Here we are. The 2011 Playoffs.
Of course, there are lots of interesting storylines to talk about as the playoffs begin. What interests me the most is the clash of styles amongst the teams still standing.
To set the table for that discussion, I think it’s worthwhile to identify who I think the 20 best players in the league are (otherwise, discussions about which teams truly have “star” power get complicated, as it’s easy to call lots of players “stars” but much harder to identify the ones who truly are). In no particular order, I think the top 20 players, divided into “superstars” and “stars” are:
13. Randolph (20 ppg, 12 rpg)
14. Aldridge (22 ppg, 9 rpg)
15. Rondo (11 assists, 2.5 spg)
16. Ginobili (17 ppg, 5 apg, 4 rpg, 1.5 spg)
17. Parker (18 ppg, 7 apg)
18. Johnson (18 ppg, 5 apg, 4 rpg)
19. Horford (15 ppg, 9 rpg, 1 bpg)
20. Granger (21 ppg, 5 rpg)
We could probably debate a few of those guys (CP3, Anthony, and Stoudemire might deserve to be considered superstars, while Garnett, Pierce, Bosh, and Iguodala could be considered stars). But, generally, it’s a pretty uncontroversial list of the 20 best players in the playoffs. With that as background, the teams generally fall into a few groups:
NO STARS – Philly and Denver: Both of these teams are athletic, exciting, and deep. And neither has a chance to win more than one round, because they don’t have the necessary star-power.
ONE STAR – Dallas, Memphis, Portland, Boston, Indiana, New Orleans, Orlando and Chicago: This is an interesting group. To me, the critical distinction among the teams in this group is that some of them have big guys who operate in the paint, playing alongside dynamic small guys. Some do not. The teams that do — Chicago, Memphis, Portland, and Indiana — are legitimate threats. Dallas is better than it has been in years past because Tyson Chandler is an effective presence in the paint. But, Dirk, as great as he is, is not a traditional PF, and Kidd is no longer a dynamic PG. New Orleans would be a threat, but for the crippling injury to David West. Without him, there’s just not enough horsepower there. Orlando, in my eyes, just doesn’t have the guards to go deep. That leaves Boston and Chicago. Before the Perkins trade, Boston had intimidating big guys and dynamic small guys. Now they’ve lost the intimidation. All is not lost, because, though they only have one of the top 20 players, it’s possible that they have four of the top 25. They might be able to get by simply because they have so many guys who can win a game for them, but that’s less likely than it was before the trade. Chicago is unique among this group, because it has a superstar guard playing alongside big guys who dominate the paint.
TWO STARS – Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Miami, and San Antonio: The primary distinction among the teams in this group is that some have superstars and some do not. Neither Atlanta nor San Antonio have superstars, but both have two stars playing with capable supporting casts (with all due respect to Tim Duncan, he is now a part of the supporting cast). It’s rare for a team to win without a superstar, but Atlanta and San Antonio are threats — San Antonio specifically because it has the best backcourt tandem, and a very capable frontcourt. New York is the wild card in this group, because, if Carmelo and Amar’e play like superstars, they might be good enough to make up for the glaring shortcoming on that roster; no big guys who intimidate anyone to play up front with those two. Miami is the only team with two superstars, and also the only team that relies on Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony for major minutes. That leaves Oklahoma City and LA, both of whom have a superstar and a star.
In light of all of that, I’ll make this prediction: I expect Chicago, LA, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City to rise above the rest. Chicago and LA both have superstar guards playing alongside big men who dominate the paint. San Antonio and Oklahoma City both have overpowering perimeter tandems playing alongside big men who, while not as good as the bigs on Chicago and LA, are effective down low. Which of those four will emerge as champion? Stay tuned.