VAVEL USA roundtable: NBA playoff predictions
Will LeBron James win a coveted fourth ring? Or will someone stop the four-time MVP? | USA-TODAY Sports

With the reigning champions the Cleveland Cavaliers taking on the Indiana Pacers in tonight's curtain-raising match-up, NBA co-editor Chris Hughes is joined by staff writers Ben King, Youssef Machkhas and Tobi Ajayi discuss who could win, who could surprise, and who may disappoint.

Last year's playoffs will certainly take a lot to trump however, as the Cavs clawed back from 3-1 down to win the championship 4-3.

But last year also featured impressive season for both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Toronto Raptors. The former defeated the San Antonio Spurs comfortably, whilst the Canadian outfit made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time.

Nonetheless, let's look at how VAVEL USA's writers think this year's series will play out.

Who will win the NBA championship and why?

Chris - Golden State Warriors

I can't look past Golden State on this one. I think they'll go in smarter this time around rather than thinking their 73-win record guarantees them a ring.

I think with Kevin Durant back too they'll be at the strongest, and that'd before you even consider their 9-1 record to end the season.

I think they have the ability to blow-out the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1 and from there they'll be full of confidence. You can't ignore that they're record in the regular season was still an immense 67-15, which was far-and-away the best in the league.

Ben - Golden State Warriors

It’s very hard to overlook the Golden State Warriors. They had been without Kevin Durant in the month of March and it hasn’t affected the franchise one bit.

Steve Kerr will be delighted Durant has been getting some minutes before the play-off season.

More importantly, this Golden State team have the experience to win another championship with the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. I just can’t see the Warriors losing in seven games.

Tobi - Golden State Warriors

It's simple, Golden State Warriors are arguably the best team in basketball by a mile - its not even close!

I think the Warriors will win their second NBA championship in three years unless something unforeseeable, like a major injury, happens. It is hard to bet against a team that owned the best record in the NBA after 82 games for the second consecutive year.

After adding Kevin Durant in the off season it seemed certain that the title was heading back to the Oracle center, 9 months later nothing has changed as they managed NBA-best 67-15 record, despite only having Durant appear in 61 games.

The Western Conference is the toughest in the league but still the warriors managed to defeat three of the top four teams in the conference- San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and  Houston Rockets twice- all without Durant in the line-up.

I refer to the Warriors' offence as a triple-headed python because they can attack you from any angle with either Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson- all of which are poisonous. 

Youssef - Golden State Warriors

Sorry for the obvious and boring answer, but nobody’s stopping this team.

Even when Kevin Durant was hurt, the Golden State Warriors were killing it. Now that he’s back, they have not slowed down at all.

There’s just too much firepower on this team, with Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. There will be some obstacles on the road, but it should be relatively smooth cruising for the Warriors on their way to another championship.

VAVEL USA's writers are in agreement that the Warriors are odds-on favorites for the title. | USA-TODAY Sports

Who will finish as runners up?

Chris - Cleveland Cavaliers

It's a simple answer and in complete honestly I'd prefer if there was a different team representing the Eastern Conference in the finals, but I can't overlook LeBron James' playoff power.

The King just always seems to turn it on in the post-season, as displayed by the fact he's reached the last six NBA finals.

The only issue going into the latter stages of the playoffs has been the defensive issues that the Cavs have had this season and the potential for injuries - it could really dent their already slim chances. This is because I'm really not sure they can beat the Warriors in seven.

The big test will be whether they can shake this end-of-season form, as going into their series with Indiana off the back of four-straight losses is hardly perfect.

But then again, nobody gave LeBron and co. a chance last year so...

Ben - Cleveland Cavaliers

The Eastern Conference has been very open this season. I expected Cleveland to lead the conference by quite a few games. The champions have struggled with injuries and this could hurt them if they make it far in the play-offs.

Despite this, I think they’ve still got enough firepower to make the finals. I can’t see them beating the Warriors if they make the finals with the defensive problems they’ve had this season.

The Boston Celtics have really surprised me this year. They don’t have the best roster in the league but the players have fantastic chemistry. Isaiah Thomas has been a revelation this season but the Celtics haven’t won a play-off series since 2012 so in terms of play-off experience, I don’t think the Celtics can make the final.

The Raptors shouldn’t be underestimated either with the quality of Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre is electric so this should benefit Toronto. However, I’m not sure if they can knockout the Cavaliers in a potential semi-final series in the East.

