The NBA Playoffs are, comparatively speaking, wide open. Houston, Golden State, Cleveland, and maybe Toronto are expected to win their first-round matchups. Everything else is up for grabs. Ranking the remaining 16 teams by their championship odds is a much harder—but much more interesting—endeavor than it has been in years. With that said, here are my top picks.
16. Washington Wizards, Eastern Conference 8th seed.
As far as eight vs. one seed matchups go, the Wizards are actually in pretty good shape. The teams split their season series, and in 2015 Washington earned a first-round sweep over Toronto with similar roster configurations. Washington’s backcourt poses a two-way nightmare for the North, who may be forced to run much of their offense through Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. This series could go the distance, and an upset is absolutely in the cards. But Washington’s playoff path is just too difficult. To win a championship, they will likely have to win series against Toronto, Cleveland, Boston/Philadelphia, and the Western Conference champion. That’s one of the hardest paths of any team, and especially with a recovering John Wall, the Wizards don’t have the firepower or the stamina to get it done.
15. Indiana Pacers, Eastern Conference 5th seed.
The only team in the East that can claim a tougher path than Washington is Indiana. Last year, Indiana slumped into the 7th seed, where they were expeditiously swept by the Cavaliers. After trading star Paul George last offseason, the new-look Pacers exceeded all expectations, cruising to the 5th seed and earning a first-round matchup with… the Cavaliers. The Pacers—who are led by relatively unknown playoff quantities in Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner—could maybe shock the world and end LeBron James’ seven-year streak as conference champion. If they do, they’ll have the same daunting path as Washington. The luck will run out eventually.
14. Utah Jazz, Western Conference 5th seed.
Utah vs. Oklahoma City is perhaps the most intriguing first-round series. The teams project to be fairly evenly matched, and there are great storylines on both side; for the Jazz, primarily, it is the story of Donovan Mitchell’s playoff debut. But while the Jazz is probably a push bet to reach the second round, they have long odds of making any more noise than that. A second-round date with the Rockets would be nightmarish. The Jazz’s strength—interior defense—would probably be easily negated by Houston’s bevy of long-range shooters, and ball-dominant players like Mitchell often struggle in their first playoff go-around. It’s easy to see Utah beating the Thunder four times, but it’s very hard to see them going any further.
13. Miami Heat, Eastern Conference 6th seed.
The Heat relied on a well-rounded attack and a deep bench to carry them through the regular season. In the playoffs, when starters play huge minutes and benches fade into the background, that strategy tends to be exposed. They could surprise the talking heads and pull out a win against the 76ers, especially if Joel Embiid sits and Erik Spoelstra can “solve” Ben Simmons. But with possible eventual match-ups against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, James, and Kevin Durant or James Harden, Miami just doesn’t have the personnel to match up.
12. New Orleans Pelicans, Western Conference 6th seed.
With a healthy DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans are looking at an entirely different playoff picture. Rajon Rondo has a well-earned reputation for becoming a force in the playoffs, and his connection with Cousins—dating back to their time in Sacramento—was real and fearsome. Without Cousins, the Pelicans are one-dimensional and have perhaps three viable playoff minute-eaters in Rondo, Anthony Davis, and Jrue Holiday. Benches might not be as important this time of year, but you still need five players on the court. I’d expect Portland to shoot their lights out first round. If they escape, they earn a series with Golden State, who swept Davis in his first and only playoff appearance.
11. Milwaukee Bucks, Eastern Conference 7th seed.
The Bucks get a huge boost by stumbling into a first-round matchup with Boston, who suddenly is without their best scorer in Kyrie Irving. In Antetokounmpo, the Bucks would now have the best player on the floor in their first-round matchup (over Al Horford), in the second round (over Joel Embiid or Goran Dragic), and even in the Eastern Conference Finals (over Kyle Lowry, John Wall, or Victor Oladipo) were the Cavs to be upset. There’s something to be said for star power in the playoffs. But Milwaukee’s plodding defense hasn’t been able to utilize its length and versatility, and unless that changes soon, it’s tough to imagine the Bucks containing creative offenses like Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto, much less Golden State or Houston.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves, Western Conference 8th seed.
With a healthy Jimmy Butler, the Wolves have a terrifying roster, and Wednesday night’s win-or-go-home victory against Denver proved their capacity to thrive against hard-nosed, playoff-style basketball. The biggest mark against them? Luck of the draw. The Rockets are an absolutely brutal first round draw for a team that was on course for the third seed before Butler’s injury. If they survive round one, Minnesota is suddenly a huge part of the championship conversation. But no coach has found an answer for James Harden yet this season, and with Minnesota’s defensive personnel (Butler, Taj Gibson, and a rotating cast of turnstiles) it’s hard to imagine Tom Thibodeau being that coach.
9. Boston Celtics, Eastern Conference 2nd seed.
Boston has the league’s most exciting young core, but after Irving’s injury, this isn’t their year. Jayson Tatum has been good, but he’s certainly not ready to run a playoff offense. With Irving and hopefully Gordon Hayward healthy next year, the Celtics will be much more threatening.
8. Portland Trail Blazers, Western Conference 3rd seed.
Portland’s season, to me, screams red herring. A mid-season hot streak propelled the team to their highest seed in the Damian Lillard era and earns them an advantageous first round with New Orleans. But is anything really different about this team than last year’s version, which was swept by a banged-up Golden State? Having Jusuf Nurkić healthy is a major boost, and Shabazz Napier has emerged a bit off the bench. To my eyes, though, the average Portland game looks roughly the same. Unless they have a not-yet-seen second gear, a round two rematch with the Warriors seems like a death sentence.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder, Western Conference 4th seed.
