NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach, exec pick 2024's first-round winners (2024)

It’s finally here: the best time of the NBA year.

The playoffs.

As we do every postseason, we dialed up some experts and asked them to make some predictions.

We asked a scout, a coach and a team executive to predict the outcomes of the matchups that we already know: Knicks-76ers, Bucks-Pacers, CavaliersMagic, Nuggets-Lakers, TimberwolvesSuns and ClippersMavericks first-round series. We did not ask our panelists to predict the upcoming playoff series involving the league’s top seeds — the Boston Celtics in the East and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West — because their opponents have not been determined yet.

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Panelists were granted anonymity because their employers did not give them permission to discuss other franchises publicly. Anonymity also gave them the freedom to be completely candid with their assessments.

(Editor’s note: The experts’ comments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. The authors’ notes are in italics.)

Eastern Conference

No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

Scout’s outlook: The Knicks are tough. They’re mentally tough. … With (Isaiah) Hartenstein and (Mitchell) Robinson, they have some more interior presence to handle Joel Embiid a little bit. I mean, nobody’s really handled him. But Embiid did not look good (in Philly’s Play-In win over Miami). Yes, he made some shots, but he looks like he’s heavy. He looks like he’s lumbering. He had the knee injury (midway through the season). …

Tobias Harris, who is the expected third scorer for the Sixers, was a no-show in the Play-In game. He missed those two layups at one point. They’re going to need somebody else besides (Tyrese) Maxey and Embiid. I’ll give them credit. They’ve done a good job. Kelly Oubre Jr. has had a good year. Buddy Hield coming off the bench is a positive. …

It’s going to be a long series. I just can’t see it being anything short of six games. These teams are too competitive. The Knicks have done fine without (Julius) Randle (who decided to have season-ending shoulder surgery earlier this month), and some would argue that not having Randle is a positive because he’s so ball dominant. It allows guys like Donte DiVencenzo to shine and be more in the flow of the offense. Jalen Brunson is Jalen Brunson. Who’s going to guard him? Maxey can’t guard him. (Kyle) Lowry can’t guard him. I’m curious to see if they put Oubre on him, because Brunson’s the whole team (for New York) offensively. For the Knicks, the reverse side of not having Randle is they need another scorer. … OG Anunoby, coming back from an injury, he’s not really a scorer. He’s going to have to step up. They need him to score 15 to 18 a game. Is he capable? We’ll see. … A guy they acquired at the deadline, Bojan Bogdanović, hasn’t been great, but he’s a guy they need, because the scoring element for them, or lack thereof, is significant, and that’s what Bogdanović can do.


Coach’s outlook: I think it’s going to be an old-school, grind-out series. The defense on both ends will be high level. Everything that will be in that series will be earned. One key is obviously Joel’s health and his ability to play through whatever the series takes. For the Knicks, I think a key for them will be having a secondary scorer. Nick (Nurse) has shown over his coaching career in the NBA (the ability) to do unique, different things. I think they’re going to do a lot to try to slow down Brunson.

Executive’s outlook: This one is tough. I can’t believe New York decided to win that last game (laughs).

By beating Chicago 120-119 in overtime in their regular-season finale on Sunday, the Knicks secured the No. 2 seed, and this eventual matchup with Philadelphia, rather than the No. 3 seed (and a first-round matchup against Indiana).

“The Basketball Gods, this and that. But do you really want to face a fully healthy Philly team? Probably not. But this one can really go either way. I’ll go Sixers in seven. New York is going to be playing tired, playing the way they’re playing. They are still small. They’re fighters, but they’re small. No Julius. They’ve got nobody for Embiid. Hartenstein is not going to do anything for Embiid. I think it’s going to be Sixers.”

Scout’s pick: Knicks in seven
Coach’s pick: Knicks in six
Executive’s pick: Sixers in seven
Majority pick: Knicks

NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach, exec pick 2024's first-round winners (3)

Tyrese Haliburton’s Pacers took four of the five games against Khris Middleton’s Bucks in the regular season. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Indiana Pacers

According to our Shams Charania, Antetokounmpo could miss“two to four weeks”with the left calf injury that he suffered in a game against Boston on April 9.

