The Case For & Against the Celtics, Grizzlies, 76ers and More Winning the NBA Championship
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The NBA postseason is here, and the playoff bracket hasn’t felt this wide open in over a decade.
There’s no mega-death Golden State Warriors, no big three Miami Heat, and no big bad Los Angeles Lakers — no LeBron James, no Anthony Davis, and certainly no Russell Westbrook.
Many years entering the playoffs, there are two or three teams with a realistic chance of winning an NBA title, and there’s often an overwhelming favorite. It doesn’t always play out that way, but that’s how the postseason usually begins.
But this year looks different, far more open and unpredictable, without one clear juggernaut and with any number of teams we just don’t know enough about between a long list of regular season injuries, pandemic absences, and late season makeovers via trades.
How many teams realistically think they can at least make the NBA Finals right now? As many as five in the East and six out of the West?
I’ve written the case for each of the biggest title favorites over the last couple weeks. Be sure to check out the long-form cases for these five teams:
Today we’re looking briefly at every other team, not because they don’t have a shot, but because, well, the playoffs are here so it’s time to wrap this up.
Let’s start with the biggest remaining contenders at the top. What’s the case for — and against — each team in the NBA winning a title?
Genuine Title Contenders
Let’s be honest — they way the Celtics have played the last few months, Boston deserves its own standalone column, but we’ve got plenty of good things to say about Boston anyway.
Since Jan. 29, the Celtics are an incredible 26-6, and half of those losses were by a single shot. Boston leads the league in both Offensive and Defensive Rating during that stretch. The Celtics have an astonishing +14.8 Net Rating over that stretch. They are outscoring opponents by about one point every seven possessions. Prettay, prettay good.
Much has been said about the defense. Boston’s Defensive Rating during this stretch is further ahead of second than second is ahead of 14th. Marcus Smart is the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year, and his teammate Robert Williams might have won it himself before getting hurt late. Williams is expected back in two to four weeks after minor knee surgery.
Don’t overlook the offensive improvement though. The Celtics ranked 22nd in Offensive Rating before January 29, but they’ve led the league since at 120.7. So what changed? The Celtics are hitting shots now. Boston ranked 23rd in the NBA in effective field goal percentage those first 50 games, and the Celtics were 25-25 as a team.
They lead the league in EFG since, thanks in part to leaps by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and partly to the addition of Derrick White and a more egalitarian offense that is finally clicking.
If Boston plays like it has the last few months, the Celtics aren’t just a contender — they’re the favorite, and maybe heavily so.
The question is how much to trust that stretch. Boston’s elite defense has ranked just seventh since the Williams injury, still outstanding but no longer great enough to win games all on its own. And while the offense probably isn’t as bad as it was those first 50 games, it’s tough to believe it really transformed overnight into the league’s best, so the answer is probably somewhere in between.
If the playoffs started a month ago, the Celtics might have been the favorite. It’s more difficult now without Williams, especially because Boston got about the toughest draw possible. They’ll face Kevin Durant and the Nets in the first round, and the Nets have been the Eastern Conference favorites all season.
The defending champs are next, and then it’s likely the Heat or Sixers plus a Finals opponent. It’s entirely possible the Celtics would have to win four series without ever having the best player on the court. That’s a steep ask.
I wonder if these Celtics profile more like those early 2010s Pacers teams, with an outstanding defense built around Jayson Tatum in the Paul George role. Those teams were truly great and built to push any opponent all the way but ultimately fell just short when they faced an opponent with a bigger star.
Could the same fate await the Celtics?
The Grizzlies are the only team other than the two No. 1-seeds that never had a losing month, which is even more remarkable when you remember how often this team had to play without Ja Morant. Memphis enters the playoffs as hot as anyone outside of Boston, even though Morant barely played the last few weeks.
Since November 28th, the Grizzlies have 47 wins, which is tied with the Suns for the most and five more than any other NBA team. Memphis has a +9.0 Net Rating during that stretch.
The offense has been pretty good all season, but the big jump has come on defense. The Grizzlies have the league’s No. 2 Defensive Rating since Thanksgiving, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has taken a leap. Memphis forces huge turnovers and doesn’t let opponents get the shots they want.
The Grizzlies might have the deepest team in the league, which is why they can play so well even without Morant. Guys like Tyus Jones, DeAnthony Melton, and Brandon Clarke have elite advanced metrics off the bench, while Jackson and Desmond Bane have broken out in the starting lineup.
