Now that the field is set at the conclusion of the play-in tournament, how many upsets can we expect to see in the first round of this year’s NBA playoffs?
Last year saw all eight higher-seeded teams advance before the bracket started getting wonky in round two. However, that’s a historical outlier. Not counting the 2020 playoffs, which were played on neutral courts in the NBA bubble, there have been an average of 1.5 upsets per year in the opening round.
But with so much playoff experience in the West accumulated in the bottom four seeds, we’re unlikely to see chalk reign again in this year’s first round. In fact, the defending champion Golden State Warriors beating the upstart Sacramento Kings wouldn’t actually be an upset because the Kings are heavy favorites at Caesars Sportsbook, with a 71% chance to win the series.
Naturally, Sacramento-Golden State is the most likely series to produce a win by a lower seed in my model, which incorporates regular-season performance (as measured by net rating), roster quality (as based on SCHOENE projections and my prediction for first-round playing time) and pre-playoffs title odds.
Let’s run through all eight series in terms of projected upset probability.
Golden State Warriors (6) vs. Sacramento Kings (3): 52%
Given the SCHOENE part of this analysis is the same method used as part of my preseason projections, it’s no surprise the Warriors’ chances here are a little lower than perceived by the market. Still, if we look at situations like this where the lower-seeded team rates better, the higher seed has won 45% of best-of-seven series since 1984 thanks to home-court advantage.
Historically, bettors haven’t done well picking first-round upsets ahead of time. Per ESPN Stats & Info analysis of SportsOddsHistory.com data, six teams seeded sixth or lower have been favored in the past 20 years outside the bubble before Golden State. Of those, only the 2014 Brooklyn Nets (against the Toronto Raptors) actually went on to win the series.
The funniest outcome here would be the Warriors winning more games in Sacramento than at home, given their much-ballyhooed home/road splits this season. Such distinctions tend not to carry over into the playoffs, so it’s likely Golden State will reclaim home-court advantage by winning at least one of the first two games on the road. In that case, the Warriors will be clear favorites to advance.
Los Angeles Lakers (7) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (2): 40%
Remarkably, the Lakers have better title odds (plus-1400) than the Grizzlies (plus-1800) despite needing overtime just to hold off the short-handed Minnesota Timberwolves to secure the No. 7 seed earlier this week in the play-in. However, this isn’t just a case of the Lakers being a “public” team that draws heavy action in nearby Las Vegas.
With Memphis missing key frontcourt players Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, and the Lakers having performed much better after beefing up their rotation at the deadline, my player ratings suggest the Lakers have the more talented rotation of the two teams at this point. And the Lakers have rated better of the two teams since the trade deadline after adjusting for opposition.
One encouraging sign for the Grizzlies: The Lakers’ stout post-deadline defense benefited in part from opponents shooting just 34% from 3-point range in that span, fifth-lowest in the league. We saw against Minnesota that won’t likely help them as much in the postseason.
New York Knicks (5) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (4): 26%
One challenge of predicting this series is determining what kind of production the Knicks will get from Julius Randle, who hasn’t played since suffering an ankle sprain on March 29. I’ve pegged him for 34 MPG — fewer than the 35.5 he averaged during the regular season but more than if he’s forced to miss the start of the series.
Just what kind of production the Knicks will get from Randle is another important question. The last time New York reached the playoffs, Randle’s All-Star season petered out in a 4-1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the opening round as he shot just 33% on 2-point attempts and averaged more turnovers (4.6) than assists (4.0). Randle has a lot more help this time around with the emergence of Jalen Brunson and Sixth Man of the Year contender Immanuel Quickley, but the Knicks will need Randle playing at an All-Star level to pull off the upset.
LA Clippers (5) vs. Phoenix Suns (4): 23%
An injury also looms large in the Suns-Clippers matchup, in this case to Clippers wing Paul George. I projected George for 11 MPG based on the possibility of returning midway through the series. The Clippers will likely need contributions from George to have a realistic chance against a Phoenix team that went 8-0 with Kevin Durant in the lineup, outscoring a below-average set of opponents by 10 points per game.
Minnesota Timberwolves (8) vs. Denver Nuggets (1): 13%
For a No. 8 seed, Minnesota looks relatively frisky as an underdog, which is why this ranks ahead of three East series. Even without injured wing Jaden McDaniels, SCHOENE rates the Timberwolves’ talent seventh-best in the league, a reminder of the excitement when they added Rudy Gobert to the mix last summer. Alas, Denver, which ranks third by that same metric, easily outperformed Minnesota during the regular season and boasts far better championship odds.
Miami Heat (8) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (1): 8%
Now we’re moving into “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” territory. This is the third meeting between the Heat and Bucks in the last three and a half years, dating back to the 2020 bubble. Like the last one, also in the first round in 2021, Miami doesn’t look capable of scoring enough against a stout Milwaukee defense to really threaten an upset. The Heat were swept in 2021 and could meet a similar fate this time around.
Atlanta Hawks (7) vs. Boston Celtics (2): 8%
Celtics-Hawks rating low in upset probability says less about Atlanta, fresh off an impressive win at Miami to clinch the No. 7 seed, than Boston. Thanks to the league’s best net rating in the regular season (plus-6.7 points per 100 possessions, 1.1 more than any other team), the Celtics have the top overall projection entering the playoffs. We’re more likely to see that tested in subsequent rounds than by the Hawks.
Brooklyn Nets (6) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (3): 7%
Based solely on regular-season performance, Nets-Sixers might look competitive. However, much of Brooklyn’s success was achieved with Durant and Kyrie Irving on the roster. With them elsewhere, the Nets have rated as the league’s 19th-best team since the trade deadline, while Philadelphia has ascended to the second-best rating in that span with MVP favorite Joel Embiid playing 25 out of 29 games. As a result, this projects as the biggest first-round mismatch.