The NBA’s tectonic plates are still shifting, but for all the talk about parity, the upper crust feels pretty clear-cut. When we polled our staff two weeks ago, the Bucks, Clippers, and Lakers were the runaway favorites. And when we did an informal vote again earlier this week, we got the same results. Are we destined for a Finals featuring one team from Milwaukee and one from Los Angeles? We asked our staff that and more ahead of the first game between Giannis’s Bucks and LeBron’s Lakers.
1. Are the Bucks or Lakers More Likely to Make the Finals?
Dan Devine: The Bucks. It’s not that I think Milwaukee’s bulletproof in an Eastern playoff series, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing at an MVP level. A shaky performance or two from Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe (who have both been very good this regular season) and not-ready-for-prime-time work from the young perimeter corps could make the Bucks vulnerable against Philly, Boston, Toronto, or Indiana. But I don’t think any of those Eastern teams are as good as the Clippers, so I’ll take Milwaukee’s path to the championship round over the Lakers’.
Rob Mahoney: Bucks. Once you’ve effectively lapped the rest of the conference in margin of victory, you deserve all benefit of the doubt when it comes to in-conference competition. Reasonable arguments can be made that Milwaukee is better built for the regular season than the playoffs. At this point, it just might not matter; the Bucks could stall on some of their half-court possessions, struggle with certain matchups, and still wreck most of the East. Dominance is relative.
Jonathan Tjarks: The Bucks. If for no other reason than they don’t have to beat the Clippers. The middle of the East might actually be stronger than the middle of the West for the first time that I can remember, but none of those teams have emerged from the pack to challenge Milwaukee, at least not yet.
Justin Verrier: The Bucks. The East may be back, but Milwaukee is still a Giannis-sized step ahead of the field: FiveThirtyEight projects the Bucks to finish with a league-best 62 wins—two more than last season—and gives them the best odds of making the Finals (42 percent). The Lakers, meanwhile, may share the league’s best record with Milwaukee now, but with the Clippers blocking their path in the West, they are tied for fourth in Finals odds.
J. Kyle Mann: Lakers. The Bucks have made strides to diversify their offense, but offenses with this kind of singular focus are worrisome, historically. Although his attempts at the rim have dipped from 66 percent in 2018-19 to 57 percent this season, Giannis is still (somehow) carrying a usage rate of 38.6 percent, which is the highest of his career. So, so much of what Milwaukee does depends on the kinetic helter-skelter of his open-court presence, and the Lakers don’t suffer from the same bottlenecked predicament. The frightening thing about the Lakers is that I’m not convinced that this Death Star is yet fully operational.
John Gonzalez: The Bucks have the reigning MVP, who is also the favorite to win that same award again this season. Giannis is averaging almost four points per game more than he did a season ago, and he’s also taking and making considerably more 3s than he has in his career. The Bucks also lead the league in net rating by a pretty comfortable margin. And while the Lakers have LeBron and AD, they also play in a Western Conference with more talented teams to navigate than what Milwaukee faces in the East. All signs here point to the Bucks.
BUT. You really ought to know your audience when considering these questions. For the Bucks to make it to the Finals, they will have to—have to—face a Sixers team that is scared to lose for fear of what Philadelphia might do to them. Which is exactly the right attitude. Not to mention that the Sixers are the defending Transitive Property NBA Champions.
Paolo Uggetti: Lakers. Aside from the Clippers, the West doesn’t look like the gauntlet we expected it to be, and while it’s nearly impossible to refute the fact that Giannis is the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron is still the player I’d bet on in a playoff series. The rest of Milwaukee’s roster is what gives me pause. They didn’t come through in last year’s playoffs, and until they do, it’s difficult to bet on them over the second-best big in the league and the most decorated playoff player of this generation.
Shaker Samman: The Bucks. Despite a less-than-stellar performance in a loss to the Mavericks earlier this week, the Bucks have looked every bit as good as they did en route to a league-leading 60 wins last season. Giannis’s numbers are even better than they were in his MVP campaign, secondary contributors like Bledsoe, Wesley Matthews, and George Hill have done their part to fill the void left by departed starter Malcolm Brogdon, and Milwaukee hasn’t missed many steps thus far, as evidenced by its now-completed 18-game win streak. The amount of star power at the top of L.A.’s roster (two MVP candidates are better than one) might dwarf Milwaukee’s, but the Bucks play in the East, and rather than having to bully through some combination of potential upstarts and contenders like the Trail Blazers, Rockets, and Clippers, their prospective postseason foes are a less formidable lot. The Lakers might be a better team, top to bottom, but the Bucks have an easier path to glory.
