Updated 2023 NBA Playoff Bracket Prediction

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 12, 2023

Updated 2023 NBA Playoff Bracket Prediction

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    Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum shields the ball from New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)
    AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh

    A quarter of the NBA season has passed since we last ran playoff bracket predictions, meaning a lot has changed when trying to look ahead to April.

    For starters, three brand-new teams have entered the playoff projections, and there's been a good deal of movement for the ones who remain in the postseason picture.

    Like last time, we'll be looking at current record, current strength of schedule, remaining strength of schedule and how injuries have affected teams to this point and moving forward.

    Can the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans remain at the top of their conferences without Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson? Will the Western Conference's toughest remaining schedule prevent the Los Angeles Clippers from rising any higher? Can the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks rebound from their rough starts to return to the postseason?

    Without making any predictions about the playoffs themselves, these are the teams projected to come out of the play-in tournament (the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds) and who they and others will match up against in the first round of the 2023 postseason.

    Note: All strength of schedule and remaining strength of schedule stats are via Basketball-Reference.com. Player stats accurate as of Jan. 10.

East: (4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Brooklyn Nets

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    Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
    AP Photo/Ron Schwane

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Current Record/Seed: 26-16, 5th in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 7th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 13th in East

    The Cavs have played like the team most expected heading into the season; one that looks postseason-bound but perhaps not quite at the same level of some other powerhouses in the East.

    Getting home-court advantage in the first round would still be a nice accomplishment for this young squad, especially since the small forward position hasn't been settled yet.

    Cleveland gets the benefit of the third-easiest remaining schedule of any team in the East and the addition of Ricky Rubio, who's projected to return this week from a torn ACL. Dean Wade should be back from an AC joint sprain soon as well, and he is probably the best fit for this team at small forward with his size, defense and three-point shooting (41.1 percent).

    Seeing Kyrie Irving play against the Cavaliers in the playoffs would be strange, and there's two years of bad memories when going against Kevin Durant for Cleveland.

    Still, this would be a fun, talent-packed first-round matchup featuring some of the best playoff performers (Durant, Irving and Donovan Mitchell) over the last decade.

    Brooklyn Nets

    Current Record/Seed: 27-13, 2nd in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 8th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 9th in East

    The Nets have been the NBA's hottest team over the past five-ish weeks, going 14-1 since Dec. 7 with a league-best plus-9.7 net rating.

    So why the fall from second to fifth? Chalk that up to a sprained MCL for Kevin Durant, who's expected to miss about a month, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    The Nets aren't helpless without Durant, of course, but no one player (or two) is going to step in and replace his 29.7 points on 55.9 percent shooting. Brooklyn is going to need a big stretch from Kyrie Irving, and T.J. Warren will likely be called upon to up his scoring as well.

    The Nets aren't going to fall out of the playoffs entirely, however, and should still be fighting for home-court advantage even with Durant expected to miss extended time.

East: (3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat

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    Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler, right, and Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid embrace after Game 6 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
    AP Photo/Matt Slocum

    Philadelphia 76ers

    Current Record/Seed: 25-15, 4th in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 15th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 1st in East

    It's remarkable that Philly is already fourth in the East given the number of injuries this team has had in the first half, and the Sixers should settle into a top-three seed before the playoffs begin.

    When fielding a healthy roster, Philadelphia has looked dominant, with a lineup of James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker and Joel Embiid registering a net rating of plus-12.5 together, good enough to rank in the 98th percentile overall in the NBA.

    While it's helped that the Sixers have played the easiest schedule in the East to date (and have the hardest remaining one), it's safe to assume president of basketball operations Daryl Morey will be active at the trade deadline to make this roster even better.

    Philly is very much on the rise—provided they can stay healthy—and could get a revenge series against the Heat in the first round.

    Miami Heat

    Current Record/Seed: 22-20, 8th in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 11th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 2nd in East

    Speaking of teams that should be better in the second half just by having healthy bodies, the injury report for the Heat looks like a borderline All-Star team on a nightly basis.

    Miami has been forced to use 18 different starting lineups already, with just one spending more than six total games together.

    There's some offensive issues to figure out for sure, and Kyle Lowry has been asked to do way too much for a 36-year-old point guard with lots of playoff tread on the tires. Still, Miami has been pretty good even when it just has Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo on the floor together (plus-7.8 net rating, 91st percentile).

    This is a roster that could probably use a trade, possibly to add a bigger starting power forward who can shoot threes and defend at a high level.

    Simply being healthier down the stretch should help the Heat climb out of the play-in tournament, however, although a sixth seed looks like the ceiling for this group as presently constructed.

East: (2) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (7) Indiana Pacers

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    Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers' Tyrese Haliburton during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
    AP Photo/Aaron Gash

    Milwaukee Bucks

    Current Record/Seed: 27-14, 3rd in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 10th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 6th in East

    Milwaukee has been without Khris Middleton for all but seven games this season, currently ranks 25th overall in offense and yet somehow is still 13 games over .500 now halfway through the season.

