23. Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin is really good, the best player the Pistons have had since Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace’s heyday. Griffin is also 10 times more serious than he appeared in Los Angeles, and has really seemed to take the mantle of a team leader seriously. There’s little question that as long as he is healthy enough to play near his usual level, he’s the only player that can scare the Bucks in the first round.
But of course, because the world is cruel, Griffin is banged up. So perhaps Detroit won’t even have that going for them. Still, a gallant effort by one of the best players in the East would be fun to watch as the Pistons figure out where to go from here.
22. Jonathan Isaac
The Magic defense has been extraordinary for the back half of the NBA season — best in the league since the end of January. There’s no one single factor that deserves credit, but in looking at the longterm future of Orlando and its potential to rise into Eastern contention, Jonathan Isaac figures prominently. The long forward has been a game-changer in Steve Clifford’s system, and watching how he handles Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard in the first round could offer some clues on just how good Isaac can be in the near future. Isaac isn’t Orlando’s best player. But going forward, he’s probably their most important.
21. Derrick White
We know what DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay and Patty Mills do. Derrick White has been the requisite Spurs player development magic case this season, offering stellar defense and capable floor management at the point. Few expect the Spurs to do anything of note in the playoffs, but White’s defense is a bit of an x-factor worth watching. This should be an interesting series against Denver for White anyway as Dejounte Murray will be coming for his job next season.
20. Patrick Beverley
Patrick Beverley is going to defend Stephen Curry for at least four games to start the NBA playoffs. I repeat, Patrick Beverley is going to defend Stephen Curry for at least four games to start the NBA playoffs. This is not a drill. This could get really grimy really fast.
19. Myles Turner
Turner’s defense has become exemplary this season — color me surprised Turner hasn’t gotten more push as Defensive Player of the Year as we all struggle to explain how Indiana has remained so good — and that’s going to be a huge factor in the Pacers’ series against Boston. How Turner handles the crafty, smart Al Horford and whether Turner can close the lanes that Kyrie Irving will plunge into could decide whether the Pacers have a real chance here.
18. Gordon Hayward
Do you know what to expect from Gordon Hayward in the playoffs? Me neither. That’s a recent All-NBA caliber player who is basically a total x-factor for a No. 4 seed in a competitive conference. With Marcus Smart out, Hayward’s help on offense will actually be even more critical. Indiana’s own offense isn’t great, but if the Smart loss lets the Pacers score more easily, Boston needs someone other than Irving to put the ball in the bucket.
17. D’Angelo Russell
It’s just going to be really fun to see D’Angelo Russell and the Nets in the playoffs, and perhaps even in a competitive series, depending on how the Sixers come out of the gate with a banged-up Joel Embiid. Russell has a real opportunity to build on his already growing lore on a very big stage.
16. Eric Bledsoe
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Homeric hero of the Bucks, and Khris Middleton might be the most trusted sidekick, but Bledsoe has a certain quality that makes it all go. He almost made the all-star team and signed an extension to stick around with Antetokounmpo for the next few years, and he could (should?) find himself on an All-Defense team this spring. His two-way play — particularly his defense in potential match-ups against Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry, as well as his shooting against the better East defenses — will be critical for Milwaukee’s run and by extension the multi-year outlook for the team.
15. Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell has been really strong the back half of the season after a slow start. As was the case last year, he’s the sole bombastic scorer on the Jazz and with Joe Ingles part of a duo that’s a little different than what most teams offer. Utah beating the Rockets in the first round will largely depend on whether the elite Jazz defense can limit James Harden and to a lesser extent Chris Paul. But even if the Jazz can slow Harden, they need to score. They need Mitchell to apply pressure and make shots.
14. Damian Lillard
Enough analysts have noticed the Blazers are in a precarious position heading into the playoffs that it’s no longer an under-hyped storyline. Another early exit could change some minds in the front office and in the locker room as it pertains to the long-term future of the club. At the center of that is Damian Lillard, who will be a consensus All-NBA second-team pick and would be one of the first three point guards off the board in a league-wide draft. Portland drew a tough match-up in Oklahoma City, and Lillard will have to face off against Russell Westbrook. Let’s see what Lillard and the Blazers are made of this time and whether there’s a future here.
13. Joel Embiid
The playoffs would be more exciting if we knew Joel Embiid were healthy. Alas. The health of the second-best player in the East could be the difference between an early exit and a Finals run. Let’s hope the Sixers have just been extra cautious with Embiid and he comes out roaring against the Nets.
12. Russell Westbrook
Westbrook averaged a triple-double again — this is just absolutely wild, folks — and clearly deferred to Paul George much of the season. But you know he’s going to go at Damian Lillard and attack a rim that no longer has Jusuf Nurkic protecting it. After the mightily disappointing series against Utah last season, Westbrook has something to prove and a good chance to do it. Besides, even when the Thunder aren’t playing to their full potential Westbrook is impossible to look away from.
