Every NBA season features at least one “team nobody wants to play” — a well-coached brash underdog that will make the championship favorites work for that status. God forbid a Team Nobody Wants to Play wins its first-round playoff series, because each successive victory feeds its belief in its own title chances.
The Atlanta Hawks became last year’s version. The Miami Heat held that moniker in 2020. This season features more candidates than any other in recent memory, which calls for something you never knew you needed: The Team Nobody Wants To Play power ranking of the 15 long shots* currently in the playoff field.
(*The Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers are all better than 10/1 favorites. They are supposed to be in the hunt, prey for the Team Nobody Wants to Play.)
15. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. They were a frontrunner before they stumbled out of the gate and limped the rest of the way, trying the entire time to hide the embarrassment of it all. The promise of flipping a playoff switch has been met with a sobering reality: A so-called super-team is now banking on its first two-game winning streak since early January just to survive the play-in tournament.
The Lakers are the Team Everybody Wants To Play. They look their age, and underdogs are salivating at the opportunity of extinguishing three members of the 75th Anniversary Team, whether or not they actually can.
14. Utah Jazz
Nobody is scared of the Jazz, even if they probably should be, just like nobody is afraid of Rudy Gobert, even though they probably should be. Donovan Mitchell is a playoff beast, yet Utah has underwhelmed in three straight appearances, so everyone will treat his Jazz like paper tigers until they can prove otherwise.
13. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets are loaded with irrational confidence, from LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges to Isaiah Thomas, the 33-year-old still chasing the resurrection of his one-time All-NBA career on a series of minimum contracts. They should fit the bill of a Team Nobody Wants To Play, but they are still the same defensively challenged Hornets who got worked by the 34-win Indiana Pacers in last season’s play-in bid.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers
Rookie sensation Evan Mobley will anchor a dangerous playoff defense soon enough, but who besides Darius Garland do you trust to manufacture playoff offense? The chance that both rising stars find their next level in their playoff debuts might give opponents pause, at least until they remember the Cavaliers have had a negative net rating since losing Ricky Rubio’s veteran stewardship to injury at the end of December.
11. New Orleans Pelicans
The reported loss of Zion Williamson for the season removes some intrigue from their upset potential, but the arrival of CJ McCollum at the trade deadline breathed life into the Pelicans. New Orleans has been 12.4 points per 100 possessions better with McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas on the floor than the Lakers — their likely first play-in opponent — have been with Westbrook, James and Davis in the lineup.
The Pelicans are still 12 games below .500, and while we can recognize that they have been friskier since their deadline deal, their ceiling is no higher than a Team Nobody Wants To Play In The Play-In Tournament.
10. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are 27th in defensive rating, just an abomination. They also have Trae Young and a host of talented players who reached last year’s Eastern Conference finals and convinced themselves that the regular season is “a lot more boring than the playoffs.” They are not wrong, even if the sentiment is less than inspiring, and their improved performance since mid-January, when the Hawks traded Cam Reddish to decongest a crowded rotation, leaves open the possibility they find relevancy again through a play-in bid.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
Imagine being the Lakers, who did not want to meet Tyronn Lue’s asking price for their vacant coaching job in 2019, looking up at his Clippers in the standings. The other L.A. team has been without Kawhi Leonard all season. Paul George has not played since before Christmas. Norman Powell broke a bone in his left foot three games after the Clippers acquired him. And still they are hovering around .500, because they care.
There is also the odd chance a rehabbing Leonard randomly shows up ready to play at any point in the playoffs. George might just walk into the gym after him. Even if they do not, any team featuring Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson will, at the very least, enter every game believing they can, should and will win.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
It takes a lot to turn around a franchise in forever turmoil, but the addition of Patrick Beverley, a renewed commitment from Karl-Anthony Towns and the injection of second-year wing Anthony Edwards has given Minnesota reason to believe in the future of the Timberwolves for the first time since the Kevin Garnett era.
Coach Chris Finch took over a team that ranked 23rd in defense midway through last season and has transformed into a borderline top-10 outfit that has yielded the West’s second-best net rating since the calendar turned to 2022. Towns and Edwards each has the ability to be the best player on the floor in any number of games, and that is not a proposition any of the West’s single star-oriented rosters want to weigh.
7. Chicago Bulls
Before injuries to Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso weakened their defense and depth midway through the season, the Bulls were atop the East. Ball’s status is still uncertain, but Caruso is back from wrist surgery, as is second-year forward Patrick Williams. They bolster the rotation around DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, both of whose ability to create shots will make the Bulls a bear to defend in close playoff games.
How you feel about Chicago’s Team Nobody Wants To Play status has much to do with how you felt their early success and DeRozan’s season-long MVP-caliber performance would translate in the playoffs. If you ever trusted the Bulls, then you should consider them a favorite when healthy, and if you never had faith in them, then this late-season swoon is only confirmation that they are the most vulnerable of top-five seeds.
6. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have yet to rule out the possibility that Jamal Murray and/or Michael Porter Jr. return. How much either could meaningfully contribute is just as murky, but Denver has reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, and he does not need much more to make noise in the playoffs, where he is averaging a 26-11-6 on 51/41/84 shooting splits for his career. Jokic’s production is so consistent, you start to disregard how staggering the numbers are on a nightly basis, until you see the depleted roster around him and their sixth-place standing.
