Golden State is still the team everyone has to beat to win a title, they are the heavy favorites to threepeat, so of course they end the season on top of the rankings. The Bucks are second, and then it gets interesting.
1. Warriors (57-24, Last Week No. 1). Golden State ends the regular season on top of these rankings, and that’s as it should be. We all know this is the team to beat if anyone else wants to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June. For all the ups-and-downs of the regular season, the Warriors end it with the best record in the West and relatively healthy heading into the playoffs (Stephen Curry’s ankle sprain Tuesday was minor). Those things are always the goals.
2. Bucks (60-21, LW 2). There are plenty of doubters, people questioning if these Bucks can carry their regular-season success over to the playoffs. Milwaukee does not deserve that level of skepticism — they have been to the playoffs before, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be his usual self, Khris Middleton was a beast against Boston a season ago, and this team has veterans who understand playoff pressure. That said, they need Malcolm Brogdon back for the second round, and even that may not be enough because Boston has been a matchup problem for Milwaukee.
3. Rockets (53-29, LW 4). Houston has finished its season, but depending upon what happens Wednesday could be anything from the 2 to 4 seed in the West. Denver played games (resting guys against Portland) to push Houston to the four seed and the Warriors side of the bracket, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Houston facing Golden State in the second round means James Harden isn’t as tired and Chris Paul is less likely to be injured (he has a history), that may be better for the Rockets than waiting until the conference finals.
4. Raptors (58-24, LW 3). While nobody was looking too closely, the Raptors have played some of their best basketball of the season in resent weeks — they are hitting the playoffs in stride. Marc Gasol has been a big boost — the Raptors are 11-4 when Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry all suit up. When Gasol, Leonard, Lowry, and Pascal Siakam are on the court together, the Raptors have a net rating of 14.3.
5. Jazz (50-31, LW 7). Utah is locked into the five seed in the West, win-or-lose their final game on Wednesday against the Clippers. The Jazz likely are rooting for shorthanded Portland to stay the four seed (Utah’s goal is to get out of the first round again), but Houston could fall to four, and that would be a real matchup challenge for the Jazz. For fans, however, Donovan Mitchell vs. James Harden would be a very entertaining show.
6. Nuggets (53-28, LW 5). Denver has to win its final game against Minnesota to secure the No. 2 seed. The Nuggets’ gambit — resting players against the Trail Blazers and losing to them last weekend — could pay off, if Portland wins Wednesday (and Denver does, too) then Portland is the three seed and Houston falls to fourth. That means the Nuggets avoid the matchup they least want in the second round. But whoever they face, Denver has a lot to prove in its first postseason with this core.
7. Trail Blazers (52-29, LW 8). If Portland can beat Sacramento on Wednesday they likely finish as the three seed (Denver has to win, too) and with 53 wins — the second straight year as the three seed and with four more wins. That’s an impressive accomplishment. This summer the Trail Blazers should pay Damian Lillard the supermax extension (he will make the All-NBA team and qualify) then decide how to approach the rest of the roster. But make Lillard a Blazer for life, he’s too good on and off the court for this franchise to do anything else.
8. Celtics (49-33, LW 10). Boston enters the playoff having won 6-of-8 and with things setting up well for them: A shorthanded Pacers team in the first round followed by a Bucks team they match up well with in the second round. Boston’s key is health. Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum have battled little injuries and need to get right before the postseason. The Celtics also need Gordon Hayward to play like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
9. 76ers (50-31, LW 6). No team has undergone a metamorphosis this season like the Sixers — trading away a lot of depth to acquire Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, going all in on a title this season. “The Process” seems like a distant memory. No team in the East has a starting five as talented as Philly, but will the lack of depth and questions about chemistry catch up with them in the second round? Conference Finals? Never. This is going to be a fun team to watch through the playoffs.
