The NBA’s second season has finally arrived—and so, too, have our predictions. With the first round of the NBA playoffs tipping off Saturday, the Ringer NBA team huddled up to answer five burning questions ahead of this postseason. Below, our writers discuss the best first-round series, their random red-hot takes, which star has the most at stake this postseason, and more. Let the games begin.
Which first-round series are you most excited to watch?
Rob Mahoney: Suns-Clippers. Not only will we get a juicy matchup between some of the best individual scorers of their era and a high-stakes test for both clubs, but we’ll finally get a chance to take measure of what kind of team Phoenix now really has. Since the blockbuster trade that made Kevin Durant a Sun and made the Suns a projected contender, KD, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul have shared the floor for all of 167 minutes—roughly the same amount that Goldfish spokesman Boban Marjanovic logged for the Rockets this season. For as up-and-down as many teams in the West have been this season, we at least have some core sense of who they are, reinforced by months of tape. I’m looking forward to meeting the Suns, under pressure, for the first time.
Seerat Sohi: Grizzlies-Lakers. Los Angeles has played only seven games with its starting lineup at full health, and Memphis—without Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke—has lost some of the frontcourt versatility that made it such a tough out last season. It’s the perfect stage for the rebirth of Bubble Anthony Davis. I lean toward the Grizzlies pulling out the series, but I’m never going to count out LeBron with a competent roster behind him.
Justin Verrier: Suns-Clippers. The thrill of this year’s playoffs is that virtually all of the big-game hunters will be mired at the bottom of the West backet; with the Lakers now in, nine of the past 10 Finals MVPs will be represented among seeds 4 through 8. But fortunately for the Nugs, Griz, and Kings, only one of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard can make it out of the first round after squaring off in a duel worthy of an Alien vs. Predator sequel. The looming possibility of Paul George healing up and crashing this royal rumble only heightens the excitement, but there will be plenty of drama from watching Kawhi try to carry the Clips on his load-managed lower extremities past the most dangerous team in the West.
Michael Pina: Suns-Clippers. Every year there’s one first-round series that unjustly sends a legitimate title contender home too soon. This season it’s Suns-Clips. Both have championship-or-bust aspirations. Both are stocked with multiple future Hall of Famers and a couple of Finals MVPs. One will be incredibly disappointed a few weeks from now.
Zach Kram: Kings-Warriors. If Paul George were healthy, I’d pick Suns-Clippers. But Sacramento vs. Golden State is a fine backup choice, because I’m not convinced either team can guard the other, and I imagine I’ll enjoy a handful of battles in the 130s between two neighbors, one of which will feature a raucous crowd hosting its first playoff games in 16 years.
What’s your hottest playoff take?
Sohi: The Nuggets will lose in the first round to whichever team, between the Wolves and Thunder, makes it out of the play-in. Denver has floundered on defense since the All-Star break. They’re not equipped to handle the youth, speed, or chaos that either team creates.
Pina: Despite their depleted front line, the Grizzlies could actually reach the conference finals. Let’s start with some facts: The Lakers aren’t good. And if Memphis can advance to Round 2, it’ll face off against either a weird Warriors team that it really, really, really wants to beat or a flawed Kings squad that will not have the same level of experience that the Grizzlies already possess. Jaren Jackson Jr. fouls a lot, yes. He’s also become an absolute two-way Goliath in the minutes he’s on the court. In games that are officiated looser than others (it’s the playoffs!) he could be the difference-maker some might be overlooking. Also: Who on the Lakers will guard Ja Morant? Also also: Who on the Lakers will guard Desmond Bane?
Verrier: Is it even spicy anymore to suggest that the Lakers could make the Western Conference finals after their torrid post-deadline stretch? The bracket broke very kindly for LeBron: After dispatching the Wolves on Tuesday, one of the best paint-scoring and foul-drawing teams in the league now gets Memphis without its typical interior heft, followed by either the defenseless Kings or a Warriors team reintegrating Andrew Wiggins and quick-kicking on the road. If the LeBron James of feet is available for house calls on these extended rest days, the team that started the season 2-10 has a very manageable path back to conference glory.
