In a season where it felt like there was a new No. 1 in the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings every week, it ends with the Philadelphia 76ers on top and the Jazz second — the top teams in each conference. The question is, will that translate to the playoffs for them?
1. 76ers (47-22 Last Week No. 3). Taking advantage of a soft schedule down the stretch to win eight in a row (until sitting Joel Embiid against Indiana and losing Tuesday), Philadelphia will enter the playoffs with the top seed in the East and home court throughout — it matters because the Sixers are 27-7 at home this season, and it lets Brooklyn and Milwaukee wear each other down on the other side of the bracket. Joel Embiid was the most dominant player in the NBA when healthy this season, the question now is, can the Sixers get him the ball and use him as an offensive hub in the playoffs when the attention on him defensively is dialed up? Tobias Harris will need to have a big postseason for the Sixers to come out of the East.
2. Jazz (50-19, LW 2). Utah has been unquestionably the best regular season team in the league this year, but with Donovan Mitchell out until the start of the playoffs, it’s fair to ask how well he will be able to move on his sprained ankle when the games matter. The 5-7 days the Jazz will have off during the play-in games is a huge advantage here for Utah, they have time to get healthy and fit Mitchell and Mike Conley back in during practice. There will be no easy playoff rounds in the West. The Jazz’s reward for getting the top seed could well be the Warriors or Lakers in the first round. Just a reminder that life is not fair.
3. Bucks (44-25, LW 5). There are games the past few weeks where you think Milwaukee is peaking at the right time, such as two wins against Brooklyn on the way to winning five straight. Then San Antonio thrashes the Bucks, and many of the same old problems come back for a night. Things feel different with these Bucks — Jrue Holiday at the point, switching schemes that add defensive versatility — but the Bucks will have to prove that in the playoffs before anyone outside of Wisconsin buys in.
4. Suns (48-21, LW 1). Chris Paul will be the guy in the spotlight as the Suns return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but the key to them advancing may be Mikal Bridges. While few fans took notice, Bridges has had an All-Defensive Team level season, and in a West where the Suns could well see the Lakers or Warriors in the first round, elite perimeter defense will be critical. Interior defense could also be an issue — after watching how Anthony Davis took the Suns apart last week there should be concern about playoff matchups. If facing the Lakers or Warriors, the Suns may not be betting favorites in the first round.
5. Clippers (46-23, LW 6). Los Angeles is finally mostly healthy — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley are all back on the court — which makes losses recently to Denver and New York a little more concerning. The Clippers are a team that bombs away from three this season — a league-best 41.6% shooting from beyond the arc — but will the ball keep moving, and will the shots fall in the pressure of the postseason? Or, will the Clippers fall back into bad isolation basketball habits? The Clippers are a game up on Denver for the three seed, but the Nuggets have the tiebreaker.
6. Nuggets (45-24 LW 4). Denver didn’t seem to miss a beat at first after Jamal Murray went down, but without Monte Morris and Will Barton as well, the past couple of weeks Denver fell shot against the Lakers, Jazz, and Nets. Michael Porter Jr. has stepped up without Murray (and will get some Most Improved Player votes), but the Nuggets need more out of Aaron Gordon come the postseason, he has shot just 25.9% from three since the trade and has struggled more of late (although his 56 true shooting percentage with Denver is close to league average).
7. Nets (45-24, LW 7). James Harden is back… but Kyrie Irving appears to be out after taking an elbow to the face on Tuesday. Who knows if we will see the big three together before the playoffs. Brooklyn is a team that will benefit greatly from the 5-6 days off during the play-in games, a chance to get healthy and practice some with their three stars. The Nets want to hold on to the two seed, they are one game up on the Bucks, but Milwaukee has the tiebreaker. The Nets control their own destiny and close the season with the Spurs, Bulls, and Cavaliers — win out and they get the two seed.
8. Trail Blazers (40-29, LW 10). Portland has been red hot of late, winning 8-of-9 behind Damian Lillard and the best offense in the NBA over that stretch. It has been enough to push the Blazers into the sixth seed in the West and be in position to avoid the play-in games, but with the Lakers just one game back (and with a soft schedule the rest of the way), Portland may well need to win two of three from Utah, Phoenix and Denver to close out the season. Even doing that may not be enough to save coach Terry Stott’s job this offseason.
9. Mavericks (40-28, LW 9). Dallas is another team finding its groove and streaking to end the season, having gone 10-3 since late April (somehow two of those losses are to Sacramento), and that vaulted the Mavericks up to fifth in the West. The Mavericks have been without Kristaps Porzingis for most of those games, but it hasn’t dramatically impacted their offense, which has remained top 10 in the NBA during this stretch. Dallas would like to hold on to the five seed and will do so if they can close out the season with three wins against the Pelicans, Raptors, and Timberwolves (at five they likely face the Murray-less Nuggets, fall to sixth and it’s likely the Clippers).
