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NBA Playoff Power Rankings: Phoenix remains on top

There seems to be four clear title contenders out of the eight remaining teams, with the Suns still on top.

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first edition of the NBA playoff power rankings! Since the Spurs were eliminated a few weeks ago, it seems moot to continue Best of the Spurs week, so we’re going to pivot to this instead.

These rankings are based on a combination of factors, most notably the strength of each team and how difficult their path to a title is. For example, I still have the Celtics and Bucks ranked ahead of the Heat even though Miami has a better chance of winning its series since I view Boston and Milwaukee to be the superior clubs.

However, the difference between the three teams is much closer than before the second round, and it’s possible Miami could surpass one of the Celtics or Bucks depending on how each series progresses. Also, there won’t be a set day for when these rankings come out; it depends on how games are scheduled and how quickly each round finishes.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the first power rankings of the 2022 playoffs!

The favorite

1. Phoenix Suns

Net rating: +5.4 (3rd) | Offensive rating: 122.7 (1st) | Defensive rating: 117.3 (8th)

After somewhat of a scare in the first round against New Orleans, the Suns should once again be considered the favourites for the remainder of these playoffs. Their defensive rating is lower than expected, but some positive regression should be expected considering that they only gave up 107.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, which was third-best in the league.

Devin Booker probably isn’t 100% and might not be for the remainder of the playoffs, but he has progressively looked better since returning in game 6 of the first round. I’d be more concerned with his health if the other contenders weren’t banged up too, which is why his nagging hamstring shouldn’t be too big of a concern.

The most remarkable thing about Phoenix, though, is just how different their playstyle is when compared to the rest of the league. One glance at their shot chart should be enough to give any basketball fan in 2022 a stroke since they barely get to the rim, rarely shoot threes, and does all their damage from the mid-range.

However, this is exactly what sets them apart; if opposing teams want to drop in the pick and roll, CP3 and Booker will happily take a long two and hit over 55% of them, and if teams want to play a more aggressive scheme, then they’d just dump it to Deandre Ayton, who’s shooting an absurd 77% within four feet of the basket while also converting over 75% of his free throws.

On defense, the Suns have arguably the best wing stopper in Mikal Bridges, one of the most versatile rim protectors in Ayton, and their other three starters (Booker, CP3, and Jae Crowder) are all above average for their positions too.

In short, don’t be fooled by Phoenix’s atrocious expected field goal percentage or their lack of a top-five player. The Suns take the exact shots they want, are coached exceptionally well, and should be considered the favourites moving forward.

PS — the Suns also get extra points for the shenanigans that CP3 pulls, like this one from last night:

Lots of fans undoubtedly hate his antics, but stuff like this cracks me up to no end.

Can you tell that I’m fun at parties?

Legitimate contenders

2. Boston Celtics

Net rating: +4.4 (6th) | Offensive rating: 115.9 (7th) | Defensive rating: 111.4 (4th)

Like Phoneix, don’t be fooled by Boston’s defensive rating, which might seem worse than expected. This is an all-time great defense in terms of both personnel and, perhaps more importantly, scheme.

Remember, Milwaukee and Brooklyn were fifth and eighth, respectively, in offensive rating during the regular season, so the Celtics’ matchups during the first two rounds have been more difficult than what a two-seed usual face.

The most impressive part of Boston’s defense is their ability to adapt depending on the matchup. Much has been said about Kevin Durant’s struggles in the opening round, but what Boston has done to Giannis is almost as impressive.

In game 1, the Celtics didn’t double Giannis immediately, instead opting to help one pass away, which freed up the Bucks’ shooters:

Ime Udoka smartly decided not to help on Giannis as much in game 2, instead opting to match up Al Horford and Grant Williams individually with him. You can see this in the matchup data too, as Giannis shot 6-18 against both Celtics in the opening match and 8-22 in the second game. More importantly, the number of points he generated from assists more than halved, dropping from 29 to 14.

Another adjustment Boston made was preventing the Bucks from running isolation plays for Jrue Holiday and Giannis on the weak side while playing five out, which often resulted in a bucket in game 1:

There were at least four of these plays that were successful in the opening match, but I only remember seeing one or two working out in game 2, which is a credit to the Celtics’ defense setting up in advance and not allowing the Bucks get into this set.

So, with Boston’s defense being one of the best in recent memory, on top of Jayson Tatum’s ascension into arguably a top-five player, I think they should be favoured to come out of the East.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Marcus Smart’s hair yet, which definitely scares opposing players and makes their defense even more potent.

