Ranking all 16 teams in the 2022 NBA playoffs

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Where do the 76ers rank among teams in the 2022 NBA playoffs? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Let the playoffs begin.

With a full 82-game season and the play-in tournament in the books, the 2022 NBA playoffs will soon determine the next champion.

Sixteen teams will be competing for a chance to lift the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, but which squads look to be legitimate contenders? 

Factoring team strengths, weaknesses and potential matchups, let’s rank every playoff team from least to best possibility of becoming 2022 NBA champions:

16. New Orleans Pelicans, No. 8 seed

New Orleans pulled off the upset in the play-in tournament to take the Los Angeles Clippers’ spot as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Adding CJ McCollum at the trade deadline proved to be the difference for this unit. Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr. have been solid veterans who have stepped up. Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado have been immediate impact rookies, with Jones being a legit All-Defensive team candidate.

However, the Pelicans’ best player has not played all year. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has had an injury-riddled season, so New Orleans cannot hit its peak as a group without Williamson in the lineup. The Phoenix Suns will be the first-round matchup for the Pels, but without Zion, it’s tough to see New Orleans pulling off a shocking upset. 

15. Utah Jazz, No. 5 seed

Sometimes teams are built for regular-season success. Sometimes they’re better suited for the playoffs. Sometimes it’s both. Utah falls in the first category because frankly, we’ve seen this story before. As good as the Jazz have been in recent regular seasons, it hasn’t yet translated to the postseason. Utah’s issues have only exacerbated in recent weeks with multiple double-digit leads resulting in losses. 

The Jazz didn’t make any major moves over the offseason to address this (Rudy Gay was a nice depth move but not a needle-mover). Their key strengths (Donovan Mitchell’s scoring) and weaknesses (playing small ball against Rudy Gobert, lack of wing power) are well-documented, so it’s mainly a matter of when, not if, the Jazz are eliminated – even if they eliminate the Dallas Mavericks with a hampered Luka Doncic.

14. Chicago Bulls, No. 6 seed

Chicago flirted with a No. 1 seed for a good portion of the season until it all came crashing down in late February. Since then, the Bulls have plummeted in the Eastern standings. What looked to be a promising season is ending in a nightmare. Lonzo Ball is out for the season, and DeMar DeRozan’s MVP consideration is now a thing of the past.

Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are good matchups while Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu have been important contributors off the bench, but this Bulls team that looks promising on paper has been figured out. A first-round matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks is not an ideal scenario either. Milwaukee swept the season series 4-0, so it’s unlikely Chicago makes it to the second round.

13. Atlanta Hawks, No. 8 seed

Atlanta did not meet expectations after making a run to the Eastern Conference finals last year as a No. 5 seed. It qualified for the playoffs this year as a No. 8 seed thanks to the play-in tournament, and Trae Young will be an annoying cover for any opponent. Atlanta also has Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Louis Williams (if healthy) as scoring guards while Danilo Gallinari, Onyeka Okongwu and Gorgui Dieng are versatile big men. 

The concerns with the Hawks fall on the health of John Collins and Clint Capela. Capela suffered a knee injury in the final play-in game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, so how he fares will be huge. There’s no counting out the Hawks because of what they’ve done before, but the Miami Heat (which won the season series 3-1) should get the best of them in the opening round.

12. Dallas Mavericks, No. 4 seed

Luka Doncic continues to dominate the stat sheet as a 6-foot-7 high-IQ playmaker, but as has been the problem throughout his four seasons in Dallas, there are just few threats beyond him. The Kristaps Porzingis experiment ended at the 2022 trade deadline, which brought in Spencer Dinwiddie, a nice piece off the bench. Jalen Brunson also set himself up to get paid this summer, but sometimes Batman needs a Robin to deliver when necessary and Doncic is still mainly fighting alone.

Other key pieces include Dorian Finney-Smith (who received a much-deserved extension), Dwight Powell, Reggie Bullock, Davis Bertans and Maxi Kleber (Tim Hardaway Jr. likely won’t play in the postseason). But these players need Doncic’s playmaking to thrive, and though Doncic can win playoff games alone, it’s not a recipe for championship success this year. 

Now there’s the question of his left calf strain, which so far has him missing Game 1 against Utah. Dallas does not have the starpower outside of him to go far, but the Mavs initially ranked No. 9 before his injury. 

11. Denver Nuggets, No. 6 seed

The Nuggets are pretty simple. Nikola Jokic is having one of the best seasons any player has had in NBA history. But with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. likely out for the playoffs, there’s a small margin of error for Denver to embark on a deep run. Simply put: Jokic will have a better chance next year with – hopefully – a healthier squad.

Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris and Jeff Green have been solid role players. Bones Hyland could probably help swing a playoff game with his microwave scoring ability. But even in a weaker-than-expected Western Conference this year, the Nuggets unfortunately don’t emerge as a contender. Now it’s totally possible Denver can knock out the Golden State Warriors in round one. Denver won the season series 3-1 and the Warriors are dealing with injury issues that reveal their weaknesses. But even if the Nuggets advance, it’s hard to see them going any further. 

10. Brooklyn Nets, No. 7 seed

Brooklyn entered the season with championship expectations, but that so far has failed with the Nets being a play-in team. Kevin Durant’s injury and Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status derailed Brooklyn’s regular season, but there’s a glimmer of hope if Ben Simmons can play. If not, the Nets also don’t have Joe Harris’ sharpshooting to help out. The petrifying thing with Brooklyn is they can turn it on whenever they want with Seth Curry (though dealing with an injury) and Patty Mills in the fold. But is that sustainable?

There’s also the question of frontcourt depth. Do Andre Drummond and Nicolas Claxton down low move the needle? Will LaMarcus Aldridge get minutes? You don’t want to count out a team with Durant and Irving, especially if they get the right matchups. But this team needs Simmons to reach their ceiling, and that right now is a major question mark that slots them at No. 10 going up against the Boston Celtics, the team with the No. 1 ranked defense that won the season series 3-1. 

9. Minnesota Timberwolves, No. 7 seed

Minnesota clinched the No. 7 seed after beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening play-in game, earning its second postseason berth since 2004. Anthony Edwards’ emergence in his sophomore season has made for a perfect pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, Taurean Prince, Jaden McDaniels, Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid have filled in excellently in their respective roles.

The key for Minnesota is Towns. The Clippers spotlighted how to take him out of the game, and Towns later fouled out in a game he needs to forget. Towns will need to hit his 25-point, 10-rebound average if Minnesota wants to go far. The Wolves will face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, a season series that finished tied at 2-2. Both teams play with a ton of heart and grit, but if the Wolves pull off the upset – which would not be shocking – they can brew up a run against Golden State (season series tied 2-2) or Denver (MIN won season series 3-1) in the following round despite lacking playoff experience. This is the sleeper team from the West.

8. Philadelphia 76ers, No. 4 seed

When you have Joel Embiid, a 7-foot do-it-all center who can shoot and dribble off the bounce, you will be in the title conversation. The 76ers have fielded one of the most versatile and dominant centers in NBA history this season. So why are they No. 8? The main concern is how they survive when he’s not on the floor. DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap – two veterans that fell out of the rotation this year on their previous teams – have gotten opportunities, but both are far from their prime. Paul Reed, the No. 58 overall pick in 2020, has little experience, especially in a playoff atmosphere. Head coach Doc Rivers is known for not adjusting in time when it comes to these types of decisions. 

On top of that, will James Harden be consistent in big games? The victory laps that spread like fire over social media after his first few games in Philly are now slow jogs. His facilitating has been incredible, but not so much the shooting or defense. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris will need to come up big, but Matisse Thybulle (tremendous defender), Georges Niang, Danny Green, Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz are not the most versatile pieces. Put that up against a streaking Toronto Raptors team and it doesn’t look too pretty. It doesn’t help Philly that Thybulle’s vaccination status currently has him ineligible to play in Toronto’s home games. 

7. Golden State Warriors, No. 3 seed

Golden State came out of the gates strong despite missing Klay Thompson, but even though he’s back to splashing buckets with Stephen Curry, it’s difficult to believe this is the Warriors’ year. Yes, Jordan Poole is a possible Most Improved Player candidate. Yes, Jonathan Kuminga, Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala are significant wing upgrades from last season. But there are two issues – not counting the need for Andrew Wiggins to step up – that hinder Golden State’s odds.

The first is lack of frontcourt depth. James Wiseman is the only 7-footer on the team and he’s out for the season after not playing all year. Kevon Looney and Nemanja Bjelica, the other two options, are undersized. Lack of big man depth cost Phoenix last year, so defending size will be strenuous, especially with Jokic in the first round. And as good as Draymond Green is, the Warriors need him everywhere instead of attached to just one big man. 

The second is that Golden State needs Curry and Green to be healthy every game. They are nowhere near their peak if both aren’t on the court together, which has affected them quite often this season. If they can brush those concerns aside, a run is possible.

