As seeding games get underway from Orlando on Thursday night, Nick Whalen and Alex Barutha lay out their best- and worst-case scenarios for each of the 22 teams.
Best case: Challenging the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals
We know that Kemba Walker's knee is less than 100 percent healthy and that Gordon Hayward will have to leave the bubble in September to attend the birth of his child. While that's not ideal, the Celtics have survived without Walker – they're still +5.9 when he's off the court – and the combination of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown might be able to make up for Hayward's absence. Presumably facing the Bucks in the Conference Finals will not be easy, but it's important to consider that against top-10 teams, the Celtics have the best point differential (+5.1). The next best team is the Lakers at +1.9.
If the worst happens and Walker isn't able to fight through the season, plus Hayward leaves in the middle of a series, Boston could be in trouble. The Celtics can and have made due with one of them off the court, but both is a different story. With both players on the sidelines, the Celtics are barely a net positive team (+0.8), with an offensive rating (106.3) only in the 19th percentile. That likely won't do in the postseason against an opponent that's at full strength.
Best case: Winning one playoff game
The Nets are the most decimated team in the bubble, with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and Nicolas Claxton all out for the restart. That leaves Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris as Brooklyn's best players by a significant margin. The Nets still figure to make the playoffs given the lead they hold on a similarly-terrible Wizards squad, but it's likely Brooklyn drops to the eighth seed and draws Milwaukee for the first round of the playoffs. From there, it's all about getting some more playoff experience for the young players and, optimistically, stealing one game in the postseason.
Worst case: Falling out of the playoffs
The Nets will probably only be favored in one game during the restart considering they play the Wizards. That said, going 0-8 is a real possibility, even with some opposing teams likely going less than 100 percent. Brooklyn could still make the playoffs going 0-8 (again, the Wizards), but maybe Washington surprises us. Nothing bad really happens if the Nets miss the playoffs. This year is already over for them. But some playoff experience for the young guys and added revenue wouldn't hurt.
Despite being on the precipice of meaningful games, we still don't know if either Oladipo or Sabonis will be available for the restart. Oladipo played in scrimmages but hasn't yet decided to commit to the season, while Sabonis left the bubble to see a specialist regarding plantar fasciitis that left him unable to do anything with a basketball for over a week. Having both players available, at least for the postseason, would be a huge boost. Sabonis is the Pacers' lone All-Star, and Oladipo has the upside to be both the best offensive and defensive player on the team. While Indiana's bench remains suspect, they'd have the top-end talent to be competitive against any other playoff opponent.
Worst case: No Oladipo, no Sabonis
Not having Oladipo or Sabonis around would make it tough for Indiana to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference playoffs. With both players off the court, the Pacers are -3.0. It would leave Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and T.J. Warren as the three best players on the team, which isn't a trio that has a particularly high ceiling. The bench would become even more exposed as well.
Best case: A run to the Eastern Conference Finals
One of several very-good-but-not-great teams chasing Milwaukee in the East, Miami has the upside – particularly on the defensive end – to emerge from that group. If it comes down to a matchup against the Bucks, Miami has reason to feel confident, but beating Milwaukee four times in seven tries will be a monumental task. Led by Bam Adebayo – one of the best Giannis-defenders in the league – Miami went 2-0 against the Bucks in the regular season.
Worst case: Drawing Boston or Philadelphia in Round 1
One of the subplots of the seeding games will be whether teams make a concerted effort to match up with the Pacers in Round 1. Right now, Miami-Indiana would be the 4-5 series, but plenty can change over the next two weeks, as seeds three through six are currently separated by just 4.5 games. Miami would be favored over shorthanded Indiana, but Boston and Philadelphia present more difficult challenges. The Celtics, in particular, gave the Heat trouble during the regular season. It's fair to question whether Miami has enough scoring to keep up with Boston in a hypothetical series – especially if Kemba Walker is healthy.
Best case: Cruising through the East to the NBA Finals
For as dangerous as Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami are, Milwaukee is simply on another level. That's not to say the Bucks won't be tested in the East, but there's a reason they're the heavy favorites to make it through unscathed. In a best-case scenario, the Bucks weep through Rounds 1 and 2 before winning what would likely be another hard-fought Conference Finals series. Last season showed that the Bucks are fallible, but Mike Budenholzer's team still has the best player in the league and a supporting cast tailored to his strengths.