2. Which Duo Would You Rather Have: LeBron and AD or Kawhi and PG?
Verrier: LeBron and AD. Kawhi and PG are the more modern dominant duo: Both can shoot, pass, defend, run an offense—the whole package. But there’s nothing wrong with classic, especially when it’s the best pick-and-roll combination … ever? Kawhi may be the most dangerous player in the playoffs, but I’m still not sure which player in the West is stopping AD—who, just by the way, was already historically good in the postseason before teaming up with the second-best player of all time.
Tjarks: I give the edge to Kawhi and PG for two reasons. They are both square in the middle of their prime, as opposed to LeBron being near the end of his, and they both play the most important position in the modern NBA: the big wing.
Devine: My coward’s answer: Whichever one’s healthiest come May. Forced to choose: LeBron and AD. I do think a fully operational Kawhi can be the best player in a postseason matchup against anybody. But if I had to draft which of the four I’d most want in a playoff series, I think Paul George is the last name off the board—which is not intended as a slight! It’s just … look at those other names! I think I’d rather have my money on the Lakers finding success limiting Leonard and George than on the Clippers figuring out how to take away the LeBron-AD pick-and-roll. (Not that I’d feel very good about it.)
Mahoney: LeBron and AD. Most superstar teammates have to make an effort to work around some noticeable redundancy. The thrill of watching LeBron and Davis go to work is that neither is really sacrificing at all. Each allows the other to be his best self, whether that involves Davis stepping in with expert help defense or James setting up his teammate with the perfect touch pass. It’s clean. It’s easy. It’s all the fun of a superteam without any of the chore.
Uggetti: I’m sorry for the cop-out, but it depends. Based purely on talent, it’s Davis and LeBron. Based on how the game is played now, it’s Paul George and Kawhi. The league is so perimeter oriented that having two elite two-way wings trumps (barely) the Davis-LeBron combination. Then again, maybe the Lakers duo is what tilts the balance back toward bigger forwards and centers. If we don’t get Lakers-Clippers in the playoffs, I will riot.
Gonzalez: There is only one right answer and it is the duo in this instant cult classic.
Mann: LeBron and AD. I mean, would you rather have Scorcese and De Niro, or Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis? I have a hard time picking against LeBron, because even in his mid-30s, he appears to be on a personal warpath while equipped with the best lob catcher/two-way force that we’ve seen in quite some time. The strengths of James feed directly into the strengths of Davis, and both are top-tier talents on both sides of the ball.
Samman: LeBron and AD. Until LeBron is forced to retire at the ripe age of 57, I will side with whatever team he plays for. George and Leonard are two of the best wings alive, and Leonard can make a case to be named the best player in the league, but Peak LeBron is still a force to be reckoned with, and Davis is playing like an MVP candidate this season.
3. Are the Lakers or Clippers Better Equipped to Stop Giannis?
Mahoney: The Clippers. Either team will need one of its high-usage superstars to pull a double shift, picking up what has become the most unenviable job in the sport. No one wants to guard Giannis. At best, it’s punishing; even those who manage to do the job well still have to absorb dozens of bumps and drives and shoulders to the chest, and if they’re smart (and lucky) those hits might actually do something to slow him down. Leonard is the best candidate on the board. We’ve seen his impact on Giannis when put in this exact position last postseason, so long as he has the support of a smart team defense. The Clippers can manage that.
The Lakers might hold their own as well, though it’s asking a lot of LeBron on the ball and could get a bit dicey in rotation. Even if they do a decent job on Giannis himself, their bulkier lineups might not lend themselves to stopping all the 3s Giannis creates. It’s tough to pick against one of the NBA’s top defenses, but the Clippers seem to have better situational personnel.
Gonzalez: This one is really tough. The word “stop” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this question, because no one is really equipped to stop Giannis. Kawhi and PG can guard just about anyone in the league. They’re incredibly smart, versatile defenders. But LeBron and AD are both large human beings, and Giannis is a large human being, and I think maybe you need other similarly freakish large human beings to throw at him. Reluctantly, give me the Lakers.
Devine: I’m going with the Clippers, despite the fact that Antetokounmpo has torched them to the tune of 65 points in 62 minutes in two games this season, both of which Milwaukee won. Worth noting: Leonard, who did a pretty friggin’ good job of slowing Giannis down back in the Eastern Conference finals, missed the first Bucks-Clippers meeting this season, and guarded Giannis for all of three possessions in the second. George, another Defensive Player of the Year–caliber wing with the length, quickness, and smarts to at least make Giannis work, also missed the first game, and also barely saw the assignment in the second. In the NBA Finals, those guys would see a lot more time on the reigning MVP, which you’d figure might change the dynamics of the matchup.
