Connect with us

Culture

NBA playoff predictions: Why I like Celtics and Nuggets, early West upsets and more

Published

on

NBA playoff predictions: Why I like Celtics and Nuggets, early West upsets and more

We, as a species, have trouble imagining something until it actually happens. The NBA playoffs are a perfect vessel from which to view this particular shortcoming.

The Boston Celtics just completed a regular season in which they won 64 games, winning their conference by a staggering 14 games and posting the fifth-best scoring margin of all time at plus-11.3 points per game. They won or split the season series with 28 of their 29 opponents (good job, Denver), had no losing streak longer than two games and now take no significant injuries into the postseason.

And yet, it seems hard to find people who would describe Boston as an overwhelming favorite, because they haven’t seen this group of Celtics win it all but have seen them fall short several times.

The Pulse Newsletter

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

Advertisement

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

BuyBuy The Pulse Newsletter

We’ve seen this movie before, of course. Nobody will admit it today, but a lot of people had a hard time imagining the Denver Nuggets winning the Western Conference, let alone the NBA Finals, last spring … even though they were the top seed in the conference, had a two-time MVP as their centerpiece and their starting five was dominant anytime it played together. Some folks even talked themselves into the Lakers–Warriors second-round series — between two teams that combined to go 87-77 in the regular season — as the “real” conference finals.

Yeah, not so much.

Flip to 2024, and we almost have the opposite problem. People speak of the Nuggets in hallowed terms, with the word “inevitable” being thrown around. Don’t get me wrong — they’re good — but that description may be a bit rich for a team that’s always one injury away from playing extremely makeshift lineups. Nitpickers also will point out that Denver glided through a cleaned-out bracket last year, facing two eighth seeds and a seventh seed on the way to glory. The Nuggets were worthy, asterisk-free 2023 champions, but 2024 is a different year.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Hollinger: Why Joker is MVP again, Wemby is Rookie of the Year and more honors

And the Celtics? Until the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown core wins the big one in June, they’ll always have doubters. But that’s no different from several other eventual champions; people thought the same thing about the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (did too) and Kevin Garnett’s Celtics and Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavs and countless others, right up until last year’s Nuggets.

Advertisement

I must point out the odds are pretty heavily in Boston’s favor to get it done this time. Of the 15 teams to post a margin of plus-9.3 or greater in an 82-game NBA season — taking us two points below what the Celtics did — only the 2015-16 Warriors (who lost the NBA Finals in seven games) and the 2015-16 Spurs failed to win a title. The other 13 won, many in romps.

Even if you just look at basic wins and losses, teams that both win 60 games and have the league’s best record have ended up winning the title more than half the time: 16 times in 31 cases. The last one of those was Phoenix in 2022, which went out with a whimper in the second round against Dallas after winning the same 64 games these Celtics won, so that recency bias may be tilting us a little.

I’ll give you another reason to like Boston: The Celtics are one of only four teams in the “52-3-3” club, and the only one in the East. Of the NBA’s 44 champions since 1980, 43 of them won at least 52 games (pro-rated to 82 for shortened campaigns), had at least a plus-3.0 scoring margin and were one of the top three seeds in their conference. That winnows down your field of potential champions to the top three seeds in the West (Oklahoma City, Denver and Minnesota) and the Celtics.

To counter my point, some argue load management, not to mention general coasting by elite teams, has made the regular season less determinative than it used to be. Last spring, for instance, we had first-round upsets by teams seeded fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, with a No. 7 seed making the West finals (Lakers) and a No. 8 seed (Miami) crashing the NBA Finals. Lower-seeded teams won seven of the 15 series overall. (From that perspective, reviewing my own performance, getting nine of the 15 bracket lines correct before the playoffs started feels pretty good.)

But even in recent history, a postseason like last year’s is rare. A typical NBA playoffs only sees four teams without home-court advantage advance out of the 15 series; we only had two in 2019, 2017 and 2015, and before last year, we hadn’t had more than five since 1995.

Advertisement

However, perhaps this season the playoffs are rife for more upsets because the standings are so jumbled (well, except for Boston). Every East playoff team besides the Celtics finished with between 46 and 50 wins; the striations in the West were a bit deeper, but every series still looks competitive up and down the board.

Projecting this postseason was maddening, especially in the East. But the bigger issue is adjusting for the unknown of who is actually playing. Late-season injuries to elite players could massively tilt the odds if they can’t play. Already we’ve seen that in the Play-In, with Zion Williamson and Jimmy Butler out and Alex Caruso questionable.

More questions loom for the first round. How much are we going to see of Giannis Antetokounmpo? Joel Embiid? Kawhi Leonard? And what of guys like Tyrese Haliburton and Donovan Mitchell, who are almost certainly playing but might not be at full strength?

So, we bravely go into this knowing the potential to look stupid is off the charts. Even the Celtics, as dominant as they were in the regular season, don’t necessarily get a free pass to the title. As good as they are up and down the roster, they won’t have the best player on the floor in several potential matchups, which is always worrisome. Additionally, injuries, slumps, hot streaks and general weirdness can always throw a wrench into a short series.

But we don’t aim for clairvoyance here. I am just trying to project what is likely. Inevitably, I won’t go 15-for-15 or anywhere close to it. However, after agonizing over several matchups — particularly in the 1-4-5 bracket in the West — here’s what I think is most likely to happen this postseason. Apologies if it’s chalkier than you’d prefer.