    In other words, it's scary to think what a fully-loaded Bucks team will look like with Middleton (who's currently practicing and doing significant 5-on-5 work), especially if this team can add another scorer at the trade deadline.

    This is an elite defensive team with championship experience that's carried by arguably the best player in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo. They've done an excellent job of treading water thus far without Middleton, whose scoring and ball-handling is clearly crucial to making this offense click.

    The Bucks may not catch the Boston Celtics for first place in the East, but they won't be far behind, either.

    Indiana Pacers

    Current Record/Seed: 23-19, 7th in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 6th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 7th in East

    We're projecting the Pacers to make the playoffs for now, although this is a franchise worth keeping an eye on at the trade deadline. With Myles Turner turning down all contract extension offers to this point, and with his trade value at an all-time high, we'll see if Indiana moves him for fear of losing the star center in free agency.

    If Turner stays in Indiana (along with Buddy Hield), there's no reason to believe this team can't maintain its strong start, especially with a schedule difficulty that's roughly the same as the first half of the season.

    Tyrese Haliburton is an All-Star, Hield is back to shooting the lights out (42.6 percent from three) and Benn Mathurin should continue to push Paolo Banchero for Rookie of the Year honors.

    The Pacers' reset appears to be working, even if a meeting with the Bucks in the first round could make this a quick playoff trip.

East: (1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) New York Knicks

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    NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 5: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics looks to pass the ball during the game against the New York Knicks on November 5, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Boston Celtics

    Current Record/Seed: 30-12, 1st in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 14th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 10th in East

    The Celtics have been the No. 1 seed in the East for the majority of the season, have Robert Williams III back from knee surgery and possess the second-easiest remaining schedule of any team currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture (Cleveland Cavaliers has the easiest).

    There's no reason to believe this team won't finish at No. 1 when the playoffs begin.

    Owners of the best offense (117.1 rating) and net rating (plus-6.2) in all of basketball, the Celtics also have the highest chance to win the NBA title (19.4 percent), according to Basketball-Reference.com.

    While they had to open on the road during last year's NBA Finals, Boston should want to make sure they serve as hosts this season if they indeed make a championship return.

    New York Knicks

    Current Record/Seed: 23-19, 6th in East

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 12th in East

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 4th in East

    A Knicks-Celtics first round series would provide a tremendous basketball atmosphere, no matter the city or arena, and mark a nice turnaround for a New York team that finished eight games below .500 just a year ago.

    While Jalen Brunson has been the steady hand to guide this ship all season, it's been the recent play of Julius Randle (30.9 points, 13.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists over his last 10 games) that should really have Knicks fans excited.

    Since Dec. 4, New York has ranked fourth overall in offense and second in defense, proving this team can perform on both sides of the ball. Basketball-Reference.com gives the Knicks an 82.8 percent chance to make the playoffs, the sixth-highest mark of any Eastern team.

    The Knicks may have to go through the play-in tournament to ultimately reach the postseason given their tough remaining strength of schedule, but this team has proved it belongs back in the playoffs.

West: (4) Golden State Warriors vs. (5) Dallas Mavericks

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    Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) attempts to get to the basket as Dallas Mavericks' Spencer Dinwiddie (26), Dorian Finney-Smith, center left, and Luka Doncic (77) defend in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
    AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

    Golden State Warriors

    Current Record/Seed: 20-21, 8th in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 8th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 5th in West

    While it's been a nightmare of a regular season thus far for the defending champs, a 3-16 record on the road just has to improve at some point.

    Stephen Curry is back, and the Warriors still possess one of the deadliest starting lineups in all of basketball with Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney registering a net rating of plus-21.4 together.

    Donte DiVincenzo has been a real spark as of late, and this team has a lot of young talent to dangle in trades if it wants to.

    The Warriors have dug themselves into too deep of a hole to grab a top-three seed in the West, but they are still more than capable of flipping a switch and getting home-court advantage in the first round.

    Dallas Mavericks

    Current Record/Seed: 23-19, 5th in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 5th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 14th in West

    In what would be a rematch of last year's Western Conference Finals, Luka Dončić vs. Stephen Curry would continue to be must-see TV.

    Even finishing as a five seed may be enough for Dončić to win MVP this season, especially if he can maintain his league-leading 34.2 points per game. He's been absolutely brilliant, with a swing rating that's jumped from minus-0.9 a season ago all the way up to plus-11.4 (94th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) this year.

    Christian Wood has played well since being moved into the starting lineup (19.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 39.3 percent from three) and will continue to be a crucial part of keeping Doncic's workload at a bearable level.

    With a favorable schedule the rest of the way and the returns of Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Green and Maxi Kleber to look forward to, the Mavs should continue to stay in the home-court advantage hunt.

