Midseason NBA Playoff Predictions and Updated Championship OddsJanuary 13, 2022
Midseason NBA Playoff Predictions and Updated Championship Odds
Ready or not, here comes a fresh, ultra-complete batch of midseason playoff predictions.
Forecasting postseason seeds at this stage of the year verges on impossible. The top few spots in each conference are close to being sewn up, but the order is far from settled, and the win-loss parity across the bottom half of both the East and West bends the brain.
For the sake of simplification, FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR record projections will be used to determine playoff seeding and matchups. Though this is not an infallible way of perma-nizing the landscape, it weeds out elements of subjectivity and spares you from enduring long-winded explanations of why my educated-yet-still-gut-feelingish predictions are worth adopting as your own. This method also—for the most part—passes the sniff test when looking at which squads entirely miss the top-10 cut in each conference.
Every series pick will be based on current rosters. Miracle returns, surprise injuries and, most critically, prospective trade-deadline business are not part of the equation. Anything seismic that happens between now and season's end will invite re-litigation.
Title odds will be provided for every team, courtesy of FanDuel, but have no bearing on the series predictions. Let's whip out that crystal ball.
Teams Projected to Miss the Play-In Tournament
Entering games on Wednesday, January 12, FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR record projections have the following teams outside the play-in picture (title odds via FanDuel are in parentheses):
11. Washington Wizards (+18000)
12. New York Knicks (+12000)
13. Indiana Pacers (+49000)
14. Detroit Pistons (+50000)
15. Orlando Magic (+50000)
11. San Antonio Spurs (+50000)
12. New Orleans Pelicans (+50000)
13. Sacramento Kings (+50000)
14. Oklahoma City Thunder (+50000)
15. Houston Rockets (+50000)
Projected Playoff Seeds and Title Odds
Here is how FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR currently has the NBA's playoff seeds unfolding (title odds via Fanduel in parentheses):
1. Brooklyn Nets (+260)
2. Chicago Bulls (+2100)
3. Miami Heat (+1500)
4. Milwaukee Bucks (+700)
5. Philadelphia 76ers (+2100)
6. Boston Celtics (+6500)
7. Toronto Raptors (+13000)
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (+11000)
9. Atlanta Hawks (+4600)
10. Charlotte Hornets (+12000)
1. Phoenix Suns (+800)
2. Utah Jazz (+1200)
3. Golden State Warriors (+460)
4. Memphis Grizzlies (+4200)
5. Dallas Mavericks (+4600)
6. Denver Nuggets (+2700)
7. Minnesota Timberwolves (+16000)
8. Los Angeles Clippers (+2700)
9. Los Angeles Lakers (+1300)
10. Portland Trail Blazers (+16000)
Eastern Conference Play-In
7. Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Cleveland Cavaliers
Stop sleeping on the Raptors. Unless you're not sleeping on the Raptors. In which case, keep not sleeping on the Raptors.
A healthy Toronto squad can do real damage, and it's starting to show. The offense looks a lot better with OG Anunoby in a complementary capacity rather than a featured weapon, and their defense is coming together.
Both the Cavs and Raptors struggle to score in the half-court. Cleveland's offensive pecking order, though, will be more of an issue without a trade-deadline swing in the absence of Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio.
9. Atlanta Hawks vs. 10. Charlotte Hornets
This, as it stands, is a matchup of two elite offenses desperate for defensive life. It could honestly go either way.
Atlanta has a much higher defensive ceiling if De'Andre Hunter is healthy. Charlotte's offense isn't as singular-star-focused and wants to operate at warp speed. Both bode well versus a Hawks squad that sucks at defending in transition and is easily frazzled in the half-court. The Hornets' non-Mason Plumlee minutes could prove to be an issue for an Atlanta whether it mirrors them with John Collins or Clint Capela.
Still, having the best player on the floor means something. Trae Young can lift up a team on his own, and the Hawks defense will be much better off if they're getting something, anything, from Hunter.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 9. Atlanta Hawks
Cleveland's three-big lineups should pose real problems for Atlanta. Young is elusive and crafty in the lane, but he's also slight. Navigating half-court sets opposite three 7-footers at once—Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley—will be difficult if he's not dotted by enough secondary creation.
Bogdan Bogdanovic and/or Danilo Gallinari can provide that supplementary kick, and the Hawks have the personnel to yank two of the Cavs' bigs away from the basket at all times. Beyond that, it's hard to envision Cleveland generating enough offense to win even if Darius Garland goes punch-for-punch with Young.
