Ready or not, the 2021 NBA Playoffs are here.
After 72 regular-season games and one Play-In Tournament, the NBA’s first normal postseason since 2019 officially got underway on May 22.
While it arrived a month later than usual, that May 22 start date still brought the same levels of excitement and energy from teams and fans alike. Simultaneously, it led to all sorts of questions about how the next month-and-a-half would play out.
How will the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers fare as the seventh seed in the Western Conference? Will another fresh face emerge at the end of the Eastern Conference’s half of the bracket?
Most importantly, which of the 16 teams in the postseason field will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy when the madness ends in July?
Only one team can win the 2021 NBA Finals, but we ranked each team’s chances to pull off the impressive feat:
16. Memphis Grizzlies
It was a rocky road to the playoffs for the Memphis Grizzlies, and that path didn’t get any easier when Ja Morant and company were officially placed into the postseason bracket as the Western Conference’s eighth seed.
Following an overtime battle with the Golden State Warriors, the Grizzlies find themselves matched up with the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the first round. Morant will have his hands full when it comes to Jazz point guard Donovan Mitchell, and the Grizzlies will have to find an answer for Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley and more.
The chances of the Grizzlies moving past the first round are low, let alone for them to make a run to the NBA Finals in 2021.
15. Washington Wizards
After a disastrous loss against the Boston Celtics in their first Play-In game, the Washington Wizards put things back together to beat the Indiana Pacers in order to earn the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed.
With the offensive prowess of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal in the lineup, anything seems possible as it relates to the Wizards. But, their defense limits them significantly in a first-round series against the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
Don’t count on a big push for the Wizards this year.
14. Boston Celtics
If Jaylen Brown hadn’t gone down for the season a few weeks before the playoffs, the story would likely be a lot different for the Boston Celtics. Instead, they were forced to win a play-in game, and drew a first-round matchup with the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets.
Jayson Tatum has the power to keep things close against the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. But, with a lack of depth elsewhere, Boston’s chances seem slim.
Replicating last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals looks like a long shot for the Celtics in 2021, but they might be able to make things a little bit interesting against the Nets in the first round.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Looking at the postseason bracket, it may be surprising to see the Atlanta Hawks in the fifth seed when looking at the overall talent that’s below them in the bracket.
Alas, Trae Young and company were able to avoid the Play-In Tournament, and landed in a first-round series against a surprising fourth seed in the New York Knicks.
The Knicks are a tough matchup when factoring in Julius Randle’s rise in 2021, especially with a lack of a homecourt advantage. But, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the Hawks get out of the first round.
From there? A battle with the top-seeded 76ers likely looms, which doesn’t bode well for the Hawks’ title chances.
12. New York Knicks
These 12th and 13th spots are incredibly close, and realistically could’ve either been swapped or formatted as a 12a and 12b on this list.
It makes sense, considering the fact that the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks represent the fourth and fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference, and each finished with the same regular-season record this year.
But, with Julius Randle’s success in the regular season and the energy surrounding the Knicks entering the postseason, they seem like a solid pick for the first round.
Similar to the Hawks, however, they don’t match up well with the top-seeded 76ers. So, their championship hopes will probably have to wait at least one more year.
11. Miami Heat
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Less than a year ago, the Miami Heat were on the run of a lifetime and were representing the Eastern Conference in the 2020 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Seven months later, the Heat are one seed worse than they were in the 2020 playoffs, and will need to upset the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks for the second consecutive postseason.
It will undoubtedly be a close series, and NBA fans learned their lesson last year as it relates to counting out Jimmy Butler and company. But, that same Cinderella story truly seems like a fairytale when looking at the Heat’s placement in this year’s bracket.
10. Denver Nuggets
It’s a shame that the Denver Nuggets are without Jamal Murray for the 2021 playoffs after what the young star was able to do in 2020.
But, even with their starting point guard out with an injury, the Nuggets seem like a potential threat in the Western Conference.
A first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers is one of the hardest challenges the franchises could possibly deal with in 2021, but Denver proved it could overcome adversity on multiple occasions in 2020.
The adversity that would come from playing the second-seeded Phoenix Suns or reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers in the next round? That’s probably too much for Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon to overcome.
9. Dallas Mavericks
If it weren’t for a lingering injury for Luka Doncic in 2020, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Dallas Mavericks take down the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs last year.
Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and the rest of the Mavs will have the chance to right that wrong against the star-powered Clippers in the first round of the 2021 bracket.
The Mavericks are one of the sneakier contenders in the field of 16, and they could even do some damage in the second round against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, if the opportunity presents itself.
They’ve been a middle-of-the-pack team in 2021, and that status carried over into the playoffs, as well. The chances aren’t high that they make a run to the NBA Finals, but it certainly doesn’t seem impossible when looking at Dallas’ talent level.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
If Jamal Murray was in the Denver Nuggets’ lineup for the first round, the Portland Trail Blazers would probably be in a lot of trouble. Instead, they’re probably the best candidate to pull off a first-round upset in the entire 2021 playoff bracket.
As the sixth seed, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and the rest of the Blazers would then match up with the second-seeded Phoenix Suns or seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the second round.
While those are both top-tier opponents, the task doesn’t seem impossible for a lineup with as much depth as Portland possesses.
Similar to the Mavericks, it would be an incredibly difficult path to the Finals for the Trail Blazers. But, they are and have been a team with a ton of potential, and 2021 could be the year that the franchise takes the step forward with a deep playoff run.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
Putting a team with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George as the seventh-best team in the 2021 NBA Playoffs feels insane. But, after their collapse in 2020, the Los Angeles Clippers need to prove that they belong in the contender conversation in 2021.
