ESPN.com49 Minute Read
The NBA postseason is here, with 20 teams still fighting for the 2022-23 title.
And after a campaign of blockbuster trades, record scoring numbers, the end of a historic playoff drought and a wild race to the finish to decide play-in tournament seeding, who is going to win this thing?
The defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics, the teams that battled in last season’s NBA Finals, took drastically different roads back to the postseason. Golden State, thanks to some bizarre home-road splits, snuck into the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. Boston cruised to the second-best record in the NBA behind All-Star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; the Philadelphia 76ers, who boast the MVP favorite in Joel Embiid, weren’t far behind in the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, no squads transformed their postseason outlooks better than the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers. Phoenix sits at No. 4 in the West, but it became a popular Finals pick after acquiring superstar Kevin Durant at the trade deadline. The Lakers remade their roster at the deadline and finished with the NBA’s second-best record after the All-Star break.
It’s sure to be a thrilling ride to the Finals. Here’s everything you need to know to get started, including the biggest stars, stats and storylines for all 20 teams.
Note: 2023 NBA title odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.
The Milwaukee Bucks might have their deepest team ever
The Bucks won the championship in 2021, but players have called this year’s team the deepest yet. Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday each recorded their best seasons in a Bucks uniform, the team added Jae Crowder at the trade deadline without trading away any major rotation players, and Joe Ingles is shooting 40.9% from 3 in his return from a torn ACL.
Giannis is ready after a dominating, yet disappointing, 2022 playoff run …
This postseason is an opportunity for Giannis Antetokounmpo to further cement his legacy as one of the greatest players of his generation. After winning 2021 Finals MVP and pushing Boston to seven games in the playoffs in 2022 without forward Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo carried the Bucks to the league’s best record by averaging 31.1 points on 55.3% shooting with 11.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists — the first player to put up those numbers since Wilt Chamberlain.
… and his star sidekick is regaining his form
Injuries derailed Middleton in last season’s playoffs and into this season. He appeared in just 33 games, but after joining the starting lineup in March, he averaged 19.9 points and seven assists on 47% shooting for an 11-game stretch. Middleton has a player option on his contract for next season, but the way he finishes Milwaukee’s postseason run will be worth watching.
A middling offense could be their Achilles’ heel
The Bucks’ biggest flaw last postseason was an inability to score consistently as their offense ranked second to last among the 16-team playoff field in offensive efficiency. Milwaukee was league average (15th in offensive efficiency) again and largely carried by one of the best defenses in the league. Will the Bucks have enough offense to carry them?
— Jamal Collier
The Boston Celtics fell back to earth after two months of domination …
Over the first two months, the Celtics led the league in offense. It’s been a different story since, as the Celtics rank 9th in offensive efficiency since Dec. 8 — predictably because they went from leading the league shooting 40% from 3-point range before dropping to 36.6%.
… but they still boast two elite scorers
Jayson Tatum (30.1) and Jaylen Brown (26.6) became the second pair of Celtics to average 25 PPG in the same season, joining Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in 1986-87, and Tatum became the first Celtic ever to average at least 30 points. Tatum and Brown have scored at least 25 points in the same game 33 times this season — the most by a duo since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2000-01, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
No team in the East lets it fly like the Celtics
Boston has been overly reliant on jump-shooting and the numbers prove that. While Boston is second in the league (behind only Golden State) in 3-point attempts per game, the Celtics rank 28th in free throw attempts per game, with more than half of them coming from Tatum and Brown.
Brown’s future will be Boston’s offseason focus
Boston has most of its core players signed long term and installed Joe Mazzulla as the permanent coach earlier this season. But what will happen with Brown this summer? The All-Star wing and pillar of the franchise can become a free agent after the 2023-24 season — whether he and Boston can agree on an extension is the biggest question facing the franchise this offseason.
— Tim Bontemps
The Philadelphia 76ers have a star duo that just made history …
Joel Embiid and James Harden became the first pair of teammates to lead the league in scoring (Embiid with 33.1 per game) and assists (Harden with 10.7 per game) since George Gervin and Johnny Moore with the San Antonio Spurs in 1981-82. Embiid is also the first center to win consecutive scoring titles since Bob McAdoo did so in three consecutive seasons from 1973-76, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
… using one of the league’s most unstoppable plays
The 76ers generate 17.5 points per game directly off plays where Embiid sets an on-ball screen for Harden, by far the most among any combination in the NBA, per Second Spectrum tracking. The duo also averaged 1.14 points per direct pick on these plays, which ranks in the top 10 among combinations to run at least 400 plays together.
A deep run could be near — if the guards can hold up on defense
The 76ers have lost in the second round of the playoffs four times in the past five seasons. In the other, they were swept out of the bubble by the Celtics. Philly has gone 12 straight playoff appearances without reaching the conference finals, the second-longest active drought in the NBA, trailing the Washington Wizards (17), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. One key to get there will be the defense of Harden and Tyrese Maxey. There’s little question the two of them can score with any backcourt tandem in the NBA. But will coach Doc Rivers be able to play them together against elite competition?
