NBA 2022 Playoff Preview: Where every team stands
In the most wide-open playoffs in a decade, who will be crowned the 2022 champions?
For the first time since the spring of 2019, this April means one thing and one thing only for NBA fans: playoff basketball.
The previous two NBA seasons featured abridged schedules with late playoffs, but the league is finally back to its traditional 82-game schedule with playoffs beginning in April, and this season has been the most competitive in a decade.
Out West, the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies have a stranglehold on the standings, with the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz all settling in the middle.
Just below those teams, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers have secured their play-in spots, while the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs have successfully sunk the former title-favorite Los Angeles Lakers.
All season long there has been a daily shuffling in the Eastern Conference standings, but the Miami Heat clinched the first seed behind veteran swingman Jimmy Butler and Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner Tyler Herro.
That being said, the pool of talent in the East runs to the 10th seed, with just 10 games separating the first-seeded Heat and the 10th-seeded Charlotte Hornets. For reference, out West, the first-seeded Phoenix Suns lead the third-seeded Golden State Warriors by 11 games.
With the playoffs beginning tonight, here is where each team still in the hunt currently stands.
Phoenix Suns (64-18, West 1st seed)
Milwaukee Bucks (51-31, East 3rd seed)
It is hard to look at the Western Conference standings and project anyone other than Phoenix pushing to The Finals. Hitting 60 wins and clinching the best record in the NBA as early as Mar 24, the Suns have been steamrolling through the regular season.
With two All-NBA caliber players in Devin Booker and Chris Paul, a two-way monster looking for a payday in center Deandre Ayton, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Mikal Bridges and a supporting cast of the league’s best role players, Phoenix retooled and re-energized after last year’s blundered Finals and looks to make quick work of the Western Conference.
The Suns may have two players with their names in the MVP and DPOY conversations, but the Milwaukee Bucks have one player firmly in both. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the epitome of basketball brilliance, and the two-time MVP and reigning Finals MVP finds new ways to impress every time he touches the ball.
With All-Star scorer Khris Middleton, a defensive-minded floor general Jrue Holiday and a roster filled with players such as Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka and Bobby Portis, Milwaukee may not finish with the best record in the East, but it would be foolish to discount a group of guys who did it once and then got back in the gym and improved.
Golden State Warriors (53-29, West 3rd seed)
Memphis Grizzlies (56-26, West 2nd seed)
Miami Heat (53-29, East 1st seed)
Philadelphia 76ers (51-31, East 4th seed)
Not all teams can be championship favorites, but the next four teams look like they could have a legitimate chance at bringing one home this season if Phoenix or Milwaukee fails to live up to expectations.
The Golden State Warriors started the season hotter than the Suns, and Stephen Curry was on pace to run away with his third MVP as he broke Ray Allen’s all-time three-point record. On top of Curry’s dominance, Draymond Green had his second DPOY in the bag and Jordan Poole looked like a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate.
The Warriors were also expecting fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson ready to return after missing over two full seasons with multiple leg injuries. By the end of the season, the only one of those things that came true was Thompson’s return, as Curry went on the worst shooting slump of his entire career and Green went out with an injury for much of the season, while Ja Morant skyrocketed up the Vegas odds for the MIP award.
The 2019 second overall pick Ja Morant has led a Memphis Grizzlies squad composed of solid contributors from top to bottom, including breakout star Desmond Bane, defensive anchor Jaren Jackson Jr. and veteran big man Steven Adams. The Grizzlies routinely blow opponents out, and when they lose it’s a close one – the average result of a Grizzlies game this season is a 6-point victory. Though there is reason to doubt these young guys based on their inexperience, their massacres of teams like the Warriors and their 20-5 record without Morant prove that they are a formidable force no matter what challenges stand in their way.
Though the Eastern Conference standings have shuffled nonstop all year, once the season hit the midway point, the Miami Heat settled into first and have spent little time since then anywhere below. After a rough 2020-21 campaign, Tyler Herro looks like a legitimate star in the making and leads the 6MOY award race. Though veteran leader Jimmy Butler has struggled statistically since the All-Star break, guys like Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo and PJ Tucker have made sure to keep the team afloat.
The Philadelphia 76ers got everything they wanted and more out of the Ben Simmons trade by acquiring James Harden, but Harden’s recent streakiness and the lost bench depth should keep Sixers fans on their toes come playoff time. Tyrese Maxey’s massive jump to become the Sixers’ third star in his second year could spell the difference if Philadelphia finds themselves in The Finals for the first time since 2001.
