While reading this, if you are wondering about omissions such as the Nuggets, Raptors, and Jazz as contenders, the reason is that I don’t believe they have a realistic chance of reaching the NBA Finals. That is why we are only going to mention the following six teams.
1) Milwaukee Bucks -> Absolutely no one: The current NBA standings in the Eastern Conference imply that the Bucks will either play the Nets or the Magic. On the one hand, the Nets have already lost Kyrie Irving for the remainder of the season. On the other, the Magic have been adding long, versatile players for years, and one might argue that could potentially cause problems for the Bucks. But the truth is that whoever faces the Bucks in the first round will be lucky not to be swept.
2) Celtics -> Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers season is nowhere near what they were expecting at the start. Their shooting is mediocre at best, and their away record abysmal (9-20). Nonetheless, they remain an elite team defensively and a team that can go head to head with any team in the league. The Celtics definitely don’t wish to face the 76ers in the 1st round, so they have to protect their 3rd seed (they also stay away from the Bucks in the Eastern Semi-Finals).
3) Philadelphia 76ers -> Miami Heat: We’ve already mentioned that the Sixers are still a great team. But, if the season ended now, they would have to face the Heat with home-court disadvantage. Of course, for basketball fans, that would be a fantastic series. But, for the Sixers, it would only mean a tough and long-fought battle against a team with many secret weapons. Not an ideal 1st-round matchup.
4) Los Angeles Lakers -> New Orleans Pelicans: Maybe a little unconventional, but I could see the Pelicans creating some minor problems for the Lakers. Zion has scored at least 20 in his last eight games, and the Pelicans have won 18 of their last 27 games (5th in the NBA). The Lakers would not love a high-speed 1st-round battle, and they would instead reserve their energy. Of course, for this matchup to happen, the Pelicans will have to catch the Grizzlies for the last playoff spot (currently three games behind).
5) Los Angeles Clippers -> Utah Jazz: The size and strength of the Jazz is an issue for any team. They compete hard and execute on a high level during the playoffs. For the Clippers, who have played some great basketball at times, the continuous injury problems haven’t allowed them to record a lot of minutes on the floor with a full roster. If they don’t manage to improve their chemistry, it would be difficult to play against such a strong team as the Utah Jazz.
6) Houston Rockets -> Utah Jazz: Another team that would probably like to avoid the Jazz is the Rockets. The Rockets traded their starting center (Capela) a few weeks ago to switch to small ball at an extremely high pace. The Jazz, on the other hand, prefer to keep the pace low and hit the boards hard. In a potential playoff matchup, the Rockets would try to contain and tire Rudy Gobert as much as possible, but there’s no guarantee they will succeed in enforcing their rhythm over the Jazz.