Philly is headed for a high-stakes summer
There are few teams with more pressure to produce entering the playoffs than Philadelphia. Much of that stems from the fact Harden can opt out of his contract and become a free agent this offseason, putting a potential shelf life on how long this team will be together. A short playoff run could put the future of Rivers under a microscope, too.
The Cleveland Cavaliers‘ best player has a 71-point game and a flair for playoff dramatics …
Donovan Mitchell, who passed LeBron James for the most 40-point games in a season in Cavaliers history with 12, was a seamless fit in his first year with the Cavaliers. He has the most playoff experience on this Cavs roster, which will lean on his scoring. Mitchell’s 28.3 postseason points per game is the seventh highest in NBA history.
… but their stars are largely unproven in the postseason
The Cavs, who reached the postseason without James for the first time since the 1997-98 season, have one of the youngest teams in the playoff field, hence and one of the most inexperienced in this setting. Darius Garland and Evan Mobley will be making their postseason debuts while Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert each have a pair of first-round exits on their résumé. Cleveland’s stellar regular season has put some expectations on its playoff performance even though its players are largely unproven on this stage.
Clutch time has not been the best time
Despite having go-to scorers like Mitchell and Garland, the Cavs haven’t often had the smoothest execution down the stretch of games. They rank 20th in clutch-time offense and 19th in effective field goal percentage during clutch situations this season.
Cleveland has a revolving door in the fifth spot
The Cavs’ top four — Mitchell, Garland, Allen and Mobley — are as talented as perhaps any roster in the league, but how they use the fifth spot in the lineup is worth watching. Isaac Okoro has been the starter most frequently, but LeVert often is on the floor to close games. Getting something from that spot and the rest of the bench could be an indicator of how Cleveland can advance.
The New York Knicks are facing the one that got away
What else could we talk about here but the showdown between Mitchell and the team that was expected to acquire him all offseason? The trade that sent Mitchell to the Cavaliers certainly wasn’t expected, as Mitchell, who grew up in the New York metropolitan area, was seemingly destined to be a Knick. Could he be the player to end their season?
They have a (mini) big three
Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett have scored 20-plus points in the same game 12 times, tied for the most by a Knicks trio with Willie Naulls, Richie Guerin and Johnny Green in 1961, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Randle, meanwhile, became the first Knick to average 25 points per game since Carmelo Anthony in 2013-14. (Randle’s sprained ankle cost him the final two weeks of the regular season)
Their big man creates the most second chances in the East
Everyone thinks about the offensive production provided by both Brunson and Randle, but an underrated weapon for the Knicks is Mitchell Robinson‘s offensive rebounding. Robinson is second to Grizzlies center Steven Adams in offensive boards per game, snagging more than four per contest.
Assists haven’t been part of the game plan
New York is last in the NBA in assist percentage, and by a significant margin. That reliance on individual shot-making certainly hasn’t been a bad thing, as the Knicks finished the season fifth in offensive rating. That marks the first time the Knicks have been in the top 10 in offensive rating since they finished third overall in the 2012-13 season. But two years ago, the Knicks lost in a relatively simple five games to the Hawks in the first round as New York’s offense — which was overly reliant on Randle — ground to a halt. The addition of Brunson was supposed to be enough to mitigate that, but they’ll need to prove they have enough diversity to score effectively against the NBA’s best defense in Cleveland.
The Brooklyn Nets‘ blockbuster trade netted them a potential star …
… who is getting his first taste of leading a playoff team …
Bridges will have plenty of opportunities to elevate his game even further — and he’s already earned the trust to keep learning on the fly. While point guard Spencer Dinwiddie has shown an ability to both take — and make — big shots late in games, Bridges will have the spotlight on him most as he continues to grow into a potential All-Star.
… and just made history as the NBA’s iron man
Bridges became the first player to appear in 83 games in one season since Josh Smith in 2014-15 (with the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets). Bridges is the 42nd player to play 83 or more games in a regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, with Walt Bellamy playing in a record 88 regular-season games for the Pistons and Knicks during the 1968-69 season.
Dinwiddie is back at home with his former team
Dinwiddie’s 8.5 APG since returning to Brooklyn ranked sixth in the NBA during that span among qualifying players, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That’s after ranking 43rd in APG at 5.3 per game before joining the Nets after playing alongside Luka Doncic with the Dallas Mavericks.
— Nick Friedell
The Miami Heat are one of the slowest teams in the postseason
The Heat are 29th in the league in pace at 96.8 possessions per game (only the Cavaliers have fewer). They are slow and methodical compared to the rest of a league that loves to get up and down the floor.
