Jeff Van Gundy
WITH THE NBA playoffs approaching, SI assembled a knowledgeable group from all walks of the NBA to address some key questions about the coming weeks.
How much does experience matter in the playoffs?
Lee Jenkins, SI senior writer
History tells us that it matters, that you don't go from the No. 8 seed to the Finals unless you sign LeBron James and some other guys.
Chauncey Billups, 2004 NBA champion
Experience is the best teacher. I worry about that for the Hawks and the Warriors.
Jeff Van Gundy, former Knicks and Rockets coach
Great players trump experience every time.
Isiah Thomas, 1989 and '90 NBA champion
The playoffs really are a game of intellect. History favors the team that makes the fewest mistakes, and that's where experience comes in.
Are the East-leading Hawks legitimate title contenders?
I see similarities between them and the Pistons' championship team I was on. They play hard on both ends of the floor, and they have a point guard in Jeff Teague who reminds me of myself. Al Horford is similar to Ben Wallace as the heart and soul of that team. You look at Kyle Korver and he runs the floor like Rip Hamilton. It's actually kind of eerie.
Atlanta has great players, and I have no doubt it'll make a run to the East finals. There are only four or five teams that are true contenders at this point, and the Hawks are one of them.
In a year the Hawks have gone from the 8 seed to the 1, even though their most significant acquisition was Thabo Sefolosha. Everything clicked for Atlanta this season, but oddly enough, the Sefolosha acquisition did not. He started only seven games, averaged fewer than 19 minutes and never made the impact that he did in Oklahoma City. Given the circumstances surrounding Sefolosha's injury, the Hawks could find themselves in the public eye for political reasons, but considering the way this season started, they're used to that.
The Knicks won 37 games last year, the Hawks won 38. Both of those teams were injured throughout the year [last year]. The Hawks kept their team and brought back their healthy players, and they are the No. 1 team in the East. Regardless, they are an incredible story. The Knicks....
How do you like the Cavaliers' chances?
Andre Drummond, Pistons center
They are going to be tough to stop now that they've added J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Timofey Mozgov gives them a low-post presence they really needed, too.
I was talking with a former GM recently and he steered the conversation to the hot news story of the day, which was the revelation that LeBron calls a lot of the Cavaliers' plays. "Isn't that great?" he said. "As a coach, as a GM, that's what you always want—for your best players to take ownership of the system. It means he's made the emotional investment."
Smith and Shumpert solidify their defensive perimeter play, which is so critical in today's NBA. I don't know if I've ever witnessed a time in my life when the perimeter defense was as bad as it is now. We rave about how guys can dribble and get to the rim, but there used to be a defender there! If Cleveland can get past Chicago, I believe the Cavs will come out of the East.
This is a personnel league, not a system league. They've been dominant since going to their new eight-man rotation. I know we're only allowed to blame [coach] David Blatt for things, but the work he and [GM] David Griffin have done this season gets lost in the shuffle. If [Anderson] Varej√£o doesn't get hurt, I don't think they get Mozgov, and then they aren't good enough to contend. Blatt has made hard choices instead of trying to appease a lot of people, and that's always a sign of a great coach.
It's tough to pick against them. You're going to have to beat LeBron James four out of seven times. That's a tall order, man.
What's your Finals prediction?
I've searched for a reason to pick against the Warriors and I'm tapped out. In the NBA, unlike other sports, the best team is usually the one holding the trophy at the end. Golden State has the best team, by far. Warriors over Cavaliers.
The Spurs have championship DNA. The Warrior needs to get their heart broken one time to get over the hump. That's what happened with Cleveland when I was in Detroit. After losing to us, LeBron and the Cavs finally got good enough to get through to the Finals. They remembered that feeling and what it's like to lose and used it as motivation. Spurs over Cavaliers.
I truly don't believe the Warriors will be challenged. I think Golden State is being undersold, and I really don't understand it. Teams as dominant as Golden State offensively and defensively win it all unless they have a major injury. In the East, I think the Hawks are going to upset the Cavaliers. They'll get it to seven and find a way. Warriors over Hawks.
The Cavs are playing with unbelievable confidence, and I think with the momentum they have, they'll be tough to stop. Cavaliers over Warriors.
I'm going to give San Antonio its due respect and pick the champions. In the East, Cleveland has the two best players on one team in Kyrie Irving and LeBron, but Chicago has the edge in the coaching matchup. I just think the talent factor gives them too much of an advantage. Spurs over Cavaliers.
Going to Cuba
Faces in the Crowd
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
ANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JENKINS)
ALLEN EINSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DRUMMOND)
NOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (THOMAS)
CARLOS OSORIO/AP (BILLUPS)
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (VAN GUNDY)
STEPHEN GOSLING/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Driving Forces For more analysis, predictions and insight on the Hawks (above) and the other playoff teams, check out the full panel discussion at SI.com/nba