National Basketball Association
NBA Confidential: Which contenders are vulnerable to a first-round upset?
National Basketball Association

NBA Confidential: Which contenders are vulnerable to a first-round upset?

Published Apr. 11, 2024 2:28 p.m. ET

With a week to go in the regular season and the postseason pairings still very much up in the air, there is no equivocation among NBA scouts, executives and GMs about the teams least likely to live up to their gaudy regular-season records and get bounced early from the playoffs.

It's the M&Ms. The Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves. The actual first-round pairings are far from settled — and won't be completely until after the play-in tournament — and no one said pointedly either team will or should lose in the first round. But the consensus is those two teams are inherently flawed and who they face is largely superfluous. The belief among those surveyed is the star talent that has made the Bucks and Timberwolves formidable in the regular season has fissures that can be pried apart by a quality opponent in a seven-game series. For Milwaukee, it's the fit of forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and point guard Damian Lillard. For Minnesota, it's the balky combination of center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Anthony Edwards and the uncertain availability of Karl-Anthony Towns, who has been out since early March after undergoing knee surgery.

"How will Minnesota respond to teams playing small to isolate Gobert?" a Western Conference scout asked. "Will Towns be back to serve in the ‘mobile 5' role? Will Gobert accept being benched if there is no good matchup for him in a series? Lots of chemistry questions with Minnesota."

But the Bucks were far and away the most popular choice even before Antetokounmpo hobbled to the locker room Tuesday night with what has been reported as a strained left calf. His status remains uncertain, but even fully healthy, Milwaukee is considered the likeliest team among the top three in either conference to have a truncated postseason.


"The obvious candidate to get upset is Milwaukee," said one Eastern Conference executive. "They've basically been a .500 team under (coach) Doc (Rivers) and they still haven't found a way to optimize Giannis and Lillard when sharing the floor. But Minnesota is vulnerable as well. They've lost some questionable games and there are question marks as to how they'll perform under playoff pressure. They better hope they get Sacramento in the first round because they'll be an underdog against Phoenix or the Lakers."

The Oklahoma City Thunder were also mentioned by two Western Conference scouts, one Western Conference GM and an Eastern Conference executive as being vulnerable because of their lack of postseason experience and frontline size. The Thunder have been in the playoffs since 2020 and after 7-foot-1, 195-pound rookie Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey (6-foot-8, 210 pounds) is the next biggest player in their 10-man rotation. (Jaylin Williams, 6-9 and 240 pounds, is 11th.) 

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The playoff picture in both the Eastern and Western Conference is so fluid that it's not clear who the two teams will be playing. But no one surveyed brought that up as meaningful. Every team currently in the Western Conference play-in tournament — Phoenix, Sacramento, the Lakers and Warriors — have more playoff-tested players than the Thunder.

But the Eastern Conference executive has more faith in the Thunder than the Timberwolves largely because of their MVP candidate, point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has been to the playoffs twice already — once with the Clippers as a rookie and again the following year after being dealt to Oklahoma City as part of a package for Paul George.

"I believe Shai can impact the outcome of a series," he said.

One Western Conference GM was reluctant to even classify the Bucks, Timberwolves or Thunder as "top" teams.

"I only see two top teams, Denver and Boston," he said. "I doubt either of them gets upset early. Everyone else is a crapshoot and definitely could lose in the first round."

He put the odds of Minnesota, Oklahoma City or Milwaukee losing in the first round as equal. But for starkly different reasons.

"All three have equal chances of losing purely based on who they are playing," he said. "Minnesota and OKC are good teams, it's just there's so much parity in the west that they won't be big favorites against whoever makes it out of the play-in (tournament.) Houston" — currently 11th in the Western Conference and eliminated from the playoffs  — "would have been a second or third seed in the East if you corrected for strength of schedule. And if you re-seeded without conferences and included strength of schedule, Boston would be one or two and the next East team would be eight or nine."

That's not as far-fetched as it might sound. According to Basketball Reference, the nine teams with the toughest strength of schedules were all in the Western Conference, with the Rockets at No. 8. Milwaukee faced the 26th-toughest slate of competition; Boston, 27th.

"Milwaukee is the worst of the three by a mile," the GM said. "The issue is the East is horrible again, so Milwaukee will play a bad team. If they were playing anyone from the west I would say they're sure to lose."

Doubts about the Bucks are not a new development; they've existed since last summer's trade to acquire Lillard that cost them Jrue Holiday, an all-defensive team choice five of the last six seasons. The Bucks were fourth in defensive rating last season but currently 19th.

"The Damian Lillard trade has been a question mark at best," said a Western Conference scout. "The loss of perimeter defense with the departure of Jrue Holiday has not been solved."

Three teams currently among the top six in the league overall viewed as potential first-round victims is a lot, but a second Eastern Conference executive believes there is potential for even more. He listed the top-seeded Boston Celtics right behind the Bucks in the East and the West's fourth-ranked Los Angeles Clippers right behind the Timberwolves and Thunder.

"Boston lacks leadership," he said. "The Clippers because of their style of play. It's feast or famine."

The Bucks, Timberwolves, Thunder, Celtics and Clippers — that's five of the eight teams expected to have homecourt advantage in the first round seen as having early-exit potential. It would appear that the popularity of parity in the NBA, and the value of the regular season, are both about to be tested in a major way. 

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," on NBA forward Brian Grant's battle with young onset Parkinson's, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds." He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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