeles Clippers – I have been saying it all year to anybody that will listen, the Clippers are simply too deep, too well-coached, and too good defensively not to get it done. This team was playing the long-game all year, not playing for the regular season. They had been tinkering with rotations, and trying to see who should be on the court at the end of games. Not going out there with the intention of winning as many regular season games as possible. So don’t be fooled by the argument that the Lakers are the better team because they have the better record.
PG’s health is going to be a key for the Clippers. If they are going to win, they need George out on the court with no limitations. I personally believe this three month layoff might have been the best thing possible for him. He looked incredible on Wednesday in his first action back out on the floor, and Kawhi looked fresh as can be as well.
It is not going to be easy, but I feel good about the Clippers coming out of the West.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers – I truly do believe that whoever comes out of the West will simply be too overpowering on offense for Miami, Milwaukee, Boston, or whoever ends up coming out of the East. These two Western Conferences teams (Lakers and Clippers) are the best I have seen in the last decade besides the Warriors. Although I’m convinced it will be the Clippers, I cannot wait to see who the stronger team is once they inevitably meet in the WCF. As ridiculous as it sounds, the East really is just playing for second this year.
Finals MVP: Kawhi Leonard – I have a feeling that this is the year Kawhi is going to play his way into the GOAT conversation. What better way to do that than by beating LeBron’s Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and dominating whoever comes out of the East in the Finals?
Kawhi is the rarest type of player who gets exponentially better on the biggest stage with the stakes the highest. He has done it his whole career and I do not expect him to stop now. I ‘m predicting 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists per game in the Finals for the Claw. Go ahead and pencil it in now, Clippers going all the way and Kawhi for Finals MVP.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the latest episode of the ATM: At The Minute Podcast!