If you want to face Jokic in the first round, you are asking for trouble, and that is before he gets his two best weapons back from injury. Just watch how the third-seeded Warriors manage their remaining schedule.
5. Toronto Raptors
No team this season is more aptly named than the Raptors. One will stare you down, and another is lurking, ready to pounce with a ferocity that exceeds his size. Nobody on the roster is taller than 6-foot-9, and Fred VanVleet is the only rotational player shorter than 6-5. All defend multiple positions. Most generate offense. They work together under championship coach Nick Nurse, and the result is a 25-15 record since the New Year, which flipped their season from outside the play-in tournament to bordering on a top-six playoff seed.
The Raptors may not feature a late-game scorer on the East’s elite level, but when five different players can exceed 20 points with regularity, they are not easy to game plan against. Most coaches are already playing from behind against Nurse without having to account for the waves of talent he sends swarming the court.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies might be the NBA’s team of the future, here now. There are no weak links in Memphis, and you will find most of them are stronger than you even thought. Last we saw Ja Morant in the playoffs, he was dropping 47 points on the Jazz and their three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He has only gotten better, transforming into a bona fide superstar, and the horses around him have kept apace. Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks are all on the ascent, and center Steven Adams has their backs.
Taylor Jenkins is the best coach nobody talks about, and he might just be the best coach — period. The Grizzlies were 9-10 nearing this season’s quarter mark and have been a juggernaut ever since, posting a 40-13 record and a league-best +9.2 net rating. Memphis has essentially been as good as Phoenix — BetMGM’s +320 favorite to win the title — for four months, and they are still nothing but a 22/1 long shot.
3. Miami Heat
The Heat reached the Finals in 2020, lost to the eventual champion Bucks in the first round of last year’s playoffs and have returned to the top of the East field this regular season with a 2 1/2-game cushion. Oddsmakers still give the Bucks, Nets and Sixers a better chance to win the title. Talk about lack of respect.
You are not in your right mind if you are looking forward to facing a disrespected Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker in the playoffs. All of them have been in and out of the lineup, and still the Heat are on pace for a No. 1 seed, because Tyler Herro has submitted a Sixth Man of the Year campaign, and coach Erik Spoelstra has squeezed every last ounce of ability from a hodgepodge roster. Even Duncan Robinson has been shooting 40% from 3-point range since recovering from COVID-19.
Miami is 2-2 against both Milwaukee and Philadelphia and 3-0 against Brooklyn, yet the Nets, who could very well face the Heat in the first round, are twice as likely to win the championship. Kevin Durant is the reason why, and there are a handful of hungry players in Miami’s locker room who will take that personally.
2. Dallas Mavericks
For as good as Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been all season, Mavericks star Luka Doncic might be the best player going right now. Since the trade deadline, when Dallas sent one-time All-Star Kristaps Porzingis to Washington for high-priced role players Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, Doncic is averaging a 32-10-7 on 47/40/73 shooting splits for a team surging up the Western standings.
Since Doncic returned from an ankle injury and subsequent COVID diagnosis at the start of January, the Mavericks are 27-10 with the conference’s second-best defensive rating and a generational talent at the helm of their offense. They have beaten just about every contender they have faced, save for the Suns.
Doncic pushed a Clippers team featuring Leonard and George — two of the best possible defenders against him — to seven games in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Were it not for Leonard’s 45-point outburst in Game 6, Dallas (and not the Leonard-less Clippers) might have been dueling Phoenix for a shot at the Finals. Name anyone in the West outside Suns wing Mikal Bridges who you feel comfortable guarding Doncic and consider the growing Mavericks legend posted a 28-8-8 last time he met up with Phoenix.
There are a handful of players who can singlehandedly sway any series, and Doncic is one of them. Whether he can do it for four rounds is another matter, but I do not want to beat the opponents to find out.
1. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are in the midst of one of the most impressive regular season turnarounds in NBA history. They were 23-24 on Jan. 21, clutching to the East’s final play-in berth. Boston has laid waste to the league ever since, posting the conference’s best record (22-4) by four games and the league’s top net rating (+15.8) by 6.5 points per 100 possessions (the difference between the second-rated Suns and 11th-rated Mavericks).
Eleven of their wins in that span came by more than 20 points. They have held a 20-point lead in 11 of their last 13 road games. Their defensive rating over the past two months is 102.9 points per 100 possessions — 4.7 fewer than the Heat, or the difference between the second- and 16th-rated defense during that span. They are just strangling teams, and the deadline acquisition of Derrick White has only made them stronger.
Jayson Tatum has been playing at an MVP level since his 51-point outburst on Jan. 23, averaging a 30-8-5 on 5/41/87 shooting splits and playing some of the league’s best team defense. No player has scored more points than Tatum’s 1,863 this season and nobody has a higher plus/minus total in 2021-22 than his +557.
Boston’s starting lineup of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III, Al Horford and Marcus Smart has outscored opponents by 23.8 points per 100 possessions over 430 minutes. No five-man unit that has played at least 200 minutes together comes within 6.9 points per 100 possessions of that figure. These are just astronomical totals that advanced analytics departments of their playoff opponents cannot ignore.