- Milwaukee: Say what you want about how they benefitted from all the injuries last year, but Giannis is probably the best player in the league (although Jokic is statistically superior) and they have a championship squad that is quite honestly one of the best-constructed rosters in recent memory (outside of the KD Warriors, obviously). They’re not scared of anybody. And they have a team built to outlast you. They’re grinders. They win wars of attrition—both over the course of games and over the course of series. At the end of the day, Giannis is just too big, too strong, too long, and too dominant. We may be witnessing the rise of the next great NBA dynasty.
- Phoenix: I would say that Phoenix just got lucky last year because the Lakers and the Clippers were both hurt in the playoffs, but there are two reasons why that doesn’t matter to me: because the Lakers are out of the playoffs, and because there’s a good chance the Clippers won’t be at full health this year, either. The Suns have won 63 games this year. That is not a fluke. If you win 63 games, it means you’re really good. That said, I would not bet money on Phoenix to win the title. Phoenix can win just because of how close they came last year, but I would not bet on them winning. It is a virtual certainty that Chris Paul gets hurt at some point during these playoffs, and the question is whether the Suns will be able to get through it and weather the storm.
Teams that can win, but only in theory:
- Brooklyn: Kyrie’s defense is abysmal and he looks a lot more mortal when he has to play every game. KD is elite, but this team doesn’t have the depth or the defense to seriously contend. Maybe if the best case scenario had played out with Ben Simmons for them—he starts playing, he’s healthy, he’s playing elite defense, he’s over all the mental stuff and the inability to shoot, and he’s back to being 2019 Ben Simmons. But that has not played out. He is not there yet, and he may never be there yet. Their coach, Steve Nash, is a lightweight. Plus I don’t trust KD or Kyrie to stay healthy for a full playoff run. Kyrie hasn’t done it since 2017.
- Philly: They have two superstar players including the likely MVP of the league. In theory they’re a championship contender, but in reality they’re not. For one, the chances of Joel Embiid getting hurt at some point in the playoffs and subsequently playing at less than full health are over 90%. Durability matters, like it or not. And the second reason is that I don’t trust James Harden. The guy has a long track record of playoff underperforming (I’m not going to say choking but I wouldn’t argue with you if you did). James Harden is not The Guy, until proven otherwise. He doesn’t get the whistle in the postseason, and he relies on the whistle like no other player in league history. When push comes to shove he does not have what it takes to come up big in the playoffs. He’s not mentally tough enough to win a championship, he doesn’t work hard enough, and he can’t handle the pressure situations with the season on the line. For those reasons, I’m out on Philly. Plus, they have Doc Rivers, the biggest playoff choker possibly of all time, as their head coach.
Teams that people think can win but in reality have no chance:
- Miami: I know they’re the 1-seed, I know about Heat Culture, I know they have a great roster—but at the end of the day you’re not winning a Championship with Jimmy Butler as your top player. You’re just not. This is why I think Miami needs to pull off a trade for LeBron. Go read my other article for an in-depth explanation of that whole situation. Miami will disappoint in the playoffs (by definition, if you don’t win the championship when you have the 1-seed, it’s a disappointment) and that disappointment will lead to Pat Riley shaking up the roster. Jimmy Butler is good, but he’s not good enough to cause this much drama.
- Boston: Jayson Tatum is the new Kawhi, the “it” player that everyone in the media loves and has the biggest boner for, and who will never ever get criticized by the media no matter what he does. Tatum could go 0-20 in a game and the media would still gush over him and call him the Next Kobe™. There’s so many sports media figures that are unrepentant Boston homers—this is why the Celtics get hyped up so much even though they never seriously contend for a championship. Boston is Regular Season Good, not Playoff Good. They’re getting exposed without Robert Williams, and they’re not Championship caliber right now. The good news for them is that they’re very young—Tatum is 24 and Brown is 25. They could eventually turn into a Championship team, and they may even take a big leap this year, but they’re not winning it all this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if they won a series, maybe even two, but they’re not winning the East.
- Golden State: The Warriors started the season 29-7. With two games left to play, they are 51-29, meaning they’ve gone 22-22 since January 3. That is a large sample size. This is clearly not the same Warriors team they were at the beginning of the year. Klay Thompson clearly needs a full offseason of work and preparation to get back to his usual self after missing nearly 2.5 full seasons, Steph has been injured lately, and it just feels like this team has been trending in the wrong direction for a while now.
Don’t sleep on them:
- Clippers: They’re going to have Paul George back after he missed more than half the season. This team is very well-coached and Tyronn Lue seems to get the absolute most out of all his players. They will have some random guy go off for 30 in every game. They’re the team that is most likely to win by 20 after being down by 20 in a game. And if they somehow get Kawhi back for the playoff run? Look out. I don’t think the Clippers will win a Championship this year, but don’t be surprised if everything goes right for them and they make a very deep run, potentially all the way to the Finals.
- Minnesota: On January 30, this team was 25-25. They are now 46-35 with one game to play, meaning they’ve gone 21-10 over the past two months. They’re really clicking, they have some great pieces in KAT, Ant and D-Lo, and I think they will take an even greater leap next season. The more I think about it, and the fact that the West is wide open, the more I ask myself, “Actually, why can’t Minnesota make a surprise run to the Conference Finals?” I don’t know. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, but I also don’t see it happening. This team has real pieces, though. KAT is arguably a top-10 player in the league. It sounds crazy, but the advanced stats are there for him.
