NBA Power Rankings 2014: Who's on Top Heading into Playoffs?
It's over, folks. The 2013-14 NBA regular season—in all of its tank-tastic, injury-riddled, surprisingly competitive glory—has come to a close.
And what a close it was. There were no teams trying to play their way into the postseason on the campaign's final day, but nine of the 16 seeds within the field had yet to be settled completely. Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the barrel spent the evening jockeying for the last few lottery balls that were still up for grabs.
The Phoenix Suns aside, those bottom 14 squads will hardly be missed. With all the playoff basketball and the intensity that it occasions waiting just around the corner, there won't be any time to mourn those whose summers have already begun.
But before we dive head-first into a two-month postseason, let's put the Association's 30 teams in order, from worst to best as of the end of this fascinating campaign, one last time and see how things have changed from last week.
30. Milwaukee Bucks
15-67, 15th in the Eastern Conference
To Milwaukee Bucks fans everywhere: Forget about the misery of the 2013-14 NBA season. Forget about your team putting together the league's worst record and the role that Larry Sanders' embarrassing campaign played therein. Forget about your squad becoming just the third ever to go an entire season without winning consecutive games, or the connection that head coach Larry Drew has to the previous two.
The Bucks' future is as bright as it's been in a long time, and that's reason enough for the residents of Brew Town to take heart.
For those who rolled their eyes every time Senator Herb Kohl prioritized short-term fringe competition over long-term title contention, the news of the team's sale to Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry for $550 million, per Basketball Insiders, must be music to their ears. That new ownership group will oversee an organization replete with intriguing assets, from Brandon Knight and John Henson to rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and whichever prospect the Bucks take at (or near) the top of the 2014 NBA draft.
It'll be some time before the Bucks start winning again, but now, at least, the team has a clear path toward something more than a No. 8 seed and a quick first-round playoff ouster.
29. Utah Jazz
25-57, 15th in the Western Conference
The Utah Jazz's 2013-14 season was a rousing success in that the team succeeded in stinking. An offseason marked by the departures of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and a salary-dump trade that brought Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson and some juicy draft picks to Salt Lake City gave way to a campaign in which the Jazz clinched the worst record in the Western Conference.
And, more importantly, the top-tier draft pick that'll come with it.
It's too bad, though, that head coach Tyrone Corbin allotted as many minutes as he did to Jefferson and Marvin Williams. Those two, neither of whom figures to be with the team next season, soaked up 78 and 50 starts, respectively, forcing promising prospects like Alec Burks and Enes Kanter to grow from the bench.
To be sure, Corbin had cause for avoiding an all-future lineup of Burks, Kanter, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and rookie Trey Burke. According to NBA.com, that five-man group gave up a whopping 115 points per 100 possessions in the 123 minutes of game time it saw this season. Part of Corbin's job is to develop Utah's young players, but he wasn't going to keep it with those players yielding so many points and losing even more games than they did.
That being said, Corbin could be gone by the time the 2014-15 season rolls around. So, too, could Hayward, who'll be a restricted free agent this summer.
Whatever the future holds for those two, the Jazz should be well-equipped to build a quality club in the years to come, assuming they're soon able to land a young star who can unite Utah's core of young talent into a solid team.
28. Philadelphia 76ers
19-63, 14th in the Eastern Conference
Can you blame Thaddeus Young for being so wishy-washy about his future with the Philadelphia 76ers?
Prior to Philly's finale against the Miami Heat, per The Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey, Young said:
I'm absolutely certain that this could be the last game, or it could be one of many. ...
But other than that, it's a long summer. There are a lot of topics that go on throughout the summer. A lot of exactly seeing what cards are being played during the course of the summer.
Like I said, I'm still a Philadelphia 76er until the day they decide to get rid of me or the day they don't want to extend me.
You don't have to read tea leaves to see he'd probably prefer to move on. Young angled for a way out of Philly well before the team's "tanking" plan took shape on the court and was reportedly bummed when the Sixers dealt Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline and didn't do the same for him.
As miserable as this season was for the Sixers, Young might do well to stick around for a while. Philly will have two top-10 picks and a bevy of second-rounders in what's expected to be the deepest draft in years, and it will welcome Nerlens Noel, who missed what would've been his rookie season while recovering from ACL surgery, into the fold as well.