3. Golden State Warriors

Net rating: +5.3 (4th) | Offensive rating: 118.9 (2nd) | Defensive rating: 113.7 (5th)

Just when I thought I they were out, the Warriors pull me back in! Or something like that, at least.

Seriously, how can Golden State keep getting away with this?? The dynasty seemed to be over, but then they got a few lottery picks, drafted Jordan Poole one spot before the Spurs, and suddenly they’re back in contention again!

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, the Warriors still need to get past a feisty Memphis team that matches up well with them. Golden State has all the right pieces to win another title, but Steve Kerr is still tinkering with his lineup, and losing Gary Payton II for an extended period means that they won’t have someone specifically tasked with stopping Ja.

Sure, Draymond’s the best defender on the planet and can guard anyone, but he’s much better suited to being a roamer akin to a free safety instead of being designated to shut down one specific player. And as scary as this Warriors team has looked at times, it’s still important to remember that Denver might’ve been the best matchup for them in the first round, and this series against Memphis will be a much better indicator of their true talent level.

One thing to watch out for: Golden State’s new “Death Lineup” consisting of Steph, Klay, Poole, Wiggins, and Draymond is surprisingly only +12 during these playoffs. They were +23 in just 39 minutes during the Denver series but a shocking -11 over the first two games against the Grizzlies in 11 minutes of action. The even crazier stat is that Steph’s currently shooting below 76% from the line, which is proof that we live in a simulation as far as I’m concerned.

If the Warriors really want to get past this Memphis team and beat Phoneix in the Conference Finals, then they’re going to need to figure out their best lineup moving forward and stick to it in crunch time.

Also, how long do we have to wait before someone on Twitter starts asking if Jordan Poole’s the greatest player named Jordan to play basketball?

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Net rating: +10.2 (2nd) | Offensive rating: 108.5 (8th) | Defensive rating: 98.3 (1st)

The Bucks’ defense probably won’t continue to keep opposing teams scoring like it’s the early 2000s, but their offense seems destined to improve as well. Remember, this is a team whose regular season was the exact opposite, as Milwaukee had the fifth-best offense but only a slightly above-average defense, coming in at 14th.

In all fairness, they played much of the season without Brook Lopez, their best rim protector. He’s looked a lot better than expected after such a lengthy absence, but the plus/minus numbers with him and Giannis on the court might surprise some.

Much has been made about Milwaukee’s twin towers and their ability to prevent Boston from scoring in the paint, but the duo has actually posted a -9 in the first two games of the series. The three bigs lineup that includes Bobby “Goggles” Portis is even worse, going -13 in just 23 minutes of action together. Surprisingly, Giannis and Portis alone are +12 in 46 minutes, so it’ll be interesting if Mike Budenholzer leans more towards this pairing moving forward.

Another matchup to watch for is Holiday potentially guarding Tatum. Wesley Matthews got the initial assignment to start both games in Boston, but Holiday was called upon more much in the latter stages of game two.

Unsurprisingly, the difference is stark: Tatum shot 4-5 against Matthews and just 1-6 against Holiday in the second game. Milwaukee would’ve had a much better chance to go up 2-0 had Holiday guarded him from the tip, so don’t be shocked if that happens on Saturday.

Dark horses

5. Miami Heat

Net rating: +15.7 (1st) | Offensive rating: 118.9 (3rd) | Defensive rating: 103.2 (2nd)

If you just go by Miami’s stats, they seem like the runaway title favourites. However, context is important; the Heat are currently playing a 76ers team “led” by James Harden (who seems like he’s been enjoying South Beach a bit too much) instead of Joel Embiid, and previously matched up against the Hawks and Trae Young, who took his nickname a bit too literally.

Having a nickname like “Ice” is really smart if I’m being honest. Everyone thinks you’ve had a big game if people refer to you that way, even after you’ve literally gone ice cold.

Anyway, Miami’s defense is legitimately scary and might be the second-best behind the Celtics, but their half-court offense still leaves a lot to be desired. They were only slightly above average in the regular season by scoring 114.2 points per 100 possessions, which was 11th in the league.

They relied a lot on scoring off transitions, ranking fifth in that area, but was again only 11th in half-court plays. Miami hasn’t really been tested yet due to them playing inferior opposition, but when the game inevitably slows down and they’re forced to trade baskets with either Boston or Milwaukee in the Conference Finals, I just don’t see how the Heat can keep up when they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis or Tatum.

