At long last, it’s time to put regular-season basketball in the rearview mirror and move on to the NBA’s main event — the playoffs are finally here! And FiveThirtyEight is here, too, to help predict how it’ll all go down. With the help of our CARM-Elo projection model, and the betting odds1 as a second opinion, what follows is our survey of both the Eastern and Western Conference postseason landscapes. And in a departure from last season, when the Warriors were near-universal favorites on the eve of the playoffs, there’s actually some uncertainty in the playoff outlook this time around.
How Elo is forecasting the Eastern Conference playoffs
As of April 12
|CARM-Elo chances||Vegas chances|
|Team||Record||Rating||Win Conf.||Win Title||Win Conf.||Win Title|
Statistical favorite: The numbers say this might finally be a breakthrough year for the Toronto Raptors, who are in the playoffs for a fifth straight season but have only one conference finals appearance (and zero NBA Finals berths) to show for it. Everything seemed to come together for Toronto this season, from a mega-efficient offense to a defense that improved to fifth-best in basketball. Add in a career year from DeMar DeRozan and a world-beating second unit, and the result was the top seed in the East — with a 42 percent chance to win the conference, according to CARM-Elo. That number is much higher than the 30 percent chance that CARM-Elo is giving the 76ers, the team our model thinks has the second-best chance of making it to the NBA Finals. And it’s hugely better than the 14 percent we’re giving the three-time defending conference champion Cavaliers. If the regular-season indicators mean anything, Toronto has earned every bit of its favorite status.
Betting favorite: Another year, another case of the stats underrating the Cleveland Cavaliers’ chances in the East. Our model struggled to assess the Cavs last season too, and LeBron James’s squad proved the data wrong by tearing through the East with only one loss en route to the NBA Finals. The same scenario is shaping up to happen this season — and Vegas knows it. That’s probably why the Cavs are favored by the markets to win the conference again (albeit as less of a favorite than in the past), despite a regular season that was unimpressive by the standards of a LeBron team. In the battle between skepticism over Cleveland’s inconsistent form and trust that James can will his team to an eighth consecutive NBA Finals,2 the bettors are still giving LeBron the benefit of the doubt.
Dark horse: Although our ratings are higher on the Philadelphia 76ers than the Las Vegas odds are, both predictions think the Sixers are an intriguing pick to contend for the East crown. On the one hand, Philly’s near-total lack of playoff seasoning is a troublesome indicator for the postseason, where experience matters more than we sometimes acknowledge. (A late-season injury to star big man Joel Embiid also complicates matters; Embiid is recovering but probably won’t be ready for Game 1 of Philadelphia’s opening series with the Heat.) But Philadelphia is loaded with talent, from Embiid down low to likely rookie of the year Ben Simmons at the point and No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, who on Wednesday became the youngest player to post a triple-double. The Sixers are also playing at something close to peak form going into the playoffs, having won 16 straight games to close out the regular season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the longest winning streak ever for a team entering the playoffs, and it’s one big reason why both our model and the Vegas odds list Philly as the only East team other than Cleveland or Toronto with a double-digit probability of winning the conference title.
Best first-round series: The East doesn’t have as many quality first-round duels as the West, but the Celtics and Bucks should be an interesting matchup. Boston lost its star player, Kyrie Irving, with just a week to go before the playoffs. The Celtics have home-court advantage and enough supporting talent to win a postseason series without Irving, but the onus will be on Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier to cap off their breakout seasons with great playoff performances. On the Milwaukee side, the Bucks have largely underachieved this season, although they’ve been slightly better after firing Jason Kidd in January. They also have the best individual player in the series by far, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s Value Over Replacement Player, in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak had an MVP-type season this year, and he possesses the skills to potentially take over a series all by himself. It’s been a year since the Bucks put a scare into the Raptors before losing in the first round, and Milwaukee could be poised to actually win this time around.
How Elo is forecasting the Western Conference playoffs
As of April 12
|CARM-Elo Chances||Vegas Chances|
|Team||Record||Rating||Win Conf.||Win Title||Win Conf.||Win Title|
Statistical favorite: After years of taking a backseat as Golden State dominated our pre-playoff predictions, the Houston Rockets are now front-runners to win the West. Specifically, CARM-Elo gives soon-to-be MVP James Harden and friends a 57 percent chance of making their first NBA Finals appearance this summer. Incredulous? Fine, but doubt Houston at your own peril. Remember that this season’s Rockets team shares many of the same characteristics with the Warriors back when Golden State was first making the climb toward transcendence. Teams that produce all-time great seasons like Houston has this season tend to win NBA titles at a tremendously high rate. Nothing in the regular-season numbers suggests that the Rockets should be anything other than solid favorites to take the conference — if not more.
Betting favorite: There is a huge disparity between the chance our model gives the Golden State Warriors of winning the championship and what the betting markets say. CARM-Elo gives the defending NBA champs only an 8 percent chance of winning the West, tied to the team’s relatively unexceptional 58-win campaign that ended with Steph Curry injured and Steve Kerr calling his team out over a series of listless final-month losses. And yet, Golden State remains the betting market’s Western Conference co-favorite (alongside the Rockets), with an implied 44 percent chance of going to the NBA Finals for a fourth-straight season. Similar to the situation with the Cavaliers, the Warriors’ strong odds can be attributed to disagreement over how much we should read into a talented team’s regular-season struggles. The oddsmakers are clearly putting a lot more weight on Golden State’s track record than what we’ve seen on the court in 2017-18 — and considering how well we know the Warriors are capable of playing, that’s probably a good call.
Dark horse: The West is so crazy that we could highlight a few teams here, but the Utah Jazz stand out in particular. According to CARM-Elo, they rank as the NBA’s third-best team going into the playoffs — trailing only the Rockets and Raptors — even after making our adjustment for playoff experience (of which the Jazz have very little). Utah put itself in a bit of an unfortunate position by losing to Portland on the final day of the regular season, which dropped the Jazz from the No. 3 seed down to No. 5. As a result, Utah lost home-court advantage in the first round, and the formidable Thunder were locked in as its first-round opponent. (It also set them up for a potential second-round collision course with the Rockets.) Even so, our model lists the Jazz as tied with OKC for the second-best chances of winning the West, and they could prove a dangerous opponent for the top seeds if they make it out of the first round.
Best first-round series: CARM-Elo says the closest matchup of the first round is the aforementioned clash between the Thunder and Jazz. Oklahoma City is a slim favorite at 52 percent, by virtue of having home-court advantage. But these teams are very evenly matched: Both posted 48-34 records, and only 5 points of CARM-Elo separate their ratings. This one might be a referendum of sorts on the importance of playoff seasoning — the Jazz are the least-experienced team in the postseason field, while the Thunder rank fourth-highest behind only the Cavaliers, Warriors and Spurs. That edge might be enough to push OKC over the top, although whoever wins the prize likely has a date with the Rockets in the next round. Enjoy these teams while they last.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
CORRECTION (April 12, 2018, 4:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the possibility of the Utah Jazz facing the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round if the Jazz had won their final game. Although Utah would have been the No. 3 seed if it had won, it could have played several different teams depending on the results of other games.