With the final week of the NBA regular season upon us, that means playoff basketball is right around the corner. Each team has just a handful of games left as they make their push for a top seed or just a Play-In Tournament berth.
Though a lot can change in just one week of basketball, I’ve put together what I think are the top 5 teams in the NBA going into the playoffs. This is not a ranking of championship favorites, rather who has shown the most promise ahead of the long march towards June.
5. Phoenix Suns
Placing Phoenix anywhere on this list is already a controversial choice. They’ve had comparatively a much worse season than last year when they finished with the best record in the NBA. Early on, they seemed broken and unfocused. Their devastating playoff loss to Dallas looked as though it was weighing on their minds.
But just as things were starting to turn around, Phoenix acquired Kevin Durant from the Brooklyn Nets. This move sent shockwaves through the NBA and single-handedly launched the Suns back into title contention. Though his playing time with the Suns has been limited due to injury, the potential this team shows when healthy is off the charts. If they put it together, there’s no reason they don’t make the Finals, especially considering the weak western conference.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers have had a great season, though they’ve lived in the shadow of the eastern conference’s top-2 teams all year. The season is highlighted by the dominant, MVP-caliber play of Joel Embiid, as well as the resurgence of James Harden, albeit as a pass-first player rather than a scorer.
If you had to point to one thing that’s causing the 76ers’ success, though, it would be that transformation of Harden. His ability to create opportunities on offense for his teammates is spectacular and was always an underrated part of his game while he was one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA.
The problem with Philly is that they still struggle to keep up with the best teams. Against Milwaukee and Boston, teams they will have to get past if they want to reach the Finals, they’ve had a difficult time winning consistently. Only time will tell if they can finally get over that hump.
3. Denver Nuggets
Despite them only having a 1-seed due to their weaker conference, I just couldn’t leave Denver off this list. This team is finally healthy this year, and their record shows it. It’s not just the MVP-level play of star center Nikola Jokic that’s propelled them to leading the western conference; it’s also the contributions of reliable players like Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown.
The problem with Denver is, once again, they’re in the weaker conference. If they were in the east, it’s safe to assume they wouldn’t even be close to the spot they’re in right now. When matched up against star-studded teams like Phoenix in the playoffs, I’m not too sure the Nuggets will be able to keep up, let alone win a grueling seven-game series.
However, they still earn the number-3 spot on this list because any team at the top of their conference deserves respect.
2. Boston Celtics
The gap between Boston and the number-1 team on this list is so tight, but I had to place Boston just below due to their recent inconsistency. Despite that, they’ve proven to play exceptionally well against the best teams in the league. It looks like this team just wants to get to the playoffs, which is understandable considering how last season ended for them.
When Boston is on, they’re ON. Nothing proves that better than their beatdown of Milwaukee last week. The ball movement of this team is a sight to behold, not to mention the incredible scoring abilities of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics are chock-full of reliable contributors, including Malcolm Brogdon, a starting-caliber player who comes off their bench.
This team versatility is another one of their strengths. They can throw multiple different looks at opponents, whether that means starting Derrick White or Robert Williams III or perhaps bringing in the sharpshooter Sam Hauser off the bench for some sneaky scoring.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
I went back and forth between Boston and Milwaukee on who should be placed at number 1. I decided to go with the Bucks because they have the best record in the NBA and, despite their embarrassing loss to Boston last week, demand more respect than anyone else.
Though they’ve struggled against Boston, the same can’t be said for how the Bucks have played against anyone else. This team is absolutely loaded all the way through the roster, with the MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. They also have rock-solid defensive personnel, including the perimeter guard Jrue Holiday and the reliable big man Brook Lopez.
They’re the current favorites to win the NBA championship, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. With the 1-seed almost entirely secured, Milwaukee is set for a postseason run for the ages. NBA fans hope the Bucks and Celtics meet in the conference finals for a highly-anticipated heavyweight brawl.