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Saturday, May 22, 2021

2020-2021 Playoff Predictions

This article is being published just before the start of the 2021 playoffs because the final composition of the playoff field was not determined until the NBA completed its Play-In Tournament last night; when the dust cleared and the final buzzer sounded, the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards claimed the final two playoff spots in the East, and the L.A. Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies grabbed the final two playoff spots in the West.

It feels like the 2020-21 season started so soon after the conclusion of the 2020 "bubble" playoffs that if the two seasons were cars they would have crashed into each other. Apparently, many of the league's players felt like they had been in car crashes: between the "health and safety protocols," a rash of injuries, and the loathsome twin horses of the basketball apocalypse (tanking/load management), during the 2020-21 season NBA fans saw too much Jay Scrubb and not enough Kawhi Leonard. Here are the 2020-21 regular season games played totals for several members of the 2020 All-NBA First, Second, or Third Teams:

Ben Simmons: 58 (out of 72)

Pascal Siakam: 56

Kawhi Leonard: 52 

Jimmy Butler: 52

LeBron James: 45

James Harden: 44

Anthony Davis: 36

Kevin Durant: 35

Add Joel Embiid to that list; he played 51 out of 72 games this season after playing 51 out of 72 games last season. Embiid did not make the 2020 All-NBA Team because he missed so many games, but this season the media selected him as a top three finalist in MVP voting despite the fact that he missed nearly 30% of the games. The historical standard is that an NBA MVP must play in at least 85% of the scheduled games, which adds up to at least 70 games in the traditional 82 game season, and at least 61 games in a 72 game season; the only exception is Bill Walton, who won the 1978 regular season MVP despite playing in only 58 out of 82 games--but Portland went 48-10 in those games after Walton captured the 1977 Finals MVP for leading the Trail Blazers to the championship.

Nikola Jokic not only had perfect "attendance" but he had A+ "grades": 26.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 8.3 apg, .566 FG%. Jokic's Denver Nuggets finished third in the West even though Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending injury and missed 24 games; the Nuggets went 47-25 overall, and 16-8 without Murray, which is a further indication of how valuable Jokic is. Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 28.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, and 5.9 apg with .569 FG% while playing in 61 games and leading Milwaukee to the third best record in the East (46-26); his numbers are comparable to the numbers he posted during his MVP seasons, and he should have finished no worse than second in the MVP voting, but he is not a top three finisher, with the prevailing narrative that the voters are now tired of voting for him (which makes no sense, but that kind of illogical thinking helps explain why Michael Jordan and LeBron James did not win as many regular season MVPs as they should have).

If the MVP voting were conducted rationally and followed logical historical precedents regarding (1) the minimum number of games played, (2) the significance of posting triple doubles, and (3) impact on winning for an injury-depleted team, then Russell Westbrook would finish in the top five this season. Westbrook overcame a bout with COVID-19 plus various injuries to play in 65 games, and he averaged a triple double for the fourth time in five seasons while breaking Oscar Robertson's career triple double record, but don't be surprised if the media members reward the "truant" students over the straight A student who rarely missed a "class."

Siakam's Toronto Raptors did not qualify for the playoffs, but the other "truant" students listed above are all expected to be ready to go for the playoffs. LeBron James (four championships), Kevin Durant (two championships), and Kawhi Leonard (two championships) seek to add to their already extensive postseason resumes, while many of the others are seeking their first title.

The following predictions are based on my analysis of what I expect to happen under ideal circumstances: in other words, if there are no further injuries and no COVID-19-related disruptions, which teams are most likely to prevail in seven game playoff series when the home court advantage is minimized due to attendance limitations? 

Here are my first round predictions:

Eastern Conference

#1 Philadelphia (49-23) versus #8 Washington (34-38) 
When he was healthy enough to play, Joel Embiid played better than he has ever played before, posting career highs in scoring (28.5 ppg), field goal percentage (.513), three point field goal percentage (.377), free throw percentage (.859), and steals (1.0 spg) while setting a career low in three point field goal attempts per game. Only those who are in Philadelphia's locker room know if the coaching change from Brett Brown to Doc Rivers made the difference, or if Embiid has just matured as a player to the point that he understands he is a big man who should play in the paint and shoot three pointers selectively. The main drawbacks throughout Embiid's career have been health and conditioning (there is almost certainly a connection between the two).

