Not All the Same Teams

For the past eight NBA Finals, LeBron James has been on the team representing the Eastern Conference.

This year, not only is he no longer in the East, he’s not even in the playoffs.

As James misses the postseason for the first time in 14 years with his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s some new teams with new players who are looking to represent the conference in the Finals. And in the West, there’s a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in six years but has emerged as a contender this year.

After dominating the East for over a decade, becoming the face of the NBA, you might be asking yourself how James couldn’t even make the playoffs. Well, let’s just say things are bit tougher in the wild, wild west.

As usual, James left once he realized his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, lacked the talent. And, what do you know, the same problem occurred in L.A. with an underdeveloped team.

The Lakers had a tumultuous first season with James as they finished 10th place in the West, essentially being done a month ago. He didn’t have enough shooters or defense around him. Young players who people thought could grow under LeBron didn’t live up to expectations, so he wanted them traded midseason for Anthony Davis, which didn’t end up happening, causing division between LeBron, the front office and his teammates. Not to mention, the 34-year-old missed 17 straight games and didn’t play as well as other seasons, giving up on plays from time-to-time.

James tends to have a puppet coach he likes to control. This time it was Luke Walton, who continues to struggle. Lakers great Magic Johnson resigned as president of basketball operations Tuesday. As great as LeBron is, he’s not quite the saint that is Dirk Nowitzki, who retired after Wednesday’s regular season finale after 21 seasons with the same team, something James is allergic to.

In the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo had a MVP-type year, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 60–22 record, their best in 38 years, with a new and better coach in Mike Budenholzer along with a strong supporting cast. At №2, the Toronto Raptors didn’t skip a beat after last year, earning a 58–24 record with a new coach, Nick Nurse, and star, Kawhi Leonard.

The Philadelphia 76ers have been a little underwhelming in “the process” with a 51–31 record at №3 as they acquired a star, Jimmy Butler, and an All-Star, Tobias Harris, midseason to go along with other stars, Joel Embiid, who’s been battling injuries, and Ben Simmons as well as starter, JJ Reddick, to create the Phantastic 5.

Even more underwhelming have been the Boston Celtics, who had a disappointing regular season at 49–33 as the №4 seed, as having Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury hasn’t made them any better.

The Indiana Pacers rose to a 48–34 record and a №5 seed despite star Victor Oladipo suffering a season-ending injury in January when the was below .500.

The Brooklyn Nets round out at №6 with the Orlando Magic making the postseason for the first time in seven years at №7, and the Detroit Pistons, led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, at №8.

In the Western Conference, the team at №1 is no surprise: the Golden State Warriors. After adding DeMarcus Cousins to produce one of the best starting five lineups ever with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Dubs didn’t exactly live up to the record they should have as they finished the regular season at 57–25. Dealing with injuries and not always playing hard, they’re really just interested in the playoffs.

At №2 is a surprise: the Denver Nuggets. They previously had not made the playoffs in six years as they posted a 54–28 record, only eight games better than last year. Center Nikola Jokic is turning into a star with a great, young supporting cast and coach in Michael Malone.

The Portland Trail Blazers stole the №3 seed from the Houston Rockets on the last night of the regular season, winning the tie with a 53–29 record. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum continue to be a great combo.

The Rockets are at №4 as James Harden will likely repeat as MVP as he posted a 32-game streak of at least 30 points, second-most ever. Unfortunately, they had a two-month hangover at the beginning of the season after getting so close to last year’s Finals where they posted a franchise-record 65–17 campaign.

Regular postseason teams round out the West with the Utah Jazz, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers at 5, 6, 7 and 8.

As far as my Finals prediction, the East is a tricky one. The Boston Celtics were supposed to be the favorite going into this season after coming up only game short of the Finals, but they’ve been under-performing and Marcus Smart, the team’s emotional leader, is out the first two rounds with a torn oblique muscle. I just don’t like their chances as Irving will probably leave in free agency.

The Bucks are a great team overall, but like Denver, they’re very inexperienced. The Sixers have lots of talent, but they now lack a bench and shooters after that Harris midseason trade. Plus, Embiid is injury-prone. For the Raptors, Leonard and Lowry have missed chunks of time, yet their team still won. They have the experience as Leonard has a Finals MVP on his resume. They got better midseason by getting Marc Gasol. This is not the same team that couldn’t make it to the Finals even with a great record.

For the West, this isn’t a tough decision. As long as the Warriors stay healthy and play like themselves, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be back for the fifth-year in a row. The Nuggets are good and that mile-high elevation creates a home-court advantage with a 34–7 record, but they’re 20–21 on the road, and many players don’t have playoff experience. Portland doesn’t have center Jusef Nurkic, so that limits them. The Rockets should be able to get a good rematch against the Warriors in the second round, but I don’t trust Chris Paul to stay healthy. The Thunder have a nice star duo with Paul George and Russell Westbrook, but they lack consistency.

Here are my first-round picks:

Western Conference:
1) Golden State Warriors over 8) Los Angeles Clippers
2) Denver Nuggets over 7) San Antonio Spurs
6) Oklahoma City Thunder over 3) Portland Trail Blazers
4) Houston Rockets over 5) Utah Jazz

Eastern Conference:
1) Milwaukee Bucks over 8) Detroit Pistons
2) Toronto Raptors over 7) Orlando Magic
3) Philadelphia 76ers over 6) Brooklyn Nets
4) Boston Celtics over 5) Indiana Pacers

In the Finals, despite all the drama the Warriors have been through this season — the lopsided losses in their last year at Oracle Arena, the drama between Durant and Green, and free agency rumors — they’re going to get it done as they’re really just here to win another championship. The Raptors just aren’t as loaded. Maybe Leonard will realize it’s okay to stay in a smaller market like Toronto and not join a superteam with LeBron in L.A.

This could be Golden State’s last run with Durant, Thompson and Cousins as they will be free agents come July. From an NBA fan perspective, I’m fine if they break up as the Warriors-Cavs era is over with. Durant ruined the third chance for these teams to prove who the better one is when everyone is healthy.

The NBA is full of superteams now, thanks to LeBron starting it in 2010 with Miami, which hurts the league and other teams. Having a new era of stars and teams will at least make things more watchable. It should be fun to watch this postseason unfold.

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Austin McNabb

Austin McNabb

I love Jesus, dancing and in this blog, sports.