The NBA playoffs: all 16 contenders reviewed and ranked
It feels incredibly strange to look at the NBA playoffs and realize that, for the first time what seems like a lifetime, LeBron James won’t be a part of the proceedings. Thanks to a freshman campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers that was so stressful that team president Magic Johnson shocked the basketball world by bailing on the team, James’s preposterous streak of eight straight appearances in the NBA finals ended before the postseason even began. With James and the Lakers out of the picture, here’s this writer’s ranking of the teams that actually did make it, based on their regular season performance and the opponents that they have drawn.
1) Golden State Warriors
So they didn’t even finish with the best regular-season record in the league this time around and had to settle for simply topping the Western Conference, but the Warriors are still the most dangerous team in basketball. After all, they can deploy a starting rotation with five All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins. They fought off a resurgent Denver team for the top seed in the conference and can rely on home-court advantage through the playoffs. If you were a betting man, the best odds would be on June ending with the Warriors celebrating their third straight championship (and then probably losing Durant to free agency).
2) Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have secured the top overall seed in the playoffs after going 60-22 in the regular season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been at the top of most MVP conversations for most of the season and the team has made moves to improve the supporting cast around him. Although the Eastern Conference playoffs are not going to be a cakewalk, Milwaukee should be considered favorites. Their main issue right now? Health. Starting guard Malcolm Brogdon’s timetable to return is uncertain thanks to a foot injury. Nikola Mirotic, who came in at the trade deadline to boost their roster, is just hopeful for Game 1 of their first-round series against the late-qualifying Detroit Pistons while Tony Snell is out. That likely won’t hurt them in the opening round, but if these injuries linger throughout the playoffs, it could be a concern.
3) Houston Rockets
Antetokounmpo’s most credible rival in the MVP race is the Rockets’ James Harden, who continues to put up dazzling numbers on such a consistent basis that even his legion of haters have been browbeaten into silence. Largely thanks to him, and of course point guard Chris Paul, the Rockets have the best chance of knocking the Warriors out before the championship rounds. They also should be highly motivated. Had Paul not been injured last season – or had they managed to not miss more consecutive three-pointers than any team in postseason history in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals – the Rockets likely would have advanced to the 2018 finals at the expense of the Warriors. Good news: they’re in a fine position for a do-over with the two teams on a collision course in the second round unless the Jazz spoil the party.
4) Denver Nuggets
Every year there’s an NBA team that ends up a surprise contender despite not having that one marquee player that everybody knows. This season that’s been the Nuggets. Now,keep in mind, that “no marquee player” bit is not going to be true for very long, since center Nikola Jokic is slowly building a reputation that suggests that stardom is around the corner. The Nuggets battled with Warriors for the top spot in the Western Conference for stretches of the regular season, but ended up having to settle for the second seed. Now comes the big question: How much will their lack of playoff experience hurt them, especially since their first-round opponent, the sixth-seeded San Antonio Spurs, is hardly lacking in that category?
5) Toronto Raptors
Look at that: the second-best team in the Eastern Conference secured its second seed. Sometimes the regular season standings don’t lie. Clearly the franchise’s fortunes turned over the summer when they swapped mainstay DeMar DeRozan for the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard. Thanks to months of lineup tinkering, the current Raptors are something of a patchwork outfit, filled with familiar faces (Leonard, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka) in unfamiliar territory. Point guard Kyle Lowry, whose production has dipped some from his All-Star peaks, remains the Raptors’ most important holdover, although his position has been challenged by Pascal Siakam, potentially this year’s Most Improved Player. Maybe the turnover will work in their favor, as those older Raptors teams were all too familiar with painful early playoff exits.
6) Philadelphia 76ers
It wasn’t quite the year that Philadelphia were hoping for, but the third seed in the East still isn’t shabby. If they can find their rhythm and start coming together as a team, they absolutely have a shot of representing the Eastern Conference in the finals. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler make up an incredibly talented core as the Process approaches full bloom. At the very least, they should have a relatively easily time with the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, although Embiid’s suddenly up-in-the-air injury status is worrying. The center, who is battling a lingering knee issue, remains the face of the franchise and its most important player. As good as the rest of the team is, Embiid has to be sturdy enough to carry them.
7) Boston Celtics
If it weren’t for LeBron’s Lakers, there wouldn’t be a more disappointing team during the regular season than the Celtics. They were a game away from the NBA finals last year without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, so it was easy to imagine them taking advantage of James’s absence and becoming the team to beat in the East with the two of them healthy. Instead they struggled to find an identity and had to fight for their lives just to get home-court advantage against the Indiana Pacers in the first round. If Hayward can regain his Jazz form, however, it’s not impossible that they could transform into the dangerous team everybody was expecting in the summer. Absent defensive stalwart Marcus Smart for the first two rounds thanks to a torn oblique, however, could be hard to overcome.