The Wizards were hit hard by COVID-19, and they had to take a two week hiatus early in the season. They started out 7-17 and looked dead in the water. Then, Russell Westbrook reemerged as the best all-around guard in the league, averaging a triple double for the fourth time in five seasons and breaking Oscar Robertson's career triple double record as the Wizards closed the season with a 16-7 flourish that qualified them for the Play-In Tournament. Bradley Beal joined the long list of players who have had career seasons playing alongside Westbrook--including Kevin Durant, Paul George, and James Harden. The Wizards stumbled versus the Celtics in the first game of the Play-In Tournament, but then blew out the Indiana Pacers to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2018. 

If the Wizards can force a lot of turnovers and convert those extra possessions into easy baskets then they could make this series interesting, but if Embiid plays the way that he did during the regular season then the Wizards have no answer. When he is healthy and in shape, Embiid is one of the top five players in the league. Embiid has yet to prove that he can carry a team to a title, but he seems to be healthy enough and in good enough shape to at least carry the 76ers past the first round, something he was not able to do last season. Philadelphia will win in five games.

#2 Brooklyn (48-24) versus #7 Boston (36-36)

The Brooklyn Nets' "Big Three" of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden barely played the equivalent of one playoff series together this season. Is it realistic to expect a championship run from a team that has not been able to maintain the health of key players and has not had sufficient time to develop chemistry? Talent matters a lot in the NBA, and it is indisputable that this team is stacked with talent, to the extent that former All-Stars Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are role players for the Nets. The Nets are not great at defense (ranking 21st in points allowed, though they also ranked seventh in defensive field goal percentage) or rebounding (14th), but they are very good at shooting (first in field goal percentage) and scoring (second); teams with that profile usually lose in the playoffs to teams that are more well-rounded and tough--but the Celtics have been an up and down team all season, and their level of play is not the same as that of the Boston squads that reached the Eastern Conference Finals three times in the previous four years.

The Celtics are a mediocre team statistically across the board (14th in defensive field goal percentage, 15th in rebounding, 16th in scoring), befitting the. 500 record that they posted this season. Jayson Tatum averaged a career-high 26.4 ppg, and that does not include the 50 points that he dropped on the Washington Wizards in Boston's 118-100 win in the Play-In Tournament. Tatum made the All-NBA Third Team last season, and he should be placed no lower than the All-NBA Second Team this season. Losing All-Star Jaylen Brown to a season-ending wrist injury is a major blow for the Celtics, who were unlikely to beat the Nets even at full strength.

Unless the Nets suffer major injuries or some kind of mental breakdown, they should win this series without too much trouble. Brooklyn will win in five games.

#3 Milwaukee (46-26) versus #6 Miami (40-32)      

The Heat upset the top seeded Bucks in the second round last season, and it is to Milwaukee's credit that they did not do tanking/load management shenanigans to try to avoid this matchup. The Heat are getting healthier now and are probably better than their record suggests, but the addition of Jrue Holiday gives the Bucks a multi-dimensional threat who scores, makes plays, and defends. He is an excellent complement alongside Antetokounmpo and the underrated Khris Middleton, who averaged 20.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, and a career-high 5.4 apg this season.

The Bucks led the league in scoring (120.1 ppg) but they also ranked third in field goal percentage (.487), so they scored efficiently. The Bucks dropped to 22nd in points allowed (114.2 ppg) but they ranked second in rebounding (48.1 rpg), third in point differential (5.9 ppg), and fifth in defensive field goal percentage (.456).

Jimmy Butler is a tremendous two-way player and leader, and the Heat are always well-coached with Erik Spoelstra at the helm, but--after back to back years of falling short of expectations--this may be the Bucks' year. The Bucks have flown underneath the radar as Philadelphia and Brooklyn received most of the attention, but this Bucks team is more talented, more together, and better balanced than the squads from the past couple years that failed to reach the NBA Finals. The Heat will battle on every possession from opening tip to final buzzer, and this will not be an easy series, but Milwaukee will win in six games.

#4 New York (41-31) versus #5 Atlanta (41-31)

The Knicks have home court advantage based on the tiebreak, and that could be significant, particularly because both teams lack playoff experience. The Knicks have the best player in the series--Julius Randle, who should easily win the Most Improved Player award--and in a close matchup that is often the difference that matters the most. The Hawks have been much improved since replacing Coach Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan, but the Hawks do not have an answer for Randle's ability to score both in the paint and from the perimeter. Both teams look like they will obtain a lot of playoff experience in the next few seasons. New York will win in six games.

