The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
The official 16-team field for the 2021 NBA Playoffs isn’t set just yet, but postseason basketball is technically upon us thanks to this year’s ingenious play-in games! We saw a play-in format in last year’s NBA bubble, but tweaking it and including it from the start of a full season has made the end of this regular season one of the most enjoyable in recent memory.
Maybe the league is just currently blessed with a bunch of interesting, talented teams. Maybe it’s the intrigue of a wide-open season where as many as 7-8 teams could conceivably win the title. Or maybe it’s how expanding the field from 16 playoff-eligible teams to 20 had more teams scratching and clawing for position, thereby making them more entertaining to nightly NBA viewers when many of those teams would normally have little to play for.
In any case, we’ve got 20 teams to sift through heading into the first play-in games Tuesday night. That means we need some new NBA Power Rankings to figure out where everyone stands heading in.
NOTE: These power rankings are based on the likelihood of winning it all, which factors in each team’s prospective path to — and opponents in the way of — reaching the NBA Finals.
20. San Antonio Spurs
Fun fact: The San Antonio Spurs are the only Western Conference team in this field of 10 with a negative point differential (minus-1.7). That may not matter in a win-or-go-home scenario, but the fact that Gregg Popovich’s squad is a full five games behind the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies doesn’t bode well.
Derrick White is out for the season with an ankle injury, the Spurs have lost four straight games heading into this play-in round, and they’d have to beat the Grizzlies and then either the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors just to secure a date with the mighty Utah Jazz in the first round. Best of luck with that.
19. Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets are delightful, and everyone should be rooting for them to surpass this ranking. But they’ve lost five straight games and nine of their last 12 heading into this play-in game. They have the lowest-ranked offense (23rd) of any playoff or play-in team outside of the Lakers, who played half the season without their two best players. And Gordon Hayward is out for Tuesday’s tilt with the Indiana Pacers, so no, it’s not looking good.
The Hornets hovered around .500 all season before this losing streak dropped them to 10th in the East; they were never better than three games above .500, but they were never worse than four games below .500 either … until recently. Hopefully we get some LaMelo Ball flashes of brilliance and Miles Bridges poster dunks, but expecting much more than that feels iffy.
18. Indiana Pacers
The Hornets are lower on our list, but it’s not like they’ve been world-beaters lately either. They’re only one game ahead of Charlotte in the standings, they’re 5-7 over their last 12 games and the friction between head coach Nate Bjorkgren and his players is public knowledge now. Assistant coaches getting in shouting matches with their players isn’t particularly reassuring, and barring some unexpected return, not having Myles Turner to protect the rim hurts.
But the Pacers will have the best player on the court for their game against the Hornets, which matters. Domantas Sabonis just quietly put up 20.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game, all of which were career highs outside of rebounds. It also matters that Caris LeVert could be the second-best player on the court, so the Pacers get the slight edge, even if they’ll be expected to drop their second play-in game if they advance.
17. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies should be higher on this list, since they start off with a very winnable game against the Spurs. But their reward for a win there is getting the loser (a very angry loser, most likely) between LeBron James’ Lakers and Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors in a win-or-go-home game for the 8-seed. Woof.
The Grizz shouldn’t be counted out, and they actually have a better road record (20-16) than home record (18-18), but winning on the road in Golden State or LA will be an uphill climb … especially if Jaren Jackson Jr. continues to be such a massive negative in a do-or-die environment. In the 11 games he’s played since returning, the Grizz have posted a minus-10.5 Net Rating with him on the court, compared to plus-2.2 all season without him.
16. Washington Wizards
On paper, the Washington Wizards don’t feel like much of a threat to emerge from the play-in games, let alone challenge the Philadelphia 76ers or Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series. They’ve got the worst point differential (minus-1.9) of all 20 teams, and after playing through injury on Sunday, Bradley Beal may not be 100 percent for this first showdown with the Boston Celtics.