11. Paul George
Paul George dropped out of the MVP race over the last couple of months of the regular season, but he still had an incredible season after committing long-term to the Thunder. That early exit last spring must sting, and the Thunder have a more favorable match-up this time around. That leads to expectations, which can often mean trouble. But George has surpassed all expectations already this season. If he does that again in the playoffs, we could find the Thunder in the conference finals.
10. Nikola Jokic
We have no idea how the Nuggets will do in what will be most of the players’ first playoff experience. This applies especially to Jokic, who works hard but has a certain air about him that doesn’t scream PLAYOFF INTENSITY or TOTAL FOCUS. He’s a slightly less laconic Boris Diaw, in a way. Jokic is a maestro, though, and watching him pick apart the Spurs should be a blast. Watching him defend LaMarcus Aldridge will be less fun.
9. Chris Paul
Chris Paul is the difference between the Rockets being dangerous and the Rockets being a real threat. Any team with James Harden can win a series or two in the playoffs. But to beat the Warriors — Houston’s likely second-round opponent, if Houston gets past Utah — the Rockets need Paul at his best. Is Paul going to be at his best? Let’s find out.
8. Jimmy Butler
Kristian Winfield said it best: Butler’s next contract will be based on what he does in these playoffs. On one level, that’s not fair. But in reality, that’s a net benefit for Butler: his stock has tanked after wrecking the Timberwolves and looking like the odd fit in Philly. If he can reverse that narrative by being the straw that stirs the Sixers, good for him. It’s going to be really interesting to watch Butler’s actions in crunch time.
7. Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam has some property in his game or his blood that has a magnetic relationship to eyeballs. I can’t look away when he’s engaged in full Siakam Mode. He also happens to be absolutely critical to the Raptors’ dream of an NBA Finals run, one that could potentially convince Kawhi Leonard that he has found home.
6. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant
Odds are the Warriors will breeze through the playoffs, win their third straight title, have a final parade through the center of Oakland, watch Durant split for more challenging pastures, and try again next year. It’s going to be a really interesting summer for the Warriors with Durant’s free agency, Klay Thompson’s contract, Bob Myers’ potential Lakers recruitment, inevitable Draymond Green trade rumors, and an attempt to rebuild a bench. But this playoff run probably won’t be too exciting unless some other team can legitimately spook Golden State like the Rockets did last year and the Cavaliers did three years ago.
Curry and Durant really only get interesting if that happens.
5. Ben Simmons
This is obviously a mammoth test for Simmons given Embiid’s health and Butler’s (perhaps temporary) presence. Is he a superstar in this league, or is he just a weird, really good player? Perhaps we won’t get a definitive answer — Simmons tends to bounce back and forth between poles — but we’ll all be watching closely for any hints. We know what Embiid is. How good the Sixers are long-term depends largely on who Simmons is. That’s why this is so important.
4. Kyrie Irving
The Celtics’ bizarre season could be erased by a Finals run or could be capped with a disappointing playoff failure. Boston is perhaps the only team in the league that can legitimately either fall in the first round or go to the Finals. (Houston’s the other candidate.) Irving is at the center of it all, with his weird comments throughout the season partially to blame for chemistry issues. He’s been a big game player in the past (ask the Warriors) and the Celtics really need his offense to get points on the board. He’s also a bizarre and thus fantastic podium option any given night. That matters a lot over the course of a long postseason.
3. James Harden
The most dangerous man with the ball right now. An absolute lightning rod for debate and criticism. Equally capable of scoring 60 points in a playoff game and shooting 3-25 from three in a playoff game. Everything is on the table right now for Harden. I love it. It’s going to be a blast to watch.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Perhaps the best player in the world right now. (Perhaps.) An absolute menace on both ends. The best player in the East, certainly. A relatively untested playoff competitor. A little nasty streak. Incredible expectations. It’s all here. This postseason — however it goes — will be pivotal to the Antetokounmpo story. Not to be melodramatic but with this dude, we are legitimately witnessing the unfurling of a legend, one way or another. This might be LeBron James circa 2007.
1. Kawhi Leonard
The Raptors managed Leonard’s load all season for this: a two-month dash to the Finals to convince The Claw that Toronto is his present and future. Masai Ujiri and the Raptors organization seem to have played this perfectly all year, and Leonard seems legitimately happy. That doesn’t mean he’ll stay, and it doesn’t mean the Raptors will find an extra gear now that Leonard will be playing every game and more minutes. But you can’t come up with any way that this could have set up better for Toronto. This season was just a masterpiece. And now for the coup de grace, perhaps.
Leonard has shocked the world before. He has a Finals MVP in his duffel bag. He has the range. He can change the story of this season from being the story of Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ ascension or the story of the Warriors’ foregone threepeat to the story of the Raptors’ breakthrough, the story of the return of Leonard.
It’s been a weird couple of years in the Leonard fandom, but it’s all worth it to watch what happens next.