The playoffs are finally here. After a grueling, 82-game schedule, 16 teams are remaining, all of which hope to become champions. Of course, the postseason is a different beast, and every squad that made it is perpetually four losses away from packing up, heading home, and trying again next season. This got us thinking: What are the best and worst case scenarios for each team that made it to the playoffs?
Only one team can win the NBA title each year, so proceeding from the notion that hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy is obviously every team’s best-case scenario as they head into the postseason this weekend, we’ll do our best to try and dial back expectations from there and focus on more realistic goals. Unless, of course, the team actually can win a championship.
At the other end of the spectrum, getting swept out of the first round is clearly the least desirable outcome. Thankfully, there’s a lot of wiggle room in between. And for some teams, it’s important to set modest/achievable goals — for example, an eighth seed that just eked its way into the final playoff spot probably isn’t going to make a miraculous Finals run.
That’s why we’ve identified the ceiling and the floor for each of the 16 teams as the opening round kicks off Saturday, bearing in mind that at this time of year, just about anything can happen.
Best case: Much of this will be contingent on Blake Griffin’s health. Making the postseason at all was a toss-up going into Wednesday as he sat out a must-win final game with knee soreness. It remains unclear just when he’ll be able to return as they’re set to square off against the top-seeded Bucks. The Pistons probably aren’t capable of an upset here, but they are capable of pushing the Bucks harder than they want to be pushed in the opening round. If Griffin is healthy, he and Andre Drummond can make life miserable in the paint.
Worst case: Griffin just isn’t himself due to his knee, the Pistons get swept, and the organization is forced to rethink their future regarding both Griffin and Drummond in the offseason.
Best case: The Magic have a nice little collection of talent. Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star and Aaron Gordon is a highlight reel waiting to happen. But the real fireworks might come from Terrance Ross, who will face his former team in Toronto with something very much to prove, especially given the semi-breakout season he’s had in Orlando. Can they knock off Toronto in round one? Probably not, but they’ll play hard and could give their foes some headaches.
Worst case: It’s really hard to see the Magic as little more than first-round fodder for the Raptors en route to the conference finals. Their best hope is to not get promptly swept out of the playoffs in the next week. If they can do that, they’ll call this a victory.
Best case: The Clippers aren’t the only team indulging in a little schadenfreude about the Lakers’ woes. Former L.A. pariah D’Angelo Russell has been living his best life since Magic Johnson jettisoned him two summers ago (and badmouthed him on the way out the door), and with Joel Embiid’s health muddying the waters, the Nets may have an opportunity to seize in the first round and at the very least make things interesting.
Worst case: Unfortunately for the Nets, the Sixers still have a tremendous amount of firepower in Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick, etc., to the point that they may be able to rest Embiid in the opening round and beat Brooklyn.
Best case: With Marcus Smart out for a month, the Pacers have an opportunity. The Celtics have under-performed all season, and now they’re without their best defender and the heart and soul of their team. Meanwhile, Indiana has a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Myles Turner, a savvy defensive-minded coach, and a squad with a chip on its shoulder that plays hard every possession. If the Celtics continue to flounder and the Pacers can pounce, maybe they can get lucky. After all, they nearly knocked off the Cavs last spring. However…
Worst case: The Pacers are without their best player in Victor Oladipo, making this more of an uphill battle than they can probably overcome. Even without Smart, the Celtics have too many weapons, and they’re battled tested after last year’s seven-game conference finals run. If they pull things together, Indiana might be a quick appetizer for them.
Best case: After their miraculous run to the conference finals last year — despite missing two of their best players — the expectation was that the Celtics would steamroll their way through the East and pose a real threat to the Warriors in the Finals. With Kyrie Irving back and Gordon Hayward finally showing signs of his former self, Boston could turn on the jets and prove that their loaded roster has just too much talent to overcome.
Worst case: Anything less than a conference finals appearance would be a major disappointment for the Celtics, and if they’re still battling inconsistency and chemistry issues, it’s hard to imagine them getting past both the Bucks and Raptors. With Irving’s future with the franchise still murky, a disappointing early exit is the last thing Boston wants.
Best case: The Sixers win a brutal seven-game series against the Raptors in the second round to make the conference finals, where they meet an inexperienced Bucks team, who they manage to outlast to earn a date with the Warriors in June.
Worst case: The most disappointing outcome would be losing to the scrappy upstart Nets in the opening round. With Embiid’s health still shrouded in uncertainty, they could be more vulnerable than you might expect. The Nets are a wild card with nothing to lose, and they might surprise us all in the next two weeks.
Best case: As the No. 2 seed in the East, the Raptors would likely face the Sixers in the second round — especially if Embiid is hobbled — en route to a conference finals showdown against either Boston or Milwaukee. They have to feel good about their chances against a less experienced Bucks team or a Celtics team that has been underwhelming all season long amid top-to-bottom chemistry and consistency issues.
Worst case: This season has been one long sales pitch to Kawhi Leonard to try and convince him to sign a long-term deal with Toronto, much in the same vein as what the Oklahoma City Thunder did with Paul George, which worked out beautifully. So, anything less than a conference finals appearance would probably be seen as a failure, and while they should make quick work of Orlando, a healthy Philly squad could knock them off.