We all know the drill. This year is probably the Thunder’s last chance. After years of dominance with Durant, Russell Westbrook has continued to thrive individually as top dog, winning an MVP and posting unprecedented back-to-back seasons of triple-double averages. But despite reloading this offseason by adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City continued to struggle through the regular season and did little to instill fear in any of the powerhouses in the West. If they don’t make noise in the playoffs this year, George is gone, and Westbrook’s championship window could be over. They have the talent, but with their legacies on the line, Westbrook and George need to show up when it matters most.
6. Philadelphia 76ers, Western Conference 3rd seed.
As the NBA’s hottest team, the Sixers are an increasingly trendy pick to survive the Eastern Conference playoffs. Their path to the Conference Finals is probably the easiest in the league, and their roster configuration embodies everything that has led to recent playoff success, with the noticeable exception of Simmons’ nonexistent jumpshot. The Process worked, full stop. But with everyone now aboard the hype train, I’m worried that it may have gone a bit off the rails. Red flags abound; Embiid may miss time, Simmons’ game may not translate well, and the roster has virtually no playoff experience. The Sixers barely scraped by last week against regular season LeBron; are they really well-rounded enough to slay playoff LeBron?
5. San Antonio Spurs, Western Conference 7th seed.
If Steph Curry plays the first round and Kawhi Leonard does not—the former of which is a strong possibility and the latter of which is a near certainty—then the Spurs are dead in the water. Still, the slight possibility of a healthy-enough Kawhi makes the Spurs the “best of the worst” in terms of championship odds. The best-coached team in basketball has been here many times before and has every ingredient of the championship formula except personnel. But although the Spurs may not have a well-rounded roster, with apologies to Draymond Green, nobody on the Warriors can match up with LaMarcus Aldridge. If he can go supernova on a Curry-less Golden State, the Spurs might just have a chance and suddenly would look very, very scary.
4. Toronto Raptors, Eastern Conference 1st seed.
A lot of more qualified people are buying what the Raptors are selling this year. I’m skeptical though. Much like Portland, this team has gone out and won games, which is obviously the most important metric. But watching a 2018 Raptors game and a 2017 Raptors game isn’t as different of an experience as many would like you to believe. The much-ballyhooed bench mob is, certainly, a huge difference, but it’s one that may not have lasting power in the playoffs. Fred VanVleet has been stellar against the likes of Tomáš Satoranský and T.J. McConnell; with John Wall and Ben Simmons likely to play huge minutes, VanVleet and co. may see their roles evaporating. Otherwise, the Raptors’ core four is essentially the same. Serge Ibaka and DeMar DeRozan are playing marginally better than last year, Jonas Valančiūnas is producing at the same rate, and Lowry’s numbers are a bit down. Fundamentally, this is the same team that the Cavaliers have easily dispatched in each of the past two playoffs. Maybe this is the year that changes, but I wouldn’t count on it.
3. Houston Rockets, Western Conference 1st seed.
The Rockets will probably enter the playoffs as Vegas championship favorites, and for good reason. James Harden wouldn’t have my MVP vote, but he will win it, and I won’t be upset—he’s been transcendent on offense and meshed with Chris Paul much more seamlessly than anticipated. They play at a slower pace than most people realize, which tends to translate well to grit-and-grind playoff basketball. We’ve all seen the stats about their record when Paul, Harden, and defensive anchor Clint Capela all play. If this is the team to finally dethrone Golden State, nobody should be shocked. Yet something about the team tells me to pump the brakes. The obvious criticism is that Paul and Harden have a reputation for disappearing in the playoffs, one that is more substantiated by stats for Harden than for Paul. But my bigger concern is how Houston goes about scoring its points. The team makes most of their offensive bones from behind the arc and at the free throw line. In the playoffs, where referees get a bit tighter with their whistles (especially in crunch time), the latter may become a huge issue. The former is also a bit scary because of how they earn their three-pointers. The Rockets have a higher proportion of unassisted three-pointers than any team in the league, largely because of Harden’s infatuation with the step-back three. Houston excels at knocking down these semi-contested shots, but in the playoffs, off-the-dribble threes are likely to be quickly closed out on. The Rockets will most likely cruise to the Western Conference Finals, but to topple Golden State, they’ll need to show adaptability.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers, Eastern Conference 4th seed.
Is this the year that LeBron’s historic finals streak comes to an end? Many NBA fans and talking heads seem to think so. Color me unconvinced. Obviously, the Cavs lack a second isolation scoring threat unless someone braver than I wants to try and make the comparison between Jordan Clarkson and Irving. Otherwise, though, their roster is top-down improved from last year’s version, which cruised through the Eastern Conference, and after Irving’s injury, their field may not be any more difficult. I’d take either Houston or Golden State over the Cavs in a seven-game series. But their demise has been greatly exaggerated, and the odds that they make the Finals should be better than even. Like it or not, that’s more than you can say about the Rockets.
1. Golden State Warriors, Western Conference 2nd Seed.
A Warriors championship would undoubtedly be the darkest timeline, but it also is the most probable. Everything hinges on Curry’s health—though they’ve performed well in his absence, the offense becomes very earthly without the play-making inherently created by Curry’s gravitational pull. Otherwise, there’s not much to be said about this roster. They self-admittedly coasted in the regular season and lost seven more games than Houston. Do seven games against different competition and with different effort levels make the Rockets a better team? Not for my money. I don’t like the Warriors, but they’ve earned our respect, and until I have a good reason not to, I’m picking the best team since Jordan’s Bulls. Warriors over Cavs in five, again.
Sam Prescott can be reached at email@example.com.