In these NBA playoffs, there are as many pretenders to the throne as contenders.
In the Western Conference, the fight for the eighth seed came down to the final day, while positions three through seven weren’t settled until the last two or three games. That is, when all was said and done, just two games separated third place Portland (49-33) from eighth-place Minnesota (47-35).
The east was settled a little earlier, when Washington beat Charlotte on Mar. 31 to scoop up the final playoff spot at the expense of the Detroit Pistons.
The Toronto Raptors, quite unexpectedly, finished first overall in the Eastern Conference with a 59-23 record, four games ahead of the Boston Celtics (55-27).
Houston nearly lapped the field in the west, taking advantage of an injury-ravaged (see Stephen Curry) Golden State Warriors team to finish seven games ahead at 65-17.
What does any of this mean then, now that the playoffs are here? Relative diddly squat. We’ll show why in our ranking of each playoff team’s chances of being last men standing in mid-June. Rated from lowest to highest (16 to 1).
16. Minnesota Timberwolves
After a 14-year absence from meaningful basketball in spring, the T-Wolves slipped past Denver in overtime of the last game of the season to squeak in. Having had to play playoff style basketball and win five of seven just to get in, Minnesota will likely be easy pickings for the high-flying Houston Rockets. The only way the Timberwolves beat Houston is if regular season underachievers like Andrew Wiggins play way above their station and big time players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson continue to impress. The T-Wolves also boast Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose, who will provide excellent shooting and depth off the bench. As a team the Timberwolves scored at will this season, pouring in 109.5 points per game (8th overall), but also allowed their opponents to run up the digits, to the tune of 107.3 against (17th). Minnesota lost every game of their four-game regular season set with Houston, the first three by 18 points each. Not liking their odds.
15. Miami Heat
The Heat have a ton of depth and veteran leadership from Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade and Kelly Olynyk. But, do they have enough scoring and defence to overcome a Philadelphia 76ers team hell-bent on dominance? Not likely. Miami did defend very well this season, limiting opponents to 102.9 points per game. In their favor, if the season series means anything, is the fact they kept the Sixers to slightly under that average in a 2-2 series split. Where the first round series with Philly might hinge is in three-point shooting. The Sixers, led by elite wing man and shooter JJ Redick, were eighth in the league in overall three-point shooting at 36.9 percent. On the other side, Miami was only 13th best at limiting successful tre’s at 36.0 percent. Thus, the edge has to be given to the 76ers and an early exit for the Heat.
14. San Antonio Spurs
Even without Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors are going to run roughshod over the overmatched Spurs in round one. The Spurs will be game, for sure, what with all the collective playoff experience they can put out on the floor, including Pau Gasol (131 games, two championships), Manu Ginobili (213 games, four titles) and Tony Parker (221 games, four titles). Who they can’t throw out on the floor to greatly increase their chances, though, is Kawhi Leonard. His defensive and offensive prowess could have tipped the balance a little more in favor of San Antonio, who won’t be able to overcome the deficit he leaves like the Dubs can cover off for Curry. Where we think the Spurs could enhance their chances is giving dynamic youngsters Dejounte Murray (8.1 PPG, 5.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals) and Kyle Anderson (7.9 PPG, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals) a real chance to prove their post-season mettle.
13. Indiana Pacers
Can anyone on the Pacers really stop LeBron James? With a first round match-up against the Cavs and their fired up leader, Indiana has its hands full. Maybe too full. Sure, Victor Oladipo will give Cleveland’s suspect defence fits (they gave up 109.9 points per game, fifth worst), however, LeBron can change the ebb and flow of a game and a series pretty much on his own. The key to any potential upset here is the three-point shooting ability on the Pacers’ roster. Indiana was tied for eighth overall in three-point shooting percentage at 36.9 percent and the chief bombers were Oladipo (37.1 percent), Bojan Bogdanovic (40.2 percent) and Darren Collison (the league’s overall leader at a robust 46.8 percent). Contrast the Pacers proclivity for shooting from beyond the arc to the Cavaliers unimpressive perimeter defence — they were tied for 20th in opponents 3-pt field goal percentage at 36.8 — and there is potential for a first round shock. Just don’t count on it.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Big 3 and OKC had to fight hard down the stretch to secure a playoff spot, but still posted a mediocre 5-5 record in their last 10. The Thunder also enter the post-season with the second worst conference record (28-24) and worst Northwest Division record at 5-11. That last win-loss mark we mention for a purpose, as Oklahoma City has a first-round date with the surprising Utah Jazz. OKC did win the season series with Utah, but their last game against each other was Dec. 23 and a lot has happened since. On the player personnel side, Russell Westbrook was Russell Westbrook, ending his season by averaging a triple double. Not good enough to repeat as MVP, but still among the elite. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, though, weren’t consistent enough in their efforts to make anyone really afraid of the Thunder. We don’t see them going past the first round.
