NBA Playoffs Power Rankings: Grading Each Team's Championship Probability
We’re finally here and what a long strange journey it’s been.
The playoffs are here and we have another installation of The Crossover’s Power Rankings.
We will be ranking teams off the likelihood they win the title with a heavy emphasis on the paths they have to take in order to get there.
We’ll highlight a major strength and major weakness for each squad and provide a general synopsis of why they got put where they did.
Are you as excited as I am?
16. Magic | Seed: 7 | Overall: 42-40 | Previous Ranking: 11
Biggest Strength: Rebounding
Orlando gobbles up defensive rebounds and it will need to keep doing that if it wants any shot at picking up some wins and potentially springing an upset in this postseason. The Magic are third in the league in defensive-rebound percentage and are sure to harp on that as they prepare for a first-round meeting with the Raptors. They aren’t the strongest when it comes to the offensive boards though, so finding a way to bring that rebounding prowess to the other end of the court would be a major improvement to their situation, but as long as they do what they’ve been doing when it comes to collecting their opponents’ misses, the Magic should create a scenario where they give themselves a chance to steal games by getting hot.
If they can limit teams to one shot a possession, life becomes a lot easier on defense and you can get a little bit more motivated in a big game when you’re a tick more confident that a miss ends up in your hands and a backbreaking offensive rebound isn’t going to deflate your energy after a good defensive stand. Instead, hold out faith that opposing teams will get a one look and no more.
Biggest Weakness: Perimeter Options
If D.J. Augustin was the third guy in Utah’s guard rotation, he would be a big boost. If Evan Fournier was Houston’s third option in the backcourt, they could very well be title favorites. If Terrence Ross was lighting it up from off the bench in Oklahoma City, the West would have a completely different feel. But, the three of them are the top options in Orlando, which means one of those three who would be a great sixth or seventh man has to be the lead ball-handler and another also has to be in the starting lineup.
I was too pessimistic about what this group’s ceiling was earlier in the season, but this is the point in the year when players start to separate themselves even more. So a group that had what it took to make a surprising playoff run might not cause the joy their feel-good moment should because of the fear of seeing them get handled in the postseason.
I’ve been wrong before, but it doesn’t seem likely that Orlando’s third, fourth and fifth-leading scorers will provide the punch you need from the perimeter to excel at this point in the year, because a combined 45-point performance among those three isn’t going to be enough to cut it.
Overview: Orlando had one of the best closes to the regular season, but they also have the second-worst record of any playoff team and the second-worst opening round matchup with the Raptors. If only they could have moved up to get Philly or down to get this injured Milwaukee unit.
15. Pistons | Seed: 8 | Overall: 41-41 | Previous Ranking: 17
Biggest Strength: Interior Presence
Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond can do some damage on the inside.
Even when going up against MVP candidate, Blake has the ability to to be the best player on the court. And Drummond is going to outrebound whoever he is matched up against while also causing a disruption on defense through blocks and steals.
There aren’t many frontcourt duos that can compare to these two in the league today, and leaning on that will be big if Detroit is going to shock the Bucks.
Drummond is going to do all of his damage from inside 10 feet while Blake will take advantage of the entire court as he helps create for others and also stretches the floor with his three-point shooting. The two could combine for 50 points and 25 rebounds on any night, and it’s those types of efforts that will carry them to wins.
Biggest Weakness: Wings
Not many teams could match up well against a team with two All-Stars on the wing, and the case is no different for the Pistons, Langston Galloway, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard and Wayne Ellington will all have their moments where they show out, but trying to handle Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably going to be too much for that group.
As complimentary pieces on offense, each will get their opportunity to hit some big shots from off the ball, and if they can knocks them down, it will keep the door open for Blake to takeover and help them steal some games. But holding down opponents on defense might be too tall a task for this faction.
Overview: If Detroit could switch places with Orlando, both teams would be slightly higher just because of the matchup. But they didn’t, so now the Pistons get to go against Giannis after a rough end to the season.
