For the first time in a while, we enter the NBA Playoffs without a true favorite. The oddsmakers have the Bucks somewhere in the realm of +240, with the Lakers and Clippers just behind. But there is no Golden State dynasty in Orlando this year, nor is there a clear-cut favorite like the Heatles or the Big Three Celtics.
That means these playoffs will hinge on a few teams’ ability to clean up their biggest weaknesses, overcome mistakes, adjust on the fly, and outthink their opponents. As always, health will play a big factor, too, especially with the lingering effects of a months-long hiatus looming over the postseason and many veterans dealing with various maladies already.
Will a surprise team like Boston break through? Might Portland keep its hot streak alive and make some noise? Here’s what every team (in alphabetical order) is facing heading into next week’s postseason.
Boston Celtics: Will Kemba Walker be healthy?
Walker has been dealing with arthritic symptoms in his left knee since as far back as February. Toward the end of the seeding round, Walker was back to relative normal, busting out the types of dribble moves that make him impossible to contain off the bounce. If the Celtics want to finally break through into the Finals, it’s going to take a peak Walker performance — not only overcoming his injury, but getting back to how he looked at his best in Charlotte.
Boston this year has been more of an isolation team than they have in the past. Some of that is because Jayson Tatum improved dramatically as a one-on-one scorer and Jaylen Brown became a better shot creator in his own right, but it’s also because Walker was out. But in the Bubble, the Celtics played something a lot closer to a Brad Stevens offense, driving and kicking repeatedly in the same possession. In order for the Celtics to pull this off consistently in their quest for 16 postseason wins, they’ll need the dynamism of Walker off the bounce.
Brooklyn Nets: Can the young guns keep this up?
The Nets are 7-3 under Jacque Vaughn. They were one of the only teams to put up a real fight against Damian Lillard on Portland’s quest for a playoff berth, and they seem to have rediscovered the energy that made them so fun in 2018-19 under Kenny Atkinson.
Without many of their star players and a generally undersized roster, Brooklyn has gotten back to its original young core of Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert. They play through the post more than they did under Atkinson, and mostly seem to just be catching teams off guard with the amount of shooting and play-making they’ve pulled out of this squad. If LeVert can keep it up and the offense keeps working, the Nets can steal a game or two from Toronto.
Dallas Mavericks: Is there any hope for the defense?
Only Denver’s B team and Portland have been worse than the Mavs defensively in the Bubble, and the absence of Dwight Powell, who went down with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in the spring, has really dampened the Mavs hopes of being a fun playoff team. A matchup against the Clippers is a worst-case scenario, as Los Angeles can score at all three levels and has an experienced team that can wear down a defense with ball movement and elite shot-making from every position.
When Powell was on the floor with Kristaps Porzingis this year, the Mavs limited opponents to 107.7 points per 100 possessions, per PBP stats. Just about every other big man duo has struggled. The Mavs aren’t getting Powell back any time soon, so they need to figure something out in a hurry.
Denver Nuggets: Will everyone be healthy in time for a deep run?
The Nuggets, despite a lack of typical star talent for a top seed in the Western Conference, outperformed expectations in last year’s playoffs, beating back a deep Spurs team before taking Portland to their limits in a fun series. Despite a looming matchup with the Clippers in the second round, Denver’s offense looks like it could be pretty scary with all its pieces in place this postseason.
The question is whether that happens. Head coach Mike Malone didn’t sound optimistic about starters Will Barton and Gary Harris coming back any time soon when asked this week. Without them, Denver is not as deep or as versatile on the wing as we’ve come to expect. That will hold them back a bit against Utah, but especially against a Clippers team with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Marcus Morris.
Houston Rockets: Is Russell Westbrook the balance Houston needs to break through?
The road to the Finals should have been easier for Houston this year. But even with the Warriors out of the way, Houston shuffled the deck again, adding Russell Westbrook to the mix. While Westbrook is expected to miss the start of the first round, the Rockets shouldn’t truly need him to beat Oklahoma City. But later on, his energy and ability to put pressure on the rim could be the difference for a Houston team that has relied on James Harden’s isolation scoring too much late in playoff games over the years.
