After 82 games, we’re finally down to 16 teams. The Ringer’s NBA staff broke down the East on Thursday. Now, they tackle the possible outcomes for all eight teams on the Western Conference side of the playoff bracket.
1. Houston Rockets
Best Case: This is simple, right? The Rockets are the best team in the NBA with a 65-17 record and a league-leading plus-8.5 net rating. Anything less than an NBA Finals berth would be disastrous, despite the fact that various betting websites aren’t pegging them as titles favorites.
I actually agree with the odds, though; Houston’s path isn’t easy. Minnesota is arguably a tougher first-round opponent than San Antonio, Golden State’s opening opponent, and in the second round, either Oklahoma City or Utah both would have a stout defense and the personnel to at least contain James Harden and Chris Paul. As always, nothing is inevitable in the West, especially after one of Houston’s best defenders, Luc Mbah a Moute, dislocated his shoulder and will miss at least the first round.
But the Warriors are more vulnerable than ever during this era. Steph Curry, who is still out with a Grade 2 MCL sprain. With Curry out, they have no dangerous shooters besides Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. The stars are aligning for Houston to make the Finals and win it all. They are better and deeper than any potential Finals opponent. Anything less than the first Rockets title since 1994-95 would be a bummer.
Worst Case: There’s a person, or maybe a bot, that spams forums and the email inboxes of NBA writers with information about the Rockets. On Thursday morning, my inbox looked like this:
“James Harden, Chris Paul, Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets are frauds who always choke in the playoffs,” one spammed message begins before listing several stats that point to how the regular-season success of each gives way to playoff failures. It criticizes Harden for being a flopper who gets exposed once referees “stop calling his BS” in the playoffs. It mentions all the times Harden has “choked,” including against the Warriors in 2016 (when Curry played only 38 minutes over a five-game series) and in 2017 against the Spurs (who were missing Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker in Game 6). “Curry will be back soon,” the email states. “The Warriors will win their third championship in four years. Enjoy the Warriors championship dynasty.”
I mean, this person (or thing) isn’t wrong about Harden’s past. (Though history doesn’t always inform the future. People once said Peyton Manning couldn’t beat the Patriots, Alex Rodriguez folded in pressure situations, and LeBron James couldn’t win when it counted most.) The worst-case scenario for the Rockets is that this person (or thing) is onto something about Harden, Paul, and D’Antoni. If so, a second-round series against a stout Oklahoma City or Utah defense could be trouble—not to mention a Western Conference finals faceoff with the Warriors.
If the Rockets don’t win it all, the person behind these emails will be cackling maniacally somewhere out there, preparing his or her bot to spam the internet once again. Only the Rockets can put an end to this email anarchy. —Kevin O’Connor
2. Golden State Warriors
Best Case: Curry returns in the second round just in time without any hitches, Draymond Green becomes the omnipresent defensive force he was last postseason, and the Warriors bludgeon the field en route to their third championship in four years, reminding us all how unfair this team is.
The late-season injuries, the blowout losses, and the general malaise that seems to be shrouding the Warriors might obscure our memories of them at their best, but underneath all of that scar tissue lies the pieces to recreate last year’s team, which could be remembered as the greatest of all time. Durant keeps the team stable, but Curry is the player who takes the team light-years beyond their competition. The Kawhi-less Spurs are not a factor; the Warriors aren’t worried about a Bryn Forbes breakout. The Warriors have the pieces to blot out either the Blazers or Pelicans. And with a healthy Curry, even the Rockets’ impossible offense doesn’t seem so daunting.
Worst Case: Steph is present, but not quite himself; the switch Draymond claims will be flipped never is; and Durant goes solo with disappointing results. The Warriors drag themselves into the Western Conference finals by sheer force of talent but run out of gas once they’re there, losing to the Rockets.