The Lakers can throw Davis at the problem, which seems like a pretty tidy solution … although Giannis has scored 29 points on 10-for-24 shooting with three assists against two turnovers and five shooting fouls drawn in 64 possessions with Davis defending him over the past two seasons, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. And given Davis’s importance as the rim-protecting interior hub of the Lakers’ defense, the task of tracking Antetokounmpo on the perimeter all night might need to fall to other Lakers more often, and while there are some interesting options—the physically suited (if positionally spacey) Kyle Kuzma, maybe Dwight Howard!—I’m not sure how much I trust them to take the assignment in a big spot.
This used to be where LeBron showed he was the alpha and omega in any head-to-head matchup. With a championship on the line, would Frank Vogel trust LeBron to take on a defensive challenge this daunting? And would LeBron, at the end of what’s been a historic 17th season, be up to the task?
Uggetti: The Lakers. They are not only tied for the third-best defense in the league and have an engaged LeBron, but also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Davis—who is younger and has less mileage than Kawhi and PG—to throw at Giannis.
Mann: Clippers, but barely. Remember in the first Incredibles movie, when the dad character was fighting that seemingly invincible tentacled robot thing on Syndrome’s island? It’s a good movie. Well, eventually he realized that he’d have to tear the brain out of the robot. The Bucks have a similar vibe of tentacled invincibility, and tearing out the brain—Giannis—is a question of walling up downhill pressure in transition and making his playmaking in that foul-line area as difficult as possible. The Lakers are better set up to contest Giannis’s unbelievable and relentless finishing once he’s at the rim (they have something like 15 bigs), but the Clippers have a legion of mobile, rangy, switchable defenders that can bother Antetokounmpo’s creation. It’s not an enviable task, either way.
Tjarks: The Clippers. Kawhi guarded Giannis as well as anyone I’ve ever seen in last season’s playoffs. I don’t think LeBron is up for it at this stage in his career. Though I do want to see what Giannis vs. AD looks like.
Verrier: The Lakers. Davis is the only player in the league who can match Giannis’s freakish blend of size, skill, and athleticism. When he’s engaged, AD is as good on defense as he says he is, and he’s most engaged when the spotlight is on (see: any national TV game or matchup with Karl-Anthony Towns).
Samman: The Clippers. Down the stretch in their late November victory over the Rockets, the Clippers did what teams hoping to contain James Harden often have to do: They double-teamed him. But unlike their contemporaries, Los Angeles sent Paul George and Kawhi Leonard out to wrap up the league’s hottest scorer. It worked. L.A. escaped with a three-point home win, and Harden, despite scoring in bunches, never got a clean look at a game-tying bucket. Giannis isn’t Harden; he’s bigger, and stronger, and though he’s a worse shooter, he can hurt defenders in more ways. But there might not be a better two-man defensive attack in the NBA than George and Leonard.
4. Which Team Outside of the Favorites Tier Is the Biggest Threat?
Devine: I’m tempted to say Boston, because their combination of depth on the wing, scoring punch, and two-way balance feels built to last in a playoff series, but I still think it’s Philly. They’re just outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency even with everything still looking kind of clunky for Brett Brown’s Very Big Team, and I don’t think there’s any individual force more potent in the postseason among the Contenders than a healthy and fully engaged Joel Embiid. If the Sixers get that, along with their customary ginormous meat-grinder defense and some fire-of-old from Al Horford, they’re a dangerous, dangerous team.
Verrier: The Heat. Jimmy Butler and a boot camp’s worth of versatile young’uns has been enough to vault Miami into the East’s upper crust. As currently constituted, the Heat’s ceiling is probably the East finals—a nice surprise run, indeed. But Miami is one of the few contenders with the assets (expiring contracts, prospects, any draft pick left) and motivation (Butler is 30 and has plenty of hard miles on his legs) to make an all-in move before the trade deadline. Jrue Holiday’s defense already blew up one team’s postseason; imagine what he could do with Butler and Bam Adebayo by his side.
Mann: The Sixers. For all of the bellyaching about what’s wrong with the Sixers? that’s gone on in the first couple of months of the season, they’re still fifth in the East. And when it’s fully locked-in, all-systems-go, Philly is still a terrifying proposition defensively. Embiid’s been a puzzling step down from a year ago, but we already knew he can be a fickle sort.
If they’re healthy, I just have this sneaking suspicion that Philly will be there. They’re tied for the sixth-best overall defense in the league per 100 possessions, and they’ve been hovering near the top third of the league on offense by the same metric. Lest we forget, we did this last year. People ought not forget that this team took eventual-champion Toronto to seven games, and nearly sealed the deal.
Tjarks: The Rockets. They still have James Harden, and the ability to play small with P.J. Tucker at the 5 gives them a wild card against the favorites.
