Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

Preparing for the NBA Playoffs: Predictions and Analysis

As another NBA regular season winds to a close, basketball fans across the country eagerly await as the top teams begin to gear up for the games that really matter—the playoffs. While the playoffs have lost their luster in recent years due to the common perception that there is too little parity to produce any upsets, this idea seems to have lost some steam this year. The Eastern Conference looks the strongest it has in years, and there finally appear to be some worthy opponents for the Warriors out West. With the matchups appearing to be more competitive than they have in a long time, people finally have a playoff season they can truly look forward to.

Eastern Conference

1) Milwaukee Bucks

Ceiling: NBA Finals

Floor: Eastern Conference Semifinals

When I see the Milwaukee Bucks, I see less of a threat to the Golden State dynasty, and more of the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, who put together a nice little run to secure the 1-seed in the East, but in the end got swept by a superior team. They have an MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, another all-star in Khris Middleton, and a collection of good role-players, but all of these pieces have unquestionable flaws. Giannis can’t shoot. Khris Middleton is only an all-star because of the Eastern Conference’s lack of depth. Brooks Lopez can’t defend big men or rebound, Malcolm Brogdon can’t score, and Eric Bledsoe lacks consistency. All of these flaws coming together in a team with minimal playoff experience do not make for a deep playoff run. People are quick to forget that this is the same Bucks team that lost to a Celtics team without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward last year. With no major changes, look for Milwaukee to meet the same fate this year as they did last year: a loss in seven games to a team that many feel they should beat.

2) Toronto Raptors

Ceiling: NBA Champion

Floor: Eastern Conference Finals

The Raptors may have won more games last season with Demar DeRozan in the backcourt instead of Kawhi “I want to be a Laker” Leonard, but make no mistake: this may be the most dangerous the Raptors have ever been. Toronto managed to accrue 58 wins this year while resting Kawhi for over 20 games. Having a well-rested finals MVP in their lineup will lift the Raptors to previously unseen heights, as Lowry and DeRozan simply do not have the same clutch-gene that Kawhi Leonard has, a characteristic essential for any real playoff success. Additionally, the rise of Pascal Siakam as the Most Improved Player gives Toronto another unforeseen spark on both ends of the floor. This combination of The Klaw and Spicy P should allow the Raptors to breeze through any Eastern conference opponent. Unfortunately, they still lack the talent to contend with the reigning champions, and can only hope to bring home their first ever NBA Championship if the Warriors either fall to a Western Conference opponent or are derailed by injuries going into the finals.

3) Philadelphia 76ers

Ceiling: Eastern Conference Semifinals

Floor: First Round Exit

The Philadelphia 76ers boast one of the most talented starting fives in the NBA, with all of their starters averaging at least 16.9 points per game. Veterans like Jimmy Butler and JJ Reddick provide some much-needed playoff experience to a team whose inexperience cost them last year. Young stars like Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons will give the Sixers a long window to bring Philly its first O’Brien Trophy since 1983. Unfortunately for the Sixers, they have a tough road ahead. Assuming they make it out of their first-round matchup against a scrappy Brooklyn Nets, they will only end up running into a buzz saw in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the Toronto Raptors. This year is realistically more about gaining experience for their young stars to prime them for a run in the coming years rather than winning now.

4) Boston Celtics

Ceiling: Eastern Conference finals

Floor: First Round Exit

Last year, the Boston Celtics were led to the Eastern Conference finals by backup point guard Terry Rozier and rookie Jayson Tatum. This year, the Celtics have added a healthy Kyrie Irving and a rapidly improving Gordon Hayward. Yet they have been completely overlooked when considering contenders for the East. They've shown flashes where they looked like finals contenders this season and other stretches where they looked like they shouldn’t even be in the playoffs. For this reason, they have both the potential to lose in the first round to a very good Indiana Pacers team, as well as the potential to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. The main thing standing in the Celtics’ way to the finals is the severe chemistry issues that have plagued the C’s all season, most of which stem from trade and free agency rumors regarding the upcoming offseason. Regardless, head coach Brad Stevens will need to resolve the locker room issues soon in order to make a run in the playoffs and keep the Celtics’ chances at re-signing Kyrie Irving alive.