The Rockets’ most promising win of the seeding games was on Aug. 2 against Milwaukee, as Westbrook and Harden combined for 25 free-throw attempts and Houston was able to overcome being out-rebounded by 29 to scrape out a four-point victory. That’s the recipe: Let Harden and Westbrook’s individual talents control the rhythm of the game and find a way to win one game at a time.
Indiana Pacers: Is Victor Oladipo ready?
Head coach Nate McMillan has done his best to get Oladipo in rhythm, often playing Oladipo with bench units so the offense can run through the All-Star, who missed most of the season with a ruptured quad tendon. But nights like Oladipo’s 7-for-26 performance against Houston are all too regular at this point. T.J. Warren has been an awesome story so far, but the Pacers are too depleted for Warren to win them a series all on his own. Indiana needs Oladipo to get back to normal, which just might be too tall of an order at this point in his recovery.
Los Angeles Clippers: What will they get from Montrezl Harrell?
The Sixth Man of the Year finalist has weaknesses, especially in help defense, but he’s turned himself into a player who is pretty perfect for how the Clippers want to play. Harrell is a smart screen-and-roll player who has great chemistry with Lou Williams off the bench. His size makes it hard for opposing defenses to switch screens when George or Leonard are handling the ball. And he’s turned into enough of a face-up scorer that defenses can’t just dare him to create his own shot.
Most importantly, Harrell has turned himself into a decent enough one-on-one defender. That makes the Clippers’ switching defense work, and allows them to put out terrifying lineups like Patrick Beverley (still out of the Bubble)-George-Leonard-Morris-Harrell. The Bball Index’s player profiles show Harrell has defended top opposing creators more often than most centers and tends to contest shots more consistently than thanks to his athleticism and energy. The Clippers need Harrell to be at their best, but due to his absence during seeding games while tending to a family matter, it may understandably take Harrell a while to rediscover his form.
Los Angeles Lakers: Who exactly is in the rotation?
The Lakers, simply put, need to figure out who’s going to play. The experiments with Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith didn’t go particularly well in the seeding games, and it’s still unclear when and if Rajon Rondo will be available. Right now, it looks like L.A. has eight trustworthy players: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard.
We know the star power of James and Davis can carry them, but one or two other guys need to earn minutes for the Lakers to make it through four straight playoff series.
Memphis Grizzlies: How valuable will playoff experience be?
The examples are numerous — the 1986 Bulls, the 2010 Thunder, the 2018 Celtics — of teams that end up making noise in the playoffs ahead of schedule and get something real and meaningful out of it. This year’s Grizzlies should be aiming for that.
There are a bunch of lessons to be learned about this team as they face elite competition. What does Ja Morant look like against a set defense that’s geared entirely toward stopping him in the playoffs? Is this Dillon Brooks season for real? Can the structured randomness of new head coach Taylor Jenkins’ offense work with his young roster in a postseason environment? The Grizzlies have to win a pair of play-in games first, but a test against the Lakers could be a huge jumping-off point for the team’s future.
Miami Heat: Will we see Jimmy Butler again?
Miami retained the fourth seed in the East even while playing pretty poorly in the Bubble, largely because they played it safe with injuries. Butler has played in just four games, though Miami did pull of 20-point blowouts in two of those. A run to the conference finals is within reach, but for that to happen, Miami needs Butler to be the guy we saw put the Sixers on his back last summer. They need the guy Brett Brown infamously nicknamed “James Butler.”
Butler should be ready for Game 1, but while the Bam Adebayo-Duncan Robinson two-man game is fun, the Heat need Butler to grind out possession after possession of shot creation in the half court to win this postseason.
Milwaukee Bucks: What’s up with the offense?
Considering the Bucks faltered in last year’s conference finals because they couldn’t overcome Toronto’s swarming half court defense and Giannis Antetokounmpo struggled mightily to read the aggressive help the Raptors sent his way, offensive struggles are the last thing the Bucks need right now.