West: (3) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (6) Los Angeles Clippers

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    New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) drives to the basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Allison Dinner)
    AP Photo/Allison Dinner

    New Orleans Pelicans

    Current Record/Seed: 25-17, 3rd in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 7th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 13th in West

    Normally, a team being down it's two leading scorers would be a death sentence to finish as a top seed in the conference, but this Pelicans squad is still plenty deep and talented enough to overcome the temporary absences of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

    Players like CJ McCollum, Jonas Valančiūnas, Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall and others can all get buckets, and a surprisingly-good defense (110.7 rating, 5th overall) will help hold New Orleans over until their stars can return.

    Add in the third-easiest remaining schedule of any team in the West, and there shouldn't be any expectation of the Pelicans free-falling down the standings.

    If fully loaded, New Orleans will be a nightmare playoff matchup.

    Los Angeles Clippers

    Current Record/Seed: 22-21, 6th in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 15th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 1st in West

    It's safe to say Kawhi Leonard is officially back.

    The All-Star forward is averaging 23.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 40.0 percent from three over his last nine games. His availability and return to a high level of play is really all that matters for this Clippers team, both now and in the postseason.

    While Los Angeles has stumbled as of late and still ranks just 28th overall in offense overall this season, the Clippers have a strong net rating of plus-8.7 when Leonard and Paul George share the floor this season.

    Head coach Tyronn Lue is still experimenting with his rotations, and no West team has a harder remaining schedule, but Leonard looking like his old self should be enough to make us believe the Clippers will be good enough to avoid the play-in tournament.

West: (2) Denver Nuggets vs. (7) Sacramento Kings

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    Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) throws a pass as he is defended by Sacramento Kings guard Kevin Huerter (9) and forward Trey Lyles during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. The Nuggets won 113-106. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)
    AP Photo/José Luis Villegas

    Denver Nuggets

    Current Record/Seed: 28-13, Tied-1st in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 14th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 8th in West

    Denver has a real shot at the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history, although they fall just short in these projections.

    Nikola Jokić could well win his third straight MVP award, and we've seen better play from Jamal Murray as of late (21.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 50.0 percent shooting from three over his last eight games) as he gets more comfortable in his return from ACL surgery.

    Bruce Brown and Bones Hyland are terrific bench pieces, and this is the best three-point shooting team in all of basketball (39.9 percent).

    What separates Denver from our projected No. 1 seed is defense, an area the Nuggets still rank just 22nd overall in.

    Sacramento Kings

    Current Record/Seed: 22-18, 4th in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 9th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 12th in West

    Apologies to the Kings, who were left off the playoff projections last time. We're now beam believers.

    While there's still doubt that this team can get stops when needed, Sacramento's 4th-ranked offense and strong team chemistry thus far has been a pleasure to watch on a nightly basis.

    Domantas Sabonis has been incredible as of late (21.7 points, 14.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 62.2 percent shooting overall and 47.1 percent from three over his last 12 games), doing his best Nikola Jokic impression before potentially facing the two-time MVP in the playoffs.

    We expect this front office to be aggressive at the trade deadline as well, helping to make sure we finally have playoff basketball in Sacramento once again.

West: (1) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (8) Phoenix Suns

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    Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant shoots against Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
    AP Photo/Brandon Dill

    Memphis Grizzlies

    Current Record/Seed: 28-13, Tied-1st in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 10th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 13th in West

    The projected top seed the last time we made these predictions at the quarter-season mark despite sitting at No. 4 in the West at the time, Memphis has already worked its way to the top of the conference.

    Since Jaren Jackson Jr. made his season debut on Nov. 15, the Grizzlies rank first overall in defense (107.2 rating) and net rating (plus-7.0), with the 23-year-old looking like a prime candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year.

    Desmond Bane is back from a toe injury, and Ja Morant (27.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 8.0 assists) should find himself in the MVP conversation for the remainder of the year.

    Memphis shouldn't be afraid to attach some of its young talent to Danny Green's expiring contract at the deadline in order to bring in some more win-now help as well.

    Phoenix Suns

    Current Record/Seed: 21-22, 7th in West

    Current Strength of Schedule Rank: 4th in West

    Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 9th in West

    The Suns have fallen from first place in the West at the quarter-season mark to seventh now, hurt by injuries to Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

    Assuming Booker can return later this month (or soon after), we shouldn't be giving up on Phoenix just yet, however.

    Cam Johnson should be nearing his return to the court, and the Suns will almost certainly trade Jae Crowder before the deadline for a rotation-caliber player.

    With so much talent in the West, we're not projecting Phoenix to climb all the way back to the top of the conference, but a healthy Booker and company won't fall all the way out of the playoff picture, either.

    A healthy Suns team would give the Grizzlies an extremely difficult first-round matchup.