With The NBA Playoffs On The Horizon Let's Talk About Playoff Pressure
If you can believe it, we're only 18 days from the NBA Playoffs. Most teams have around 7ish games left to play and when I realized that this morning it kind of tripped me out. It sort of feels like this season has flown by. In a season that has felt so wide open, I cannot wait for the real basketball to start. As fun as these last 5-6 months have been, there's nothing like playoff basketball. It's an entirely different animal mostly because teams actually try for 48 minutes. Things slow down, you only have to worry about one team, there are no back to backs, and if last year's playoffs were any indication we're going to be watching some pretty awesome basketball from now until the summer.
So I thought you know what? Let's talk about playoff pressure. Not every team that enters the postseason does so under the same circumstance. It basically depends on where you are as a franchise. Some have more of a win now window than others. Some are playing with house money no matter what happens. As a result I went through and put the teams into categories that I feel like fit. You may disagree, and that's the beauty of the internet. As things stand now (meaning health wise) this is where I netted out. To keep things simple, I just used the current top 8 seeds.
Need to win the title
Teams: Suns, Sixers, Nets
Notice I did not just say, "Make the NBA Finals". No no, this is the group that anything other than an NBA title would be a failure. It's a small group for a reason. The Suns, well that goes without saying. Two wins away last year, overwhelming case as the best team in basketball this year, they can't simply make another NBA Finals and call it a success. Anything other than a title for the Suns would be a failure, that feels pretty widely accepted
For the Nets, same shit. This is now Year 3 of the Kyrie/Durant era. As long as those two are on the same team, the expectation is titles, not just Finals appearances. I'm not even factoring in Ben Simmons because he's such an unknown. The expectations of the Nets revolve around Durant and Kyrie anyway. Everyone pretty much considers Durant the best player on the planet. Kyrie will be available for all games, and you could make the case they were a toenail away from winning the whole thing last year.
Then there's the Sixers. You don't trade for James Harden to not win the NBA Finals. You don't spend all year telling me Joel Embiid is the MVP and not have the expectations be a ring. Morey essentially said it when he made that trade. Harden isn't getting any younger, Embiid's right in the middle of his prime, and we certainly heard from Sixers fans how much of a lock the title was when they were beating up teams as soon as Harden arrived.
Can't lose early
Teams: Grizzlies, Warriors, Celtics, Heat
This is a group you could see making a deep run if things break their way, but they don't quite have the same expectations as those first three. They are grouped together because all these teams should finish near the top of their conference, so this is more the pressure to back up all of the great basketball we watched during the year.
The Grizzlies are a little ahead of schedule, but you can't have won in the mid 50s, have an MVP candidate, and then somehow lose in the first round. That would be a bit of a disaster. In fact, I would say a first round loss for any of the teams listed here would be a disaster.
The Warriors I'm assuming Steph is back and you could make the case they should then be in then top tier, but that's still an unknown as of now how he'll look once back. Even if their defense has regressed with guys out, if everyone is back the expectation is a deep run.
For the Celts, who are you? Are you the underachieving team we saw in 2021, or are you the juggernaut we've seen in 2022? You know how you help answer that question? You don't lose in the first round. That would be a big time disaster and I think it's OK to put that level of expectations on them, even with Rob Williams out. If they are who myself and others believe them to be, you can't lose early.
With the Heat, are you frauds or not? For a team that spent the majority of the season as the top seed in the East, an early playoff exit would be pretty fraudulent behavior. All that talk about Jimmy and Bam and Herro means shit if you get bounced in Round 1. Especially when the talk all year was that this was at least a Finals contender.
Roster choices could be on the way
Teams: Jazz, Mavericks
At no point since the 2006-07 season have the Utah Jazz made it past the 2nd round. At no point during the Luka era have the Mavs made it past the first round. For the Jazz especially, nobody really gives a shit what they do during the regular season, it's about what happens in the playoffs. This group has had plenty of chances together to go on a run, yet they always come up short. Now with Trader Danny in the mix, who knows maybe the Jazz decide to break things up if things go south.
For the Mavs, the clock is ticking. Sure Luka signed his extension but since when has that meant anything. He can't keep putting up like 35/10/10 in the playoffs only to keep losing in the first round before he starts looking around and wondering if this is the right team for him. It's maybe a little far fetched, but we can't talk about Luka as this god like being and then somehow be OK with the Mavs never getting out of the first round. We don't do that with any other superstar talent.
The best part about this? There's a potential that Utah/Dallas meet in the 4/5 matchup which means one of these teams doesn't even make the 2nd round. Tell me that wouldn't be incredible theatre.
Playing with house money
Teams: Bucks, Cavs, Clippers, Wolves, Nuggets
Seeing as how the Bucks just won the title, they are operating with house money for me. That's the beauty of winning the whole thing, you get a bit of a grace period. Almost nobody goes back to back anymore, there's no pressure in terms of Giannis needing to win in MIL in order to stay, no pressure on coach Bud to prove it, no pressure to show that the Holiday trade was good. They did all that already. Sure there may be title expectations, but in my brain they are mostly entering this year with house money.
For the Cavs, they are just way ahead of schedule. That's what has made their season so fun. If they lose early, whatever they weren't even supposed to be a playoff team. If they win a round? Even better. They benefit from being in the early stage of their rebuild. There aren't a ton of expectations and you just hope your players grow from the playoff reps.
With the Clippers, it's all injury related. Paul George should be back soon, but who knows how he'll look. If Kawhi sits the whole year, that's pretty important. I've largely had this stance on them this entire season because when you go the whole year without your two best guys, expectations shift. They have the talent to go on a run, but who knows when it'll be available.
Which is my same take for the Nuggets. If they enter the playoffs without Jamal Murray or MPJ, whatever happens is house money. Yeah, they could have the MVP so you expect them to at least win a round, but is anyone going to get on the Nuggets if they don't make the Finals or WCF with only having Jokic? How could you.
For the Wolves, look, you make the playoffs for only the second time in like 16 years, I don't care what happens. You're playing with house money. Their reward is basically going to be the Suns or Grizzlies, and there's no shame in losing to either of those teams. As a Wolves fan you just have to be happy with the playoff reps, hopefully KAT and ANT have monster games on a national platform and you continue to build your culture shift.
Don't expect much
Teams: Bulls, Raptors
This isn't to say these teams aren't talented or couldn't go on a run. Of course they can. It's more about how I think they enter the playoffs with basically no expectations. Everyone thinks the Bulls stink now because they can't beat anyone good. They don't have the same level of expectations as any of the 4 teams ahead of them in the East. Sometimes there's a benefit to entering the playoffs this way, especially when you have the high end talent the Bulls do. But what's the deal with Lonzo's knee? That's a pretty big piece. It's also the first year of this new group, so I took that into consideration.
With the Raptors, I mean nobody has really expected much from them since Kawhi left. Again, doesn't mean they can't win, it just means they enter this year with nowhere close to the expectations of the contenders in the East. Considering they have title experience on this roster, they could absolutely use that to their advantage. If you were to ask me which lower seed not named BKN might be able to have a first round upset, I'd say Toronto. The thing is, nobody is really expecting that, which is why I have them in this group.
Of course, we have no idea how the seeding is going to shake out in either conference with things still being so tight at this point in the year
and maybe that changes what group one or two teams sit in, but overall I feel like this is a pretty accurate description of how each top 8 team is perceived as we enter the postseason. As we know, there can only be one winner and I cannot wait to see who it ends up being.