But we can’t ignore the run the Wizards have been on lately, finishing the season on a 17-6 tear and boasting the league’s second-best record, seventh-best offense and seventh-best defense over that five-week span. Russell Westbrook helped turn their season around with his triple-double sorcery, and if Beal’s healthy, they could easily steal the 7-seed from Boston. But since there’s no guarantee on that, and since Washington is 15-21 on the road, the Celtics get the edge here.
15. Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics might have enough in the tank to win this play-in game and secure the 7-seed, but their dwindling title aspirations completely went out the window when Jaylen Brown was forced to undergo season-ending wrist surgery. As a team that’s lost five of its last six games, the red-hot Wizards could very easily snatch the 7-seed.
But the margin for error is a lot more narrow for the Wizards, and if Beal is still playing through injury, Brad Stevens and co. still have enough to get the job done between Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, especially with a 10th-ranked offense testing an improved defense that still ranks 20th overall.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Maybe it’s disrespectful to have a play-in team ahead of the 5-seed in the East, but the Atlanta Hawks’ best players are mostly unproven or completely inexperienced in a playoff setting, and they’ve got a brutal (but fun) matchup with the Knicks waiting for them in the first round.
Nate McMillan has completely turned this team around, Trae Young is a star, Bogdan Bogdanovic has been a revelation since he got healthy and Clint Capela might be the most underrated impact player in the league, but even if the Hawks upset New York, they’ll have a date with Philly waiting in the second round, and that’s where their postseason adventure would end.
13. Golden State Warriors
It feels strangely discomforting to have the Golden State Warriors this low. They’ve been one of the hotter teams in the NBA, winning six straight games and eight of their last nine. Stephen Curry just wrapped up one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career at age 33, becoming the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Michael Jordan. Oh, and Draymond Green still anchors a top-5 defense.
But as much as this team with championship experience feels like a shark lying in wait for its bucket of chum, a play-in date with the Lakers is a showdown with another shark that’s looking for that same shot of blood to the nostrils. The Dubs could easily beat the Lakers if the defending champs don’t come prepared. But it’s hard to bet against LeBron and AD in a winner-take-all game, and even if the Warriors escape the play-in round, they’ll be heavily outmatched in the first round against the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns.
12. Dallas Mavericks
Everybody here saw what Luka Doncic did against the LA Clippers last year, right? Okay? Because that’s really all there is to say that’s positive about this rematch series, especially with Kristaps Porzingis only playing three games in May so far.
If “Pandemic P” rears his ugly head for the Clippers … well, the Dallas Mavericks will still probably be outmatched like they were last year, but then again, having a healthy KP might make things a bit spicier! There’s no easy matchup in the West, but against a legitimate title contender in LA, it’d take quite another meltdown on the Clippers’ part for the Mavs to put a legitimate playoff run together. Tough luck of the draw here, Dallas.
11. New York Knicks
I’m just going to say this now: If the New York Knicks make it out of their first-round series against Atlanta, they could make life complicated for the East-leading 76ers. Philly would be favored in such a series, of course, but a battle between two top-five defenses would be gritty, especially since these pesky Knicks make their opponents work for every single thing they get.
Would New York have an answer for Joel Embiid? Probably not, but no one does! We also don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse; the Hawks are no pushover. However, Julius Randle and this plucky group have been too darn persistent to ignore, so even if I think their playoff journey will end in the second round, outside expectations haven’t stopped them all season, and in my opinion, they’re on the easier side of the bracket by avoiding Brooklyn and Milwaukee.
10. Miami Heat
Nobody gave the Miami Heat a chance against the Milwaukee Bucks last year either. This year’s Heat team has been less impressive, and the Bucks — despite not winning 60-some games or boasting the NBA’s best defense like last year — might be better built for the postseason this time around.