Advertisement

West first round

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 Sacramento Kings or New Orleans Pelicans

I’m not sure these will be totally comfortable series for the Thunder, even if they play the Pelicans without Williamson. New Orleans has waves of defenders to throw at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Brandon Ingram has always played better when he’s not sharing the court with Williamson. Sacramento, meanwhile, has the ability to physically mash OKC with Domantas Sabonis and won two of the four regular-season meetings between the teams.

But there’s a big difference between being uncomfortable and being on the wrong side of the scoreboard four times in seven games. Sacramento is also short-handed because of late-season injuries to Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, leaving it underpowered against a Thunder team that has too many offensive weapons of its own. I’ll give the Kings their respect and say they can extend the series a bit, while New Orleans probably only has enough left in the tank to grab one game. Pick: Thunder in six vs. Kings; Thunder in five vs. Pelicans


Chet Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander celebrate after a play against the Timberwolves in March. (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers

My basic rule of thumb is that teams without home-court advantage in the first round are toast unless they at least split the season series. The Lakers lost to Denver 3-0.

Here’s the other, more compelling reason to pick against Los Angeles: Even when Anthony Davis and LeBron James were on the court together, the Lakers just weren’t that good. They finished the season with a plus-0.6 scoring margin, the worst of any of the 18 teams with a winning regular-season record. Even with their dynamic duo on the floor, they were only plus-3.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s the worst number on the board from a playoff team with its two best players, except for New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets are ridiculous when their starters play. To the extent they struggled this season, it was almost entirely with bench-heavy whatever units soaking up minutes. Heck, even when they played Aaron Gordon as the backup five and not one of Zeke Nnaji or DeAndre Jordan, they still had a better scoring margin than the Lakers.

Advertisement

As a result, I don’t think this chapter in the series will go much better for Los Angeles than the previous ones. The Lakers have played a series of close games against Denver over the last two years and will eventually win at least one of them. But if Nikola Jokić finishes the series upright, it’s hard to see how Denver doesn’t advance. Pick: Nuggets in five

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Lakers-Nuggets factors: Who stops Nikola Jokić? Can D’Angelo Russell be impactful?

No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns

One of my best preseason predictions — or so I thought — was that Minnesota would win a playoff series for the first time since 2004. And then this happens! The Wolves drew perhaps the worst possible opponent in Phoenix, a team that beat them soundly three times in the regular season.

Moreover, the reason the Suns beat them makes conceptual sense. The Wolves love drop coverage and excel at keeping opponents away from the rim; the Suns aren’t all that interested in getting there in the first place. Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant are Team Pull-Up, devouring opponents by raining jumpers when they can get space coming around a screen. Additionally, the Suns afford no clear hiding spot for Karl-Anthony Towns, forcing him to check a perimeter scorer.

Obviously there are adjustments Minnesota can make to take this away, but this isn’t how the Wolves want to play or what they do best. The most radical adjustment would be to limit the minutes of Towns and Naz Reid and go massively smaller with Kyle Anderson at the four, but that may compromise Minnesota’s spacing too much. The other adjustment, of course, is to score so much that it doesn’t matter; the Suns are not an overwhelming defensive squad, and the Wolves might be able to mash them to pieces in the paint.

Advertisement

Nonetheless, the story here feels more about Phoenix. After a series of fits and starts, Phoenix closed the year on a 30-15 clip and finally projects as the team we thought it might be at the start of the season. The Suns aren’t deep, but their starting five had a plus-11.1 per 100 scoring margin, and several units with Eric Gordon or Royce O’Neale were nearly as good. Phoenix may not have the depth to make a deep run, especially up front, and health worries always hang over this team’s four best players. But in a single short series against a perfect matchup for them, where they come in healthy? Yeah, they’re a handful. Pick: Suns in six

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

‘It’s the Minnesota way’: After dream season, Timberwolves draw nightmare matchup vs. Suns

No. 4 LA Clippers vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

This one is a great unknown on some levels, and not just because of Leonard’s uncertain status.

These teams haven’t played since Dec. 20, and even that game was missing both Paul George and Kyrie Irving. While the Clippers won two of three in the regular season, both teams have changed dramatically since opening day. The Clippers added James Harden, moved Russell Westbrook to the bench and upgraded Amir Coffey to a rotation spot; Dallas traded for Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington and retooled around them.

Both teams also have had awesome stretches — a 16-2 run by Dallas before shutting its players down for the year, a 32-9 half-season eruption from the Clippers — and have impressive numbers with their stars on the court. Dallas outscores opponents by 10.5 points per 100 when Luka Dončić and Irving share the court, while the Clippers are plus-12.6 per 100 with George and Leonard.

Advertisement

These teams also met in the playoffs in 2020 and 2021, with the 2021 series in particular being a seven-game classic in which the road team won the first six games. The Clippers won both of those series and, on paper, would seem to have a slight edge in this one; first, because three stars are better than two; and second, because their second-line players are better than Dallas’, even with the trade deadline upgrades.

But Playoff Luka has been a cheat code, and I’m not sure Leonard can match him in his current state. Go back and look at the series from 2021: That Clippers team was much stronger than this one, with peak Leonard and an impressive bench; they screwed with load management all year and still ended up with a plus-6 scoring margin, and yet in the playoffs, they had their hands full with Luka. Dončić is going to attack Ivica Zubac again and again in pick-and-roll, just like he did in that series, and I’m not sure what the Clippers’ counters are.