Tobi - Cleveland Cavaliers

Here is my logic, ​LeBron James is the best player in the world, LeBron James plays on the Cavaliers, The King will make it to his seventh consecutive final.

Although due to recent team struggles, this might be the most vulnerable he has been in the Eastern Conference, I fear the Akron-native can flip the switch in the playoffs to lead his team to Eastern Conference glory but will fall short against the Warriors.

Some argue that trusting them to flip the team's woes is giving the Cavs too much credit, but I say they earned the benefit of the doubt after last year's historic run.

The Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards look threatening but in a series of seven games, they'll have to play above potential to defeat the Cavaliers. 

Although LBJ claims to know the solution to Cleveland's problem, I don't think that hold if Golden State Warriors pose the question. Dubs could have easily won the finals match-up last year and are better equipped (thanks to Durant) to win the championship.

Youssef - Cleveland Cavaliers

It’s true that the Cleveland Cavaliers have been playing pretty poorly as of late. However, you can never bet against Lebron James.

He will single handedly will the Cavs into the Finals, especially considering that there is no crazy good competition in the Eastern Conference.

The chemistry has not been the greatest, so Cleveland will go as far as James takes them, not Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. Still, James is so good that he can take his team that far.

It seems that LeBron will once again drag his team to the NBA finals. | USA-TODAY Sports

Who will underachieve?

Chris - Utah Jazz

A slightly off-the-wall choice I must admit, but I think for their regular-season efforts it'll end in disappointment for the Utah Jazz.

They've improved by over ten wins this time around compared to their ninth-placed finish in the 2015-16 campaign, and also missed out on the fourth seed by the narrowest of margins.

The Clippers won the regular-season series between the two teams 3-1, and I think they have enough firepower and play-off experience to dump the Jazz out in the first round.

I think Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert have been impressive this season but Chris PaulDeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin all have experience in how to win the seven-game series.

Ben - Boston Celtics

This was a tough one. I can’t see any of the four teams in either conference losing in the first round.

In this year’s play-offs it’s imperative that teams win the series in the least amount of games possible. The Celtics have put themselves in a good position securing the first seed in the East.

However, it’s whether they have the strength to beat the Cavaliers, Raptors or Wizards in a series. On paper it seems like an under-achievement but I don’t think people will be surprised if the Celtics don’t make the conference finals.

The first round series between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder has the potential to be a thriller, especially with the Rockets’ James Harden and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook against each other.

There is the potential that the Thunder could beat the Rockets which would see the third seed Rockets knocked out at the first hurdle. This may be seen as an under-achievement also. Although I think Houston will come through in that series.

Tobi - Boston Celtics

Aside from the 4-5 match-up in the  west, I think the Chicago Bulls are the most likely to pull off an upset in the first round of the playoffs. It almost sounds disrespectful picking the best regular season team in East to get eliminated but I don't think Celtics are built for the playoffs yet, hear me out.

A lot of the team's success depends on 5'9" superstar Isaiah Thomas, who had the best season of his career but I wonder if he can keep up the offensive brilliance in the post-season when teams play with a better defensive focus.

To avoid any embarrassments, every other player on the Celtics roster will have to step up against the Bulls who have Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo - players who all know what it takes to win. 

The Celtics need Avery Bradley, Al Horford and the others to play exceptionally on both ends of the floor against a Chicago team whose physical play is better suited for the playoffs. 

Boston are a well-coached team with lots of young talent and draft picks but they don't have what it takes at the moment, if only they had the opportunity to trade for Paul George or Jimmy Butler midway through the season? Sorry not sorry. 

Youssef - Boston Celtics

Don’t get me wrong, the Boston Celtics are a great team. Brad Stevens is the best young coach in the league and might possibly be considered one of the greatest of all time.

I’ve been a fan of Isaiah Thomas since he was the last pick of the draft. It’s like Yoda was talking about him when he said “size matter not.”

However, they don’t have experience being the favorites. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being the number one seed and they might face a dark horse in the Washington Wizards in the second round. Give them an extra year when they have more playoff experience. Sadly, it’s not their time right now.

VAVEL USA's writers think it might be too early for Brad Stevens' Celtics' team to make a difference in the playoffs. | USA-TODAY Sports

Who is your surprise pick to go far?

Chris - Oklahoma City Thunder

Whilst I might seem biased in this answer, I think a lot people have forgotten how successful OKC were in last year's playoffs.