- Dallas: The West is wide open, and honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mavericks make a deep run with Luka just controlling every game and putting up the most ridiculous statlines known to man. I hear a lot of talking heads predicting Dallas will shock the world and win the West this year, and I am not ruling that out. But at the end of the day, this team just does not have enough high-end talent around Luka to seriously contend for a Championship. They may well pull off a 2007 Cavaliers, but remember, those Cavs also got swept in the Finals.
Teams I like, but aren’t quite there yet:
- Memphis: Everything I said about Dallas, I believe about Memphis, too–although not as strongly. The West is wide open, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Memphis somehow wins it. Ja Morant could cement himself as a legitimate superstar if he leads Memphis on a deep run. That said, I wouldn’t bet on it happening. I like Dallas, the Clippers and Minnesota more than Memphis out of all the non-Phoenix contenders in the West.
- Denver: It sucks that Jokic is having one of the greatest statistical seasons in NBA history and it’s all going to be wasted because the Nuggets are missing both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. If they had both of those guys fully healthy, I would say this team could get back to the Western Conference Finals yet again, and maybe even win it, but it’s just too much to ask of Jokic–or anyone for that matter.
- Cleveland: A solid young team with some great pieces for the future, but they ran out of gas about 2/3 of the way through the season. They have a bright future, but they’re not ready. I see them getting knocked out in the play-in tourney.
- Charlotte: Similar situation to Cleveland. Miles Bridges and LaMelo are a really nice young combo, and they have some depth, too with Terry Rozier, Trezz, Kelly Oubre, PJ Washington and Isaiah Thomas. Gordon Hayward’s foot injury is unfortunate. I would not be surprised if they make it through the play-in tourney and secure a playoff spot, but I don’t think they have a realistic chance at actually winning a playoff series. They might make some noise in 2023, though.
- Chicago: There was a time when the Bulls were the #1 seed in the East and DeMar DeRozan was an MVP candidate. Remember? They were 27-11 and it looked like they might just be for real. But with two games left to play, they’re 45-35, meaning they’ve gone 18-24 since January 11. Things have fallen apart for this team, and they feel destined for a first-round exit.
- Utah: Another team that started hot and cooled off significantly; the Jazz were 26-9 as of December 31, but are now 48-32. That means that in 2022, they’ve gone 22-23. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are destined to be split up in the offseason, and it’s possible Utah gets rid of both guys. I saw a crazy stat that Mitchell only averages two passes to Gobert per game–not assists, just passes–which tells you just about all you need to know about their relationship. Mitchell looks checked-out. There are rumors about Quin Snyder becoming the next Lakers coach. The Jazz just feel cooked.
- Toronto: Maybe they can steal a series win over somebody like Boston or Brooklyn due to Canada’s vaccine rules! Honestly, this is the one team in the playoff field I simply don’t know anything about. They’re rarely on national television, and they’ve been flying under the radar all year. I’ve always been a fan of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam–both guys are underrated. But the East is too tough, and they just don’t have the firepower.
- Atlanta: Another team I barely know a thing about. Obviously if Trae Young plays at his best they can be dangerous, but there’s no chance they can win a title. I see them losing in the play-in tourney.
Could make things somewhat interesting if Zion miraculously comes back:
- New Orleans: Obviously only one team can be in this category, but somehow the Pels were able to scrape it together and qualify for the play-in tournament. There’s talk that Zion might be back for the play-in tournament, which would obviously be huge for them if he can actually play at somewhere close to 100%. But it seems unlikely he’ll even play, and even more unlikely he’d be close to 100% if he somehow does make it back. I do like some of the pieces the Pels have though–CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and that little dude that hides on the baseline and gets steals when the other team isn’t paying attention. There’s no chance the Pelicans can win a title, but if Zion comes back, maybe they make a little bit of noise and give a high-seeded team a scare.
- San Antonio: Look, Dejounte Murray has been one of the most underrated players in the league this year, and you always have to respect Popovich, but this is not a good basketball team. They’re 34-46 right now and haven’t really had any major injuries. They’re just not that good.
So that’s it. That’s all 20 teams.
Does this mean I have Milwaukee taking on Phoenix in the Finals? No, not necessarily. I think Milwaukee is a huge favorite in the East, but I won’t count Brooklyn out. I would say Milwaukee has about a 75% chance of winning the East.
In the West, I’ve said it a bunch of times: the conference is wide open. I know the Suns have been excellent all year, but for some reason I just don’t trust them. I don’t see them as a team that can just waltz their way into the Finals. They’re beatable.
Phoenix is the favorite to win the West, but not an overwhelming favorite. Dallas, the Clippers, the Grizzlies and yes, even Minnesota all have a chance to win the West. I feel like an idiot saying Minnesota has a chance to win the Western Conference, but I’m sticking to my guns here.
I don’t have the cojones to pick Minnesota to win the West, but I kind of want to. It is a certainty that Chris Paul will get hurt at some point in the playoffs, and when that happens, all bets are off in the Western conference.