Legitimate title contenders
The 2021 champions are looking to get back on top, with Khris Middleton reportedly hoping to be ready for the start of the postseason after another injury scare. This time around, Milwaukee has home-court advantage throughout the playoffs after tearing through the regular season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is arguably the best player in the world, a menacing force on both ends of the floor. He’s flanked by multiple All-Star caliber teammates, a top-five defense, and a solid bench unit. The Bucks have the added benefit of avoiding both the Celtics and 76ers until the Eastern Conference finals.
Last year’s Celtics are back and better thanks to improved depth, highlighted by 2023 Sixth Man of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon leading the charge off the bench. Derrick White has also thrust himself into Boston’s starting lineup with impressive two-way play, which allows first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla to start smaller with Al Horford at center and bring defensive shutdown center Robert Williams off the bench, if they so choose. Anything less than the title will feel like a failure for this squad. But thanks to upgraded flexibility, Boston is more than well-equipped to take it one step further than last year.
Things might have come together at the last possible moment, but the Phoenix Suns are entering the postseason with the majority of the roster fully healthy. The results with Kevin Durant in the lineup are promising, going 8-0 with the 34-year-old averaging 26 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.3 blocks. Along with Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton, Phoenix boasts an unrivaled collection of top-end talent. However, the Suns will need to gel on the fly against premium competition to reach their lofty championship ambitions.
The owners of the best record in the Western Conference, on paper it might be foolish to have the Denver Nuggets below other contenders in the playoffs. What could hold Nikola Jokic’s squad back in the postseason is their lackluster defense. Denver ranked 15th in defensive rating but let opponents make 67.6% of shots less than five feet away from the rim on the season – third most in the league. The Nuggets will also need more from the bench to improve their chances, as the unit ranked 19th in total points over the campaign.
The 76ers have lost in the first or second round in five consecutive postseasons despite a coaching change and multiple trades for star players. Now, they have the profile of a potential champion: An MVP-caliber player in Joel Embiid, a secondary star in James Harden, top-10 ratings in both offense and defense, and the league’s third-best record. Philadelphia needs to prove it can translate elite regular season play into the playoffs. A lot hinges on Embiid staying healthy and taking over; he’s struggled with untimely injuries and never truly dominated a series beyond the first round.
The Grizzlies have been primed to take that next leap in the Western Conference playoffs for a couple of seasons now, though they’re already facing an uphill battle well before their series opener. Starting center Steven Adams is out for the playoffs with a knee sprain and backup forward Brandon Clarke won’t be available until 2023-24 after tearing his Achilles. All that said, Memphis has more than enough potential to bounce some heavyweights with a deep run; Ja Morant remains a near unstoppable force at the point, Jaren Jackson Jr. has proven himself as one of the league’s best overall defenders, and you can expect Dillon Brooks to rattle a few opposing players.
Is Cleveland’s young core ready to take the next step? The Cavs followed up last season’s play-in tournament appearance with their first 50-win campaign since LeBron James’ final year in Ohio. The offseason addition of Donovan Mitchell bolstered their firepower and added another playmaker alongside Darius Garland. The Cavs went from 20th to eighth in offensive efficiency during Mitchell’s first campaign with the club. Meanwhile, the defense remained stingy with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley as its anchors. Only the Celtics recorded a better net rating than J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad.
Golden State Warriors
Golden State went a disastrous 11-30 on the road, which probably doesn’t bode well for a sixth-placed side. The defending champs aren’t your traditional lower seed, though. Andrew Wiggins’ expected return restores Golden State’s preferred quintet with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Kevon Looney, which posted the team’s best five-man net rating of 21.9 (among all Warriors lineups with at least 70 minutes together). They also might be up against ideal first-round opponents; the Sacramento Kings were tied for the worst home record (23-18) among the West’s top six and their playoff experience is dwarfed by Golden State’s.
