The NBA playoffs begin Saturday without a clear-cut favorite, leaving the race for the 2022 championship wide open.
The Phoenix Suns have the best odds, but they are by no means an overwhelming favorite. Despite a dominant regular season, are the Suns being overlooked as the title favorite? Can the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies really break all the way through to a championship?
Just how do we gauge the Philadelphia 76ers? Or the Brooklyn Nets? And that is to say nothing of past champions like the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors who have the pedigree to get back to the NBA Finals.
With so many questions about the field, we broke down what each of the 16 playoff teams must do to win the 2022 NBA championship. While some teams are stronger contenders than others, everybody has a chance.
The NBA-best Suns have everything going from them: A top-five offense and defense, veteran leader (Chris Paul), MVP candidate (Devin Booker), Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Mikal Bridges), Coach of the Year candidate (Monty Williams) and, most importantly, experience after coming up short last year. If the Suns continue to do exactly what they did during the regular season, they will pick up their first NBA title.
Lock-down defense led by Jimmy Butler, Bad Adebayo and Kyle Lowry and just enough offense from a deep roster make the Heat a real possibility to win the title. With a top-five defense, top-12 offense and top-six net rating, the Heat also have a coach (Erik Spoelstra) with two championships.
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A superstar (Ja Morant), a deep roster (10 players play at least 20 minutes per game), a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Jaren Jackson Jr.) and just one of two teams in the top six in offensive and defensive efficiency, the Grizzlies have all in the ingredients necessary to win the franchise’s first championship.
Only the Suns (37-10) have been better than the Celtics (34-12) since the calendar flipped to 2022. If Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to play at All-Star levels, they could be tough to beat. And if Robert Williams III (torn left meniscus) returns in an expected second-round series against the Bucks to help anchor the defense, the Celtics have enough to win the title.
Warriors vs. Nuggets: NBA playoff first-round X-factors
USA TODAY Sports’ Cydney Henderson breaks down the first-round matchup between the Warriors and Nuggets in the Western Conference.
Golden State Warriors
With the band back together, the Warriors ooze championship pedigree. The core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have three titles. They know what it takes to win this time of year. The key will be the two-way play of Andrew Wiggins, the defense of Kevon Looney and the offense of Jordan Poole, who Green would have you believe is the Most Improved Player. The Warriors could be the only team in the West capable of toppling the Suns. And if they can get past the Suns, there’s no doubt they can win their fourth title in eight seasons.
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The Bucks have the confidence from winning the title last year, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday remain the best two-way Big 3 in the NBA. And if Antetokounmpo duplicates last season’s playoff production, the Bucks are on their way to a second consecutive title.
The Mavericks entered the playoffs with a lot of momentum, going 17-6 since All-Star break. But the Mavericks’ championship aspirations will come down to the availability of star Luka Doncic, who is nursing a strained left calf. Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson will have to pick up the offensive end in Doncic’s absence.
Mavericks vs. Jazz: NBA playoff first-round X-factors
USA TODAY Sports’ Cydney Henderson breaks down the first-round matchup between the Mavericks and Jazz in the Western Conference.
As long as he’s healthy, Joel Embiid can be the best player in any series. Also upset at a perceived MVP slight, Embiid is set up for a dominant postseason. Philadelphia’s chances ultimately come down to James Harden. He says his sore hamstring is ready for the playoffs. If Harden can rediscover enough of his explosiveness, he and Embiid can be the dominant duo that leads the Sixers to the title.
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Utah has the league’s top-rated offense and a veteran squad that knows how to run it at peak efficiency. Donovan Mitchell has shown he can raise his game in the playoffs and be a top-tier scorer. Rudy Gobert will be the interior defensive anchor he always is, but the Jazz could stand to shore things up around him. As long as Gobert doesn’t have to stray too far from his strengths, Utah remains dangerous.
Sleep on the 2019 champions if you want to, but they have the experience, talent (All-Star Fred VanVleet and Rookie of the Year candidate Scottie Barnes), leadership (Nick Nurse) and versatility to go far in the playoffs. Canada’s vaccination requirement could also work in their favor on several matchups.
Sixers vs. Raptors: NBA playoff first-round X-factors
USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down the first-round matchup between the Sixers and Raptors in the Eastern Conference.
Nikola Jokic elevated his game this season and might have won a second consecutive MVP award. Can he get to an even higher level? Perhaps we shouldn’t put it past Jokic after he posted historic numbers in the regular season. But that’s likely the only way the ragtag Nuggets will make any noise in the playoffs unless Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return and quickly get back to top form.
The resurgent Bulls have been a good storyline all season. But injuries have hurt, especially Lonzo Ball’s knee injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season. So DeMar DeRozan will need to play at a superstar level, Zach LaVine will also need to play like a superstar, Nikola Vucevic will need to be efficient on offense and the Bucks, Celtics, Heat and Suns will all need have their worst playoff performances in a long while.
The saying is defense wins championships, but the Wolves should lean in the other direction. They had the top-scoring offense in the league this season and the highest pace. A young and athletic team led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell can push the pace even more. The defense improved but not enough for Minnesota to completely lock down opponents. Outscoring them is likely the Wolves’ best chance.
Are the Brooklyn Nets the most dangerous No. 7 seed in NBA playoff history?
Even Boston sports fan Andy Nesbitt admits Brooklyn is no ordinary No. 7 seed and the Celtics-Nets series should be the best of the first round.
The adage is that in the playoffs, the superstars will play like superstars, but you need the role players to step up. Kevin Durant is a two-time NBA Finals MVP and could have been the league MVP this season if he stayed healthy. Kyrie Irving was instrumental in the Cavaliers’ comeback from 3-1 down to topple mighty Golden State in 2016. So those two are sure bets. It will be up to Seth Curry, former NBA champion Patty Mills and Andre Drummond to deliver. Obviously, if not for Durant’s injury and Irving’s part-time status for most of the season, the Nets would be a top seed.
New Orleans Pelicans
What would make the Pelicans the only eighth seed in NBA history to win the Finals? CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and Herbert Jones, the impressive rookie. It’s a tall order, but the Pelicans are playing with incredible confidence at the right time.
The Hawks made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year and find themselves back in the playoffs after winning the play-in tournament. Atlanta has a top-ranked offense led by superstar Trae Young, but will need to step up the defense significantly to make it far in the loaded East. The Hawks had the No. 26-ranked defense in the regular season.