The 2018 NBA playoffs feel simultaneously wide open and fairly predictable. Due to a variety of maladies striking key teams and Western parity, there’s a good bit of mystery in the first round. There’s no obvious upset candidate, but a few series where things could get interesting. The way that the brackets worked out gives a couple teams we wouldn’t have predicted — like the Sixers — reasonable paths deep into the proceedings.
At the same time, just about everyone will pick one of two teams to win the title: the Warriors or Rockets. It would, frankly, be an incredible shock if neither team won. So we have this duality: we all think we know who is going to hoist the O’Brien, but we don’t really know how we’re going to get there. That’s the beauty of the NBA playoffs: we can bathe in early chaos while feeling assured that the series we really want to see — Rockets vs. Warriors in the West finals — is very likely to happen.
In order to provide some sort of predictions on how this postseason will shake out, I ranked the 16 playoff teams in terms of the likelihood they will win the championship. Just know that everyone from No. 5 to 16 might as well not be in that conversation. But as participants in the chaos engine that will get us to June, they are well worth discussing.
16. Washington Wizards
The Wizards, who have looked miserable for a month if not like 20 years, only have to beat the Raptors, the Cavaliers, the Sixers, and the Rockets or Warriors in the most likely scenario to win the title. No problem, right? The least consistent playoff team other than Milwaukee ended up with perhaps the toughest draw in the league.
15. Miami Heat
There’s actually a path for Miami to go deep if the 76ers crack under pressure of the playoffs and the Bucks upset the Celtics — that could lead to the Heat sneaking into the Eastern finals. And hey, the Heat played Cleveland tough recently, should the Cavaliers make it that far. So you never truly know. But … we kinda know. The Heat probably aren’t surviving Round 1, unless the Phantom of the Process stays backstage.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
If you’re facing a healthy Rockets team in the first round, your odds of doing anything in the NBA playoffs are bad. Sorry, Wolves. But hey, welcome back to the NBA playoffs! Long time no see.
13. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks worked out a fortuitous draw. I’d give them credit if the Wizards didn’t blow the chance at said fortuitous draw by losing to the tanking Magic on the final day of the regular season. Ah well. Milwaukee might beat the Celtics because of Boston’s injury woes, but trouble lies after that.
12. Boston Celtics
Boston is simply a different team without Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart. Irving is done, and while Smart could come back, he’s a restricted free agent this summer. His camp is going to (rightly) be cautious, especially since the Celtics’ odds of going deep are so low. All that said, if the C’s survive Milwaukee and the Sixers crack, there is a path back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
11. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers were the league’s best story this year, and they should be proud of making it to the postseason — hell, they almost landed home court in the first round. But their draw is absolutely brutal: the three-time defending East champ Cavaliers in the first round, and likely the 59-win Raptors if they survive that. Indiana would be three spots higher on this list if they were the No. 6 or 7 seed instead of No. 5.
10. New Orleans Pelicans
Pelicans vs. Blazers is a very exciting first-round series and on the season New Orleans actually had a better net rating. But the Blazers are favored in that series (as they should be), and the path for any team in the West is brutal. Even if you knock off Portland, you likely have Golden State and Houston to get through. Brutal!
9. Oklahoma City Thunder
Ditto for the Thunder, who could definitely beat the Jazz, especially if Carmelo Anthony has a throwback series and Paul George snaps out of his shooting skid. But that gets you a second-round date with the Rockets. No bueno. The gauntlet is vicious, and these lower seed West teams have too heavy a lift to make it through.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Despite being the No. 3 seed, Portland has the lowest net rating of any West playoff team. But the matchup with the Pelicans is probably the best they could have hoped for other than Minnesota because New Orleans does not have a top-drawer defense. The Blazers should be able to score plenty, and Portland has options to throw at AnthonyDavis between Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis. (This isn’t to say those efforts will be successful.) But even a Warriors team without Stephen Curry should be able to take down Portland in the second round. The Blazers are hard to figure, to be honest. The stats don’t love them!
7. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs would be much closer to the bottom if someone would just definitively say that Kawhi Leonard is not playing in the postseason. We’re pretty sure that Kawhi Leonard is not playing in the postseason. We’re almost positive. But he hasn’t said that. Gregg Popovich hasn’t said that. Until they do, you have to leave open whatever slim possibility that he might. And if Kawhi Leonard might possibly play? Everything changes. (Can we get cameras on James Harden and Kevin Durant 24/7 just in case Woj tweets that Kawhi is suiting up for the playoffs? I need to see those reactions.) So placing the Spurs here is a hedged bet.
6. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have a tough draw, even for the West. Oklahoma City has a good defense and probably the two best individual players in that series in Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Utah is going to need to manufacture points to win games against OKC, and hope Westbrook doesn’t rip apart the Jazz’s own incredible defense. They should be able to do it. Maybe. If so, the Rockets await. Joy of joys! Utah would have an outside shot at the West finals if they’d only won that season finale and claimed the No. 3 seed.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
No team had a better draw than Philadelphia. The Heat won’t be a pushover in the first round, and the Sixers will feel a lot better if Joel Embiid is cleared to go like right now. But the Sixers should win that series regardless. Next up will be the Celtics-Bucks survivor, a team the Sixers should beat. That gets us to the East finals, where the winner of what we presume will be a Cavaliers-Raptors series might well be bloody and tired. Plus, the Sixers beat the Cavaliers a week ago with a seed on the line. If this sounds like I’m making a case for the Sixers to possibly make the Finals, it’s because I’m making a case for the Sixers to possibly make the Finals.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
But the Cavaliers have a better shot. Why? L-E-B-R-O-N J-A-M-E-S. That’s the entire reason. He had one of the strongest offensive seasons in his career in his 15th year, he’s been to seven straight NBA Finals, and he has at least one worthy co-star (Kevin Love, who has been excellent). He’s in the Raptors’ head, he has more playoff experience in his 11th toe than the Sixers have on their whole roster.
The Cavaliers are not good, though. Cleveland is No. 13 in net rating out of the 16 playoff teams. LeBron makes up for a lot, and we saw a bad defensive Cavs team make the Finals last year. But it’s a huge uphill battle and at some point that boulder is going to roll backwards and crush the Cavs.
3. Toronto Raptors
THIS IS FINALLY THE YEAR FOR THE TORONTO RAPTORS! Look, you’d rather not likely face the Cavaliers in the second round again, especially after the disaster of 2017. But with the Celtics beaten up, the Sixers at the front end of their rise, and Cleveland in relative flux given LeBron’s free agency … THIS IS FINALLY THE YEAR FOR THE TORONTO RAPTORS! This team is freaking good and if they can just for once play in the postseason like they do in the regular season they’ll be in the Finals. If only!
2. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors went 16-1 on their way to a title last year. They brought almost the entire roster back, and none of the core stars are outside of the primes. So why have I dropped the Warriors down to No. 2 in ranking the potential champions, as have many others? Because if we’ve learned anything from the Warriors’ rise it is that complacency is death. Teams got lapped by the Warriors because they were complacent in building their own little super teams. Golden State showed them the true meaning of super. Teams get beat by the Warriors because they get complacent, they are a little less sharp, they play a little loose, and BOOM there’s a 19-0 run by Golden State. Complacency is death at this level of sport.
The Warriors have been complacent all season. They can shake those cobwebs out. But well enough to beat a much improved Rockets team in the West finals? Maybe not.
1. Houston Rockets
The current Rockets legitimately feel ascendant. There aren’t many narrative similarities to the 2015 Warriors — the first title season for Golden State — but the feel is similar. This is a team that has figured out something that no one else is ready to admit: shoot threes, shoot threes, shoot threes. The difference is that those Warriors didn’t have stars with playoff reputations like James Harden and Chris Paul do. They were fresh. They were untested. The Rockets are less so.
That said, Harden — despite some rough moments — is usually pretty damn good in the playoffs. Paul is one of the best playoff performers overall in the last decade, despite some famous failures. The pair has been nearly unstoppable all season long. (We see you, Raptors. We see you.)
In 2015, the Warriors taught us that order could be destroyed, that what we thought we knew about how the NBA works could be wrong. The Rockets are poised to do that all over again.