14. Clippers | Seed: 8 | Overall: 48-34 | Previous Ranking: 13
Biggest Strength: Swagger
When Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley are at the heart of what you do, you’re going to carry yourself a bit differently than others. The Clippers know who they are and how the rest of the world sees them and their desire to prove everyone wrong will be a driving force behind any potential damage they do.
They can’t be underestimated any more than they’ve been all season, and they likely prefer it that way. If you didn’t already know about Montrezl Harrell and Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, don’t try to jump on board now. Exceeding expectations is what they did to get to this point and they hope of doing it again will keep them on their toes and ready to do damage when the moments come.
Biggest Weakness: Starting Lineup
Los Angeles has an amazing bench and a starting lineup that has the ability to jump on you quick to give that second unit the ability to play from ahead. But now, having two rookies guards and a second-year center is going to be a bit of an issue. Beverley and Danilo Gallinari will do everything in their power to keep the young guys going in the right direction, and they probably won’t even need that much assistance staying on track, but this challenge is likely going to be just a little too difficult for these young players. It doesn’t help that the team they are facing recently blew them out and has a starting group filled to the brim with All-Stars. If the bench plays to its maximum ability, they’ll take some major pressure off the starters, but it might be too little too late depending on just how games open up.
Overview: As much as I’ve loved the Clippers, particularly late in the season, they just got the worst matchup imaginable. Based off their record I’ll give them a little more love than Orlando and Detroit, but it’s hard to see them taking down Golden State.
13. Nets | Seed: 6 | Overall: 42-40 | Previous Ranking: 14
Biggest Strength: Pick-and-Roll Ball Handlers
D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie can get into attack mode at any time and they will keep the pressure on defenses at all times. They’ll likely be most lethal when they look to score, but if they find themselves with a circumstance to create for others they will do that as well.
So much of the postseason is about putting the ball in the right players’ hands and banking on them to win their battles, and these two will win their fair share of battles. If they can get to the free throw line to keep the defense on its heels everything else will open up with ease. But calls are a lot harder to come by in the playoffs, so they should out more faith in their ability to create separation and finish creatively around the rim.
Biggest Weakness: Experience
It’s hard to be a really good playoff team when you’ve never been in the playoffs. DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley can only provide but so much leadership, and without Allen Crabbe, the Nets are lacking in the veteran department and that is not the way teams generally advance in April. Can being young and dumb prove to be more beneficial than having experience to learn from and reflect on? Sure, at times. However, this feel likes one of those times when not really knowing what to expect will come back to haunt a team. Maybe they can overcome it, but adding on the pressure of being the road team, makes the lack of experience seem like too much to surmount.
Overview: Brooklyn got the pairing it needed to have some hope of advancing, especially with Joel Embiid banged up. An upset is more than possible, but there’s no way they do anything more than knock off the 76ers.
12. Pacers | Seed: 5 | Overall: 48-34 | Previous Ranking: 15
Biggest Strength: Fight
The Pacers are going to keep swinging and keep swinging hard as long as they are on the court. They might not connect with every swing, but when they do hit, it will cause some pain. They’ve been here before, so they have a great idea of just what it takes to compete at this level, and at the point they had to face LeBron James last season, every other opponent seems like small potatoes. When you’ve gone toe-to-toe with The King, you know your punches have some sting, even when everybody else swears you can’t hack it.
Biggest Weakness: Raw Talent
With a healthy Victor Oladipo, the Pacers have everything needed to make a run at the Eastern conference finals. But without their All-Star, this club doesn’t seem to have the horses needed to go on a deep run. And when their first pairing is against a group that was projected to have a big season in large part because of its star power, it’s a lot more difficult to see this ending well. Indiana has found ways all season to do more with less, but considering how things ended, it’s starting to feel like they’ve gone as far as they can without Oladipo.
Overview: Maybe, just maybe they can bring down Boston and carry that energy into an entertaining matchup with Milwaukee. But based off how the season ended and how they blew a shot at home-court in the first round, Indiana likeil goes home soon.