Now that Dončić has Irving as his wingman, even if the second-line guys aren’t as good, I still like Dallas’ chances. That’s especially true when the alternative is betting on Leonard to stay healthy through a postseason series. I expect this series to be tremendous theater, and if Leonard is healthy, the Clippers are a real threat to make the conference finals. But if forced to choose, I trust Dallas a bit more. Pick: Mavs in seven

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Clippers vs. Mavericks is a familiar matchup, but these teams are anything but

East first round

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls

Let’s see, the most dominant team in the league facing either the Heat without Butler or the Bulls potentially without Caruso. Yeah, this should be brief. Boston swept both teams 3-0 in the regular season; all three wins over Chicago were by double figures. Maybe the underdogs take a game while the Celtics play with their food; more likely, though, the end is merciful and quick. Pick: Celtics in four

Advertisement

No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid showed in the Play-In against Miami that he still isn’t quite at full strength with his movement, and that hurt the Sixers at times. Even so, Philadelphia is now an impressive 30-7 this season when Embiid and Tyrese Maxey both play, with the Sixers outscoring opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in the minutes they share the court together. That’s impressive, but two things worry me about Philly.

First, I just don’t think its supporting cast is good enough, especially if De’Anthony Melton can’t make it back into the mix. Second, the Knicks have some awesome numbers of their own. The small sample size of OG Anunoby minutes has seen them crush teams. More notably, even in the much larger sample of minutes with virtually any combination of Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Isaiah Hartenstein, they’ve run teams off the floor. New York is plus-15.2 per 100 when those four play together, and thanks to Tom Thibodeau, we have a pretty large minutes sample to work with from that group.

Not having Julius Randle is a bit of a worry, but the Knicks on-off numbers with and without Randle this year aren’t all that different; where his absence hurts is if another injury hits and forces secondary players into prominent roles. In particular, if anything happens to Brunson, the Knicks have nobody who can dribble; their offense already craters when he’s off the floor.

It’s tempting to ride Embiid and pick Philly for the upset, but I think this series ends up underscoring that the Sixers need to get him and Maxey more help this summer. Pick: Knicks in six


Joel Embiid has only played a few games since returning from a meniscus injury. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Indiana Pacers

You could tell me literally anything about how this series ends and it wouldn’t surprise me.

Advertisement

Immediately, it sets off my danger radar because Indiana beat the Bucks four times in the regular season, including the In-Season Tournament semifinal in Las Vegas, which is one of the conditions to look for when scouting potential first-round upsets. Additionally, Antetokounmpo is likely to miss some time at the start of the series. (While we’re here: Game 3 is at 5:30 p.m. Eastern on a Friday. What the hell, NBA?)

My numbers say the advantage tilts toward Indy in the non-Giannis games, exposing the rot in the Bucks’ second unit due to age and cap constraints. If the Pacers can keep pushing tempo, they can make their superior depth a factor as the series wears on.

However, note that all five meetings happened before the Bucks changed coaches; as our Seth Partnow and Kelly Iko noted, Milwaukee’s transition defense improved under Doc Rivers after the Pacers ran the Bucks off the floor in their early season wins over them.

Two things hold me back from picking the Indy upset. First, Haliburton still doesn’t quite seem all the way back to being the player he was in December. Second, the trade of Buddy Hield left an open sore at shooting guard, one the Pacers can only sort of fill with the T.J. McConnell Experience because of how he overlaps with Haliburton. If Giannis comes back and plays at some point, I think the Bucks hang on. Pick: Bucks in seven

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Orlando Magic

This is another series in which the health of a star is a major factor, as Mitchell’s sore knee looms over this one. He wasn’t himself for most of the second half of the season but did come back and score 29 and 33 points in two games last week.

Advertisement

It’s a high-pressure series for the Cavs, given the questions hanging over Mitchell’s future and the roster in general. Cleveland leaned into a 3-point-heavy style built around Mitchell and floor spacers during Evan Mobley’s absence but flamed out late, going 12-17 after the All-Star break while dealing with Mitchell’s injury and trying to reintegrate Mobley.

Nonetheless, tanking their final game against Charlotte handed them the benefit of a first-round series against Orlando. The Magic are tough, physical and live in the paint, but that’s probably a thing the Cavs can handle given that they have two elite rim protectors in Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Orlando desperately needs some perimeter players to make shots and open up the paint; we’re looking at you, Jalen Suggs and Gary Harris.

Also: Don’t expect a lot of scoring. Mitchell will have his hands full with Suggs’ defense, while Paolo Banchero has to deal with the Cavs’ Mobley. Orlando will be searching for floor spacing all series; the Cavs likely will be, too, depending on who plays. Which coach goes for offense guys first?

Historically, these series go to the No. 5 seed about half the time, so on paper, Orlando has a chance. The teams tied the season series 2-2, but the last meeting was in February. This feels like one where the Cavs maybe don’t always look great but do enough to survive and advance. Pick: Cavs in six

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Are playoff lights too bright for Cavs? ‘Good for them to get their a– whooped’

Advertisement

West semifinals

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

Consider this the first installment in what could be a tremendous Red River rivalry over the next few years.

This is new territory for the Thunder’s youngsters, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hang at this level. Oklahoma City’s guard-heavy style translates well to the postseason, and look at how well the Thunder played with their best players on the court: Units with Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren smoked opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions, a number that improved to 12.0 in units with those two and Jalen Williams. That’s even better than how Dallas fared in Dončić-Irving pairings.

Oklahoma City won two of the three regular-season meetings, but the last one was a gimme in which the Mavs sat all their players and the Thunder won by 49. Of more import, perhaps, is a game on Feb. 2 when the Mavs smoked them 146-111. That also was the only game Dončić played against Oklahoma City this season. Because of that, there’s a temptation to roll with Dallas, but a few things tilt me back to the Thunder.