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8) Indiana Pacers
The Pacers deserve all the credit in the world for getting into the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference despite losing Victor Oladipo halfway through the season. They even nearly snuck past the Celtics for the fourth seed before running out of steam. Even if Boston won’t have Marcus Smart, Indiana’s roster isn’t as talented, and the Celtics have a 3-1 record against them in the regular season and will have home court advantage. The Pacers can still win the series, but it could take them their best shot. After that, it’s hard to see them getting much deeper.
9) Portland Trail Blazers
If they hadn’t lost the invaluable Jusuf Nurkic to a gruesome leg injury just weeks before the playoffs, the third-seeded Blazers’ odds would be a lot higher. Heck they could even rank as a dark horse finals candidate. Their health issues don’t end there. CJ McCollum was sidelined with a knee injury towards the end of the regular season and is just now returning to action. So Portland’s playoff success could be dependent on Damian Lillard, although he isn’t a bad player to throw your chips behind. At this point the problem with Lillard is that, with everybody expecting him to takeover playoff games and make the clutch shot in the final reel, it feels like it’s a failure when he doesn’t.
10) Utah Jazz
It’s been a solid year for the most incongruously named team in US sports. Rudy Gobert remains a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate this year and every year until further notice and the rest of the Jazz outift is fairly well-balanced. They ended the regular season with an impressive record, albeit one that had them face off with plenty of lesser opponents. Their main problem is that their offense lags behind most of their Western Conference competition in general and with the Rockets, their first-round opponents, in particular. Donovan Mitchell, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, has shown that he can score in bunches, but he’s going to have a tough task outdueling James Harden in the backcourt. It’ll be fun to watch him try, though.
11) Oklahoma City Thunder
For a while this season, Paul George was a genuine MVP contender, although he’s cooled down a bit. Alongside Russell Westbrook, who has continued to perform impressive individual scoring feats, the Thunder are always going to have a puncher’s chance in the postseason. Still, it’s hard not to believe that the Thunder’s championship window closed the second Kevin Durant went to the dark side and signed with the Warriors two offseasons ago. On the plus side, they could benefit from the luck of the draw here. In landing the sixth seed, the Thunder ensured they would start their postseason playing against the Nurkic-less Blazers. Don’t call it an upset if they win.
12) San Antonio Spurs
Never count out the Spurs. It looked like Gregg Popovich was going to have to finally retool San Antonio after being forced to send Kawhi Leonard, who was supposed to be Tim Duncan’s successor, to the Raptors in exchange for DeRozan. Plus Tony Parker skipped town to join the Hornets and Manu Ginobili retired altogether. Although something of an afterthought when the season began, the Spurs pulled together an impressive second half and clinched their 22nd straight playoff appearance. Can they take advantage of the Nuggets’ relative inexperience?
13) Orlando Magic
Once you get past the first five seeds in the East, the quality of teams drops significantly. The seventh seeded Orlando Magic have been one of the best defensive teams in basketball over the last stretch of the regular season, something which has allowed them to sneak their way into the playoff standings. Rival teams are apparently giving them plenty of respect. One team called them, “an ideal first round matchup. Beatable, but they test you.” The Magic are looking to prove that the first half of that description wrong by upsetting the Toronto Raptors, who aren’t exactly immune from stunning early playoff exits.
14) Brooklyn Nets
Congrats, Brooklyn. You’re in the playoffs for the first time since 2015. You’ve already outperformed expectations by quite a bit, even managing to secure the sixth seed on the final day of the regular season. Unfortunately, your best chance to avoid being eliminated in the first round is to hope Joel Embiid’s knee issues linger and the 76ers’ literal and metaphorical center can not hold. Since the Nets may not be here long, let’s take the opportunity to praise D’Angelo Russell who has proven that the Lakers weren’t making a mistake when they drafted him as a highly touted prospect but probably were when they gave up on him so quickly.
15) Los Angeles Clippers
What a job Doc Rivers has done here. The Lob City Era sputtered to an end when they traded Chris Paul in 2017 and then Blake Griffin last year. As if to emphasize the fact that they were resigned to rebuilding, they parted ways with Tobias Harris at the trade deadline. Stripped of his ill-suited role as GM, Rivers has led this team to a surprising playoff run that could make him frontrunner for Coach of the Year honors. It’s surely impressive to lead a team to the postseason when your team’s best player – i.e. Lou Williams – is your sixth man. Now the question is whether they can defy the odds in the opening round. Considering that the eighth-seeded Clippers ended up drawing the Warriors, let’s go with no.
16) Detroit Pistons
As the last team to clinch a playoff berth, Blake Griffin and the eighth-seeded Pistons deserve to be last in these rankings. Let’s be honest: it would have been a nice story if the now-retired Dwyane Wade made one final appearance in the postseason with the Heat instead of tepid Detroit. It would have also been a bit more fun if the Hornets ended up taking this final playoff spot, just for the possibility of seeing Kemba Walker manage to put up like 50 points in a losing effort. In any case, no matter who ended up being the eighth seed in the East, they wouldn’t really figure to have much luck against the Bucks barring a freak Antetokounmpo injury … and is that something anybody really wants to have to root for?