The NBA Playoffs have now reached the second “hump day” in the annual postseason tournament, and while two teams have flamed out— sorry Heat and Celtics fans— the remaining outfits all possess varying levels of likelihood to reach and conquer basketball’s ultimate stage, the NBA Finals.
While teams like the Wizards, Grizzlies and Knicks may currently be sitting in disadvantageous positions, the playoffs have been magical as of late: last year’s bubble experiment saw the Nuggets complete consecutive 3-1 series comebacks, first against the #6 Utah Jazz and immediately thereafter against the #2 Los Angeles Clippers, while superstar talent in the “next generation” of professional players has put every top ballclub on upset alert at any given time.
So, here is the deal: there will only be one winner of the Finals this year; there are teams that are more likely champions than others, but every squad has the ability to make a run to the top of the mountain— this is why.
#1 Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers have surged following last offseason’s acquisitions of Head Coach Doc Rivers, along with three-point snipers Seth Curry and Danny Green. Dwight Howard has also been huge for Phili off of the bench, posting a league-high 17.5 rebounds per 36 minutes of action, providing consistency off the bench for a team that had finished outside of the top-10 in total rebounds despite a lengthy rotation.
The 76ers lean heavily on the play of center Joel Embiid, an early-season favorite for Most Valuable Player before, predictably, injuries forced the former Kansas Jayhawk to miss an extended period of time. Embiid is flanked by Ben Simmons, a nominee for Defensive Player of the Year, and Tobias Harris, who posted a playoff career-high 37 points in game one of the series against the Washington Wizards.
Philadelphia has failed to reach the Finals with Joel Embiid as the primary scorer, falling memorably to the Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals and the third-seeded Boston Celtics in the first round last year.
The 76ers can get scoring from any one of their starters and have tremendous defensive ability on their bench, led by the previously mentioned Howard and sophomore Matisse Thybulle. A midseason move for veteran guard George Hill also bolstered the team’s three-point prowess (Hill shot 39.1% from deep this season).
Philadelphia’s path to a championship will have to come through the experience of their head coach, while Joel Embiid must play every game at an MVP level; if he can, the constant pressure from Ben Simmons and the quick-trigger scoring of the Sixer wings is enough to overcome any opponent in the NBA.
Philadelphia’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: Extra medium
#2 Brooklyn Nets
With respect to the 95-96 Chicago Bulls and any number of 20th-century Celtics or Lakers teams, or even the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, these Brooklyn Nets are the most talented team ever assembled.
Putting aside the fact that Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden have career highs of 54, 57 and 61 points, the Nets supporting cast is Oscar-worthy. Joe Harris leads “the others” with a league-best 47.5% average from beyond the arc while six-time All-Star Blake Griffin and 13-year veteran Jeff Green fill in the gaps in the starting five, depending on the Nets’ opposition for the evening.
Rookie Head Coach Steve Nash was accused of being a passenger on Brooklyn’s road to success early in the season but has continued to win when having the services of a fully healthy roster.
James Harden has emerged as the most integral piece to the Nets’ rotation despite only joining the team in January, as his 10.9 assists per contest have benefited his star teammates greatly. Interestingly, Harden is attempting his fewest average number of shots per game since the 2013-14 season, meaning that he has fully embraced being the team’s primary facilitator.
The Nets do not have to do anything fancy to win this year’s Finals; they are the odds-on favorites and can win solely through their level of skill, even if they are devoid of defensive ability or brilliant schematics.
It would take an interjection from a higher authority to hold Brooklyn out of the Championship round, and not much less to block them from snatching the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Brooklyn’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: Higher than anyone else
#3 Milwaukee Bucks
No, Giannis Antetoukounmpo will not three-peat as NBA MVP; however, he may be rewarded with an even greater prize by the conclusion of the playoffs.
Mike Budenholzer has continued to assemble an arsenal of scorers around the “Greek Freak”, getting an average of 10+ points per game from two players not in his starting five, Bobby Portis and Brynn Forbes.
The Bucks acquired All-Star guard and elite defender Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and a litany of draft picks, and the gamble seems to be paying off.
Milwaukee has already completed the sweep over their first-round opponent in the Miami Heat, sending last year’s Eastern Conference representatives packing early and gaining an extra bit of rest in the process.
Budenholzer has become notorious for playing his primary star fewer minutes than any other MVP-caliber player in the league, reflecting his team-first approach to the game.
The Bucks are capable of raining threes on anyone standing in their way, with the ever-present threat of a downhill Giannis forcing opposing teams to honor the interior defensively, and creating space on the wing for easy looks from deep.
Milwaukee’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: Higher than you think
#4 New York Knicks
Yes, they are facing elimination in their next game; yes, Julius Randle has gone from the regular season’s Most Improved Player to the postseason’s Least Impressive Player; yes, Trae Young is running the Knicks defense ragged; but, they are made of the right stuff.
Tom Thibodeau has transformed the Knicks from the laughingstock of the league to a top-four seed in an improving Eastern Conference, mostly thanks to an All-Star season from Julius Randle.
