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6 NBA Teams That Will Go Directly To The Playoffs From Each Conference

6 NBA Teams That Will Go Directly To The Playoffs From Each Conference

We’re over a quarter of the way through the regular season, enough time for authentic patterns and data to emerge on every team in the association. We’re ready to comb through the data and make a well-educated guess on which teams will qualify directly for the playoffs in both conferences and, more specifically, where each organization will land.

Next, we’ll anticipate the top-6 Western Conference playoffs seeds. Then we’ll do the same for the Eastern Conference, forecasting their top-6 postseason participants.

Western Conference

1. Phoenix Suns

21-4, 1st in the Western Conference

The Phoenix Suns are one game up on the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the league. Chris Paul and company get the nod for the number one seed not only because of their better record but based on their big-3, continuity, and easier remaining schedule.

The combination of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton might be the best trio in the NBA. Each player brings their own unique skill-set to the court, and they are all top-5 in the league at what they do.

Chris Paul is the playmaker, and outside of LeBron James, nobody is close to his level. Chris Paul leads the league in assists at 10.2 per game while turning the ball over only 2.4 times per contest, giving him a ridiculous 4.32 assist to turnover ratio. Devin Booker is the scorer. He’s scoring 23.2 points per game while shooting 40.3 from deep. He’s also one of the best isolation options in the league at the end of the shot clock, scoring 0.97 points per possession (70.5th percentile). Deandre Ayton is the inside bruiser. He’s delivering the Suns a solid double-double with 16.3 PPG and 11.1 rebounds with a 61.4 FG%.

The Phoenix Suns brought back nearly the same roster as last year’s Western Conference Finals squad. Their starting unit has had incredible injury luck, with not even a single mainstay suffering any type of significant injury in the last year and change. The Suns starting 5 of C. Paul, J. Crowder, D. Booker, M. Bridges, and D. Ayton have played 292 total minutes this season, the third-highest in the league. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you compare them to the Lakers most used five-man unit of C. Anthony, R. Westbrook, A. Bradley, A. Davis, and T. Hoton-Tucker, which has played only 53 total minutes, it’s easy to see how much continuity the Suns have already built.

Finally, according to Basketball-Reference, the Suns face the second easiest remaining schedule (-0.37) out of any remaining Western Conference playoff hopefuls. The Suns sit comfortably with a .840 winning percentage, and they’ve already played their most challenging slate of games.

2. Golden State Warriors

21-5, 2nd in the Western Conference

Unlike the Phoenix Suns, the Warriors are more of a one-man show. Stephen Curry clocks in with the highest +/- rating in the league (minimum 10 games played) at +12.8, and it’s clear that his gravity is the fuel that runs the Warriors’ offensive attack. The Warriors have only two other double-digit scorers outside of Curry, Andrew Wiggins (18.5 PPG) and Jordan Poole (18.0 PPG). After those two, the Warriors’ offensive threats drop off a cliff, Damion Lee is fourth on the team in scoring at 8.5 PPG, and Draymond Green averages 8.0 PPG.

Stephen Curry is the Warriors offense, which might be scary for fans up in Northern California, but he’s one of the best-conditioned athletes in the league, and he doesn’t have the type of high-flying game that leads to significant injury. Anything can happen, but Stephen Curry isn’t likely to miss a sizable chunk of games.

The Warriors are special on offense behind Curry’s genius, but they genuinely separate themselves from the rest of the Western Conference on the less glamorous end. Golden State is first in the league in defense behind a smothering perimeter attack and Draymond Green’s intensity in the middle. The three-man combination of Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green is the best defensively in the association, and it isn’t close; they kill offensive possessions like a fire on an anthill.

We haven’t mentioned Klay Thompson yet. He’s the Warriors playoffs key. Golden State is a contender without their sharpshooting guard and should land in the top-2 out West thanks to their hot start, but if he comes back and plays at his pre-injury form, the Warriors will rise to a whole other level.

