NBA playoff predictions: Projecting East and West top 8 seeds, 2020-21 postseason bracket

It's time for some NBA playoff predictions. Will the shortened 72-game season lead to any big changes from last postseason? Can LeBron and the Lakers repeat?

By Matt Fitzgerald
March 6, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) controls the ball against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020-21 season well underway, it’s time to make some NBA playoff predictions, and project which eight teams from the Eastern and Western Conference will qualify for the postseason.

There will be some new teams in, and inevitably several playoff squads from yesteryear who will be on the outside looking in. We’ll keep an update on these projections, but will be transparent about our original picks! Check out our updated NBA playoff predictions below.

Related: NBA Power Rankings – New Orleans Pelicans falling big time, Los Angeles Lakers continue domination

NBA playoff predictions: Eastern Conference

1) Milwaukee Bucks; 2) Brooklyn Nets; 3) Philadelphia 76ers; 4) Boston Celtics; 5) Miami Heat; 6) Indiana Pacers; 7) Toronto Raptors; 8) Atlanta Hawks

Original picks: 1) Bucks; 2) Heat; 3) Nets; 4) Celtics; 5) Raptors; 6) 76ers; 7) Pacers; 8) Wizards

NBA playoff predictions: Giannis, Bucks No. 1 in East
Sep 6, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) gestures after a play against the Miami Heat during the first half of game four of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The trade for Jrue Holiday was a massive move for Milwaukee, both for its NBA title hopes and for its bid to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Bucks beyond this season. The Deer accomplished the latter objective when Giannis signed on for a supermax contract extension. If this year doesn’t result in at least an NBA Finals trip, Milwaukee is no longer in danger of losing its back-to-back league MVP.

But that pales in comparison to the blockbuster move the Brooklyn Nets made in trading for James Harden! Even without Kyrie Irving, as he continues to be bizarre and not return to the team, Harden looks fantastic in his limited action to date with Kevin Durant and the rest of the Nets. Much more of a distributor than a selfish, isolation-based playmaker, The Beard is playing at an elite level and looks much better conditioned than he did at the start of the season.

The question is: Will all the chaos Irving creates end up unraveling Brooklyn before the squad self-actualizes under first-year coach Steve Nash? Even with just Durant and Harden leading the way sans Irving, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Nets can ascend to No. 2 in the East by season’s end. They’re already within striking distance of the conference lead.

Antetokounmpo is really going to need at least one championship to cement his legacy, and accomplishing that feat in Milwaukee will hold more value than doing so elsewhere, similar to how LeBron James won with Cleveland. However, he’ll now have to go through a potential Super Team in the East in Brooklyn before even reaching the NBA Finals.

Miami actually made it to the Finals and won two games against the Lakers despite a couple key injuries in the Orlando bubble. With much of the team returning to run it back, why doubt the Heat’s ability to build off their playoff run? Well, the short turnaround between NBA seasons actually caused coach Erik Spoelstra’s resilient squad to stumble out of the gates, yet Miami can’t be discounted too soon, especially once the COVID-19 protocols that have hampered its early schedule subside.

Most of the other East squads from the 2020 NBA playoffs return, with the one new addition being the Hawks. We initially had Bradley Beal and the electrifying Russell Westbrook. guiding Washington to the eighth seed. They’ve started slow and need some luck to get into the play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seed it seems. Instead, Atlanta and Trae Young snag the Wizards’ spot just behind Toronto, who lost five of its first six to fall into an early hole but should recover in time to make the playoffs.

One dark horse to keep an eye on are the Indiana Pacers. They lost All-Star guard Victor Oladipo in the Harden blockbuster deal, but won’t have Caris LeVert for a while and are already without T.J. Warren. If Indiana makes it through all that adversity and still is in the postseason, don’t be surprised if the team is a legitimate factor in the East.

As for that aforementioned seeding play-in tournament, look out for the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks as possible candidates who could shake up the East playoff picture. They’re all being coached hard by J.B. Bickerstaff, Billy Donovan and Tom Thibodeau respectively.

Cleveland and New York are playing excellent defense to begin the new season. Donovan makes Chicago a threat purely due to how he shocked the NBA world by taking Oklahoma City to the playoffs in 2019-20.

Related: NBA defense rankings: Updated hierarchy of all 30 teams for 2020-21 season

NBA playoff predictions: Western Conference

1) Los Angeles Lakers; 2) Los Angeles Clippers; 3) Dallas Mavericks; 4: Phoenix Suns; 5) Denver Nuggets; 6) Utah Jazz; 7) New Orleans Pelicans; 8) Golden State Warriors

Original picks: 1) Lakers; 2) Clippers; 3) Mavericks; 4) Nuggets; 5) Warriors; 6) Suns; 7) Pelicans; 8) Jazz

NBA playoff predictions: Zion Williams gets Pelicans in out West
Mar 8, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) in action against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Due to the depth in the West, there’s a lot more room for reshuffling in the standings than there seems to be in the East. Although the congested schedule and sluggish start by many teams has opened things up, upon our third large-scale update, none of our initial West picks have changed.