11. Trail Blazers | Seed: 3 | Overall: 53-29 | Previous Ranking: 8
Biggest Strength: Backcourt
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a nightmare for anybody to deal with. And at the point they will he needed to do even more than they did during the regular season to make up for Jusuf Nurkic’s absence makes them even scarier.
Coming off what is sure to be another All-NBA season, Lillard will be playing like man posed as he tries to avenge last season’s playoff sweep and the regular-season sweep by the Thunder.
If CJ can set up the role players a little more than he did in the regular season and shoot the three as well as he had prior to his injury, Portland still has enough to cause some damage.
The ball was naturally going to end up in their hands even more because of how the playoffs go, and they should do fine leading the offense, which had been one of the best in the league. No Nurk in the middle is rough, but the options on the outside aren’t too bad.
Biggest Weakness: Enes Kanter
The Trail Blazers’ offense shouldn’t take too much of a hit with Kanter in the post, but defense got much more challenging. Even though Kanter isn’t going to pass as well out the post as Nurkic he can still rack up easy points in one-on-one situations and by eating in the offensive glass.
But when it’s time to defend Russ and Steven Adams in the pick-and-roll, he’s going to be a hindrance. There’s no way around it. Kanter’s defense was the reason OKC couldn’t play him more the last time he was in the postseason and James Harden kept forcing switches onto the bigs. Now he gets to face former teammates who are more than accustomed to his poor play on that end. And if Portland survives, the next round will be a matchup with either Nikola Jokic or LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe he can rebound enough to make up for getting beat.
Overview: Portland did everything it could to avoid the Thunder who they went 0-4 against to get the Jazz, who they went 2-2 against. Alas, they need to figure out how to stop Paul George and then go on a run without their starting center who was a staple in their offense and a much better defender than the backup.
10. Celtics | Seed: 4 | Overall: 49-33 | Previous Ranking: 12
Biggest Strength: Leadership
This might sound absurd considering how this season has gone, but hear me out. If Boston is going to make a run, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris and Brad Stevens will all need to be at their best. And since all of them have enough playoff success to assume they will maximize what they can do, they only need to maintain that faith in themselves to get this ball rolling in the right direction.
Once Kyrie goes for 40, or Gordon drops 20 off the bench, or Big Al makes a defensive stop and follows it up with a great dime or Marcus goes on an 8-0 run by himself everybody in Boston will rejoice about how this group was always going to figure it out even if they didn’t get 67 wins.
And as for Stevens, well, losing Marcus Smart should be a horrible thing, but for some reason he does better with this team when it’s supposed to take a step back. He’s better with less talent, so even though a key defensive piece is out, that just means it’s a chance for Stevens to get more out of the roster than we expected. He’s back in his element.
Biggest Weakness: Chemistry
If we have reason to believe you all don’t really like each other, and you already spent the year underperforming in a more relaxed situation, it’s fair to think higher pressure and more stakes will exacerbate the dislike until it’s too much to get past.
If Kyrie is able to get past the BS that was on his mind throughout the season it is more than possible this team can stay close enough together for two months to do damage. But it’s also just as probable that the damage was already done and too much of the locker room thinks Kyrie already has one foot out the door after backing off his promise to re-sign.
We don’t know exactly what everybody is thinking or how they feel, but the quotes we’ve heard make it seem like this team will be happy to get away from each other by mid-May at the latest.
Overview: As Kevin Garnett would say, “ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE!” So maybe they do play to their full potential and make us forget the regular season. But losing MArcus Smart feels like too much of a blow at this point in the year to think they will survive Indiana, Milwaukee and Toronto or Philadelphia.
9. Nuggets | Seed: 2 | Overall: 54-28 | Previous Ranking: 7
Biggest Strength: Offensive Rebounding
The Nuggets are one of the best in the league at collecting their own misses and this is when that skill I’ll mean more than ever before. The rim is going to be tighter for Denver and when they can’t get into a real offensive rhythm at some point, garbage buckets will be what keeps them afloat. Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee are going to have to work for rebounding possession all game, and if they can control the glass on their end, it will give them a mental edge to also clean up the Spurs’ bricks.