Western Conference Play-In
7. Minnesota Timberwolves vs. 8. LA Clippers
This mostly comes down to whether you believe Kawhi Leonard will return from a partially torn right ACL in time for the play-in tourney. I don't. The stakes need to be higher than the battle for seventh place for him to risk coming back, and the Clippers don't house enough offensive firepower to consistently win marquee matchups without him.
Minnesota is part of this equation, too. Its defense is much improved under head coach Chris Finch, even with a shoddy rebounding rate, and the preferred starting five continues to outpace opponents by—checks notes—more than 47 points per 100 possessions.
9. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 10. Portland Trail Blazers
A second straight play-in appearance can and should be considered disastrous for the Lakers. But they have hinted at a higher peak when (a healthy) Anthony Davis plays the 5 beside LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, and LeBron-at-center combinations are so far an offensive dynamo.
It's understandable if you're light on Lakers optimism. You should be even lighter on Blazers optimism. Their defense remains out of sorts, and a Damian Lillard shutdown sure seems to be on the table.
8. LA Clippers vs. 9. Los Angeles Lakers
The Clippers at full strength are built to make life hell on the Lakers. Once more, though, the assumption can't be that the Clippers will sniff full strength.
Their defensive pressure could fluster a Lakers offense not exactly deft at protecting the ball. Then again, the Clippers have their own turnover issues, and their micro-lineups won't throw off a Lakers team that's at its absolute best with Davis or LeBron in the middle.
Eastern Conference First Round
1. Brooklyn Nets vs. 8. Atlanta Hawks
The Nets have real, exploitable flaws. They are too reliant on hyper-efficiency and -volume from long-two range, and their defense is beginning to show cracks after a scorching-hot (and wildly lucky) start to the season. Who knows how Kyrie Irving's part-time status will pan out. It should help in theory, but continuity has value.
Atlanta will have more appeal if its own defense escapes oblivion. That can't be the expectation, not even if De'Andre Hunter is in tow. Much like pretty much every other team, the Hawks don't have the individual defenders to tussle relentlessly with all three of the Nets' stars. Even if Kyrie can only play in a maximum of three games, Kevin Durant and James Harden are enough to leapfrog this version of Atlanta.
Prediction: Nets in six
2. Chicago Bulls vs. 7. Toronto Raptors
There is an uncomfortably large part of me that wants to predict a Raptors upset. They are built to ugly up the game at both ends, and I have real questions about how the Bulls defense will fare versus the league's highest-volume transition offense.
To be clear: This urge is more about Toronto and Chicago. Squint hard enough, and the Raptors have the silhouette of a sleeping giant. But when push comes to shove, they seem one point-of-attack weapon short of upending a team with two superstar scorers, in Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, and distinct crunch-time steadiness.
Prediction: Bulls in seven
3. Miami Heat vs. 6. Boston Celtics
Imagine picking the Celtics. Boston is among the saddest teams in the league this year, a maddening potpourri of erratic shooting, lackluster rim pressure and, generally speaking, identity-less basketball.
Miami, on the other hand, is among the biggest surprises—relative to the hand it's been dealt. Both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have missed extensive time, and Duncan Robinson only just started busting out of his rut. The Heat have a top-seven offense and defense anyway and are overwhelmingly deeper than expected, and their addition of Kyle Lowry will pay dividends when it matters most.
Prediction: Heat in five
4. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 5. Philadelphia 76ers
Title defenses are often convincing. They're seldom this quiet. The Bucks are hovering around the top eight in both offense and defense while obliterating opponents when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton share the floor but are somehow, someway, flying under the radar.
Inquiries inevitably must be lodged into the consistency beyond their three stars and the health of Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo. This isn't the matchup to ponder those warts. Joel Embiid is good for a win or two on his own, but the Sixers need an infusion of talent beyond him—one they don't seem likely to get from a Ben Simmons trade or the all-galaxy defender himself.
Prediction: Bucks in five
Western Conference First Round
1. Phoenix Suns vs. 8. Los Angeles Lakers
Hello, 2021 Playoffs Rematch For Which No One Asked.
Reasonable people will pick the Lakers, citing the existence of Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Fine. But the Suns beat a better, deeper version of Los Angeles last year. Davis' groin injury no doubt impacted the outcome to some degree, but a banged-up Davis is more matter of fact than rare reality.