The Grizz play fast, force a ton of turnovers, and destroy on the glass. Memphis doesn’t make many 3s, but they win a different math game, beating opponents by racking up extra possessions.
The question is whether all those advantages will hold up in the postseason. Depth is not as big there since starters play more minutes, and playoff opponents won’t give the ball away like some of Memphis’s opponents.
That means fewer easy transition points for the Grizzlies, and this offense hasn’t been nearly as good when things slow down and grind out in the half court.
Does this Grizzlies formula work in the postseason, too, or was this a team built to maximize itself in the regular season? I have my doubts.
But the Grizzlies have proven doubters wrong all season, so why would they stop now?
Any team with Joel Embiid and James Harden healthy and playing at their best can win the title. And this is not just a two-man team. Tobias Harris is on a max contract and can score 20 efficient points any night, and Tyrese Maxey is a star in the making. Philly is deep and talented, and the Sixers might put the most talent on the court any night against any team.
Since Harden has taken the court, the Sixers are 16-8, a 55-win pace. Embiid continues to play like an MVP, and he and Harden have a +16.3 Net Rating together in 603 minutes, per Pivot Analysis. If Embiid stays healthy the next two months, he is absolutely playing well enough to be the best player on a title team.
The question is whether Harden is still good enough to do his part. He has a -11.4 Net Rating in 189 Philly minutes without Embiid. He isn’t getting to the rim like he used to, and his finishing has fallen off along with his free throw rate. We saw Harden struggle early this season with the new foul rules.
What happens when the whistle tightens in the postseason?
The Sixers will be heavily matchup dependent. Embiid can overwhelm some opponents physically, and teams that foul frequently will see Philly grind out wins at the line night after night. But an opponent that doesn’t foul often and isn’t too reliant on 3s can beat them.
Can Philly catch the right matchups, stay healthy for two months, and finally see great playoff runs from Embiid and Harden? It feels like a lot to ask for.
Be sure to check out Raheem Palmer’s deep dive on the Sixers for more.
On paper, everything about the Jazz screams serious title contender. Utah has a top-10 defense built around a perennial DPOY contender in Rudy Gobert, a one-man rim protection machine if ever there was one. The Jazz also have the league’s No. 1 Offensive Rating. They rank top five in free throws and offensive rebounds and top two in 3-pointers with the second-best 2-point percentage.
The Jazz play at the league’s second-fastest pace, bomb 3s, and live at the line. The defense protects the rim, rebounds well, and doesn’t foul. On paper, the Jazz profile as those recent Houston Rockets teams — only if they played pretty good defense too.
Utah won 18 times by 20 or more points this season and lost only four such games. The Jazz rank third in the NBA with 32 double-digit wins and also had the third-fewest such losses. They went 49-33 on the season but were an unlucky 1-6 in one-possession games. By Pythagorean expectation, the Jazz should have won 56 games.
The Jazz also led the league in Net Rating up through Jan. 5, the moment their stars started getting hurt. Utah was 27-10 at that point but finished 22-23 after that, blowing any number of huge in-game leads, losing as a big favorite, and displaying more than a little unsettled team chemistry.
At their best, the Jazz can beat any team anywhere. But there’s a reason we have to keep saying “on paper” and “at their best.” This team has repeatedly not showed up for the playoffs. The shooting runs hot and cold, and the perimeter defense leaves Gobert on an island he can’t handle.
Are the Jazz gaming the system with these elite regular season numbers and just never built to win in the playoffs? Maybe they are — but that’s what a lot of people said about the Bucks entering last year’s playoffs too, and look how that ended. Now Utah lucks into a Luka Doncic injury to start its 2022 run.
The Jazz have pretty juicy Western Conference odds if you believe.
Maybe … If Health Is On Their Side
Since trading Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks have gone 20-7, tied for the most wins in the league. The offense has finally figured itself out, and the defense has been surprisingly good all season and looks legit under Jason Kidd, running opponents off the 3-point line and taking care of business.
Luka Doncic has played like the league MVP since the trade. He’s averaged 32.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 8.0 assists, and we know he can take over any playoff game or series at any time. The problem, of course, is that calf strain.
Doncic hurt his calf on the final day of the regular season and is officially out for Game 1. No playoff team relies more on one star. The Mavs can’t survive without theirs, but they could make a real run if he gets healthy.
