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NBA Daily: Unpredictability Wins, We Have No Frontrunners

The teams that we thought were going to dominate the postseason have struggled thus far, so there doesn’t really appear to be a favorite to win the NBA title, writes Matt John.

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When Golden State’s once-in-a-generation Death Lineup disbanded for good last year, the first word that came to everyone’s mind was parity. For the first time since 2015, it felt like the season would start without a foregone conclusion. Sure, there were going to be teams that were going to stand out above the rest, but if you were asked who would win it all, you probably had to take a second to think about it.

Then the season happened. Mostly. When the NBA pressed pause on Mar. 11, 2020, no team approached the level that Golden State occupied themselves in for the past three years, but there were three teams that had predictably stood out as the favorite – the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.

When the season resumed, nothing changed. Though a few noteworthy dark horses were brought up, the most often predicted finals matchup was Milwaukee and whoever came out victorious between the expected battle of the LA rivals. We’re 10 games into the bubble and, truly, nothing appears to be a guarantee.

All three of them currently find themselves tied 1-1 in their series despite entering as the heavy favorites. The most obvious explanation for this would be the bubble’s environment is much different than what we’re used to – and it’s true. Still, that shouldn’t phase the top teams in the entire league like it has thus far, but it has. The mystery to all of this is how.

Since David Yapkowitz already tackled the Clippers and Lakers’ issues, we’ll start with the Bucks’ struggles.

There is no reason why Milwaukee should not be dominating this series against Orlando. The Magic may have their best player at their arsenal, but they are missing their most promising player – who could have been a foil against Giannis – as well as one of their best two or three guys. Even then, the disparity between these teams is unquestionable as a No. 1 seed should always have the upper hand against a No. 8. Yet, Orlando manhandled them in Game 1 and made things a little interesting there towards the end of Game 2.

The Law of Averages tell us that Milwaukee will probably finish them off over the next three games. The big caveat is that it shouldn’t be as difficult as it has been for the Bucks. One of the biggest issues has been covering Nikola Vucevic – the same Vucevic who got his butt kicked by Marc Gasol in last year’s playoff series against Toronto. And he’s having his way no matter who the Bucks throw at him. Still, Milwaukee has two frontcourt players – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez – that are expected to make NBA All-Defense. That’s not a good look for the team that had the best defensive rating in the entire league.

And what has happened to Khris Middleton? This is the guy who Twitter endlessly fought over his current rank in the NBA current pantheon. He doesn’t have a rock-solid playoff rep and he isn’t doing a whole lot to validate his supporters – he’s even coming off a 2 point, 1-for-8 performance against the Magic. As Giannis’ sidekick, you can get away with that against a No. 8 seed. But you’re cooked if you believe that’ll fly against a second or third seed.

Again, there’s no reason to think we’ve got an upset on our hands here, but this series has been troubling for the boys who have told the league to Fear the Deer. Milwaukee will need these next few games to show that they still the best the Eastern Conference has to offer, because the other top four seeds in the East are not ones to be toyed with.

Speaking of teams that you shouldn’t take lightly, how about the Dallas Mavericks? Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Mavericks may have been the one without a single iota of pressure on them. They still manage to exceed expectations anyway, but as you probably know, this isn’t going to be about them – rather the opponent that they arguably should be leading two games to none on.

The Clippers’ struggles should fit under the On Paper, This Should Be Surprising – But Is It? because they have fewer flaws than the Lakers and Bucks. They even have a much more reputable second-in-command than Milwaukee does, and the talent disparity between their two best players and the rest of their roster is much shorter than the Lakers. These advantages haven’t served them well thus far.

Dallas has not only been able to take the hits that LA has thrown at them – but they also threw more than they’ve taken. The Mavericks’ advantage hasn’t been from necessarily getting better. It’s that they’ve stayed the same. What we’re seeing in this series is one team that has managed to keep its identity through the hiatus and the other that hasn’t consistently had one and is struggling to find one now. Having played no games leading up the playoffs, Montrezl Harell looks straight up lost. Patrick Beverley’s absence deprives them of a secondary playmaker to put next Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Detractors have been harder on Paul George than he deserves, but he was not good in Game 2.

There is time to remedy this, but the time they have has been greatly shortened. They have to figure this out fast because teams coached by Rick Carlisle do not rollover. We’ve seen teams boast of so much talent and yet they never quite put it together. The Clippers don’t have the same internal issues as those teams, but those rosters at least had time to gel. The Clippers do not and they’re facing a tough team. Beverley’s absence really comes into play when facing a smartly-coached squad filled with playmakers and shooters because that could definitely make this a seven-game series.

Then there are the Lakers. The Lakers were the one team that we anticipated would have their hands full with Portland. The Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season at the best time – and when they are at their best, they’d make life hell for any opponent.

Game 1 gave the people what they wanted, but after the late-night thrashing the Lakeshow then handed the Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles looks like the one team among the three that should be fine because, as mind-blowing as this sounds, they looked like themselves.

But has Father Time finally caught up with the King? It may look like it so far, but LeBron James has proven this notion wrong so many times that it’s harder to believe that it’s happening than it is to believe that it’s not. His lackluster production is still a concern though. Maybe James is just conserving his energy for a better opponent and letting Davis dominate because he believes Anthony Davis and co. are enough to bring down Portland. If Game 2 is a sign of things to come, then he might just be right about that.

Because of what has transpired, we don’t really have a frontrunner right now for the title. Other teams have definitely stood out since the playoffs began – Houston, Miami, Boston – but those aren’t the teams we were expecting to stand out. It’s early as you all know, and the Lakers already look like they’re getting their groove back. There’s no reason not to think the Bucks and the Clippers won’t do the same.

The Warriors’ separation put the NBA title up for grabs this year and The Bubble has now leveled the playing field – but perhaps more than we could have ever imagined.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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