Playoffs are Wide Open
March 26, 2018
For basically the entire season, the NBA has tried to pretend that there were real threats to the Golden State Warriors while simultaneously admitting that the champions were going to repeat. But now things have dramatically changed with the Curry injury. Stephen Curry is about to miss the next 3-4 weeks, and is out of the first round.
The issue is that this speaks to a longer, unavoidable problem for the Warriors.
Kevin Durant is probably going to be back next week just in time for a playoff tune-up, Draymond should be on the floor this week and Klay Thompson’s broken thumb should be ok by next week as well. Curry is slated for a comeback in Round 2 of the playoffs.
There’s no sense in rushing Steph Curry back from an sprained MCL. That’s not the type of injury that is career threatening, but it can absolutely put the other, more important parts of the body at risk. I’m not just talking about the ACL – the groin, everything in the lower body, the ankles and hips would all be in jeopardy if Curry came back too soon simply by virtue of how he moves on the court.
Golden State’s problem isn’t Curry’s MCL, which will be fine. It’s the Houston Rockets. They’re the only real threat in the playoffs, but the absence of Curry is obviously huge. The Warriors with Curry was championship worthy, but once they added Kevin Durant it was game over. Durant is clearly good enough to win a series with this supporting cast (and probably talented enough to win it without them) but returning to the Western Conference Finals at full strength is priority one.
The remaining slate for the Warriors is a smattering of teams of different strengths. In other words, it’s a great opportunity for the Warriors to groom some bench players in order to gain some confidence heading in to a first round game against God-knows-who. They could honestly play anyone from Portland to Denver. Grading the probably Western Conference playoff seeds is a whole other matter entirely.
But looking at Golden State from an optimistic point belies the reality of what’s happening to them. They are run down and the breadth of their success over the years is starting to catch up to them. We’ve seen this happen to countless teams from the Miami Heat to the New England Patriots to the Chicago Blackhawks. No matter how legendary a team is, you can’t avoid the pitfall of accumulated fatigue. Extended seasons just have a way of adding up.
This is especially alarming given that everyone in the starting lineup for Golden State is not only hurt, but in their physical prime. Aside from Draymond ironically getting busted in the pelvis by Joe Karma, it’s becoming obvious that the Warriors are simply wearing out physically. That doesn’t mean that they won’t recover from their assortment of ailments, but it does mean that they’re prone to getting re-injured.
We’ve also seen the Warriors fight through mental fatigue, with Steve Kerr famously “not coaching” a game because his voice wasn’t being heard. It was a strategy that worked and I’m not one to criticize Kerr because I’m a huge supporter of his coaching style, but it was the necessary prescription for the first real symptom of stress accumulation.
Mental fatigue, injuries, some in-fighting…all of this stuff is basically the product of teams being too successful for too long. You’re constantly playing an extra 15 to 30 games in the post season at the highest level possible, spending a lot more time together under intense circumstances while also being scrutinized by the public in general, which includes the media. Championship windows start closing the second that they’re open. How long that takes depends on infrastructure and luck.
You can’t just write off Golden State due to this whole fatigue thing, but it’s emerging in symptomatic ways that suddenly make the playoffs a lot more interesting. The Warriors can definitely win with duct tape, but suddenly the gap between them and the rest of the contenders is shrinking. So who’s worth the gamble?
Houston Rockets +175 to win the NBA Championship
I spend an unusual amount of time bagging the Rockets for continually ignoring the fact that they are always “that team” in the playoffs – the one that’s incredible and then flames out in the playoffs because they can’t paly defence or Harden runs out of gas. All this being said, Houston is a terrific pick to win the title if Golden State can’t keep up. But they’re just as vulnerable to getting picked off by the Trail Blazers or some hot team in a series. I love the probability here from a cold hearted statistical point of view, but I don’t love the overall value.
Cleveland Cavaliers +600 to win the NBA Championship
Two weeks ago, I’d have said “forget it”, but that was before LeBron James morphed in to the devourer of worlds again. James is playing at an MVP level and is once again that end-to-end superhero that players don’t want to step in front of. He murdered the Toronto Raptors in their last meeting in a stark reminder of what he’s capable of. The team around him is pretty lame, but we all know that. That’s how important LeBron James is. These odds haven’t really moved that much since the trade deadline, but their appeal has improved tremendously with LeBron somehow peaking like a super Saiyan.
Toronto Raptors +1200 to win the NBA Championship
Yes they’re good enough to win, but the memory of them getting capsized by LeBron single handedly is still fresh in the memory banks. The advantage they’ll have in the playoffs is homecourt through the Eastern Conference part. The Raptors are also very healthy, very deep and have discovered a new identity.
Speaking on that, what Toronto has done well through the season is learn how to play “their” game. They have been routinely ousted in the playoffs by reducing their standard to the level of their competition. More often than not, Toronto walks in as a team on the rise, and they play as if they’re in a 50-50 fight. It’s why so many of us don’t believe that they can close out a series against a great team. But this year has been different. The feeling around the franchise is much more aggressive, as if expectations are high.
Toronto is no longer satisfied to be the “happy to be here” team. Great value, you just have to get past the idea of them being able to beat the one guy they’ve never, ever been able to handle.
Oklahoma City Thunder +3300
The Thunder live and die on the ability to out work their opponents, which is probably a byproduct of Russell Westbrook. They don’t grade out as a specifically great offensive or defensive team. What they do grade out as is a fantastic hustle team – tops in loose ball recovery and deflections. If you’re looking for a really long shot to turn a little in to a lot, then they’re probably not it. I’d honeslty rather bet on…
Portland Trail Blazers or San Antonio Spurs +4000
Both of these teams have really sharp value and are absolutely worth an investment depending on who you prefer. The Blazers are peaking right now, having just trounced the Thunder and paced with the Rockets in a thriller. And we’re they’re fantastic is in opponent field goal percentage, a kitchen sink stat that routinely identifies teams that no how to force bad shots. That’s a huge factor for a team that also has Damian Lillard playing at “second half MVP” level. It’s never been inconceivable for the Blazers to compete at the top level, we just often forget about them because of the lack of star power. But they can bang with anyone and are closing out the season as if they’re convinced that they can take the whole conference.
San Antonio is basically the tricked out minivan of the whole NBA futures board. You know they’re going to get the job done, that they’re reliable and that there’s a guy at the helm in Pop who just knows what buttons to press. LaMarcus Aldridge has been nothing short of brilliant this entire season, and if the players are urging Kawhi to try and come back it’s because they all believe that he can. Manu and Parker would’ve kyboshed that team meeting if there was even an inkling that he wasn’t ready to compete.
One of the reasons to bet away from San Antonio is the fact that it’s impossible to predict if Kawhi is going to be mentally ready to unleash his incredible, octopus powers on the NBA. And even if he regains his confidence thanks to a few great games, there’s no telling if his body is really in playoff shape or if it will hold up.
Injuries get in your head as an athlete, and this applies to every level. That’s why the NBA playoffs have suddenly become interesting. Just ask Golden State.
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