Bench depth could be the factor that sinks Joel Embiid’s MVP-caliber season in the playoffs, though, as the Sixers bench scores the third-fewest points per game in the entire NBA on the season, and since the All-Star break Philadelphia’s bench has been the worst-scoring bench in the league, putting up just 24.5 points per game – a lower per-game average than 15 individual players across the league.
The Dark Horses
Dallas Mavericks (52-30, West 4th seed)
Boston Celtics (51-31, East 2nd seed)
Cleveland Cavaliers (44-38, East 8th seed)
Brooklyn Nets (44-38, East 7th seed)
Though these teams are still a piece or two away from truly being a contender, a surprise push to the conference finals is not off the table for any of these next squads.
The slow-starting Dallas Mavericks under new head coach Jason Kidd looked rocky to start the season, but Luka Dončić has since resumed his MVP-caliber play to rocket the Mavs up the standings to 4th, Dallas’ highest finish since their 2011 championship run. A midseason trade for Spencer Dinwiddie turned out to be an excellent move by the Mavericks’ front office, as Dinwiddie has helped to take the scoring burden off of Dončić, an overreliance that has plagued Dallas in each of their last two playoff series losses. Dinwiddie managed to revive the poor statistical season he was having in Washington and could be an excellent third option for a contending Dallas team if the Mavericks make a big move to acquire a star this offseason.
If the Mavericks started the season off slow, the Boston Celtics started at a snail's pace. On Jan 22, the Celtics had a 23-24 record and sat in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Since then, Boston has risen as high as first place during the East’s constant reshuffling, due in no small part to their masterful defensive turnaround.
Spearheaded by DPOY candidates Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III, Boston has transformed into the best defense in the league, overtaking the lockdown Golden State Warriors and clamping down opponents with a 106.1 defensive rating. The Celtics will have to prove come playoff time that their midseason turnaround was no fluke, but a deep postseason run is a real possibility.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been on a skid as of late due to injuries from All-Star center Jarrett Allen and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Evan Mobley. If those two return in time for the playoffs, some poor higher-seeded team is in for a rough first-round series against Cleveland.
The Cavs are trapped in the play-in at the moment but will more than likely stay in seventh place, and with excellent seasons from All-Star Darius Garland, a revitalized Kevin Love and the two aforementioned injured players, the Cavs could be anywhere from a first-round sweep to a surprise conference finals team.
With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the roster, the Brooklyn Nets should be a lock in the “contender” category, but the Nets have been severely limited all season long by Durant’s injuries and Irving’s unwillingness to get vaccinated. If Brooklyn makes it out of the play-in and the first round, there is a real chance they will face the Toronto Raptors. Due to Canada’s policy surrounding unvaccinated players, Irving could miss up to four games in that series, since he would not be allowed to play with the team in Toronto.
The Other Guys
Charlotte Hornets (43-39, East 10th seed)
LA Clippers (42-40, West 8th seed)
Toronto Raptors (48-34, East 5th seed)
Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36, West 7th seed)
Chicago Bulls (46-36, East 6th seed)
Utah Jazz (49-33, West 5th seed)
Denver Nuggets (48-34, West 6th seed)
Atlanta Hawks (43-39, East 9th seed)
New Orleans Pelicans (36-46, West 9th seed)
San Antonio Spurs (34-48, West 10th seed)
Some of the remaining teams that qualified for this year’s postseason have been surprisingly good, some even in the face of brutal injuries to star players. The Los Angeles Clippers have missed three of their best players the majority of the season yet remain in eighth place with an above-.500 record, continuing a winning-season streak dating back to the 2011-12 season. The Toronto Raptors have assembled a lethal starting lineup composed of borderline All-Star-level players behind first-time All-Star Fred VanVleet and the brilliant rookie Scottie Barnes. The San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans pushed hard late in the season to eliminate the once-title-favorite Los Angeles Lakers from the play-in entirely.
On the other hand, some of these teams have been rather disappointing. The Atlanta Hawks regressed from an Eastern Conference Finals team to a play-in team, while the Utah Jazz fell from the best team in the NBA last season to the 5th seed in a less-competitive conference with minimal changes to the roster.
The NBA play-in tournament opens tonight with Brooklyn versus Cleveland at 7 p.m. EST followed by Minnesota versus the Los Angeles Clippers at 9:30 p.m. EST. The winners of those two games automatically qualify for the playoffs, while the remainder of the play-in tournament takes place on Wednesday and Friday.
The playoffs begin Saturday, Apr 16, with the first games of Utah versus Dallas, Philadelphia versus Toronto and either Minnesota or the Los Angeles Clippers versus Memphis.