Published On: Sat, Apr 14th, 2018

Ranking all 16 NBA playoff teams by tiers of contention

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The NBA playoffs kick off Saturday afternoon, and every team heads in with their own aspirations. Here, theScore has grouped all 16 contenders into tiers that best define their expectations.

Championship or bust

Houston Rockets

The Rockets won a league-leading 65 games, built a switch-heavy, top-six defense to match their nearly historic offense, and have a roster perfectly suited to the modern era, with two transcendent guards leading a team that features a perfect blend of shooting, playmaking, versatile defending, and depth.

They play in the Warriors’ era, but why not Houston? – Casciaro

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors stumbled without Stephen Curry down the stretch, winning only seven of their final 19 games in his absence, and won’t get Steph back until round two.

But they also lucked out by drawing the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in round one, and if you think this once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent is thinking anything but ‘championship or bust,’ you’re dreaming. – Casciaro

Finals or bust

Cleveland Cavaliers

‘Flipping a playoff switch’ is one of the most overhyped ideas in basketball, but if there’s one player who makes it a completely valid argument, it’s LeBron James. The Cavs can’t defend, were forced to settle for a No. 4 seed, and are not as good, top to bottom, as Toronto (or even, maybe, Philadelphia).

But this is the playoffs, and if the shooters around James do enough to support his surefire offensive domination, an engaged LeBron can prop up a defense to mediocrity at least, and that would be enough to send the king to his eighth straight NBA Finals. – Casciaro

Toronto Raptors

Toronto flirted with 60 wins and posted the best point differential (+7.8) by an Eastern Conference team in five years thanks to a revamped, modernized offense that should finally translate to the postseason. Throw in a top-five defense and the deepest roster in the league supporting All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and it’s finally plausible to consider a Finals game tipping off north of the border.

But first, that pesky Game 1… – Casciaro

Hard to pigeonhole

Oklahoma City Thunder

The star-studded Thunder perplexed us from start to finish. On one hand, they scraped past bad teams, never seemed to hit their stride as a unit, lost Andre Roberson to injury, lost Carmelo Anthony to Father Time, and lost Paul George‘s jumper. On the other hand, their top-end talent can compete with anyone else, they beat good teams all year, they were one of four teams to finish with top-10 ranks on both ends, Steven Adams emerged as a bonafide star big man, and they still managed to secure homecourt advantage in the one series in which it probably means the most.

If George finds his shot and Anthony finally settles into the spot-up shooting, small-ball role in which he can excel, while Russell Westbrook rampages to the rim and Adams continues to dominate the paint on both ends, this team can win, and win big. – Casciaro

Not just happy to be here

Philadelphia 76ers

Six months ago, just hanging around the playoff race all season – let alone getting into the dance – would’ve been a successful year for Philly. But, now the Sixers have won 16 straight heading into the playoffs, own the league’s No. 3 defense and fifth-best point differential, and managed to avoid Cleveland and Toronto in the first two rounds, anything short of an Eastern Conference finals trip classifies as a disappointing spring.

As J.J. Redick said earlier this season, the young Sixers present “a now opportunity” as much as a future opportunity. – Casciaro

Utah Jazz

Much like the 76ers, Utah would’ve been thrilled to settle for a 2018 playoff berth after losing Gordon Hayward to free agency and then losing Rudy Gobert for a third of the season. And, unlike the Sixers, the Jazz have a treacherous path through Oklahoma City and Houston if they’re to reach the conference finals.

Nevertheless, it’s tough to deem a team just “happy to be here” when they were legitimately the best in the NBA for a 35-game sample to close the season. – Casciaro

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers followed up a 13-game win streak by losing seven of 12 and four of their final five games, but still managed to come out of the Western Conference’s three-through-nine bloodbath on top, and they maintained a top-10 defense as their offense started to normalize following an anemic start.

They’re fringe contenders at best, but they expect a series victory at worst. – Casciaro

The wildcards

Minnesota Timberwolves

The T-Wolves begin our dive into a trio of teams who disappointed us all season but remain talented enough to throw a wrench into the playoff picture.