11. Washington Wizards
The Wiz will give Toronto all it can handle in the first round, but it won’t quite be enough. In 2015, Washington shocked the Raps in the first round of the playoffs, sweeping them 4-0. That was when they had Raps killer Paul Pierce on the floor, though. Now, they still have great wings in Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. and they have elite floor general John Wall back, which is a good thing. However, they aren’t as dynamic in the front court, where C Marcin Gortat and PF Markieff Morris will have trouble with Raptors’ big men Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, along with super-subs Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. The Wiz split the season series 2-2 with Toronto, but limp into the post-season having lost seven of their last 10. One thing Washington was particularly good at was limiting opponents from three-point range (allowing just 34.9 percent effectiveness), which is a testament to their back court. On the bad side, they were 18th in turnovers, while Toronto was tied for fourth fewest per game.
10. New Orleans Pelicans
No Boogie, no chance. Without DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans enter a series against a defensively tough Portland team down a threat in the paint. Anthony Davis was a MVP candidate this season, pouring in 28.1 points, blocking 2.6 shots and pulling down 11.1 rebounds, but teams will be able to isolate him better without the other Twin Tower patrolling the low post. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, as PG Jrue Holiday, the key to the Pelicans’ counter-attack, had a career year, pouring in 19 points per game and registering 6.0 assists. Also having an outstanding season on the wing was SF E’Twaun Moore, who shot an impressive 42.5 percent from three-point range. ‘Nawlins and Portland split their four-game season series, however, the Trail Blazers won the last game in New Orleans. The Pelicans finished the season strong, winning five straight, but it was part of a desperation run just to nail down sixth place in a logjam of Western Conference teams. Their chances are very slim to advance beyond the first round.
9. Boston Celtics
The last of the teams we think may not survive the first round are the over-rated Celtics. They finished second in the Eastern Conference only because it was the weaker of the two in the NBA and they over-achieved. The Celts will also be without the services of superstar Kyrie Irving, which limits them in the back court and the ability to get the ball out to great perimeter shooters Jaylen Brown (39.5 percent from three-point range), Al Horford (42.9 percent) and Jayson Tatum (43.4 percent). Terry Rozier has been pretty good in relief of the injured Irving, however, he isn’t as capable as Irving of turning things around when the going gets tough, as it will in a contentious first round match-up with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Boston, which finished with the second fewest points allowed and lowest three-point shooting percentage against, will have to hope that tenacious defence is enough.
8. Utah Jazz
Hayward, Schmayward. Jazz fans surely thought all was lost last summer when longtime star forward Gordon Hayward headed east to sign with the Boston Celtics. Funny how things worked out. Not funny for Hayward, who suffered a season-ending injury in his first regular season game, but amusing that the Jazz still made the playoffs and weren’t far off their record from 2016-17 (51-31 to this year’s 48-34). We don’t consider this Jazz team, led by super freshman Donovan Mitchell, to be an underdog in their first round series against Oklahoma City, which had an identical record. After Mitchell, the surprising Jazz spread their scoring out well, with six players in double digits. They also made an astute deal at the deadline, getting Jae Crowder from Cleveland as part of a three-team swap. He was good off the bench in relief of Derrick Favors and brings solid playoff experience to Utah. The Jazz will play at least one round because they defended well this season, tying San Antonio for first overall in points allowed at just 99.8 points per game. C Rudy Gobert played a huge role in that and will get votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
We say the Bucks will end the Boston Celtics season abruptly. Much of that “upset” will be due to the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who becomes more “LeBron-like” every season. The Greek Freak upped the ante again in 2017-18, finishing tied for fourth in scoring with 26.9 points per game and logging a career high in rebounds with 10.0 per game. Riding shotgun and also enjoying a career best campaign is SF Khris Middleton, who contributed 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 35.9 percent shooting from three-point range. These two were capably complemented by early season acquisition, PG Eric Bledsoe. The veteran floor quarterback is a good mentor for second-year PG Malcolm Brogdon, who was hurt for the better part of the season but returns in time to put in significant minutes in this post-season. The Bucks split the season series 2-2 with Boston, but gained a moral victory by beating the Celtics on Apr. 3. After this series, though, all bets are off.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers didn’t have the best finish to their season, losing four of six in April, but they did end up third in the Western Conference, drawing a beatable New Orleans Pelicans team in the first round. Their Big 3 of PG Damian Lillard, SG CJ McCollum and C Jusuf Nurkic match up well with anyone and will do the bulk of the scoring come this weekend and beyond. Not that this team is a one-trick pony, either. They have very capable outside shooters in back-up PG Shabazz Napier (37.6 percent from three-point territory), PF Al-Farouq Aminu (36.9 percent) and reserve SG Pat Connaughton (35.2 percent). Portland was middle of the pack in team scoring, but fifth overall in team defence, limiting their foes to 103.0 points per game. Nurkic, then, with his team-leading 9.0 rebounds and 1.41 blocks will have a lot to do with Portland disposing of New Orleans and having any kind of fighting chance in a likely second round tilt with Golden State.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
The hottest team in the NBA rides one heck of a season-ending streak into the playoffs. The Sixers won their last 16 games in a row, eight of them without injured Joel Embiid, who will miss at least game 1 against the Miami Heat in the first round (but is recovering fast). They ended their season by whipping Milwaukee 130-95 and come into that first round match-up against the Heat as favorites. Philly hasn’t been to the post-season since 2012 and have completely turned over their roster since then. Embiid, who suffered a broken bone near his left eye, played 63 games in his second NBA season and put up All-Star numbers (22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks). Since the Sixers were all right without him late in the season, the rest of the bunch should be able to keep the good times rolling against Miami. Rookie PG Ben Simmons has done it all in his inaugural season and is surrounded with talented shooters and playmakers like JJ Redick (42 percent three-point shooting) and Dario Saric (14.6 PPG, 6.7 rebounds).
