Realistic Best-Case Scenarios for Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 13, 2021

Realistic Best-Case Scenarios for Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    With just over a week until the NBA playoffs get rolling, the title picture may be as blurry as any we've had in recent memory.

    A number of teams could realistically win 16 games and secure the championship, but questions abound for each.

    Will the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets be healthy enough to survive the gauntlet? Have the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks exorcised their demons from last postseason? Do the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns or Philadelphia 76ers have enough playoff experience?

    The concerns are legitimate, and having them spread so evenly among contenders should lend plenty of intrigue to the postseason.

    But if we had to put a cap on every squad's ceiling, where would those be? Below, you'll find the realistic best-case scenarios for every team that could make the playoffs, including ninth and 10th place in both conferences (shout out to the play-in tournament).

Tier 5: Cannon Fodder

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Boston Celtics

    Best-Case Scenario: First-round exit

    Boston was already in the middle of an arduous season beset by injuries, absences mandated by the health and safety protocols and generally playing below expectations, so Jaylen Brown's season-ending wrist injury is likely a death knell for the team that has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals.

    With so much responsibility on Jayson Tatum's shoulders and Kemba Walker's surgically repaired knee, losing back-to-back games in the play-in tournament isn't even out of the question for the Celtics, who are 3-7 in their last 10 games.


    Charlotte Hornets

    Best-Case Scenario: First-round exit

    Charlotte is one of those play-in teams that could feasibly push Boston to the brink. Terry Rozier and Devonte' Graham are dynamic scorers, and LaMelo Ball is already one of the game's best table-setters. And if the play-in started today, the Hornets would only need one win to lock into the seventh seed.

    Their prize if they pulled that off (and the rest of the standings stayed as they are)? Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. With Harden likely back in the lineup by the time that series starts, it's hard to imagine it going longer than five games.


    Indiana Pacers

    Best-Case Scenario: First-round exit

    The Pacers are locked into the play-in tournament, and escaping it means no better than seventh place. To get to the second round, they'd have to beat the Nets, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks.

    In other words, given the talent gap and reported organizational turmoil, they're not getting to the second round.


    Memphis Grizzlies

    Best-Case Scenario: First-round exit

    There's a temptation to nudge the Grizzlies to the next tier. They don't have a superstar, but there aren't really any bad minutes from their rotation players either.

    Jonas Valanciunas will bully his way to double-doubles, Ja Morant can take over individual games and the supporting cast is deep. But it's tough to imagine them going from the play-in to a series win over regular-season juggernauts like the Jazz or Suns.


    San Antonio Spurs

    Best-Case Scenario: First-round exit

    There is no such temptation for the Spurs, who are in 10th place and hanging on mostly thanks to the losses of the New Orleans Pelicans and the early-season form of the Sacramento Kings.

    DeMar DeRozan has plenty of playoff experience, but San Antonio's lack of firepower would get exposed in brutal fashion if it happened to survive the play-in games.


    Washington Wizards

    Best-Case Scenario: First-round exit

    With the way Russell Westbrook is playing (23.4 points, 13.0 rebounds and 13.0 assists since the All-Star break), he and Bradley Beal would make whatever top seed they face fight, but that top three in the East is loaded.

Tier 4: Tough Outs

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Atlanta Hawks

    Best-Case Scenario: Second-round exit

    The Hawks are 24-11 since Nate McMillan took over coaching duties. Only three teams have a better record over that span, and Atlanta appears to have enough firepower to cause some trouble.

    When Trae Young and Clint Capela are on the floor, the team scores 119.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks in the 91st percentile. With those two (or Young and John Collins) running actions in the middle of the floor and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari or Kevin Huerter flanking, Atlanta is tough to stop.

    But even a first-round win means a matchup with the 76ers, Nets or Bucks, all of which would be heavy favorites over the relatively inexperienced Hawks.


    Dallas Mavericks

    Best-Case Scenario: Western Conference Finals loss

    Defining "best-case scenario" is a little tougher in the Western Conference. In terms of talent, the top seven or eight teams are all within shouting distance of each other. And though Luka Doncic and the Mavericks winning two rounds may be unlikely, it also wouldn't be shocking.

    Doncic is one of the game's top offensive engineers, and if his shooters get hot, Dallas can put up points in bunches. Staying hot for three rounds seems too tall an order, though. Josh Richardson has been inconsistent all season. And Kristaps Porzingis, the team's No. 2, has had a negative impact on plus-minus.


    Golden State Warriors

    Best-Case Scenario: Second-round exit

    This is one of the toughest calls of the slideshow. On paper, it's hard to find a name you can trust beyond Stephen Curry and Draymond Green for the Warriors. And that suggests a first-round exit at the hands of the Jazz or Suns.

