NBA Playoffs

Pretender or contender? Analyzing each NBA playoff team in 2024

Sometimes records don't always tell the full story.

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Will the real contenders please stand up?

With the 2023-24 NBA regular season in the books, now it's time for teams and stars to rise to the occasion.

The greats do and that's why they're remembered after their playing days, while others don't and, as a result, are sometimes forgotten.

So, which teams in the 2024 playoffs should be viewed as legitimate contenders and which ones are pretenders? Let's take a look at each before the Play-In Tournament:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Boston Celtics: Contender

Unless there's an unprecedented injury to one of Jayson Tatum, Kristaps Porzingis or Jaylen Brown, the Celtics don't have many reasons not to reach the NBA Finals, at the minimum. They own the league's best record and though debates could be had on that coming down to a weaker conference, Boston fared well against Western teams, too. They've been elite on both ends of the floor and know what it takes to reach the final stage. Now it's about overcoming the hurdle and lifting Banner No. 18.

No. 2 New York Knicks: Pretender

There hasn't been a better time in a long time to be a Knicks fan. They're in form having won five games in a row to snatch the No. 2 seed from Milwaukee. But you have to wonder if they're a piece short. That piece is Julius Randle. Opinions about the player aside, the playoffs are about the margins and possessing the stars who defy logic in key moments. Jalen Brunson is proving he can be one of those guys, but he can't do it alone. Donte DiVincenzo, OG Anunoby and Bojan Bogdanovic will need historic individual runs for New York to come away with anything in multiple seven-game series.

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks: Pretender

Milwaukee has the stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, but they've been regressing ever since the Doc Rivers hire. And just like superstars matter, so does an elite coach who gives his players the best possible platform to thrive. That's just not on Rivers' resume, and it can be as simple as that.

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers: Pretender

The Cavaliers may be able to stay in playoff games due to their defense, but being below average on the other side of the ball could be their downfall. J.B. Bickerstaff will also need to trim and nail down the playoff rotation because Cleveland is deep, and that could be good or bad depending on how it's managed. Donovan Mitchell is the star here, but there will be plenty of eyes on everyone else, too, after last season's playoff collapse.

No. 5 Orlando Magic: Pretender

The jury will be out for Orlando after making its first postseason appearance since 2019-20. The Magic will hope this is the first of many with Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner leading the helm. How Orlando fares will depend on them, while Jalen Suggs and Wendell Carter Jr. will need to do their jobs at an even higher level. They may not make it far despite being the Eastern version of Oklahoma City in the postseason, but that's OK given where the squad is at age wise. They're also a below .500 team on the road and that's where inexperience can punish you, especially as a lower seed.

No. 6 Indiana Pacers: Contender

If the Pacers don't turn up in the postseason, it would be an objective failure. They'll need to bounce Giannis and Co. to make that happen but it's definitely possible. Pascal Siakam is their leading scorer while Tyrese Haliburton has played better in recent weeks. Bruce Brown and Buddy Hield would've been helpful rotational players, but such was the price of acquiring Siakam. Not having Bennedict Mathurin may hurt, too.

Play-In teams (labeled with possible seedings):

No. 7/8 Philadelphia 76ers: Pretender

A potential 76ers' run will come down to Joel Embiid's availability. He doesn't have the best playoff resume, but he's Philadelphia's best chance at going far. Tyrese Maxey should deliver as he usually does, but beyond them it gets tricky.

No. 7/8 Miami Heat: Contender

It's difficult seeing the Heat return to the NBA Finals, but it's also difficult to write them off. They're one of the few squads who routinely prove doubters wrong, and that could be the case again this year, especially if they get the No. 7 seed to face New York. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro present unique challenges and Terry Rozier and Jaime Jacquez Jr. have bolstered the offensive personnel. How much Duncan Robinson can give will also be important given his previous defensive showings that cost him a spot in Erik Spoelstra's playoff rotation.

No. 8 Chicago Bulls: Pretender

The Bulls would be a pretender even if Zach LaVine was healthy. The squad should've been reconstructed multiple seasons ago, but they remain stuck in being too quality to tank for the draft but not having enough to actually compete.