Oh, yeah: The Suns are also a better, more well-rounded iteration of last season's championship finalist. They vary up their pace more often, Devin Booker is splashing pull-up threes at a career-best clip, Cam Johnson has made an offensive leap in shorthanded games, and DeAndre Ayton is a worthy defensive matchup against AD. The Lakers, in fact, might be most suited to beat the Suns if they lean into LeBron-at-the-5, a notion that is hardly settling.
Prediction: Suns in six
2. Utah Jazz vs. 7. Minnesota Timberwolves
Utah's offense is a doomsday machine for rival defenses. It has virtually zero weak spots. Minnesota is peskier on defense but doesn't have the perimeter bodies to knock off the surplus of shot-making found in Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic.
The Jazz's collection of slower-footed wings will haunt them in certain matchups (if they don't make a trade). This isn't one of them. Anthony Edwards should eat, and Karl-Anthony Towns is mythic. However, the Wolves aren't particularly explosive from the outside-in and have struggled to knock down jumpers all season.
Prediction: Jazz in five
3. Golden State Warriors vs. 6. Denver Nuggets
Denver will be far more menacing if it has Jamal Murray and/or Michael Porter Jr. back for a springtime date with Golden State. Whether that can be the expectation is a separate matter. Even if it can be, what does Murray or MPJ look like after so much time out of the rotation? The Warriors' league-best defense is hardly conducive to marquee scorers operating at fractional capacity.
Golden State's offense has recently slipped in ways Klay Thompson's return(!) probably won't fix. But Denver's stints without Nikola Jokic are direr than the Warriors' stretches sans Stephen Curry.
Prediction: Warriors in five
4. Memphis Grizzlies vs. 5. Dallas Mavericks
This is the third straight year in which yours truly was wildly wrong about the Grizzlies. I'm embracing the incorrectness. Memphis has the NBA's second-best winning percentage against opponents above .500 and pairs a scrappy offense with a defense on the rise since just after Thanksgiving.
Luka Doncic's Mavericks have put forth valiant fights in each of the past two postseasons. That comes as little consolation when it's culminated in zero playoff-series victories. The latest version of the Mavs also too often looks soulless, absent a calling card that makes you feel like they're more than a steppingstone. That's not a recipe for dethroning a pluckier, deeper, flat-out better Grizzlies squad.
Prediction: Grizzlies in six
Eastern Conference Semifinals
1. Brooklyn Nets vs. 4. Milwaukee Bucks
(Insert joke about the size of Kevin Durant's foot costing Brooklyn the series last year versus Milwaukee here.)
Billing the Nets as title formalities no longer makes sense, especially in a prospective rematch with the Bucks. As of now, Brooklyn would not have Kyrie Irving for a hypothetical Game 7 at home, and more than that, its roster doesn't have ready-made answers for any of Milwaukee's top-three players.
Maybe DeAndre' Bembry or Bruce Brown gives the Nets an outside chance of slowing one of the Bucks' stars. That is...a harrowing notion. And it doesn't make much of a difference. Brooklyn can't hope to get away with dual Bembry-Brown minutes for protracted stretches and doesn't have the personnel to dissuade Milwaukee from slotting Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 5 in cheat-code lineups.
Kevin Durant exists, and James Harden's early-season malaise is a thing of the past. That much star power matters and should make for an interesting series. But the Bucks have far more to offer on defense thanks to Giannis and Jrue Holiday, and their offense is largely playoff-proof. Forecasting a seven-game victory might actually overestimate how well Brooklyn matches up with Milwaukee.
Prediction: Bucks in seven
2. Chicago Bulls vs. 3. Miami Heat
Miami's defense feels uniquely equipped to weather Chicago's shot creation. Jimmy Butler gives the Heat a frisky body to throw at DeMar DeRozan or Zach LaVine, and they have a handful of high-IQ stoppers in Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker.
Tyler Herro also offers weaponry the Bulls don't presently employ. They are hard-up for higher-end shot creation after DeRozan and LaVine. The Heat go four deep in that department, are built to attack Chicago's defense before it ever sets and should decidedly win the frontline matchup between Adebayo and Nikola Vucevic.
Prediction: Heat in six
Western Conference Semifinals
1. Phoenix Suns vs. 4. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis has the defensive talent to rough up some of Phoenix's offensive approach, but it should fall a little short at the other end. It doesn't have the outside shot-making depth to rival the Suns' offense, and Jaren Jackson Jr.-at-the-5 minutes won't register as a huge mismatch when the opposing big is Deandre Ayton.
Guarding against Ayton should prove just as difficult. The Grizzlies cannot mirror his minutes with Steven Adams' court time for too long at the risk of shrinking the floor, and Jackson, while improving defensively this year, isn't a lock to ward off Ayton on plays around the basket.