Kram: Neither the Lakers nor Warriors will reach the conference finals. Folks are looking forward to a potential LeBron vs. Steph clash in the second round, practically penciling in a pair of 7-over-2 and 6-over-3 upsets. But I believe in Memphis and I mostly believe in Sacramento, to the point that I wouldn’t pick either of the higher-profile members of that side of the Western bracket to reach the Western finals.
Mahoney: Malik Monk will be one of the most important players in the Kings’ first-round upset of the Warriors. We don’t have a great pulse on how, exactly, Sacramento and Golden State will match up, seeing as they met three times in the first month of the regular season and capped off their head-to-head slate in a meaningless, understaffed game last week.
What we do know is that the Warriors haven’t looked quite right defensively for much of this season, and even if they do snap back into playoff form for their first-round series (which is expected to see the long-awaited return of Andrew Wiggins), most of their focus will understandably go toward slowing down Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, the two stars driving the league’s most productive offense. After that, the Warriors might scheme for Kevin Huerter to take away some of the handoffs that make him so dangerous, and if they can manage all that, they might turn their attention to Monk, a scorer too explosive to be treated as an afterthought. If Golden State can’t get its defense together, Monk could be one of many Kings feasting on open looks. But even if the Warriors do look ready to mount a proper title defense, he could be the exact kind of improvisational scorer to save the stalled-out, mucked-up possessions that make or break playoff runs.
Kings fans will blow the lid off the Golden 1 Center when Monk goes on a solo scoring spree. His minutes opposite designated stopper Gary Payton II will be absolute chaos, and will make for one of the best less-advertised matchups of the first round. But while we’re talking matchups: Monk is the kind of scorer who could mess around in this series and wind up outplaying Jordan Poole, tilting the balance of the whole damn thing. See you at the Malik Monk Game.
Which star has the most at stake this postseason?
Verrier: Nikola Jokic. Many—award voters, players, league execs—blanched at the idea of handing a third straight MVP to a player who hasn’t made a single NBA Finals. Jokic is probably too busy mucking horse stalls to engage with the discourse, but he nevertheless has the best chance of his career to add a Finals bid to his résumé, with a finally-healthy core around him and home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs. If not, even the stable boys might start showing signs of doubt.
Kram: The obvious answer is Jokic or Joel Embiid, but I’ll pick Chris Paul. The 37-year-old point guard (he’ll turn 38 during the playoffs) isn’t his team’s best or even second-best player anymore, and he just posted his worst statistical season ever, but Phoenix’s lack of depth means he’ll still have to produce at a high level for the team to maximize its potential. Given how much a title would mean for his historical legacy and résumé, and for his positioning in the GOAT point guard rankings, he has to take advantage of every remaining chance he has.
Pina: Assuming he finally wins his first MVP, Joel Embiid will be at the peak of his powers, and at the helm of arguably the most dangerous team he’s ever played for. If he can’t get out of the second round despite being the most dominant scorer and interior presence in basketball, real criticism should follow.
Mahoney: Kevin Durant. I wouldn’t say Durant is necessarily facing the most pressure of any star to win—how could you really blame a team that’s barely played together for falling short of a title?—but he has the most at stake because his clock is ticking the loudest. KD is 34 years old. He always seems to be working his way back from some injury or another, and he hasn’t played more than 55 games in a season since 2019. Even all-time greats with gracefully aging games get only so many cracks at this.
Sohi: Chris Paul. It’s tempting to say a Hall of Fame lock and a Mount Rushmore point guard doesn’t have anything to prove, but that’s not how discourse works. The Point God is nearing the end of his impactful playing days—although we’ve said this before—and with Durant and Booker in tow, this is his best shot at excising the playoff flameouts hanging around his neck. Plus, what a brilliant capper a ring would be to a career featuring almost every other accolade.
What’s one under-the-radar story line/matchup to watch for?
Sohi: Can D’Angelo Russell hold up against the bevy of long, strong wings in Memphis? He’s historically struggled against those types of defenders, and he just put up a 1-for-9 stinker in the play-in. The Lakers gave up their 2027 first-round pick as part of the trade to land Russell, and the 27-year-old will be a free agent at the end of the year. Is he the Lakers’ point guard of the future, or was this just a temporary reunion?