Los Angeles Lakers
With James and Anthony Davis in the fold, you can never count out the Lakers. The duo is just three years removed from their last title run, and the club acquired some complimentary pieces at the trade deadline to address their biggest weaknesses. D’Angelo Russell has provided some much-needed playmaking and outside shooting, while Jarred Vanderbilt has been a menace on the glass and at the defensive end. Austin Reaves has also elevated his game since entering the starting lineup on Mar. 22, averaging 18.3 points and shooting 48.6% from deep over his last 10 regular season contests.
Ready to spoil the party
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers entered the season expecting to be contenders, but Paul George’s recent knee sprain again has the should-be heavyweights hobbled in the playoffs. There’s no concrete word on how long George is out, but he will reportedly miss at least the start of L.A.’s series against the Suns, who would have been heavily favored anyway. The Clippers, though, are far from a lost cause; there is arguably no better counter to Durant than Kawhi Leonard, and the depth on Tyronn Lue’s squad can potentially swing the bench minutes in L.A.’s favor.
A historic offensive display helped Sacramento snap its 16-year playoff drought. The Kings set an NBA record for offensive efficiency, registering 118.6 points per 100 possessions. Their 23-place improvement is the largest turnaround in league history. Sacramento ranks third in assists (27.3 per game) and fifth in threes made (13.8). Domantas Sabonis is a triple-double threat each time he takes the court. The big man has been a weapon in dribble handoffs, freeing up open looks from distance for the likes of Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk. Meanwhile, De’Aaron Fox has been the highest-scoring player in clutch situations. Home-court advantage could loom large in the first-round series as the Warriors have struggled mightily away from Chase Center this season.
New York Knicks
After missing the playoffs last season, the New York Knicks are back in the mix as the No. 5 seed with the majority of the same key players on the roster. The biggest change is at point guard, with former Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson taking over the reins at the position. The 26-year-old had a breakout campaign, averaging career-highs in points (24.0) and assists (6.2) to help lead the Knicks to their best finish since the 2012-13 season. Getting past the first round will require New York to beat Donovan Mitchell and the Cleveland Cavaliers – a player the Knicks could have acquired last offseason but chose to keep their young depth and draft picks instead.
Just happy to be there
Mikal Bridges has exploded on the offensive end since joining Brooklyn in February as part of the Kevin Durant blockbuster deal. The 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 26.1 points on 47.5% shooting – including a 37.6% clip from deep. He has cracked the 30-point mark 11 times in 27 appearances after accomplishing the feat just twice in parts of five seasons with the Suns. While Bridges has postseason experience, this will be the first time he’ll be under the microscope as the top option. The opportunity to lead a playoff squad should pay dividends for Bridges and the Nets down the line.
Despite Tuesday’s impressive play-in victory over the Heat, Atlanta is primed for a quick exit as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks may take steps forward next campaign following a complete offseason under Quin Snyder’s watch, but until then, they’re exactly what their 41-41 record indicates: An average team. Notably, the Hawks are last in the league in 3-point attempt rate, so shooting variance is unlikely to bail them out against a superior Celtics team. Atlanta’s porous defense will be exposed against the class of the East.
Can the Miami Heat’s season simultaneously be a disaster and a success? One shot away from their second finals appearance in three seasons last campaign, the Heat barely snuck into the playoffs despite putting up a 44-38 record. Injury concerns have been the story in Miami, with Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and Tyler Herro missing stretches of multiple games. Despite Butler’s ability to will his squad to improbable wins in past playoffs, the Heat don’t stand a chance against the Milwaukee Bucks unless they have their entire lineup available and healthy – a big ask for them this season.
A disappointing campaign for Minnesota looked primed for an even more disastrous finish after Rudy Gobert punched Kyle Anderson in the regular season finale and was promptly suspended for Tuesday’s initial play-in game. Credit to Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves for bouncing back and blowing out the Thunder to clinch the No. 8 seed. Still, with the 23rd-ranked offense, it’s hard to see Minnesota keeping up with the top-seeded Nuggets. Since his first MVP season, Nikola Jokic is averaging 28.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.3 assists in matchups with Gobert.
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