Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions If 2020 Season Resumes
The NBA is on an indefinite pause, and it's possible this campaign never resumes.
In fact, ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported the league is "angling" to cancel the remainder of the season amid "a significant amount of pessimism" that a restart is in the works.
But our imagination is spiking in this socially distanced environment, and we don't want to let our trusty crystal ball go to waste. So, why not peer into the (imaginary?) future for a glimpse of what could happen—hopefully, what will happen—if this pandemic eases to the point the basketball gods can gift us a 2019-20 postseason?
For the sake of simplicity, we'll set the playoff field based on the current standings. And for the sake of continuity, we're imagining a universe in which all rounds are still played under the normal best-of-seven format.
With those parameters in place, we can run through a round-by-round prediction to crown basketball's next champion.
First Round: Eastern Conference
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic
The Magic are technically a playoff team, but they're climbing up multiple weight classes to join the heavyweight Bucks for what will surely be a swift series. These teams met four times in the regular season, and Milwaukee won each matchup by an average of 17 points. Even in this imaginary future, we're having a hard time identifying a reason this would be any closer.
Prediction: Bucks sweep Magic 4-0
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets
No Kevin Durant and no Kyrie Irving—which remains our assumption until proved otherwise—equals major problems for the Nets, who are the only non-eighth seed with a negative net rating. The Raptors have more than enough to break out the brooms, but we'll call for the gentleman's sweep, as both Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert can get hot enough to steer one game in Brooklyn's favor.
Prediction: Raptors defeat Nets 4-1
No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers are the biggest wild card in the field, as you could argue they have as much talent as any team in the East that doesn't reside in the Badger State. The Celtics could also finally feel the effects of their shortcomings at center as Joel Embiid's post-ups and Ben Simmons' attacks knife through the heart of this defense.
But Philly has been talented all season and still hasn't mustered a top-10 net rating (plus-2.1, 12th overall). Boston, meanwhile, has spawned a superstar in Jayson Tatum (18th overall in real plus-minus) and is the East's only team with top-five efficiency rankings on offense (fifth) and defense (fourth). The Celtics have worked around their size deficiencies all season, and they'll eventually do the same in this series.
Prediction: Celtics defeat 76ers 4-2
No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are dangerous now that Victor Oladipo has even more time to knock off the rust, and they only lost to the Heat by a single point in Miami without him back in December. With seven double-digit scorers on the roster, Indiana can exploit the defensive leaks that Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Andre Iguodala can't cover. Domantas Sabonis could have a monster series, especially if the Pacers can isolate him against the Heat's offensive-minded bigs.
But Miami's home-court advantage looks huge, as the Heat went a blistering 27-5 inside their friendly confines. Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro, in particular, have been much more efficient at AmericanAirlines Arena, and each can engineer a game-breaking scoring surge. This will go down to the wire, which will make Miami overjoyed that it invested in a proven closer like Butler.
Prediction: Heat defeat Pacers 4-3
First Round: Western Conference
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
The ahead-of-schedule Grizzlies weren't supposed to be here, and an impatient, 35-year-old LeBron James will remind them of that with a ferocious series of knockout punches. Add on Anthony Davis' reminders to Jaren Jackson Jr. that the youngster isn't quite ready for the spotlight, plus L.A.'s bigs going airborne over the ground-bound Jonas Valanciunas, and this will get ugly really quick.
Prediction: Lakers sweep Grizzlies 4-0
No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
The fact that Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are not the best duo in this series is a big deal, as it puts the Mavs in the unenviable position of lagging behind their opponent in both star power and depth. Doncic is clever enough to create some scoring chances against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and Porzingis can exploit the Clippers' lack of size. That's enough to make L.A. sweat and even put a couple of notches in Dallas' win column.
But the Mavericks' 17th-ranked defense doesn't have the bodies to keep all of Leonard, George, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell—all 18-plus-point scorers—in check. The Clippers' fifth-ranked defense can focus on quieting the stars or silencing the others. Either way, L.A. has the pieces to advance.
Prediction: Clippers defeat Mavericks 4-2
No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets
This is a grab-your-popcorn-and-settle-into-your-couch's-sweet-spot kind of series. The teams not only split their season series 2-2, but you have one squad in an outright embrace of all things small-ball and the other built around a multifaceted 7-footer.
Nikola Jokic will be worth whatever he costs in daily fantasy, as the Association's third-highest post-up scorer toys with a frontcourt now built around 6'5" PJ Tucker. But the Nuggets will need—and be unable to find—a more consistent No. 2 option to keep pace with James Harden, soon to collect his third straight scoring title, and Russell Westbrook, who's been power-boosted by the small-ball shift.
Prediction: Rockets defeat Nuggets 4-2
No. 4 Utah Jazz vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder
Mike Conley's offensive struggles are a red flag. Even with Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson helping elevate this attack into a top-10 offense, the non-Donovan Mitchell scoring can be sporadic. That's problematic against an OKC team that plays three offensive triggers at the same time, plus a 6'10" net-shredder in Danilo Gallinari (2.7 triples per game at a 42.1 percent clip since the start of last season).