Throw in the promise that Rookie of the Year front-runner Michael Carter-Williams brings to the table, and the Sixers may well be the team of the future in the Eastern Conference come next season.
That won't likely lead to Philly returning to the playoffs right away, but if Young's willing to suffer through the team's impending growing pains, he could be a key veteran cog on a perennially competitive club.
27. Orlando Magic
23-59, 13th in the Eastern Conference
The Orlando Magic probably didn't expect to improve much this season, and...well, they didn't. They went from 20 wins in Year 1 A.D. (After Dwight) to 23 in Year 2, despite adding Rookie of the Year contender Victor Oladipo to the mix and squeezing a career year out of Arron Afflalo.
Injuries had plenty to do with that slow growth. Jameer Nelson, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris all missed significant time. So, too, did Jason Maxiell, who played in just 34 games after becoming Orlando's most significant summer signing.
The Magic's mediocrity could work in their favor, though. Their record, the third-worst in the NBA, practically guarantees a plum pick in the talent-rich 2014 draft. If general manager Rob Hennigan plays his team's cards right, the Magic could enter the 2014-15 season with something resembling the sort of stable foundation upon which they can build for the foreseeable future.
26. Los Angeles Lakers
27-55, 14th in the Western Conference
Leave it to Kobe Bryant to sum up the thoughts and hopes of Los Angeles Lakers fans everywhere in fewer than 140 characters: "S*** season. Flush it. Forget it #amnesia Next Season will be epic #blackout #bussfam."
There's no doubt that the 2013-14 season was, indeed, toilet-worthy for the Purple and Gold. Never in franchise history had the Lakers suffered through as many defeats as they did this year. Only four times previously had L.A. completed a campaign without qualifying for the postseason.
As for the future, the odds of next season being as "epic" as Bryant expects it to be are questionable, at best. L.A. will have some cap space with which to play around but may opt to save its flexibility for the 2015 free-agent class by loading up on short-term deals this summer. And as great as the Lakers' pick in the 2014 NBA draft may turn out to be, there's no guarantee that the player it yields will be a star, much less one who can help right away.
In truth, the extent of the Lakers' turnaround next season will depend largely on Bryant. He missed all but six games of his 18th pro season on account of a torn Achilles tendon and a fracture in his left tibial plateau.
If he and fellow decaying Hall of Famer Steve Nash can regain some semblance of their former selves—and stay healthy in the process—the Lakers could sneak their way back into the playoffs. If not, don't be surprised to see plenty more purple and gold winding through the sewers next season.
25. Boston Celtics
25-57, 12th in the Eastern Conference
For the first time in NBA history, the playoffs will not feature at least one of the three among the Lakers, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. The Lakers and Knicks, though, at least made honest efforts to keep that bit of tragic trivia from bubbling into existence.
The C's, on the other hand, had this coming from the jump. Once GM Danny Ainge resolved to trade away Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, the team was all but guaranteed to wind up in the lottery for the first time since 2007.
Not surprisingly, Boston's lone remaining star wasn't entirely pleased with the downturn in the team's fortunes. Per The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn, Rajon Rondo said:
You can [see the progress] but then again, who will be here next year?
You [the reporter] might not even be here. They might trade you this season. It depends. I think there are some things you can take from this team. We have a young team, a lot of guys that are playing well every night, but we’re not sealing the deal as a team collectively, but there are some things you can take individually from each guy and stay positive.
Rondo went on to explain how excited he is for next season, particularly in light of the healthy offseason he's soon to enjoy. That, apparently, has Ainge geeked for 2014-15 as well. "I think Rondo’s going to have a great year next year," Ainge said, per Washburn. "I think he’s going to have the best year of his career."
Then again, those words, as complimentary as they are, might just be Ainge's way of pumping up Rondo's value in preparation for a blockbuster trade this summer.
24. Detroit Pistons
29-53, 11th in the Eastern Conference
At long last, Joe Dumars' reign as the Detroit Pistons' president of basketball operations has come to a close. The team announced earlier this week that Dumars, who's been a part of Detroit's three NBA titles as either a player or an executive, would continue to serve the only pro franchise he's ever known in an advisory role going forward.