10. Thunder (48-33, LW 12). The team in the bottom half of the West that nobody in the top half wants to face in the first round. With a win against the Bucks (who have nothing to play for) Wednesday, the Thunder secure the six seed in the West. Oklahoma City has two All-NBA level stars in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, and a solid team defense, which makes teams nervous about playing them in the postseason. However, Westbrook has been inefficient and the Thunder role players have stumbled, if that continues it will be another short playoff run for OKC.
11. Spurs (47-34, LW 11). Gregg Popovich deserves some Coach of the Year love from voters this season, taking a team filled with guys you don’t know — and the ones you do know love the midrange shot a little too much — and turning them into a playoff team. Again. The man is a wizard. The Spurs can finish anywhere from the 6-8 seed by the time Wednesday night ends, but the fact they are in the playoffs is a win in and of itself.
12. Clippers (47-34, LW 9). The Clippers have stumbled, losing three in a row down the stretch, which puts them in danger of getting the Warriors in the first round (the Clippers can finish 7th or 8th, depending on what happens Wednesday night). Whatever happens, Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes. This team entered the season with low expectations from pundits, traded their best player midway through the season (Tobias Harris, although Boban was close), and still made the playoffs. The Clippers are well positioned to land a star free agent next summer, now we’ll see if that plan comes together.
13. Pacers (47-34, LW 13). The third straight team in these rankings where the coach — in this case, Nate McMillan — deserves credit and should/will get Coach of the Year votes. This was a team heavy on guys who would be free agents, yet they bought in and played as a team. That’s a credit to McMillan. The Pacers hung on to the five seed in the playoffs and will face Boston in the first round, a team they can push but not likely beat without Victor Oladipo.
14. Magic (41-40, LW 15). They will finish the season as at least a .500 team and as anywhere from the 6 to 8 seed in the East — that is a huge accomplishment for this franchise. The question for Orlando this summer is will they pay enough to keep All-Star Nikola Vucevic from bolting, because he will have options. My guess is that after they got a look at Mo Bamba for a season they will pay Vucevic to stay, figuring if/when Bamba is ready to take over the starting job someday they can trade Vucevic.
15. Nets (41-40, LW 17). The Nets have been rebuilding — without high draft picks or big time free agents — for years now, and that they will turn that into a playoff appearance this season is impressive. The wins last weekend against the Pacers and Celtics speak to the scrappy play this team has shown all season. Now they enter the summer as big game hunters in free agency, although, like the rebuild, that may require patience as well. Brooklyn was not rebuilt in a day.
16. Pistons (40-41, LW 14). With Blake Griffin hobbled, the Piston have struggled to hold on to a playoff spot and now must win the final night of the regular season to ensure they get a ticket to the dance. If the Pistons make the playoffs, they aren’t much of a threat with Griffin slowed as he is. Detroit can finish as the 7,8, or 9 seed — win Wednesday and they are 7 or 8, lose and they are at the mercy of the next team on this list.
17. Hornets (39-42, LW 20). Kemba Walker will not let this team die. While he has stumbled some after the All-Star break, he has willed this team to still have a shot at the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. Kemba Walker loves Charlotte, but the man is going to have options from coast-to-coast next summer — literally from New York to Los Angeles — and he will be able to choose his city and working environment. The question is, what does Kemba really want?
18. Heat (39-42, LW 16). Thank you, Dwyane Wade. Few if any players were as entertaining on the court, as professional, as gifted, and a joy to watch as Wade was. He got rings as the best player on the team and as the guy willing to make the sacrifices to win. He was a smart player and maybe the best shot blocking guard of all time. It’s not going to be the same watching Heat games or the NBA without him. It’s too bad his final season ended without one more trip to the playoffs.
19. Kings (39-42, LW 18). Coaches and players hate the term “moral victory,” but that’s what this season was in Sacramento. The Kings could not sustain their fast start and eventually fell out of the playoffs, but this season the Kings found their identity in pace. The Kings found two guys who can be part of the foundation of what is being built — De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley — plus other players such as Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles who could play roles on a good team. There is a lot to like, now the Kings just have to build on it. And not screw it up.