Mahoney: Who sticks—and who doesn’t—in the Grizzlies’ rotation. Taylor Jenkins tends to go a bit deeper into his bench than most coaches, to the point that Memphis has made a culture of collective input. It’s a big part of what makes Memphis so consistently viable in the regular season, but raises questions in a postseason environment where every possession matters. Every contender should flex its own strengths on its own terms, but does it really behoove Memphis to go nine deep with the season on the line, playing its best players 35 minutes while the opposing team keeps theirs on the floor for 40-plus?
If there were ever a time for Jenkins and the Grizzlies to slim down the rotation for the highest-stakes games, it would be now. Steven Adams is sidelined for the foreseeable future with a PCL sprain. Brandon Clarke is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Memphis can play to its depth some to help get through a series, but in high-leverage contests—your pivotal Game 5s, your crucial Game 6s, your winner-take-all Game 7s—there just isn’t much reason anymore to run anything but the leanest possible rotation. It’s really OK if John Konchar or Santi Aldama has to sit back and watch the action from one of the best seats in the house. Xavier Tillman does yeoman’s work, but that doesn’t mean he has to put in a full night of it. If Luke Kennard is getting absolutely roasted by Austin Reaves or Dennis Schröder on defense, maybe there will be games where he’s better off playing limited, matchup-controlled minutes.
The Grizzlies are a significantly better team than the Lakers, on balance, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to get cute with who plays when and, most importantly, how much. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, and Dillon Brooks are an awesome combination that won their minutes together this season by a healthy margin. Take care of business in this first round (and beyond) on that premise, and play a rotation only as deep as what you can get away with.
Kram: Other than perhaps the Warriors, is any contender going to embrace a five-out, small-ball approach this postseason? Big men play crucial roles for the top four seeds in both conferences, as well as for lower-seeded candidates like the Knicks and Lakers. Even the Clippers have mostly stuck with a center on the court at all times since adding Mason Plumlee as Ivica Zubac’s backup at the trade deadline. Prepare for “return of the big man!” stories after years in which they were played off the court in the spring.
Verrier: Ja Morant is averaging 28.2 points, 9.2 assists, and 6.9 rebounds over his 14 career playoff appearances. The only player(s) in NBA history to average 28-9-6 in the postseason? Ja Morant. The Grizzlies will have their hands full with the Lakers, but if Morant is fully operational after his impromptu midseason wellness retreat, he’s one of the most dangerous players in the field.
Pina: To contrast my Grizzlies prediction from earlier, it’ll be fascinating to see how often and at what type of success rate LeBron hunts Morant. During last year’s postseason, Morant was targeted mercilessly in both rounds—most memorably by Patrick Beverley! The Lakers haven’t had a good half-court offense since the trade deadline. But if they simplify things and force Morant to defend ball screens over and over again, I’ll be keeping an eye on whether L.A. can get whatever shot it wants.
What’s your Finals prediction?
Mahoney: Bucks over Nuggets. In a battle of Denver’s unstoppable offense against Milwaukee’s immovable defense, the Bucks win ugly. Body blows from Giannis Antetokounmpo slow down Aaron Gordon, Jrue Holiday puts the clamps on Jamal Murray, and a valiant effort from Nikola Jokic comes up just short.
Kram: Celtics over Suns. Boston boasts the most complete team in the league—the Celtics finished second in both offensive and defensive rating; nobody else was top-five in both—and the Celtics’ perimeter depth will be the difference against the Suns’ star-studded affair.
Sohi: Bucks over Suns. The wide-open West is fertile ground for the NBA’s most recently thrown together Big Three to acquire reps. But Milwaukee’s size, physicality, and collective experience will wear out Phoenix in a seven-game series, allowing Giannis to win his second ring.
Verrier: Bucks over Suns. Phoenix’s firepower helps it overcome a muddled history of built-on-the-fly superteams—including the last time KD tried it—but if Khris Middleton is healthy, the Bucks might be a juggernaut hiding in plain sight.
Pina: Celtics over Clippers. This was my preseason prediction and I’m only half a coward for changing which team I think will win. The Celtics are the only team in the NBA with both a top-five offense and defense, and they enter the playoffs ranked no. 1 in net rating before and after All-Star Weekend. They’re explosive, with star power, versatility, and, seemingly, a healthy Rob Williams III to help them through what may be tough battles against the Sixers and Bucks. The Clippers are … well … I just can’t quit them. Kawhi Leonard might be the best forward in the league. If Paul George comes back sometime in the first round and looks like his All-Star self, I like them over the Suns.