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Best Case, Worst Case: Eastern Conference Playoffs Edition

The outlooks of all eight East teams vying for a trip to the NBA Finals

LeBron James looking happy and looking concerned Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After 82 games, we’re finally down to 16 teams. The Ringer’s NBA staff breaks down the possible outcomes for all eight teams on the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket. We’ll hit the West on Friday.

1. Toronto Raptors

Best Case: Toronto’s youth movement is ready for the bright lights. The top-seeded Raptors’ depth gives Dwane Casey more flexibility than he’s ever had in the playoffs and takes the pressure off of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Cleveland’s reshuffled supporting cast, meanwhile, implodes around LeBron James, allowing Toronto to knock off the Eastern Conference’s Goliath and advance to its first NBA Finals in franchise history.

Worst Case: Their depth disintegrates. The jumpers of guys like OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam disappear, while Fred VanVleet’s lack of size is targeted on defense and exposed in the pick-and-roll. Toronto’s All-Stars, meanwhile, are outplayed by Washington’s All-Stars in a repeat of the 2015 playoffs, and they become only the sixth no. 1 seed to lose in the first round. —Jonathan Tjarks

2. Boston Celtics

Best Case: Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — better known as The J-Team (shouts to Juliet Litman and her pending trademark) — play even better than they have all season, which is pretty damn well. Marcus Smart returns from a thumb injury thanks to the mysteries of modern medicine and finds that not only has his thumb healed, but so has his broken shot. He shoots 3s, and they go in. Everyone is amazed. Al Horford — whom Process Public Enemy no. 1 Kevin O’Connor said should start over Joel Embiid in the All-Star Game lololololol —plays like a superstar and takes over some games. Gordon Hayward’s leg magically regenerates, and he returns to take over the team. Brad Stevens gets even smarter and more handsome (probably not possible, on either front). LeBron James spontaneously combusts. The Raptors play like the Raptors of previous seasons and not this one. The Celtics make the NBA Finals but lose to the Warriors.

Sorry. That’s as far as I can go with this charade. Any series victory is probably a bonus at this point for a Celtics team that just can’t stay healthy. The good news is the bracket broke pretty favorably for them. While no one in Boston will be excited to game-plan against Giannis Antetokounmpo in a seven-game series, an inconsistent Bucks team is the most favorable draw in the first round. And awaiting them in Round 2 will be a Sixers team that has chewed up the league in recent weeks but lacks playoff experience, or a Heat team without the top-end talent seen up and down the West playoff rosters. That’s the glass-half-full view, at least. Nothing will come easily for a roster reliant on unknowns and young players, but the Stevens advantage is real. It seems unlikely that the Celtics will make it back to the conference finals, but it wouldn’t be a total shock.

Worst Case: Uh, isn’t this already the worst case?

—John Gonzalez

3. Philadelphia 76ers

Best Case: Philly rolls through its first two rounds on the backs of Ben Simmons and (a healthy) Joel Embiid and gives LeBron a glimpse of what could be in his future in a six-game Eastern Conference finals win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Simmons is the most important rookie starting in an NBA Finals series since Magic Johnson.

The Sixers’ road to the Eastern Conference final is bumpy, but not impossible: Either of their potential second-round opponents (a decimated Celtics team, a discombobulated Bucks squad) could be considered easier outs than the Heat. But at its best, Philly has the two best players on the court, and, in a best-of-seven, that’s often enough to be the deciding factor. That advantage could hold true up until the conference finals, when a matchup against Cleveland would be utter poetry.

The Sixers and Cavs split their season series, but the two most recent games were Philly wins that forced LeBron to step into a different gear just to keep Cleveland afloat. The inexperienced Processors may not have seen anything like what a switch-flipped LeBron is capable of in the postseason, but they do know what it’s like to force him to carry his team on an island. They can do it; we’d be looking at the third-best defense in the league versus the second-worst. Whoever would await them in the Finals is another question entirely.

Worst Case: Miami cracks the Simmons code early, Embiid’s return is delayed, and the team’s inexperience and inability to adapt throughout a series leads to a disappointing first-round upset.

The Sixers may have secured the 3-seed, but they landed arguably the most dangerous opponent of the 6-to-8 tier. The Heat have spent their entire season in pressure-packed situations with Erik Spoelstra, one of the best coaches in the NBA, at the helm. They can execute late in the game with blindfolds on. They have multipositional defenders who can switch on the fly, and, like the Sixers, have plenty of 3-point shooting up and down the roster. The Heat can create a high-variance series with their personnel, and they have a two-time champion working the whiteboard. This is as tough a challenge as they could have faced out of the gate. We’re about to see what Brett Brown and the young Sixers are made of. There’s a nonzero chance it ends poorly. —Danny Chau

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

Best Case: In 2007, LeBron James carried a Cavaliers team that featured Larry Hughes, Boobie Gibson, Drew Gooden, and Sasha Pavlovic all the way to the NBA Finals. The Cavs got swept by the Spurs, but it remains one of LeBron’s most impressive feats. James, then a leaner and springier 22-year-old, averaged 25.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and eight assists in 44.7 minutes per game in the postseason. It was a defining run that verified the LeBron high school hysteria.