First of all, Gilgeous-Alexander is Dončić’s equal as a scorer and shot creator, if not as a passer, and I’m not sure Dallas has anyone who can slow him down defensively. Along the same vein, Oklahoma City’s small lineups could run Dallas’ bigs off the floor and force the Mavs to dip even further into their bag of not-so-great forwards and wings. Tactically, Mark Daigneault has shown he has a lot more tricks in his bag than Jason Kidd, and that could also matter in a long, close series.

All of these tie into a bigger question: How, exactly, are the Mavs getting stops in this series? I’m not sure they are. Even when Gilgeous-Alexander is off the court or double-teamed, look at his supporting cast. The Thunder don’t have Irving, but they do have Holmgren, Williams and three or four random guys they can bring in and get a double-figure scoring lift from (Isaiah Joe, Cason Wallace, Aaron Wiggins, maybe even Gordon Hayward) without compromising themselves on defense. They may need at least one of them if Josh Giddey gets schemed off the court.

Advertisement

Finally, we can’t forecast injuries, but we can say the Thunder’s depth makes them more resilient to any non-SGA injury than the Mavs would be. Add it all up and I’ll pick the Thunder for another round. Pick: Thunder in seven

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns

In a repeat of the second-round series from a year ago, I’m not sure this one goes any better for the Suns.

Last year, the Suns evened the series 2-2 behind a scorching hot Booker before Denver’s defense took control over the final two games. This time around, Beal replaces Chris Paul and Jusuf Nurkić supplants Deandre Ayton, and the Suns have better answers off the pine than the assorted T.J. Warrens and Terence Rosses they turned to last spring. Phoenix also won two of the three regular-season meetings.

Nonetheless, I can’t see the movie ending differently for the Suns this time, not when Durant is a year older and the Nuggets’ starting five still dominates games to such a massive extent. Even the elite numbers put up by Phoenix’s best lineups are no match for what the Nuggets have done in Jokić-Jamal Murray minutes (a staggering plus-15.2) or in several similar combinations with different starters; the starting group as a whole is plus-13.6 per 100.

A year ago, it felt like the Suns were overmatched once Booker’s scorching hot hand cooled off a little; this time around, the vibes feel similar. Phoenix can shoot its way to a couple wins, most likely, but not four times out of seven. Pick: Nuggets in six

Advertisement

Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and the Suns love to live in the midrange. Is that a winning strategy against Denver? (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

East semifinals

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland’s best game of the second half of the season came March 5, when the Cavs rallied from a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit with nine minutes left to defeat Boston 105-104 without Mitchell. However, they lost their other two meetings against Boston and, on paper, don’t seem to have the horses to hang with the Celtics. With Derrick White and Jrue Holiday, Boston can throw multiple elite perimeter defenders at Mitchell too. (Yeah, this bracket isn’t doing poor Donovan any favors.)

The Cavs might not have enough spacing against Boston unless they can play smaller, but they lost one of their best alternate options to an Allen-Mobley frontcourt with Dean Wade’s knee sprain. Wade, a stretch four who torched Boston in that comeback win, missed the final 19 regular-season games. It’s not clear when he’ll be back.

This one feels like another fairly comfortable series for Boston. With a full-bore Mitchell, the Cavs have enough talent to take a game or two, but in a best-of-seven series, Boston’s superior perimeter size, backcourt defense and shooting should win the day. Pick: Celtics in five

No. 2 New York Knicks vs.  No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks

This shapes up as a good series on paper; I’m not sure it will play out that way in reality.

The Bucks did win three of the five games between the teams in the regular season, but four of those happened before New Year’s Day. New York won the most recent meeting, with intact rosters on both sides.

Advertisement

The Bucks also don’t seem well-equipped to handle Brunson’s slippery pick-and-roll game, with Holiday gone and Damian Lillard in his place. They’ll try Patrick Beverley, surely, but he also tends to rack up fouls.

On the flip side, the addition of Anunoby gives the Knicks a go-to defender to use on Antetokounmpo, and they still have a couple of secondary options (Hartenstein, Precious Achiuwa) in reserve. One other factor to watch: The Knicks wrecked people on the offensive glass, leading the league in offensive rebound rate, but the Bucks were very good on the defensive boards, finishing fifth.

Bigger picture, this is a call on what the Knicks built during the second half of the season, a whole-greater-than-the-sum unit that stampeded the league when intact. The Bucks have the best player in Antetokounmpo, and the Knicks’ lack of perimeter size is a bit worrisome, but I still like New York. Pick: Knicks in six

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

OG Anunoby’s ‘sacrificial cuts’ have transformed Knicks’ identity

West finals

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 2 Denver Nuggets

The Thunder and Nuggets played three times this season, with the Nuggets completing outclassing them in the first meeting, the Thunder doing the same in the last and the middle game going down to the wire before Gilgeous-Alexander made a shot in the final seconds to give the Thunder a one-point win.

Advertisement

Sounds like a good formula for a great series, right? This wasn’t a case of the Thunder’s subs beating up on Denver’s subs, either. Jokić was a minus-7 over the three games, while Gilgeous-Alexander was a plus-2. That’s important because the starters are likely to play a much bigger chunk of the game in the playoffs than in the regular season, and Denver’s starters are awesome.

How awesome? Every Denver four-man combo with at least four of the starters had a double-figure per 100 scoring margin. The Nuggets were dramatically worse when they had to play multiple bench players at the same time, with virtually every two-man combo featuring two bench players having a negative margin, but that figures to happen much less in the playoffs.