Those two bigs also need to be ready to seek shooters when they collect on the offensive glass. No three-point shooter is scarier than one flinging it off an offensive rebound, and it’s energy and hustle plays like those that give new playoff teams the confidence they can make some noise in the tournament.
Biggest Weakness: Disruptive Defense
Denver is not about to force too many turnovers and their defense has regressed from where it was at the start of the season. The last thing you want to do against a team that doesn’t turn it over like San Antonio is give them reason to believe maintaining possession won’t be an issue. If the defense doesn’t scare an opponent or force mistakes, it’s only a matter of time before it gets figured out and picked apart. The Nuggets have been strong enough on that end to think they should still hold their own in this matchup, but it certainly is a closer to an uphill battle when you can’t plan on keeping San Antonio’s offense on edge.
Overview: Just go have fun. It’s your first time here besides Paul Millsap and Isaiah Thomas. No matter what happens, this year worked out well. Going seven with Gregg Popovich should be great experience for next season. And if they survive that, going against two more battle-tested stars like Russ and PG should be good practice as well. But this whole postseason is just practice for a potential title run next year when the Nuggets have their sea legs.
8. Spurs | Seed: 7 | Overall: 48-34 | Previous Ranking: 6
Biggest Strength: Three-Point Shooting
If you see someone on this team open behind the arc, expect points to be added to the scoreboard. Don’t expect them to shoot too many, but the ones they let fire are likely going in.
Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are all here to rip nets and considering this is a Gregg Popovich team, any one of them is just as likely to hit the late-game triple that either puts things on ice or saves the Spurs from near doom.
Naturally, they get to open up against the team that did the best job defending the three this season, but is a little thing like one team’s success in a specific aspect of the game going to stop a member of the Spurs from knocking down a clutch jumper right when you swore the Spurs were really going to lose this time? DeMar DeRozan and Lamarcus Aldridge are going to need to take advantage of their floor spacers as things get tighter in the playoffs. Keep the turnovers down like they have all year and work in a few extra plays designed for a three just to show Denver you actually have the advantage and the flood gates could open up if either DeRozan or Aldridge gets hot while allowing the ball to stay in motion.
Biggest Weakness: Playing Away From Home
So outside of San Antonio, the Spurs are basically a bad basketball team. Their biggest drop-off is on the defensive end as they surrender eight more points on the road than they do at home. Probably not a good thing that they have to play the majority of their postseason games away from the AT&T Center. And to make matters worse, Denver has the best home record of any team in the league while the Spurs have the worst road record of any West playoff team. You’d like to think this team is experienced enough and under the right tutelage with Popovich calling the shots, but maybe road crowds and a lack of bats flying around the arena keep this squad from playing its best ball.
Overview: This simply comes down to Gregg Popovich facing a coach in his first ever playoff series. LA and DeRozan help, but this is all about Pop vs. a playoff rookie. And knowing a banged up Portland team or OKC squad who San Antonio took the season series from is on the other side helps as well.
7. Jazz | Seed: 5 | Overall: 50-32 | Previous Ranking: 5
Biggest Strength: Unexpected Offense
When Joe Ingles goes backdoor or Rudy Gobert is throwing down dunk after dunk, don’t harp on your false narrative that this team’s offense is just Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz will find plenty of interesting ways to set themselves up for simple buckets, or, better yet, they’ll pick up some easy buckets when defenses try to sell out on slowing down Mitchell or just don’t properly respect somebody else’s game. And if they overcompensate after letting a player not named Mitchell getting hot, that will likely create its own set of issues
Biggest Weakness: Point Guard
It’s not as much of an issue as when a large chunk of the backcourt was out because of injury, but the point guard play will be a major concern for the Jazz. With one of the worst turnover percentages in the league, Utah will need to be a lot smarter with the ball now that possessions are minimized. They’ve done a good job assisting each on makes, but Ricky Rubio will have to lead the charge for better ball control or else Houston’s pesky paws will wind up on too many passes for the Jazz to survive the first round.