A lot of people would say that it was due to the now-departed Durant, but a good amount of credit should go to Billy Donovan.

Throughout the regular season he rotates his roster a lot to find weaknesses, as shown through the Thunder's success over the Spurs last playoffs.

I think if OKC play a small line-up with Jerami Grant and Taj Gibson in the four and five spots then they could trump the Rockets in the first round - something no one predicts.

Ben - San Antonio Spurs

I wouldn’t associate them as a ‘wildcard pick’ but I think the Spurs can really push the Warriors in the conference final.

Kawhi Leonard has had another terrific season. With Tim Duncan retiring last season, the Spurs have still been so consistent with results and they even had chances to steal the first seed away from Golden State during the season, however they couldn’t take those slim opportunities. T

hat being said, coach Gregg Popovich will be confident his team can make it far in the play-offs. In summary, I can’t see any upsets in the first round of the play-offs.

Tobi -  Toronto Raptors

Again I don't see any team beating the Warriors in a seven game series but as mentioned earlier, Cavaliers look quiet vulnerable this season.

If there was any team to knock them off  in the conference finals, I'd pick Toronto. Most Raptors' fans were disappointed when the Boston Celtics took over first place because it meant a second round match-up against LeBron James and cast, but hey to be the best you have to challenge the best right? 

Since the All-Star break, Raptors have turned things around and are able to grind out game defensively even in the absence of team leader, Kyle LowryDemar Derozan averaged career high numbers across the board this season, if he maintains the same production in the playoffs then Canada's team might have a chance.

Last post-season, Toronto took two games against Cleveland in the eastern conference finals but are a much improved team on both ends of the floor this year, thanks to the additions of P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka.

Youssef - Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards started off the year poorly before picking it up. Now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.

The major reason why things are finally clicking for the Wizards is Bradley Beal’s and John Wall’s improvement. They have both raised their points per game to 23.1 while never exceeding 20 beforehand.

They have become the best back-court in the league behind the Splash Brothers. The Celtics have a great defense, but the combined firepower may be too much for them to handle.

How far can Russell Westbrook take this Thunder team? | USA-TODAY Sports

Who will be the best player of the post-season?

Chris - Kevin Durant

The wound might still be open following Durant's departure from the Thunder, and sadly I think that'll help him.

He's been dominant on the three occasions he's faced the Thunder since joining Golden State, and I think he'll be under just as much scrutiny in the playoffs.

He knows people think he joined the Warriors for a shot at a ring so he now needs to prove why he left OKC and I think he'll do it. His supporting cast in better in the bay area than it was in Oklahoma City and I think he'll reap the rewards of that in the latter stages.

Ben - Kevin Durant

Durant’s desire to win an NBA championship was shown by his controversial move to Golden State in the summer.

Deep down, I think he knew that the Thunder weren’t good enough to win a championship and from a players’ perspective I can understand why he left to join the Warriors.

The small-forward may start off slowly in the first round of the play-offs against the Trail Blazers but when it gets to the crucial matches, the 28 year-old will come alive.

My belief that the Warriors will win the championship will see Durant playing more games and that will greater his chance of being the play-off MVP. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will all be looking to avenge last season’s disappointment in the finals so I expect big performances from them also.

Tobi - Stephen Curry

It is absurd to think of how quickly Curry became underrated after he followed a historic MVP-winning regular season with an underwhelming performance in the NBA finals.

With the rise of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, people sometimes forget that the former Davidson star can also take over games or even series when in the mood.

The addition of Kevin Durant to an already-lethal offence meant less usage for Curry and led to regression in numbers, but make no mistake Steph Curry is still a threat against any team in the league. 

When Durant got injured late in the  regular season, it was the perfect oppportunity for Curry to dominate and remind people why he was unanimous MVP, he did and is  carrying that momentum into the post-season.

The key will be to play well against the Cavaliers and I believe he still recalls his underachievement during last year playoffs  and knows what he has to do the make things right. With a ton of confidence and last year's criticism at the back of his mind, I  think Curry has  enough fuel to power him through the playoffs and to his first finals MVP award.

Youssef - LeBron James

With the slump that the Cavaliers have been, the King will have to play out of his mind like he did two Finals ago.

He is the only player in the league that can will his team deep into the playoffs, examples being the 2007 and 2015 Cavaliers.

If the rest of his roster can’t shape up on time as the playoffs progress, Lebron will take over. He will not allow his team to not make the Finals, which is why he will be the best player of the postseason.