4. Golden State Warriors
No Stephen Curry, no problem? The fact we are asking the question doesn’t bode well for the Warriors, who we think will still outclass first round opponent San Antonio, despite Curry’s absence. However, the veteran Spurs will grind the Dubs in a series we think could go at least six and if Curry isn’t in game shape for round 2, look out. This Warriors team took a beating in the stretch drive too, going 4-6 in its last 10 games, including a frightful 119-79 drubbing at the hands of the Utah Jazz in the season closer. That loss aside, the Warriors were still the highest scoring team in the NBA with 113.5 points per game and were far and away the best from beyond the arc at a collective 39.2 percent. Take away Curry’s 26.4 points and 42.3 percent three-point shooting from the equation, though, and things look a little more stark (like they did in that embarrassing loss to the Jazz). Kevin Durant (26.4 PPG) Klay Thompson (44 percent three-point shooting) and Draymond Green (7.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists) still need to be taken seriously and will guide the Dubs at least through the first round.
3. Toronto Raptors
We are going way out on a limb here, considering the Raptors recent history of playoff chokes. And one team they coughed up a fur ball against in recent memory is first round opponent Washington, who swept them aside in 2015. That was then, this is now. The biggest improvement in this edition of the Raptors is bench depth. Where they used to rely solely on stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, they can now call on a superb supporting cast including SF CJ Miles, PG Fred VanVleet, PF Pascal Siakam and C Jakob Poeltl and rookie SF OG Anunoby. Jonas Valanciunas has come along way in a few years and they added tough defender Serge Ibaka to the mix. On both sides of the ball the Raptors improved this season, as they finished tied for third in team points (111.7) and tied for sixth with Houston in points against (103.9). Toronto ended the season on a pretty good note, winning four of their last six, including victories against Boston and Indiana to clinch their first ever Eastern Conference crown. They should battle into the east finals, at least.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
For short periods this season, it was a tire fire in Cleveland. The only constant, amid some at time indifferent play and a plethora of roster moves, was LeBron James. The King played all 82 games for the first time in his career and did LeBron things like score 27.5 points per game, pull down 8.6 rebounds, dish out 9.1 assists and steal the ball 1.4 times per game. Otherwise, Isaiah Thomas was a distraction before being shipped out and James lost his shotgun partner Dwyane Wade to a trade too. The starting five now includes SG Rodney Hood (with veterans JR Smith and George Hill behind), PF Jeff Green, SF Cedi Osman (Kyle Korver in reserve), C Kevin Love and PG James (who can count on newbie Jordan Clarkson behind him). Cleveland finished up a season that saw them finish a distant fourth in the east with wins in four of six games in April and we think they will gel at the right time to make it all the way to the finals.
1. Houston Rockets
A team that used to be James Harden and no one else has finally put it all together and in our estimation is primed to win it all. It’s been 23 years since the Rockets were champs, when Hakeem Olajuwon was still a thing in Texas. In recent years, with Harden running the show, the Rockets have lost in the first round (2013 and 2014), lost in the Western Conference finals (2015), lost in the first round again (2016 to Golden State) and lost in the second round (2017 to San Antonio). Harden, Chris Paul and the boys draw Minnesota in the first round, which they should take in four. The likely MVP, Harden, will have more help this time around, with superstar guard Paul and emerging talent C Clint Capela lending him a big hand and keeping the Houston game dynamic. There is much to like on a Houston team that finished first overall in the NBA, including a supporting cast members Eric Gordon (18 PPG), SF Trevor Ariza (11.7 PPG, 1.5 steals) and SF PJ Tucker. We would be very surprised if Houston doesn’t at least make it to the finals.