20. Lakers (37-45, LW 19). No team enters the offseason with more uncertainty than Los Angeles, Magic Johnson made sure of that. As big a shock as it was, Magic leaving can be good for the Lakers — he was not good at his job. It now falls on Jeanie Buss to be aggressive, use the draw of that Lakers’ brand, and go get an elite president of basketball operations. Poach him from another team, go with David Griffin, whatever, but the Lakers need a guy to set a direction and build a culture. Right now they are just a brand. And LeBron James.
21. Timberwolves (36-45, LW 21). Minnesota is going to keep Ryan Saunders as the coach, he had a connection with Karl-Anthony Towns and sparked the offense, that’s a good sign (although he needs a defensive-minded assistant). They are keeping Scott Layden as GM and hiring a new person to oversee all of this and set direction, a new head of basketball operations. With Towns they have a centerpiece, but in Wiggins they have an anchor of a contract (and there are some other bad ones on the books, too). There is work to do in Minny.
22. Wizards (32-50, LW 22). The Wizards need to find a new GM/president of basketball operations, then figure out the biggest question facing the franchise: Re-sign Bradley Beal to a max (or, if he makes an All-NBA team, supermax) contract that keeps him with the Wizards for six years, making him the franchise cornerstone; or trade him while at his peak and jumpstart a rebuilding/retooling. Don’t expect John Wall to play next season following his torn Achilles.
23. Mavericks (33-48, LW 26). Dallas is well positioned: Luka Doncic faded a little as the season went on (rookies often do) but he showed the potential to be a franchise player, they landed Kristaps Porzingis via trade already (even with the cloud of charges hanging over him), and they have the cap space to add quality players to the roster this summer. Dirk Nowitzki is a legend who will be missed (but will still be around the franchise), but Dallas is prepared for the next chapter.
24. Grizzlies (32-49, LW 24). Memphis will finish with 32 or 33 wins this season — which is still 10 or 11 more than a year ago. That speaks more to the disaster of 2017-18, but these Grizzlies did play hard and found a future star in Jaren Jackson Jr. The big question this summer is if they will trade Mike Conley — they probably do — and what they can get in return. He’s an All-Star level player, but on a big contract.
25. Hawks (29-52, LW 23). No team near the bottom of the standings/top of the lottery should feel as good as the Hawks — they have two cornerstone pieces in Trae Young and John Collins. Add to that this draft, continue to develop guys and this is a franchise that is headed in the right direction.
26. Pelicans (33-49, LW 25). Anthony Davis really worked hard to make sure he squandered all the good will he had built up in New Orleans, didn’t he? Own your clothing choices. What matters most in New Orleans now is who they bring in as the new GM/head of basketball operations. That’s the person who sets the direction, and with that what they want/will get back in the eventual Davis trade.
27. Bulls (22-59, LW 27). New coach Jim Boylen is hard driving, and that doesn’t sit well with every player, but John Paxson likes him and it feels like the Bulls are going to ride Boylen as coach into next season. It will be interesting to see what this young team can look like together if healthy to start a season, and with a little more experience.
28. Suns (19-63, LW 28). The Suns have got their man, Jeff Bower is going to set the direction for the franchise. Will he bring back Igor Kokoskov as coach? They have an All-Star level player (almost, anyway) in Devin Booker and potential in Deandre Ayton, but they need a lot more talent and a lot more defense to make this all work going forward.
29. Cavaliers (19-63, LW 29). Collin Sexton came on as a scorer the second half of the season. Put him with a healthy Kevin Love — probably hard to trade him this summer — and whoever the Cavaliers draft and maybe they can be less bad next season. But this rebuild is going to be a process. A long one.
30. Knicks (18-64, LW 30). Are the Kevin Durant rumors — which are rampant around the league — true? The Knicks are quietly confident. If it does happen the Knicks are going to be fast-tracked to a turnaround next year whether they land the top pick and Zion Williamson or not. The question is who they can get around him. Also, if KD goes to the Knicks he is my preseason MVP pick for next season.