More than a decade later, LeBron has been to seven straight Finals and is considered by many others to be the greatest player of all time. But he’s entering a postseason under similar circumstances as he did in his first Finals appearance, with a 50–32 team and a fairly underwhelming roster. Sure, he has Kevin Love, but Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, and Old Kyle Korver aren’t the most inspiring supporting cast. The story is different this time around, though, because the East — and the league as a whole — is stronger now than it was in 2007. Cleveland’s Finals path has no easy outs.

The Pacers, led by two-way ace Victor Oladipo, will be a tough first-round opponent. The second round won’t get any simpler, likely against the revamped Raptors roster (or the Wizards, who will have done something right if they beat Toronto). The East finals loom with threatening teams, from the peaking Sixers to the versatile Heat. If LeBron is able to carry this Cavaliers roster, it’ll be another one of his greatest accomplishments.

LeBron will need support, though. George Hill and Rodney Hood need to stay healthy. So does Love. The Cavs need Green and J.R. Smith to defend with consistency. Clarkson and Nance can’t crumble under the pressure of their first playoff exposure. If all that happens, the Cavs will have a chance. The problem is that it’s hard to expect more than a Finals appearance. If the Rockets or Warriors are there waiting, and if they’re healthy, then they’ll be heavy favorites over Cleveland.

In the grand scheme, the results of the May 15 draft lottery might be the more significant postseason event for the Cavaliers. The unprotected 2018 Nets first-round pick that they own has a 9.9 percent chance of landing in the top three. If it does, then the Cavaliers will have the ability to select a top-end prospect or have the ammo to land a star through a trade, either of which could entice LeBron to stay or enable the team to sustain success into the future. If the Cavaliers are still playing in mid-May, then even better. There’s a lot riding on these next few months.

Worst Case: After the Cavaliers lost 132–130 on April 6 to the Sixers, who were without Joel Embiid, I tweeted this:

Some of the responses mentioned how the Cavaliers were also missing key guys; Hill was out with a sprained left ankle, and Rodney Hood suffered a sore left Achilles injury and played only 12 minutes. That’s true! But that’s exactly the fear: Hill and Hood are always seemingly nicked up or missing games with some nagging injury. If they can’t stay on the floor, that puts even more pressure on LeBron, who has already carried a monstrous offensive load. LeBron is LeBron, and he always seems to have another gear, but, sheesh, how much can we expect if this patchwork roster loses more guys?

Any loss in the first or second round is the worst-case scenario — especially because it means the Cavs would have fallen to a team that isn’t the Sixers, whom Cleveland can’t face until the conference finals. Philadelphia is on LeBron’s free-agent list. Can you imagine LeBron pulling a Kevin Durant and joining the team that beat him in the playoffs? I can’t. It just doesn’t seem like a King James type of move. If the Sixers beat Cleveland, then perhaps he’ll eliminate Philly as a potential destination, thus increasing the chances that he’ll either stay with the Cavaliers or join a Western Conference team. Losing LeBron would be bad for the Cavaliers no matter what. But it’d be far worse if he stays in the East once he leaves. —Kevin O’Connor

5. Indiana Pacers

Best Case: Eastern Conference finals.

Here’s Indy’s dream: Steal one in Cleveland (doable), ride the wave of its home crowd to a couple of wins, and then grind it out until Game 7. It’s possible. Victor Oladipo can tap into a higher level, Domantas Sabonis will make the Cavs pay in the pick-and-roll/pop, and Myles Turner has the potential to become an unguardable force in the paint. And you don’t think the Pacers offense, 12th in efficiency, can give the Cavs defense, which finished the regular season second-to-worst, some trouble? Please. Make it out of the LeBron chamber, and then you get Toronto in the second round. I’m sorry, Raptors fans, but I can see that being a far more messy series than it should be.

The thing about the Pacers is that they’re not supposed to be here, not after trading away Paul George for two unproven, young-ish players. The whole season has been fueled by a nobody-believes-in-us attitude, spearheaded by Oladipo. Why can’t that extend into the playoffs?

Worst Case: Swept in the first round.

The downside to the not-supposed-to-be-here thing: It might finally catch up to them in a seven-game series, when weaknesses get exposed. And getting LeBron in the first round isn’t exactly going to help. Have you seen the last of month of basketball LeBron has put together? He’s 33 and playing like he’s still in his prime. No one on earth would be shocked if he made easy work of the Pacers, beating them in four games. Indiana is a nice story. The team should be commended for its improbable season no matter what happens. It’s a bummer it will have to end by running straight into the best player in the world. —Paolo Uggetti

6. Miami Heat

Best Case: Getting the best of top-seeded Toronto by way of Wayne Ellington scoring a career-high 32 points in the Heat’s season finale only to match up in the first round with Philadelphia is some reward. This series is one to watch because Miami has the potential to upset the Sixers and make a run, but Erik Spoelstra will escape the NBA’s hottest team only if his own can form a solid identity offensively. Finding that among a lack of star power is the Heat’s best-case scenario. How does everyone, including Hassan Whiteside, who was a point shy of his season high against the Sixers the last time the teams met (26 points), go point-for-point against the defense-minded Sixers? If Miami can get by Philly, its first trip to the conference finals since losing LeBron is in play.

