Who will be the breakout player of the playoffs and the MVP of Round 1? Which team has the easiest path to Finals?
Our NBA Insiders give their bold predictions and what to watch in a supersized edition of 5-on-5.
1. What Round 1 matchup are you most excited to watch?
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN.com: Why do I find myself drawn to Warriors-Spurs? It is lopsided on paper, but Steve Kerr formed much of his coaching philosophy at the knee of Gregg Popovich, and as Sting once crooned, "Hypnotized by you if I should linger, staring at the ring around your finger ..." Golden State is nicked up and out of sync and feels (gasp!) vulnerable -- yet will advance anyway. In the interim, maybe the wily Manu Ginobili and his equally resourceful coach will make it interesting.
Chiney Ogwumike, ESPN analyst and WNBA All-Star: Even though Joel Embiid is unlikely to play at the start of the playoffs, the 76ers are still the NBA's hottest team. We all know that the internet is rooting for a Masked Embiid matchup against his Twitter foe Hassan Whiteside.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Thunder-Jazz presents a handful of star players, the most evenly matched teams and could easily go seven games. The teams haven't played since Dec. 23, well before Rudy Gobert was back from injury, and before the Jazz swung a midseason trade that shipped Rodney Hood to Cleveland for Jae Crowder. In other words: We have no idea how these teams match up because these players haven't really squared off yet.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Sixers vs. Heat. There's something about watching an exciting young team make its maiden voyage into the tumultuous waters of the postseason. Remember the Thunder going punch for punch with the Lakers in 2010? The Sixers have been building for this moment for years, and they not only have the energy of youth but also the momentum of a 16-game winning streak propelling them into the series.
Marc J. Spears, The Undefeated: Blazers vs. Pelicans. The series includes two NBA MVP candidates who are thirsty to take their careers to the next level with a strong playoff performance, in Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis. No one questions their star level. But legends are made in the playoffs.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Oklahoma City vs. Utah. This is easily the closest series on paper, with ESPN's Basketball Power Index giving the Thunder a narrow 53-47 advantage in projected chances to win by virtue of home court. It's also probably the best two combined teams; the Jazz finished fifth in point differential and Oklahoma City seventh, meaning whoever wins this series could give the Houston Rockets a scare in Round 2.
2. Who has the easiest path to the Finals?
Herring: The Sixers have it really nice. Yes, they have a treacherous first round against Erik Spoelstra and the Heat, who might cook up something to challenge Ben Simmons' unwillingness to shoot from outside the paint. That and Joel Embiid's potential absence for the first few games are concerning given Miami's stout defense. But if Philly advances to Round 2, the young team would almost certainly be favored there, too -- especially if they draw the Celtics without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Either LeBron or Toronto would figure to be waiting in the conference finals, but the road to that point is about all a team could ask for.
Spears: No NBA team will have it easy in the conference finals. So, the better question is which team has the easiest road to that point. The 76ers do not have to face the Toronto Raptors or Cleveland Cavaliers en route to the East finals, but this is new pressure for the young Sixers.
Pelton: Philadelphia 76ers. With Kyrie Irving injured and the Boston Celtics no longer so formidable as a second-round matchup, the Sixers clearly have the easiest path to the conference finals. And since almost any opponent there is going to be difficult, I guess I'd say that also means Philadelphia has the easiest path to the NBA Finals.
Ogwumike: The Cavs have had nine lives so far this season. Add the playoff bracket to the count. Not as blatantly obvious as last year, Cleveland's late losses this season have positioned the Cavaliers best for postseason success.
Arnovitz: Silly 5-on-5 Master! This ain't an NCAA regional bracket; it's the N-freaking-B-A playoffs. There are no easy paths! By design, it's typically the No. 1 seed that faces the less stalwart competition, but you think the Raptors are eager to see the Cavs as their potential second-round matchup? You could argue the Rockets won't sweat the Timberwolves -- and can shoot their way past the Thunder or Jazz, but the Warriors -- injuries and all -- figure to be a far different team in a month. The easiest path to the Finals belongs to Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Doris Burke. They get to fly first class.
MacMullan: The answer has to be a team in the East because the two best squads reside in the West, but which one? Are we audacious enough to suggest the Sixers, those 28-wins-of-a-year-ago Sixers, can pull this off? Any moment Joel Embiid, the self-proclaimed Phantom of the Process, will start trolling Hassan Whiteside and we'll have a front-row seat to the unraveling. Philly's path to the conference finals doesn't include LeBron or the Raptors, so that alone qualifies the Sixers as a legitimate answer to this question. Everyone keeps chiding me that Ben Simmons isn't really a rookie. He's certainly not playing like one ... so ... could it happen? Too delicious to consider.
3. Who will be the Round 1 MVP?
Pelton: LeBron James. A series of close games against the Indiana Pacers could give James a chance to continue his clutch heroics from the regular season, and with so much time between games there's no reason to expect Tyronn Lue to cut James' minutes now. So I think the likely second-place finisher in regular-season MVP voting will be the most valuable player in the first round of the playoffs.
Arnovitz: The Houston Rockets could potentially average 1 million points per game against the Timberwolves, which means James Harden will post some gaudy numbers as he steps back, changes speeds and generally decimates the Wolves' fragile defense.