5) Indiana Pacers

Ceiling: Eastern Conference Semifinals

Floor: First Round Exit

Before Victor Oladipo went down with a broken leg earlier this season, the Pacers looked like a team on the rise. They were in position for the third seed in the east and their players only seemed to be getting better as the season went on. While they still managed to hang on. While Myles Turner has done a spectacular job of keeping the Pacers in contention to make a playoff run, he cannot do it all alone. Bojan Bogdanovic is currently the team’s leading scorer, and while he has a very nice offensive skillset, it says a lot about him that he is their only player averaging 15 or more points per game (18.0). While this is in some ways characteristic of Indiana’s defense-first style of play, a team simply cannot win in today’s NBA without some serious offensive firepower. While we can speculate about how far the Pacers could have advanced had Oladipo not suffered a scary leg injury, it is hard to imagine them advancing past the second round with a big three of Bogdanovic, Turner, and Sabonis.

6) Brooklyn Nets

Ceiling: Eastern Conference Semifinals

Floor: First Round Exit

In one of the most surprising turnarounds of the decade, the Brooklyn Nets find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 despite not possessing the rights to any of their own first-round draft picks in that span. Although their future appeared to be severely damaged after finding themselves on the losing end of one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history, the Nets front office managed to do a remarkable job of making the right moves to put their franchise back in playoff position. The acquisition of young talent such as Jarett Allen, who has stuffed Lebron, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim this year, gives the Nets hope for the first time in a while. They have stacked their roster with underrated role-players such as 6th man Spencer Dinwiddie and sharpshooter Joe Harris, and should only continue to improve in coming years when Caris Levert returns from his ankle injury. Most importantly, they gave up only Brooks Lopez and the 27th overall pick in the 2017 draft for D'Angelo Russell, who has since proven himself to be ready to become the face of a franchise. Russell is the reason that the Nets have a real chance to take down their first-round opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers. While it is not necessarily the most likely outcome, D-Lo has the ability to drop 50 on any given night and carry the Nets to a victory. While they still lack playoff experience, anyone who has seen their young superstar play knows that he has never been one to back down from the spotlight. In fact, he flourishes in the clutch, which is good because they will Russell to have ice in his veins to pull off the upset. It may take some luck, combined with Ben Simmons dropping another 1-point performance in the playoffs, but don’t count the Nets out of their first-round matchup just yet.

7) Orlando Magic

Ceiling: First Round Exit

Floor: First Round Exit

There isn’t much to be said about the Orlando Magic this year. They may be the single most anonymous team in basketball, which is a shame because it has caused most fans to completely ignore the great season that Nikola Vucevic has put together, quietly establishing himself as one of the best centers in the league, averaging 20.8/12.0. The Magic find themselves in a difficult situation, lacking enough talent on the team to build a future around, but also finding themselves unable to draft top-tier prospects because they are just good enough to make the playoffs in the East. With only one all-star caliber player and no other valuable role players around him, they really have no chance to upset elite teams like the Raptors, and will likely find themselves stuck in limbo for years to come unless they either acquire a free agent or go into full rebuild mode.

8) Detroit Pistons

Ceiling: First Round Exit

Floor: First Round Exit

The Detroit Pistons come into the playoffs looking significantly stronger than most Eastern conference 8-seeds have in recent years. Blake Griffin no longer has the same hype surrounding him that he had as the Kia-hopping slam dunk champion in Los Angeles, but make no mistake: he is still among the league’s best power forwards. He’s averaging a career-high 24.5 points per game, largely due to his newfound ability to shoot the three. He is still one of the best passing big men in the league, and though his rebounding numbers have significantly declined, much of this can be attributed to playing with Andre Drummond, the league leader in rebounds per game. Reggie Jackson rounds out their starting lineup as a perfectly solid 3rd option for a team on the rise. The Pistons lack the depth to compete with the Bucks in the first round this year but look for Detroit to pursue more role players in the offseason and come back stronger next year.