3. Utah Jazz

19-7, 3rd in the Western Conference

The Utah Jazz have the best offense in the league. They take nearly half their shots from beyond the arc (.497 3Par), and they connect at a 37.4% rate, good for third in the league. The Jazz are the only team in the NBA that can boast of five rotation players who are shooting 40% or above from deep:

- Mike Conley: 46.3 3P% off 5.6 attempts

- Rudy Gay: 41.7 3P% off 5.0 attempts

- Joe Ingles: 40.9 3P% off 4.9 attempts

- Royce O’Neale: 40.4 3P% off 3.9 attempts

- Bojan Bogdanovic: 40.3 3P% off 6.1 attempts

Utah is tough to stop. Donovan Mitchell gives them a solid off-the-bounce creator from the perimeter who opposing coaches must game plan around. Rudy Gobert is almost automatic close to the rim and is adept at catching lob passes and nabbing offensive rebounds. The Jazz’s one-two punch is surrounded by five assassins on the perimeter, ready to knock down a three-pointer with only a sliver of daylight.

The Jazz are also solid on defense. Rudy Gobert is the frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He defends a league high 18.5 shots per game, holding whatever man dares to come into his paint to an outstanding 39.0 field goal percentage.

Rudy Gobert is at the center of the Utah Jazz’s defense. Everything circles around his ability to defend at the rim. Jazz perimeter players muscle up to their assignments by the three-point line, taking away shooting attempts and daring their man to venture into the lane for a crack at the rim over Gobert.

The Jazz can’t match the Suns big-3 or Stephen’s Curry’s brilliance, but they are clearly in the upper-tier of the Western Conference.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

15-13, 6th in the Western Conference

The Lakers are right around .500 and have looked downright awful at times. That’s OK, though. Unlike the Suns, Warriors, and Jazz teams that have solid continuity from last season, the Lakers brought in 12 new faces; this is an adjustment period.

The combination of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook is still the most talented trio in the league, and as of late, they’ve shown signs they’re figuring things out.

Check out their stats over the last ten games:

- Russell Westbrook: 19.8 PPG, 8.0 APG, 6.8 RPG, 4.2 TPG, and 41.9 3P%

- LeBron James: 29.8 PPG, 8.0 APG, 6.0 RPG, 3.8 TPG, and 34.8 3P%

- Anthony Davis: 23.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 9.3 RPG, 1.6 TPG, and 22.2 3P%

Russell Westbrook and LeBron James are turning the ball over less as they get to know the players around them. Russell is suddenly shooting a solid clip from deep, and while AD is still struggling from beyond the arc, he’s cut his three-point attempts down significantly, only attempting 2.3 per game.

The Lakers will not push things to the limit during the regular season. This squad isn’t built that way. As the season progresses, though, they’ll create more chemistry and begin to peak as the playoffs loom. Look for the Lakers to push into the fourth seed to avoid the play-in tourney and stay away from the Suns and Warriors in the first round.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

16-11, 4th in the Western Conference

The Grizzlies are for real. Their leading scorer, and All-Star candidate, Ja Morant, is down, but it hasn’t mattered. They are 7-2 without him.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is a unicorn. He’s hitting 35.8% of his attempts from deep while averaging 1.9 blocks per game. Desmond Bane has also emerged as more than just a solid role player. He’s giving the Grizzlies 16.3 PPG while hitting 40.2% from deep.

Watch the Grizzlies, and you’ll immediately notice two things: They play as hard as any team in the league, and they’re incredibly confident despite their overall youth.

The Memphis Grizzlies are a playoff team, but we’ve pushed them behind the Lakers because the stats don’t love them. The Grizzlies clock in as the 22nd best defensive team in the league, well behind a Lakers team that is suddenly 12th in the association. Also, according to Basketball-Reference, Memphis is exceeding their expected record of 13-13 by three games.

6. Dallas Mavericks

13-13, 7th in the Western Conference

The Dallas Mavericks are at .500 and have looked mostly lost throughout the first part of the season. Their top-6 ranking here is predicated upon three facts:

- They still have MVP candidate Luka Doncic

- They brought back nearly their entire roster that finished fifth place in the Western Conference last season

- There aren’t any better candidates to land inside the top-6 out of the West

Luka Doncic is as valuable to the Mavericks as Curry is to the Warriors, but he’s been slowed by an ankle injury. As Doncic heals up and plays himself into better shape, he’ll pick things up on the court.

The Mavericks had minimal turnover during the summer. They still have sweet-shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., bruiser Jalen Brown, and center Kristaps Porzingis. They’re still a talented group that should gain momentum as the season progresses.