10. Heat (38-31 LW 11). Two wins over Boston in the past week means Miami will not have to deal with the play-in games, a huge boost for Jimmy Butler and Bad Adebayo, who have had to carry a heavy load in Miami. Miami is in a three-way tie for 4/5/6 in the East and needs wins to finish 4/5 (and avoid the Bucks in the first round). The Heat’s offense has been an issue most of the season — due to a lack of shooting plus getting hit hard by COVID/injuries — but has been second best in the NBA over the last seven games. Part of the key is Trevor Ariza playing well as a floor-spacing, defensive four.
11. Knicks (38-31, LW 8). Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Lakers pushed the Knicks back into a three-way tie with the Hawks and Heat, and thanks to the NBA’s arcane three-way tiebreaker rules the Knicks now need some help the rest of the way. (Whichever team falls to sixth in this three-way gets the Bucks in the first round, the other two face each other.) New York finishes with three play-in bound teams with something to play for: the Spurs, Hornets, and Celtics. New York’s defense will translate to the postseason, but will the Julius Randle-centric offense work as defenses clamp down?
12. Hawks (38-31 LW 13). Trae Young and Clint Capela both deserve some postseason award consideration — and both will likely miss out. Capela has been fantastic as the defensive anchor of Atlanta and is worthy of an All-Defensive Team spot, but with Gobert and Embiid at center it’s hard to crack into the top two. Young has played at an All-NBA level this season at guard, but All-NBA guard is also the deepest spot on the ballot, and Young may well miss out just on the numbers game. Atlanta is in the three-way tie in the middle of the East and needs wins against the Wizards, Magic, and Rockets.
13. Warriors (37-33, LW 16). Stephen Curry has been on a tear — averaging 37.2 points a game since coming back from his tailbone injury — and his play is likely to earn him a top-three spot in the MVP voting this season. His Warriors are headed for the 7/8 play-in game (although Memphis could knock them out), likely against the Lakers, in a game that would be a star-studded ratings bonanza, with the winning team likely facing a Suns team in the first round that lacks playoff experience. The players don’t want to talk about it, but there is a “We Believe” vibe around these Warriors.
14. Lakers (39-30, LW 12). LeBron James and Anthony Davis may be back on the court together Wednesday — or at least for a game or two over the final three of the season — as Los Angeles tries to catch Portland and avoid the play-in games. More likely, the Lakers are headed to a 7/8 play-in showdown with the Warriors. Whatever happens, the Lakers need as much time off as possible to get their two stars healthy, plus get Dennis Schroder back from health and safety protocols. A healthy Lakers team still sets the bar in the West, but how healthy will they be is the question.
15. Celtics (35-34, LW 14). Two disappointing losses to Miami seemed to sum up a disappointing season for Boston, which is now headed to the play-in games and without Jaylen Brown (a fractured wrist has ended his season). The Celtics’ offense has picked up over the past couple of weeks, in part because Kemba Walker has returned and found an offensive groove, but the Celtics’ defense has been bottom five in the league over that same time. Consistency remains an issue for this Boston roster.
16. Grizzlies (35-33 LW 18). Memphis still has a chance to climb up to the eighth seed and create an easier path for themselves out of the play-in tournament. The Grizzlies are just half a game back of the Warriors for the eighth seed (the teams are tied in the loss column), and they face each other on Sunday in a game that could decide the 8/9 seedings. If Ja Morant and company can win two games against shorthanded Sacramento Thursday and Friday, they will set up the final-day showdown with Curry and Golden State.
17. Wizards (32-37 LW 15). Russell Westbrook‘s historic run of triple-doubles has kept Washington in the play-in games despite Bradley Beal missing time with a strained hamstring (the Wizards will need him back to advance out of those play-in games). Washington will have to win two games to get out of the play-in and into the playoffs proper — likely facing a scrappy Indiana squad in the first game, then the Celtics or Hornets in the second one. With a healthy Beal the Wizards are a threat in those games — Washington’s top-10 offense the last few weeks still drives the team bus — but without him those wins are a lot to ask.
18. Pacers (33-36, LW 17). Who cares if Embiid was playing or not, the Pacers win over the Sixers on Tuesday moved them back up to the nine seed, within one game of the eighth-seed Hornets, so there is a chance to move up. Indiana has a tough end of the season schedule with the Bucks and Lakers before facing the Raptors on Sunday. Will the team come together for unpopular Nate Bjorkgren and make the push needed to get to the playoffs? It seems a long shot.
19. Spurs (33-35, LW 19). Just when you think San Antonio is limping over the finish line of the season, they go out and thrash Milwaukee on Monday night, keeping some hope for a run into the playoffs alive. While the Spurs have a few games cushion over the Pelicans and Kings (and the tiebreaker on both), they need another one more to secure their spot in the play-in games — and their schedule the rest of the way is the toughest in the league. The Spurs are at the Nets and Knicks on a back-to-back, then come home to close out the season with a back-to-back against the Suns.