Western Conference

#1 Utah Jazz (52-20) versus #8 Memphis (38-34)

The Jazz are a deep and well-balanced team led by the scoring/playmaking exploits of Donovan Mitchell (26.4 ppg, 5.2 apg), and the paint presence of Rudy Gobert (14.3 ppg, 13.5 rpg, .675 FG%, 2.7 bpg). Mike Conley and Joe Ingles are excellent playmakers/three point shooters, while Jordan Clarkson is a Sixth Man Award candidate. This season, Utah ranked first in point differential (9.2 ppg), first in rebounding (48.3 rpg), second in defensive field goal percentage (.447), third in points allowed (107.2 ppg), and fourth in scoring (116.4 ppg). Media attention has focused on the Lakers, the Clippers, the Nets, and the 76ers, but Utah has the statistical profile of a championship team both offensively and defensively. 

Memphis is the youngest team to make the playoffs since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the postseason 10 years ago. Ja Morant is a dynamic scorer and playmaker, Dillon Brooks has emerged as an elite defender (even though he fouls too much), and the Grizzlies have a solid rotation of big men who provide a physical presence in the paint. The Grizzlies do not have enough talent or experience to beat the Jazz, but if the Jazz are careless then the Grizzlies could take a couple games. I expect the Jazz to be very focused, and I predict that Utah will win in five games.

#2 Phoenix Suns (51-21) versus #7 L.A. Lakers (42-30)

Raise your hand if you picked Phoenix to have the second best record in the NBA this season. If your hand is up now, you are a liar. If you gave the Suns' players lie detector tests even they would have to admit that they did not expect this. The Suns were a team on the rise (pardon the pun) prior to acquiring Chris Paul, but his playmaking, leadership, timely scoring, and feistiness were just what this young squad needed. That being said, Paul is an undersized player who historically has worn down and/or gotten injured in the playoffs. Bigger players can slow him down and wear him down during the postseason, and the opposing team can exploit Paul's size to score over him and/or force double teams that will generate open shots after the double-teamed player passes. The Suns fit the mold of a team whose regular season success will not translate well to the playoffs, particularly against a bigger, more physical, and more experienced opponent.

The main questions about the Lakers pertain to health and conditioning. The roster is stacked, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis--two of the top five players in the NBA when they are functioning at their peak levels. Davis has never been a durable player or a player renowned for his capacity to play through seemingly minor injuries, but his high skill level is indisputable and he is well-suited to being 1B to James' 1A. James says and does puzzling things at times--he definitely made sure that everyone in the world knew that he had been poked in the eye before he nailed the dagger three pointer to beat the Golden State Warriors in the Play-In Tournament--but his ability to play at a consistently high level for such a long career is remarkable. If his body holds up, then the Lakers will be difficult to beat. The tricky part about that is that every player's body breaks down eventually, and with a player of James' age you never know when that breakdown will happen. Kobe Bryant was playing at an MVP level until he ruptured his Achilles, and then he was never the same after that devastating injury. James may be a few weeks away from winning his fifth title, or he may have already made his last deep playoff run. Whatever happens, I do not expect James' Lakers to be eliminated by an inexperienced team with a 6-0 point guard. The L.A. Lakers will win in six games.

#3 Denver (47-25) versus #6 Portland (42-30)

As mentioned above, Nikola Jokic has been the best, most durable, and most consistent player in the NBA this season. The Nuggets have established themselves as a perennial upper echelon team, posting the second best record in the Western Conference in 2019, the third best record in the Western Conference last season (plus a trip to the Western Conference Finals), and the third best record in the Western Conference this season.

I respect Damian Lillard. He plays hard, he has not fled Portland to be part of a super team, and he seems like an all-around standup guy. Unfortunately, he will never win a title as his team's best player because he is TDS--too darn small. As noted above regarding Chris Paul, the best players who are 6-7 and bigger can defend smaller players on switches, or can use their size to pair up with a teammate to trap a smaller player, but guys like Paul and Lillard will almost always be defensive liabilities in the playoffs (even though Paul has always been an excellent defensive player, he is still vulnerable when switched on to a bigger opponent). Denver will win in six games.

