NBA Playoff Predictions: Who Will Be Hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy?
At one point, the wild 2021-22 NBA regular season was marred by COVID-ravaged rosters. At another, it thrilled us with Stephen Curry’s All-Star Game performance and later, an avalanche of 50- and 60-point efforts.
Along the way, there were also plenty of surprises. And we’re not just talking about Saddiq Bey’s 51-point outburst.
Who had LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers finishing 11th in the Western Conference? Raise your hand if you had the Miami Heat earning the top seed in the East or the Memphis Grizzlies taking the second seed in the West. Did anyone think the Minnesota Timberwolves would finish 46-36 or that the Toronto Raptors would be fifth in the East?
With the Eastern Conference playoffs seemingly as deep as they’ve ever been (the talented Brooklyn Nets are seventh), the league’s play-in tournament will get underway on Tuesday night and by Friday, we’ll have an official 16-team field set.
So what is the probability of the Nets rising from the play-in tourney to the NBA Finals? And do the Grizzlies have a legitimate chance of upending the defending West champion and No. 1-seeded Phoenix Suns?
Well, we have the answers. We’ve run a model that uses our adjusted team ratings and other data to determine which clubs are most likely to emerge from the play-in, who should get out of the first round, and ultimately, who figures to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Adjusted team ratings only look at what we’ve already seen, though it weights recent performance heavily. Let’s start by looking which teams have the best chances of winning the Western Conference title (including play-in projections).
Even though the Suns cruised to the best record in the league at 64-18 and finished eight games ahead of the Grizzlies in the West, they don’t have a tremendously higher probability of reaching the NBA Finals (7.4%) or winning the title (4.9%) than Memphis.
Phoenix finished with a league-best 6.26 adjusted team rating, but it was only marginally better than Memphis’ 5.95 – which was fourth in the NBA behind the Boston Celtics (6.05) and Utah Jazz (5.97). And if the Suns were to win the title with that rating, it’d be the sixth lowest for a champion since the 1986-87 season.
Why don’t the Jazz have a better chance of reaching the conference final? It’s because they’d have to beat Dallas without home-court advantage and the Suns to get there, though getting to the top seed could become a lot easier if Luka Dončić (seventh in the NBA in offensive DRIP, our Daily-updating Rating of Individual Performance) is unable to play after straining his calf in the season finale.
Which team has the best chance of going from the play-in tournament to the conference semifinals? The Timberwolves with a 13.0% probability, followed by the Clippers (11.7%), Spurs (2.3%) and Pelicans (0.8%).
It’s not the top-seeded Heat that have the best odds of winning the East title. It’s not two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Bucks. It’s not Joel Embiid, James Harden and the 76ers or Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Nets either.
On Jan. 21, the Celtics were in fourth place in the Atlantic Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference at 23-24. Since then, they’ve gone 28-7 (.800) for the best record in the NBA over that span – even better than the Suns (29-9, .763).
Jayson Tatum has stepped up in this stretch, ranking seventh in the NBA in scoring at 29.1 per game since Jan. 22 after averaging 25.2 in his previous 43 games. He’s also moved up to seventh in overall DRIP (plus-4.0). The Celtics, however, could be without starting center and defensive standout Robert Williams, who had surgery on his left knee for a torn meniscus.
Boston’s probability might come as a surprise considering it could face the dangerous Nets in the first round. In the only meeting that closely resembled the current rosters, Tatum poured in 54 points and the Celtics overcame Durant’s 37 in a 126-120 home win. And Boston will have home-court advantage in a potential first-round series.
Brooklyn only has 0.4% chance of reaching the NBA Finals despite its star power, mostly because it has a poor team rating (1.66, 14th of the 20-team field) after playing chunks of the season without Durant and Irving. And the Nets have a tough road ahead through the play-in tournament and without any kind of home-court advantage.
While the defending champs look like they have a cake walk in the opening round against the Bulls (they’ve won 16 of the past 17 meetings), the Bucks face a tough task should they be faced with beating the Celtics and Heat in seven-game series without home-court advantage.
The Bucks finished with the second-best adjusted team rating (4.94) in the East behind the Celtics, but the Heat ended up on their hooves in third (4.48).
Getting back to the Bulls…on Jan. 7, they had the best record in the Eastern Conference at 26-10. Since then, they’ve gone 20-26 – including the second-worst mark in the East since Feb. 26 at 7-15. As a result, Chicago has the worst adjusted team rating (minus-1.30) of any playoff or play-in team.
Of the play-in tournament teams, the Nets have the highest probability of reaching the conference semifinals at 16.7%, followed by the Cavaliers (9.7%), Hawks (7.3%) and Hornets (3.5%).
So how’s it all going to shake out?
As mentioned earlier, the model didn’t exactly spit out chalk with the Celtics having a higher probability of winning the title than the top-seeded Heat. It also doubled down on the Grizzlies, leaving no doubt that perhaps the NBA’s biggest surprise is no fluke.
But there are some notable absences from the top five. The Bucks only have a 3.3% probability of repeating, according to the model. Despite enjoying a 51-win season and tying with Boston atop the Atlantic, Embiid and the Sixers are long shots at 0.7%.
That Brooklyn team that everyone believes is just waiting in the weeds – only a 0.1% chance.
Data modeling by Evan Boyd. Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.