No. 8 Atlanta Hawks: Pretender

The Hawks shouldn't be as mediocre as they are on paper, but that's why the game is played on the court. Roster changes will be needed in the offseason to restart with something fresh.

The 2024 NBA play-in tournament is set. Here’s a look matchups, seeds and how it works.

Western Conference

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder: Contender

"We want it to be an arrival, not an appearance," vice president and general manager Sam Presti said back in 2021 on when OKC next makes the playoffs. That time has come, and the Thunder are now an extremely young No. 1 seed. The crucial factor will be their experience, but those cracks didn't come up often during the regular season. It could get tricky since the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans and Golden State Warriors are potential first-round opponents, but they don't seem the type to bow out without a fight.

No. 2 Denver Nuggets: Contender

The defending champions make this an easy one. The Nuggets completely locked in on both sides of the ball during last year's straightforward run and should be able to do so again this year even though it won't be as simple. Peyton Watson, Christian Braun and Julian Strawther will be imperative rookies who could make or break Denver's run.

No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves: Pretender

It's tough to label the league's best defense -- on net rating -- a pretender, but out of the top three out West, one of them had to get it. Anthony Edwards will get his numbers, but how will the next two big stars fare? Rudy Gobert has a history of not being suited for playoff action while Karl-Anthony Towns is toeing that line. Mike Conley's creation will also be vital, as will Naz Reid's two-way play at the 5.

No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers: Pretender

It feels harsh to say, but something always happens to the Clippers in the postseason. Tyronn Lue is an elite coach and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are an elite regular-season duo, but it just has yet to come together for them. Does James Harden move the needle enough? Only time will tell.

No. 5 Dallas Mavericks: Contender

There hasn't been a full season's worth of data yet, but this could be the best side the Mavericks have built around Luka Doncic. Kyrie Irving may not be the best Robin to Doncic, but he's still a really elite Robin. Tim Hardaway Jr., P.J. Washington, Dereck Lively II, Daniel Gafford, Derrick Jones Jr. and Josh Green all know how to play their roles. Doncic will lead the way, but everyone else can do their jobs at a high level, too. They've improved their form in recent months and could make a run if they handle L.A.

No. 6 Phoenix Suns: Pretender

Phoenix was supposed to be much better this season, but things rarely clicked. The good thing for Frank Vogel's side is that he can tighten the rotation now and let Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal take control more. How their frontcourt depth after Jusuf Nurkic fares could be pivotal, though, because they're light on that end.

Play-In teams (labeled with possible seedings):

No. 7/8 New Orleans Pelicans: Contender

The Pelicans have the profiles and quality to go far, but matchups will determine if a run could be made. Zion Williamson hasn't enjoyed many healthy playoff runs, but now is their chance with Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III, Herbert Jones and Jonas Valanciunas all healthy. If they don't perform this season, there might need to be serious questions in the summer.

No. 7/8 Los Angeles Lakers: Pretender

The Lakers may have reached the Western Conference Finals last season, but they were clearly not at the required level compared to Denver's play. They've done little to impress throughout long periods this season under Darvin Ham and, even if you don't want to write off LeBron James just yet, the conference is much more strenuous this year than last.

No. 8 Sacramento Kings: Pretender

Down Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, the Kings just don't have enough depth or quality to make a run after being the No. 3 seed last season. The front office didn't make any margin-upgrading moves throughout the summer and regular season, and Mike Brown isn't elite enough to go above that. There will need to be big offseason moves if they are to seriously compete next year.

No. 8 Golden State Warriors: Pretender

How do you even quantify a falling dynasty on its last legs? The Warriors will only go as far as Stephen Curry can take them but that doesn't seem like it'll cut it this year. They can surely grab the No. 8 seed to face Oklahoma City in the first round, but it'll be a similar case as its matchup versus Sacramento last year. A fresh, young team against a much older yet experienced one. But this time, Oklahoma City possesses far better quality than Sacramento to advance.

Contact Us