The Western Conference is depleted this year. The Clippers, Nuggets, and Trailblazers are all missing critical pieces to their rosters, and it’s hard to see a young squad like the Kings or Timberwolves catching fire and shooting up the rankings.

The Eastern Conference

1. Brooklyn Nets

19-8, 1st in the Eastern Conference

The Brooklyn Nets feature the best duo in the association. Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring at 28.5 PPG, and James Harden is close to a triple-double at 20.8 PPG, 9.6 APG, and 7.9 RPG.

Kevin Durant has no weaknesses on offense. He can get to the rack and finish with the best of them (72.1% from 0-3 feet), he can take two hard dribbles and pull up outside the lane (52.9% from 10-16 feet), he can curl off a screen and connect from just inside the arc (64.7% from 16 feet to the three-point line), and he can jack from deep off the dribble (37.3% from three-point range).

James Harden is slowly rounding into form. Over his last ten games, he’s dishing out 10.9 APG while scoring 21.8 PPG. Harden’s shooting percentages haven’t been great, but he’s doing so much of everything on the court for the Nets he’s had a +/- of +4.7 points. Harden’s been slowed by conditioning problems, rule changes, and perhaps his age. However, overall he’s still the best isolation scorer in the game, using the second most one-on-one possessions in the league (7.3 per game) and scoring 1.07 points per possession, placing in the 84.8th percentile.

The combination of Kevin Durant and James Harden’s skill-sets makes them impossible to cover. Still, adding insult to injury, the Brooklyn Nets boast two of the best long-distance marksmen in the association, with Joe Harris shooting 46.6% from deep and Patty Mills hitting 44.6% of his shots from beyond the arc.

The Nets are excellent on offense, but what pushes them over the Bucks and Bulls for the top spot in the East is their surprising defense. Brooklyn is rated seventh in defensive rating behind a switch heavy scheme that tends to stymie opposing offenses. The only real weakness on this squad is at the center position, where LaMarcus Aldridge is a little slow, and Blake Griffin is too small.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

18-10, 2nd in the Eastern Conference

The Bucks began the season slowly, in part because Khris Middleton missed time in October and November with a minor injury and also because of a slight championship hangover.

Pushing through fall into winter and the Bucks are 8-2 throughout their last ten games. During those ten contests, the Bucks big-three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday have propelled them to win after win. Check out their stats:

- Giannis: 27.3 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, and +/- +13.0

- Khris Middleton: 18.1 PPG, 5.1 APG, 5.8 RPG, and +/- +7.8

- Jrue Holiday: 19.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 6.6 APG, and +/- +15.2

All three can score, but this trio is unique because they can all dish the ball. Throughout the regular season and in the playoffs, opposing defenses can’t zero in on one playmaker because Holiday, Middleton, and Antetokounmpo can act as the team’s playmaker.

On the less glamorous side, the Bucks have gone switch crazy without their 7-footer, Brook Lopez, out of the lineup because of an injury and might have found something. Over the last ten contests, the Bucks rank fifth in defensive rating, holding teams to a league-best 42.5% from the field.

The combination of the Bucks’ mighty trio and their length and flexibility make the defending champs a lock for a top-2 berth in the postseason.

3. Chicago Bulls

17-10, 3rd in the Eastern Conference

Nobody expected this from the Chicago Bulls. Heading into the season, the DeMar DeRozan signing was a punchline across the NBA. A few months can make a big difference. Now. DeRozan is in the MVP conversation, and his Bulls are one of the best teams in the league.

Chicago can hurt you in so many ways. DeRozan and Zach LaVine can give you about as good a one-two punch in the face as anyone out there. LaVine is nasty from beyond the arc, hitting 39.1% off 7.5 attempts. And those aren’t spot-up looks either. He’s taking most of his shots off the dribble or from step backs. DeRozan is even nastier in the mid-range, nailing 54.2% of his looks from 10 to 16 feet.

Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso might be the best backcourt defensive pair in the association. Both players have excellent basketball IQs and seem to know where the ball is going before it leaves an opposing player’s hands. Ball and Caruso also have swift feet, allowing them to slide side-to-side, cutting off even the most explosive player’s drives to the rack.

The Bulls center, Nikola Vucevic, isn’t much of a post presence (6th percentile on post-up plays), but he has a sweet stroke and spreads the floor for DeRozan and LaVine to venture into the lane and pick apart defenders.

