The NBA Playoffs are finally here. The shortened 72 game regular has concluded and the postseason field is now official. A total of 20 teams, or 10 from each conference, are still alive and ready to battle it out for the NBA Championship. Let’s take a look at the favorite, as well as a sleeper, to win each of the two conferences and advance to the NBA Finals.
Eastern Conference Favorite: Brooklyn Nets
Coming into the NBA Playoffs as the second-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets are the favorite to advance to the NBA Finals. Their “Big 3” of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving make the Nets, arguably, the best offensive team in the history of the NBA. They are going to be an absolute nightmare for any opposing team to try to defend. If all three players are at the top of their game, it’s extremely difficult to imagine anyone in the East taking them out.
The biggest concern with this team has been their health and availability. Durant, Harden, and Kyrie have played very few games together as a trio, so it will be interesting to see if chemistry becomes an issue at any point. The only other thing that could stop this offensive juggernaut, is the other side of the ball. The Nets have shown a complete lack of defense at times. If they could step up their defensive effort, it would take this Nets team to another level. Regardless, if they are healthy, they will be very tough to beat.
Eastern Conference Sleeper: New York Knicks
The biggest surprise in the NBA this season has been the success of the New York Knicks. They were projected to be one of the worst teams before the season started, but instead, they earned the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. This is mainly due to the defensive-focused style of basketball implemented by new head coach Tom Thibodeau. In fact, in terms of opponent points per game, the Knicks are the best defensive team in the entire NBA with an impressive 104.7 average allowed.
Defense is an extremely valuable asset, especially in the NBA Playoffs. The Knicks will have the luxury of being able to lean on their defense, and that is what makes them dangerous. Their style of play keeps them alive in almost every game, so they would theoretically just need a closer to make big shots late in games.
Their superstar Julius Randle has proven all year that he is capable of doing just that. He has shown that he can carry this offense at times, and is good enough to finish close games that the defense provides. This would have sounded like sarcasm before the season but it’s real now: watch out for the Knicks.
Western Conference Favorite: Los Angeles Lakers
The defending NBA Champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, find themselves with a difficult road in the Western Conference Playoffs, starting with the newly formatted play-in tournament. Still, they are the favorites to again advance to the NBA Finals. Like the Nets, the one big concern for the Lakers is the health of their superstars. Both Lebron James and Anthony Davis missed a large portion of this season due to injury. This is the only reason why they are not a much higher seed because they are the best in the West when they are at full strength.
AD is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA, and even without him for most of the season, the Lakers were still the top defensive team in the Western Conference. Getting him back and Lebron James, who is still the best overall player in the NBA, makes the Lakers just as dangerous as ever despite their low seed. Additionally, Bron and the Brow each missing a ton of games could be a blessing in disguise for this team.
Having to go on the road shouldn’t be much of a problem for the Lakers, as demonstrated by the fact that their road record was identical to their home record this season. Now they are just fresh, motivated, and ready to roll.
Western Conference Sleeper: Denver Nuggets
The most important thing that the Denver Nuggets have on their team is the likely NBA MVP of this season, Nikola Jokic. He is an incredibly unique weapon as a seven-footer with the ball skills of a point guard. He has been the most consistently dominant player in the NBA this season and did not miss any games at all.
He leads the entire NBA with a massive 31.36 PER. He had the most double-doubles with 60 and also ranked second with 16 triple-doubles. His versatility is one of a kind, including his defensive contributions as well with 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per game.
Jokic is the main reason why the Nuggets have a shot in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, they will be without their other star, Jamal Murray. This will definitely hurt their chances, but they are still a very deep team that gets solid contributions from many different players.
Michael Porter Jr may be the real key to the success of the team this postseason. He is a young and emerging superstar that provides a major matchup problem for opponents with the style of his offensive game. This is an opportunity for him to shine on the big stage. If he does, and Jokic continues to play like the MVP, the Nuggets are capable of making a deep run in the NBA Playoffs.