With the playoffs set to start today, let’s break down the participants into categories (teams listed in order of my view of their title chances). Who’s ready?
The True Contenders
The Bucks charge into the playoffs on the heels of the best regular season performance since the 2018 Rockets. They dominate defensively, have length and athleticism everywhere, can shoot with the best teams in the league, and lay claim to arguably the world’s best player. Giannis figures to win his 2nd straight MVP award after guiding the Bucks to the regular season’s best record, and putting up some gaudy 30/13/6 averages while also playing better defense than pretty much every other player in the league. This is undoubtedly the most well-rounded roster in the game, with depth at every position, and serious lineup versatility. It’s championship or bust in Milwaukee.
What success looks like for them: Winning the Finals. That’s it. If Giannis stands on stage while accepting Finals MVP and declares he’s signing his supermax extension, that’d be nice too.
What could bring them down: Giannis’s late-game decision-making
While he doesn’t play the point guard position, Giannis is obviously the engine that drives this team, and he has been entrusted with more playmaking responsibilities this season. At times, he’s looked a bit overwhelmed at the end of tight games, and has shown he still has some work to do as a playmaker and decision-maker in the most important moments. In the playoffs, sometimes those mistakes can cost you a series.
Los Angeles Clippers
Everyone’s preseason favorite took some time to find their stride this season, but when they’re locked in, they’re as good as any team in the league. Wings dominate postseason play, and the Clips have the best duo there is in Kawhi and Paul George. The versatility this team has defensively with the two of them alongside Pat Beverly and Montrezl Harrell is staggering. With recent addition Reggie Jackson looking solid in the bubble, and Lou Williams continuing to do his professional scorer thing, this team has weapons from top to bottom. NBA titles are won by wings who can create shots for themselves in crunch time, and that’s what Kawhi does better than anyone. If the Clips meshing well after the first couple rounds, they have to be considered the favorites.
What success looks like for them: Winning the Finals
This team had championship expectations coming into the season, and those expectations remain. Reminder: next year is now a contract year for both Kawhi and Paul George, should they chose to decline their player options. Welcome to the NBA in 2020.
What could bring them down: Lack of chemistry and playmaking
While this is arguably the most talented roster in the league, it has seldom played with everyone active. The Clips have been ravaged by injuries and breaks in continuity all season, and they enter the playoffs with their best rim protector, Montrezl Harrell, having not played at all since the shutdown. The types of issues that other teams have been working through all season and during the restart, the Clippers may have to figure out on the fly. Additionally, this team lacks a natural playmaker, which furthers the issue of the lack of continuity. In tight games, they resort to iso ball far too frequently.
Los Angeles Lakers
While they’ve certainly left us wanting more in the bubble, this team is the 1 seed in the west for a reason. Led by the devastating pick and roll duo of Lebron and AD, this team is almost impossible to stop when those two are clicking offensively. On the other end, the Lakers are one of the league’s best defensively, with plus defenders all over the court, and Davis anchoring the interior on his way to a DPOY nomination. Additionally, Davis is a mismatch nightmare for basically every contender in the conference. Kuzma is the ultimate wild card, who has at times looked like the elusive 3rd scorer this team desperately needs, but at times also looks like an inefficient 3-point chucker. However, this is still Lebron James we’re talking about. He’s been here a couple times.
What success looks like for them: Winning the Finals
This Lakers roster is still really bizarre and top heavy with major holes, and the team should have a bit of money to spend this summer to try and improve it. Lebron is getting older, but he still looks like arguably the best player in the league. I think next season may be a better shot for the Lakers to take home a title. However, when you bring Lebron James and his choice of running mate to town, the expectation is a ring. With very little talent developing internally and Lebron at 35 years old, the mentality has to be title or bust in LA.
What could bring them down: Lack of shot creation
I wrote about this earlier this week, but the Lakers severely lack guys who can create offense. Pretty much every guard in the rotation has the same strengths and weaknesses, and if Kuzma isn’t shooting well, the Lakers really do not have sources of iso scoring beyond Lebron and AD.
