NBA playoff predictions: Most likely seeds and best matchups

Which teams are going to win the big NBA playoff races?

There’s a heated race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, with the winner likely getting a matchup against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. There are also key races for No. 2 and more seeds in each conference.

How will everything shake out over the final weeks of the regular season? Which potential opponents would give the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks the most trouble? And which team is the real title favorite?

The ESPN Forecast panel of NBA experts makes predictions.

MORE: Latest NBA standings

Who will get the West No. 2 seed?

Only two games in the loss column separate the LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets, but our panel likes the Clippers as the overwhelming favorite to earn home court on the opposite side of the bracket from the Lakers.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) and FiveThirtyEight projections also give the Clippers the nod here.

  • Clippers: 81.6%

  • Nuggets: 13.2%

  • Rockets: 5.3%

MORE: ESPN’s Basketball Power Index

Who will get the West No. 8 seed?

With the other seven West playoff spots essentially locked up, No. 8 is the race to watch.

More than 80% of our panel has one of the NBA’s most exciting rookies facing LeBron in the first round, with Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans taking the top spot here. New Orleans has one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league and finally looks healthy.

FiveThirtyEight also leans toward the Pelicans (43% chance to make the postseason), but BPI has moved the Portland Trail Blazers into a slight lead (25.3% chance).

  • Pelicans: 52.6%

  • Grizzlies: 34.2%

  • Trail Blazers: 10.5%

  • Spurs: 2.6%

MORE: NBA’s best 25 under 25: Ranking future superstars

Who will get the East No. 2 seed?

Falling to No. 3 in the Eastern Conference would mean a likely first-round matchup with either the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat, so this is a key race for the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors — currently separated by just one loss.

Our panel likes Toronto and BPI agrees, but FiveThirtyEight prefers Boston.

  • Raptors: 55.3%

  • Celtics: 44.7%

MORE: How many real title contenders are in the East?

Who will get the East No. 7 seed?

The Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets are both overwhelming favorites to grab the last two playoff spots, according to the projection systems … but which one will avoid the Bucks in Round 1?

Our panel gives Orlando a slight edge. Both BPI and FiveThirtyEight are on the same page there.

  • Magic: 47.4%

  • Nets: 44.7%

  • Pacers: 5.3%

  • Wizards: 2.6%

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Which potential second-round matchup would give the Lakers the most trouble?

The Rockets rank No. 2 overall (behind the Clippers) in FiveThirtyEight’s full strength playoff rating, which assumes all key players are in the lineup. At its best, Houston’s small-ball experiment might be able to give the big Lakers real trouble, and the Rockets run away with this vote.

Note: The Clippers — favorites for the No. 2 seed — were not included in this vote.

  • Rockets: 65.8%

  • Nuggets: 15.8%

  • Jazz: 10.5%

  • Mavericks: 5.3%

  • Thunder: 2.6%

MORE: How Kristaps Porzingis sets up Luka Doncic and the NBA’s best offense

Which potential second-round matchup would give the Bucks the most trouble?

FiveThirtyEight’s full-strength playoff metric is less high on Miami — the Heat rank outside the top 15, while Philadelphia is at No. 4. However, there’s no certainty that Sixers superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are at 100% for the postseason, making Miami the pick here for our panel.

Note: The Raptors and Celtics were not included in this vote.

  • Heat: 60.5%

  • 76ers: 39.5%

MORE: Bucks keep making history, but do skeptics still have a case?

Which team should be the title favorites right now?

While there remain Bucks skeptics across the league, the majority of our panel believes in their front-runner status at the moment.

FiveThirtyEight slightly prefers the Clippers to win it all — giving them a 25% chance compared to Milwaukee’s 18% — while BPI agrees with the panel, giving the Bucks a 63% chance to take the title.

  • Bucks: 60.5%

  • Lakers: 28.9%

  • Clippers: 10.5%

MORE: LeBron has approached this Lakers season differently

Image credits: Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports, Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports, Michael Dwyers/AP Photo, AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images, Mitchell Leff/Getty Images, Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

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