Western Conference

1) Golden State Warriors

Ceiling: NBA Champions

Floor: Western Conference Semifinals

“They have chemistry issues with Demarcus Cousins, KD, and Draymond Green.” “They haven’t looked this vulnerable in years.” “They almost lost to the Rockets in the playoffs last year.” These are among the most common claims being made by NBA fans desperately trying to convince themselves that the Warriors are not primed to stroll right through the playoffs to their fourth championship in five years. Even though the team has not seemed to click now the same way they have in past years, it’s still just the regular season. People were making the same claims last year, but the Warriors found a way to make it work come playoff time. Sometimes teams are simply too talented to lose, and that is exactly the case with the Warriors. Demarcus Cousins, arguably the best center in the NBA, may not be fully recovered from his torn achilles yet, but it really doesn’t matter. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are both top three players all-time at their respective positions, Klay Thompson is a top five all-time shooter, Draymond Green is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA, and Steve Kerr will find a way to make them work together for another championship. The only real question mark here is if it takes the dubs four or five games to defeat the Eastern Conference’s representative in the finals.

2) Denver Nuggets

Ceiling: Western Conference Finals

Floor: First Round Exit

Nikola Jokic has finally managed to lead the Denver Nuggets after finishing one game out of the eight seed in consecutive years. Not only did they break through into the playoff picture, but they also rose all the way to the second seed in the West, which is no small feat. The Nuggets are loaded with talent, and with no key players over 24 years old, they appear poised to take hold of the West when the Golden State Warriors’ dominance comes to an end. Jokic has already submitted his claim to be a top-3 center in the league and is even likely to receive votes for MVP this year. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris star in what may be the league’s best backcourt in just a few short years. Unfortunately, aside from Paul Millsap and an injured Isaiah Thomas, they lack the experience necessary to make a deep run in a loaded Western Conference. While they should be able to defeat their first round opponent, they could potentially struggle against the winner of the OKC-Portland series in the second round. Even assuming they win this series, they will only have the misfortune of running into the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. While the Nuggets should be in a position to contend for a championship very soon, this year will not be their year.

3) Portland Trailblazers

Ceiling: Western Conference Finals

Floor: First Round Exit

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum put together a putrid shooting performance last year in the playoffs, culminating in the third-seed Trailblazers getting swept in the first round by a Boogie Cousins-less New Orleans Pelicans. Now take away Jusuf Nurkic from that team after he goes down with a gruesome double fracture in his leg a few weeks ago. Will the Blazers go further in the playoffs this year than they did last year? Yes. While his shots were not falling in the playoffs last year, Dame has shown himself time and time again to be one of the best clutch performers in the NBA, so look to last year as more of an exception than the rule. While CJ McCollum has less of a resume to prove his postseason capabilities, he is still among the league’s most underrated shooting guards, efficiently putting up numbers as the second option on a winning team. While the loss of Nurkic is a big blow to the Blazers, Enes Kanter is still a great offensive center and can provide plenty of scoring in the Bosnian Beast’s absence. The Trailblazers should be able to handle the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, but their complete lack of depth will likely lead to them falling to the Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals.

4) Houston Rockets

Ceiling: NBA Champions

Floor: Western Conference Semifinals

If any team has the ability to dethrone a healthy Golden State, it is the Houston Rockets. They live by the three and die by the three, but when their shots are falling, they cannot lose. Hate him or love him, James Harden is one of the greatest scorers in the league today, maybe ever, and it is on him to elevate his game this year in the playoffs to bring the Rockets to the finals they were a Chris Paul injury away from last year. While they may have lost some depth over the offseason, with Trevor Ariza leaving for Phoenix, they still look as sharp as ever, with Clint Capella continuing to make strides and role-players like PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon continuing to improve their ability to mesh into Mike D’Antoni’s system. Chris Paul still is proving himself to be among the best playmakers in the league and among the best defensive point guards, and so long as he stays healthy, the Rockets have a real chance to be the first Western Conference team in five years to beat the Warriors in the playoffs.