And even if the guards mitigate the turnovers, they still need to defend James Harden and Chris Paul on ball. Harden will likely see a host of defenders unless somebody shows a knack for slowing him down, and wing defenders will be the main ones on that assignment. But he is certain to have a stretch here or there where he is matched up with a point guard who is taking a break from guarding CP3 to defend Harden’s step-back.
Overview: With a better matchup, Utah would be a little bit higher. But with Houston up first and Golden State likely waiting for them in the next round, they just have to do too much work before Mother’s Day to think they have a big run in them.
6. 76ers | Seed: 3 | Overall: 51-31 | Previous Ranking: 10
Biggest Strength: Jimmy Butler
Philadelphia’s closer is going to be the biggest reason this squad gets out the East if it find a way to make it happen. Assuming Joel Embiid is healthy an on the floor looking to dominate, Buckets is going to spend the first three quarters of every game warming up for winning time where he has already shone a tendency to shine. Ask the Nets about that time the guy in the front row called out the Jimmy G. was going to step-back to the right and then he stepped-back to the right just to sink the game-winner and cap a 20-point comeback in Brooklyn.
Yeah, he gets down like that when he’s not busy boosting his assists numbers by throwing dimes to the muffin maker’s boy.
If he gets locked in on the defensive end and causes as much chaos as possible to help get Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris on the break, he’ll be demonstrating just how much he can dominate a game and jumpstart an offense even when he’s not taking the shots.
Biggest Weakness: Cohesion
Philly’s parts seem like they have the potential to really gel, but they have also been together for less than 30 games and the starting lineup has not taken the floor together as much as you’d like going into the postseason considering how many games at the end players missed for injury.
Add in the fact that teams are sure to play Ben at least a little bit different than they did in the regular season, and the potential for these guys to just get out of their grooves amplifies. On top of that, Embiid could potentially miss time and one of the key replacements if that happens is Greg Monroe, who was just signed last week. April 4 to be exact.
Basically, they haven’t played too much basketball together, so it’s kinda hard to be the best team in the tournament when your guys barely played together. They are still just as talented at the top as basically anybody, but they still hardly know each other’s games.
Overview: The playoffs mean shorter rotations, sp having arguably the best starting five means even more. But, having to go on the road for the second round will likely be the 76ers’ downfall. If not, then maybe they could do some damage against a Bucks team that would also be at that stage for the first time or the Celtics, who they’d have homecourt against.
5. Rockets | Seed: 4 | Overall: 53-29 | Previous Ranking: 3
Biggest Strength: Chris Paul
The Rockets were one Chris Paul hamstring away from the Finals last season. If the Point God is available for this entire postseason, particularly the second round, Houston has every reason to believe it should win any series. Whether he’s operating as the secondary ball-handler next to James Harden, commanding the second unit or pushing the charge on defense, Paul is going to put his mark on the game.
Paul’s had one of the lowest usage rates of his career this season, so he should be a little bit fresher for the postseason compared to years past. He’ll likely be tasked with a bit more responsibility on-ball, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t deliver as long as he’s healthy. Don’t be surprised when his point production takes a sizeable jump like it did last year. However, Paul can’t see his shooting percentages drop from where they were in the regular season like they did last year, because he’s posted the fourth-worst three-point percentage and effective field-goal percentages of his career and the worst overall field-goal percentage of his career. Obviously you’re not generally going to shoot better cause you’re playing better teams in the playoffs, but Paul has done it earlier in his career. As the only member of the Banana Boat in the playoffs this year, it’s only right that he balls out like he did back in 2008 when he was just getting a taste of life as an All-Star and the postseason.
Biggest Weakness: History
There was 2015, when James Harden had 12 turnovers in Oracle after dropping 45 to avoid a sweep. There was 2016, when the Warriors finished them in five games even though Stephen Curry sat out three of them and got played less than 20 in minutes in the two he played in. There was 2017, when they didn’t even get to Golden State, but got bounced by the Spurs in six and closed the series in Houston with a 39-point shellacking where Kawhi didn’t even take the court. And there was 2018, when Chris Paul got hurt in Game 5 and then Harden and Trevor Ariza paved the way for 27 consecutive missed threes in Game 7.