Scout’s outlook: No Giannis for how many games? That’s obviously key. I mean, without him, like any of these teams — take Philly if it were without Embiid, take the Clippers if they were without Kawhi Leonard — they’re just not the same team. …

I’ll pick Indiana because Milwaukee’s had issues, especially recently. They struggled at the end of the year; they had some terrible losses. Under Doc Rivers, they were under .500. This is not the Milwaukee team of last year or even earlier in the year. That’s what’s so bizarre about it. … They’ve been totally underachieving. So, are they going to regroup? They’re playing against an explosive Indiana team that can score with its eyes closed. Milwaukee’s defense after the summer (when the Bucks traded Jrue Holiday and hired Rivers’ predecessor, Adrian Griffin) is not the same.


Coach’s outlook: This is going to be a high-energy, high-scoring series from both teams. Indiana is relentless in their pace and their attacking. Milwaukee knows that; Indiana beat them four out of five including the In-Season Tournament. Even with Giannis being out to start the series and (maybe) coming back later, Dame has shown he can carry a team. I’m going to take the Bucks in six games. I think over the course of time Milwaukee will make some adjustments to try to slow (Indiana) down enough, just a little bit — I don’t think they’ll stop them — to give themselves a chance. I think Dame will do what he does and has done in the past. I would say another key factor in that series is going to be Bobby Portis. I feel like whenever he has a big game the Bucks seem to have won.

Executive’s outlook: With Giannis not playing, it’s the Pacers. Normally I would say Milwaukee, and you would think it’s an easy one — like 4-1. But I don’t know now man. The Pacers offense is still the Pacers offense. The Bucks’ defense is terrible without Giannis. They do have Brook (Lopez), and some dudes who can be OK. But Dame can’t guard, really. To me, my gut says that Indiana will outrun them. And for Milwaukee, it’s just going to be Dame’s show. But we’ve seen what Dame’s show can get you — maybe a first-round win here and there but not much.

Scout’s pick: Pacers in six
Coach’s pick: Bucks in six
Executive’s pick: Pacers in seven
Majority pick: Pacers

NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach, exec pick 2024's first-round winners (4)

Expect a ton of defense when the Cavaliers and Magic meet in the first round. (David Richard / USA Today)

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Orlando Magic

Scout’s outlook: I’m going to pick Cleveland there. More experience. Orlando’s very young. … The Magic are very good defensively, but they’re going to struggle to score. Beyond Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, they’re not a very good offensive team, and when teams can focus more defensively on Banchero and Wagner, Orlando’s going to have trouble.

Cleveland’s had an up-and-down year. … But a lot of that was injuries. Darius Garland did not have a great year, but he broke his jaw and he lost a bunch of weight. Donovan Mitchell missed a bunch of games. But now they’re healthy, I believe. They won a key game against Indiana to clinch on Friday night. So, the arrow is pointing upward for them more recently. They have home court. I’m going to say six games. I can even see five. I’d be surprised if Orlando won that series. I just think they don’t have enough. They had a very nice year. They’re really good defensively. But you’ve got to be able to score. … They’re on the upswing, but they’re not ready to win a seven-game series.

Coach’s outlook: This is going to be a defensive battle. Two elite defenses in the league. I think there are going to be some moments and stretches where it’s going to be super low scoring, where you’ll look at halftime scores or scores midway through the third (quarter) and say, ‘No way!’ But I think it’s going to be an ultra-competitive series. They are two teams that play with a lot of size, a lot of physicality, a lot of aggressiveness on both sides of the basketball.

A key with the young Orlando team is going to be, even though it’s their first rodeo, they’ll have Banchero’s presence; his paint touches and ability to get to the free-throw line will be crucial. Then, Mitchell’s presence for Cleveland: Can he be at that All-Star level? Obviously, they’re going to put a lot on him and Garland in the backcourt. Can they get that secondary guy to help them? I think it’s going to be a heck of a series, a fun series to watch. I’m going to go with the Cavaliers in seven games.

Executive’s outlook: At the end of the day, I think it’s Cavs. I trust their defense, I think, above everything else. Orlando is kind of like the newcomers to the party, and I think they’ll just be kind of happy being there. As much as you want to trust Orlando’s best guys, with Franz (Wagner) and Paolo (Banchero), it’s a getting-their-feet-wet kind of season. I mean, I would be more surprised if Orlando wins. So I think 4-2 Cavaliers.

