For the first time since 2015, the second round of the postseason will not feature the defending NBA champions. The Los Angeles Lakers were knocked out of the first round by the Phoenix Suns, and the defeat was symbolically fitting. The Lakers have won 17 banners. So have the Boston Celtics, who were also knocked out of the first round. None of the nine teams left in the field have more than three championships to their name. Combined, the nine teams remaining have won only six in total. That’s as many as the Lakers alone have won this century.
And if the Los Angeles Clippers knock the Dallas Mavericks out of Game 7 of their first-round series, not one of those championships will have come in the 21st century. In fact, at that point, the most recent NBA champion left in the field would be the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers. The Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Clippers have never won one before.
In other words, we’re officially in uncharted waters. The old guard is gone, and as the second round begins, we’ll turn our attention to a new set of contenders, and in the end, a new one will be crowned champions. Here are our picks for which of those contenders will advance to the final four.
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1. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks
Reiter’s take: This is an imperfect series, and one that’s an utter mystery because of the nebulous nature of Joel Embiid’s injury. Were Philly’s best player guaranteed to be healthy for all seven possible games, the Sixers would win, perhaps handily. If he’s out indefinitely, Atlanta’s the clear favorite. But we don’t know, yet, the nature of Embiid’s availability. One Eastern Conference general manager told me last month that the playoffs would be defined by injuries in a way never before seen in the NBA, walking me through what he called the physical land mines lurking in stars and role players across the NBA. That’s been true enough so far, so I’m betting on Atlanta’s excellence over Philly’s bad luck. Pick: Hawks in six
Quinn’s take: If Joel Embiid were healthy, I would be taking the 76ers, but he isn’t, and frankly, even when he was, these teams were closer than anyone wants to admit. Atlanta is 31-12 since March 1. Philly is 30-12 in that same period. Atlanta can defend Ben Simmons in much the same way it did Julius Randle, and Philly’s depth makes overcoming Embiid’s absence difficult. If he comes back, Philly can certainly win this series, but until we know more about his health, I’m running with the Hawks. Pick: Hawks in six
Ward-Henninger’s take: Assuming Joel Embiid is out and/or limited for the first few games of the series, I still think the Sixers have enough to hold their own and pick up a win or two before he’s back to full strength. If it gets to seven games, I’m not betting against Philly at home. Pick: 76ers in seven
Maloney’s take: With Embiid’s status still up in the air, it’s pretty much impossible to make a confident pick here. I’ll lean Sixers in seven because if he plays and is even close to himself, they’re clearly the better team. But if he’s out or severely compromised, who knows. Pick: 76ers in seven
Wimbish’s take: Trae Young went off last series, but I think the Sixers are going to make life incredibly difficult on him, specifically Ben Simmons. Embiid’s health is concerning, but even without him I think Philly can get it done. Pick: 76ers in six
Botkin’s take: We don’t know if Embiid will play in Game 1, at least, and even if he does we don’t know what level he’ll be at for the duration of the series. Besides that, Atlanta is cooking right now. The Sixers have individual defenders to throw at Trae Young, but right now I’m not sure anyone can stop him. Atlanta has more playmaking and when it comes down to it. I’ll take the team that can create and make shots in a pinch. I don’t trust winning late in the playoffs with Tobias Harris as the top half-court perimeter creator. Pick: Hawks in six
Herbert’s take: Sorry to say this, but every prediction about this particular series is meaningless. We don’t know how many games Joel Embiid will be able to play or how he’ll look when he’s out there. If Embiid can play near his normal level and handle a normal amount of minutes, then the Sixers are my pick. If he’s out of commission or out of sorts for the majority of the series, then the Hawks’ firepower will be too much. Pick: 76ers in seven
Kaskey-Blomain’s take: If Joel Embiid plays in this series, the Sixers should be able to make short work of the Hawks. Atlanta just doesn’t have anyone who can come close to containing Embiid. If he doesn’t play, the series will be much tougher, but the Sixers are still deeper and have more postseason experience. Plus, they have several capable defenders to throw at Trae Young. Pick: 76ers in six
Reiter’s take: An old NBA beat-writing joke goes something like this: “Anyone who predicts a series winner in seven is really saying, ‘I don’t know.'” And I certainly don’t here, feeling strongly about this series only about one thing — that its winner will advance to the NBA Finals. The Nets Big 3 are, in a small but spectacular sample size, unprecedentedly incredible. Yet the Bucks aren’t exactly a bunch of bums, and their playoff failures the past few seasons could look a lot like the lessons that taught them greatness come July. Throw it all together — Brooklyn’s shaky D and lack of time together, Giannis the two-time MVP, Jrue Holiday’s critical star turn in Milwaukee, the Bucks defensive and offensive balance — and I’ll turn my “not sure” into a lukewarm belief in the Bucks. Pick: Bucks in 7
Quinn’s take: I’ve gone back and forth on this for weeks. Before the playoffs, I took Brooklyn to win the East, but a few things are pushing me toward Milwaukee now. I don’t trust Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan to defend in space. That was problematic against Boston, but it’s potentially disastrous against Milwaukee. The Bucks just destroyed the Heat on the glass, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t do the same to the Nets. In a year, I might lean Brooklyn in this matchup, but the Nets are still figuring themselves out. They struggled a bit too much with the Celtics for my liking whereas the Bucks dominated the Heat. It will be the most fun series of the playoffs, but I’m leaning Nets very slightly. Pick: Bucks in seven