Minnesota owns the worst defense among Western Conference playoff teams, their young talent either regressed (Andrew Wiggins) or stagnated (Karl-Anthony Towns), and their one improving youngster (Tyus Jones) saw some of his minutes stolen by Derrick Rose, because Executive Tom Thibodeau just can’t stay out of Coach Tom Thibodeau’s way. Still, with Jimmy Butler back in the fold, this team still has way more talent than any 1-seed wants to see in April. – Casciaro

Washington Wizards

The Wizards, as usual, wrote more cheques with their mouths than they were capable of cashing, and their season was marred by injuries and infighting, but John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and Marcin Gortat present a tough first-round matchup for Toronto, and their starting unit remains elite by any measure.

Wall, Beal, and Co. have a track record of elevating their game in the postseason, and that makes the Wizards far more dangerous than a 43-win team with this statistical profile usually would be. – Casciaro

Milwaukee Bucks

They’re probably the most disappointing of the 16 playoff contenders, and a team with a negative point differential usually has no business planning for a long playoff run.

However, between the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Jabari Parker, plus a playoff path that includes the battered Celtics in round one and neither the Cavs nor Raptors in round two, Milwaukee is very much a wild card in this muddled bracket. – Casciaro

Injuries changed things

Boston Celtics

Without Hayward, it’s been difficult for the Celtics to generate enough offense to be considered a legitimate Finals threat. Losing Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart suddenly makes it plausible they don’t make it out of the first round.

Despite missing two All-Stars and their best perimeter defender, Boston (55-27) limped to the fourth-best record in the NBA. They unexpectedly won nine of their final 14 games after Irving was gone and still finished with the league’s best defense. However, with no star-level offensive threat, Boston will even struggle to get by the least threatening Eastern Conference squads. – Saghir

San Antonio Spurs

Leonard played just nine games this season, yet the Spurs miraculously finished with 47 wins. They’ve heavily relied on LaMarcus Aldridge on offense with no legitimate secondary option but scraped their way into the playoffs with the league’s fourth-best defense.

It’s been an impressive run, but it’s difficult to imagine them making it challenging for the Steph-less Warriors. But at least it’s been fun watching Dejounte Murray emerge as an all-league defensive talent. – Saghir

New Orleans Pelicans

DeMarcus Cousins being out for the second half of the year was supposed to hurt, but the Pelicans finished 21-13 after losing him to an Achilles injury. Anthony Davis has been a top-three world contender, Jrue Holiday‘s become an elite defender and second option, and the addition of Nikola Mirotic saved New Orleans’ season.

Still, it leaves you wondering what kind of noise the Boogie-Brow combo would have made if they were both 100 percent. – Saghir

Happy to be here

Indiana Pacers

The 2017-18 Pacers wrote a tremendous story in a wonderful season, as Victor Oladipo became an All-NBA talent while Nate McMillan got the most out of a roster most wrote off as a surefire lottery team.

Unfortunately, Indiana drew LeBron in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Though the Cavaliers are as vulnerable as ever, the fact remains LeBron hasn’t lost an opening-round game in six years, and hasn’t lost an opening-round series, period. It’s been a fun ride, Pacers fans, and your team’s left something to build upon in the years to come, but you should definitely just be happy to be here. – Casciaro

Just trying to muck it up

Miami Heat

Miami head to Philly with a deep and healthy roster, but lack the star power to put them over the top. Rarely does one player on the Heat dominate a game. They’re led by fringe All-Star Goran Dragic on offense and give the corpse of 36-year-old Dwyane Wade control at the end of games. Hassan Whiteside has been nothing short of disappointing this season, suffering through injuries and lack of minutes.

Regardless of what they’re missing, Erik Spoelstra remains one of the best coaches in the league. He’ll find a way to make games ugly and that’s the only way this team stands a shot to win. – Saghir

(All photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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