"Joe Dumars is a great champion who has meant so much to this franchise and this community," Pistons owner Tom Gores said in the official statement. "We are turning the page with great respect for what he has accomplished not only as a player and a front office executive, but as a person who has represented this team and the NBA with extraordinary dignity."
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, former Pistons player Grant Hill and Magic executive Scott Perry are the early front-runners to replace Dumars.
But before we all get caught up in who's next or bash Joe D. too vociferously for his many mistakes in recent years, it's important to remember that his tenure in Detroit was far from a failure. He was responsible for building the team that went to six straight Eastern Conference Finals and back-to-back NBA Finals, with a championship at the Lakers' expense in 2004.
However you choose to eulogize Dumars The Executive, don't forget to include those highlights right alongside (if not above) the bad draft picks and calamitous contracts that came to define his post-playing career in recent years.
23. New Orleans Pelicans
34-48, 12th in the Western Conference
If there's anything for the New Orleans Pelicans to take away from the stretch run of their injury-riddled season, it's that Tyreke Evans isn't a suitable sixth man.
Or, to put it another way, he's much, much more fit for a starting role. Evans averaged just 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 50 games off the bench, but he turned in numbers reminiscent of his Rookie of the Year campaign (about 20 points, five rebounds and six assists) in his 22 starts. Those included a 33-10-7 game against the Brooklyn Nets, a career-best 41-point explosion in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and 25-6-10 to beat the Houston Rockets in the last game of the 2013-14 campaign.
The Pelicans' decision to sign Evans to a four-year, $44 million deal this past summer, along with the trade that sent Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-rounder to Philly in exchange for Jrue Holiday, all but assured that New Orleans won't be able to improve its roster with any major moves this offseason.
As such, if the Pels are to find themselves in the playoffs next spring, they'll first need all of their young stars to get and stay healthy. Once that's done, it'll be incumbent upon head coach Monty Williams to put said stars in position to maximize their talents, both individually and as a collective.
In Evans' case, that clearly requires a spot in Williams' starting five.
22. Sacramento Kings
28-54, 13th in the Western Conference
It took the entire season, but Ben McLemore finally put together what would pass for a breakout performance. With DeMarcus Cousins sitting out the Sacramento Kings' season finale on account of a technical foul-related suspension, McLemore came through with 31 points, albeit in a five-point loss to the Phoenix Suns. The rookie got to the line 15 times and added five rebounds and five assists for good measure.
McLemore will be among the many keys to the Kings turning things around under their new regime. Rudy Gay's contract decision, Isaiah Thomas' impending free agency and what becomes of Sacramento's 2014 first-rounder will factor in heavily as well.
Not to mention Boogie's maturation as a player and a person.
But McLemore, more than any other King, is something of a litmus test for this franchise's future. He's the team's first pick of the post-Maloof era. As such, the extent to which he either actualizes his tremendous potential or falls short of doing so will say plenty about how the team's culture has changed—or if it has at all—with Vivek Ranadive in charge.
21. Cleveland Cavaliers
33-49, 10th in the Eastern Conference
The 2013-14 season ended just as it began for the Cleveland Cavaliers: with a win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Of course, plenty changed in between, and not just for the Nets, who didn't play a single one of their regular starters in Game 82. The Cavs saw their hopes for their first playoff appearance of the post-LeBron era salt away amid injuries, on-court inconsistencies, locker room drama and a front-office firing. Not even midseason trades for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes could save Cleveland from collapsing back into chaos.
Still, all is far from lost for the Cavs. They won nine more games this season than they did in 2012-13 and will head into June in control of their own lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Nailing that one will be crucial for Cleveland, especially after watching Anthony Bennett struggle through his rookie season after being the first prospect off the board in 2013.
If the Cavs hope to calm Kyrie Irving's nerves enough for him to sign a max extension, they'll have to upgrade the roster around him to a substantial degree.
And, perhaps, part ways with Dion Waiters, whose clashes with Irving seemed to submarine Cleveland's season more than once.