20. Hornets (33-36, LW 20). Terry Rozier‘s red-hot play of late — how much does Boston miss him on his contract compared to Kemba? — has kept the Hornets as the eighth seed, one game up on the Pacers. But the Hornets have a tough schedule the rest of the way — Clippers, Knicks, Wizards — and they are at risk of falling back (and, with that, would have a tougher road to the playoffs). One thing not at risk: LaMelo Ball will run away with the Rookie of the Year award.
21. Pelicans (31-38, LW 21). It would take a minor miracle for the Pelicans to get the Pelicans into the play-in — they would have to win out and the Spurs lose-out — but the second half of this season showed the Pelicans the path for the future. Zion Williamson as an unstoppable point forward can run the offense at a high level. Over the past two weeks, the Pelicans have had the third-best defense in the NBA. They need to make some roster moves over the summer to add shooting, but that will not be easy with Stephen Adams‘ massive contract as an anchor (giving him an extension was an odd choice by David Griffin).
22. Kings (30-38, LW 23). While mathematically alive to make the play-in reality is after the loss to the Spurs last week that ship sailed — it’s 15 years and counting since the Kings make the playoffs, tying the NBA drought record. Sacramento faces tough questions this offseason: If De'Aaron Fox and the impressive rookie Tyrese Haliburton are the backcourt, do they try to trade Bradley Beal? Can they re-sign Richaun Holmes in free agency? He was critical to their defense.
23. Bulls (29-40, LW 24). Not shockingly, Chicago has won 3-of-4 since Zach LaVine returned to the lineup, their offense revolves around him. The Bulls will enter next season thinking playoffs with LaVine and Nikola Vucevic leading the way, but there is still roster work to do this offseason. They need a point guard to be a floor general, look for them to be aggressive on the free agent and trade markets this offseason.
24. Raptors (27-41, LW 22). An injury-filled, disappointing season has come to a close in Toronto — it will miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Now comes an offseason where the biggest question is the future of Kyle Lowry, who is an unrestricted free agent. He’s looking for a contract in the two-year, $50 million range as a starting point, do the Raptors want to pay that or let him go and jump with both feet into the retooling of the roster around Pascal Siakam and company?
25. Timberwolves (22-47, LW 25). It’s not a shock that the A-Rod/Lore group has found it slow going getting a deal done to buy the Timberwolves; Glen Taylor has wanted very specific things out of the sale (beyond the $1.5 billion) from the start and is that has driven off past suitors. The NBA Draft Lottery will be a big night for Minnesota: If their pick is top 3 they keep it, otherwise it goes to Golden State (the D'Angelo Russell trade). The Wolves have the sixth-worst record and a 27.6% chance of keeping the pick (the most likely outcome is the Warriors picking 7 or 8).
26. Pistons (19-50 LW 27). Detroit is on its way to having a top-six pick in the upcoming NBA Draft — a 14% shot at Cade Cunningham and the top pick, but a 47.9% chance they pick 5 or 6. The Pistons front office did well their last draft with Saddiq Bey — shooting 38.4% from 3 and showing promise on defense — and Isaiah Stewart, a beast inside and on the glass. We haven’t seen enough Killian Hayes to make a decision yet (he missed a lot of the season with a hip injury), but he has shown flashes as well.
27. Magic (21-48, LW 26). Orlando’s season was derailed before it started with the injury to Jonathan Isaac, but give credit to the front office for recognizing the situation an going all-in on the rebuild and trading Gordon and Vucevic. Orlando could have two lottery picks this draft, their own —which could land anywhere from 1-9, but with 6/7 being the most likely spots — and the Bulls pick if it is not top four (there is a 73.8% chance the pick falls to Orlando, most likely as the 8 or 9 selection).
28. Cavaliers (21-48, LW 28). The bright side this season in Cleveland was the jump Darius Garland made. After a rough rookie campaign, he has looked like a solid rotation player this season and may become a solid NBA starter in another year or two. The question is, does he pair well with ball-dominant Collin Sexton in an undersized backcourt, or do the Cavaliers want to change that? Where they land in the NBA Draft — anywhere from 1-8 — and who they select can go a long way toward answering that question.
29. Rockets (16-53, LW 29). Nobody had a season that changed as dramatically as Houston — it opened training camp with dreams of a team that could make a playoff run, but James Harden forced his way out in an ugly fashion, and from there the wheels came off and the Rockets embraced the rebuild. They have the worst record in the NBA, but if their pick falls outside the top four it goes to Oklahoma City (the Westbrook trade) — and there is a 47.9% chance that happens. It’s going to be a long rebuild in Houston.
30. Thunder (21-48, LW 30). While it seems OKC has stockpiled every other pick for the next seven years, this is still a rebuild that is going to take time. They could have two lottery picks this year, their own and Houston’s if it falls to five. What we learned on the roster this season is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a point guard to build around, Luguentz Dort is a quality defensive wing (a position of real value around the league, and the Thunder might have something in Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon, but we need more time. Every one of those players is 23 or younger.