NBA Playoff power rankings
By Marc Stein
The Los Angeles Lakers were set to play their first playoff game in seven years Tuesday night — at a centralized NBA site in the middle of August.
This, in other words, is a special occasion.
It was under these auspices that I decided to break from my recent once-a-season tradition to convene what is known as the Committee (of One) and assemble an emergency edition of my power rankings to assess the 16 teams that, after spending some 40 days in the NBA bubble, have advanced to the playoffs.
The higher-seeded team won each of Monday’s first four playoff games, but Tuesday was another matter. Lower seeds won three of the four games, as the streaking Portland Trailblazers beat the Lakers, the top seed in the West, the Miami Heat topped the Indiana Pacers, and the Orlando Magic stunned the Milwaukee Bucks, the No. 1 seed in the East. The Houston Rockets’ win over the Oklahoma City Thunder was the only victory for a higher seed on Tuesday.
Many NBA experts believe the 2020 postseason will be more unpredictable than ever because home-court advantage and the usual rigors of travel have been deleted from the equation. Everyone is playing and living at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., with only a few hundred virtual fans admitted to the games.
“I hate giving predictions, but especially in this scenario, where literally anybody could get upset,” Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors told me last week when I asked him for his NBA Finals picks. “I’m prepared for anything as a quote-unquote fan.”
As a reminder: The Committee computes the order by weighing what is happening in the present alongside each team’s big-picture outlook — guided to some degree by subjectivity and whimsy.
1. TORONTO RAPTORS
The Raptors did not quite match the unbeaten Phoenix Suns in the seeding games, but they looked more playoff-ready, at 7-1, than anyone else in the bubble. The Raptors also recorded more wins this season than the Clippers (53 to 49) even after Kawhi Leonard swapped Canada for Hollywood. Given Toronto’s versatility on defense, its towering confidence after last season’s title run and coach Nick Nurse’s creativity, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Raptors win the East again — even without Leonard.
2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The Bucks have such a favorable first-round matchup against Orlando that it made more sense to laser in on their mental state. Because Milwaukee’s No. 1 seeding in the East was all but assured before the team arrived in Florida, its intermittent focus was an understandable problem. Harder to understand was the impression that Giannis Antetokounmpo’s patience was already wearing thin, as suggested by a scuffle with Brooklyn’s Donta Hall and a head butt of Washington’s Moritz Wagner. The Bucks will have to spend nearly two more months here to win the franchise’s first championship since 1970-71. They haven’t enjoyed themselves much so far.
3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers’ ceiling may still be the league’s highest, but it’s rather late and they still haven’t found that peak. More than a year after the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, coach Doc Rivers still seems to be waiting to have access to his whole roster. Maybe Monday night’s Game 1 win over Dallas was the first step, at last, to putting all those inviting pieces together.
4. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
LeBron James, like Kawhi Leonard, is bidding to become the first superstar to lead three different franchises to an NBA title. Yet it can be argued that the season’s lengthy hiatus hurt LeBron’s Lakers as much as any title contender. This team was rolling when the coronavirus pandemic forced an indefinite shutdown. Now the Lakers face a tricky first-round matchup with Portland amid growing concerns about a lack of perimeter shooting and the defensive void created by Avery Bradley’s absence.
5. DENVER NUGGETS
The Nuggets barely had enough players available to get through a practice in the early stages of the bubble. Now? Denver isn’t completely healthy, but coach Mike Malone has more options than ever thanks to the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. Although Denver was a worst-in-the-bubble No. 22 in defensive efficiency in its eight seeding games, it sure looks like the West’s most credible contender outside Los Angeles when Jamal Murray closes games alongside Nikola Jokic the way Murray finished off Utah in Game 1.
6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Even without its best James Harden defender (Luguentz Dort) for Game 1 and possibly longer, Oklahoma City was seen as having a real chance to upset Houston in the first round and continuing a surge that would see the Thunder at No. 1 if we were ranking this season’s overachievers. Chris Paul predictably gets much of the credit in what has been a turn-back-the-clock season for him at age 35 — and his team got a classic subjective boost here from the Committee in recognition of Paul’s behind-the-scenes work just to make this restart happen.
7. MIAMI HEAT
The Heat are not quite the title contenders that Jimmy Butler has proclaimed them to be — not yet — but the Committee is higher on them than most. Coach Erik Spoelstra has playmakers (Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo), shooters (Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro) and a variety of defenders to throw at Indiana’s T.J. Warren (Butler, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder) — enough across the board to feel good about Miami’s first-round series with the Pacers.