6. Boston Celtics, No. 2 seed

Sometimes it’s about peaking at the right time. Once battling for a spot in the play-in tournament, the Celtics shot up the standings after the All-Star break and solidified themselves as a force to reckon with. With first-year head coach Ime Udoka’s system in place, the C’s have the No. 1 ranked defense in the league and are strong at every position.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are a dangerous combo at the wing spots. Marcus Smart, a DPOY candidate, and Derrick White will be tough for opposing guards to succeed against. Robert Williams III, Al Horford, Grant Williams and Daniel Theis all bring different strengths in the frontcourt, but Boston’s hopes lie in Time Lord’s health. The Celtics would rank third if he was healthy, but there’s no replacing his value to their structure. However, if the Celtics can make it to the second round with Williams back in the mix, look out.

5. Toronto Raptors, No. 5 seed

Like the Celtics, the Raptors are also peaking at an opportune time. They were also hovering near a play-in spot earlier in the season but are now looking extremely dangerous as a No. 5 seed. Led by 2022 All-Star Fred VanVleet and possible All-NBA team member Pascal Siakam, the Raptors are threatening because they’re stacked in the wing positions, the most important department for versatility in the NBA.

Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes (possible Rookie of the Year), Gary Trent Jr., Thaddeus Young, Chris Boucher and Yuta Watanabe are all skilled, versatile wings, with the shortest one being 6-foot-5. The center position is Toronto’s primary concern. But since March 1, Toronto has the third best defense in the league and sixth best net rating when factoring offense. With Williams’ injury in Boston, the Raptors are the best sleeper team in the playoffs besides Minnesota. If Toronto defeats Philly, it would not at all be shocking if it upsets the next team on this list in a potential second-round matchup.

4. Miami Heat, No. 1 seed

Miami might be a No. 1 seed, but it’s not exactly the scariest. The Heat made their sleeper run in 2020. They won’t be surprising anyone anymore despite being a sound defensive team, which will always keep them in the mix. Adding Kyle Lowry was a move made for the playoffs while Victor Oladipo, if healthy, could alter a series. Bam Adebayo is also one of the best centers in the game.

But the primary concern is the bench. Tyler Herro, likely the Sixth Man of the Year, has taken a leap as an on-ball playmaker and scorer. But Miami also relies heavily on Max Strus (could start over Duncan Robinson), Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent. They’ve all posted career-high numbers in career-high minutes, but how will they fare in the playoffs? Another red flag is Jimmy Butler. He’s shooting 23.3% from 3-point range, his worst clip since his rookie season. That might come back to bite him when defenses willingly let him shoot. At his position, he’s no longer the ideal No. 1 option to lead a team to a title.  

3. Memphis Grizzlies, No. 2 seed

Memphis resembles what Phoenix did last year: a young team that exceeded expectations behind great coaching. It would not be surprising if the Grizzlies went on a deep run similar to the Suns. The big difference, though, is last year’s Suns needed Paul, their best player, to control the tempo, otherwise they looked like a different team. Memphis does not rely on Ja Morant, its best player, in the same vein (the Grizzlies also beat a healthy Suns team on April 1 without Morant).

The Grizzlies might be young, but they got a taste of postseason life last year. Along with Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. (22, DPOY candidate), Desmond Bane (23, MIP candidate), Dillon Brooks (26), De’Anthony Melton (23), Tyus Jones (25), Ziaire Williams (20), Brandon Clarke (25) and Xavier Tillman (23) is a tremendous young core capable of contending right now, and there are more names to add. Memphis does not care who its opponents are and that makes them menacing. Minnesota is a tough draw in the opening round, so how Memphis performs in the series will carry significant substance for this high of a ranking.

2. Milwaukee Bucks, No. 3 seed

With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez still in the starting five, the 2021 champs will be contending. Antetokounmpo proved he can lead a team to the title while Middleton and Holiday certified themselves as reliable second and third options. Beating a Giannis-led team four times will not be an easy task for any opponent. 

The biggest question mark for Milwaukee will be who replaces P.J. Tucker’s role on defense? Tucker averaged 29.6 minutes in last year’s championship run and took on some difficult assignments, but the Bucks opted to let him walk in free agency. Grayson Allen at shooting guard and Serge Ibaka off the bench will be two important pieces, and Wesley Matthews’ return may be vital defensively. The door is open for Milwaukee to repeat. 

1. Phoenix Suns, No. 1 seed

After falling in the NBA Finals last year, the Suns have what it takes to win it all this time around. They improved roster weaknesses (JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo at backup center, Landry Shamet and Torrey Craig at the wing spots) and got internal growth from their youngsters (Devin Booker is a top-five MVP candidate, Mikal Bridges is a DPOY candidate, Cameron Johnson is a 6MOY candidate, Deandre Ayton should’ve gotten extended). 

The Suns are consistent, resilient and lack legit weaknesses. As long as Chris Paul stays healthy to be the floor general on both sides of the ball, the Suns have both the top-end talent and depth to win their first ever title.