The Bulls have no holes. There firmly cemented in the upper echelon of the NBA, but if you’re going to pick between the superstar twosome of Kevin Durant and James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton versus DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, the Bulls pair has to come in third.

4. Miami Heat

16-11, 4th in the Eastern Conference

Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry are two of the most intense basketball players in the world. Still, Lowry has fallen short of the tremendous expectations heaped on him after coming to Miami over the summer. He’s scoring only 13.4 PPG and hitting a subpar 32.7% from deep. To make matters worse, Lowry hasn’t been his usual self on defense, allowing his assignments to shoot 4.2% better than their normal average. Jimmy Butler has been better, but he’s shooting only 19.4% from deep, and he’s letting the players he’s guarded hit 1% better than their average on the season.

Bam Adebayo’s injury hurts. He’s a defensive dynamo who routinely switches onto guards and holds fort in the lane.

The Miami Heat have the talent to withstand a two-month absence from Adebayo, a slow start from Kyle Lowry, and poor long-distance shooting from Jimmy Butler. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are outstanding offensive talents, capable of hitting multiple bombs per game, and much better on defense than most folks outside of Miami know. P. J. Tucker and Markieff Morris are two veteran wings who excel from deep and bring the Heat’s overall toughness level up a notch.

The Miami Heat haven’t reached the Nets, Bucks, or Bulls heights yet, but they’re firmly planted in the top-4 out East.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

15-12, 6th in the Eastern Conference

The Philadelphia 76ers just played their best game of the season, beating the Golden State Warriors by nine points and laying out a winning blueprint they can follow the rest of the season. Joel Embiid dominated inside while Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey supplied secondary scoring from the perimeter. At the same time, defensive dynamo Matisse Thybulle hounded the MVP frontrunner, Stephen Curry, into an uncharacteristic 6-20 brick-fest.

With Joel Embiid back in the fold and ramping up his conditioning after missing time earlier in the season, the 76ers have gone 4-1 across their last five games, picking up solid wins against the Warriors, Hornets, and Hawks. The 76ers are playing well, but here’s the thing: they’ll eventually trade Ben Simmons for some type of impact player (CJ McCollum?), and when that happens, the offense will open up, making life easier on Embiid and Harris.

The 76ers are only one game back of the Miami Heat for fourth place and should fight their rivals in the south all season for home-court advantage in the first round.

6. Atlanta Hawks

13-13, 9th in the Eastern Conference

This was the toughest pick.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are currently in fifth place with a 16-12 record. The crazy thing is that their expected wins based on points scored and allowed has them at 17 wins, good for the fourth best record in the league. Cleveland boasts the 4th rated defense in the NBA, and that’s not an early season fluke. Rookie Evan Mobley gobbles up the opposition across all three levels of the court, and guards Ricky Rubio, and Darius Garland have played excellent perimeter D.

The Washington Wizards have a 15-12 record, but they’ve gone 12-1 in games decided by five points or less, a completely unsustainable number, especially without a Kevin Durant, LeBron James, or Stephen Curry running things in crunch time.

The Charlotte Hornets are 15-13 and have two potential All-Stars in LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges. Still, they’re one of the youngest teams in the league, and it’s hard to see them pushing past more veteran squads for the sixth seed in the East.

In the end, we had to go with .500 Hawks for two reasons:

The Hawks closing unit of Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and Trae Young have the best net rating in the league at +98 total points.

The Hawks have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the Eastern Conference.

At times, the Hawks have looked lackadaisical, and their defense has been borderline atrocious (25th in DEFRTG). Still, this squad made it to the Eastern Conference Finals last season with nearly the same roster, and they are too talented to play ho-hum basketball into 2022.

They’ll pick up the intensity and feast on a slate of weak opponents after the new year, slowly creeping up into sixth place.

Western Conference vs. Eastern Conference

The top-6 out West seems relatively clear, but injuries have depleted top organizations like the Clippers, Trailblazers, and Nuggets. The bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket is as wide open as we’ve seen in the last quarter-century, leaving the door open for new incumbents like the Kings or Timberwolves to join the play-in party.

Nine Eastern Conference teams are playing .500 basketball or better, clogging up the race for the final four spots. As the season progress past the All-Star break, it will be fascinating to see if one of the young squads like the Cavs or Hornets can breakthrough or if the old guard will maintain their hold over the East for another year.


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