    Would you be stunned if Curry averaged 35 in a series and upset either of those teams, though? He's arguably the best offensive player in the league this season (and probably top 3-5 all time).

    The rest of the team would have to be locked-in defensively (where the Warriors rank fifth this season), but it's not out of the question.


    New York Knicks

    Best-Case Scenario: Second-round exit

    Prior to this season, it would've been difficult for anyone to point to a potential defensive ace other than Mitchell Robinson on the Knicks roster. He's missed the majority of the season, and New York is still fourth in the league in defense.

    The team has taken on the persona of its new coach, Tom Thibodeau: tough, gritty and diligent. With their willingness to play hard on every possession, Derrick Rose's scoring punch off the bench and Julius Randle's star turn, it's not hard to see them scoring a first-round win over the Hawks (that series might be a toss-up).

    The Miami Heat, on the other hand, would be a problem. We're talking best-case scenario, though.


    Portland Trail Blazers

    Best-Case Scenario: Western Conference Finals loss

    Consider this a nod to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. If the Blazers draw the Nuggets without Murray in the first-round, they have a puncher's chance. Then, against the Jazz or Suns, they'd be underdogs, but those two have carried the Blazers to the conference finals before. Against Utah, the lack of size in the opposing backcourt could help the star duo go off.

    Portland pushing for the third round likely depends on Jusuf Nurkic, though. When he's engaged, protecting the paint and distributing, the Blazers are a pain. This season, Portland is plus-9.0 points per 100 possessions (92nd percentile) when he shares the floor with Lillard and McCollum.

Tier 3: Need Some Luck

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Denver Nuggets

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals loss

    Prior to Jamal Murray's season-ending ACL tear, the Nuggets looked like a bona fide title contender. They didn't have much time on the floor between the Aaron Gordon acquisition and Murray's injury, but those two with Nikola Jokic was a three-man lineup that boasted a massive plus-17.0 net rating.

    With no Murray, the lack of perimeter punch likely dooms the Nuggets at some point between now and a championship. It doesn't definitely doom them, though.

    In nearly 1,000 possessions, Denver has a plus-10.5 net rating (95th percentile) when Jokic, Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. play without Murray.

    Caveats abound, but it's safe to assume few figured the Nuggets would lock in home-court advantage after losing their second-best player.

    The ascendance of MPJ (who's averaged 25.4 points with a 70.4 effective field-goal percentage since Murray went down), continued dominance of the MVP (Jokic is the heavy favorite), Gordon's defense and much of the rest of the roster stepping up means Denver is still dangerous.


    Miami Heat

    Best-Case Scenario: Eastern Conference Finals loss

    It almost seems disrespectful to put this cap on the ceiling of last season's Finals representative for the East.

    The two most important players from that run, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, are back. Butler might be having the best season of his career, with borderline top-five-player impact. And Adebayo has taken a step forward too, posting year-over-year improvements in true shooting percentage, assist percentage and box plus/minus.

    But the supporting cast beyond those two has struggled for much of this season. Every other Miami player with at least 500 minutes has a below-average box plus/minus. Tyler Herro hasn't quite taken the leap some anticipated. Duncan Robinson's effective field-goal percentage is down five points. And with Victor Oladipo out with a season-ending surgery, there isn't a third star (or near star) in sight.

    That doesn't necessarily mean another trip to the Finals is impossible. The presence of the 76ers, Nets and Bucks (who Miami beat in the playoffs last season) makes it feel unrealistic.


    Phoenix Suns

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals loss

    If you take Chris Paul and Jae Crowder out of the equation, the Suns have just 587 career playoff minutes between the other eight players in their top 10 for minutes played this season. All of those belong to Cameron Payne, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky.

    Some of Phoenix's best and most important players, including Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton, have yet to experience the postseason. And while playoff experience isn't everything, it certainly matters.

    Still, the Suns have a well-balanced roster with plenty of three-and-D wing minutes, a dynamic scorer, a big who can roll to the rim or hit a jumper, a backup stretch 5 and a Hall of Fame point guard.

    On paper, it's not difficult to imagine a deep playoff run, but that Western Conference gauntlet for players who've never dealt with will be a lot to handle. 

Tier 2: Fringe Title Contenders

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Milwaukee Bucks

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals win

    Milwaukee's winning percentage is a far cry from where it was in each of the two previous seasons, but there's an argument it is better equipped for the postseason than before.

    Even if we've grown a little numb to the basic numbers, Giannis Antetokounmpo is still putting up MVP-caliber production. And Khris Middleton is once again within shouting distance of 50-40-90 shooting splits. But the real difference is the addition of Jrue Holiday.

    The former New Orleans Pelican is bigger and more switchable than Eric Bledsoe was. Defenders also respect his range a bit more, which opens up a little space inside.

