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Ranking the 29 Most Likely First-Round NBA Playoff Series, From Most Compelling to Least

Jalen Brunson vs. Donovan Mitchell. KD vs. Kawhi. We fired up the Odds Machine to determine the most probable matchups in the playoffs’ opening round, and (some of) the possibilities are tantalizing.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Only a week remains in the 2022-23 NBA regular season, yet with few exceptions, the contours of the playoff field remain murky at best. The play-in structure inherently leaves several postseason spots up for grabs, and the Western Conference morass this season only adds to that uncertainty.

But The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine can predict the most likely outcomes. As of Monday morning, it sees 29 different matchups with at least a 10 percent chance of occurring in the first round this month.

So to anticipate the coming drama and to figure out what matchups to root for as they take firmer shape during the next week’s scramble, let’s rank all 29 from least to most compelling. Start ratcheting up your excitement now—some possibilities at the top wouldn’t look out of place in the conference finals, yet they’re real options for the first round.

Tier 8: Eastern Conference Walkovers

29. Bucks vs. Bulls (23 percent chance of occurring)
28. Bucks vs. Hawks (22 percent)
27. Celtics vs. Hawks (22 percent)
26. Celtics vs. Bulls (14 percent)
25. Celtics vs. Raptors (22 percent)
24. Bucks vs. Raptors (25 percent)
23. 76ers vs. Nets (96 percent)

Seed nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 are mostly settled in the East. The only remaining questions are whether the Celtics will catch the Bucks for the no. 1 seed (the Odds Machine says they have an 18 percent chance) and which two members of the Heat-Hawks-Raptors-Bulls quartet will advance out of the play-in tournament—all four of those teams have at least a 97 percent chance to land in the play-in.

Alas, the Bucks and Celtics are so strong that the Bulls, Hawks, and Raptors seem unlikely to truly challenge the conference’s top seeds in a best of seven. Milwaukee dispatched Chicago in a gentleman’s sweep last season, and a similar result would probably reoccur in a rematch. Atlanta has almost no chance against the Bucks or Celtics; ditto the Raptors, even though they’ve played much better since trading for Jakob Poeltl and could at least make the top seeds sweat.

The extremely likely 3 vs. 6 series also lands in this tier because, with all respect to Mikal Bridges’s star turn, the post–Kevin Durant Nets shouldn’t threaten Philadelphia. At least watching All-Defense candidate Nic Claxton and a swarm of wings try to defend Joel Embiid would provide entertainment.

Tier 7: It Would Be Much More Fun With Zion

22. Nuggets vs. Pelicans (21 percent)
21. Grizzlies vs. Pelicans (20 percent)
20. Kings vs. Pelicans (16 percent)
19. Suns vs. Pelicans (17 percent)

The erratic Pelicans are on a hot streak, with a 7-1 record in their last eight games. An easy schedule over that stretch—which included wins over the Rockets, Spurs, Hornets, tanking Trail Blazers, and Nikola Jokic–less Nuggets—helped, but the remaining slate is much fiercer: The Pelicans close against the Kings, Grizzlies, Knicks, and Timberwolves.

However, with a 3.5-game cushion over the no. 11 seed, the Pelicans aren’t in danger of falling out of the play-in tournament, and with a 1.5-game cushion over the no. 9 seed, they may benefit from two chances to win once to advance. Maybe they can repeat their performance from last season, when they scared the top-seeded Suns in the first round—but they would surely have a better hope if Zion Williamson were healthy. While there’s a faint chance he’ll return at some point this spring, the Zion-less Pelicans are less cohesive and also less threatening than a year ago. The West has so much parity that basically any combination of first-round matchups will be fun, but the Pelicans’ possibilities pack less relative punch without one of the league’s most dynamic offensive forces.

Tier 6: Are the Heat Actually Scary?

18. Bucks vs. Heat (29 percent)
17. Celtics vs. Heat (41 percent)

By the stats alone, both of Miami’s potential playoff series belong in the lowest tier, as first-round walkovers. The Heat aren’t good this season. They have a negative point differential, they can’t shoot, and they receive only scant production outside the Jimmy Butler–Tyler Herro–Bam Adebayo trio.

But the Heat have such a robust playoff history under Erik Spoelstra, and Butler is such a terrifying playoff opponent, that they inch ahead of their play-in competitors. Their recent playoff history against both the Bucks and Celtics offers heightened drama, and their reputation is reason enough to fear that they could complicate a series against one of those top seeds.

Or they could succumb in a sweep, like they did against the Bucks in the first round in 2020-21. The uncertainty explains why they have a tier unto themselves.

Tier 5: Good Old Western Fun

16. Nuggets vs. Thunder (12 percent)
15. Nuggets vs. Timberwolves (22 percent)
14. Grizzlies vs. Clippers (19 percent)
13. Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves (17 percent)

All of these series would be lively bouts with a dose of unique fun. See, for instance, a matchup of Nikola Jokic vs. Rudy Gobert, or an experiment in how an essentially centerless Thunder rotation would guard the two-time MVP, or a rematch of the zany antics that populated Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves games last season.

However, none of these series contain the extra compelling factor of some of those ranking higher, so given all the possible permutations, neutral fans should probably hope the outcomes shake out a little differently than they might in this tier.

Tier 4: The Most Popular Upset Picks

12. Kings vs. Clippers (22 percent)
11. Kings vs. Lakers (19 percent)
10. Kings vs. Warriors (37 percent)
9. Nuggets vs. Lakers (15 percent)
8. Nuggets vs. Warriors (11 percent)

With apologies to the Kings, who have enjoyed a wonderful season, they’ll probably be underdogs in the first round, even though they’ll have home-court advantage and a better seed. Sacramento is unproven in the playoffs and has none of the NBA’s apex stars, while its most likely opponents all boast better postseason résumés.

