As the 1st round of the playoffs heat up, the NBA title race feels more wide open this year than it has in the previous three seasons. The legion of NBA fans itching for a Finals narrative that doesn’t include LeBron chasing a ring or a Warriors repeat have reason for optimism. Let’s take a look at the dark-horse title contenders in each conference. These are the the number one threats to the respective No. 1 seeds, the Rockets and Raptors besides the Warriors or Cavaliers. Let’s call these teams the “hottest underdogs.”
—New Orleans Pelicans—
At the start of the season, no one thought we’d be here with the Pelicans. They just swept the 3rd-seeded Trail Blazers in the first round in dominant fashion. They turned Damian Lillard into a non-factor for the vast majority of the series. Here’s why their journey doesn’t have to end in the second round, and why they can in fact make the NBA Finals.
Two words: Spacing and Pace. Since the injury to DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans have arguably been the story of the Western Conference. No one expected them to achieve at the level they did after losing Cousins, but with a slight altering of their playing style and the resurgence of Jrue Holiday amongst the NBA’s best players, the Pelicans have become a formidable opponent for any team in the West.
First, they finished with the fastest pace in the NBA this season following Cousins’ injury. Coach Alvin Gentry realized the team needed to play faster and pushed the pace, resulting in a 10th-ranked finish in offensive rating and a 3rd-ranked finish in average points per game. On paper, the Pelicans don’t seem like a top-ten offensive team, lacking elite scoring talent outside of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. However, their pace has allowed them to excel on the open court. They rank fifth in transition points and fourth in transition field goals made.
Speaking of excelling, Davis has been spectacular for the entire season. He is a strong contender for league-MVP given his contributions on both ends of the court. To name a few, he finished second in points per game, first in blocks, second in player efficiency, and fifth in rebounds this season. Because of Davis, the Pelicans will have the best player on the court in every round of the Western Conference tournament, including against Kevin Durant’s Warriors.
The Pelicans will also have the best on-ball defender on the court in every round because of Holiday. The dominance he displayed against the dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum speaks for itself. Holiday’s pesky defensive effort has earned many critics’ first team all-defense vote. In addition, as the playoffs have begun, Holiday has significantly raised his offensive game, averaging nearly 28 points and 6.5 assists so far in the postseason. Holiday and Davis combined for 88 points in Game 4 against Portland. If you don’t think Holiday can score as well as he can defend, you’re not paying attention.
Nikola Mirotic has also been a delight for this team. Although he’s not the superstar bulldozer that Cousins is, Mirotic fills the scoring void (14.6 PPG) in the frontcourt alongside Davis admirably. His shooting ability grants great floor spacing and allows room for Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo to probe offensively. Also, because neither Davis nor Mirotic is confined to the paint, traditional rim protecting bigs are a nightmare to use against the Pelicans lineup.
Adding in the veteran leadership and passing gift that Rondo has to orchestrate a suddenly dangerous offense, the Pelicans are a very interesting underdog in the Western Conference. I get it, the West is a gauntlet. However, the Warriors, assuming they get by the Spurs, shouldn’t look past or disrespect what has all of a sudden become the hottest team in the West, or they’ll be going home early this postseason. In fact, they most definitely need a healthy Steph Curry to dispose of New Orleans and there’s no guarantee that Steph will be available given his history.
If the Pelicans scurry past the contenders in the Bay Area, let’s assume they meet the 65-win Rockets in the next round. How many times have we seen Chris Paul and James Harden fold under pressure? Still, the Pelicans haven’t gotten a chance to, and that complete lack of success makes them an obvious underdog. However, the bet is becoming more and more enticing with every playoff game they play.
As for the Eastern Conference, is it too late to consider the 76ers an underdog? Conventional logic in the modern NBA would suggest any team in the Eastern Conference absent of LeBron James is an underdog. However, the Cavaliers struggles don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Add in the fact that the Raptors have struggled with the Wizards, and you might have to consider the Sixers, the actual favorites in the West.
The key to the Sixers success isn’t what makes headlines. The countless Ben Simmons highlights and three-point bombs from J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, Dario Saric and others that make the latest edition of SportsCenter are definitely eye-popping, but it’s defense that fuels the Sixers fire.
They finished the regular season as a top-five team in defensive rating (105.0), winning all 16 of their final regular season games. Their effort level defensively is excellent and the average height of their starting lineup is 6‘9”. Ben Simmons has been the second-best rated defender of the playoffs so far as a rookie, second only to Anthony Davis. The Sixers defense has looked incredibly formidable, despite the fact that their 7-foot two-way superstar only just returned to the court. Joel Embid has only played one postseason game so far, during which he registered a rating that would be ranked No.1 if it were an average (97).
On offense, the 76ers are a machine. They play together, and their willingness to shoot quickly and courageously is Rockets-esque. They rank top-ten in three-point shots, attempted and made. Simmons is a dynamo at point guard with his size, ball handling, and creativity. He’s terrorized the Eastern Conference this season to make a strong case for Rookie of the Year. So far this postseason, he’s averaged just under 20 points and 10 assists per game, but his numbers don’t tell the story. Simmons has elite vision and anticipation skills for a rookie. He has a gift for getting his teammates involved and the Sixers go as he leads them.
As for the hammer, of course, that’s Embid. He’s an offensive (22.9 pts, 11 reb) and defensive (100 DRTG, 1.8 blks) force; no other description needed. However, his lack of consistent health is a huge question mark for an otherwise rolling squad. They won’t get out of the conference without a totally healthy Joel Embid.
Many thought the 76ers were the future, but perhaps the future is now. “The Process” might just pay off a little earlier than most expected. Unlike the Western Conference, the Eastern Conference is no gauntlet. In fact, it’s far from it. No one in the Eastern Conference is a sure fire bet.
The reason they’re still underdogs is their complete lack of experience amongst the teams best players. There’s a strong possibility that the Sixers youth catches up to them as the rounds continue. Sure, they’ll most likely get by Miami, but youth has a tendency to show up as the stakes get higher. The 76ers feel like they should be a year away from true prosperity, and the feeling is there for a reason. However, the Sixers are perhaps the liveliest “underdog” in the entire NBA
Edited by Brian Kang, Peyten Maki, Dani Quintana.