Derrick Rose has impressed since coming over from Detroit and reuniting with his former coach on the Chicago Bulls, even though he has described himself as a “completely different player.”
The Knicks buttered their bread with stingy defense and a never-say-die attitude during the regular season that is currently being put to the test by a young Atlanta Hawks team.
New York will, in all likelihood, have to wait for another run at a max contract player before they become a bona fide title threat, but if defense wins championships, the Knicks will be dancing to glory in the coming weeks.
New York’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: Discouragingly low
#5 Atlanta Hawks
Perhaps the Knicks’ kryptonite, the Hawks are flying high under interim Head Coach Nate McMillan and third-year point guard Trae Young.
Every member of Atlanta’s starting five averaged at least 15 PPG this season while Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter and Lou Williams provided another 33.1 off the bench, making the Hawks one of the NBA’s preeminent offensive teams.
This one is simple: the Hawks are young, and they make mistakes, but their spread of ability and scoring is undeniable.
The A-Town representatives could run into trouble if an opponent figures out how to lessen Trae Young’s effectiveness as a playmaker, but until someone consistently demonstrates themselves to be capable of such a feat, the Hawks will scare a couple of rosters.
Atlanta’s probability of winning the Finals: Low this year, higher in the future
#8 Washington Wizards
The Wizards did a tremendous job in the latter part of the season to make their way into the play-in game after starting the season with one of the worst records in the Association.
Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double in the regular season for the fourth time in his historic career, while Bradley Beal finished behind only Steph Curry in the league’s scoring title.
Davis Bertans has been reported to be sidelined for four-six weeks with a calf injury sustained in game four against the 76ers, the Wizards’ lone win in the series. Washington won despite inefficient shooting performances from Beal and Westbrook, and because of horrific free-throw shooting from Ben Simmons.
The Wiz are likely to face a Joel Embiid-less Sixer lineup in game five, which could afford Scott Brooks’ men the opportunity to gather some momentum after falling behind 0-3 in the series.
Washington’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: Lower than Miami’s
#1 Utah Jazz
Even after Lebron James’ disparaging comment, the Jazz hung onto the league’s top record.
The Jazz make more threes than any other team in the NBA and have incredible guard play in the form of All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley and Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson— not to mention the assistance of two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
Utah may have been a less-than-serious threat in years past, but now they are for real. Quin Snyder has put together a tough outfit that feels slighted by the lack of national attention, making them hungry and dangerous in these playoffs.
The Jazz are benefactors of being able to compete at any tempo, thanks to their ability to stretch the floor in fast-paced games, and to use individual brilliance to score out of isolation in slower affairs, the second of which will coalesce more than once as the playoffs go on.
The West’s best are not a sexy pick to win, or even make the finals, given their history as a team, but where John Stockton and Karl Malone failed, perhaps Mitchell and Gobert form an unassuming duo capable of avenging their predecessors.
Utah’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: A very enticing “maybe”
#2 Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul did it again, elevating the Suns’ franchise from a bottom feeder to having the conference’s second-best record this season.
Phoenix showed their flash of ability in the bubble last season, going 8-0 during the pre-playoff batch of “warmup” games, and have carried that momentum through the entire year.
Devin Booker made his first All-Star team this season after averaging 25.6 points and continues to prove himself as one of the NBA’s brightest young players.
The Suns landed a less than optimal faceoff with the buzzsaw that is the Los Angeles Lakers, but they have shown up and, at times, punked the Lakers so far in the series— see game five.
Former Arizona Wildcat DeAndre Ayton has dominated the interior in the early games and is responsible for putting the Suns in the position that they currently are in, up 3-2. Cameron Payne has also been scoring the ball incredibly effectively and has revitalized his career in the desert.
Like Utah, Phoenix is not used to being the favorite for anything other than maybe jersey sales— those color schemes are really cool— but they have proved themselves time and time again this season.
Phoenix’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: Sorry, Chris Paul, I am not buying it
#3 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets lost their second-best player, Jamal Murray, for the rest of the year, yet they may have gotten better.
Nikola Jokic is presumed to be taking home this year’s MVP award, making him the first full-time center to do so since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-00. This is even more impressive given the spacing of today’s game and the increased attention to guards and is a primary reason the Nuggets have flown so high this year.
Michael Porter Jr. has begun to fulfill the potential that his high school mixtape showed, and that has been essential to Denver’s growth as a team.
A late-season signing of Austin Rivers provided the Nuggets with an isolation-based scorer that can complement the playmaking of 30-year old rookie Facundo Campazzo and the shooting of forward JaMychal Green.
The Nuggets showed their resilience in last year’s playoffs by overcoming multiple 1-3 deficits and in a double-overtime game five against Portland and will be out for blood after the Lakers spoiled their early-round efforts last season.
Denver’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: Good enough to be the under
#4 Los Angeles Clippers
Ah, the league’s most intriguing playoff outfit.