20. Denver Nuggets
36-46, 11th in the Western Conference
On the whole, the Denver Nuggets' 2013-14 season can't be deemed a success by any means. They became just the eighth team in the last two decades to miss the playoffs after winning 55 or more games the previous year.
To be sure, that decline was predictable. Losing their GM (Masai Ujiri), coach (George Karl) and best player (Andre Iguodala) in the same summer were all devastating enough to set the Nuggets back in a big way. Brian Shaw's early-season squabbles with Andre Miller and a roster-wide plague of injuries practically sealed Denver's fate thereafter.
Many of those same factors, though, point to the Nuggets engineering a quick turnaround. Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson should all be back from season-ending injuries. Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov have both shown tremendous growth as individuals, and the team as a whole appears to now be buying what Shaw is selling.
The Nuggets won't have much in the way of financial flexibility with which to retool the roster. But, frankly, Denver doesn't need a huge overhaul with the talent it has on hand.
And with a pick in this year's lottery, the Nuggets should be able to add another key piece before free agency even opens.
19. Minnesota Timberwolves
40-42, 10th in the Western Conference
Now begins the summer of Kevin Love's discontent. He'll join Team USA in Spain for the 2014 World Cup of Basketball, where he'll be surrounded by guys who just participated in the sixth postseason that Love's Minnesota Timberwolves have missed in his six NBA seasons.
Back in the States, his T-Wolves will be plenty busy trying to solidify the franchise's future, without the benefit of cap space. Flip Saunders, Minny's president of basketball operations, will have to balance working out an extension for Ricky Rubio and sorting through head coaching candidates if Rick Adelman does, indeed, decide to retire.
Luckily, the T-Wolves will get to use their own pick in this June's draft, assuming it doesn't drop from 13th to 14th in the lottery.
In any case, Minny must make moves of some sort this summer, lest Love return to a team whose quality (or lack thereof) won't keep him from bolting in 2015.
18. New York Knicks
37-45, 9th in the Eastern Conference
The New York Knicks sure do know how to inject the waning days of the regular season with some intrigue, even as they approach a spring that won't include playoff participation.
The team announced on Wednesday that it had signed Lamar Odom for the remainder of the campaign, though he didn't play in the season finale. According to ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley, Odom's contract includes a non-guaranteed option for the 2014-15 campaign, to be exercised as the Knicks see fit.
Odom's 11th-hour introduction marks the first substantial stamp on the organization of any sort by new team president Phil Jackson. Odom won two titles in six seasons under the Zen Master with the Lakers.
Jackson's rebuilding job, though, is only just beginning. He'll spend his summer deciding what to do about the Knicks' head coaching job, persuading Carmelo Anthony to accept a new contract worth around $130 million and figuring out how best to retool the roster in pursuit of a hasty return to playoff contention.
To that end, Jackson will have to earn every penny of the $12 million per year he's due, assuming the work he does in turning the franchise around is at all commensurate with such substantial compensation.
17. Atlanta Hawks
38-44, 8th in the Eastern Conference
Don't sleep on the Atlanta Hawks. They won four out of five and six of eight to end the regular season, thanks in part to Jeff Teague's Eastern Conference Player of the Week-worthy efforts.
One of those recent victories came at the expense of the Indiana Pacers, against whom the Hawks will begin their seventh straight playoff appearance. That game saw Teague carve up the Pacers defense for 25 points, and Pero Antic (3-of-4 from three that night) cause so many problems for Roy Hibbert that the All-Star center played just nine minutes in Atlanta's 19-point win.
The Hawks are far from the favorite to spring a No. 8 vs. No. 1 upset, but Atlanta certainly sports enough offensive weapons and the requisite capabilities on defense to steal a game or two from Indy if the Pacers aren't careful.
16. Brooklyn Nets
44-38, 6th in the Eastern Conference
The Brooklyn Nets got what they wanted: a first-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors. All it took was a nifty "tank" job that saw Brooklyn drop four of its last five games, including a 29-point blowout opposite the Cavs in the finale.
To be sure, the Nets had good reason to slot Jason Collins, Jorge Gutierrez and Marquis Teague into their last starting five of the regular season. Their late-season slide guaranteed that the Nets wouldn't be subjected to yet another bloodbath with the Chicago Bulls to open the postseason. Last spring, the Nets were out-hustled and out-muscled by the Derrick Rose-less Bulls in seven games.
