The playoffs are going to be here before you know it. For the most part, teams have around 7-8 games left in their season so it's time to start thinking about what comes next. That's why I decided to take a look at the top 10 teams from each conference and point out one area of concern each team/fanbase should have once the postseason rolls around. It's important to remember that these are just question marks heading in. Doesn't mean they will turn out bad or prove to be true, just that we have no idea at this present moment. Today we'll do the East, tomorrow the West. The interesting part about these playoffs is pretty much every single team in the field has some sort of legit question. This season has been weird for a lot of reasons, and I think most would agree that things feel pretty wide open which is I cannot wait for these playoffs. I'm just praying for health for everyone involved as we head down the home stretch.
So with that said, let's begin. We'll go in order of the current standings as of the writing of this blog.
Concern: Are we sure they can beat the elite teams 4 out of 7 times?
The Sixers have been dominant basically all season. That's the truth. But when doing the research for this blog I noticed something interesting when comparing them to the other elite teams in the Eastern Conference/NBA. Part of being successful during the regular season for elite teams is making sure you win the games you're supposed to win. The Sixers have for sure done just that, with their 44 wins being the 3rd most in the league at the moment. But then you look closer and see 25 of their wins are against teams under .500 (25-5). That's over half their wins.
When you look at how they've done against .500 or better, their record is 19-16, but you need to go deeper. They are 0-3 vs MIL and 2-1 vs BKN. The thing with the BKN matchups is their first win came with no Durant and no Kyrie. Their second win came against no Durant and no Harden. This is why the #1 seed is so important for them. They are a combined 5-1 vs ATL/NYK so avoiding having to play both BKN/MIL in the same playoff run is pretty crucial. Now we should also be fair here. There are games against BKN/MIL that they didn't have their own guys. They shouldn't be penalized for that the same way I'm not penalizing someone like BKN.
That's what makes this such an intriguing question as they prepare for their run. Despite an entire season's body of work, we don't truly know how the potential #1 seed matches up to the other elite contending teams.
Concern: Can their defense be good enough?
On some level, it feels silly to even try and talk about what the playoff Nets will do because we have not seen the actual version of the playoff Nets basically at all since the Harden trade. But if I had to pick one thing that could ultimately be their demise, it's not that there's only one ball. It's not that their best players haven't had time to gel. It's the defense. Since the trade deadline they rank 17th in the NBA on the defensive end of the floor. You go back to the start of 2021, they rank 26th.
When you look at how the Nets have done defensively against the better teams in the East, it's not pretty. On the season vs PHI their rating is 113. In the two losses, it was 120. Against MIL on the season it was 115. It was actually higher in their win (117) than their loss.
The thing is, Harden has been hurt and he's a very legit post defender. KD is being load managed and we've seen him be nails defensively in the postseason before. This isn't to say they can't do it, we just haven't been able to see it enough to know for sure.
Concern: Can Giannis make defenses respect his shooting?
Ever since the Raptors showed the world the blueprint on how to slow down Giannis, we see teams copy that approach. You need to build a wall. Letting him get a head of steam is only going to end poorly for you. The idea is make Giannis beat you as a shooter. Last postseason we saw Giannis rank 3rd on the Bucks with 3.8 pull up shots a game, shooting 32%. If you look by zone, Giannis shot just 30.0% in the midrange and 30% from above the break threes. Those numbers are slightly better this season at 35.5% from midrange and 31.2% from above the break.
The one thing you can't let Giannis do is live in the restricted area. He's shooting an insane 79.5% from that zone. But until he can show that he has the ability to make teams pay if they dare him to shoot, it's fair to question if the Bucks can truly get over the hump. Considering he's their best player and has the ball all the fucking time, that's pretty important.
New York Knicks
Concern: How will they look when everyone is trying hard?
Should the Knicks even have a concern right now? Feels like they are playing with house money. The season has already been a smashing success regardless of what happens in the playoffs in my opinion. They've proven they are legit. One thing I wonder about is based off something I remember seeing in the early overachieving rebuilding Celts seasons. They were great during the regular season because they played their asses off every single game. Most teams don't. The Knicks have done just that in the regular season and that is a huge part of their success. The question then becomes what happens when everyone else tries all the time in the playoffs? When your energy and effort are no longer a differentiator, how do you adjust and still be effective. Defenses will key in more on Randle, so it'll be a big test for the other guys to come through.
The one thing I'm interested to see is how their defense translates. Again, things are different in the playoffs. Teams don't rest guys, there are no B2Bs, everyone is trying and playing smarter. So far that defense has been the backbone of their success this season, but it'll be interesting to see how everything looks when the energy/effort playing field is evened out. Especially if they end up playing someone like ATL/BOS/MIA in the first round that have legit offensive weapons.
Concern: Will they be P&R'd to death?
When you get to the playoffs, it's all about exploiting weaknesses. If there is one thing that the Hawks stink at, it's defending the P&R ball handler. The numbers this season have been ugly
While defending the ball handler, the Hawks rank in the 10th percentile, giving up 0.93 points per possession (3rd worst), allowing opponents to shoot 44.1% (6th worst) and a scoring frequency of 42.1% (6th worst).