The Thunder, meanwhile, had more distributed excellence; a lot of their second-unit groups were highly productive, especially ones with Joe in them. However, those groups tend to play a lot less in the playoffs, and if they are used more, they’re going against starters instead of backups.

This could be a classic between the likely top-two finishers in MVP voting; it also may be the first series in which the Thunder’s lack of playoff experience comes to bear. Between that and the Jokić cheat code, I still like the Nuggets to prevail in a tough series. Pick: Nuggets in six

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

NBA Power Rankings: Thunder move up as playoffs near; what’s next for each team?

Advertisement

East finals

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 2 New York Knicks

A Boston-New York conference finals will definitely break the league record for eff-youz between fans. Could it be competitive on the court too? I’m less sure of that.

New York won the final meeting between the teams after Boston had already clinched the East’s top seed, but the Celtics won the first four times they played, and three of them were by double figures.

Two things stand out here. First,  the Celtics can throw both White and Holiday at Brunson, forcing him to earn his points against two of the best guard defenders in basketball. Second, New York’s smallness on the wings could be more of a factor when the Knicks are trying to check Tatum and Brown; Anunoby can handle one of them, but they’re asking a 6-4 guy to take the other.

You can see other angles that might not favor New York either; Boston can bring better players off its bench, and if any injury attrition happens, that also favors the Celtics. It’s been a heck of a year for New York, but this is where I get off the bandwagon. Pick: Celtics in six


Jamal Murray drives against Jayson Tatum in Boston earlier this season. (David Butler II / USA Today)

NBA Finals

No. 1. Boston Celtics vs. No. 2 Denver Nuggets

You might have guessed my prediction from the intro. I had Boston over Phoenix before the season started, but the Suns haven’t quite looked strong enough, so I’ve pivoted.

Advertisement

The Nuggets have proven themselves in these situations, and their starting groups are lethal. But Boston’s excellence extends throughout the rotation, and the Celtics will have a massive advantage any time bench units are involved. Yes, that figures to happen less in an NBA Finals series than in a regular-season pairing, but those minutes still count.

Denver did win two close games against Boston in the regular season, and both were legit, asterisk-free matchups in which each team played its starters. Oddly, both teams shot horribly from 3, a trend that would favor the Nuggets if it held up in the Finals simply because they shoot so few of them.

In the end, you wonder if 3s will mater in a different way, in that math might be Boston’s difference-maker: The Celtics took 3s on a league-leading 47.1 percent of their field goal attempts, while the Nuggets were last at 35.2 percent.

Regardless, this shapes up as an awesome, get-your-popcorn series, featuring the league’s best player and defending champion against its most dominant regular-season team.

I know the Tatum-era Celtics have struggled in some of these moments before, but they’ve been the best team all year by a wide margin. This time, I think they finally get over the hump. Pick: Celtics in seven

Advertisement

(Top photo of Nikola Jokić and Kristaps Porzingis: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)

Culture

Mueller: Has the NFL WR market reached a breaking point? How much is too much?

Published

on

Mueller: Has the NFL WR market reached a breaking point? How much is too much?

I’m not one for letting good players walk out the door.

I know from experience that talent is too hard to replace, even with the best-hatched plan, without taking a step backward. So I understand that, at least sometimes, proven teams need to overpay slightly for the sake of continuity.

But recent contracts for NFL wide receivers have forced me to at least question my philosophy. And that tells me that general managers and team-builders around the NFL are no doubt contemplating that question as well.

It’s not because these receivers lack talent. They are all really good players. But the contract numbers are making the team-building equation more complicated than ever.

The dilemma is twofold. First, if you’re going to pay a wide receiver more than $30 million per year, are you sure he’s a difference-maker and not just a guy who fits your system? And second, is it feasible to pay big salaries to more than one wide receiver on your roster?

Advertisement

Ten years ago, the NFL’s top-paid wide receivers made about $16 million annually, equaling about 12 percent of the $133 million cap. Today, A.J. Brown leads the way at $32 million annually on a cap of $255 million. That’s still just 12.5 percent of the cap. But let’s look closer.

In 2014, the two receivers making $16 million annually were Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, the clear standard-bearers at the position. There weren’t enough top-of-the-heap receivers that every new contract would reset the market. Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green signed new contracts in 2015, but none exceeded $15 million per year. Fitzgerald’s and Johnson’s deals weren’t eclipsed until Antonio Brown hit $17 million per year in 2017 (a year after Johnson retired), just 10.2 percent of the $167 million cap.

The receiver market has already been reset twice in the past month, and we are on the verge of another jump with Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Ja’Marr Chase and Brandon Aiyuk all up for new deals. All four could plausibly reset the market, so we might be looking at $35 million per year — which would be 13.7 percent of the cap — or more. That leaves the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers with big decisions with implications across their rosters.

Advertisement

GO DEEPER

Justin Jefferson extension is now No. 1 priority for Vikings

Teams must take a hard look at where this money will come from. How much is too much for a non-quarterback? Does it make sense for a position group other than QB to exceed 20 percent of a team’s cap? How would that affect decisions elsewhere on the roster?

Jefferson is arguably the best receiver in the league, and Minnesota should certainly extend him. But the cost will tighten money to spend elsewhere, like on last year’s first-round pick, 22-year-old Jordan Addison, when his rookie deal ends. Of course, if the Vikings’ assessment of J.J. McCarthy proves accurate, a quality quarterback on a five-year rookie contract might be just what the doctor ordered. If I were running the Vikings, I would pay Jefferson and keep churning WR2 at the end of Addison’s deal.

