You’ve probably seen this line everywhere, but let’s say it one more time: The NBA playoff order is finally set. That means the top eight teams in each conference will scrap it out, sending the victors to the Finals for a shot at a championship.
Here’s what the playoff bracket looks like right now:
Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Washington Wizards
Boston Celtics vs. 7. Milwaukee Bucks
Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6. Miami Heat
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 5. Indiana Pacers
Houston Rockets vs. 8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Golden State Warriors vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6. New Orleans Pelicans
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5. Utah Jazz
We know how these matchups end. The Rockets blow by the Wolves in the first round (sorry, Jimmy Butler!) then beat Russell Wesbrook and the Thunder in the second. They make the Western Conference Finals and face the Warriors, who’ve cruised by an injured Spurs’ team and are just too much for either the Trail Blazers or the Pelicans to handle in the West semifinals.
Rockets vs. Warriors is a toss-up. The East is not.
The Raptors will probably get by the Wizards, and they’ll meet Cleveland in the second round. The winner of that series could very well face the 76ers in the East Finals since the Celtics are missing so many key players. And just to be clear, LeBron James isn’t losing to the Raptors or the 76ers in a series in the playoffs.
That means we probably get Cavs vs. Warriors in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season. Not a bad end result, just a familiar one.
But what if we just scrapped conferences all together, and let the best 16 teams in the league play tournament-style, instead if grouping conferences together? Well, then we’d get a bracket that looks a little something like this:
It’s March Madness (kinda), in April!
NBA: Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
With this new format, the Washington Wizards would miss the playoffs. Instead, the Denver Nuggets would make it in, and they would be the No. 14 seed with a better record than both Miami and Milwaukee. Here’s the updated bracket:
Houston Rockets vs. 16. Milwaukee Bucks
Toronto Raptors vs. 15. Miami Heat
Golden State Warriors vs. 14. Denver Nuggets
Boston Celtics vs. 13. Minnesota Timberwolves
Philadelphia 76ers vs. 12. San Antonio Spurs
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 11. Indiana Pacers
Portland Trail Blazers vs. 10. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 9. New Orleans Pelicans
Look at those series!
With Denver in the picture, we get a much more compelling series between the Nuggets and Warriors, who split their season series at two apiece, instead of a Warriors-Spurs matchup that’ll drag along a max of five games. Warriors-Nuggets will still probably result in a sweep, but it would be a fun sweep!
The 76ers currently have a challenge with the Miami Heat in the first round, but the Spurs would pose an entirely different type of challenge: a young team in their first playoff appearance against the definition of sustained excellence in the NBA.
The Rockets would get the Bucks, and would probably get them up outta here quickly. Minnesota would probably sneak into the second round with a first-round matchup against the injured Celtics. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert taking on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum could be one of the best series of the first round, as would Russell Westbrook vs. Anthony Davis.
Here’s how the second round probably looks:
Houston Rockets vs. 8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Toronto Raptors vs. 7. Portland Trail Blazers
Golden State Warriors vs. 6. Cleveland Cavaliers
Minnesota Timberwolves vs. 5. Philadelphia 76ers
James has had his way with the Eastern Conference for seven years, and in all likelihood, this will be his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. But without the security of the weak East, he has to defend his crown against the Golden State Warriors in just the second round of the playoffs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like James’ chances against the Warriors this year, not after the roster turnover Cleveland’s had to deal with this season. That doesn’t mean they can’t win this series; it just doesn’t seem likely.
We also get James Harden and Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony in the second round. Everyone and their families expect the Rockets to win this kind of series, but what if this is the time Anthony comes alive and goes for 53 points, all on post-up, face-up mid-range jump shots? Stranger things have happened, though we get this series in the second round either way.
Houston Rockets vs. 4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Toronto Raptors vs. 3. Golden State Warriors
Rockets get it pretty easy against a young, unproven but talented Timberwolves team led by Butler. Toronto vs. Golden State, though? That might be interesting. The Warriors won both games this season, but only by a combined seven points. That series could go six or seven. The playoff Raptors could also get swept.
THAT GIVES US ROCKETS VS. WARRIORS IN THE NBA FINALS, PITTING THE TWO BEST TEAMS IN THE LEAGUE AGAINST EACH OTHER.
And really, that’s all the fans want. It’s also what Adam Silver said he wanted just before the all-star break.
“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” Silver said, via ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”
If he scraps conferences from the playoffs and pits the top 16 teams against each other, as we just experimented, that’s exactly what you get.