It would be an understatement to say the NBA has been mired in chaos of late. The Grizzlies’ Ja Morant served an eight-game suspension for an Instagram Live where he inexplicably showed off a gun while at the strip club. Rudy Gobert was out for the Timberwolves’ play-in game after he punched his own teammate, Kyle Anderson, during their final game of the regular season. The Timberwolves seemed to be on a serious punching spree, because during the same game, Jaden McDaniels fractured his hand after punching a wall en route to the locker room at halftime. The NBA opened an investigation into the once-promising Mavericks for opting to tank to preserve favorable player drafting odds rather than fighting for a spot in the polarizing play-in tournament ahead of the playoffs. Even the seemingly untouchable Celtics haven’t been safe from the madness. In one of the more bizarre injuries in recent memory, Jaylen Brown knocked over a glass vase while watering plants and proceeded to cut his hand trying to clean it up, resulting in five stitches and two missed games. With such a tumultuous end to the regular season, only the very best teams will be able to tune out the noise and rise to the top when the playoffs kick off this weekend.
The league’s recent state of mayhem has been especially evident in the West: As the playoffs get underway, the conference truly has no clear frontrunners. The Nuggets have the top seed, but won just two of their last seven regular season games, indicative of a shaky year overall. While the team has the fifth-best offensive rating, they currently rank solidly in the middle of the league in defense, hardly an encouraging sign for the supposed top team in the conference. Meanwhile, besides Morant’s gun-at-the-strip-club snafu, the No. 2 seed Grizzlies will have to contend with other personnel issues, including a key injury to center Steven Adams, who is likely to miss the playoffs. In the first round, they’ll face the Lakers, the play-in game winners, who beat Memphis in two of their three head-to-head matchups this season. Another possible contender is the Kings, whose high-powered offense may have finally fueled the team to the postseason after a 16-year drought. However, their defense is the lowest ranked of any playoff team, and they’ll be playing the reigning champion Warriors in the first round (although the Warriors may not actually be too formidable given their complete inability to win on the road). Finally, the 4-seed Suns, who, according to Vegas, currently have the best odds to win the conference, will be facing the middling 5-seed Clippers. While the Suns lack depth beyond the star-studded top of their roster, it’s difficult to overlook the unstoppable quartet of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Deandre Ayton, and Chris Paul. Therefore, even though it’s really anybody’s game at this point, I’m taking the Suns to win the conference.
In contrast to the relative parity of the West, the East is a totally different story. The NBA’s top three regular-season records were held by teams in the East this year, with the Bucks, Celtics, and 76ers establishing themselves as the clear top contenders in both the conference and the league overall. The Bucks faced significant injuries this season, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton each missing double-digit numbers of games. All three are expected to be healthy heading into the playoffs, and along with defensive star Brook Lopez, the team will likely continue its dominance and make a significant run in the playoffs. Next up, the No. 2 seed Celtics are one of the most balanced teams in the league, ranking second in both offensive and defensive ratings. They will face the Hawks in the first round, whom the Celtics trounced in their last game of the regular season, when bench player Payton Pritchard notched his first ever triple-double in an impressive performance that highlighted both the team’s roster depth and season-long success from the 3-point line. Meanwhile, the Sixers also enjoyed a triumphant end to their regular season, finishing with back-to-back wins—including an impressive performance against their first-round opponents, the Nets—and managed to secure their best record since the 2000-01 season, when Philly last made it to the Finals. While the lower-seeded teams—such as the up-and-coming Cavaliers, offensively-minded Knicks, and new-look Nets—are sure to put up a good fight, it is unlikely that the top three teams will be dethroned. It’s possible that I’ve fallen victim to a little hometown bias, but I expect to see the Celtics head back to the Finals this year, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll beat the Suns to win it all in June.