As unconventional as it appears, the Thunder's three-headed point-guard monster of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder has emerged as the Association's most efficient trio. They've obliterated opponents by 28.6 points per 100 possessions, the best net rating of any lineup to log 200-plus minutes.
Even with Rudy Gobert anchoring the interior, the Jazz won't have enough to contain a lineup the entire league has yet to solve.
Prediction: Thunder defeat Jazz 4-3
Eastern Conference Semifinals
No. 1 Bucks vs. No. 4 Heat
The Heat would be confident heading into this matchup. They're one of only two teams to topple the Bucks twice, and the last time they squared off—a 16-point Heat win in early March—their defense rattled Giannis Antetokounmpo like no one has. The reigning MVP managed only 13 points on 18 shots, wiped out his three assists with three turnovers and recorded his lowest game score of the season (7.7).
"I feel like we can play with anybody," Bam Adebayo told reporters afterward. "And my teammates believe that, the coaching staff believes that and this city believed it."
Miami possesses the personnel to limit Antetokounmpo (as much as anyone can, at least). It starts with Adebayo, who combines a center's size and length with a guard's quickness and agility. But there's also Andre Iguodala and Jimmy Butler, who have six All-Defensive selections between them, along with Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. to keep the fresh legs coming at him.
That said, teams can only contain for Antetokounmpo for so long (he had 29 points, 17 boards and nine assists in their first meeting). His co-star, Khris Middleton, would be the Heat's highest scorer (21.1). And when accounting for playoff pressures, it's easier to trust Milwaukee's veteran-laden supporting cast than Miami's youngsters.
Prediction: Bucks defeat Heat 4-2
No. 2 Raptors vs. No. 3 Celtics
Finding separation between these squads isn't easy. They're side by side in the standings and in net efficiency rankings (Toronto is fourth, Boston is fifth). While the Celtics held a 2-1 edge in the season series, each enjoyed a 16-point win over the other, and the third contest was a nail-biter (112-106 Shamrocks win back in October).
They even resemble each other. They each have a rising star at forward (Pascal Siakam for the Raptors, Jayson Tatum for the Celtics) and a veteran All-Star running point (Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker). Their coaches, Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens, have two of the sharpest basketball minds in the business. Boston boasts the better offense, Toronto the stingier defense; but the differences are negligible.
So, how do we sort this out? Assuming the stars and the coaches cancel each other out, this could come down to the others. While Toronto sports enviable depth, it could have trouble matching the combined second-tier star power of Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. The two combine for more than 37 points per game, and each shoots at least 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from distance.
Boston's perimeter size can be a problem for Fred VanVleet, who shot 35.3 percent against the Celtics this season and 20 percent last year. Its frontcourt quickness could create issues for Marc Gasol, who no longer packs the scoring punch to torment smaller defenders (three games over 15 points all season). These aren't major advantages, but they'll be just enough to help the Celtics escape this tight series.
Prediction: Celtics defeat Raptors 4-3
Western Conference Semifinals
No. 1 Lakers vs. No. 5 Thunder
For all the problems OKC can create with its three-point-guard look, that pales in comparison to trying to handle both LeBron James and Anthony Davis for a seven-game series.
The Lakers won all three regular-season meetings. James and Davis dominated two of those matchups, combining for 115 points, 35 rebounds and 35 assists over the two games. They both missed the third outing, so Kyle Kuzma picked up the slack with a season-high 36 points on 15-of-24 shooting.
The Thunder can cover their lack of non-Chris Paul star power against certain clubs, but the Lakers aren't one. Davis and James respectively rank third and ninth in player efficiency rating; Paul is high man for the Thunder at 22nd.
L.A. has the better offense, the better defense, the brighter stars and the deeper bench. This could be another sweep for the Lakers, but we'll give the Thunder a game for their unique point production.
Prediction: Lakers defeat Thunder 4-1
No. 2 Clippers vs. No. 6 Rockets
It isn't often the Clippers will head into a series without the most productive duo in the matchup, but the Rockets take that label with ease. Harden and Westbrook run statistical circles around George and Leonard with advantages in points (61.9 to 47.9), assists (14.4 to 8.9) and even rebounds (14.4 to 13).
But the Beard and Brodie could be left saddling too heavy of a burden. While the two teams split the season series 2-2, Houston's two wins required a 40-plus-point outburst from one of its stars. Harden had 37 points in another game, but the Rockets lost by three points. In the other, both Harden and Westbrook were held to fewer than 30 points, and the Clippers rolled to a more-lopsided-than-it-sounds 15-point triumph.
Westbrook and Harden are so talented that they'll surely engineer a few brilliant performances. But Leonard and George can conjure up basketball magic of their own, plus the Clippers are equipped to exploit big advantages in scoring balance and size.