Not that Brooklyn will be able to waltz past Toronto and into a second-round stint opposite the Miami Heat, whom the Nets swept in their season series. Brooklyn went 2-2 against the Raptors, with Toronto actually owning the overall score, as noted by the National Post's Eric Koreen: "In their four games this year: Raps 397, Nets 386."
Of greater import, though, is the disparity in postseason experience between the Nets and the Raps—a drastic one, in fact, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg: "Games of playoff experience- Nets starting five: 399, Raps starting five: 24."
The aging Nets figure to have a tough time slowing down the young, athletic Raptors. But if Brooklyn's core quadrant of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce is healthy enough to impose its will on the proceedings, particularly on the defensive end, the Nets could find themselves a dark horse in the somewhat open Eastern Conference.
15. Phoenix Suns
48-34, 9th in the Western Conference
I know I'm not alone in this sentiment, but I'll miss these Phoenix Suns.
Their relentless energy. Their never-say-die attitude. Their defiance of expectations. The surprising productivity of their rag-tag cast of role players.
At the very least, these Suns will be remembered as arguably the best team to ever miss the NBA playoffs. Their 48 wins are tied for the most by a non-postseason squad in league history.
And they should rack up even more next season. They'll have three first-round picks in this June's draft and an abundance of cap space with which to add talent this summer. Eric Bledsoe's next contract will soak up some of that money, but if Suns GM Ryan McDonough plays his cards right, his team could enter the 2014-15 season with a bona fide star to further catalyze the team's rapid rebuild.
14. Washington Wizards
44-38, 5th in the Eastern Conference
Congratulations to the Washington Wizards! They won their last four games of the season to clinch the No. 5 seed in the East.
Their reward? A grueling first-round series with the Chicago Bulls.
The good news is that Washington took two out of three from Chicago in 2013-14 and has the requisite size up front, between Marcin Gortat and Nene, to combat the Bulls' bulk. The Wizards can also claim the best on-ball creator (John Wall) and the most dangerous scorer (Bradley Beal) in the series.
The bad news? Well, it's the Bulls. They're going to muck things up as much as possible in order to mitigate their offensive disadvantages and exploit their own toughness and experience. If Washington is to prevail, it'll have to maintain its collective composure against Chicago's pressure and create good looks for its perimeter shooters.
Otherwise, this matchup could more closely resemble the 18-point beatdown that the Bulls put on the Wizards in April than Washington's two wins in January.
13. Golden State Warriors
51-31, 6th in the Western Conference
If the Golden State Warriors get eaten alive in the first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Clippers, they'll have Klay Thompson to blame. The third-year shooting guard poked the proverbial bear by calling out Blake Griffin for his tendency to exaggerate contact.
On Wednesday during an appearance on The Wheelhouse on 95.7 The Game in San Francisco (via ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi), Thompson said:
He is a good guy off the court but he probably just ... I mean ... plays pretty physical and flops a little bit.
He flairs his arm around so you know you might catch a random elbow or something that doesn't you know rub off too well on guys. He's kind of like a bull in a china shop, kind of out of control sometimes. And then you do just see him flop sometimes like how can a guy that big and strong flop that much.
I can see how that gets under people's skin and be frustrating to play against.
To be sure, the Dubs have bigger fish to fry than the Flying Lion's penchant for flopping. Andrew Bogut is expected to miss significant time during the playoffs as he recovers from a rib fracture that occurred dangerously close to his lung. Golden State can still score in bunches without Bogut but will be hard-pressed to defend at the level it did this season in the absence of their front-line anchor.
And if Bogut's not there to bait Griffin into a confrontation, as he did on Christmas Day, the Warriors might have that much more trouble slowing L.A.'s high-octane attack.
12. Dallas Mavericks
49-33, 8th in the Western Conference
The Dallas Mavericks did their darndest to avoid a first-round faceoff with the San Antonio Spurs. Dirk Nowitzki scored a game-high 30 points, Monta Ellis chipped in 18, and Devin Harris contributed a double-double (10 points, 10 assists) off the bench, but it wasn't enough to upend the Memphis Grizzlies on the final night of the 2013-14 regular season.