You get it. The Rockets seem to find the worst possible way to end their seasons. Now there’s a chance they get to merge the annoyance of losing to the rival Warriors with the frustration of getting bounced before the conference finals. All because they lost to Triple Double Russ in the season finale.
Overview: If Houston was the two or three in the West, this team would be in the top three at worst. But they have the toughest possible path to the Finals and that has to count for something. They play the two best teams out West besides themselves in the first two rounds and then they either have to be on the road for the next round, face a Thunder team that took the season series 3-1 and helped push Houston down to the four, or the Spurs, who had little trouble the last time they faced in the playoffs. The game is cold.
4. Thunder | Seed: 6 | Overall: 49-33 | Previous Ranking: 9
Biggest Strength: Russell Westbrook’s Rage
Since the All-Star Break, the Thunder have been constantly shooting themselves in the foot. But the last two weeks worked out better for them than just about any other team in the league and Russell Westbrook has been at the heart of that.
There’s only but so much on the efficiency end you can ask from Russ, but raw production, energy and timely buckets are something he has mastered. Paul George would have never hit his game-winner against the Rockets if Russ didn’t hit an off-balance triple two possessions prior.
He’s consistently been a positive player in the postseason despite all his shortcomings. The back-to-back first-round exits are more than enough reason to be skeptical about just how helpful Westbrook’s impact could actually be, but his postseason box plus-minus paints the picture of a guy who puts his team in position to win when he’s on the court.
At the point when he can will himself to a 20-20-20 game and his first matchup is against an adversary who Russ has been “busting that ass for years”, I can see him getting angry enough to push this team to the Western conference finals as long as Paul George’s shoulder holds up.
Biggest Weakness: Late-Game Offense
Having the most 10-point comebacks in the NBA this season shows the Thunder can comeback to take just about any game. However, they are also liable to cough up any contest because of their lack of attention to detail when things get late.
It’s no secret that Westbrook doesn’t play the smartest style of basketball and is prone to have the occasional skull-crushingly painful late-game turnover. It’s been that way since forever and no amount of triple doubles will change that fact.
However, part of the reason Westbrook’s errors cast such a stark shadow on the late-game offense is because of the times Paul George doesn’t take control when he should. You can say his point guard should do a better job of recognizing when and how to get him the ball, but what’s the point in complaining about the fact penguins can’t fly? We already know who Russ is, so it’s on Playoff P to make sure his frantic style doesn’t tank the offense when it matters most. After all, an extra iso here or there from the league’s second-leading scorer wouldn’t be a bad thing by any measure.
Overview: The exact opposite situation as Houston is why OKC is so high. Winning five straight helped, but knowing the Thunder start the playoffs against a team they already beat four times is a major confidence boost. They’ve had their struggles and PG is certainly fighting through pain, but after he hit this shot, their path to the West finals got a lot clearer.
And I like a team looking to prove something when the key players have had major playoff success in the past.
3. Raptors | Seed: 2 | Overall: 58-24 | Previous Ranking: 4
Biggest Strength: Pascal Siakam
I’m not sure if you all figured it out yet, but I would stab a man in the chest for Pascal Siakam.
And while Kawhi Leonard is still the team’s best player and Kyle Lowry is still more integral for the offense, Siakam is the piece that could potentially take this team to the promise land.
Whether it’s Blake Griffin, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant, Siakam will welcome the assignment. Although Kawhi is sure to have the primary responsibility on at least one of those guys in a potential series, having Siakam as a secondary option and help defender to assist in slowing those guys down goes a long way.
And even though Kyle is needed to steer the ship on offense, there is a reason Siakam’s 120 offensive rating is the highest of anybody on the team with at least 600 minutes of action this season. You can’t expect for him to go for 40 in a postseason game just yet, but you can hope that he plays more like the guy who had 26 games with at least 20 in year three. Similar to Kawhi in the 2014 playoffs, this could be the breakout moment for a budding future All-Star.