5) Utah Jazz

Ceiling: First Round Exit

Floor: First Round Exit

The Utah Jazz are, aside from Donovan Mitchell, Tim Duncan’s essence transformed into an NBA team. They are great defensively, solid offensively, and play a style of basketball that relies mainly on fundamentals with very little flash. While Spida Mitchell is a star in the making, the rest of the team is a collective of very good NBA role players that come together to form a perfectly solid team. Rudy Gobert is very good at what he does, but he simply does not have the quickness or skillset to ever become more than a back-to-the-basket rim protector. Players like Jae Crowder, Joe Ingles, and Ricky Rubio are all solid players that would make great sixth men for most NBA teams, but as part of a team’s core, they bring nothing more than solid playoff positioning with little room for progress. They will never be a bad team with their current roster setup, but it is simply not enough to find success against a team like the Rockets in a seven-game series. The Jazz got lucky last year by drawing a mediocre Thunder team in the first round, but expect a quick exit this year.

6) Oklahoma City Thunder

Ceiling: Western Conference Finals

Floor: First Round Exit

Paul George has put together a career year in Oklahoma City. He will likely finish top 3 in MVP and Defensive Player of the year voting and has a real argument for Most Improved Player with the way he stepped up his game on both sides of the court. His phenomenal play is the reason the Thunder were at one point third in the Western Conference with a 37-20 record. Since then, however, Russell Westbrook has taken a larger role on the offense, which has disrupted ball movement and team chemistry, causing the thunder to finish the season on a 12-13 skid. For this reason, the Thunder are one of the biggest question marks going into the playoffs. They have the star power, depth, and role players to find success, but they are also inconsistent enough to get swept in the first round by the Trailblazers. What it really comes down to is whether Russell Westbrook can sit back and allow PG13 to run the show on offense. If Westbrook does this, the Thunder can reach the Western Conference finals, but if he plays selfishly, expect to see Paul George seriously regretting his decision to re-sign in OKC instead of teaming up with Lebron in LA.

7) San Antonio Spurs

Ceiling: Western Conference Semifinals

Floor: First Round Exit

Every year, Gregg Popovich finds another way to get his team to overachieve, and this year is no different. After losing Kawhi to a trade request, veteran leader Tony Parker to free agency, first-round draft pick Lonnie Walker to a torn meniscus, and Dejounte Murray, their point guard of the future, to a torn ACL in the preseason, Spurs fans had very low expectations as to what they could realistically achieve this season. The Spurs had no all-stars this season, yet Popovich was still able to find a way to get them to win. LaMarcus Aldridge and Demar DeRozan both shot career highs from the field this year (excluding DeRozan's rookie season, in which he averaged only 8.6 points, compared to 21.3 this year). While the Spurs are generally more of a defensive team, Popovich was able to adapt their game plan this year, and the Spurs finished the season top 5 in estimated offensive rating. While one should not by any means expect the Spurs to pull off the upset over the Denver Nuggets, one should also not count them out of it. If there is one major advantage the Spurs have over their opening round opponent, it’s experience. While the Nuggets roster is filled with key players 24 and under, the Spurs only have one of their top six scorers under age 29 (Bryn Forbes, 25). While experience isn’t everything, one can never count out a team with such a dramatic advantage in experience and coaching.

8) Los Angeles Clippers

Ceiling: First Round Exit

Floor: First Round Exit

The Los Angeles Clippers are the definition of a team that is not supposed to be here. In fact, their front office made it seem like they don’t even want to be here. They traded away their leading scorer, Tobias Harris, to the 76ers, along with valuable bench asset Boban Marjanovic. They also dealt Avery Bradley, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, to the Grizzlies. They seemed to be joining the race to tank for Zion, yet they find themselves still in the playoffs behind the play of perennial 6th man of the year Lou Williams. Montrezl Harrell has established himself as another one of the league’s most valuable bench players, but the Clippers still suffer from a complete lack of notable starters. Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have provided quality minutes all season long, with the latter looking to be an important piece of the team’s future, but they simply do not have the star power to contend with the best team in the West. Barring injuries for the Warriors, expect the Clippers to start their offseason early this year.

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