As a result, the Mavs will return to the playoffs against their familiar foes from the Alamo City. Dallas went 0-4 against San Antonio this year and doesn't defend well enough (22nd in defensive efficiency) to slow down the Spurs' machine-like offense (fifth in offensive efficiency and assist percentage).
But the Mavs have at least one reason to believe that this series will be competitive, and he's seven feet tall, German and still nigh on unstoppable at the age of 35.
11. Charlotte Bobcats
43-39, 7th in the Eastern Conference
If nothing else, the Charlotte Bobcats did well to put themselves in position to steal the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. In the end, the 'Cats couldn't quite climb that high, despite winning eight of their last nine games.
As a result, Charlotte will begin its second postseason appearance in franchise history opposite the Miami Heat. The 'Cats were swept in their season series against the two-time defending champs, though one of those losses came in overtime and another by a single point.
Even if Charlotte is summarily eschewed from the playoffs, it won't have any reason to hang its head. This season marked a massive step in the right direction from its previous two campaigns, which yielded just 28 wins between them. The return of the Hornets moniker was going to be a cause celebre in the Queen City either way.
Thanks to Al Jefferson's All-NBA-caliber season, it could be just the start of a much more important project. "My main goal right now is to turn the Bobcats into one of the elite teams in the East," Jefferson told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling. "I think that from the beginning, the respect that we now have is great, but I think it's just the beginning of something special."
10. Memphis Grizzlies
50-32, 7th in the Western Conference
On the one hand, the Memphis Grizzlies have to be thanking their lucky stars that they won't see San Antonio in the first round. The Spurs swept the Grizz this season, just as they did in last year's Western Conference Finals.
On the other hand, a rematch with the Oklahoma City Thunder will be anything but a piece of cake for Memphis. Chances are, the Grizzlies wouldn't have gotten past OKC in the 2013 playoffs had Russell Westbrook not gone down with a knee injury in the first round.
Unfortunately for the Grizz, Westbrook is fit to play this time around, and his absences this season only strengthened the Thunder's deep bench. You can be sure that Kevin Durant, Westbrook and company will have revenge on their minds this weekend.
Not that anyone should count Memphis out entirely. The Grizzlies won't be scared of OKC in the least and will bring to the table a measure of perimeter shooting that they didn't have last spring. As pivotal as the post pairing of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is to what the Grizzlies do, they'll need the likes of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and Mike Miller to stretch the Thunder's suffocating defense and open up the floor for those two bigs to operate.
9. Chicago Bulls
48-34, 4th in the Eastern Conference
The last thing the Chicago Bulls wanted or needed was a taxing end to an emotionally charged campaign. That's exactly what they got in their 91-86 overtime loss to the Bobcats in Charlotte.
Jimmy Butler, who trailed only Carmelo Anthony in minutes per game heading into Wednesday, played 48 of a possible 53. Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy Jr. each logged 42. Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson all eclipsed 30 themselves.
Had the Bulls won, they might've had a shot at snagging the No. 3 seed in the East. Instead, they'll begin their postseason in fourth place, opposite the Wizards, to whom Chicago lost two out of three meetings this year. Fortunately for the Bulls, their abundance of grit, determination and playoff experience should serve them well against Washington's talented greenhorns.
8. Miami Heat
54-28, 2nd in the Eastern Conference
Never mind that the Miami Heat lost their season series against the Sixers, or that they dropped three in a row and six of their last eight, or that they finished the 2013-14 campaign with 12 regular-season wins fewer than they did last spring...
OK, so maybe there's some cause for concern in South Beach as the Heat embark on the rounding-out of their three-peat in earnest. Dwyane Wade has missed a ton of time, Chris Bosh's play has been spotty, and LeBron James has had to exert himself down the stretch to keep Miami on anything close to the straight and narrow.
But for a team like the Heat, which came into this year taxed from three straight trips to the NBA Finals, a drop-off of this sort was hardly surprising. More importantly, it doesn't disqualify them in the least from becoming the first team since Larry Bird's Celtics to claim four consecutive Eastern Conference crowns.