Herring: I have a feeling Anthony Davis will go off in this series against the Blazers, regardless of whether the Pelicans find a way to pull off the upset in Round 1. His versatility will present enormous challenges for Jusuf Nurkic, who prefers to drop into the paint but won't always be able to do that because of Davis' shooting ability. AD averaged 31.5 points, 11 boards and three blocks per game in his first playoff showing against the Warriors three years ago, and it's conceivable that he could do just as much damage here.
Spears: Russell Westbrook will be trying to embarrass the Utah Jazz the entire series. The Thunder have had their struggles all season, and they've been disrespected with the ups and downs of their Big Three. Westbrook will try to impose his will on the up-and-coming Jazz and take the spotlight from heralded Donovan Mitchell.
MacMullan: I'm putting all my chips on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Here are his numbers in four games against first-round opponent Boston this season: 33.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists a game, while shooting 53.9 percent on field goals with an average of 10.5 free throws a game. With underrated Boston big man Daniel Theis shelved for the postseason, those numbers could actually increase. (And yet, invoking the immortal Jerry West, this does not necessarily mean the Greek Freak's team will win.)
Ogwumike: Damian Lillard is primed to make some noise this postseason, but I am expecting James Harden to officially claim his throne as the real MVP. While people might still say Harden can't be trusted after the way the Rockets exited last year's playoffs, please remember that the league's leading scorer playing on the best team in the better conference now also has Chris Paul in his ear to keep him focused.
4. Who will be the breakout player of the postseason?
Arnovitz: The Sixers have been hearing the murmurs -- the playoffs are different and teams will lay off Ben Simmons, give him the Rajon Rondo treatment and force him to shoot. But you can't sag on speed, and when Simmons gets rumbling in the open court, a defense has far more to worry about than a pull-up jumper from the Sixers point guard. Yes, Simmons will have some problem-solving puzzles to work against more prepared defenses, but he'll find ways to hurt opponents, perimeter shots be damned.
MacMullan: We've been reciting the gaudy statistics all season of a Houston lineup that includes (likely) MVP James Harden, resident Yoda Chris Paul and center Clint Capela. The arrival of Paul created even more easy buckets (read: dunks) for the rapidly improving Capela, but aside from his league-leading field goal percentage (65.2), Capela has emerged as one of those agile, rangy big men who track down opponents and simply abuse them by swatting their offerings into the seats. His two-way play has been a tad overlooked amid the plaudits for his high-octane backcourt. As Houston continues to advance, so will Capela's case for a max deal when the season ends.
Pelton: Fred VanVleet. Perhaps VanVleet has already broken out; he's gotten plenty of love from the national media for his lead role on a Toronto bench that has been key to the Raptors' success. Still, I think VanVleet has the opportunity to prove in the postseason that he's more than just a spark plug off the bench by being one of Dwane Casey's most trusted options to finish games with so much on the line.
Spears: Ben Simmons will become one of the elite stars this postseason. He should have been an NBA All-Star. Along with Joel Embiid, Simmons will lead the Sixers to the East finals. Say hello to the reincarnation of Magic Johnson on a much more athletic level in the fun-to-watch Simmons.
Herring: Similar to last year, when the Bucks drew the Raptors in a first-round series, Giannis will be the best player by far in his matchup. The gap will be even larger this time around, against the Al Horford-led Celtics. Boston had no real answer for him defensively, as Antetokounmpo posted 33.5 points per game against the C's during the regular season, his second-highest mark of any opponent.
5. What is your bold Round 1 prediction?
Ogwumike: No teams will sweep their opponents in the first round.
Spears: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the No. 7 seed Milwaukee Bucks will knock out the injury-plagued Boston Celtics. Losing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will be too much for Boston to overcome. All-Star balloting showed fans are high on Giannis. CBS's "60 Minutes" has featured the Bucks star. It's time for the Greek Freak to make some playoff noise.
Herring: Not sure if I'd quite go as far as to predict it -- I guess I don't see a true upset in this round, as lame as that sounds -- but I could absolutely see the Pelicans beating the Blazers. Portland's guard play is better, but Jrue Holiday is the most well-rounded player in the backcourt on either team, and he's capable of helping New Orleans steal a game. It would require a Herculean effort from Davis and likely hot shooting from E'Twaun Moore and Nikola Mirotic. But there's enough talent to get it done if Alvin Gentry can design a solid game plan.
Arnovitz: The Utah Jazz will advance and then take the Rockets to seven games in the conference semifinals.
MacMullan: DeMar DeRozan will be an absolute stud. Having spent time in Toronto last weekend, the unease surrounding the Raptors' fan base is palpable. They are worried about losing Game 1 (again). They are worried Kyle Lowry and DeRozan will shrink in the moment. The matchups were not set when I was there, giving them ample time to fret about every possible doomsday scenario. Enough already. DeRozan has submitted an All-NBA season, becoming a more efficient player, expanding his range to the 3-point line and finally -- finally! -- tuning out the naysayers. He's also assumed the mantle as the NBA's unofficial spokesperson for confronting mental health issues, yet another reason to root for Heir Canada.
Pelton: Three players (LeBron James, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook) average triple-doubles.