The Bucks are 14th in offensive rating in the Bubble, where their offense has been nearly three points worse per 100 possessions than the regular season overall. Some of this is Antetokounmpo missing two of the games, but overall, the Bucks just don’t look like the Bucks. They are among the Bubble leaders in turnovers, but they’ve also gotten unlucky shooting the ball. Will all this even out, or is there something bigger going on with Milwaukee’s offense again?
Oklahoma City Thunder: Can the three-guard lineup make magic?
Dennis Schroder is back in the Bubble quarantining after the birth of his child and is expected to be back for the start of the playoffs. When he returns to the lineup, the Thunder’s best weapon comes with him. With Schroder, Chris Paul, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor this season, Oklahoma City outscored opponents by nearly 29 points per 100 possessions. TWENTY-NINE! Paul’s ability to dictate tempo coupled with Schroder’s improved decision-making and Gilgeous-Alexander’s versatility made for a trio that caught opponents off guard night after night.
Houston’s small-ball prowess could neutralize that, though. In particular, the presence of Harden could force the Thunder out of their comfort zone. The last time these teams played back on Jan. 20 (when Clint Capela was still Houston’s starting center), Luguentz Dort matched Harden’s minutes almost exactly, but when Dort was out, it was Hamidou Diallo who defended Harden and Westbrook. The way Oklahoma City tried to counter the Rockets was playing ultra small, with Danilo Gallinari at center and Dort at the 4. The Thunder clearly don’t want any of their three top guards having to deal with Harden all night, but when push comes to shove, they will likely have to.
Orlando Magic: What comes next?
It’s just hard to imagine the Magic, without Jonathan Isaac on the floor, competing this year. But there is plenty of opportunity to evaluate two important pieces for the future. How Aaron Gordon (who is dealing with a hamstring issue) and Markelle Fultz play in the playoffs will help the Magic chart the course for the future. Last year, it was Isaac who took his game to another level in the first round and gave the Magic more promise for the future. Could it be someone else in 2020?
Philadelphia 76ers: Will Joel Embiid be healthy?
The latest on Embiid, who is dealing with ankle and wrist injuries, is that neither injury is serious. But the big man is clearly battered, and the Sixers are already without Ben Simmons. This postseason could be an opportunity for Embiid to show out without Simmons, but most likely, the difference between Embiid being healthy and not is Philly winning one round versus none.
Portland Trail Blazers: Will the youngsters contribute?
This one isn’t off to a great start, as Gary Trent Jr. struggled to defend Caris LeVert as the Trail Blazers clawed their way back to take a must-win final seeding game. Zach Collins still can’t stop fouling and struggles all-around with his decision-making, while stud scorer Anfernee Simons is suddenly out of the team’s rotation. Unless the Trail Blazers get something from those guys, their Cinderella run in Orlando will be taken from us far too soon.
Toronto Raptors: Can Pascal Siakam create consistently in the half court?
All season, this has been the question that would separate a true title defense from Toronto and a return to their pre-2019 playoff fate. Per Synergy play type data, Siakam remains 275th in half court points per possession at less than 1 point per chance. Low-usage players will always exceed in this category, but even a player like Karl-Anthony Towns is up at 1.12.
This is where Toronto misses Leonard most, and it’s the one area where Siakam, despite improving his pull-up shooting and play-making, hasn’t shown himself able to replace Leonard. Unless the playoffs bring the most out of Siakam, the Raptors will run up against late-game situations where their elite transition offense gets bogged down and no one is able to score for them when the court shrinks.
Utah Jazz: Is this the last chance for this core?
The rumors about the relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert growing stale may have been overstated, but regardless, this will be Utah’s third go-round with the Mitchell/Gobert tandem in the playoffs, and there’s been little to show for it. Denver is the pretty solid favorite against the Jazz in the first round, and though Mitchell looked pretty good in the seeding games, Mike Conley has been pretty ordinary, and the backcourt partnership has not had the intended effect on the team.
This is still Mitchell’s offense, and Conley hasn’t been the type of secondary creator who can take the team over the hump, at least not yet. It’s time for these guys to show their potential, or it might be time to change things up in an even bigger way this offseason, with Gobert heading into the final year of his contract.