8. BOSTON CELTICS
No one questions Jayson Tatum’s franchise-player viability, and Jaylen Brown continues to impress with both his on-court maturation and his off-court activism. But Boston, with its well-chronicled lack of dependable size, was already sweating its first-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers — before Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle Monday night, sidelining him for at least four weeks. The Celtics, who are also managing Kemba Walker’s long-standing knee problem, should find a way past the Ben Simmons-less Sixers, but that’s the most we’re prepared to promise.
9. HOUSTON ROCKETS
There were so many fit questions and so much skepticism when the Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma City in July 2019. The big mystery now, amazingly, is whether Houston can survive a difficult first-round series against the surprising Thunder without Westbrook, who is out indefinitely with a quadriceps injury. With its ultrasmall lineups, Houston was supposed to be the most feared wild card in the West playoffs, but it may take all of coach Mike D’Antoni’s tricks just to steer Houston into the second round — amid numerous questions about D’Antoni’s future.
10. INDIANA PACERS
The Phoenix Suns’ 8-0 run in the bubble prevented the Pacers from getting the shine they deserved. Despite losing All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis (foot) and coping with the ups and downs of Victor Oladipo’s spotty comeback, Indiana overcame its rebounding issues without Sabonis to go 6-2 and help coach Nate McMillan secure a one-year contract extension. Best of all is T.J. Warren’s looming best-of-seven showdown with Miami’s Jimmy Butler after Warren averaged a ridiculous 31.0 points per game to finish third in seeding games scoring.
11. UTAH JAZZ
I was a big believer in Utah after the offseason acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic — so big that in October I picked the Jazz to reach the Western Conference Finals. Sadly, that attempt at bold, out-of-the-box forecasting hasn’t aged well, with Bogdanovic and key reserve Ed Davis sidelined and Conley most likely out until at least Game 3 after the recent birth of his son. The Jazz face yet another immediate challenge emotionally, knowing they wasted Donovan Mitchell’s 57 points in a crushing Game 1 loss to Denver.
12. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
After what coach Terry Stotts described as “a nine-game series” just to get a playoff shot at the mighty Lakers, Portland theoretically should have a sharpness edge — at least at the start of the series. The Blazers, though, have considerable defensive issues, and they aren’t the healthiest — CJ McCollum (back) and Zach Collins (ankle) will try to play through injuries. The group also has to be weary after the exertion required to bump Memphis out of the eighth seed. Even with Damian Lillard on its side, Portland has much to overcome to produce the first-round shocker Charles Barkley has been touting on TNT.
13. DALLAS MAVERICKS
The euphoria that the Mavericks undoubtedly felt after reaching the playoffs in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis’s first full season together was surely tempered by the reality of facing the Clippers’ array of top-flight defenders. That, combined with Dallas’ defensive frailties, makes for a brutal Round 1 matchup. Doncic insisted before the series that the Mavericks had “nothing to lose,” but Game 1 played out in agonizing fashion, with Doncic blighting his 42 points with 11 turnovers and Porzingis getting ejected in the third quarter.
14. PHILADELPHIA 76ers
For fans of a certain age, there is still a majesty attached to the mere mention of a Philadelphia vs. Boston playoff series. Yet one suspects that these 76ers are not in much of a mood to romanticize after losing Simmons (knee surgery) indefinitely and a Game 1 fade against the Celtics that highlighted so many of the Sixers’ familiar ills: Joel Embiid either wore down or didn’t see enough of the ball in crunchtime; Al Horford, last summer’s marquee signing, had minimal impact against his former team; and the usual wails about Philadelphia’s lack of perimeter shooting persist. The pressure is on the Sixers — especially coach Brett Brown.
15. BROOKLYN NETS
The Nets lost so many players in the weeks before coming to Florida that they had no shortage of NBA Twitter cynics asking if they should have even bothered showing up to Disney World. Then they went a spunky 5-3 on the way to the playoffs, rallying around the blossoming Caris LeVert and the steady Joe Harris to beat Milwaukee (with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup) and nearly eliminate a desperate Portland. They’ve been a great story here, even if Toronto sweeps the Nets in the first round — especially LeVert and the response Jacque Vaughn is getting from this group as the interim coach.
16. ORLANDO MAGIC
The Magic have been a curiosity for me from the moment they became the first team to arrive on the NBA campus, because they had to travel only about 25 miles. Orlando’s staycation, though, is surely coming to an end soon. Milwaukee has too many weapons, and the Magic’s only realistic defensive counter to Giannis Antetokounmpo — Jonathan Isaac — tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in his second game here. Adding to Orlando’s problems: Aaron Gordon is still recovering from a hamstring injury.