That journey continues against Charlotte, against which Miami went 4-0 this season. A second-round series opposite the veteran Nets could prove problematic, considering the Heat have yet to beat Brooklyn in the Jason Kidd era.
Then again, the playoffs are a different animal. Moreover, the Nets are no sure bet to upset the Raptors in Round 1. And if Toronto, which lost all four of its meetings with Miami, should advance to Round 2, the Heat's path back to the Eastern Conference Finals should be as clear as ever.
7. Toronto Raptors
48-34, 3rd in the Eastern Conference
Of the five "newcomers" in this year's playoffs, the Toronto Raptors may well be the ones with the most rabid support among their fans. Jalen Rose and Drake hinted at as much during Grantland's NBA playoffs preview.
The data pertaining to Toronto's ticket prices only further confirms this. According to Forbes' Jesse Lawrence, tickets to the Raptors' first-round home games are fetching more on the secondary market than those of any other playoff team—by a comfortable margin, no less.
That distinction is a matter of supply and demand more than anything else. Toronto sports fans don't have any other team to support at the moment, and those in the Raptors' corner are probably pretty geeked to see Kyle Lowry and company in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 anyway.
Whether those eye-popping premiums yield more energetic crowds at the Air Canada Centre remains to be seen. At the very least, the Raptors can take heart that they're now the hottest ticket in town—and that those in attendance would be that much more upset if their team didn't claim its first playoff series victory in 13 years.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
54-28, 5th in the Western Conference
Kudos to the Portland Trail Blazers for finishing their surprising season as the fifth seed in the West. After slogging their way through much of the second half of the campaign, the Blazers finished with a flurry, winning five in a row and nine of 10 to wrap up the schedule.
In other words, Portland appears to be hot at the right time, but the Blazers will need more than just momentum to upset the Houston Rockets in the first round.
If there's any one factor that could decide this series, it's free throws. The Rockets didn't just live at the line this season; they practically developed a condominium complex on it. They led the league in free-throw attempts per game (31.1) and free-throw rate (.386 per field-goal attempt), and finished behind only the Kings in scoring 20.5 percent of their points at the stripe.
Houston's top tenants? Pretty easy to guess: James Harden and Dwight Howard, or, as you might otherwise call them, Nos. 2 and 3 on the list of the league's most frequent visitors, at 9.1 and 9.0 per game, respectively.
Such is the benefit of having not one but two superstars who often require contact to quell.
The Blazers, though, aren't ones to surrender those freebies to just anyone. According to NBA.com, Portland allowed the seventh-fewest free throws per 100 possessions (22.5) and the fifth-lowest opponent free-throw rate in the league (0.253 per field goal).
And not necessarily because they're "risk averse." The Blazers just don't often put themselves in positions from which they can only really recover by fouling. They registered the third-lowest turnover rate in the NBA this season (13.9 percent). Better to be able to defend soundly than have to catch up from behind.
Portland's defense is still suspect in its own right. It checked in 16th in defensive efficiency, at 104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. But even that's better than what the Nets have done in their down-and-up season. The Trail Blazers have been steady, if often unspectacular, at that end, to say the least.
Still, if the Blazers can keep the Rockets off the line, if they can contain Harden and Howard without fouling them—and, in Harden's case, if they don't give Houston "free points" off miscues in transition—they'll have a shot to spring a semi-upset. We know from the season that the Rockets are "better" but not to an insurmountable degree. Such is the beauty of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup. More evenly matched teams can make for a less predictable series.
5. Indiana Pacers
56-26, 1st in the Eastern Conference
For all of their struggles in recent months, the Indiana Pacers did well to end their roller-coaster regular season on a high note.
Despite getting handled by the Heat in Miami, the Pacers managed to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East by upending the Oklahoma City Thunder two days later. Roy Hibbert and George Hill aside, Indy's scrubs then took care of business in Orlando for a 101-86 win in the finale.
Now comes the important part: getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals and improving upon last spring's surprising finish. That journey begins anew this weekend, against a Hawks squad that, despite its losing record, could give the Pacers fits in the first round. Atlanta split its season series with Indy, thanks to a 107-88 blowout that saw the Pacers score a paltry 23 points in the first half.
