Ranking Upset Potential for Every 2022 NBA Playoff Underdog

Greg Swartz@@GregSwartzBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterApril 16, 2022

Ranking Upset Potential for Every 2022 NBA Playoff Underdog

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    Who doesn't love a good underdog story?

    This year's NBA playoffs seemingly have good upset potential, from the star-studded Brooklyn Nets playing as a No. 7 seed to injuries suffered by Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry making their respective squads more vulnerable.

    We've also got a tantalizing 4-5 matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors, with defensive star Matisse Thybulle not eligible to play in away games because of his COVID-19 vaccination status.

    Going through series by series, let's look at which teams have a legitimate chance to spring an upset and which ones be heading toward an early playoff exit.

    Note: "Underdogs" will be defined by having the lower seed in the matchup, with series odds provided by FanDuel.com.    

(6) Chicago Bulls vs. (3) Milwaukee Bucks

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    Series Line: Bucks -1100 ($1,100 bet wins $100)

    No series has more lopsided odds as the Milwaukee Bucks begin their title defense against a Chicago Bulls team that will be missing starting point guard Lonzo Ball because of a knee injury.

    After starting the season 26-10, Chicago has gone just 20-26 since Jan. 8. The team's net rating of minus-4.1 over that span ranks 21st overall, the result of missing key pieces like Ball for long stretches.

    Once battling for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference, the Bulls were lucky to avoid the play-in tournament, although a meeting with the Bucks hardly seems like a reward.

    Milwaukee starting center Brook Lopez only got to play two games against Chicago this season because of back surgery, but he has returned to a stacked lineup that's possibly even deeper and more talented than the group that won the title last year.

    Asking second-year forward Patrick Williams or the defensively challenged Nikola Vucevic to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo just seems unfair, even if DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine will present plenty of problems for the Bucks defense.

    This will be a short series. Milwaukee should be as feared as any team with a healthy core, and it has the confidence of knowing it can win a championship.

    Upset Potential: None

(8) Atlanta Hawks vs. (1) Miami Heat

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    Series Line: Heat -405

    The Atlanta Hawks grabbed the final playoff seed in the East after taking down both the Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers in consecutive play-in games, and they will be hoping to capture some of the postseason magic that propelled them to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago.

    This will be no easy task, of course, as Miami claimed the No. 1 seed in the East despite players like Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro all missing 16 or more games.

    The Heat's most frequently used starting lineup, one that features Lowry, Butler, Duncan Robinson, P.J. Tucker and Adebayo, registered a net rating of plus-12.5 in 423 minutes together. Miami was also the best three-point shooting team in the league (37.9 percent), although Atlanta finished right behind them with a 37.4 percent mark.

    The Hawks will live and die at the hand of Trae Young, who needed 32 points in the second half to take down the Cavs.

    Unfortunately for Atlanta, Miami has tough, physical defenders all over the court. Adebayo is one of the few bigs who can successfully switch onto Young on the perimeter and stick to him should he drive into the paint.

    In four games against the Heat this season, Young has shot just 43.9 percent overall en route to his 25.5 points, turning the ball over a whopping 5.8 times a night.

    Atlanta could win a game or two behind monster performances from Young, but Miami is the far superior team overall.

    Upset Potential: Very low

(6) Denver Nuggets vs. (3) Golden State Warriors

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    Series Line: Warriors -275

    Don't let the 3-1 regular-season series won by the Denver Nuggets fool you. Draymond Green missed all four contests for the Golden State Warriors, while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins were absent a combined five times.

    Nikola Jokic (who deserves to win a second straight MVP) tore apart the Warriors inside with 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 51.9 percent shooting over four games, but the chances of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. returning for the playoffs are "unlikely," according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.

    Curry has his own injury concerns for Golden State, having missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a sprained ligament and bone bruise in his left foot. Head coach Steve Kerr told reporters Friday that Curry is expected to play in Game 1 but will be on a minutes restriction.

    Chemistry would be an issue for most teams that had multiple players miss large chunks of the season, although history tells us Curry, Thompson and Green will be just fine when finally taking the floor together. Thus far this year, the Warriors' star trio has spent just 11 minutes together over three games.

    Assuming Curry is even remotely close to 100 percent (and even if he isn't), the Warriors are just too deep and talented for a short-handed Nuggets team to pull off an upset here. Jokic could average 35-15-10 in the series and still see his squad come up short.

    Denver should be back in full force next year, but missing two of its top three players against a loaded Warriors squad will be too much to overcome.   

    Upset Potential: Low

(8) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (1) Phoenix Suns

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    Series Line: Not listed yet

    The Pelicans' reward for beating both the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament? A trip to Phoenix to play the best team in basketball, one that's coming off an NBA Finals appearance.

    That being said, no one expects New Orleans to win the series, so essentially playing with this kind of house money puts all the pressure on the Suns.

    Following a dreadful 1-12 start to the season, the Pelicans are 14-14 since trading for CJ McCollum, ranking in the top 10 in offense (117.2 rating, ninth overall) and net rating (plus-3.4, 10th).

    Mikal Bridges can't guard everyone (although his 7'1" wingspan covers a lot of court), so the Suns may have to pick their poison between McCollum and Brandon Ingram. Jonas Valanciunas won't be afraid to get physical with Deandre Ayton down low, and Jose Alvarado is pesky and talented enough to make Chris Paul work more than he'd like to in a first-round series.

    This could actually be a far more interesting series than most 1-8 matchups end up, especially if Zion Williamson somehow makes his return to the court at some point. New Orleans has yet to rule him out for the season despite the 21-year-old missing all 82 games following 2021 foot surgery.