But don’t sell Sacramento short; anyone expecting the NBA’s best offense to be a playoff pushover is too dismissive. The Kings might not be able to reliably stop Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, or Steph Curry—but can those opponents stop Domantas Sabonis, Clutch Player of the Year favorite De’Aaron Fox, and the Kings’ dominant dribble handoff game?

At the very least, any of these possible Kings series would provide certain entertainment, in terms of both on-court game play and intangible intrigue. For the Clippers, 176-175, anyone? Against the Lakers, the historically star-crossed Kings could revisit the infamous 2002 Western Conference finals. (And, in so doing, remember Tim Donaghy, on the eve of players gaining the ability to invest in gambling companies!) And with the Warriors, much to Draymond Green’s delight, there’d be a contest between two NBA neighbors—one the most successful franchise over the last decade, the other the least.

Elsewhere, the Lakers’ hot streak has probably propelled them out of a first-round matchup with the Nuggets because L.A. is now more likely to either grab a top-six seed or finish seventh and then have home-court advantage in the play-in game for the no. 7 spot. But if the Lakers do fall to no. 8, the combination of their postdeadline hot streak and the presence of a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis would make them popular upset picks against any top-four seed in the West, including even the Nuggets at the top.

The same logic applies to a potential Nuggets-Warriors series if Golden State falls to the play-in. The Warriors ran roughshod over the Nuggets—who were missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.—in the 2021-22 first round, so Golden State would be a tasty 8-over-1 upset choice in a rematch this season.

Tier 3: Actual Bad Blood

7. Nuggets vs. Clippers (12 percent)
6. Grizzlies vs. Lakers (26 percent)
5. Grizzlies vs. Warriors (18 percent)

This tier features matchups that would belong in the “Good old Western fun” category—but with a little something extra that adds a pleasant spice.

Nuggets vs. Clippers would be a rematch of the former’s comeback (or the latter’s collapse, depending on one’s perspective) in the bubble. Denver seems to have L.A.’s number ever since storming back from 3-1 down in 2020; since the bubble, the Nuggets are 8-2 against the Clippers when Jokic plays, including five wins in a row. (Over that same span, the Clippers are just 1-5 against the Nuggets when Kawhi plays, including five losses in a row.)

Both Grizzlies possibilities in this tier would match two teams that just plain don’t like each other. A matchup with the Lakers would recall the brouhaha from earlier this season—keep Shannon Sharpe away from the court! And a matchup with the Warriors would write a new chapter in a growing rivalry between the up-and-comers and the veteran four-time champs; over/under six combined technical fouls for Draymond and Dillon Brooks in that hypothetical series?

Tier 2: The Donovan Mitchell Trade, Revisited

4. Cavaliers vs. Knicks (99 percent)

The Cavaliers and Knicks have been locked into the East’s no. 4 and 5 slots, respectively, for weeks now, and they provided quite the appetizer for their upcoming clash over the weekend, when Jalen Brunson and Donovan Mitchell combined for 90 points in a Knicks win.

Julius Randle’s ankle injury, which carries an uncertain recovery time, potentially saps some of this series’ juice, but as long as Brunson and Mitchell take the court, the headlines will practically write themselves. Last summer, the Knicks signed Brunson and were favored to land Mitchell in the Utah fire sale—but the Cavaliers swooped in to nab the All-Star instead, leaving the Knicks with only one new guard instead of two.

Now, the two lead guards will go head to head, both coming off fantastic first seasons with their new teams. And other intriguing story lines abound: Evan Mobley’s ascension to two-way stardom, stellar supporting guard play from Darius Garland and Immanuel Quickley, bench swings with Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein, dueling bouncy centers in Mitchell Robinson and Jarrett Allen. The most likely playoff matchup between any two teams is also among the most fun.

Tier 1: Suns Mania

3. Suns vs. Clippers (36 percent)
2. Suns vs. Warriors (24 percent)
1. Suns vs. Lakers (22 percent)

Put these three in any order—no matter what, they’re the three most tantalizing first-round options for this spring. And one is almost certain to happen: The Suns are just about locked into the West’s no. 4 spot, and while there are four teams in contention for no. 5, one is the Pelicans, who are missing their best player and have the hardest remaining schedule. That leaves an 82 percent chance that two Western Conference titans will clash in the first round.

The current no. 5 seed is the Clippers, who are missing Paul George, but the story lines for a potential Suns series pop off the page regardless: Durant vs. Kawhi, Chris Paul vs. the Clippers, KD vs. Russ. Or, if the Warriors land the no. 5 seed instead, how about Durant vs. his old team, Paul vs. Curry, and Devin Booker vs. Klay Thompson? Or maybe the hottest team of the bunch will push up to the no. 5 seed, and Durant will face LeBron—whom he’s met on three previous playoff occasions, all in the Finals—right from the playoff jump.

The strangeness of the 2022-23 Western standings are perhaps best encapsulated by this section, all the way atop the list of compelling first-round matchups. The Suns are Vegas favorites to win the conference because they traded for Durant to win now. The Clippers are also in win-now mode, in Year 4 with Leonard and George. The Warriors, too, are trying to win now because they’re the defending champions, with a leading man still producing as if in his prime. And the Lakers, of course, are hoping to win now in an attempt to maximize LeBron’s window and seize another ring.

And at least one of those teams’ hopes will in all likelihood be dashed in the first round; when two win-now teams meet, one is bound to, well, lose now. All three of these possible matchups could be the best series of the entire postseason, like Bucks-Nets in the second round in 2020-21—which, naturally, also involved Durant and various superstars’ legacies. With something of this stature to anticipate, next week in the NBA can’t come soon enough.