Jerry Jones and the Cowboys probably need to be much more creative in dealing with Lamb. Jones already has a $50 million-plus quarterback quandary on his hands, with Dak Prescott having all the leverage in an endless game of chicken. As long as Prescott is the QB, the Cowboys’ evaluation skills might be challenged beyond most as they seek value from other receivers to pair with Lamb.

Advertisement

If I were the Bengals, I would probably sign Chase — who still has two years left on his deal — as soon as possible to avoid resetting the market after Lamb’s and Jefferson’s deals come in. Cincinnati already appears to be planning to let Tee Higgins walk after this season, which might necessitate another high NFL Draft investment at the position next year.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The Tee Higgins-Bengals crossroads, Part 3: Ja’Marr Chase extension and paying 2 top WRs

The 49ers have a more complicated situation than the Bengals, having already paid Deebo Samuel ($23.8 million per year, $28.6 million against the cap in 2024) and with Aiyuk ($14.1 million against the cap in 2024) in the last year of his contract. Both players’ names have been popular in trade rumors this offseason. The Niners hedged their bet by drafting Florida receiver Ricky Pearsall in Round 1 last month, giving themselves options at the position.

My crystal ball tells me this group will undergo a renovation after the 2024 season. Aiyuk and Samuel are set to count $42.7 million against the cap this season. Add Pearsall and tight end George Kittle and that’s more than $56 million against the cap (22 percent) for four pass catchers. Samuel is the NFL’s eighth-highest-paid wideout and might rank third in the 49ers’ position room when it comes to route running and ball skills. Something will have to give.

Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel

Will Deebo Samuel, left, or Brandon Aiyuk be elsewhere in 2025? (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Players deserve whatever they can get — I am not here to dispute this — but even NFL teams with the most creative capologists will eventually be forced to pay for their extensions of credit, just like you and I. So what will they do about the rising costs of receivers?

Advertisement

When players get too expensive, nothing speaks louder than cheaper options.

Teams selected 35 wide receivers in the 2024 draft. That’s not unordinary, but the total of seven picked in Round 1 grabbed my attention. Sure, it might just have been a year with several special talents available. But it also might speak to a few other factors:

1. With experienced receivers becoming more expensive, teams need more cheap talent.

2. In this era of seven-on-seven competitions and wide-open passing offenses in college, receivers have more advanced skills at a younger age.

3. Good talent evaluators can identify and sequence receivers properly, with smoother projections to the NFL.

Advertisement

If you can identify the traits — beyond stats, height, weight and speed — that lend to a reasonably high hit rate on prospects, you can find value. These would be my top three traits, which you can find if you watch enough tape, for a receiver to fit any scheme:

• Create separation at the break point and/or change gears while underway in a route.

• See and distinguish coverage with your mind and reactions (or instincts), pre- and post-snap.

• Consistently extend to catch with your hands near defenders, allowing small guys to play bigger and big guys to be great.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How WRs’ new leverage is changing roster-building strategies

Advertisement

The last few draft classes have been rich in receiver talent. Even in a watered-down free-agent pool this year, there were several good values. In short, you don’t have to pay top-notch to get value at wide receiver.

Some teams, such as the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, have already picked a lane. (Of course, having a talented quarterback makes it easier for them to consider this road.)

The Packers and Chiefs traded Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill before the 2022 season instead of paying them. Adams got $28 million from the Las Vegas Raiders, and Hill got $30 million annually from the Miami Dolphins. The Bills traded Stefon Diggs to the Houston Texans this offseason, two years after signing him to an extension worth $24 million annually.

Though the Adams trade has not exactly worked out for the Raiders, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has reworked Green Bay’s receivers via the developmental route.

Christian Watson, drafted in the second round in 2022, is a straight-line-fast long-strider who can eat up a cushion, take the top off defenses and catch when he’s covered. His game is similar to that of Jameson Williams, whom the Detroit Lions drafted 22 picks earlier. In Round 4 that year, the Packers took Romeo Doubs, who will make $1.1 million this year after catching 59 passes in 2023. Doubs’ ability to find soft spots and distinguish coverages resembles that of the Lions’ Amon-Ra St. Brown, at least stylistically.

Advertisement

Last year, the Packers took Jayden Reed (64 catches as a rookie) in Round 2 and Dontayvion Wicks (39 catches, 14.9 yards per catch) in Round 5. Given his acceleration off the ball and out of breaks, Wicks might have more upside than any of the above.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Young Packers wide receivers creating major impact in present, excitement for future

Sure, it requires conviction in your evaluations, but Green Bay should be lauded for overhauling this group almost entirely with draft picks (none in Round 1), as those four receivers will cost a total of $6.3 million against the cap in 2024. Other teams should try to copy this economic model.

I’m not saying the Lions are wrong, but it’s a useful comparison. They reset the market by paying St. Brown $30 million per year even though he ranked 71st in the NFL in average air yards per target (7.75) and 39th in average yards per reception (12.7) last season. I understand the importance of keeping peace in the locker room and rewarding hard workers and leaders. He fits their system. But that signing might have ruffled a few feathers outside of the Lions’ front office and fans, who think it is money well spent. The Lions did let 29-year-old wideout Josh Reynolds walk, so they have shown they are willing to make tough choices, too.

The Chiefs, no doubt aided by Patrick Mahomes’ presence, have thrived since bailing on the market and going young, like the Packers. The Bills, with Josh Allen, have taken a similar route this offseason, choosing quantity over quality with reasonably priced veterans in Curtis Samuel, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Chase Claypool and second-round rookie Keon Coleman, after trading Diggs and letting Gabe Davis walk.