The Clippers folded in the bubble last season, throwing away three straight double-digit second-half leads to the Nuggets and allowing a 3-1 comeback. LA seemed to be up to their old ways against the Dallas Mavericks this season, dropping both games on their home court, only to respond with two away wins in Dallas.
The Clippers led the league in three-point percentage as well as free-throw shooting and largely climbed the conference standings behind their stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
The additions of Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Rajon Rondo added depth to the roster, though none of these three have played up to their potential in these playoffs thus far: if they can put it all together, though, it is hard to pin them as anything other than a top-two team in the West.
LA’s play for a title will be to continue to get efficient scoring from Paul George, who has a reputation for disappearing in the playoffs, while Kawhi Leonard must be his usual, steady self. With the amount of experience on the bench and a Championship coach in Tyronn Lue, they have the means to win it all.
Los Angeles’ probability of winning the NBA Finals: Relatively high if Paul George does not choke
#5 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs received incredible contributions from their supporting cast in the first three games, even though they dropped the final of these, while the fourth game was pitiful for all members.
No team in NBA playoff history had converted 20+ three-pointers and still lost until Dallas did in game three, meaning that they will consider themselves unlucky to be tied at 2-2 instead of ahead 3-1.
Luka Doncic has it out for the Clippers after a few altercations with LA members in last year’s playoffs and has been relentless so far this time around, averaging 33.3 points, 8.3 assists and 8 rebounds.
On the other hand, Luka’s free-throw shooting has been abhorrent in this series: Doncic has made only 40.6% of his freebies thus far, leaving 19 of his 32 attempts at the charity stripe somewhere outside of the bottom of the net.
Kristaps Porzingis has also been relatively terrible, averaging 4.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game fewer than he did in the regular season. Tim Hardaway has been a godsend for the Mavericks in the postseason, posting a line of 16.3 points and 55.6% 3PT in the first four games.
Dallas will probably not reach the Finals this season, but they very well make sure that the Clippers do not as well.
Dallas’ probability of winning the NBA Finals: 3 out of 10
#6 Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard and Company are familiar with being the underdog in the playoffs and have shown that they are not afraid of the higher-seeded Denver Nuggets in their opening bout.
The Blazers reached the Conference Finals in 2019 before being swept by the Golden State Warriors, and Dame Dolla appears to be realizing that his legacy is on the line as he enters the back half of his prime years.
Jusuf Nurkic has struggled to contain Nikola Jokic and stay out of foul trouble in the series, but Portland’s hot shooting from their guards has kept them in with a shout of toppling the mountain that is Denver.
Lillard has scored 34+ points in four of the five matchups in this series, including a 55-point eruption that contained a playoff record of 12 made threes, while CJ McCollum has averaged 20.6 points. Carmelo Anthony has been solid off the bench, and Norman Powell produced a 29-point performance in a game four that the Trail Blazers won, making this series too close to call.
Portland scores the ball effectively and defends ineffectively, epitomizing the Terry Stotts reign in the Pacific Northwest: still, all it takes is a few good defensive sequences in key games to make the difference.
Portland’s probability of winning the NBA Finals: If they can make it to “Dame Time,” then there is a marginal chance
#7 Los Angeles Lakers
These are not the same Lakers as last season— they are less experienced on the big stage, injury-prone and less imposing.
With all of that being said, the Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, neither of which are yet to go nuclear hot in the playoffs. LeBron has been dealing with an ankle ailment while Davis missed game five with a groin strain, but it is hard to pick against this duo no matter how much they are limited.
Finding themselves trailing 2-3, LA is really up against it. None of their returning champions seem to have that internal fire, while the new arrivals have been unable to elevate them in the series either.
The Lakers have struggled all season long to find a competent and consistent third scorer in the presence of James and Davis, even though their roster is filled with talent. Andre Drummond does not seem to be a key figure in Head Coach Frank Vogel’s rotation, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell cannot find his way onto the court before garbage time, Kyle Kuzma is doing his best to remind everyone that the Jayson Tatum comparisons were ridiculous, and Dennis Schroeder has not played winning basketball in the important moments.
The Lakers do not shoot the three or free-throws well, but they do defend at a higher level than any other team in the NBA. The Lakers will have to follow their two superstars and play decisive defense down the stretch of close games to make it to the Finals— but if they get there, all bets are off.
Los Angeles’ probability of winning the NBA Finals: Growing higher the further they can make it
#8 Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are a fun, tough, young squad that pulls off highlight plays and head-scratching mistakes alike.
The Grizzlies took a game off of the Jazz thanks to a special sort of heroics from Morant, and while they are not out just yet, they are down. Look for the Grizzlies to be a team that most want to avoid in the coming years, though their time has not arrived just yet.
It is hard to imagine a path through the Finals for Memphis unless Morant can put up 35 and 10 every game the rest of the way, although if there is one man to try, it is him.
Memphis’ probability of winning the NBA Finals: Low like Flo Rida