And finally the moment you've all been waiting for... my fourth consecutive playoff and champion prediction. (For those keeping track at home, I'm two-for-three here predicting on Bases and Baskets.) You can read Part I of my preview here and my awards predictions here.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers over (8) Detroit Pistons
(2) Miami Heat over (7) Boston Celtics
A nice throwback to the 2012 battles of LeBron vs. Paul Pierce but Miami's depth and talent will overwhelm the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series.
(3) Chicago Bulls over (6) Washington Wizards
Injuries will be the only reason this season could get interesting...and yet that always seems to be a factor in the Bulls' playoff potential.
(4) Atlanta Hawks over (5) Toronto Raptors
Coach Bud will pull Atlanta through the most competitive of the East's first round.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers over (4) Atlanta Hawks
(2) Miami Heat over (3) Chicago Bulls
Hassan vs. Joakim is a battle we need to see. Chris Bosh vs. Pau Gasol is a battle we want to see. Jimmy Butler chasing around either Dragic or Wade will be entertaining. But ultimately, I have more faith in Wade's aging knees than Rose's physical body as well as his recent body of performance. Cleveland vs. Miami in the East Finals.... How great would that be?
(2) Miami Heat over (1) Cleveland Cavaliers
Not only do I think it will be entertaining, I'm ready for an upset. The talent and hunger of this Miami team will match up well against the Cleveland LeBrons. No bold predictions column for this season (at least yet), but Miami in the Finals will be my boldest prediction. I'm all in after naming Whiteside one of my top 20 players in the league, so why not make it all in on Miami this season.
(1) Golden State Warriors over (8) Utah Jazz
(2) OKC Thunder over (7) New Orleans Pelicans
(6) Memphis Grizzlies over (3) Houston Rockets
BAM! Hit you with two non-surprises and now time for an upset. I've even been talking up Harden as an MVP candidate. But I don't trust him in the playoffs and this is the first time I can go full anecdote, so I have to. I was at Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. I knew the Warriors were going to lose. After leading for most of the game, Harden had the ball with a couple seconds left...and on a fastbreak. Houston was only down one point. There were two options my mind: 1) Harden creates a shot he KNOWS he will hit and Houston wins. 2) Harden takes it to the rim, gets fouled, and hits two shots. Watching this unfold in slow motion was like fighting Ronda Rousey. You know she's going to win, it's just a matter of how quickly and painlessly she ends it for you. And yet Harden decided to pass it to Dwight at the top of the key. I feel like something's going wrong. Then Dwight passes it back and everything is back to normal. Game-winner in 3...2... Then Curry and Klay all-out double him. The ball gets stripped and I'm just plain confused. The buzzer sounded and it was a feeling of sheer shock.
Houston is too reliant on Harden to overcome the Beard's shortcomings. Memphis almost dethroned the juggernaut Warriors last year. The Warriors proved to be far superior to the Rockets so you see where this math equation is going. Memphis' grit-and-grind will get it done against Daryl Morey's concotion of new-age talent centered around advanced stat optimization.
(5) Los Angeles Clippers over (4) San Antonio Spurs
Ha! As I'm drafting up the seeding for the West and realized this first round matchup landed in my crystal ball, I thought it was too perfect to change. All those talks last year of how the division seeding threw off a merit-based seeding leading to the removal of division winners from seeding will be meaningless when we see another battle of LA vs. San Antonio in Round 1. And I don't expect the addition of LMA to be enough to allow the Spurs to advance, either. Seven games of thrilling playoff basketball? Definitely. Same result as last year? Yep.
(1) Golden State Warriors over (5) Los Angeles Clippers
The matchup hat never happened last season will happen in 2016. The Bay Area vs. LA rivalry in peak playoff form will be absolute must-watch drama. No Matt Barnes in this series will be disappointing but the antics of Blake have already been brought up by Warriors players this pre-season. Like I said, though, I don't trust the Ballmer organization. Another year without the Western Conference Finals for one of the league's all-time great point guards.
(2) OKC Thunder over (6) Memphis Grizzlies
(1) Golden State Warriors over (2) OKC Thunder
Golden State vs. the Clippers followed up by Golden State vs. the Thunder is like a nail-biting three-week movie for the Bay Area and the NBA as a whole. The secret sauce to the Warriors success in 2015 was depth and that will continue to be their driving force in 2016. Billy Donovan's Coach of the Year run will end in the Conference Finals.
Golden State Warriors over Miami Heat
The Warriors have all of the signs of a dynasty. They pulled all of the right strings where previous potential dynasties either did not (Thunder) or could not (Heat). Ironically, I have Miami far surpassing expectations in '16 and even surpassing LeBron. But when you have a team that has weaknesses that you have to manufacture, you know they're good. Look for Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli to make the Warriors improve the most and make strong contributions in the playoffs and in the Finals. Warriors repeat as champs in 6.