The Mitchell factor looms large, as the 27-year-old guard is eligible for a four-year extension worth more than $200 million this summer. If he doesn’t sign it, though, there has been league-wide speculation for months now that the Cavs would have to seriously consider trading him. Mitchell is owed $35.4 million on his current contract for next season, and has a player option worth $37 million for the 2025-26 campaign.

That (Mitchell situation) is very real. Teams will definitely clear out a bunch of (assets) for him. We’ll see. But if they face Boston in the second round, they’ll probably lose. And yeah, that doesn’t bode well (for his future in Cleveland).

Scout’s pick: Cavaliers in six
Coach’s pick: Cavaliers in seven
Executive’s pick: Cavaliers in six
Unanimous pick: Cavaliers

NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach, exec pick 2024's first-round winners (5)

Last season, LeBron James’ Lakers and Nikola Jokić’s Nuggets met in the conference finals. This season, it’s the first round. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

Western Conference

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers

Scout’s outlook: I’m picking the Lakers, because they’ve got their mojo going. They played great at the end of the year. They got their lineup set with Rui Hachimura now. Denver’s just not as good (as it was last year). Yes, they’ll have the home court, which is significant. But they’re just not the same team. This has been said all year: Losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green is going to be important come playoff time. … They’re relying on young guys, Peyton Watson and Christian Braun. …

I think the Lakers are very dangerous. They’re playing at a very high level. They’re playing with confidence.


Coach’s outlook: This is one of the series I’m really looking forward to just because of all the chatter over the last year-plus. It’s obviously been very (one-sided for) Denver (dominant against the Lakers) in the regular season and last postseason. The Lakers are going to need the All-NBA Anthony Davis on both sides of the basketball, more so defensively, against (Nikola) Jokić and against Denver for the Lakers to have a chance. I think the Lakers know who they are and what they’re capable of with LeBron and A.D. If D-Lo (D’Angelo Russell) and (Austin) Reeves … impact the series, it would really help them on the offensive end.

For Denver, they, more than anybody probably in the playoffs, know their game, their identity, and they do it as well as anybody. Jamal Murray’s health, where is he at? I think he sat some of the games down the stretch. But if he’s the Jamal Murray we all know, it will be a really difficult series (for the Lakers).

Executive’s outlook: I think the Lakers (will) play the best basketball they’ve played in a while. There’s this emotional charge against the Nuggets, of course. But in the end a team that’s a little younger with arguably better talent should win out in a seven game series. I think the Lakers will win two games, and possibly one in Denver, to kind of give them a bit of a scare. But I think it’s 4-2 Nuggets.

When the Nuggets swept the Lakers in the West finals last season, Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell struggled mightily and was ultimately played off the floor. This time around, the executive sees the 28-year-old finding a way to be at his best.

Russell is important. He’s been awesome for them. For a team that’s kind of up there in age, and that sometimes does struggle to score, all of a sudden he gives them that. He can get hot. He can get you eight points in a row quickly. He’s arguably the best scorer on that team right now, and maybe not arguably. That shouldn’t be a hot take. I think he can get his scoring off any time he wants. He’ll be super important. He’s the third best player on the team. It’s not going to be like last year where he was kind of hurting. He’s not going to be hurting them this year. He’ll be a big boost.

Scout’s pick: Lakers in six
Coach’s pick: Nuggets in six
Executive’s pick: Nuggets in six
Majority pick: Nuggets

NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach, exec pick 2024's first-round winners (6)

Can Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves sneak past Kevin Durant’s Suns? (Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today)

No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns

Scout’s outlook: Phoenix has had Minnesota’s number, so that’s a factor. And you cannot count out a team with three guys that are going to be in the Hall of Fame: (Bradley) Beal, (Kevin) Durant and (Devin) Booker. … But Beal has been a shadow of what he had been. Maybe he was overrated to begin with, but he has not been the same player. The Suns’ bench is suspect. Adding Royce O’Neale was a good addition. That’s going to be a tough series. I’ll go with Minnesota in seven. I’m not real confident of that. I could see it going either way. Minnesota’s got a lot to prove, but they’re a great defensive team, the best in the league.