They are much better at defending the roll man, like, the best in the NBA (100th percentile), but let's just think of what their path might look like. Let's say they stay in the 5 spot and play the Knicks. Well, Julius Randle can handle the ball in P&R and he ranks in the 61st percentile. If they want to exploit the Hawks with DRose, he's in the 83rd percentile. Immanuel Quickley? 80th percentile. That's concerning.
Say somehow they drop to 6th and have to play MIL. Giannis ranks in the 87th percentile and Holiday the 74th. Point is, if you're looking for ways that the Hawks might get exposed defensively especially with Trae Young on the floor, the answer is through P&R.
Concern: Who the hell are they?
The Heat have had a very weird season. They have not looked like the team that made the Finals last year, mostly underachieving all season. There's the line of thinking that you just have to get Jimmy Butler to the playoffs and everything will be fine, but their win profile does not look great. They are 11-20 vs teams .500 or better with a combined 2-5 record against the top 3 seeds in the East.
Offensively, on the season they rank 24th in the league. The defense is still good (8th) and they are a team that has been boned big time by injuries/covid so that matters as well. If you look since the deadline they are 10th offensively but 16th defensively. Basically, we just don't know who they are or what version we're going to get. We know Butler levels up in the playoffs and Bam is a stud, but Dragic has fallen off and Tyler Herro did not take the leap many thought.
You could tell me this Heat team will go on a deep run or that they'll lose in 5 to someone like MIL in the first round and I would believe it.
Concern: What version of Kemba will they get?
Is the real concern if they will even fucking make the playoffs? Perhaps, but let's say they do, Kemba Walker is the biggest concern/question for me in regards to a team that has a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng list of both. Mostly because the version of Kemba they get will have the biggest impact on just what the Celts are able to do in the postseason. A healthy Kemba like we saw against PHI last playoffs? That guy fucks. The injured Kemba we saw the rest of the bubble? Not the greatest and ultimately it lowers their ceiling.
For the Jays to be effective, they need that 3rd guy to show up on a consistent basis offensively. That guy cannot be Marcus Smart and it's not fair to think Fournier can be that guy as he makes his way back from covid. For the Celts to be successful, it has to be Kemba. This is why the team did his whole load management plan, so he would be 100% for the playoffs.
The question will be if he has his health and quickness, can he be efficient. He shot 45/34% in April. In the first round last year, he shot 49% and looked great. With all the attention the Jays will command, Kemba will certainly have his opportunities. I don't want to say their entire postseason run depends on what version of Kemba they get, but it sort of does. Even if Tatum is a monster and Jaylen plays at an All Star level, it's not enough if Kemba stinks.
Concern: Will their clutch luck run out?
In one of the biggest surprises of the year, the Hornets are legitimately the best clutch team in the NBA this season. They have the #1 clutch time offense, #2 clutch time defense, and an insane league leading clutch time net rating at a +34. Find me one person that predicted that to be the case heading into the year. They are 17-9 in clutch games while shooting 50.7% (2nd) from the floor and 44% from three (2nd). Terry Rozier is playing at an insane level in clutch situations, doing shit we usually only see from someone like Dame at the point guard spot.
But seeing as how this team has never gone through the playoffs before, who knows if this trend holds. Young players sometimes get tight in big time playoff moments. It's all part of the process. Sure guys like Terry have experience, but I've lived through the Terry Rozier playoff experience. It's wild. Some nights he looks unstoppable, the next he's going 1-12 from three in game 7, missing multiple big clutch time shots. He's also hit game winners/daggers.
Considering over half of their wins this season have come in clutch time, how they perform in those moments in a playoff series will most likely determine how they do.
Concern: Can they beat anyone good?
The Pacers have had some absolute shit luck this season when it comes to injuries. TJ Warren had a lost season, Myles Turner got hurt, Sabonis has had his issues at times, it's been rough. The bright spot is Caris LeVert looks great, but if this team finds their way into the top 8, they are going to have to prove something they really haven't done all year.
They are going to have to beat someone good.
On the season, they have the most losses of any top 11 seed against teams .500 or better. A brutal 11-24 record. Again, it's not all their fault, their best players are dropping like flies, but it's not crazy to have some concern about how they might stack up against teams that are good. Obviously, if they somehow secure the 8 seed, it's most likely going to be a quick series against BKN/PHI
Concern: Is their defense for real?
The Wizards are currently one of the hottest teams in the entire league. Beal/Westbrook are playing at an insane level and it has the Wizards as a very trendy upset pick right now, especially in the play in. When someone like Westbrook can simply take the game over and dominate like only he can, they will always have a chance.
But a key to this run for WSH all starts on the defensive end. They were god awful to start the year, couldn't stop a nosebleed. Well, things have changed drastically these last few months. Since February 1st, the Wizards have the 9th best defense in the NBA. Since the trade deadline, that's improved to the 5th best defense in the NBA. It's a huge part of why the Wizards have the 3rd most wins since the deadline (15-8). That's tied for the most wins in the entire Eastern Conference with the Knicks, another elite defensive team.
What makes the Wizards intriguing is they can have a night where they drop 150+ on you if they need to get into a shootout, but they're also showing signs of actually being competent on the other end. If you think they can upset some higher seeds and get into the top 8, it's going to rely on their ability to defend above everything else.
So there you have it. Just some things to keep an eye on as we enter the playoffs for teams in the East. Remember, just because they are a question or concern right now doesn't mean these things will turn out bad, just that we have no idea and they are things that I feel like could help shape how the East plays out.