    If Williamson can come back and is at least 80 percent of the player he was last year, Phoenix should have some legitimate anxiety about its chances of moving on.

    The Suns will eventually dispose of the Pelicans, but perhaps not as quickly as most would think.

    Upset Potential: Low; could turn to medium if Williamson returns during the series.

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (2) Memphis Grizzlies

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    Series Line: Grizzlies -320

    This will be a treat of a series with some of the NBA's brightest young talent headlined by Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards.

    The two teams split the season series, but before their win on Nov. 20, the Wolves had never beaten Morant, losing seven straight games in a drought that went all the way back to March 2019.

    Now, Minnesota should feel good about its upset chances but not just because of Edwards or Karl-Anthony Towns.

    It was D'Angelo Russell who led all scorers in the regular-season series, dropping 31.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists in four games while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 46.3 percent from three. And as terrific as Morant is offensively, he's still not a plus defender. Memphis allowed 5.4 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor this season (11th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass.

    The frontcourt combo of Jaren Jackson Jr. (an All-Defensive team candidate) and Steven Adams should be enough to limit the damage from Towns, however, and a wing of Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane will make Edwards work for his shots.

    It shouldn't surprise anyone if Minnesota wins multiple games in this series, even if Memphis eventually moves on.

    Upset Potential: Medium 

(7) Brooklyn Nets vs. (2) Boston Celtics

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    Series Line: Celtics -130

    The Brooklyn Nets aren't your typical seventh seed.

    With Kyrie Irving not eligible for home games until March because of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the James Harden trade saga that ultimately landed the team Ben Simmons (who still hasn't played a game) and major injuries to Kevin Durant (knee) and Joe Harris (ankle), Brooklyn has had quite the season.

    The good news? Everything could be coming together at the right time.

    Irving can now take the court for both home and road games. Durant is healthy and playing well, with 32.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 46.8 percent three-point shooting over his last seven regular-season contests. And we may even see Simmons make his Nets debut sometime between Games 4 and 6, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.

    Although Harris is out for the year following ankle surgery, the Celtics could be missing a key piece for at least most of the series as well.

    Center Robert Williams III, an All-Defensive team candidate, hasn't played since late March following knee surgery. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that there's a "very real" possibility that Williams can return sometime in the series, with Game 6 falling one month following his surgical procedure to fix a meniscus tear.

    Having the best player on the floor is always a recipe for success in a playoff series, so the Nets have a legitimate chance of winning, especially if Irving, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and others play at a high level. Getting Simmons back, even if it's on a minutes restriction, will aid the Brooklyn defense and playmaking as well.

    However, this Celtics team has posted the best net rating (plus-8.4) of any NBA team dating back to Halloween and finished as the No. 1 defensive squad (106.2 points per 100 possessions). Despite Boston's shaky start to the year, this squad is deeper, more talented and has far more experience together than the Nets roster. Even with Durant and Irving on the court together this year, Brooklyn is a modest 11-6.

    The Nets have the star power to make this a long series and are one of the best No. 7 seeds we've ever seen, even if they don't move on.

    Upset Potential: High

(5) Toronto Raptors vs. (4) Philadelphia 76ers

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    Series Line: Philadelphia -184

    Outside of the Boston Celtics-Brooklyn Nets series, no two teams are as close to each other in the oddsmakers' eyes than the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers.

    Philly guard Matisse Thybulle will only be able to participate in home games after not being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, leaving the Sixers with a huge defensive hole when they have to travel north of the border. Thybulle is an All-Defensive team candidate who led the NBA in steal percentage (3.4) this season.

    The bigger concern for Philly, however, is the recent play of James Harden.

    The 32-year-old finished the regular season averaging 16.2 points on 34.2 percent shooting from the field and 26.2 percent from three over his last six games and will now have to face OG Anunoby, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.

    If Harden isn't playing at his usual level, that puts a lot of pressure on Joel Embiid, who shot just 46.6 percent against the Raptors in three meetings this season (down from his regular mark of 49.9). Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris will have to step up as well if Harden's struggles continue.

    Toronto has the NBA's fifth-highest net rating (plus-6.2) since the end of February, going 16-7 over that stretch to jump to No. 5 in the East.

    It may not be fair to call the Raptors underdogs anymore, as they've got terrific upset potential here.

    Upset Potential: Extremely high

(5) Utah Jazz vs. (4) Dallas Mavericks

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    Series Line: Jazz -300

    In the only series in which the lower seed is now favored to win, the Utah Jazz could make quick work of the Dallas Mavericks depending on Luka Doncic's status.

    Doncic is nursing a calf strain that will keep him out of Game 1 on Saturday, with "significant concern" about his availability for Game 2, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Doncic had been playing his best basketball following the trade of Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards in February and was averaging 32.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists on 47.4 percent shooting and 39.9 percent from deep over his last 25 games. Dallas has gone 20-7 over that span, while Utah stumbled down the stretch with a 15-12 record.

    The Mavericks have a roster full of quality role players and can get by for stretches with Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie running the offense, but this team still revolves around one man.

    Doncic led all postseason scorers last season with 35.7 points per game, nearly taking out the Los Angeles Clippers with little support following an injury to Porzingis. If he misses multiple games to start this series, it may be too late to stage a comeback.

    The Jazz are no strangers to the postseason, even if their previous visits have been brief. With Doncic out, Donovan Mitchell and company should smell blood in the water and look to bury Dallas while they can.

    An underdog in this series now by seeding only, it would be an upset if Utah didn't win.

    Upset Potential: High enough that the odds have been flipped. The Jazz are now the favorites with Doncic's injury.  

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