Among the notable narratives to arise from this set of predictions for the West’s top eight seeds, the obvious starting point is the Lakers defending their conference title, at least in the regular season. They will once again ascend to Western royalty thanks to the tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

But the Purple and Gold also upgraded their roster from this past year’s championship run, poaching Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell from the Clippers and landing former Thunder guard Dennis Schroeder in a trade. Between those acquisitions and their bargain signing of Marc Gasol, the frontcourt is more skilled, and Schroder alone upgrades the Lakers’ guard platoon.

What also stands out is how fast two of the game’s brightest young stars will help their franchises take leaps forward. That’s right: Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks are getting all the way to the No. 3 seed, while Zion Williamson, reigning Most Improved Player Brandon Ingram and a promising young core of players come together in New Orleans to squeak into the postseason.

Doncic and Co. are struggling, as the Mavs deal with a COVID-19 outbreak, and playing both the Clippers and Lakers recently caused the Pelicans to hit the skids on a five-game losing streak. They should recover in time to sneak into the playoffs, though, and once Dallas is at fuller strength, look for Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis to lead the team on a huge run of wins.

Other buzz-worthy developments: Chris Paul getting dealt from Oklahoma City to Phoenix helps to push the Suns into the postseason and sends the Thunder to the NBA draft lottery. A healthier Warriors squad, despite the loss of sharpshooter Klay Thompson for a second straight season, returns to the playoffs with a new-look lineup, a resurgent Stephen Curry and a legitimate X-factor in rookie No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman at center.

Now that Harden is finally out of Houston, it’s time for a new Rockets era led by John Wall. Unfortunately, it looks like his presence, along with underrated big man Christian Wood, won’t be enough for Houston to get beyond the West play-in tournament — if that far.

Another team that could get hot late is the Portland Trail Blazers. The only thing is, they’ll need to stay afloat long enough to be relevant by then, what with CJ McCollum out for at least a month with a foot fracture.

Related: NBA games today: Updated TV schedule for 2020-21 regular season

NBA playoff predictions: Postseason matchups and winners

Updated Eastern Conference bracket:

  • No. 1 Bucks defeat No. 8 Hawks, 4-0; Bucks advance to Conference Finals, 4-3
  • No. 2 Nets defeat No. 7 Raptors, 4-1; Nets advance to Conference Finals, 4-1
  • No. 3 76ers defeat No. 6 Pacers, 4-3
  • No. 5 Heat defeat No. 4 Celtics, 4-3

Original Eastern Conference bracket picks

  • No. 1 Bucks defeat No. 8 Wizards, 4-1; Bucks advance to Conference Finals, 4-1
  • No. 2 Heat defeat No. 7 Pacers, 4-1; Heat advance to Conference Finals, 4-3
  • No. 3 76ers defeat No. 6 Pacers, 4-3
  • No. 5 Raptors defeat No. 4 Celtics, 4-3
NBA playoff predictions: Brooklyn Nets surge to Conference Finals
Jan 18, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets shooting guard James Harden (13) and power forward Kevin Durant (7) high five during the fourth quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Barclays Center. The Nets defeated the Bucks 125-123. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The surprise playoff appearance by Young and the Hawks won’t be enough for Washington to derail the Bucks’ championship hopes in Round 1, as we’re projecting a sweep.

Holiday is one of the game’s best defenders, and is joining a squad that ranked No. 1 in the NBA last season with a 102.5 defensive rating. Khris Middleton and Giannis are too much defensively for Young and Atlanta to handle. The Hawks do have some stellar wing defenders in their own right with De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish who match up well with the Deer, but they also have a reported feud going on between Young and forward John Collins. That limits Atlanta’s ceiling, and any lingering issues on an already-inexperienced squad will be exposed against the mighty Bucks.

It’d be tough to see two quality teams like the Heat and Celtics square off in the quarterfinals, yet that’s where we could be headed due to Brooklyn’s superstars returning and Philadelphia starting so hot under new coach Doc Rivers. A Boston-Miami duel would easily be the most competitive series, with the Heat sending the C’s packing in a shocking early exit.

Imagine what it’d look like to see Toronto rally to square off with Irving, Harden and Durant. Whereas the Raptors are the ultimate team, the Nets still have to sort out their chemistry three mercurial superstars leading the charge. We haven’t given up on Toronto, and unsurprisingly, the team rebounded from a 2-8 start by winning three straight.

These Nets are just too talented, and Harden and KD look too good together right now, for the Raptors to be any issue for them. Facing the 76ers in the semifinals shouldn’t be too tall a task even with the Harden-Durant combo and no Irving, though the latter should definitely be back soon enough. That’d set up a highly anticipated meeting with Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Look for Holiday’s presence to loom large over this series as he does his best to lock up Harden and/or Irving. That’ll put pressure on Giannis to guard whoever’s left between those two when he’s not on Durant, and Middleton to chip in, too. Honestly, the Bucks match up pretty well with the Nets, but the superior offensive upside of Brooklyn’s triumvirate now makes them the favorites to come out of the East.