Advertisement

Of course, there are still teams on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Seattle Seahawks paid DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett a total of $41.3 million annually (they restructured Lockett’s deal this offseason), then drafted a receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in Round 1 in 2023. The Philadelphia Eagles paid Brown and DeVonta Smith this offseason a combined $57 million annually (22.4 percent of the cap), even after signing quarterback Jalen Hurts to a record deal last offseason.

The Eagles made those investments after struggling to draft and develop receivers, missing on top-60 picks in Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor. I can’t help but wonder: Was paying Brown and Smith a reaction to their previous struggles at the position?

There’s not necessarily a correct way to handle the rising costs at wide receiver. If there is, I’m not sure we know it just yet. Many theories are still being tested.

But here is something to consider: Teams will always have to pay great money for good players at positions where there is true scarcity, like quarterback. But I don’t see wide receiver, especially in the modern NFL, as a position of true scarcity. As a result, the sticker shock of recent contracts has given me pause.

I’m still not for letting any good player walk, but with each market-setting deal, the costs are getting harder to justify.

Advertisement

(Top photos of Amon-Ra St. Brown, left, and Justin Jefferson: Cooper Neill, Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

The Football 100
The Football 100

The story of the greatest players in NFL history. In 100 riveting profiles, top football writers justify their selections and uncover the history of the NFL in the process.

The story of the greatest players in NFL history.

Advertisement

BuyBuy The Football 100

Undeniable
Undeniable

Relive  the Kansas City Chiefs’ unforgettable 2023 championship season. Undeniable takes fans from training camp through the final whistle in Las Vegas.

Relive the Kansas City Chiefs’ unforgettable 2023 championship season.

Advertisement

BuyBuy Undeniable

Continue Reading

Culture

Wemby makes history with All-Defense first team nod

Published

on

Wemby makes history with All-Defense first team nod

Victor Wembanyama just accomplished something no other NBA player has ever done.

On Tuesday, the towering San Antonio Spurs big man became the first rookie in league history to be named to the All-Defensive First Team.

Wembanyama joined Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert, Miami Heat big Bam Adebayo, New Orleans Pelicans guard/forward Herb Jones and Los Angeles Lakers big Anthony Davis on the first team.

Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso, Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs, Boston Celtics guard Derrick White, Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels and Celtics guard Jrue Holiday made the second team.

Gobert led in votes, receiving all 99 first-team votes from the panel of writers and broadcasters who submitted ballots. Gobert’s unanimous first-team selection comes as no surprise. Minnesota, with Gobert protecting the rim and receiving outstanding contributions on the perimeter from McDaniels and Anthony Edwards, finished the regular season as the league’s top defense, limiting opponents to 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Gobert ranked fourth in defensive rebounds per game (9.2) and sixth in blocks per game (2.13).

Advertisement

Two weeks ago, Gobert received the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award for a record-tying fourth time.

Wembanyama was named to the first team on 86 of the ballots and to the second team on 12 ballots. Although his Spurs ended the season with the league’s 21st-ranked defense, he already earned a reputation among his peers as a stellar defender. In The Athletic’s 2024 anonymous player poll, Wembanyama was the top vote-getter when players were asked to identify the league’s best defender, named on 15.2 percent of the ballots. Wembanyama led the league in blocks (3.58 per game) and collected 27.3 percent of all available defensive rebounds.

Adebayo was the cornerstone of the Heat’s fifth-ranked defense. Routinely praised for his ability to switch onto opposing guards — no small feat for a sturdy 6-foot-9 big — Adebayo provides the versatility and grit the Heat are known for.

Advertisement

Jones earned his first All-Defensive team selection. Tall and rangy at 6-foot-7, Jones was a key contributor to a Pelicans defense that finished sixth in defensive efficiency.

Davis finished the season third leaguewide in defensive rebounds per game (9.5) and fourth in blocks per game (2.34).

This marked the first season the league employed “positionless” voting for its All-Defensive and All-NBA teams and the first season players had to play at least 65 games (in most cases) to be eligible for an All-Defensive team.

Advertisement

In prior years, voters selected two guards, two forwards and one center for each of the two All-Defensive teams and each of the three All-NBA teams. Not anymore, though. As a result of the collective bargaining agreement ratified last year, voters were directed to select the most deserving players, regardless of their positions, this year.

The All-NBA teams will be announced Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.

The NBA named its first All-Defensive teams following the 1968-69 season. Before this year, only five rookies had ever been named to an All-Defensive team: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969-70 season), Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-85), Manute Bol (1984-85), David Robinson (1989-90) and Tim Duncan (1997-98). But Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwon, Bol, Robinson and Duncan were named second-team All-Defensive players as rookies, not first-team All-Defensive players.

What is the biggest takeaway?

League officials and the players’ union switched to positionless voting to ensure the most deserving players receive recognition.

This year, Abebayo and Davis benefitted from that change.

Advertisement

Although Adebayo has been considered within league circles as an elite defender for several years, he had been a second-team All-Defensive player in each of the previous four seasons, often finishing behind the likes of fellow big men Gobert, Draymond Green, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brook Lopez and Evan Mobley.

This year, Adebayo finally broke through to the first team for the first time in his career, deservedly so.

Questions remain about the long-term implications of the move to positionless voting: How should voters judge perimeter players’ defense relative to the defense played by bigs? Will bigs now dominate the All-Defensive First Team voting in most years, and would that be a positive or a negative?

Caruso almost certainly would’ve made the All-Defensive First Team this year if the league had retained the position-based voting system.

