Ranking NBA Playoff Hopefuls Who'd Give No. 1 Seed Bucks and Lakers Most Trouble

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterFebruary 25, 2020

Ranking NBA Playoff Hopefuls Who'd Give No. 1 Seed Bucks and Lakers Most Trouble

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    With the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers further separating themselves atop their respective conferences, we can now focus on who they'll likely face in the first round of the playoffs.

    The eighth seed is very much up for grabs in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, with the 25-32 Orlando Magic and 28-29 Memphis Grizzlies slated to reach the postseason.

    In the East, the Washington Wizards (20-36), Chicago Bulls (20-38) and Charlotte Hornets (19-37) are all within 5.5 games of the eighth seed. Out West, the Portland Trail Blazers (26-32), New Orleans Pelicans (25-32) and San Antonio Spurs (24-32) still have pulses.

    Even though the 26-30 Brooklyn Nets (seventh) could eventually fall to eighth in the East, only those in the final playoff spot and the teams directly below them were listed here.

    While any of these eight teams are highly unlikely to pull off a first-round upset, we ranked the fringe playoff squads in order of who could give the Bucks and Lakers the most trouble.

East No. 4: Charlotte Hornets

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    Reasons for Hope

    This won't take long.

    The Hornets have played the Bucks twice this season, first losing by 41 points Nov. 30 before dropping a Jan. 24 contest by 13, so...improvement.

    Terry Rozier (17.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists) could once again bring out Eric Bledsoe's playoff demons, and Devonte' Graham (17.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 7.7 assists) would be incredibly tough for the 33-year-old Wesley Matthews to guard.

    For a team that's already waived veterans Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, that's where the positives end.


    Back to Reality

    Even at 19-37, the Hornets aren't as good as their record shows.

    Only the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks have a worse net rating than Charlotte (minus-7.6), and Rozier and Graham are shooting a combined 39.6 percent.

    Trying to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo with rookie power forward P.J. Washington would qualify for cruel and unusual punishment, as the 21-year-old has registered a minus-52 in the two games against the Bucks.

    In a normal season, Charlotte wouldn't even be sniffing the playoffs. Should it somehow stumble in, it would be one of the most lopsided series in postseason history.

East No. 3: Washington Wizards

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    Reasons for Hope

    Washington is just one spot behind Orlando despite having been without star point guard John Wall for the entire season.

    Of the four teams fighting for the eighth seed, the Wizards possess the best individual player in Bradley Beal, whose 29.6 points per game rank fourth in the NBA. He leads an offense that started as one of the league's best and still ranks 13th (111.1 rating), better than that of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers.

    Davis Bertans, ninth in the league with a 42.2 percent three-point percentage, would help space the floor and keep Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the paint on defense, while Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Moritz Wagner bring a nice blend of scoring, rebounding and athleticism.

    The Wizards did put up 131 points in their lone meeting against the Bucks, though Milwaukee countered with 151 in a game in which Antetokounmpo didn't even play.


    Back to Reality

    While Washington can score, its horrendous defensive rating (115.2) ranks dead-last in the NBA. Milwaukee carries the league's third-best offense (113.5 rating), and Khris Middleton dropped a career-high 51 points against the Wizards this season.

    When it comes to controlling the glass, these two teams couldn't be further apart.

    The Wizards pull down 47.9 percent of all available rebounds, the worst mark in the league. The best? The Bucks, at 52.3 percent. Washington already can't stop Milwaukee from scoring and would get destroyed on the boards as well.

    The Bucks could focus all their energy on stopping Beal, with no other player on the Wizards averaging over 15 points per game.

East No. 2: Orlando Magic

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    Reasons for Hope

    With a 4.5-game lead over the Wizards, the Magic are likeliest to face the Bucks.

    Orlando brings a roster that reached the playoffs last season and even won a game against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. Of the four teams vying for the eighth seed, Orlando was the only one to reach the postseason in 2018-19.

    Evan Fournier (18.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 40.8 percent shooting from three) and Markelle Fultz (11.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.3 steals) are enjoying career years, and Nikola Vucevic (19.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists) remains a load for opposing centers to try to guard.


    Back to Reality

    Orlando is 0-4 against Milwaukee this season, losing by an average of 17.0 points per contest.

    The already anemic Magic offense has stood no chance against the top-ranked Bucks defense, with Orlando averaging just 96.8 points on 38.3 percent shooting overall and 32.2 percent from three.

    The Magic’s big move at the trade deadline was adding James Ennis III—not nearly enough when considering both Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu are out for the season with knee injuries.

    Orlando would have to finish the season 17-8 just to match last season’s record and is just 4-9 over its last 13 games.

East No. 1: Chicago Bulls

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    Reasons for Hope

    The Bulls are a long shot to reach the postseason at 5.5 games back of the Magic, but they have the potential to put up a bigger fight.

    Chicago has been decimated by injuries this season but could be getting bodies back soon.

    Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. are all close to returning. That's three starters who can provide Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky with some help.

    In 119 minutes together, that starting five carries a nice net rating of plus-3.4. If Kris Dunn can return before the postseason from a sprained MCL, the combination of him, Carter, LaVine, Satoransky and Markkanen a net rating of plus-8.1 in 317 minutes together.

    Mix in rookie Coby White (coming off back-to-back 33-point-performances), and a healthy Bulls team could be very interesting.


    Back to Reality

    The wounded Bulls have been slaughtered by the Bucks this season (0-4 record with each loss by an average of 14.3 points), and it remains to be seen how a fully loaded Chicago squad would fare.