Where things could change in these NBA playoff predictions is if somehow Irving doesn’t come back, or his presence completely sinks the Nets. Plus, if Brooklyn manages to capture one of the top two seeds as expected, it’ll likely draw an opponent with lots of continuity in Round 1, creating the danger of a postseason letdown.

For now, we’re bullish on the Nets, who are at least showing flashes of brilliance in the early going.

Updated Western Conference bracket:

  • No. 1 Lakers defeat No. 8 Warriors, 4-0; Lakers advance to Conference Finals, 4-1
  • No. 2 Clippers defeat No. 7 Pelicans, 4-1
  • No. 3 Mavericks defeat No. 6 Jazz, 4-1; Mavs advance to Conference Finals, 4-2
  • No. 4 Suns defeat No. 5 Nuggets, 4-2

Original Western Conference bracket picks

  • No. 1 Lakers defeat No. 8 Jazz, 4-1; Lakers advance to Conference Finals, 4-1
  • No. 2 Clippers defeat No. 7 Pelicans, 4-2
  • No. 3 Mavericks defeat No. 6 Suns, 4-1; Mavs advance to Conference Finals, 4-2
  • No. 4 Nuggets defeat No. 5 Warriors, 4-3
NBA playoff predictions: Luka Doncic, Mavs get revenge on Kawhi's Clippers
Aug 23, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, left, drives toward the basket as Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard defends during the second half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ashley Landis/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors’ resurgence is limited to a quick playoff series in the opening round, as they draw a tough duel against the Lakers. Between all of LA’s new additions and its superior overall defense, the Lake Show boasts a little too much firepower for Golden State to handle sans Thompson.

In advancing to the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers would need to get past Dallas for a return trip to the NBA Finals, which is an exciting prospect. It’d be very much the old guard versus the new guard of the NBA.

Through a rematch of last year’s thrilling first-round showdown, our projections have Luka Doncic and the Mavericks getting revenge on the Clippers in the conference semis. This is mainly due to the fact that Doncic managed to steal two wins from L.A. in his playoff debut, and was hobbled by a sprained ankle much of the time — not to mention going multiple contests without his No. 2 guy, Kristaps Porzingis.

Dallas is playing with house money at the minute while Doncic and Porzingis grow together. Kawhi Leonard has an opt out in his contract after the 2020-21 season and hasn’t really given a firm commitment to the Clippers, so the pressure is squarely on them to make it work under new coach Tyronn Lue.

LeBron, Anthony Davis and the Lake Show ultimately dispatch Doncic and Co. to return to the NBA Finals, but the Mavs would put up a valiant fight in this scenario. Provided Porzingis is playing to his potential and his knee isn’t a nagging problem, he’s one of the few bigs in the Association who can go toe-to-toe with Davis on both ends of the floor. If not on a consistent basis, it’ll be often enough for L.A. to sweat out a six-game Western Conference Finals series.

Another nice subplot is CP3 and Devin Booker guiding the Suns to the semifinals, but they likely aren’t ready yet to win more than one game against the Lakers as they’re currently constructed.

NBA playoff predictions: NBA Finals matchup and champion

2021 NBA Finals: Lakers defeat Nets, 4-2

NBA playoff predictions: Lakers defeat Nets in 2021 NBA Finals
Jan 13, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) gestures against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t think LeBron took it personally that Irving called him out for not being clutch? Imagine if The King gets to face The Child — and no, we’re not talking about Baby Yoda here — in the 2021 NBA Finals. LeBron could go face-to-face with the immature kid who’s a world-class talent, but hasn’t won anything since ditching his former Cavaliers teammate.

In Year 17, LeBron dragged the Lakers out of their dysfunctional mess and transformed his game to remold the franchise into a proud, championship winner once again. With 10.2 assists per game, he led the NBA in dimes last season. With an upgraded supporting cast in 2020-21, L.A. looks almost unstoppable to this point, boasting a combination of depth, size and star power few other squads can match.

Well, few others aside from Brooklyn. It can’t be understated how massive the Harden trade was for the Nets. They really have a chance to match up well with the Lake Show. While there figures to be a bit of a disadvantage in rebounding, if Irving, Harden and Durant are firing on all cylinders? Great offense beats great defense. Let’s just leave it at that. Brooklyn has the chance to be among the greatest offenses in the history of basketball — maybe even the best, if everything comes together in time.

That’s a big “if” however. All the pressure would be on the Nets in this scenario, too: Harden gunning for his first championship. Durant trying to beat back the perception that he can’t win without a super team. The outcast Irving trying to prove he can be a competent, long-term superstar on a perennial title contender.

As it stands, the Lakers’ acquisitions of Harrell, Schroder and Gasol are too much for Brooklyn or any other playoff foe to handle. The chemistry between all of LA’s new pieces has been rather seamless. It ultimately should result in LeBron claiming a fifth title, further closing the GOAT debate gap on Michael Jordan and fortifying the Lakers as a premier NBA franchise after several seasons of futility.