What was the biggest surprise?

It’s a pleasant surprise that the Timberwolves and Celtics, the top two teams in points allowed per possession, placed two players each on the All-Defensive teams. Minnesota had Gobert and McDaniels, while Boston had White and Holiday.

Advertisement

Who suffered the biggest snub?

Look no further than the Oklahoma City Thunder, who finished the regular season with the league’s fourth-best defensive rating and entered the playoffs with the top seed in the Western Conference but didn’t have players on the first or second teams.

Wing Luguentz Dort barely missed making the second team. He collected 34 total points in the voting, the 11th-highest total. Holiday, the final player selected to the second team, received 36 total points. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City’s rookie center who ranked fifth in blocks per game, had the 13th-highest voting total.

Required reading

(Photo of Victor Wembanyama and P.J. Washington: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

Advertisement
Continue Reading

Culture

Stenhouse Jr. fined, father suspended after Kyle Busch fight

Published

on

Stenhouse Jr. fined, father suspended after Kyle Busch fight

NASCAR fined Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. $75,000 and suspended his father and two JTG Daugherty Racing crew members for their roles in a fight that occurred following Sunday night’s All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Upset about an on-track incident that knocked him out of the race, Stenhouse confronted Kyle Busch after the race, then threw a punch at Busch’s head after they exchanged words. Busch was not fined or penalized.

Stenhouse’s dad, Ricky Stenhouse Sr., was suspended indefinitely for joining the physical altercation, following past precedent where NASCAR objects to family members injecting themselves in confrontations.

Two crew members for JTG Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse’s team, were also suspended for their involvement. NASCAR suspended team mechanic Clint Myrick for eight races and tuner Keith Matthews received a four-week ban.

Wednesday’s penalties are the fallout from an incident between Stenhouse and Busch during the opening laps of the All-Star Race, which became the catalyst to the post-race fight in the garage.

Advertisement

GO DEEPER

Stenhouse punches Busch after NASCAR All-Star Race

The chain of events began with Busch upset over what he considered an overly aggressive move by Stenhouse on Lap 1, prompting Busch to retaliate on the next circuit by turning Stenhouse’s car and sending him crashing into the wall. With his car too badly damaged to continue, Stenhouse parked his Chevrolet in Busch’s pit stall before exiting and climbing a ladder to yell at Busch’s team.

Stenhouse then vowed revenge during a national television interview on FS1, essentially stating he’d be waiting for Busch after the 200-lap race. Nearly 90 minutes later, and moments after the checkered flag waved, Stenhouse waited for Busch in the garage, casually leaning against the RCR No. 8 team hauler when Busch approached.

After exchanging words about the track incident, Stenhouse punched Busch, triggering a melee between members of their teams that included Ricky Stenhouse Sr. shoving Busch. Stenhouse Jr. could be heard saying “Dad” several times as his father and Busch jostled, with Busch appearing to throw a punch at the older Stenhouse.

Advertisement

The fight was over within seconds, but a video of the incident went viral.

“I’m not sure why he was so mad,” Stenhouse Jr. told FS1 after the fight. “I shoved it three-wide, but he hit the fence and kind of came off the wall and ran into me. I don’t know, when I was talking to him, he kept saying that I wrecked him.

“Definitely built up frustration with how he runs his mouth all the time about myself. But I know he’s frustrated because he doesn’t run near as good as he used to.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, told SiriusXM that officials opted not to penalize Busch for the crash that preceded the fight because they didn’t view it as entirely intentional.

Advertisement

“We really, as a sanctioning body, stay out of the on-track incidents unless we see something that blatantly comes back to us,” Sawyer said. “We’ll let those guys decide and agree to disagree.”

Sawyer reiterated crew members and family members are not permitted to “put their hands on our athletes” but declined to go into the specific reasoning due to the penalties being subject to appeal. He said NASCAR fined Stenhouse Jr. because he still decided to get physical with Busch despite the long wait after the on-track incident.

NASCAR handled the Stenhouse-Busch scuffle similarly to how it handled a fight last fall after a Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway that included a parent participating.

In that situation, Matt Crafton, who crashed out of the race, waited for Nick Sanchez after the race to confront him. Crafton threw a punch that broke Sanchez’s nose. Crafton was fined $25,000, Sanchez was not penalized, and Sanchez’s father was suspended two races for involving himself in the altercation.

Typically, NASCAR tolerates physical confrontations between drivers provided they occur immediately afterward with no time for either to cool down. NASCAR is not as lenient when parents involve themselves, usually reacting by issuing a suspension.

Advertisement

Why NASCAR issued these penalties

Let’s start with the crew members and Stenhouse Sr.

Historically, NASCAR has viewed crew members similarly to how the NHL views the “third man in” for its fight rules. NASCAR is somewhat OK with drivers settling things themselves (thus only a fine and no suspension for Stenhouse, and no penalties at all for Busch). But NASCAR absolutely does not want drivers being assaulted by a third party and has discouraged such behavior through harsh penalties to send a message.

Stenhouse Sr. is not a crew member, so it’s somewhat easier for NASCAR to issue an indefinite suspension for his role. But he also aggressively went after Busch, which is highly frowned upon as a family member.

As for Myrick and Matthews, the penalties do seem a bit severe compared to the past — particularly for Myrick. Eight races is a lot, especially for a mechanic on a mid-sized team. But NASCAR must have felt Myrick was particularly excessive with his role, and it certainly sends a message to other crew members not to get involved in future fights.

(Photo: Peter Casey / USA Today)

Advertisement

Continue Reading

Trending