    The Bulls have been a bottom-five team in offense, rebounding, true shooting percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and turnover percentage—even with LaVine, Satoransky and White playing every game.

    If healthy, Chicago could probably steal a game against Milwaukee, but simply making the playoffs could be the more daunting task.

West No. 4: San Antonio Spurs

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    Reasons for Hope

    For as much as they've stumbled through the regular season, the Spurs still have playoff-tested veterans and are coached by Gregg Popovich. San Antonio hasn't missed the playoffs since 1996-97, and it's not about to fold now.

    Unlike the young Grizzlies, the Spurs should not have playoff jitters against the Lakers in the first round. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan have played in 15 postseasons with 130 games between them.

    Derrick White was also fantastic in the postseason last year, averaging 15.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists against the Denver Nuggets over a seven-game series. Dejounte Murray would join them after missing last postseason with a torn ACL, and the 23-year-old guard is up to 51.1 percent shooting from three over his last 29 games.


    Back to Reality

    This has been the worst defensive Spurs team of the Popovich era, ranking 24th with a 112.6 rating. Having playoff-tested veterans only means so much if they can't guard anybody.

    The Spurs are 0-3 against the Lakers this season, and the games haven't been particularly close. The losses have come by an average of 14.7 points, with the Lakers averaging 115.3 points on 52.1 percent shooting.

    While Popovich is 2-1 all-time in playoff series versus LeBron James (all Finals), this time James and Co. would sweep the Hall of Fame coach out of the postseason.

West No. 3: Memphis Grizzlies

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    Reasons for Hope

    Memphis has the best record of the four contenders at 28-29, leading the Trail Blazers by 2.5 games.

    In three games against the Lakers this season, the Grizzlies have held L.A. to just 30.9 percent shooting from deep and matched them on the glass, with an average of 47.7 rebounds apiece.

    Ja Morant remains an incredibly tough cover, and Jaren Jackson Jr. can test Anthony Davis on both ends of the floor. Memphis is essentially playing with house money, as no one outside of the city expected it to even reach the playoffs.

    A young, talented team playing with nothing to lose could be dangerous.


    Back to Reality

    Losing Jae Crowder in the Andre Iguodala trade hurt the team's perimeter defense, and Crowder would have been Memphis' best chance to guard LeBron James. There's still no timetable for Justise Winslow to return from a back injury, either.

    While vets Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson have experienced the postseason, this would be the first trip for Morant, Jackson, Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and the majority of the Grizzlies. Putting them up against a player that's reached nine NBA Finals doesn't seem fair.

    Memphis is 0-3 against Los Angeles this season, losing by a combined 42 points. It's turned the ball over nearly as many times as it has assisted baskets (20.0 to 23.3 per game), and pressure by James, Davis, Danny Green and others isn't going to help the Grizzlies take care of the ball.

West No. 2: Portland Trail Blazers

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    Reasons for Hope:

    Portland is slowly getting healthier, with power forward Zach Collins targeting a mid-to-late March return. While there’s no firm return date for center Jusuf Nurkic, there’s a chance he could be back even before Collins.

    For a Blazers team that went on a run to the Western Conference Finals even without Nurkic last season, Portland has proven to be a dangerous squad come playoff time.

    Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were both brilliant in the 2019 run, and the Blazers are the only fringe playoff contender in the West to have beaten the Lakers this season.

    Lillard dropped 48 points and 10 assists in a Jan. 31 win over LA, leading the Blazers to a 127-119 victory over a fully-healthy Lakers squad.

    Back to Reality:

    Even if Nurkic and Collins can return, it doesn’t erase some of Portland’s biggest concerns.

    The Blazers are the NBA’s worst team at moving the ball (48.1 assist percentage) and have been a bottom-five defensive team (113.5 rating, 27th overall) nearly all season.

    Portland’s best bet would be to try and outscore and outshoot the Lakers with Lillard, McCollum and Carmelo Anthony, likely putting the majority of the burden on Lillard’s shoulders.

    The 29-year-old superstar is good enough to win the Blazers a game or two, but there’s another team fighting for the playoffs that could still put up a better fight.

West No. 1: New Orleans Pelicans

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    Reasons for Hope

    The Pelicans have shaken off a miserable 6-22 start to the season to fight their way back to within three games of the playoffs, going 19-10 since Dec. 18.

    Of course, this has been a completely different team with Zion Williamson, who is averaging 22.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists and shooting 58.6 percent in his first 12 games.

    The starting unit of Williamson, Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors has an incredible net rating of plus-24.2 in 120 minutes, looking like an elite lineup on both ends of the floor.

    JJ Redick is second in the NBA in three-point shooting (45.2 percent) and has never missed the playoffs in his 13 seasons. If New Orleans can ride this wave to the eighth seed, it would be one of the hottest teams in the NBA entering the playoffs.


    Back to Reality

    The Lakers should be very concerned about the Pelicans. This is far from the same team that began the year.

    Ingram, Ball and Josh Hart would certainly be motivated to play L.A. after they were traded for Anthony Davis in July, and Davis would face the wrath of Pelicans fans every time he touched the ball in New Orleans.

    While the Lakers beat the Pelicans both times they've met (by four points Nov. 27 and 10 on Jan. 3), neither game featured Williamson, who would almost have to be defended by Davis or LeBron James.

    L.A. would move on, but New Orleans could push the Lakers to six or even seven games.

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