The Rockets have raced out to one of the more impressive performances in the bubble, with a pair of statement wins over the Mavs and Bucks, and silenced all the voices (mine included) that laughed at their new microball approach. James Harden continues to put up absurd numbers met by little enthusiasm around the league, and Westbrook has continued his dominant resurgence (although he’s now out with an injury, something to monitor going forward). Key source of offense Eric Gordon now returns as well after missing the majority of the restart games. However, it’s been on the defensive end that the Rockets have impressed the most, led by a stunning display in the bubble from PJ Tucker, who’s defended big men as well as anyone in the league. This team plays hard, smart, and tough on the defensive end, and can defend with the best of them when everything’s clicking. If the Rockets are as locked in defensively as they have been at their peaks in the bubble, they can beat anyone.
What success looks like for them: A Finals appearance
While this may seem like an unreasonable bar to set for a 5 seed, Harden and D’antoni will have little to hang their hats on if the Rockets get bounced before the finals. This team is totally capped out, is on the older side, and has no high-upside young guys on the roster. Simply put, there’s not much reason to believe this team will be any better next season than it is now. For this season to be a success, they have to make a their deepest run of the Morey era.
What could bring them down: Defensive fatigue
While I’ve lauded the Rockets for their defensive effort, it remains to be seen if it’s sustainable for an entire series. To hold up defensively, the Rockets have to work harder than any other team in the league due to their profound lack of size on the interior, and that amount of effort may not hold up for a 6 or 7 game series (and in a truncated bubble playoff schedule), especially considering guys like Harden and Tucker aren’t elite endurance-type players. If Houston advances to the 2nd round, they’ll likely find themselves matched up against Anthony Davis and the Lakers, and AD will, in all likelihood, simply dominate that interior matchup. While Houston figures to stand by their 3>2 offensive strategy, I’m not sure you can consistently give up easy buckets inside and remain in control of a series. Additionally, if this Westbrook injury proves to be more serious, they could go home in round 1.
Ready to Make Some Noise
The defending champs have been one of the pleasant surprises in the NBA this season, overcoming the loss of Kawhi Leonard with incredible defensive intensity, discipline, and coaching, as well as further development from Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. The Raptors defend the three better than any team in the league, and get their offense from a diverse set of sources. This is a team with championship experience, a budding star in Pascal Siakam, and elite intangibles up and down the roster.
What success looks like for them: Giving the Bucks a good fight in the ECF
As well as they’ve played all season, I don’t think it’s quite realistic to consider the Raptors bona fide finals contenders. If they advance to the conference finals (which would entail beating either the Sixers or the Celtics in the 2nd round) and battle the Bucks to a 6 or 7 game series, I think they’d have to feel good about what they accomplished. However, with Gasol, Ibaka, and VanVleet all unrestricted free agents this summer, Masai Ujiri faces some tough decisions about the future of the franchise.
What could bring them down: Lack of a true superstar
As great as Siakam has been all year, it remains to be seen if he can shoulder the load of being the primary option deep into the postseason. Most of the scoring he does is exploiting mismatches, and to make a deep postseason runs teams typically need that guy who can just clear out and get a bucket. Can Siakam be that guy? Maybe. Is he the closer, being the most talented guy on the team, or is it Lowry with his bevvy of playoff experience? The Raptors are a great basketball team with a lot of talent and poise, but they’re simply a bit outmatched when going up against the NBA’s elite.
Jokić and the gang head into the playoffs with as high-octane an offense as just about any team in the league, with the uber-talented Michael Porter Jr. coming alive and becoming one of the stories of the restart. Jamal Murray came back from injury in a big way last week against Utah, putting up 23 points in 39 minutes of action. Denver has a ton of size and lineup versatility with Jokić’s playmaking, Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, Porter, etc. The Nuggets are talented, smart, and have been here before. If everything’s clicking, they can be as good as anyone.