Prediction: Suns in six
2. Utah Jazz vs. 3. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors' lack of an upper-echelon shot creator behind Stephen Curry shouldn't hurt them too much against Utah. Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson don't operate at the speed of light, but they're quick enough to cause issues for a Jazz wing rotation that gets spotty after Royce O'Neale.
Rudy Gobert will be saddled with doing too much, like usual, only more so. That model is shaky when the Warriors will slot Draymond Green at the 5 for a least a handful of stretches. Gobert cannot defend against Green's downhill playmaking and effectively protect the basket, and Utah is short on smaller options to throw at him unless it implicitly trusts Rudy Gay, Joe Ingles or Bojan Bogdanovic to get the job done.
Prediction: Warriors in six
Eastern Conference Finals: (3) Miami Heat vs. (4) Milwaukee Bucks
Could this be the year we finally get a Milwaukee Bucks-Miami Heat series that isn't shockingly lopsided?
Let's go with yes.
Kyle Lowry's arrival and Tyler Herro's Sixth Man of the Year campaign adequately give the Heat the offensive diversification necessary to rumble with the Bucks' length. Playing both of them alongside Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler will be a must during stretches in which Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton all the floor. The math might even heavily favor Miami if the Bucks are without Brook Lopez or featuring a noticeably reduced version of him.
Milwaukee will need to drain some jumpers to bust through the Heat's zone defense, but it thwarted the same setup last year with unforgiving rim pressure.
Miami will be healthier, and the addition of P.J. Tucker renders them a touch deeper. But keeping the Bucks out of transition is a 48-minute job. And when things gum up, Milwaukee can leverage outside touch from Middleton, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen and Holiday's step-backs.
Prediction: Bucks in seven
Western Conference Finals: (1) Phoenix Suns vs. (3) Golden State Warriors
1. Phoenix Suns vs. 3. Golden State Warriors
This is the Western Conference Finals we actually deserve.
Golden State's defense can frazzle Phoenix's perimeter-dependent offense when everyone's at their best. Deandre Ayton also isn't a given to best his individual matchup over the course of a series. Draymond Green-plus-committee approaches have worked, for varying stretches, at keeping him away from the basket during the regular season.
That isn't enough for the Warriors to earn the ultimate vote of confidence. Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson afford them quality supplementary weapons, but the non-Stephen Curry minutes have once against devolved into a nightmare. Said stints will presumably be fewer and further between in the postseason, but entire series can be lost across seven-minute-per-game samples.
Perhaps the Warriors neutralize what little rim pressure the Suns promise. There's still the matter of Devin Booker and Chris Paul forever subsisting on ridiculously tough makes. Yes, this prediction stands to change in the coming weeks and months. It tilts toward Phoenix right now.
Prediction: Suns in seven
NBA Finals: Phoenix Suns vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Unless the Milwaukee Bucks or Phoenix Suns acquire someone who cracks the top eight or nine of their rotation at the trade deadline, a second consecutive date stands to end a lot like the first while maintaining its potential for an alternate ending.
The Suns' lack of size became a detriment last year, and they could similarly struggle to keep the Bucks out of transition. They still only field one player, at most, with a true interior presence.
Their primary options in this spot, Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee, tend not to finish offensive possessions on the perimeter, making it difficult to get back, even when punting on second-chance boards. The Suns are allowing opponents to operate on the break more frequently than last season.
Molten outside shooting will be a must for a Phoenix offense that continues to put minimal pressure on the rim. That became a problem in the 2021 Finals. It shouldn't be as big of a pitfall in 2022.
Between Devin Booker's off-the-dribble three-point shooting, Cam Johnson's expanded repertoire, Mikal Bridges' occasional full-bag displays and Chris Paul being Chris Paul, the Suns can effectively overcome lower volume around the hoop. McGee adds some downhill jet fuel to the backup 5 minutes.
Jacking up Giannis Antetokounmpo's reps at center, mostly by necessity, could go a long way for the Bucks. But Ayton is both quick and smart enough to live through those minutes. They become more of an obstacle when looking at how Phoenix fleshes out its second-string reps.
Overall, though, the Suns seem to have diversified their offense enough to withstand the Bucks' length. They blitz through possessions in the half-court, and the combination of Bridges, Johnson and Jae Crowder gives them enough accelerated decision-making to eclipse third-ball-handler inconsistency.
Prediction: Suns in seven
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Wednesday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.
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Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.