Gonzalez: Please see Question 1.
Uggetti: The Sixers. They’re still loaded and found a steal in rookie Matisse Thybulle, who is going to contribute on both ends well into the playoffs. Sure, they have lacked the panache and success of the Lakers and Bucks, but they’re betting on the fact that if everyone is healthy, their depth will make them unstoppable.
Samman: At the risk of sounding overeager, I’m ready to purchase large swaths of land on Mavericks Island. Luka Doncic’s emergence as one of the most exciting players in the league happened a year or two earlier than most expected, and Dallas’s supporting cast has performed well. Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t looked much like the world-beater he was in New York, but his performances since Doncic went out with injury—especially against Milwaukee, when he scored 26 points and hit 4-for-8 on deep balls—suggests he can be an ideal second banana. Rick Carlisle’s squad might be ahead of schedule, but nothing they’ve shown in the first third of the season suggests they’re not here to stay.
Mahoney: The Sixers. Philly is a sleeping giant, with giant being the operative word. If they figure out how to consistently leverage their size—or how to consistently execute, in general—by April or May, they’re the one spoiler that could really push the Bucks in the East and the Lakers or Clippers in a potential Finals. Embiid is an impossible matchup, even to those in the top tier of the league. Awkward as Ben Simmons can be in a half-court setting, Al Horford still feels like the kind of dot-connecting playmaker who could make sense of things on the fly. The pieces are there. Philly just needs to figure out how to stay out of its own way.
5. Which Contender Should Swing a Trade Before the Deadline?
Gonzalez: The Nuggets. They were the regular-season darlings a year ago, and they’re in the Western Conference mix yet again. They are second, behind only the Bucks, in defensive rating so far. But the offense hasn’t looked nearly as good; Denver is 17th in offensive rating, trailing such franchises as the Pistons and Timberwolves. Nikola Jokic got off to a slow start, but he can’t do everything himself offensively. Jamal Murray has been a fine second banana over the past two seasons, but that’s still not enough bananas. The Nuggets are one of the deepest teams in the league. Time to package some of those guys and upgrade the offense.
Devine: I’m not sure Dallas has the ammunition to make it worth Memphis’s while, and I’m still not entirely sure why Minnesota would even countenance the idea, but plugging a big wing defender like Andre Iguodala or Robert Covington onto that Mavericks roster would make it awfully, awfully interesting.
Mahoney: Miami. It’s not that the Heat aren’t formidable; if anything, their depth is too formidable. This is a team that could spare a rotation player or two for the sake of taking a chance on premium talent. What that looks like depends on your estimation of players like Holiday or Chris Paul, but could also branch out into other wings and stretch bigs. The beauty of Miami’s situation is its roster’s flexibility. Most every spot in the rotation is held down competently, and yet most can be improved upon.
Tjarks: The Nuggets. Malik Beasley has been in and out of their rotation all season and there’s no way they will be able to afford him this summer, when he hits restricted free agency. Beasley plus Mason Plumlee is the best possible trade package out there for Andre Iguodala, who would give Denver someone who could match up with LeBron and Kawhi in a series. That’s the piece they are missing.
Mann: Philly again, for all of the reasons listed above. If the Sixers could somehow manage to swing a deal for an (even slightly) above-average scorer/creator, even if it’s not a contributor that makes an enormous splash, they should do it. Beasley and Bryn Forbes are two intriguing ideas. Philadelphia needs players who can draw offensive gravity and efficiently set the table for themselves without depending on dribble handoffs or off-ball screens. The East is better than people realize, but the 76ers are a few personnel moves away from being a migraine of a matchup for even the elite of the NBA. I’d like to see it.
Verrier: The Mavs. Why wait? If Doncic is healthy, get Andre Iguodala to shore up your wing defense and roll the dice. A bright future and maximizing a window of opportunity don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Samman: Can you call the Trail Blazers contenders if they’re on the outside of the playoffs? The early season has been a disaster for Portland. Injuries to every big worth mentioning and a wing or two have decimated Terry Stotts’s roster. In Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland has two All-Stars who just last season carried a similar roster to the Western Conference finals. The addition of a somehow-not-completely-washed Carmelo Anthony (16.8 points per game, and a 41.4 3-point percentage!) has helped buoy a sinking ship, but hasn’t been enough to propel Portland very far in the standings. A trade for a veteran big languishing in the Midwest (looking at you, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin) would give the Blazers three bona fide stars with significant playoff experience. And once some of their roster returns from the ICU, they’ll have as good a chance as any team of toppling the Western Conference’s new hierarchy.
Uggetti: The Nuggets. Go get Jrue Holiday and make the West interesting, Denver.