As flimsy an opponent as the Hawks may be on paper, the Pacers can't hope to advance with ease unless they get back to executing their offense crisply and from the inside out. That begins with Roy Hibbert. The All-Star center was held scoreless in two of his last four appearances and averaged just 8.8 points (on 40.6 percent shooting) and 5.1 rebounds from Feb. 3 on.
4. Houston Rockets
54-28, 4th in the Western Conference
Don't go jumping on James Harden just because he admitted that money was a factor in his split with the Oklahoma City Thunder. "I felt like I already made a sacrifice coming off the bench and doing whatever it takes to help the team, and they weren’t willing to help me," Harden told ESPN's Hannah Storm (h/t Bleacher Report's Dan Favale).
When asked whether Harden would still be with the Thunder if money weren't a concern, he replied, "Definitely. Definitely. No question."
All of which, in truth, is entirely reasonable. Had Harden accepted OKC's offer (four years, $55 million), which was slightly below what he demanded at the time, he, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might be staring down a Western Conference dynasty right now.
As it stands, the universe in which Harden actually lives isn't so bad. He's due to earn $80 million over the course of his five-year deal with the Houston Rockets, who've climbed their way into the West's upper crust this season, thanks in large part to Dwight Howard.
And, of course, to Harden, whose rise to the rank of "NBA superstar" was integral to Howard's arrival in the first place.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
57-25, 3rd in the Western Conference
Franchise records are nothing new for these Los Angeles Clippers. Last season, the Clippers set a new mark for regular-season success with 56 wins. The additions of Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley allowed them to surpass that total this time around.
But such success isn't necessarily an indicator of what's to come in the playoffs. In 2013, L.A.'s great campaign resulted in little more than a Pacific Division crown and a first-round ouster at the hands of the Grizzlies.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Clippers aren't concerned with regular-season win totals. "We were part of that last year, at least me and Blake were, and we lost in the first round," Chris Paul said after L.A. earned win No. 57 at the Nuggets' expense on Tuesday (h/t yours truly). "It's all good and well, but I think we're at the point now where it's all about the postseason. We expected to do what we did, it's great, and it is what it is."
The Clippers' impending matchup with the Warriors should yield even more fireworks than last year's tense series with Memphis. L.A. and Golden State nearly came to blows on multiple occasions in 2013-14. Adding the pressure of the playoffs to the mix should morph this coal-like feud into a full-on diamond of a rivalry.
2. San Antonio Spurs
62-20, 1st in the Western Conference
If you want to understand why the San Antonio Spurs' 2013-14 season was so remarkable, why Gregg Popovich deserves to be named Coach of the Year and why the Spurs are poised to return to the NBA Finals, look no further than these two factoids:
- They won three more games than did any other team in the league this season, thanks in no small part to a 19-game winning streak.
- They did so while spreading out minutes more evenly than any team has in decades, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton: "The Spurs will be the first team since the ABA-NBA merger not to have a single player average 30 minutes per game."
In other words, the Spurs will have not only home-court advantage throughout the playoffs but also the most well-rested roster therein. That doesn't guarantee that San Antonio will win the West, but it sure helps its odds of doing so.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
59-23, 2nd in the Western Conference
The Oklahoma City Thunder needed a 21-point fourth quarter from Kevin Durant against the Pistons on Wednesday to secure the second seed in the West and a grudge match opposite the Grizzlies in the first round. It was Memphis that ended OKC's attempt to return to the Finals last spring.
Of course, the Thunder are in much better position to advance this time around. Russell Westbrook, who missed that Memphis series with a knee injury, is healthy and playing well. OKC's supporting cast is also as deep as it's ever been, with Caron Butler joining a fleshed-out bench that already featured Nick Collison, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher and rookie Steven Adams.
The matchups certainly favor the Thunder out West, too. They're more experienced than the Clippers, their likely second-round opponent, and they swept San Antonio in their four meetings with the defending Western Conference champs this season.
In all likelihood, the Thunder's hopes of winning the West will ride as much on the fitness of their own players as it will on the challenges posed by their foes.
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