It also doesn’t help that both Lowry and Butler have missed games already, although I’m sure they’ll try even harder to push through and play once the stakes get even higher.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

Net rating: +4.6 (5th) | Offensive rating: 112.3 (8th) | Defensive rating: 107.6 (3rd)

The Grizzlies are pure chaos, and I absolutely love it. First, they played a Wolves team that seemed, well, drunk at times, which doesn’t even include all the off-court shenanigans that went on.

The discourse around Ja has been bizarre all year, with many people thinking that he shouldn’t have been in the running for Most Improved Player and others going as far as to say that Memphis is better without him.

Yes, Ja’s defense is a major problem and he should get criticized more in that area, but the truth is that the Grizzlies’ offense has cratered in the playoffs with him on the bench. So far, Memphis has a net rating of +5.9 during the postseason with Ja playing and an offensive rating of 114.5, which craters to -1.1 and 103.6, respectively, with him off the court.

Sure, their defense improves by nearly four points per 100 possessions when Ja sits, but it’s a moot point when they’re still getting outscored during those minutes. The even better news is that Ja has gone from scoring 21.5 points per game on 38.6% shooting in the first round to 40.5 points and 46.8% shooting against the Warriors. He obviously won’t sustain those numbers, but it’s also fair to expect him to continue dominating Golden State since they’re a much better matchup for him.

Don’t believe me? Well, you can always take Pat Bev’s word instead.

Sorry, maybe next year

7. Dallas Mavericks

Net rating: +0.5 (8th) | Offensive rating: 116.0 (5th) | Defensive rating: 115.5 (7th)

This one really pains me, since I truly believed that the Mavs had a puncher’s chance at beating the Suns. Lots of people have blamed Luka for their game 2 loss, especially since Phoenix hunted him mercilessly for much of the 3rd and 4th quarters.

But remember, Luka is the REASON that the Mavs were competitive in the first place. He’s scored 80 points and generated 42 more off of his passes so far, while his next highest scoring teammate, Maxi Kleber has only poured in 28 points, and Spencer Dinwiddie has created 19 more points from passes.

Meanwhile, Jalen Brunson has reverted back to 2021 playoff Brunson after putting on his best Magic Johnson impression during the first round, as he’s scored just 22 points against the Suns while shooting a miserable 9-28 from the field.

This happened last year, too, against the Clippers. Luka would carry Dallas for three quarters but run out of gas in the fourth since his supporting cast wasn’t able to take on the offensive burden, which made him an easy target on defense.

This isn’t to say that Luka isn’t without fault, of course. He needs to get into better shape going into training camp next year and have the stamina to perform at the highest level for an entire game. After all, if this guy can lose weight and suddenly become the back-to-back MVP, why can’t Luka?

8. Philadelphia 76ers

Net rating: +2.4 (7th) | Offensive rating: 116.7 (4th) | Defensive rating: 114.3 (6th)

Frankly, I don’t even want to talk about the Sixers. They just make me sad.

Embiid’s already been ruled out for game 3, and Harden doesn’t seem like he can blow by anyone at the moment, including myself (alright, that might’ve been a bit of an exaggeration, but you get what I mean).

There’s really nothing that can save this team from coming back in this series, regardless if Embiid returns eventually or not. At this point, I think most fans are just looking towards the offseason and wondering what might happen.

Will Harden still receive a max contract from the team? Daryl Morey seems to love him more than his own children so I bet it’s going to happen, but I’m sure that he’ll also be looking to dump Tobias Harris’ contract to open up another max slot and sign a third star to pair with Harden and Embiid.

I was honestly so excited to see the Harden-Simmons trade happen since it seemed like a win-win for both teams at the time, which has now devolved into a... lose-lose? How did that happen?

Regardless, I’m pretty confident that Harden will be back in Philly next year, but it just depends on how much he signs for. If I’m Morey, though, I’m definitely including a clause in the deal that forces Harden to go vegan like CP3 and start starring in State Farm commercials, which is basically the modern and hip version of the Lazarus Pit.

Well, that’s it for the first power rankings! This time, I’m sending you guys over to my friend Bruno Passos’ page to read his fantastic article on the Spurs’ offseason pivot around power forwards. Bruno always does great work so please consider checking it out!

As always, thanks for reading, and please let me know what you of this new series. I hope you all enjoyed this first article!

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.