The NBA regular season has finally come to a close after a very entertaining 6 months of basketball. It’s been a roller coaster as far as the season goes with many teams breaking out on the scene, while other teams wallowed away after high expectations going into the season.
And with the NBA Playoffs set to tip off this weekend, here’s a look at some teams that have a legitimate chance to win the 2022 NBA Championship, and some other teams that may be a fluke, despite a convincing and successful regular season campaign.
With the league’s best record heading into the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns are the outright favorites this season to win the NBA Finals. With a starting lineup that consists of All-Star Devin Booker and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, along with ironman Mikal Bridges and a defensive anchor in DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix can get a lead early in a game and never look back.
Even when they’ve had players out due to injury, head coach Monty Williams has done a great job getting the most out of his bench, which is why Phoenix is a scary matchup due to their consistency as a team overall, and a testament to Monty Williams coaching as he is one of the favorites to win Coach of the Year this season. The 2021 NBA Finals runners up look to bounce back from their collapse against the Bucks last July as they strive to make history by capturing their first ever title in franchise history.
After showing some promise in the 2021 playoffs by giving the number one seed Utah Jazz some trouble in the first round, the Memphis Grizzlies have built off that series, shocking the NBA this season, exceeding pre-season expectations with a relatively young team. Ja Morant has transformed himself into an All-NBA player in just his third season, and has been discussed within the MVP conversation, putting his leadership and athleticism on display throughout the course of the year.
Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. have emerged as solid two way players for the Grizzlies. Bane has been a pleasant surprise in just his second year, averaging 18.2 points per game, a 9 point jump from his rookie year, putting him in the running for the Most Improved Player award for his sharpshooting and his suffocating perimeter defense. Despite being a relatively young team heading into the postseason, the Grizzlies are capable of doing some damage to some of the more experienced teams in the playoffs this year.
With injuries plaguing the team early this season, the Bucks haven’t truly been able to display that dominance they showed in the final 4 games of the NBA Finals after being down 2-0 early in the series. But with the regular season coming to a close, the Bucks have become healthy at the right time. Brook Lopez is back in the lineup, providing rim protection at the center position that the Bucks were lacking throughout the season.
The Bucks may have lost key role players in P.J. Tucker and Donte Divincenzo among others within the last year, but players such as Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and Jordan Nwora have played well in a “next man up” type of role this season, contributing meaningful minutes that will prove to be important as the Bucks look to make yet another deep run. And with Milwaukee’s big three in Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and 2 time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo playing great basketball as of late, the reigning champions look to run it back this postseason, looking to be the first team to win back to back championships since the Golden State Warriors (2017, 2018) and the Miami Heat (2012, 2013).
The Celtics were disappointing to begin the season under first year head coach Ime Udoka, hanging around the .500 mark heading into the All-Star break. There were even questions whether Celtics star’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were capable of playing together after inconsistencies to start the year off. Since then, the C’s have been on a tear, with a record of 17-5 since All-Star Weekend. Jayson Tatum has been playing the best basketball of his career to date, averaging 30.4 points per game in the final 20 games of the season, catapulting himself into the MVP conversation.
A big difference for the Celtics in the second half of the season has been their defense, with Marcus Smart and Robert Williams being a major factor on the perimeter and in the paint, as both players in the mix for the Defensive Player of the Year award. And while the Celtics suffered a big loss with Robert Williams tearing his meniscus in late March, the small ball big has a chance to return for the C’s in their first round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, clogging the lane for Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Robert Williams, when healthy, will be an X-Factor for the Celtics going forward.
This may come as a surprise considering that the Miami Heat finished the season atop of the Eastern Conference, but there are some concerns heading into the playoffs. Miami has the tools to get it done when at full strength, but multiple Heat players have missed some time due to injury this season. However, even when the Heat have been healthy, there have been concerns about late game situations, as the Heat have been very inconsistent down the stretch.
When the offense settles for isolation with Jimmy Butler, they tend to struggle, hitting minimal shots in the final five minutes of play, usually resulting in a loss. However, when the Heat get the ball to Tyler Herro or Kyle Lowry and set up a play, the outcome of the game tends to go in their favor. It’s a matter of late game decisions by Erik Spoelstra and the coaching staff that will determine the outcome of games.
Another weak spot for the Heat has been their defense. While they have a variety of sharpshooters on the perimeter with Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Max Strus, they all struggle on the defensive end, as opposing players will look to attack those players specifically. Bam Adebayo will be a key part to their defense manning the middle, but the team will only go as far as their perimeter defense takes them with many holes to attack looking from an opposing players perspective.
After signing DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso this past offseason, the Bulls have rejuvenated themselves back into playoff contention. Chicago was hot to start off the year with a record of 26-10 through the first 36 games of the season, but have since cooled off, dating back to the All-Star break.
Injuries have derailed the Bulls second half of the season, with Ball being out for the remainder of the campaign, including the playoffs. And with Caruso also missing a large chunk of games, the Bulls have lost their identity on the defensive side of the ball, which is why they currently stand at 46-36 for the regular season.
Chicago struggled to make defensive plays down the stretch of games, raising some eyebrows with a record of 8-15 after the All Star break. On the offensive side of the ball, the Bulls are one of the best in the league all around, trailing just the Suns in overall field goal percentage, making them one of the more efficient teams in the league on the attack. But if they can’t get stops on defense and rely on their offense to carry them through games, it will be a quick exit for Chicago.
This may be a shock for some since Philadelphia has the tools to contend for a title, but with Matisse Thybulle not available to play in away games versus Toronto, the 76ers could be in trouble. While Thybulle may not be much of an impact player on the offensive end, he makes his presence known on defense, and can halt the Raptor’s style of play. And while the 76ers have MVP candidate and Scoring Champion Joel Embiid, he will most likely be a major point of focus for the Raptor’s defense.
This leaves one important question to be answered: will James Harden come to play in this series? The former MVP has struggled lately, generating several turnovers, and hasn’t shown up in big games for the 76ers late into the season. And with several Raptors guards possessing strong perimeter defense to tire out Harden, don’t be surprised if Philly is sent home after a series like this, with the Raptors possessing various weapons such as versatile rookie sensation Scottie Barnes, Fred VanVleet, and Gary Trent among others to pose against the Sixers superstars.
Despite having one of the best offenses in the league and posting a top 10 defense this season, the Utah Jazz have been a mess as of late. The chemistry of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert has tarnished the longer the season has gone on, with Mitchell even expressing his frustration over Twitter. Utah hasn’t had difficulty in the first half of games, getting out to large leads to kick off games. The real struggle for them has been finishing those games, as they have blown big leads several times recently, losing 14 games this season after having a lead of 10 or more at some point in the game, most notably blowing a 25 point lead to the Clippers in late March.
The Jazz are capable of winning games as they have displayed in recent years, but if they want to make it deep into this year’s playoffs, they must have the discipline everytime they’re out there. In the recent stretch of games, Mitchell has struggled taking over games in the fourth quarter, averaging 3.8 points per fourth quarter, which is below his average for the season at 4.8 points per fourth quarter. Needless to say, the Utah Jazz need to iron out their chemistry as well as their fourth quarter woes in order to make a deep run in this year’s playoffs, otherwise the Jazz could seek some change this offseason should it not pan out.