The first thing to know about this year’s NBA playoffs is that, to borrow William Goldman’s oft-borrowed aphorism about Hollywood, nobody knows anything. In the coming weeks, I will be regularly blogging this year’s playoffs for Slate, so it seems important to get that out of the way at the top. I don’t pretend to have any idea what will happen, but hopefully you will keep reading anyway. 2023’s bracket feels like the most wide-open field the league has seen in a very long time—in my estimate, at least half a dozen teams have a very legitimate chance of advancing to the Finals in June, and a handful more are a hot streak or two away from the same. In a sport that has tended to proceed dynastically, it’s hard to remember the last time the race for the crown felt so unsettled, or so flush with possibility.
What exactly accounts for this degree of uncertainty (or parity, to use the sports industry’s term of art) and whether it’s a good thing for the NBA are complicated questions better suited for a separate blog post. But it’s hard to deny that, through the first 82 games of the 2022–23 season, a truly great squad has yet to reveal itself. No team managed to win 60 games, which hasn’t happened in a full season since the 2000–01 campaign. The Western Conference playoff race was so crowded at the middle that with two days left in the season, NBA Communications tweeted a hilariously impenetrable chart laying out every possible playoff and play-in permutation for the fifth through ninth seeds (i.e., half the entire Western Conference playoff and play-in field).
The Eastern Conference, in comparison, is intriguingly heavy at the top, with a handful of good to very good teams followed by an avalanche of mediocrity.
Amid this confusing and frankly underwhelming home stretch, NBA Twitter has roiled over what is shaping up to be a photo finish for the newly christened Michael Jordan Trophy for the league’s MVP. The debates have grown intensely partisan, mostly between fans of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who’s been the runner-up the past two seasons, and Denver’s Nikola Jokic, who’s been the winner the past two seasons. Lurking in the wings is another two-time MVP, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s better than either of them and also plays for the team with the best record, but will probably finish third for reasons.
If you’re tired of all this, you’re not alone—I’m getting tired just writing about it. You’re also probably not in for much of a respite anytime soon. All three contenders will be major characters in this year’s postseason drama, at least in the early rounds. Neither Embiid nor Jokic has ever played in an NBA Finals (a fact their respective detractors relish pointing out), and another early exit for one or both will surely result in no shortage of hand-wringing and aspersions. If Giannis wins another championship, it would establish him as the undisputed best player of this era, and someday soon we may look back on the 2023 Jokic-Embiid wars with 1997 levels of sheepishness.
So there’s a little tease of some narrative sizzle. What about the actual matchups? For the first time in decades, the Eastern Conference is markedly better than the West, especially in the upper echelons. The league’s three best regular-season records—Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia—all reside in the East, and it wouldn’t be a shock if any of these three teams was hoisting the ol’ Larry O’B come June (yes, even the perennially snakebitten Sixers, although much of their fate will depend on guard James Harden, who is nursing a pesky Achilles injury). Depending on the outcome of Friday night’s play-in game, the top-seeded Bucks will play the Miami Heat or the Chicago Bulls in the first round and probably bulldoze either of them. Second-seeded Boston will play the Atlanta Hawks, who upset the Heat in the East’s first play-in game and who will also likely not be around for very much longer. (Boston won the season series 3–0 and is a matchup nightmare for the maddeningly inconsistent Hawks.) In the 3–6 matchup, Philadelphia will take on a Brooklyn Nets team that’s played sub-.500 ball since trading both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant back in February. Philly should win this series pretty easily too, even with a hobbled Harden. If they don’t, the state of Sixers fans will be nearly unimaginable.
The East’s best first-round series is the Cleveland–New York 4–5 matchup. Both teams are smart and well coached, with no shortage of exciting players. Cleveland traded for star Utah guard Donovan Mitchell last summer, shocking a league that largely assumed he was bound for these same Knicks. The Knicks, for their part, signed guard Jalen Brunson away from the Dallas Mavericks, a move that prompted a tampering penalty from the league and was recently relitigated by Mavs owner Mark Cuban during a surreal media scrum. Both acquisitions have been smashing successes: Mitchell has played like an MVP candidate in his own right while leading the Cavs to their first outright playoff berth sans LeBron James in 25 years, and Brunson helped the Knicks to their highest win total since 2013.
The West is the proverbial dog’s breakfast: a strange, messy mix of unproven go-getters and underachieving blue bloods. None of the top three seeds in the West—Denver, Memphis, and Sacramento, respectively—has ever even been to an NBA Finals (unless you count the 1951 championship won by the Sacramento Kings–to-be Rochester Royals, which I do not), and the beam-lighting Kings are making their first postseason appearance after a record-breaking 16-year absence. Top-seeded Denver will play either the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder or the, uh, fistic Minnesota Timberwolves. We should expect the Nuggets to dispatch either potential opponent with little trouble, but hey, who knows (again: nobody).
Meanwhile, two of the league’s most prestigious franchises, the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers, are mired in the West’s sixth and seventh seeds, respectively, and looking to make long-shot title runs. The Warriors will attempt to follow the path of the 1995 Houston Rockets, the only other sixth seed to win an NBA title. (Like these Warriors, those Rockets were also defending champs.) The Lakers, after an abysmal start to the season, have been playing like one of the best teams in basketball since rebooting their roster at the trade deadline.
(If you’ll permit me a parenthetical rant here: A lot of savvy basketball-knowers are going to pick the Warriors and Lakers to win their respective first-round series, and while I understand the logic—the Kings are inexperienced and can’t defend; the Grizzlies are decimated by injuries—I will personally find either outcome incredibly annoying. How you play in the regular season should matter! The Warriors have a gruesome 11–30 road record; the Lakers didn’t even manage to get themselves over .500 until March 31. If there are anything resembling just basketball gods, teams should not be allowed to spend significant portions of the regular season puking all over themselves before capriciously deciding to pull their whole act together and be rewarded with a damn playoff-series victory.)
Then there are the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns, the closest thing to a consensus favorite to make it out of the West. Since swinging a stunning trade for all-world forward Kevin Durant at the deadline, the Suns have yet to lose a game with Durant in their lineup and might—might—just be the juggernaut that this season has thus far been lacking. Skeptics would counter that KD (age 34) and Chris Paul (37) are each long in both the tooth and the injury history; that chemistry might still be a concern for a team that last year finished with the best record in basketball only to suffer a humiliating second-round collapse; and that the path the Suns are attempting—supercharging their way to a championship via a midseason trade for a top-tier superstar—has no real precedent.
The Suns will match up against the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, who are currently in year four of the once-vaunted Kawhi Leonard–Paul George era with nary a Finals appearance to show for it. George is currently injured and may or may not be available for the series. Without George, it’s hard to imagine the Clippers having much of a chance against these Suns, and a first-round exit for the Clippers would cast the already infamous 2019 Clippers–Oklahoma City trade—in which the Clips shipped future superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a ridiculous haul of draft picks to the Thunder so as to facilitate the Leonard-George team-up—in an even more dire light.
Both the Suns and the Clippers began this season with serious championship aspirations, and sometime within the next two weeks and change, one of them will be going home a lot earlier than they expected. The same will probably be true of at least one or two of 2023’s other coulda-been contenders. In a season marked by baffling injuries, bizarre suspensions, and endless discussions of “load management,” this, finally, is why they play the games.