NBA playoff predictions: Bracket picks & 2022 Finals champion

With the 2020-21 season all wrapped up and the Milwaukee Bucks crowned NBA champions, it’s time to update our NBA playoffs and Finals predictions for next season, and project how the playoff bracket for the Eastern and Western Conferences will look next year.

Check out our NBA playoff predictions below, which will be updated leading up to and throughout the 2021-22 campaign. These are obviously subject to change, especially with the mass mobility brought on by free agency and the lingering potential that stars like Ben Simmons and Damian Lillard could be traded.

Find out where your favorite team stands in our NBA power rankings after the big wave of free-agent signings

Eastern Conference predictions

  • Top seeds in the East: 1) Brooklyn Nets; 2) Milwaukee Bucks; 3) Miami Heat; 4) Philadelphia 76ers; 5) Atlanta Hawks 6) Chicago Bulls; 7) Charlotte Hornets; 8) Indiana Pacers
Eastern Conference predictions
Jan 29, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (left) and guard Kyrie Irving (right) celebrate during a time out against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving and James Harden were both out down the stretch of the postseason for the Brooklyn Nets. If they were healthy, we’re probably not talking about a Bucks championship right now.

Even when Irving, Harden and Kevin Durant missed extensive stretches of the 2020-21 regular season, the Nets still got the No. 2 seed in the East. They should be all rested up and driven to chase a championship this next year, so look out for Brooklyn to bounce back in a big way — and to challenge Milwaukee for East supremacy.

Stay up to date with all the key events throughout the offseason with our NBA Games Today flagship article

As for the rest of the East, we saw how large coaching looms in the NBA when Tom Thibodeau sparked the New York Knicks to a surprise playoff appearance. With Rick Carlisle returning to Indiana’s bench and Billy Donovan getting his culture better established in Chicago in Year 2 — not to mention a roster makeover, as the Bulls were uber-aggressive in free agency — look for the Pacers and Bulls to crack the top eight seeds.

The Miami Heat are projected so high for a couple reasons: They’ll be a lot fresher than they were last year off a quick turnaround from their Finals run in the Orlando bubble, and are giving Jimmy Butler some help by acquiring a viable, veteran floor general in Kyle Lowry.

Western Conference predictions

  • Top seeds in the West: 1) Utah Jazz; 2) Golden State Warriors; 3) Dallas Mavericks; 4) Los Angeles Lakers; 5) Phoenix Suns; 6) Denver Nuggets; 7) Memphis Grizzlies; 8) Los Angeles Clippers
NBA playoff predictions: Donovan Mitchell and Utah Jazz are humming in the West
Feb 2, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) reacts after beating the Detroit Pistons at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis derailed the Los Angeles Lakers’ hopes of a repeat in 2021. GM Rob Pelinka certainly didn’t sit on his hands once free agency opened, though.

The Purple and Gold’s roster has completely transformed, welcoming the likes of Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington and Kent Bazemore. That’s so much turnover personnel-wise, but chances are, LeBron and AD will make it all work pretty well.

ACL tears for Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and Los Angeles Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard have their teams lower in the West playoff bracket. However, Murray will return months ahead of Kawhi, which will help Denver ascend higher in the West.

After seeing Giannis win a title in Milwaukee, you can bet Donovan Mitchell will be driven as ever to will the Utah Jazz to a Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Don’t be surprised if Utah locks up the No. 1 seed for a second year in a row. The Jazz added a desperately needed wing defender in Rudy Gay, retained Mike Conley and acquired another elite rim protector in Hassan Whiteside. That’s a darn good offseason right there.

The Golden State Warriors pop out, don’t they? With James Wiseman on the rise, and Klay Thompson returning, the Dubs are going to have a huge resurgence.

Much of the Dallas Mavericks’ projection is based on Luka Doncic. No matter what else they do to surround him with talent, Doncic’s trajectory alone is going to thrust Dallas into the West’s top three.

NBA Playoffs bracket predictions: Matchups and Winners

Eastern Conference bracket:

  • No. 1 Nets defeat No. 8 Pacers, 4-0; Nets advance to Conference Finals, 4-1
  • No. 2 Bucks defeat No. 7 Hornets, 4-2; Bucks advance to Conference Finals, 4-1
  • No. 3 Heat defeat No. 6 Bulls, 4-3
  • No. 5 Hawks defeat No. 4 76ers, 4-2
    • Eastern Conference Finals prediction: No. 1 Nets defeat No. 2 Bucks, 4-2, advance to NBA Finals
NBA Playoffs bracket predictions: Matchups and Winners
Jun 20, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) passes the ball past Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris (12) during the third quarter of game seven of the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone would love to see the Nets and Bucks square off again after their meeting in the conference semifinals. Well, everyone with the exception of Milwaukee fans.