Coach’s outlook: From what I’ve read, Minnesota has not had Phoenix’s number. I think it might’ve been 3-0 in Phoenix’s favor (during the regular season). Beal will be the key for Phoenix in this series. With his defensive disposition, if he’s in the right place, I think he has a chance to have an impact; he’ll be one of the guys that (Anthony) Edwards will see. Beal’s ability on both ends of the floor and the way he puts some pressure on you offensively will be a huge key.

On the other side, where is (Karl-Anthony) Towns at for Phoenix? He’s just coming back (from injury). But if he’s healthy and they’re in a good place to play their big lineup, that would be an impact for sure. Then, where do they hide, or where do they put, Towns with K.D. playing the four for Phoenix? Where does he guard? The chess match between two coaches will be high level: mixing-and-matching lineups, combinations, rotations, putting their players in the best positions. In the playoffs, defense wins. Minnesota’s got an elite defense. I think they’ll find a way over the course of the series to just kind of wear the Suns down a little bit.

Executive’s outlook:First of all, the Suns beat them 3-0 this year. And then you had the most important game of the season for Minnesota (on Sunday), where they could have been one (in the West), and they fall to three. They’re playing at home, with everybody healthy, and they lose to them by 20 (it was 19, as the Suns won 125-106)? That tells you that it’s really hard for (Minnesota) to beat that team. If you’re really trying to beat a team, and you know what’s at stake, and you are almost helpless against them? That doesn’t land well in your emotional psyche, in your psychological development. So I don’t know, man. I feel like the Suns are playing some great basketball recently. They match up with them extremely well. The Wolves are such a good rim protecting team, and the Suns don’t really rely on that as much. The Suns have to feel very comfortable going into that series.

Scout’s pick: Timberwolves in seven
Coach’s pick: Timberwolves in six
Executive’s pick: Suns in six
Majority pick: Timberwolves

NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach, exec pick 2024's first-round winners (7)

Luka Dončić’s Mavericks and James Harden’s Clippers last met in December. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

No. 4 LA Clippers vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

Scout’s outlook: The Clippers need to be 100 percent healthy. … Both teams played very well at the end of the year. LA has more talent and more depth. Dallas has two Hall of Fame guys, but can they sustain it for four games and win four games? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s enough there beyond Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Who is their third guy? The Mavs made excellent trade deadline acquisitions with P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford. But I don’t think they have enough to sustain it for four wins.

Coach’s outlook: This is probably going to be (a lot of fun) when you think of all the star power in this series on both sides and two former-player head coaches, two guys that love to adjust and evolve over the course of a series and make adjustments and love to play matchup basketball and attack certain matchups. I think this will be one of the first-round series that any basketball fan would just love to watch that side of it. Then you get to the star power and the shot making and shot creation, the ability of guys on both sides of the ball.

Can Luka and Kyrie have the ability to do what they’re capable of doing? The Clippers have shown in past playoff series (the ability) to make things really hard on star players. … Dallas needs to have a third guy. I don’t think they need it every night, but I think they need a couple of games where P.J. Washington or Tim Hardaway Jr. have an impact offensively. Then, for the Clippers, Paul George and (James) Harden will be the two wild cards. Kawhi’s been able (to excel in the playoffs) for a long time and has done it at the highest level. It’s what type of series will both of them (George and Harden) have? If they get great series from both of those guys, it’ll be really hard on Dallas. If they get one of them here and there, I think it’ll be a really good series and it could go either way. But with the Clippers having home court, I’m going to take the Clippers in seven games.


Executive’s outlook: That looks really tough, but I trust Luka just a tad more over the Clippers guys. I can’t tell you why. I’m not sure. But Luka is as close to an unstoppable player right now (as there is), and not just as a scorer but as a playmaker. And even though they have some good answers — they have Kawhi, PG (Paul George) and all these really long, lanky wings who are going to defend Luka. But Luka still doesn’t see them at the end of the day. And now Kyrie’s playing really good basketball as well. I’m leaning Luka in seven games, meaning Dallas in seven games.

Scout’s pick: Clippers in six
Coach’s pick: Clippers in seven
Executive’s pick: Mavericks in seven
Majority pick: Clippers

(Top photo of Kyle Lowry and Jalen Brunson: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

NBA playoff predictions: Anonymous scout, coach, exec pick 2024's first-round winners (2024)


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