What success looks like for them: A trip to the WCF
That obviously means getting past the Clippers in the 2nd round, a tall task for a team still operating with only one all-star. However, Denver is no longer an up and coming young team; it’s time for them to make a deep run. An exit short of the WCF would be a disappointment.
What could bring them down: Poor defense/inconsistent scoring beside Jokić
Simply put, the Nuggets don’t defend very well. For as terrific as Jokić is offensively, his defense remains a liability, and talented scorers Jamal Murray and MPJ don’t offer a ton on that end either. Contrast them with the elite defensive lineups the Lakers and Clippers roll out, and the Nuggets leave much to be desired. Speaking of Murray and Porter, Denver continues to search for who will be the reliable source of offense beyond Jokić. Is Murray ready for the task this postseason? Last year he was pretty hit or miss.
The Tatum/Brown/Hayward wing trio looks as confident as ever coming into the postseason, and if they’re playing well and meshing, Boston is as good as anyone in the East. Kemba Walker has worked his way back from a minutes restriction, and is a dangerous piece of their offensive puzzle.
What success looks like for them: A trip to the ECF/Tatum playing like a superstar
The Celtics are talented as any team in the East past Milwaukee, and have a lot of playoff experience on their roster. They have the ingredients necessary to make a run to the conference finals, and anything short of that would be a letdown. This team goes as far as Tatum takes them, and him leading them to two series victories is a reasonable expectation for a player of his superstar caliber.
What could bring them down: Lack of size/lack of bench scoring
It’s been talked about all season, but the Celtics are simply a small team, with serious deficiencies in rim protection and rebounding. Do they want guys like Theis or Kanter closing games? Additionally, the bench for this team has been weak all season, essentially devoid of any reliable scorers—they rank 29th in bench points per game.
After Dame’s superhuman performance in the bubble, and CJ’s heroics against the Grizzlies in the play-in game, the Blazers charge into the playoffs as hot as any team in the league. When Lillard is locked in, there is simply no one on the planet that can guard him, and Portland is really strong moving the ball and finding open guys around when the defense tries to trap Dame. With CJ playing with so much confidence, Gary Trent emerging, Nurkić playing at such a high level, and Carmelo providing much-needed wing production, this team may be better than last year’s that went to the conference finals.
What success looks like for them: Beating the Lakers
Coming into the bubble out of the playoff picture, the Blazers have to feel what they have achieved just up to this point is an accomplishment. However, I can’t imagine they’ll be satisfied going home in the first round. The Lakers do not have the microwave-type scorers that the Blazers do, and have no one individual defender that can confidently check Dame or CJ. Portland has a real chance to send the Lakers packing.
What could bring them down: That backcourt running out of gas
As great as the Blazers have looked during their incredible run, one has to wonder how long they can all keep up this high level of play. They’ll have two days off after that grueling play-in street fight against the Grizzlies, and then will start the western playoff gauntlet by facing the Lakers, a big, physical team that defends well both inside and out. Dame is human (as far as our sources tell us); he can’t be expected to average 40 for an entire series. Trent and Melo keeping pace and providing reliable offense will be key.
The Mavs head into the playoffs after rolling out what was statistically the best offense in the history of the league. Luka has picked up right where he left off in the restart, Porzingis continues to shoot exceptionally well, and Dorian Finney-Smith has been a nice surprise emergence in the bubble. If the shots are falling, this team can beat anyone.
What success looks like for them: Taking the Clippers to 7 games/Luka playing like a superstar
The Clippers unfortunately are a nightmarish matchup for the Mavs, considering the litany of elite wing defenders they can throw at Luka and amount of scoring prowess they have themselves on the perimeter. If the Dallas can take them to 7 games, they would have to feel good about their season. We’re all just waiting to see what playoff Luka looks like; if he continues to look like the star he is once the stakes rise, the Mavs should rest easy.
What could bring them down: Poor perimeter defense
As I mentioned early, the Clippers have weapons everywhere on the perimeter, and Dallas just doesn’t defend all that well as a team. Simply a tough matchup for them.