True, the Bucks’ size and elite defense would be a lot for Brooklyn to handle even with it superstar trio all in action. Jrue Holiday could absolutely wear down Harden and Irving. Giannis also showed another level of greatness in the NBA Final that can’t be discounted.

If these two squads meet, it’ll probably feel more like a Finals matchup than whoever the winner plays coming out of the West in the next round. We’re projecting the Nets to get the edge over the reigning champs in six games for now.

A Heat-Bulls tilt in Round 1 would feature tons of premier talent and two elite coaches in Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Chicago’s Donovan. It’d be a tactical chess match for the ages, but the Heat’s playoff experience edge would help them advance.

The 76ers, again, are hard to pin since Ben Simmons’ future hangs in the balance. Depending on how a trade shakes out for him, they could have a much better outlook for next year, or see their standing drop significantly.

Another nice story in here is the Charlotte Hornets, led by reigning NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, getting into the postseason. Ball and Gordon Hayward give Charlotte a shot, and the young phenom may attract another big name to the Hornets this summer.

Related: 50 Top NBA players of 2021 – Giannis, Kawhi, LeBron battle for #1

Western Conference bracket:

  • No. 1 Jazz defeat No. 8 Clippers, 4-3
  • No. 2 Warriors defeat No. 7 Grizzlies, 4-1; Warriors advance to Conference Finals
  • No. 6 Nuggets defeat No. 3 Mavericks, 4-2; Nuggets advance to Conference Finals
  • No. 4 Lakers defeat No. 5 Suns, 4-3
    • Western Conference Finals prediction: No. 6 Nuggets defeat No. 2 Warriors, 4-2, advance to NBA Finals
NBA Playoffs bracket predictions: Matchups and Winners
May 18, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) congratulates guard Stephen Curry (30) during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers in game three of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Golden State Warriors beat the Portland Trail Blazers 110-99. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It’s going to take Kawhi Leonard quite a while to get back, which could mean the Clippers barely sneak into the playoffs through the play-in tournament.

Even when Leonard returns, he’ll be conservatively managed, and can’t be counted on to carry LA. Utah will be out for vengeance after blowing a 2-0 lead to the Clippers in the 2021 NBA playoffs, too.

Poor Suns. Running into the new-look Lakers. Speaking of revenge, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see the Lake Show take on Phoenix in Round 1 again? A healthy LeBron and AD may change the complexion of a prospective rematch.

With so much unknown about the Mavs and what they intend to surround Doncic with, they can’t be counted on to advance past the first round, despite the young stud’s best efforts.

The Memphis Grizzlies should continue their steady progress with a strong young core led by Ja Morant. However, they’re not ready to advance in the postseason just yet, especially if they face the Dubs to start.

A Warriors-Lakers duel would be fun, but it’s a bad matchup for the latter. The Splash Bros. are the most lethal combo of 3-point shooters in NBA history. While LA did acquire plenty of shooters this summer, how many of them can you truly count on when the bright lights of the playoffs go on?

Golden State’s resurgence would ultimately run out of steam in this scenario, however. With Murray back in the fold, Denver would have just enough to sneak past the Warriors and into the NBA Finals.

NBA playoff predictions: NBA Finals matchup and champion

NBA playoff predictions: NBA Finals matchup and champion
May 8, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) during the fourth quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

2022 NBA Finals predictions: Nets defeat Nuggets, 4-1

A Nuggets-Nets Finals would be a compelling matchup for a variety of reasons, but it’d likely boil down to several factors that are so challenging to forecast.

First: What on Flat Earth can Brooklyn expect out of Kyrie Irving? He’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a mirror dimensional prism and so on. But damn, can the man hoop when he’s locked in and healthy.

Second: Will Michael Porter Jr. develop enough on the defensive end to help contain the Nets’ Big Three? If MPJ can do that and continue his stunning proficiency as a scorer, Denver might have a legitimate chance to knock off Brooklyn in a hypothetical series.

Third: Nikola Jokic’s one-of-one skill set for a big man is precisely what could cause the undersized Nets to crumble.

Fourth: Durant and Harden might play so well to render factors one through three irrelevant.

KD-Kyrie-Beard vs. Joker-Murray-MPJ? Sign us up, NBA. Chances are, though, this Nets team just has too much offensive firepower to be denied in the end.

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