When Steph isn’t 100 percent, we can generally tell. He is a masterwork of an NBA player, a near-perfect maximization of talent, form, and frame. But he has a razor-thin margin for error. When his body is off, his timing is off, and everything dominoes from there. An injured Curry is still one of the greatest shooters ever, but he can’t manipulate a defense the same way a healthy version can. And that will be the deciding factor for Golden State. In the shadows of all our inevitability talk, teams have gotten better and have patched up the holes that past Warriors have exploited. Golden State won’t cruise to the Finals the way it did last year. It might not get there at all. —Danny Chau
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Best Case: Chris Paul wakes up one morning, looks at himself in the mirror, and remembers what Polonius said in Hamlet. He stops passing the ball to James Harden and that conversation they had in that Madden commercial suddenly plays out regularly in real time, only now it’s not so funny. Steph Curry returns, but he’s not 100 percent and the Warriors can’t find a rhythm. Through it all, Dame Lillard keeps doing what he’s done all season, which is annihilate dudes from everywhere on the floor. C.J. McCollum keeps nailing shots and serving as one of the best second options in the NBA. Jusuf Nurkic keeps playing excellent defense and remains romantic. Evan Turner does Evan Turner things. The Blazers cruise.
The feel-good success story that no one outside of Portland and (shameless plug) the Heat Check podcast believes in has the potential to get even better. Anthony Davis isn’t an ideal draw in the first round, but the Blazers’ defensive turnaround is for real, and if they can keep up with the fastest team in the NBA this season, they have the collective firepower to go point-for-point with the Brow and Jrue Holiday. And from there, the light gets a little brighter. If Curry is still on the mend, a series win over the Warriors, their foil from the past two postseasons, is in play. The Blazers lost all four matchups against the Rockets this regular season, so things get a little dicey from there, but Portland will happily take its first trip to the conference finals since 2000 as a parting gift.
Worst Case: Lillard can’t get his shot to fall. McCollum goes cold, too. Nurkic gets flustered and/or in foul trouble trying to guard the best big man in the game. The defense that buoyed the Blazers all year cracks wide open and sinks them. They can’t get past a motivated Pelicans team and are sent limping into the offseason way sooner than they wanted to.
A few weeks ago, the Blazers seemed well on their way to carving out their place among the conference’s elite. But their shaky end to the season (2-4 in April, with all four losses on the road), a tough first-round draw, and an offense, of all things, that finished the season just below average, creates some doubt. Portland has the potential to make a run, but anything short of the second round and the “Should the Blazers split up Dame and C.J.?!” noise kicks up to full-throat. —John Gonzalez
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Best Case: Advance to the NBA Finals. Really.
The Thunder will have the two best players on the floor in their first-round series against the Jazz. Russell Westbrook and Paul George can blitz any team in the league, so, on paper, Utah shouldn’t be much of a problem if OKC is playing to its potential. But that potential has been there all season, and the Thunder finished with just one more win than last season. Still, what they have, in its ideal form, is enough to be favored against the Jazz and to push the Rockets and Warriors in the next two round. A Utah-Houston–Golden State path seems arduous, but the Thunder put together a 7-4 record in the regular season against those teams.
And since we’re talking absolute best case: [*clears throat*] Can we actually, maybe see a better version of Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs? I’m not gonna go as far as to say there’s a Playoff Melo somewhere in that jab-stepping, mid-range-loving body, but I also wouldn’t be that surprised if he won one, two, maybe even three playoff games for the Thunder by getting hot from the field. It’s far-fetched, sure, but no player embodies the tantalizing potential of this team better than Anthony.
Worst Case: Losing in the first round to a rookie-led team that wasn’t expected to make the playoffs going into the season would certainly qualify. But let’s go down the rabbit hole of what happens if the Thunder make it past Utah and gain some “Have they figured it out?!” momentum. Last season, Houston easily dispatched the Thunder in five games. I’d bet on seeing that again, all the way down to Russ overexerting himself to average a triple-double, should they meet in the second round. I can already hear Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson arguing about whether Andre Roberson would have made a difference in the middle of the final game of a sweep. —Paolo Uggetti
5. Utah Jazz
Best Case: Donovan Mitchell’s playoff debut as a rookie looks like Dwyane Wade’s in 2004, when he led the Heat to a seven-game first-round victory over the Hornets in a standout performance that foreshadowed his rise to superstardom. If Mitchell is even able to play Russell Westbrook to a draw in their first-round series, his stature around the league will rise, maybe even to the point where Utah becomes a free-agent destination. (OK, maybe not.)
Worst Case: OKC is able to put enough 3-point shooting on the floor to spread out the Utah defense and force Rudy Gobert to defend Westbrook and Paul George in space. That was the Jazz’s downfall last playoffs, when they were swept in the second round by Golden State. If it starts to become a trend this postseason, there may be a ceiling to how good a team built around Gobert can be. —Jonathan Tjarks
6. New Orleans Pelicans
Best Case: An upset over Portland, and Anthony Davis goes supernova.