Worst Case: There’s a stark contrast between these rosters: One has Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (the latter of whom is now “unlikely” to play in the first game of this series), and one does not. Miami was frivolous last offseason. It spent all its future cap flexibility once Gordon Hayward chose Boston. If a first-round out is what the Heat have to show for it, this summer will be a brutal reflection period; between the Sixers and Celtics, the East is only getting tougher, while the superstar-less Heat are locked into the team they are now. —Haley O’Shaughnessy

7. Milwaukee Bucks

Best Case: A first-round win over Boston, and a six- or seven-game series against Philadelphia.

The Bucks, through no exceptional cunning of their own, have ended up with the best first-round draw of any lower-seeded team in the playoffs. Boston’s roster is severely depleted, but Milwaukee gave the Celtics problems even before the onslaught of injuries. The teams played to a 2–2 draw this season, and Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 33.5 points per game in those contests — his second-highest scoring average against any team. There may not be such a thing as a “Giannis stopper” in the league, but the Celtics especially struggle with him because they lack a hulking interior presence to bother his drives. Al Horford is a stellar defensive big, but he and the rest of his teammates looked overmatched against the Greek Freak in December:

If Milwaukee can get past Boston, it’s tempting to look at the inexperienced 76ers likely awaiting them and dream of a trip to the conference finals. The Bucks have had success against Philly — they also split their four matchups this season — but it’s difficult to see a 7-seed with as little depth as the Bucks winning two series in a row without home-court advantage. No 7- or 8-seed has made the conference finals since the first round became a best-of-seven, and considering how scorching hot the 76ers are, the Bucks are unlikely to become the first. A strong second-round showing would be a successful cap to a frustrating and inconsistent regular season in Milwaukee.

Worst Case: An uninspiring series loss to the Celtics, and Giannis gets no help.

Imagine, if you will, that it’s the summer of 2021. The NBA’s petty levels have only risen since the days of dictionary hoodies, and so when it comes time for Antetokounmpo to announce his free-agent decision, he takes to Twitter: “@Bucks I’m out : )” He then explains his choice to fans in real time: “Giannis can’t win a championship with those cats.” NBA Twitter rejoices, but after some reflection we trace his discontent to that Boston series back in 2018. We remember Giannis watching, exasperated, as his teammates failed to outduel Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris, and we remember his longing glances at the Celtics huddle as Brad Stevens coached circles around Joe Prunty.

There’s a thin line between “I’ll never leave” and “Clock has started,” and the switch can flip seemingly overnight. 2018 Giannis is still just 23 and starting his third postseason, but sky-high playoff expectations and a weak supporting cast can take a toll on players of his caliber. Khris Middleton has shot under 40 percent in both of his first-round appearances, and Jabari Parker’s injuries have kept him from making a single playoff appearance to date. Milwaukee’s major in-season addition, Eric Bledsoe, hasn’t been in the playoffs since he was a bench player for the Clippers in 2013. If that trio comes up short against the Celtics and Giannis starts to feel the heat, the Bucks may have to add “unhappy superstar” to their list of pressing offseason concerns. —T.C. Kane

8. Washington Wizards

Best Case: Realistically? Eastern Conference semifinals. But you can make a compelling case for the team going even further.

The East side of the bracket is more open than it’s been in years, because there isn’t a single team in the field that doesn’t come packing some glaring flaw. The Celtics are missing too many key players. The Raptors melt down in the postseason. The Cavs defense would be historically bad for a Finals participant. The Wizards have too many issues to count, starting with basic decorum. But if we’re stacking up all the reasons not to pick a team in the East, side by side, “bad vibes” is the flimsiest, no?

On paper, stripped of the personalities and squabbles that so often supersede their gameplay, the Wizards rank among the very best. They’re one of four teams in the East playoffs with two sitting All-Stars, and while the talent pool starts to dip considerably after their fourth or fifth spot, shortened rotations will only benefit such a construction. And whereas most East rosters have been retooled in some significant way since last postseason, Washington’s principals not only have experience playing together, but playing together in the postseason. If everyone agrees to put down their Twitter fingers for just a few weeks, they could be onto something.

Worst Case: A gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Raptors in the first round.

Having said all of the above, have you seen this team play lately? The Wizards finished the regular season 1–5 in April, including a loss in their finale to an Orlando Magic team desperately trying to throw anything of substance overboard after halftime to protect their precious lottery odds. And while the numbers point to John Wall being a plus on both sides of the ball this season as a whole, he’s (a) having one of the worst individual statistical seasons of his career, (b) coming off two extended absences because of knee trouble, which is never a good sign for any player, but an especially bad sign for one whose game is predicated on speed and athleticism, and (c) still wayyyyy too likely to get swept up in his own personal quest to prove himself among the league’s elite late in games.

So, maybe a Kumbaya moment is all the Wizards need to flip the switch. Or maybe the issues that have held back this franchise throughout the post-Gandalf era are baked right into its core. —Justin Verrier