These teams met once after Houston veered completely in the small-ball direction. That was L.A.'s aforementioned big win, and in it, Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell combined for 36 points on 15 field-goal attempts and 22 rebounds. And if the Rockets find a way to limit the Clippers bigs, L.A. can just downsize with Marcus Morris or JaMychal Green at center.
The Clippers should win this series, and they could do it in a hurry if the Rockets shooters go cold.
Prediction: Clippers defeat Rockets 4-2
Eastern Conference Finals: Bucks vs. Celtics
The Bucks have the conference's top tier to themselves—they own the fifth-best margin of victory in NBA history—but the Celtics are in the same zip code.
The offseason departures of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Terry Rozier allowed the supporting cast to blossom into centerpieces. Tatum has been the biggest beneficiary, launching from intriguing youngster to full-fledged superstar. Over his final 14 games before the shutdown, his per-game contributions had rocketed to 29.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals. His shooting slash was a face-melting 48.1/46.0/74.0.
The door has also opened for Brown to complete the leap he started in the 2018 playoffs. Between his scoring, shooting and defense, he made a loud All-Star argument. Hayward looks almost as good as ever. He's one of only five players averaging 17 points, six rebounds and four assists while shooting 50-plus percent from the field. Walker has been an ideal Irving replacement, and Daniel Theis is the unsung hero.
The C's have so much going for them, but they don't have Antetokounmpo. It's hard to win a series without having the best player in it, especially when he's capable of exploiting your biggest weakness.
Boston doesn't have the size to challenge Antetokounmpo at the rim. That's a glaring void when he sinks the second-most buckets inside of five feet and finishes in that range at a 71.1 percent clip. If the C's overload the paint in an effort to contain him, that just makes them vulnerable to all the snipers around him. Eight different Bucks average at least 1.3 triples per game, and three of them have splash rates of better than 41 percent.
The Bucks will be pushed, but they'll find a way to punch their ticket to the championship round.
Prediction: Bucks defeat Celtics 4-2
Western Conference Finals: Clippers vs. Lakers
The Battle of Los Angeles has never been better, and the stakes have never been higher. These are the two best teams in the conference, and all season long, they've seemed destined to lock horns with a Finals berth on the line.
"This is what it's going to come down to, I think, at the end of the day," George said after the Clippers' five-point win over the Lakers on Christmas, per Ben Golliver of the Washington Post.
No other series has star power like this, which only makes the lights from the Hollywood backdrop shine even brighter. James and Davis rank second and third, respectively, in career PER. George was an MVP finalist last season, and Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, brought home his second Finals MVP.
Neither team has a great option for handling the other's stars. The Clippers are at their best playing small, but that leaves them vulnerable in the middle against James (a 54.8 percent shooter on drives) and Davis (79th percentile as a pick-and-roll screener). The Lakers are short on perimeter stoppers, which is terrifying against Leonard (85th percentile on isolations) and George (a 21-plus-point scorer each of the past five seasons).
This could be a coin flip, but the Lakers gain a slight edge for two reasons. The Clippers can't make their best lineup any bigger, so either they're vulnerable against the 6'9" James and 6'10" Davis, or they don't have their top quintet on the floor.
Second, when you compare the four superstars, George—who had offseason surgeries on both shoulders and can't seem to shake the injury bug—is clearly on the bottom rung. James (second), Leonard (fourth) and Davis (12th) are all among the top dozen in RPM, while George sits outside the top 30 (33rd).
Prediction: Lakers defeat Clippers 4-3
NBA Championship: Lakers vs. Bucks
No, we're not going out on a limb by picking both No. 1 seeds to reach the Finals, but our crystal ball values accuracy over boldness. In a league that's prone to predictability, it's never a bad idea to project the teams with the best players to come out on top.
This series isn't just Giannis vs. LeBron, but that's the initial treatment it will receive. And why not? The former is the reigning MVP, the latter is a four-time MVP, and they're suspended in a two-player race for this season's honor. Antetokounmpo has the highest RPM; James is one spot behind. Giannis is the first player in over 50 years to average 29 points, 13 boards and five dimes; James is the first 30-something to average 25 points and 10 assists.
While James is past the point of encountering measuring-stick matchups, he'll still summon his best when he feels his throne is threatened. There isn't a bigger threat in basketball right now than Antetokounmpo.
"Whenever you go against him, you can feel greatness," Antetokounmpo said, per Mirjam Swanson of the Southern California News Group. "He's gonna come at you and you gotta be ready to go, gotta be ready to fight against him."
Antetokounmpo can physically challenge James (and win that part of the battle), but the King has the sharper basketball mind. That can prove a massive advantage in the chess match that is the NBA Finals. James is a more diverse scorer and a much more natural table-setter. He can be a bigger help to his teammates, and he gets a better boost from his sidekick (Davis) than Antetokounmpo does from his (Middleton).
Milwaukee's best-case-scenario version can win a title, but the margin for error is minuscule. The James-Davis combo gives L.A. both a higher ceiling and more of a cushion if everything doesn't break just right. At some point, James will be forced to relinquish his crown, but that time isn't now.
Prediction: Lakers defeat Bucks 4-2
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.