Best case: This iteration of Bucks haven’t made it past the first round, but as the runaway top seed in the East, the expectation is that they’ll make a giant leap and compete for the conference crown. To do that, Giannis Antetokounmpo will have to elevate his game to yet another level on the biggest stage and use the postseason to further prove that he’s worthy of that MVP honorific. He’s capable of doing that, and as such, a run to the Finals is totally possible.
Worst case: Despite his obvious, enormous talent, we still haven’t been treated to a good long look at playoff Giannis yet. Will his outside shooting torpedo their chances? Will Eric Bledsoe shrink from the pressure like he did last season? Is Kris Middleton capable of capitalizing on his All-Star season in a pressure-cooker playoff environment? Watch that second round series with Boston. They have the talent to beat Milwaukee, and as we saw last season, they can knock the Bucks off in the postseason.
Los Angeles Clippers
Best case: Arguably, the Clippers have already achieved their best-case scenario for the season. Most basketball pundits predicted they’d win around 30 games, which ended up being bulletin-board material for a team that finished with 48 wins and the No. 8 seed in the West, not to mention bragging rights as the best team in L.A. amid the Lakers’ season-long debacle. Just taking the floor against the Warriors monolith in the first round is a big moral victory already, and they might not be as easy an out as you think.
Worst case: The Warriors smirk at their adorable season and promptly sweep them.
San Antonio Spurs
Best case: They surprise the No. 2 Nuggets and complete a stunning opening-round upset. This isn’t nearly as far-fetched as you might think. The Spurs are still the Spurs. They have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, two proven scorers with plenty of postseason experience, plus a host of role players who exemplify the Spurs system. And they have Gregg Popovich. Skipping ahead, if things somehow fall their way and they face a hobbled Blazers team instead of OKC in the second round, then a conference finals appearance is very much within grasp.
Worst case: The Nuggets quickly prove that they’re the superior team, the Spurs realize their future with DeRozan and Aldridge has hit its ceiling, and Pop decides its time to retire.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Best case: The Thunder are a much different team from last year, and in a much better position as they set to face off against a Blazers team without its starting center. It won’t be a cakewalk, but the Thunder have the upper hand on paper. From there, the route to the conference finals is much clearer — through Denver or San Antonio — thanks to the Blazers taking the No. 3 seed from the Rockets. Just getting there and seeing Russell Westbrook go against Kevin Durant for a few games will be worth the price of admission alone, but don’t expect any upsets there.
Worst case: Even though they’re the No. 6 seed, they’re still very much the favorites to win their opening round series against a banged up Blazers team. Another first round loss in the Paul George era would be a huge disappointment.
Best case: Unfortunately for the Jazz, their best-case scenario is an opening-round upset against the Rockets, only to earn a matchup with the Warriors in the second round, and even that scenario that isn’t very likely. First, they’d have to get past an excellent Rockets team that boasts the league’s most lethal scorer. However, Harden has a reputation for running out of gas in the postseason, and the Jazz may be able to capitalize on that.
Worst case: Fortunately for the Jazz, the worst that can happen is losing in the first round to the Rockets, who are supposed to beat them, anyway. The only thing that would make them look is rolling over and dying without putting up a fight, which just isn’t their M.O. So the Jazz really don’t have anything to lose.
Best case: The Rockets are still clinging to the belief that if Chris Paul hadn’t gone down in the conference finals last spring, they’d still be celebrating their first championship in nearly 25 years. But what happened happened, and after Paul went down the Rockets missed 27 straight threes in a Game 7 loss to Golden State. Still, the Rockets believe they can beat them, and if things go as planned, they’ll get their chance in the second round. They can beat the Warriors, and if they do, the sky’s the limit.
Worst case: Losing to Golden State isn’t the worst thing that can happen. The Warriors are still the favorites. But if it happens once again because of a Paul injury, or Harden petering out when it matters most, or a team-wide dry spell, then that will be difficult to bounce back from again.
Portland Trail Blazers
Best case: After starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a horrific season-ending leg injury, that essentially closed the book on the Blazers’ postseason aspirations. But now, everything is gravy from here on out. Reduced expectations can often be a blessing in disguise. If they beat the Thunder, it’ll be a feel-good story. If they lose, that’s what we expected anyway.
Worst case: They’ve already suffered their worst-case scenario with the Nurkic injury. But, given that they tried to lose their final regular season game to avoid the Thunder, then ended up winning on a fluke comeback, it’ll be something of a poetic comeuppance if they lose to OKC in the first round. You can’t tempt the basketball gods.
Best case: Making the conference finals would be a major coup for Denver, given that it’s their first postseason appearance in six years. Rarely do NBA teams ever make a leap like that, but this Nuggets squad is really good. Proving that they can hold their own against the Warriors would be even more impressive.
Worst case: Getting there won’t be a cakewalk. They have to face the Spurs in the opening round, then probably the Thunder. With that No. 2 seed comes a great deal of pressure and it’s not hard to see them failing to live up to it.
Golden State Warriors
Best case: They tap-dance their way to a third straight title, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins both decide to stay, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson agree to take less money and sign long-term, and the NBA collapses into a league-wide existential meltdown.
Worst case: They lose in the second round to Houston. The Rockets’ keep clinging to the belief that they are the perfect foil for the Warriors, which is a lovely thought, although reality has yet to bear it out. Perhaps this is the year, however, that ends up happening. A potential battle with Oklahoma City in the conference finals and anyone out of the East would be tough, but as we know, no team knows what it takes to win a ring as well as the Dubs.