Los Angeles Clippers
We know the Clippers can play defense and hit 3s, and we know Ty Lue is a great postseason coach and will make good in-series adjustments. What we don’t know is if Kawhi Leonard has any shot of playing — and if the recently-returned Paul George and Norman Powell will stay healthy.
A healthy PG can be the best player in any game when the shots are falling. He redeemed the Playoff P moniker with a huge finish last season, and Norm has been a huge spark in limited minutes.
The Clippers have a deep and versatile roster with plenty of wings, energy, and defense. They’re one more superstar away from being a serious problem. Of course, they’re also one more loss away from missing the playoffs entirely.
We’re Reaching Now
On the one hand, the Nuggets have the league’s reigning and, soon, back-to-back MVP, and they went 8-3 in one-possession games. Nikola Jokic is playing as well as anyone on the planet, and it’s never a bad thing to have the best player on the court in a playoff series.
On the other hand, Denver was only 22-19 in games with a double-digit margin, and those close wins tend to even out over time with luck. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. ain’t walking through that door, and as awesome as he is, Jokic can’t do everything on his own against the highest competition.
Denver has little chance of surviving non-Jokic minutes, and the Nuggets just look exhausted after a long shorthanded season.
Since Jan. 29, the Raptors have won 25 games, second only to the Celtics. Toronto still hasn’t found much offense during that stretch and remains heavily reliant on second chances and transition, so that’s a real worry.
The big improvement has come on defense. Toronto has the No. 4 Defensive Rating during that stretch. The Raptors have cut their fouls down, huge for a young team, and they’re giving up much more difficult shots.
Toronto is small in that it doesn’t play a true center, but this is a big team with wing length for days. The Raptors can switch everything and make life miserable.
Nick Nurse might be the NBA’s best coach. He’s been a whiz at playoff adjustments. If Toronto can keep it close, the Raptors have the league’s No. 4 Net Rating in the fourth quarter, and they have a +13.2 Net Rating in the fourth quarter since the start of February.
There’s still championship mettle on this roster.
The Timberwolves lead the NBA in Offensive Rating since the calendar turned to 2022. They lead the league in 3-pointers and are second in free throws, and they’re No. 1 in Pace and scoring at 122.2 PPG.
The Wolves also have three young stars on the rise in Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell, and Minnesota could benefit as much as any playoff team by an uptick in minutes from its stars.
The defense is still a struggle though. They force huge turnovers and run opponents off the 3-point arc but do so at the cost of a huge foul rate that rears its head at the worst times. Opponents tend to live at the line, and that also gets Minnesota’s stars in foul trouble.
The Wolves also give up big offensive rebounds. No matter how well you’re scoring, it’s tough to keep up with the opponent if you’re giving them easy points all game.
The Bulls started the season 23-10 in 2021 and sat atop the Eastern Conference. That’s the good news. The bad news is everything since.
Chicago is 23-26 in 2022 and finished with 46 wins but an expected 40-win total. The Bulls are just 8-15 since the All Star Break and rank bottom-six in both Offensive and Defensive Rating with the third-worst Net Rating in the league at -7.1 per 100 possessions, worse than several tanking teams.
Chicago finished the season 2-21 against top-four seeds. All it has to do now is win 16 more such games.
Hey, Thanks For Coming Out
The Hawks went 26-15 over the back half of the season with a top-three offense and an improved-to-league-average defense that left Atlanta top-five in Net Rating. The Hawks made the Eastern Conference fines last season, so this team knows how to win games at the highest level, and they’re now 11-5 since losing John Collins.
Still, Atlanta needs to win another Play-In Tournament game just to make the playoff proper, and even the improved defense is still weak enough that the Hawks will just have to outscore any opponent. Trae Young can drop 30 and 10 any given night and hang with any opponent if the 3s are falling, but can they do it for 17 more wins?
Jarrett Allen could be back as soon as Friday night’s Play-In Tournament game. Allen and rookie Evan Mobley give Cleveland a nasty defensive corps and had the Cavs leading the East in many all-in-one advanced metrics halfway through the season. Add in Darius Garland’s breakout, and you never know just when a talented young team pulls everything together.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pels started 1-12 and never saw one second from Zion Williamson but are somehow still standing. Hey, it’s sports — anything is possible.
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