Jimmy Butler is having a career second half …
The Heat have had the same issue throughout an up-and-down season — who else will step up and help Butler? The 33-year-old swingman remains in the best post-All-Star-break stretch of his star-crossed career. He averaged 26.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists in March.
… and he gets better in the playoffs
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Butler is one of two active 20 PPG scorers with at least 100 playoff games who has raised their PPG, RPG and APG in the postseason. The other is Clippers star Paul George.
Miami’s coach just made history, and he might not be done
Erik Spoelstra became the only coach in franchise history with at least 700 career wins this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. His playoff résumé is just as good, with 96 career playoff wins — eighth-most in NBA history. And with a series win in 2023, he would move into a tie for fifth.
Big offseason decisions could be looming
This postseason run will likely serve as another reminder for Heat czar Pat Riley that this roster, as currently constructed, needs an overhaul over the summer. Veteran guard Kyle Lowry still has a year and almost $30 million left on his current deal. Duncan Robinson still has three years and almost $60 million left on the $90 million extension he signed in 2021. Tyler Herro‘s $120 million extension still hasn’t even kicked in.
The Atlanta Hawks made some odd history in 2022-23
From Jan. 21 to April 5, the Hawks pulled off something no team had done in NBA history. For 33 consecutive games, Atlanta managed to stay within one game of .500. No other team had done that for more than 25 games in a row, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Trae Young has an up-and-down playoff history
In his first playoff run in 2020-21, Young was spectacular, averaging 28.8 PPG and 9.5 APG. “Broadway Trae” took down the Knicks with three 30-point games at Madison Square Garden, then helped the Hawks to a seven-game win over the Sixers before an injury slowed him down in the conference finals against the Bucks. In his second playoff run in 2021-22, Young averaged 15.4 PPG and 6.0 APG on 31.9% shooting (18.4% on 7.6 3-point attempts a game).
The Hawks made a midseason coaching change …
The Hawks fired coach Nate McMillan in late February and immediately targeted former Jazz coach Quin Snyder. Since he took over on Feb. 28, the Hawks are averaging 123.3 points per game — only the Bucks (123.4) have averaged more since then. Snyder won three playoff series with the Jazz over the past six seasons and will be looking to improve on his 21-30 career playoff record.
… that has worked wonders on the boards
Utah was top five in offensive rebounding the last two seasons under Snyder, and that has carried over to Atlanta. Since Snyder took over, the Hawks are second in offensive rebounding percentage and first in second-chance points. Prior to Snyder’s hiring, the Hawks were 17th in offensive rebounding percentage and 15th in second-chance points.
— Andrew Lopez
The Toronto Raptors like to run, while the rest of their offense lags behind …
Among teams that reached the postseason, Toronto ranks last in points per play in half-court offense, per Cleaning the Glass. The Raptors compensate by getting out into transition more often than anyone else, but no team ranked so low has won a playoff series since the 2013 Indiana Pacers, who were 25th but reached the conference finals with a stout defense.
… but they have one of the league’s premier defensive stoppers
O.G. Anunoby has a special combination of three traits rarely found together: a high steal rate, top-tier on-ball defense and shot creation on offense. Just three other rotation players (Alex Caruso, Herbert Jones and De’Anthony Melton) have both defended players with an average usage rate of 26% or higher (via analysis of Second Spectrum tracking) and have a steal rate of .02 or better. None of the other three defensive specialists averages more than 10.1 PPG.
They have offseason questions at guard and beyond
Toronto has to decide on whether to bring back unrestricted free agents Gary Trent Jr. (sure to decline an $18.9 million player option) and Fred VanVleet. For now, the Raptors have little salary committed beyond next season, which could allow them to pursue a max free agent to pair with former Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes. Just how big the next deals for Trent and VanVleet are could hinge, in part, on their postseason performances.
Overall, the Raptors still haven’t picked a direction. Yes, Toronto added Jakob Poeltl at the deadline, but that move doesn’t preclude a bigger one to either send out Anunoby or Pascal Siakam or add another star to the mix.
— Kevin Pelton
The Chicago Bulls‘ All-Star guard is playing like one again
After a slow start to the season and missing four of the team’s first 11 games coming off offseason knee surgery, Zach LaVine has been playing at an All-Star level again, especially in the second half. After the All-Star break, LaVine averaged 27.0 points on 53.2% shooting (39.4% from 3) to help the Bulls secure a spot in the play-in tournament.
They don’t shoot many 3s …
Chicago’s lack of 3-point shooting has consistently been the biggest flaw of this roster and the one it will have to overcome to make any noise in the playoffs. The Bulls finished last in the NBA in both 3-point makes and attempts, living on a heavy diet of midrange shots from their best players. DeRozan has made 317 midrange shots this season, 134 more than any other player in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. LaVine’s 116 midrange field goals, meanwhile, rank 11th in the NBA.
… and have a major offensive void at point guard