The Clippers famously blew a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets in the second round last year, and things looked like they were heading south for one of the league’s latest superteams.
The franchise fell slightly in 2021, landing as the fourth seed in the Western Conference this year after earning the second seed in 2020. To make matters worse, they find themselves with a difficult first-round matchup with the Mavericks.
If Leonard and George can each get on the right page to start the postseason, Los Angeles could come face-to-face with the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the second round.
From there, it’s truly anyone’s ballgame. If the Clippers’ stars can play to their full potential, an inter-city matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers for a spot in the 2021 NBA Finals could be on the horizon.
Putting the Clippers in the seventh spot makes them feel like much more of a longshot than others in the 16-team field. But, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Clippers representing the Western Conference in the Finals when the dust clears in 2021.
6. Phoenix Suns
After an impressive showing in the bubble in 2020, the Phoenix Suns seemed like an sleeper pick for a potential title run in 2021. Entering the 2021 playoffs, that sleeper pick is one of the favorites to wind up in the NBA Finals when July rolls around.
With Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and more on the floor, the sky is truly the limit for the Suns this year. A matchup with the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers is a rough hand to be dealt in the first-round, but it doesn’t seem like the stage is too big for such a talented Suns lineup.
Phoenix arguably landed on the best side of the Western Conference bracket, as well. If they can take out the Lakers in the first round, they’d be almost guaranteed to have an easier opponent in the second round before a potential appearance in the Western Conference Finals.
They would be a fresh face in the Western Conference’s playoff picture if they can make a run, but those following the team over the last two seasons knows that this success is a long time coming for the Suns.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks went from arguably being the favorite to win the 2020 NBA Finals to the Eastern Conference’s third seed in 2021. Even with that slight downfall, the Bucks look like a title contender as this year’s playoffs get underway.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is just as dangerous as ever. Khris Middleton looks locked in, and there’s plenty of depth in the lineup and on the bench for Milwaukee to make a run in 2021.
A first-round win against the Miami Heat would be a huge confidence boost after the Heat bounced the Bucks from the playoffs in 2020, and that type of momentum would do wonders as Milwaukee preps for a likely second-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets.
It would take quite the run for the Bucks to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. But, they’re a perennial contender for a reason, and they have one of the best chances to win a title in 2021 if they can stay consistent.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
How can you pick against the reigning NBA champions when the playoffs roll around, especially when that team includes superstars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis?
Even as a seventh seed, the Lakers are a serious threat in the Western Conference, and have the depth to take out any of the seven other squads in their half of the bracket.
Assuming they go on a run, the Lakers would be forced to face off against the Phoenix Suns and either the Denver Nuggets or Portland Trail Blazers in the first two rounds. Then, they could deal with the top-seeded Utah Jazz or an inter-city rival in the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.
If James and Davis can stay healthy and get in a rhythm in the first round, that slate doesn’t seem too daunting for a franchise that’s less than eight months removed from an NBA Finals victory.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Trying to rank the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers is tough, considering the litany of injuries the Lakers dealt with in the second half of the regular season.
But, the Eastern Conference is significantly less dangerous than their Western Conference counterparts, and as the top seed, the 76ers are guaranteed to only deal with one major threat out of the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks.
With so much talent between MVP candidate Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Dwight Howard, and even Seth Curry, there are so many options for Philadelphia to beat teams with.
As long as they can stay consistent and limit mistakes, an Eastern Conference Finals appearance seems like a certainty for the 76ers.
From there, the top team in these rankings looms, and a strong Western Conference opponent would linger in the background as it relates to the NBA Finals.
The Sixers haven’t won the NBA Finals since 1983. But, with the stars aligning in their favor this year, 2021 could easily be the year the tide turns in Philadelphia.
2. Utah Jazz
It must be the 1990s, because the Utah Jazz are a strong contender in the Western Conference.
The Jazz have struggled to get back to the level of success they saw in the days where Karl Malone and John Stockton would battle Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. But, with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley in the fray, things are looking up in Utah.
They have arguably the most favorable first-round matchup, which should serve as a nice tune-up series after a break during the Play-In Tournament, and before the pace picks up in the Western Conference Semifinals.
After an early exit in the 2020 playoffs, it’s tough to know how Mitchell and Gobert will handle the big stage, especially when considering the increase in hype surrounding Utah’s roster in the last 12 months.
But, they were the league’s best team in the regular season for a reason, and they could provide a blast from the past with an NBA Finals appearance in 2021.
1. Brooklyn Nets
Surprise, surprise. The Brooklyn Nets have the best chance to win the NBA Finals in 2021.
When James Harden made his way from Houston to Brooklyn in the early part of 2021, many NBA fans assumed the league could just handle the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to the Nets at that very moment.
The Nets already represented one of the league’s best teams with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the lineup, and adding Harden just seemed like icing on the cake.
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Entering the 2021 playoffs, however, the Nets found themselves as the Eastern Conference’s second seed. Injuries and Irving’s midseason breaks prevented the league’s new Big Three from getting many reps as an entire group, and fans rarely saw Brooklyn at full strength.
That mystery could help the Nets as far as opponents’ game planning is concerned, but it could also hurt them as they start to battle through seven-game series.
If the Nets can remain consistent and stay on the floor throughout the next two months, the franchise seems like a clear favorite to come out on top in the Eastern Conference and bring home some more hardware after the NBA Finals wrap up.