• Paul Innocenti

2017 NBA Playoff Sleeper Teams

When Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors back in July it was widely assumed that the NBA Finals would feature a third straight match-up between Golden State and the Cleveland Cavaliers . Flash forward nine months and while the Dubs posted the league’s best record for the third year running, Cleveland finished behind the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference and LeBron James vs Stephen Curry round 3 is very much in doubt. Here are some additional teams that could spoil the Cleveland and Golden State super series many have anticipated all season long.

Utah Jazz:

If defense wins championships then Quin Snyder's squad must be considered a title contender after their season long dominance on the that end of the court. The Jazz led the league in opponents PPG, surrendering just 96.8 per contest. Additionally they ranked in the top 5 in defensive rating, opponents’ Field Goal percentage, defensive rebound rate and opponents fast break points. Utah is led by defensive player of the year candidate, Rudy Gobert, who tailed an NBA best 2.6 blocks per game and recorded 6 defensive win shares, also good for best in the league. While the Stifle Tower anchors the Jazz defense, their starting lineup features two of the game’s most accomplished perimeter defenders in George Hill and Gordon Hayward, both who finished in the top 10 in defensive win shares (according to NBA.com) this season. Hill has been regarded as a fantastic on ball defender for the majority of his career and is capable of locking down the league’s best point guards. As the Jazz are slated to face elite floor generals in Chris Paul and Steph Curry (plus James Harden and Kyrie Irving if they’re lucky), any Cinderella run Utah hopes to make this postseason may hinge on Hill’s efforts on the defensive end of the court.

Now you may be thinking yes Utah has a great defense and that it’s conceivable for them to edge past the playoff marred Clippers in round 1, but how on earth will the manage to top Golden State in the Western conference semi’s? Well I’m not saying the Jazz will take down the superteam in Oakland, but they definitely have the pieces to do it. In fact, the Jazz match up fairly well with the Warriors due to their contrasting styles of play. Utah plays at the slowest pace in the league, while Golden State operates at the league’s 4th fastest tempo. Furthermore, Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson rely heavily on the 3 ball and only the Miami Heat were better at limiting 3 point attempts this season than the Jazz. On the offensive end, despite the slow pace of play, Gordon Hayward is a legitimate offensive all-star and Utah is highly efficient, as they rank both 9th in field goal and 3 point percentage. With Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Boris Diaw inside the Jazz have the ability to force the Warriors outside their comfort zone and play big. With a roster that legitimately goes 12 deep, if Utah can survive the Clippers in the opening round, they will have an ample opportunity to pull off the upset of the playoffs in round 2. Don’t sleep on the Jazz.

Toronto Raptors:

During Kyle Lowry’s 18 game absence from late February to early April a lot of people began to count Toronto out despite their respectable play without their starting point guard in the lineup. Now even that Lowry is back and the Raptors finished 4-0 with him to close out the year, the buzz on Toronto is still lukewarm.

However, I believe the Raptors have the best chance to knockoff the East’s top 2 seeds in Boston and Cleveland. Let’s not forget that Dwane Casey’s bunch took the Cavs to 6 games in the conference finals just a year ago. Sure this is a fairly different group than the one that featured a second unit of Bismack Biyombo and Terrence Ross, but one could argue that the roster has greatly improved as the midseason pickups of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker add a new element to the team north of the border. Ibaka’s arrival allowed Patrick Patterson to come off the bench and gives Casey 48 minutes of floor spacing from his power forward. Tucker is another wing that can defend on the perimeter and will help aid Demarre Carroll when it comes to stopping the Greek Freak in their first series and LeBron James in round 2.

Despite all the positive qualities the trade deadline additions for Toronto bring, they will only go as far as Lowry and Derozan take them. Derozan posted a career high in PPG, 27.3, and solidified himself as one of the league’s best crunch time scorers (just ask the Knicks). Lowry on the other hand impressed with his efficiency, shooting over 40% from beyond the arc despite attempting close to 8 3’s per game, while also topping last season’s assist numbers (7.0 in 2016-17) despite a lower usage rate. In the current NBA landscape you need multiple stars to win a title and Toronto has two pretty good ones in Kyle and Demar.

Houston Rockets:

According to the Vegas oddmakers, the Rockets have just the fifth best chance to win the title in 2017. However, if there is any team that can put an end to Golden State and Cleveland’s recent dominance it is Houston. James Harden was unbelievable in his first season running the point for Mike D’Antoni and is the frontrunner for MVP despite the fact that Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double (Harden finished 1.9 RPG shy of doing this himself). With Harden penetrating and kicking to sixth man of the year candidates Lou Williams and Eric Gordon, plus Ryan Anderson, a stretch 4 that shoots 40% from deep, the Rockers shattered record for 3 point attempts in a season and finished with the fastest pace of play out of all playoff qualifiers. All this added up to a top 5 finish in PPG, offensive rating, assist % and overall plus/minus. On any given night the Rockets have the ability to either shoot or run their opponent out of the gym.

Additionally, unlike some other Harden and D’Antoni piloted squads, Houston is not a complete disaster on defense. Clint Capela, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza are all strong defenders on the interior, perimeter and wing respectively. While the Jazz and Raptors are two teams that could pull an upset or two in the conference semi’s and conference finals, the Rockets have the firepower and superstar captain to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of June.

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