Despite the majority of fans and pundits expecting this to be the first year of OKC’s rebuild, the Thunder surged to a better winning percentage this season than last. With CP3 and SGA manning the backcourt, the Thunder have a lot of lineup versatility, iso scoring, and defense to throw at their opposition. 6th man of the year candidate Dennis Schröder is back after missing the seeding games for the birth of his child. Would anyone have believed last fall that they’d face the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs this year and be the higher seed?
What success looks like for them: Beating the Rockets/SGA asserting himself in big moments
Thunder are a confident, veteran team that has to feel they can take down the Rockets. Going home in the first round would certainly be a disappointment after the great season they’ve had. However, the biggest success would be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looking comfortable as the lead option in the postseason. As great as Chris Paul has been all season for them, SGA is obviously their franchise’s future.
What could bring them down: Lack of 3-point shooting
The Thunder simply don’t shoot the ball well from deep, ranking bottom five in the league in three point attempts and makes, and bottom half in percentage. They face a brutal matchup in the Rockets, a team that shoots more than anyone else in the league. The Thunder also have real matchup questions to answer coming up for the first round. Can Steven Adams really close games against the Rockets microball lineup? If not, who does beyond CP3, SGA, and Gallo?
Miami has been one of the surprises of the league, with a surging Bam Adebayo, breakout shooters in Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, and leader in Jimmy Butler who finally seems to have settled in somewhere. The Heat are tough and will play up to any team’s level, and will be a dangerous playoff threat.
What success looks like for them: Taking the Bucks to 6 games in the 2nd round
This is a roster with a lot of confidence, as well as playoff experience. A victory in the opening round should be the expectation. However, them beating the mighty Bucks doesn’t seem feasible to me. Battling them to a 6 or 7 game series should have them feeling good about themselves as they head into the summer with a roster that should only get better through internal development.
What could bring them down: Jimmy’s jumper failing him
Despite an overall positive season for him, Jimmy Butler’s jump shooting has simply been poor all season, shooting a measly 24% from 3. If history tells us anything, we should expect the ball to be in his hands in big moments this postseason, but he’ll need to be knocking down 3’s more consistently for that to yield any success.
Thanks for Coming
One of the more bizarre and frustrating teams in the league this season, the Sixers come into the playoffs without much momentum after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury and Joel Embiid not having a strong showing thus far. This is still a talented team with a lot of size, but Embiid will have to assert himself and put up monster numbers for Philly to advance past the first round. If there’s a team to do it against, it may just be Boston, given their last of interior bigs.
What success looks like for them: Beating the Celtics
Like I mentioned before, the Celtics provide an enticing matchup for Philly, given their best player should be able to live comfortably in the post (something he should be doing every game, regardless of matchup). If the Sixers can take down their division rivals in the first round, that would be something for them to build on, despite the loss of Simmons.
What could bring them down: Lack of leadership
The Sixers have been a team that has lacked in chemistry and leadership all season, and losing Simmons certainly doesn’t help. There have been rumors of Brett Brown’s potential dismissal since the fall, and Embiid has struggled to assert himself in big games throughout his career. This team simply has a long way to go mentally to become a true contender.
Despite a somewhat turbulent season for Utah, they come into the playoffs as the 6th seed, with star Donovan Mitchell and reigning DPOY Rudy Gobert. Unfortunately, just as he seemed to finally be finding his footing, Mike Conley had to depart from the bubble, leaving the Jazz almost exactly where they were last season when they were bounced in the first round: with nobody on the roster beyond Mitchell who can reliably create offense.
What success looks like for them: Taking the Nuggets to 7 games/Rudy Gobert winning the individual matchup with Jokić
I was going to put “Conley continues his strong bubble showing “here. Without him, I don’t see a realistic path for this team to make it past the first round; there just isn’t enough shot creation here. If they battle the Nuggets to a 7-game series, and Gobert improves on his last showing against Jokić and wins the individual matchup with the game’s best center (how that would be judged is up for interpretation), Utah would have to feel good about that.