Biggest Weakness: Turnovers
Turnovers and active defenses have been the biggest problems for the Raptors this season outside of Jeremy Lamb inside the final five seconds. Luckily, only one of those things can come back to haunt them in the postseason.
If Toronto gets exploited in any way, it’s going to be by an aggressive team with smart hands and even better anticipation. They certainly aren’t as bad as some of the other playoff teams when it comes to ball control, but it is still the part of their game their toughest competitors will attempt to expose.
If the Raptors are too loose with the rock, they’ll be literally handing opponents the stone needed to sling-shot them out of the playoffs.
Overview: Having to go on the road against the Bucks and having to likely face Philadelphia in the second round is what’s keeping Toronto out of the top two. Kawhi will remind us why he won a Finals MVP and why his team was up more than 20 on the Warriors in his last playoff game.
2. Bucks | Seed: 1 | Overall: 60-22 | Previous Ranking: 1
Biggest Strength: Mike Budenholzer
The two times Mike Budenholzer has coached a team to the playoffs it took LeBron James to end his season. Although Dwane Casey has a very similar claim he can make, he doesn’t have the likely MVP, the league’s best defense or an offense that was drastically improved thanks to his scheme. Outside of Michael Malone and Doc Rivers, the biggest thing holding back Budenholzer from winning another Coach of the Year is that the last time he won 60 games and claimed the honor he didn’t have Giannis. So while his success has been undeniable, the Greek Freak naturally overshadows the work from the coach. But this is Bud’s time to shine. As much as Giannis’s statement season is about a 24-year-old superstar coming into his own, it’s also about how he got a coach who put him in position to maximize his talents. If Giannis carries this team into June, Budenholzer’s impact from the sidelines will be key.
Biggest Weakness: Injuries
The first round shouldn’t be a problem for Milwaukee, but the second and conference finals will be difficult, and if Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic are not available, life will be a lot more difficult than it was during this amazing regular season. In addition to providing depth to the backcourt and frontcourt, the return of those two will also be major for the Bucks’ floor spacing. And after the way the Celtics packed in the paint to slow down Giannis last year, Milwaukee could use all the shooters it can get. Not to mention Brogdon was a significant reason the Bucks had the NBA’s top defense.
Overview: They got homecourt throughout, an MVP candidate and a Coach of the Year contender. A lack of previous success and injuries are the main reasons they aren’t at the top. You have to have won a series before if I’m going to pick you to win it all, but they could run out the East despite their prior early departures that didn’t fully prepare them for this moment.
1. Warriors | Seed: 1 | Overall: 57-25 | Previous Ranking: 2
Biggest Strength: Confidence
If you just won two consecutive championships and had three of the 10 greatest shooters ever on your roster, and two of those dudes are among the 20 greatest players ever, you’d think you were about to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy too.
Ever since the Warriors handled business in 2015 to start this dynasty, they’ve carried themselves differently. They understand they can put the fear of God into their opponents, and even though they are not as scary as they were in 2016 or 2017, all they have to do is flip the switch to remind the world just what it means to have five All-Stars in the starting lineup.
They’re the toughest guy in the yard, so it’s going to take somebody with a whole lot to prove, no worries and something a little off in the head to take them out.
Biggest Weakness: Championship Fatigue
Think about how many games the Warriors have played the last five seasons. How much time they’ve had to spend with each other. How there was a major issue last season they had to work through according to David West. How Draymond and Kevin Durant had that sideline spat.
The Warriors are still the biggest threat to the Warriors at the end of the day, and simply not having the emotional energy to go through another Finals run is the most likely way this train gets derailed.
That being said, why would you bet on this unstoppable object getting stopped? Kevin Durant didn’t leave just yet and Stephen Curry just started seeing clearly a month ago.
Overview: If you’re lucky Kevin Durant gets hot and the ball movement isn’t at its best. If the Golden State fans are lucky, Wardell will heat up and drop bombs from 30 feet away. If God just wants to laugh at all of us, Klay will make it rain fire from the ceiling without ever even putting the ball on the floor. When locked in, no one can do it better than the Warriors. It must be nice being your own worst enemy.