However, we saw Erik Spoelstra coach circles around Mike Budenholzer once, and if Bud is unable or unwilling to make the right adjustments again this year, Miami could prove to be Giannis Antetokounmpo’s personal kryptonite once again. Jimmy Butler was just as phenomenal this year as he was in the NBA bubble, and Bam Adebayo is an All-NBA and All-Defensive team candidate. The Heat could easily go home in the first round, but the longer this first-round battle lasts, the closer Miami gets to speaking another underdog Finals run into existence.
(Bucks in six, though.)
9. Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were the second-worst defense in the NBA this season. They’ve been at least league-average over their recent 10-2 spurt, and much better with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Norman Powell, but this is high as I can conscientiously place them with a defense that, at its best, is still just average. Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets’ sixth-best offense could very well pick them apart.
With that being said, Damian Lillard is a stone-cold killer in late-game scenarios, leading the NBA in points scored in the clutch. Having CJ McCollum and Nurkic back matters, and a Nuggets team sans Jamal Murray isn’t as intimidating. If the Blazers can pull off the upset in this enticing series, they’re also on the more favorable side of the bracket, avoiding the Jazz and Clippers in the second round.
8. Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray’s season-ending ACL tear bumps the Denver Nuggets all the way to the bottom of our eight teams that could conceivably win it all this year, but count them out at your own risk: Nikola Jokic is the deserving MVP frontrunner, and this team has gone 20-7 with the NBA’s sixth-best Net Rating since the Aaron Gordon trade.
Gordon has been a seamless two-way fit in Denver, Michael Porter Jr. has become an absolute flamethrower on offense and a much-improved defender, and a healthy Monte Morris makes all the difference in the world for this dinged-up backcourt. Portland is a tough first-round draw, but the Nuggets have more balance as a team that actually defends, and if they make it to the second round, they’ll be avoiding the Jazz and Clippers.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
This is insultingly low for the top-seeded team in the East. Joel Embiid has been either the most or second-most dominant player in the NBA when he’s been on the court this season. Ben Simmons is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the Sixers’ second-ranked defense produced three players worthy of consideration for an All-Defensive team slot.
But we’ve seen both Doc Rivers and this Sixers core fall short of a conference finals appearance far too many times in recent years to trust them just yet. They’ll have an easier path this time with no Milwaukee, Miami or Brooklyn in their way, but the Celtics could be a frisky first-round matchup if they drop to the 8-seed, and so could the surging Wizards. Atlanta or New York would make the Sixers work too, and even if they take care of business against those inferior opponents … I just don’t see them beating the Bucks or Nets in a seven-game series.
6. Utah Jazz
Back-to-back insults for the conference’s top seeds! Yes, the Utah Jazz have the NBA’s best record, best point differential, third-best defense and fourth-best offense. They’re mounting a historically potent 3-point attack on a nightly basis, they have the heavy favorite for DPOY and up and down the roster, they possess players who can shoot and defend.
But the Jazz are going into the postseason with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley both coming back from injury, and as much as they chugged right along without their starting backcourt, reincorporating key players like that, at this time of year, is not a given. Throw in their past shortcomings in the postseason and a deadly matchup against the Clippers that awaits in the second round, and the Jazz once again have some naysayers to prove wrong.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Oddly enough, the Milwaukee Bucks might have the toughest first-round matchup of any of the top-four teams in the East. But if they can exorcise those Heat demons with a roster that’s better-suited for the playoff grind … wait, their reward would be the BROOKLYN NETS?? That’s just insane!
It’s that looming second-round matchup that drops the Bucks this low. They’re legitimate contenders with a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense. Giannis Antetokounmpo remains an unexplainable two-way force of nature, Khris Middleton is as underrated as ever, Jrue Holiday changes the complexion of any playoff series with his hounding defense, and the Bucks’ bench is better than last year. If they can somehow beat the Nets in a brutal conference semifinal matchup, they may have what it takes to win it all. That’s a pretty tall order though, for any team on this list.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
This will stir up some controversy, but we just don’t know enough about the current state of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder just yet. AD’s been back for longer, but all three are still trying to get their rhythm and chemistry back. They have rust to shake off, especially if Frank Vogel gives Andre Drummond — a new and inferior piece compared to Marc Gasol — ample minutes.