What could bring them down: Donovan Mitchell’s inefficiency/Lack of scoring options beyond him
Due to the lack of threats around him, Donovan Mitchell has been wildly inefficient in the playoffs for most of his career. If that trend continues, Utah should be packing by the end of round 1.
The Pacers have been one of the more exciting stories in the bubble, lead by the scorching-hot TJ Warren, who has picked up much of the offensive slack after Domantas Sabonis went down with injury (as did Jeremy Lamb before the restart) and Victor Oladipo continues to work his way back. The Pacers, like most teams in the East playoff picture, are a fundamentals-over-talent team, that plays are and is well coached.
What success looks like for them: Beating Miami
The Pacers are relatively undermanned heading into the playoffs, with no 20-point scorers on the roster, their best player in Sabonis absent indefinitely, and Oladipo still a ways away from full-strength. If they can grit out a series win against rival Miami, in a matchup that is sure to be physical and chippy from the jump, they’d have to consider that a success. In fact, a physical, chippy, low-scoring series is probably their best chance at victory.
What could bring them down: Warren falling back to Earth
We finally saw Warren’s first subpar performance in the bubble the other day (against Miami). While Warren is certainly a talented scorer, and I’d hesitate to call his run in the bubble a fluke, he can’t be expected to be putting up 30 a night for an entire playoff series—he’s just not that level of player. Without his heroics, the Pacers will find themselves just a little short on weapons against any team they face in the postseason, Miami included.
The Magic come into the playoffs with very low expectations after losing Jonathan Isaac from what already was a relatively weak and imbalanced roster. The Magic are a gritty and smart veteran team, but just don’t have the personnel in place to make a real run.
What success looks like for them: Taking a game off the Bucks/Markelle Fultz finding a rhythm
If the Magic can capture one game of the opening series, that has to be considered a win. Additionally, Markelle Fultz remains one of the highest-ceiling players on the roster, but can’t seem to consistently string together efficient outings. If he can have a strong showing in the playoffs and start the generate some confidence heading into next season, that would be sure to excite the Magic fan base and front office alike.
What could bring them down: The Bucks
The Magic simply aren’t equipped to make a series with Milwaukee competitive in basically any way, and shouldn’t be expected to.
The Nets come into the playoffs after losing most of their lead guys to injury or opt-out. This is not a playoff-caliber team and they shouldn’t give the Raptors much competition.
What success looks like for them: Caris Levert continuing his high level of play
Levert has looked terrific in the bubble, capping off the restart with 37 points in the final regular season game and being named 2nd team all-bubble. If he continues to look like a young star, Brooklyn will have to consider that a victory (even if all it means is that he’ll carry more value in a package for Brad Beal).
What could bring them down: Lack of talent
As everyone who has paid attention knows, the Nets brought essentially a G-league roster to the bubble outside of their starting 5. They are waiting for next season, and shouldn’t be expected to pose much of a threat to the Raptors.
My Finals Prediction
Clippers over Bucks
My title prediction before the season and I’m sticking to it; the two best rosters in the league will face off for the title in October. These two teams bring everything needed to build a championship team: elite 2-way wings who can create their own shot, defensive versatility, 3-point shooting, switchability on the perimeter, great coaching, and depth. The Clippers certainly have their flaws as a team. As I mentioned earlier, they are still quite thin on playmaking and really haven’t played together much at all. However, I feel this matchup is close enough to be a 7-game series, and in a finals series that tight, it’s often just best on best, and right now I’m taking Kawhi over Giannis. Giannis, by my eye test, looks about 95% ready to be the lead scorer and creator on a championship team. There’s still just a hair missing from his late-game decision-making, and he too often puts his head down and gets tunnel vision in the biggest moments, which could be the difference here. Kawhi does not do that, his playmaking has come a long way, and he’s established himself time and again as the guy in the league to give the ball to when you need a bucket when it matters most. This series is bound to be fun, with talent, size, shooting, and athleticism everywhere you look for both teams. In the end though, board man gets his 3rd ring.