#4 L.A. Clippers (47-25) versus #5 Dallas (42-30) 

It would appear that this is the first round matchup that the Clippers wanted. I would say to be careful what you wish for--no team with Luka Doncic is going to be an easy out--but the Mavericks are not good enough defensively to beat the Clippers four times in a seven game series.

If I were a Clippers fan I would keep repeating "In Kawhi we trust" and I would try to forget about last year's flameout after taking a 3-1 lead versus Denver, not to mention Paul George's somewhat checkered postseason resume. Will Kawhi Leonard be healthy enough to play at a high enough level to make up for the moments when George disappears? Will Rajon Rondo drive the opposing team crazy before he drives his own team crazy? I love Rondo's intelligence, heart, and competitive fire, but it is obvious that it takes a special group of players to handle his personality. The L.A. Clippers will win in six games.      


Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Philadelphia-New York, Brooklyn-Milwaukee, Utah-L.A. Clippers, and Denver-L.A. Lakers. 

If Embiid stays healthy, Philadelphia will beat New York in five games. Brooklyn versus Milwaukee looks like a seven game classic that could come down to the last possession. I predict that the basketball gods will smile upon Giannis Antetokounmpo versus the guys jumping from team to team to form a super team.

The Clippers should be better than the Jazz. Maybe the Clippers will prove that they are better than the Jazz--but right now the Jazz seem like the more cohesive unit, so I will take the Jazz in seven games.

If I knew that the Lakers would be fully healthy (or reasonably close to fully healthy) then I would take them over Denver even if Jamal Murray were able to play. Murray is out, but the health of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is far from certain. I am going to assume that they will be healthy enough for the Lakers to beat the Nuggets in a tough seven game series.

Philadelphia versus Milwaukee brings back memories of some classic 1980s playoff series. Back then, the 76ers won until Julius "Dr. J" Erving moved past his prime. Now, the 76ers will be favored to relive past glory, but I like the Bucks in seven games.

In order to return to the NBA Finals, the Lakers will have to survive the Play-In Tournament plus being the road team in three straight playoff series. I think that by the time the Lakers reach the Western Conference Finals they will be worn down, and the Jazz will beat them in seven games.

An NBA Finals featuring Utah versus Milwaukee may not be the NBA's marketing dream, but the games will be contested at a high level at both ends of the court. Various players are described as unicorns (one of a kind talents) but Giannis Antetokounmpo is THE unicorn right now: he scores, passes, and defends at an elite level. He is not a great outside shooter, but he is good enough that he can make teams pay if they ignore him. Milwaukee will win in six games, capturing the franchise's first NBA title since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Bobby Dandridge won the 1971 championship. 


Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2020-2021 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2020-2021 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2020: East 7/8, West 6/8
2019: East 6/8, West 7/8
2018: East 6/8, West 6/8
2017: East 5/8, West 7/8
2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 96/128 in the East and 102/128 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .773.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2020: 10/15
2019: 10/15
2018: 11/15
2017: 14/15
2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 178/240 (.742)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 16 years I have correctly picked 17 of the 32 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 16 years (including 2016 and 2017) I got both teams right and twice I got both teams right and predicted the correct result (2007, 2017). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began four times: 2007, 2013, 2017, 2018.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted when the playoffs began.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM



At Saturday, May 22, 2021 1:30:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

I too have the Bucks winning the championship this year. For whatever reason, I feel they've figured it out and Giannis will solidify his place as the league's best regular season and postseason player. With a win, his case as a Pantheon player will strengthen.

We agree on the first round winners, but I think teams will win in a different amount of games. As for the second round, I think the Clippers will beat the Jazz in 6 games and lose to the Lakers in the West finals in 6.

You did make a statement that I found interesting and I neither strongly agree or disagree with: "When he is healthy and in shape, Embiid is one of the top five players in the league". In theory, the most dominant center is traditionally considered a top 5 player. There are 4 other 7-footish players that, when healthy, are top 5 worthy as well (Giannis, Davis, Durant, Jokic). Then you have forwards like LeBron and Kawhi. Who gets left out?

In a vacuum, Embiid is clearly a more dominant player than Jokic in the most traditional sense of what a center is. Is he better? I think it's debatable. While I think all-star games today are generally pretty bad, I couldn't help but notice that Embiid is one of the players out there usually going toe-to-toe with the best of the best at the end. That has to count for something. Jokic however has seemed more impressive in terms of success, though health and conditioning plays a huge role in that. I do believe that Embiid is capable of higher highs, but Jokic is more consistent and on the floor more often than not (sounds like this season a lot right?). Who's better? I don't think it definitive either way.