Worst case: A redux of the 2019 Playoffs
For as dominant as the Bucks have been over the last two seasons, anything short of a Finals berth would be a massive disappointment. A year ago, Milwaukee was cruising through the East, up 2-0 in the Conference Finals before dropping four straight to Toronto to lose the series in six games. The Bucks won't have to go through Kawhi Leonard this time around, but the Celtics, Sixers, Heat and Raptors each present their own set of challenges. Milwaukee should make the Finals, but it's far from a lock.
Best case: Winning multiple games in Round 1
Entering seeding play, the most likely scenario is a rematch of last season's 2-7 matchup. Expecting Orlando to compete with Toronto is a big ask, but the Magic did take Game 1 from the Kawhi version of the Raptors a year ago. Getting Jonathan Isaac back from injury is a major help, and the Magic will enter Round 1 with little-to-no expectations. For a franchise in need of a jolt in the right direction, building some momentum with a couple of wins in Round 1 would be consequential.
Worst case: Falling out of the playoffs
With a 4.5-game cushion over the Wizards, this is unlikely to happen, but it's by no means out of the question. Both Washington and Brooklyn are severely under-manned, but Orlando's roster isn't exactly the Dream Team, either. If Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Jonathan Isaac stay health, the Magic should usurp Brooklyn for the seventh seed, but if even one of those players were to go down, things could get dicey in a hurry.
Best case: A run to the Finals
No team has a wider range of outcomes than the 76ers. After a regular season in which they Jekyll-and-Hyded their way to a 39-26 record, there's renewed optimism that this group can put it all together and finally capitalize on its immense talent. It's no accident that Philadelphia is constructed to handle a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Sixers will first need to focus on getting to an eventual meetup with Milwaukee in Round 2 or 3. Philly has several major questions to answer, but if a few things break in their favor, a showdown with the Bucks in the Conference Finals is very realistic.
Worst case: Losing in Round 1
On the other end of the spectrum, what if those things don't break right? The talent says the Sixers are a contender, but the regular-season results say otherwise. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Hoford and Josh Richardson made for one of the league's best defenses, but the offense never caught up. Ranking outside the top-half of the league in offensive efficiency, Philly is not a great shooting team, and Brett Brown still hasn't figured out how to deploy Horford and Embiid in tandem. Meanwhile, Simmons will apparently transition to power forward on the fly, meaning a corps of unproven guards will be relied upon for significant minutes in big games.
Best case: Being competitive in the Finals
The Raptors exceeded all expectations this season, going 46-18 after one of the best players in the league left their team. Toronto has cultivated the league's second-best defense and 14th-best offense. That defense will be crucial against the other top-end Eastern Conference teams, but especially the Bucks. Shutting down Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton without the help of Kawhi Leonard will be tough, but is clearly within the realm of possibility. From there, if the Raptors make the Finals, being competitive should be the goal considering their top-end talent is nowhere near the likes of either Los Angeles team.
Worst case: Not making the Conference Finals
While the Raptors' defense has been great in the regular season, how strongly will that translate in the playoffs without Kawhi? And is having the 14th-best offense enough in the postseason? Toronto hasn't performed particularly well against the best teams this season. When facing top-10 point differential teams, Toronto has the fourth-worst offense and fifth-best defense, which averages out to the 14th best net rating (-4.0) in that scenario. Eastern Conference teams above them include Boston (+5.6), Milwaukee (+0.3), Miami (-1.5) and Philadelphia (-1.9).
Best case: Winning multiple games
Washington has the worst record (24-40) of any bubble team, but they'll actually be worse than that since Bradley Beal (shoulder) and Davis Bertans (personal) will not be available. Somehow, the Wizards are marginally better with those two off the court by the numbers – I don't want to think too hard about it; we know that can't actually be true. The best player on the team is now...Rui Hachimura? Thomas Bryant?? Shabazz Napier??? Troy Brown????
Worst case: Going 0-8 in seeding games
Washington won't be favored in any game they play, so 0-8 is certainly within the realm of possibility. But this worst case really isn't that bad since there are no expectations. Even going 0-8 still gives the young Wizards players eight opportunities to develop against real NBA competition night after night (except when they play Brooklyn). They could end up actually being more entertaining than the Spurs.