The Pistons aren’t in the playoffs, but the NBA’s second season still soldiers on with the first-round series starting Saturday. The regular season offered the suggestion that there would be a fourth installment of Warriors-Cavs in the NBA Finals, but some intriguing developments have put that into question.
The emergence of the Houston Rockets, with MVP-front-runner James Harden and Chris Paul, along with the injuries the Warriors have suffered has called that forecast into question. In the East, the Cavs overhauled their roster and finished fourth.
The West winner still looks to be the favorite to claim the championship but newcomer contenders such as the Sixers and Trail Blazers will provide some intrigue in the early rounds leading up to the finale.
Here’s a look at 10 of the interesting storylines in the early rounds of the playoffs:
1. HOW THE WEST IS WON
The Rockets (65-17) secured the best record in the league and will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Their backcourt of Harden and Chris Paul has underachieved in the past in the postseason, but this is the best team either of them has had in his career. They get a tough opening series against the up-and-coming Timberwolves, who limped into the playoffs.
The Warriors won’t have an easy road, either, playing without Steph Curry and starting the first round against the Spurs, who are without Kawhi Leonard. It won’t be a cakewalk but it won’t be easy either.
2. NORTHERN EXPOSURE
The Raptors secured the No. 1 seed in the East — something of a surprise because the Cavs and Celtics were the runaway favorites to get the top spot. Much like the Rockets, the Raptors don’t have the playoff pedigree to be the favorite, but there’s something to be said for their home-court advantage at Air Canada Centre, where they have a 34-7 mark this season.
All season, the Raptors have been solid and DeMar DeRozan could get some MVP consideration. They will have the best backcourt of any of the East teams, but their frontcourt will have to be much more solid if they’re going to advance. Jonas Valanciunas could be the difference-maker if the North is going to make any noise.
3. PROCESS IMPROVEMENTS
The Sixers surged, winning 16 straight to finish the regular season. They’ll be without masked man Joel Embiid to start the first-round series against the Heat but the emergence of rookie Ben Simmons as a go-to catalyst has some experts penciling in the Sixers for the Eastern Conference Finals.
After adding J.J. Redick and putting things together down the stretch, they seem ready to reap the benefits of “The Process” tank process. The question is what is an acceptable finish for the Sixers? It would seem that losing before the conference finals be a disappointing season, but with how far they’ve come, that could be just the beginning.
4. GOING FOR 3-IN-4
The Warriors are going for their third championship in the last four seasons, but the road to this one seems much less certain than the others, because of recent injuries to Curry and their flat play in the last few weeks of the regular season. Kevin Durant has taken on a bigger role and though the defending champions seem vulnerable, they’re still the chic pick to be holding the trophy again when it’s all said and done.
5. THE BAD-LUCK CELTICS
Not long into the first game of the season, the trajectory of the Celtics’ season changed when Gordon Hayward was lost with his leg fracture. It got worse when Kyrie Irving had his season-ending injury. Their depth is being tested, but they’re getting marvelous contributions from their young players, including Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum. In an unpredictable East, they could still pull off what wouldn’t be a huge upset in winning the conference title.
6. THUNDER STRIKES
After some hand-wringing in the final two weeks of the season, the Thunder played well enough to get the No. 4 seed, but they won’t have an easy time with the Jazz in the first round. Russell Westbrook again averaged a triple-double for the season, but the chemistry with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony wasn’t what everybody thought it would be. A first-round ouster would raise plenty of question marks about their future.
7. OH, YEAH…THE CAVS
The defending East champs are the forgotten quantity in most experts’ minds, because they struggled a bit down the stretch. But they still have the best player in the world — and LeBron James isn’t going to lose a first-round series to the Pacers. An anticipated second-round matchup with the Raptors could be excellent theater, as long as Toronto doesn’t lose Game 1 as they’ve come to be known to do.
Their midseason trade changed a lot of their identity, but James still carries all the weight in getting back for another shot at the Warriors.
8. THE THREES
The two No. 3 seeds, the Blazers and Sixers, both were surprises after pushing through in the final weeks of the regular season. The Sixers have the higher ceiling, but the Blazers’ ascent is no less remarkable. Behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, they’re in a position to make some noise in the West, but just like the rest of the field, they’ll likely have to go through both the Warriors and Rockets in order to get to the Finals. That’s not an easy task. They have the backcourt to compete with either of the top two, but they’ll have to get a standout performance from their frontcourt to pull it off.
9. BUCKING THE TREND
The Bucks were the chic pick to make a run in the playoffs this season, especially after a big trade to get Eric Bledsoe. A coaching change dampened their expectations and they slid during the stretch, falling to the No. 7 seed and a first-round matchup with the Celtics. They’d have to catch lightning in a bottle to win more than a couple games in the first round, but they have the talent to make a nice run, if they can put it together quickly.
10. THE INJURY BUG
As much as there’s excitement around who’s playing in the early matchups, there’s as much talk about who’s not. There’s an All-Star team of injuries — Embiid, Irving, Hayward, Curry and DeMarcus Cousins — who all will miss at least part of the first round. It’s part of the game to build depth and address injury concerns, but as good as the pairings are, imagine them if all the key players were there.