How do we begin to compare Davis to them then? Including the post season last year, Davis was a top 5 player. As leaders of their teams, the centers seem to be more successful. Davis outplayed Jokic last year though.

Skill-set comparisons... Defensively, Jokic is not even on the same planet as Embiid and Davis. Playmaking? Neither of them are on the same planet as Jokic. The rebounding gap is not hugely in favor of either of them for it to be a discussion though Embiid's numbers suggest a very slight edge if you had to pick one. Scoring for the 3 is interesting. This is Jokic's first season of averaging over 20ppg, but he's shown before this year that he could put up big numbers when needed. Davis has 6 seasons of averaging at least 24ppg. Embiid is averaging about 25ppg for his career over 4 seasons. Jokic is probably the best leader of the 3 seen as Embiid is just now maturing and Davis does not seem to be the vocal type or lead-by-example breed like Duncan. I just find this comparison fascinating. How would you rank these 3?

Do any of those bigs deserve to be ranked over healthy championship level forwards like Durant and Kawhi (if such things even exist at this point)? What person with a functioning brain leaves a healthy LeBron or Antetokounmpo out of the top 5? That leaves 3 spots. Honestly, if someone ranked Embiid as #7 amongst these guys, I don't think it's that big of a deal. If someone ranked Embiid 3rd or something, I'd like to know why, but it's not entirely crazy either.

At Saturday, May 22, 2021 1:58:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


Milwaukee vs utah?


Philly vs wizards

Philly in 5

Nets vs celtics

Nets 5

Milwaukee vs heat

Milwaukee in 6

Knicks vs hawks

Knicks in 6

Nets vs Milwaukee

Nets in 6 harden back

Sixers vs knicks

Sixers in 6

Nets vs Sixers

Nets in 6


Utah vs memphis

Utah in 5

Phoenix vs lakers

Lakers in 5

Denver vs Portland

Den in 6

Clippers vs dallas

Clippers in 5

Utah vs clippers

Clippers in 6

Lakers vs denver

Lakers in 5

Lakers vs clippers

Lakers in 7

Nets vs lakers

Nets in 7

But i may pick Lakers.

I dont bet against lebron usually but nets got a little more

Utah and Milwaukee are second round teams david

At Saturday, May 22, 2021 2:00:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


I went 9-3 last year in bubble im a good predictor

At Sunday, May 23, 2021 10:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The number of games is just an indication of if I think that the series will be long/competitive or short/uncompetitive. I don't even track if I am right about the series' length, though I do track if I am right about who wins.

I would take healthy and focused Embiid over everyone you listed except (in alphabetical order) Antetokounmpo, Durant, James, and Leonard. The point, of course, is that we have rarely seen healthy and focused Embiid for long stretches. As I have mentioned before, Embiid would not be on my MVP ballot this year because he missed too many games. Similarly, I would not put him on the All-NBA Team this season, just like he did not make the All-NBA Team last season. Embiid's ability to score in the post with high efficiency, his rebounding, and his defense (again, when he is focused) elevate him above everyone except the four players mentioned above. Durant, James, and Leonard have each won multiple Finals MVPs. Antetokounmpo is younger than those guys but I believe that his career is following a similar trajectory in terms of displaying versatility while also helping his team perform at a high level.

At Sunday, May 23, 2021 10:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There are 15 series in every postseason, so I don't understand how you went 9-3.

We will see if Milwaukee and Utah outperform your expectations.

The Nets have the most talent, but will they do the dirty work (rebounding, defense, setting screens, etc.) necessary to beat the elite teams?

At Sunday, May 23, 2021 1:11:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...


That's fair. Lebron, Giannas, Durant, and Kawhi (probably in that order?) have solidly been my top 4 as well for about 2-3 years now. I don't have a problem with healthy Embiid at #5 because he is the most dominant big in the league and traditionally, the most dominant big is usually a top 5 player or higher. We agree that, unfortunately, we have not seen him in his most dominant form consistently due to injuries and immaturity. For that reason, I won't argue with anyone who chooses to take Jokic or Davis over him. In a vacuum, he's probably the better player of the 3 though. It's always difficult ranking sub 6'6 all-time players like Curry and Westbrook amongst giants.


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