Go turn on your television because the playoffs are here, today, right now, and odds are there is meaningful basketball taking place as you read this. We’re back with a special playoff edition of the Power Rankings, offering a quick gaze into each team’s current state, with expectations, seeding, talent level and momentum all accounted for.
For our staff’s playoff picks, look here. For our preview of the West click here, and East click here. And if you just woke up from your six-month slumber, can’t find the remote and need a quick debriefing? Scroll down. Basketball!
16. Chicago Bulls (41–41)
It’s a minor achievement that the Bulls are even here, but if you watched this team on any kind of consistent basis this season, you understand the issues. Prime Jimmy Butler and aging Dwyane Wade give Chicago two crunch-time options, but these aren’t the steely Thibodeau teams of years past. They’ll be hit with a lot of adversity early on, and making any kind of dent against the Celtics would require a gear nobody’s sure the Bulls have.
15. Indiana Pacers (42–40)
The Pacers should feel good about being here after a year of .500 basketball that was often frustrating as several new players and a new coach tried to coalesce. Paul George dragged them here and stands as one of the more intriguing first-round characters. Whatever Indiana’s able to accomplish will cast a shadow on the off-season conversation surrounding their star player. It doesn’t help that they’re staring down the Cavaliers.
14. Portland Trail Blazers (41–41)
Portland’s back in the playoffs with a similar story: great backcourt, weird frontcourt, limited ceiling. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are one of the more resiliant star duos around and give the Blazers a chance to keep every game close. Then again, we’ve seen them try and keep up with the Warriors in the playoffs before. Both Portland and intrigued viewers will hope Jusuf Nurkic gets the go-ahead to suit up, but it likely won’t shift the outcome.
13. Milwaukee Bucks (42–40)
We all wanted Playoff Giannis, and the Bucks beat some tough odds to get here, losing Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker during the season and leaning as much as possible on Antetokounmpo, who responded in kind. Middleton’s back at full strength, the Bucks have another weird-but-captivating roster and get a very difficult draw in the Raptors. Milwaukee can make a statement about their immediate future with a good showing, regardless of whether they steal a series.
12. Memphis Grizzlies (43–39)
A Grizzlies playoff series without Tony Allen is not one I necessarily care about with all of my soul, but it’s nice to see a mostly healthy Memphis squad back for another playoff go. It’s unfortunate we’ll never get a playoff meeting of Gasols in their respective primes, but if Marc is at his best, the Grizz are tough and experienced enough to give the Spurs a series. This group has never folded easily.
11. Atlanta Hawks (43–39)
Ten playoff berths in a row ain’t bad. Atlanta’s performance levels ebbed and flowed hard this season, but the Hawks are finally healthy and have a little bit of positive energy about them going into these playoffs after closing the season effectively. They’re experienced and have a nice variety of scorers, but when opponents figure out how to slow Dennis Schröder and cramp their ball movement, they’re vulnerable. The Hawks have a chance at an upset, but that’ll require a level of consistency they haven’t shown us in a while.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (47–35)
Honestly, it’s pretty frustrating that they don’t just hand out the MVP award this week, because we’re going to be hit with incessant debate for the next two months, long after the Thunder and Rockets (and Russell Westbrook and James Harden) resolve their first-round conflict. OKC probably doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with Houston, but if they bog the game down enough and let Westbrook go Hulk, it’s gonna get zesty.
9. Washington Wizards (49–33)
It doesn’t seem like many people have strong Wizards feelings. That’s fine, but this is a team with a legitimate shot at the East finals. There’s definitely a scenario where the Hawks find a way to drag out this first-round series as long as possible, but in John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington will have the two most talented players on the floor for much of this series. If they get a crack at the rival Celtics, it’ll be fun television.
8. Utah Jazz (51–31)
Finally, the Jazz are back in the playoffs, and with an opportunity to make a little noise. Utah features a well-drilled defense around the league’s top shot-blocker in Rudy Gobert, a go-to scorer in Gordon Hayward and a deep bench filled with specialists. It’s a pretty good recipe to take down the Clippers, all things considered. If you think there’s a first-round “upset” lying around somewhere, look no further.
7. LA Clippers (51–31)
These guys did themselves a serious solid by closing strong and seizing the four seed after another predictably bizarre season. But with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul headed for free agency, we’re pretty sure this core is nearing the end of its rope. It wouldn’t be shocking to see L.A. pull it together and give the Warriors an interesting fight in the semis, but it also would feel normal if the Clippers implode somewhere in the first round and break up with maximum angst. We’ve been watching the slow, excruciating death of Lob City for a few years now.
6. Boston Celtics (53–29)
Yes, the Celtics are the top seed, but they 1) didn’t close in especially convincing fashion, 2) posted the lowest point differential for a No. 1 seeded team in nearly four decades, and 3) don’t have LeBron James. Boston’s still deep, talented and well-prepared and should handle Chicago in what’s shaping up to be a feisty series at minimum. Beyond that, it’s hard to make sweeping promises.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (51–31)
The Cavs are still the team to beat in the East, but by now you’ve definitely heard that they aren’t playing the best basketball. This docks them a couple spots, but that’s also okay. Cleveland’s offense remained among the league’s best in spite of a mediocre second half, and the main issues here are defense and situational execution. Teams evolve in the playoffs, and the Cavs have done it before. Also, LeBron.
4. Toronto Raptors (51–31)
Toronto nets the top East spot after closing the season with a really strong stretch of play without Kyle Lowry, who is now healthy. Lowry and DeRozan give the Raptors two experienced late-game shot creators, and mid-season pickups Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker provide added steel. There’s a lot to like about the versatility of personnel, and it helps that they’ve been deep into the playoffs before and been humbled. The Bucks are a tricky opponent, but not an intimidating one yet.
3. Houston Rockets (55–27)
If you think shooting as many threes as possible is a viable strategy for winning a lot of games when it counts…you’re right! The Rockets are here to exercise Mike D’Antoni and James Harden’s playoff demons, and there’s nothing shy about their approach. Houston wasn’t as good down the stretch, but Harden had an injured wrist and there’s a fully-maximized supporting cast here. They have a very tiny chance to win the West…but it’s a chance.
2. San Antonio Spurs (61–21)
It’s okay to admit you only watch Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs, but that doesn’t make it cool. Leonard is an egoless, one-man tour de force embedded in a system that emphasizes the whole, a superstar in a situation so perfect that it actually diminishes his sheen to the common fan. Basically, you should start watching the Spurs now. Platitudes about the franchise’s consistency have truth to them, but they’ve also masked the fact that this is a defense that has faltered from time to time this season. It’s not the best team Gregg Popovich has ever coached. It remains a formidable one with a sliver of hope to win the conference.
1. Golden State Warriors (67–15)
No wasting words here: the Warriors are probably winning the championship. There’s no way around how historically good they were from a statistical standpoint and the fact they did a bunch of if it with Kevin Durant injured. They cruised to the best point differential since the ’96 Bulls and enter these playoffs with less of a regular-season strain. There’s pressure, sure, but Golden State’s been through the ringer a couple times now and should hold themselves to that standard. The rest of us, we’re just waiting for someone to mount a serious challenge. Here we go.