The NBA Playoff Picture, From Hopefuls to Contenders

It is that time of year again. Jackets come off, students flood Colgate’s lawns and moods are lifting. However, more importantly, warm weather signals that the NBA playoffs are back.

Over the past six months, 32 teams slogged through a bloated 82-game schedule. Now, only the top 16 teams remain. Their reward? As many as two more grueling months of hard-fought, physical playoff basketball. As fans, we couldn’t ask for anything more. In the coming weeks, previously unknown players will become household names, stars will choke in the biggest moments and, in the end, one team will stand above the rest. 

The league currently finds itself in a state of unprecedented parity. The title race truly is wide open, with no clear frontrunner. Every team is beatable. With that said, let’s look at the teams competing in each conference.

In the East, there is a clear upper echelon of contenders. Led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks secured the best record in the league for the third time in the last five years and currently have the best odds to win the championship. Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday anchor an absolutely stifling defense, and the team enjoys strong depth off the bench. Their half-court offense is an area of concern, but anything less than a championship would be a huge disappointment for a team that has cruised through the regular season. 

Coming off a finals loss last year, the Boston Celtics opened up the season on a tear, jumping out to a league-best 35-12 record by mid-January. While still one of the league’s top teams, the Celtics appeared much more beatable over the last few months as their three-point shooting has cooled off considerably. Led by two superstar wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a finals run is well within reach for Boston. But, even the most devoted fans (me being one of them) will tell you, their confidence has been shaken.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the last team with legitimate title aspirations in the East. Led by MVP-hopeful (and my personal frontrunner) Joel Embiid, the Sixers look to finally get over the hump. Ultimately, Philly’s chances hinge on the contributions of Embiid’s supporting cast, specifically his all-star running mate and the NBA’s assist leader, James Harden. Harden has frequently disappeared in the playoffs in years past and has never seemed particularly interested in playing inspired defense. Will Harden and fellow score-first guard Tyrese Maxey be able to get clutch defensive stops? It will determine whether Embiid can finally reach that elusive first conference finals appearance. 

With no disrespect to the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets — all of which had outstanding seasons — barring injury or a complete collapse by the top contenders, their title hopes seem slim to none.  

Unlike the East, the Western Conference is wide open. Mid-season trades and late-season runs have created a playoff picture where anything can happen. 

The Denver Nuggets command the number-one seed in the West but are coming into the playoffs in somewhat of a tailspin, losing five of their last seven games. Reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic leads the team backed by far and away the best supporting cast he’s ever had. Point guard Jamal Murray has already proven he can perform in high-leverage playoff settings. If Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and the rest of Jokic’s supporting cast can compliment him with quality play, the Nuggets can beat anyone.

Ja Morant and the Grizzlies have endured a turbulent season that saw Morant frequently lambasted by the media for a variety of poor decisions. However, when dialed in, Morant is one of the best offensive players in the league and can carry the Grizzlies’ offense by himself. While a run past the conference finals may be improbable, the Grizzlies are a young, physical team with a stout defense. If they can block out distractions and focus on basketball, they will be a tough out. 

The biggest surprise of the regular season is unequivocally the Sacramento Kings. As the longtime punching bag of the NBA, the Kings turned their fortunes around this year in a big way. Led by guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Domantas Sabonis, the Kings possess a dynamic offense that can score in a hurry. The team has serious defensive struggles and lacks playoff experience, something their first-round opponents (the Warriors) do not have to worry about. However, the Kings have been counted out all year, and that hasn’t seem to stop them yet.

The Phoenix Suns are my favorites to win the championship, and it’s really not hard to see why. The midseason acquisition of Kevin Durant is one of the most monumental trades in NBA history. Adding one of the top scorers in the history of basketball to a team that already has a top shooting guard in Devin Booker, and an incredible floor general in Chris Paul, is almost unfair. The Suns definitely sacrificed depth to get Durant, and the health of veterans Paul (37) and Durant (34) will be something to monitor as the playoffs progress. However, the absolute dominance of the Suns when their Big Three is on the floor is truly terrifying. This should be the year CP3 finally gets his ring. 

The final three teams I want to discuss are all in similar positions. The Clippers, Warriors and Lakers hold the five through seven seeds in the West, but are all extremely dangerous. While they may not be title contenders per se, all of these teams are dark horse candidates to win at least one round.

The Clippers coasted through the regular season as their stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, took frequent rest days and were in and out of the lineup. However, the pure star power of this team makes them intriguing: Kawhi was considered the best player on the planet not long ago. 

The Warriors had a middling season by their standards, but still come into the playoffs with their core intact. With Curry, Thompson, Draymond and Poole, the Warriors will never be out of the game. Their record on the road is alarmingly poor, but if forward Andrew Wiggins is healthy, the Warriors are arguably the favorite in round one versus Sacramento.

At the trade deadline, the Lakers were supposed to be dead in the water. Lebron James and Anthony Davis were frequently hurt, the team was handicapped by Russell Westbrook and his albatross of a contract, and they flat-out could not shoot the basketball. However, buoyed by the additions of D’Angelo Russell and Jared Vanderbilt, and the emergence of Austin Reaves, the Lakers come into the playoffs playing their best basketball of the year. Even at 38 years old, Lebron is still a top-five player in the NBA, and he now has a competent team around him. This may be Lebron and AD’s last chance for a title run. Whether they go far or not, this team will give it everything they have.

First-Round Series to watch: Warriors vs. Kings

Breakout players to watch: De’Aaron Fox, Mikal Bridges, Austin Reaves

Finals Prediction: Suns vs. Celtics (I have to be biased, sorry) 

NBA Champion: Suns