Ward-Henninger’s take: This could end up being the de facto NBA Finals, and Milwaukee will test the shaky Nets defense to its limits. Ultimately it comes down to who I trust down the stretch, and to me Brooklyn has the three most reliable clutch players in the series in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Pick: Nets in seven
Maloney’s take: I picked the Bucks to win the title before the playoffs, and I’ll stick with them here in what could essentially be the Eastern Conference finals depending on Embiid’s health. Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to run wild against a porous Nets defense, and the Bucks have the individual defenders to at least make life difficult for the big three. Pick: Bucks in six
Wimbish’s take: Brooklyn just has simply too much offensive firepower for the Bucks to try and contain. Being down Donte DiVincenzo is a pretty big blow for the Bucks on both ends of the floor, and Brooklyn has more depth than Milwaukee. Pick: Nets in six
Botkin’s take: I just have a feeling. For the last two years, the Bucks have been the team we placed too high of expectations on. Now they’re the team we’ve kind of forgotten about, and I think that primes them to sneak up on us. They’re not the same team that was exposed for its glazing flaws in the last two postseasons. They have experimented more defensively and that will pay off in this series. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be utilized as a stopper rather than a roamer, and Jrue Holiday makes all the difference. With Holiday and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s half-court and late-game creation problems largely go away. I know Brooklyn is stacked. I just have a feeling about the Bucks. Pick: Bucks in seven
Herbert’s take: These are both championship-caliber teams, and it’s hard to believe they’re really meeting in the second round. Milwaukee is the better defensive team, but this series feels like it’ll be full of shootouts. I trust Brooklyn’s Hall of Fame creators more in that scenario. Pick: Nets in seven
Kaskey-Blomain’s take: This could be the best series of the entire postseason, as both teams are legitimate title contenders. While the Bucks have the tools to make things tough on Brookyln’s star trio of Durant, Harden and Irving on the offensive end, ultimately though, the production of those three will just be a little too much for Milwaukee to keep up with. Pick: Nets in seven
2. Phoenix Suns vs. 3. Denver Nuggets
Reiter’s take: The Phoenix Suns have spent the season as the game’s least-appreciated contender. If Chris Paul’s shoulder doesn’t hinder him significantly — here we go with injuries again — the never-say-die Nuggets meet their match. Besting a hapless Portland team that regressed to Dame Time and a bunch of other guys is one thing. Taking down the Lakers, even with A.D.’s absence at the series’ close, is something else entirely. Deandre Ayton has improved by leaps and bounds, Devin Booker is a star, Chris Paul has found the right place for his opus and Monty Williams knows just what strings to pull to get the best out of the team’s depth and young talent. The Suns keep it going, Jokic notwithstanding. Pick: Suns in five
Quinn’s take: There are plenty of similarities between this series and the one Denver just played. Denver, playing with backup guards, is going to struggle to stop Devin Booker just as it did Damian Lillard. Phoenix will have trouble with Nikola Jokic, especially when Deandre Ayton goes to the bench. Jokic had 16 offensive rebounds in three regular-season games against the Suns, and those second-chance points are going to be killer in this matchup. But Phoenix is far better defensively than Portland, and assuming Chris Paul is even remotely healthy, that should be enough to carry them over a Nuggets team missing three of its top five guards. Pick: Suns in seven
Ward-Henninger’s take: Of course I’ll regret picking against the Nuggets again, but the Suns are much better equipped to handle a short-handed Denver roster than the Blazers were. Chris Paul’s health is obviously a major factor, but I just can’t see the Denver defense stopping Devin Booker consistently, and I trust Monty Williams to come up with a defensive game plan to take advantage of Jamal Murray being out. Pick: Suns in seven
Maloney’s take: Going to spot the Nuggets some games here out of respect to Nikola Jokic, but with all of their injuries they’re just not as good as the Suns. Chris Paul and Co. can really play, and they’ll be riding high after taking out the defending champs. Pick: Suns in 7
Wimbish’s take: I picked the Suns to make the Western Conference finals before the playoffs started, and I’m sticking with that pick. The Nuggets will still be without Jamal Murray, and if Chris Paul is near 100 percent then Phoenix should be rolling. Pick: Suns in six
Botkin’s take: This Nuggets team is for real, if you haven’t noticed. So are the Suns, but Nikola Jokic is on another level from even Devin Booker, and I don’t know about Chris Paul being at 100 percent. I think he’s still a good deal short of full strength. I don’t know if the Nuggets’ peripheral players can keep up their incredible play, but they have earned the benefit of the doubt playing off Jokic. And Aaron Gordon has played his role to near perfection. Pick: Nuggets in seven
Herbert’s take: Phoenix is playing better basketball right now, and it deserves to be favored against a team missing its second-best player. I’m going with the Nuggets, though, because there are just no good answers for Nikola Jokic. His two-man game with Monte Morris isn’t the same as his two-man game with Jamal Murray, but it’ll still be a major challenge for the Suns collectively and Deandre Ayton individually. If Ayton finds himself in foul trouble, uh-oh. (Also, I’m assuming Will Barton will be back at some point soon, which would take some pressure off of Michael Porter Jr. — Mikal Bridges can’t guard both of them at the same time). Pick: Nuggets in seven
Kaskey-Blomain’s take: If Deandre Ayton can play defense against Nikola Jokic like he did against Anthony Davis in the first round, that will give the Suns an advantage. Plus, health matters in the playoffs, and Phoenix is the healthier team at this point. The Nuggets were able to advance out of the first round without Jamal Murray, but it will be much tougher to do so again. The combination of Devin Booker’s scoring and Chris Paul’s leadership should be enough to lead Phoenix to the conference finals. Pick: Suns in six