    With those three, the Bucks might have the East's best combination of players to throw at Harden, Durant and Irving.

    The concern that remains is what happens if teams can force Giannis to shoot jumpers (his percentages outside the paint have gone down this season). But Holiday can help on that front too, thanks to his ability to manufacture shots for himself and others from scratch.

    This roster is strong enough to win it all, but previous postseason struggles and a possible lack of depth keep it out of the first tier.


    Philadelphia 76ers

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals win

    Within weeks of his arrival as president of basketball operations in November last year, Daryl Morey traded for the missing puzzle pieces in Philadelphia. In jettisoning Josh Richardson and Al Horford and acquiring Seth Curry and Danny Green, he suddenly made the Sixers' starting lineup logical. As long as Ben Simmons is your 1, you need loads of shooting everywhere else.

    That's what Curry and Green provide (as well as strong perimeter defense from Green). And Joel Embiid shooting up to 37.7 percent from deep didn't hurt either. When those three share the floor with other holdovers, Simmons and Tobias Harris, Philadelphia is an eye-popping plus-17.6 points per 100 possessions.

    Even with Embiid's absences, that five-man lineup has (by far) the best raw plus-minus in the league.

    And in the playoffs, when rotations are often tightened a bit, having a dominant first five can go a long way.

    Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Dwight Howard will probably help the bench play some feisty possessions, but Philly will need the stars to shine bright to go all the way.


    Utah Jazz

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals win

    It's easy to fall into comparisons of the Jazz to the 2014-15 Hawks or the Bucks of the last couple of seasons. It's a dominant regular-season team (Utah has the 14th-best simple rating system in NBA history) without a star who's made it all the way to the mountaintop.

    Of course, it's easy to pick against a contender. The odds are always better for the field than they are for any individual team (with the possible exception of a few dynasties). On a purely objective basis, there's a case for the Jazz.

    Rudy Gobert is having one of the greatest defensive campaigns in league history. Both members of the starting backcourt, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, were All-Stars. Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles are first and second in betting odds for Sixth Man of the Year. And Bojan Bogdanovic is a flamethrower from three again.

    Surrounding Gobert with all that shooting has made the Jazz a dangerous offensive team (and they're still a dominant defense). They've already wrapped up the record for threes per game for a full season, and they're tied for second in the league in three-point percentage.

    A prolonged cold streak is possible, but being off for four out of seven games would be unusual.

Tier 1: The Bona Fide Title Contenders

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Brooklyn Nets

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals win

    Yes, KD, Harden and Irving have only shared the floor for 186 minutes this season. Yes, it's fair to be worried about that. You'd think championship-level chemistry would take a lot more time to develop.

    But the offensive talent of this trio is up there with any group you can think of. And in the limited time they've played together, it looks like all three are willing to defer however needed.

    Even with all the missed time, Brooklyn is on track for a top-two finish in the East, and it's plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions when any two of the three stars are playing.

    Health from them and even decent play from Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown and one or two other role players could carry the Nets to a championship.


    Los Angeles Clippers

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals win

    The Clippers are getting healthy at the right time. Patrick Beverley recently returned from an injury, and Serge Ibaka may not be far behind. When those two share the floor with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, L.A. is dominant.

    And though the star duo wilted during the Nuggets' 3-1 comeback last postseason, there's plenty of playoff success in their pasts.

    Kawhi's resume doesn't need much analysis. He's a two-time Finals MVP for two different teams. He took over the entire postseason in an almost Michael Jordan-esque way with the Toronto Raptors in 2019.

    George, meanwhile, has had some highly publicized struggles in big moments, but he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James as a young wing with the Indiana Pacers. And during his career, he's 11th in the league in postseason wins over replacement player.

    With those two in place and surrounded by a strong supporting cast that includes Beverley, Ibaka, Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac, Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, this Clippers team has a strong chance to end the organization's franchise-length postseason futility.


    Los Angeles Lakers

    Best-Case Scenario: Finals win

    The prolonged and overlapping absences of Anthony Davis and LeBron James might strengthen the argument for picking the Lakers.

    From March 21 to May 11, the period in which LeBron was out and AD missed most of the team's games, L.A. maintained the fifth-best defense in the NBA.

    Sure, the offense was disastrous over the same period, but that would happen to any team that lost its top two players. That the supporting cast can slow opponents down, with or without LeBron and AD, is encouraging.

    If those two are healthy in the postseason, which isn't a given, the Lakers will be fine on both ends of the floor.

    They're the defending champs for a reason. And, in theory, the additions of Dennis Schroder and Marc Gasol might even raise their ceiling higher than it was in 2020.


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    All advanced statistics obtained from NBA.comCleaning the Glass or PBP Stats unless otherwise stated.