The Blazers have the worst winning percentage of a Western Conference 3-seed since the 2005-06 Nuggets, who tied for the seventh-best record in the conference but were moved up four places because of a rule that no longer exists. Portland finished just one game ahead of New Orleans in the West standings, and their four regular-season meetings proved how close they are: They split the series, 2-2, with the Blazers coming out on top with a total point differential of 1. In the two healthy games Davis played against Portland, he averaged 36 points, 11.5 rebounds, and four blocks. The Blazers just don’t have anyone who can guard the Brow, and having the best player in a playoff series goes a long way, home-court advantage be damned.
Davis has only four career playoff games under his belt—logged during a 2015 first-round sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Warriors—which is the fewest of any player likely to finish in the top five of MVP voting. At 25 years old, he seems due to add some memorable playoff moments to his résumé, and this postseason should be a perfect showcase. If Davis takes over and Jrue Holiday continues his excellent play, New Orleans can win the series and feel good about a season that could have easily been lost when DeMarcus Cousins went down. Barring a Spurs victory over the Warriors, though, any conference finals dreams are too far-fetched to consider here.
Worst Case: The Pelicans lose in five to the Blazers and Bad Rondo shows up.
New Orleans is the fifth city Rajon Rondo has called home in the past four seasons, and there’s a reason for his journeyman status. He imploded in Dallas, made an indefensible mistake in Sacramento, and contributed to chemistry issues in Chicago. Rondo’s been quiet on the controversy front since joining the Pelicans, and their hope is that he turns it on in the playoffs like he did last year before getting injured. Relying on a player like Rondo as much as the Pelicans do is risky, and things could go south fast if the Blazers open the series strong and Rondo’s worst instincts come out. All it would take is a couple of hot shooting nights from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to put the Pelicans in a hole and remind them of the talent discrepancy between the two backcourts. An unceremonious playoff exit would highlight the odd construction of this New Orleans roster, and, if it really no-shows, could start up Davis trade rumors in full swing. —T.C. Kane
7. San Antonio Spurs
Best Case: Kawhi Leonard parachutes into Oakland from a remote location the day of Game 1, finally rejoins the starting unit after three months on the shelf and approximately 68 starts-and-stops, upends an ailing Warriors team suddenly light on shooting, and eventually powers San Antonio back into the conference finals to set up another chapter in the Pop vs. D’Antoni duel.
That’s the cruel joke of this disastrous Spurs season: Slot a healthy Kawhi back into the rotation, and all of a sudden they look almost as formidable as last season, when they won 61 games and easily dispatched the Grizzlies and Rockets before Leonard’s injury cratered their Finals dream. Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon are gone, and Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are a year older, but Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and LaMarcus Aldridge have all taken steps forward (of varying degrees) to compensate for the absence/aging. The Davis Bertans revolution hasn’t been as robust as expected, but there’s still a good team hiding underneath the pile of Woj tweets.
But barring a WWE-style surprise reveal from Leonard, a long first-round series against the reigning champs is about as optimistic as I can get.
Worst Case: The Spurs are swept out of the playoffs for just the fourth time in the Pop era and the second time in a row at the hands of the Warriors. —Justin Verrier
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Best Case: The play-in game win against Denver was encouraging—during regulation, at least. Karl-Anthony Towns was his usual double-double force in the paint; Jeff Teague was far better than average from the perimeter, going 3-for-5 from 3; and Andrew Wiggins did the necessary little things, like rebounding and looking for the open man. The Timberwolves offense at its best won’t be enough to beat the Rockets, but breaking the franchise’s 14-year playoff drought is something of a promise that Minnesota can build upon next season, which just so happens to be the last on Jimmy Butler’s contract before he can opt out.
Worst Case: Before Butler suffered his meniscus injury, Minnesota was rolling toward a potential fourth- or third-seed finish. No one wanted to face the Wolves and their high-powered offense. Since Butler’s return (which, to be fair, is only three games), the team hasn’t found that same groove. Facing Houston will further expose all of the team’s flaws, including a defense two steps behind, at best, and an all but nonexistent 3-point game. Both James Harden and Chris Paul need to be locked down, but Butler is only one man. Making the playoffs originally seemed like enough to appease Minnesotans, but falling embarrassingly flat is almost harder to watch than not watching at all. —Haley O’Shaughnessy