The play-in game will give us more insight into how playoff-ready the defending champs are now that they have to flip the switch overnight. They’ll probably win the play-in game, and nobody would be terribly surprised if they upset a more inexperienced Suns team in the first round. A title run is not out of the realm of impossibility here.
But a play-in game against Steph, followed by either the dangerous Suns or another play-in game and then the mighty Utah Jazz? That’s a pretty brutal draw for an LA team that just got healthy, and that’s without factoring in how they’ll eventually have to get through the Clippers and then the Eastern Conference champion in order to repeat. It’s not impossible for LeBron and AD, but it’s a much more difficult path than the cakewalk they enjoyed last year.
3. Phoenix Suns
Even if the Lakers win their play-in game and wrap up the 7-seed, if they look less than stellar in any way, “Suns in 6 or 7” might be the pick here. I am dead serious: The Phoenix Suns are legitimate title contenders, and people are sleeping on them in the West — even if the Lakers are their unbelievably unfair first-round matchup.
Plus, if the Warriors somehow pull off the upset in the play-in game, Phoenix’s path to the conference finals gets a lot easier: They’d have to take down Steph’s one-man show in Golden State, either the Murray-less Nuggets or the defense-adept Blazers, and then they’d finally face a real championship-caliber team in the conference finals, presumably Utah or LAC.
Considering Phoenix’s league-best record against teams at or above .500 this year, and how great they’ve been against elite teams when they’ve had time to game-plan for them, counting the Suns out in any series would be a mistake, regardless of who they draw in the first round. A fully healthy Lakers team is probably better, but since we don’t know that’s what LA even is just yet, Phoenix gets the slight edge here. In other words: Whoever wins a potential Suns-Lakers matchup could very well reach the conference finals.
2. LA Clippers
We’ll see if the basketball gods look kindly upon the LA Clippers’ decision to tank down the stretch and avoid a potential matchup with the Suns/Lakers winner in the second round. Utah had to have noticed and taken offense to the subliminal message it sends.
But at their best, I’m not sure anything can be done about the Clippers. Their small-ball lineups, versatility and league-best 3-point efficiency (particularly from the corners) threatens to play even the most talented bigs off the floor. That could neutralize rim protectors like Rudy Gobert or Deandre Ayton in a series. Kawhi Leonard is fully capable of carrying a team to a championship, as he’s proven multiple times before.
The biggest X-factor here, aside from Patrick Beverley and Serge Ibaka having limited time on the floor since returning from injury, is Paul George. If “Pandemic P” returns, the Clippers could drop a few games in the first round before Utah shows them to the door. But if he plays like the All-NBA candidate he’s been all year, the Clippers have a real shot at reaching their first conference finals … and maybe even winning the whole damn thing.
1. Brooklyn Nets
No, the Brooklyn Nets haven’t played very many games with James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving all on the floor together.
They’re also the most efficient offense in NBA history (117.3 offensive rating), blowing last year’s Mavericks (115.9) out of the water. Even if they can’t defend all that well, and even if they haven’t had much time to build chemistry, there’s so much talent here that it might not even matter.
The Bucks are a dangerous second-round draw that will make the Nets work for it on both ends. Whoever comes out of the West will be weary but battle-tested. Even after factoring all that in, Brooklyn’s sheer firepower is patently absurd, and this team was nearly unstoppable when Harden was healthy. If there are no injury setbacks for the Big 3, it’s tough to see any team being able to keep up with the Nets’ shot-making over the course of a seven-game series.
As we’ve already covered, the Lakers’ playoff path is not easy. What are some of their realistic goals for this postseason?
Same question, very different team: What should the Knicks’ goals for the postseason be?
In case our awards picks and All-NBA/All-Defensive/All-Rookie team picks from yesterday weren’t enough to satisfy your appetite, The Ringer’s Dan Devine and ESPN’s Zach Lowe gave their picks for those teams as well.