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With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror and All-Star Weekend imminent, we are approaching the home stretch of the 2019-20 NBA season, and it’s going to be a fight to the finish line.
In the Eastern Conference, the eight playoff teams are more or less settled, but in the Western Conference, there are five teams within 6.5 games of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies. In addition, while the first seed in each conference is likely locked up (the Milwaukee Bucks in the East and Los Angeles Lakers in the West), the way the second tiers sort out over the remaining two months of the season will not only decide playoff matchups but also further define legacies.
Let’s take a peek into the near future and try to determine how the top 16 teams will sort out come mid-April.
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The Orlando Magic are just 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Washington Wizards, but they are a more talented team and have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, while Washington’s schedule is ninth-hardest, per Tankathon.
However, Orlando is stuck in a kind of no-man’s land with regard to the playoff hierarchy. While the Magic are likely to earn their second consecutive postseason berth, there’s absolutely no chance they break into the conference’s top six, and the Brooklyn Nets, despite having a disappointing year and being just two games ahead of the Magic, have a way higher ceiling on any given night.
The most compelling reason as to why the Magic will not advance past this spot is that their best player—forward Jonathan Isaac—has been sidelined for the last month and is not expected to be back for another month. To Orlando’s credit, it’s racked up quality wins over the Lakers and Miami Heat in Isaac’s absence, going 8-12 since his injury on New Year’s Day.
But without his stellar two-way presence, it’s going to be hard for the Magic to make much headway in the standings.
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Despite having nearly as much talent as many of the teams above them in the standings (even without Kevin Durant), the Nets have had a disappointing season because of a combination of injuries and strange chemistry.
As such, they find themselves likely locked into the seventh seed and primed for a first-round exit.
Now, because Brooklyn has underachieved, it will be a particularly dangerous team to play in the first round. With dynamite scorers in Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie; versatile, heady wings Caris LeVert and Joe Harris; and an elite two-way post presence in Jarrett Allen, the Nets can hang with nearly any team on any given night.
That hasn’t turned into results, as Brooklyn is just 6-18 against teams over .500.
Just because the Nets have a losing record doesn’t mean they’re not worth taking seriously, though. They’re just 8-12 with Irving, but count on a team with this much veteran acumen to show signs of life as the season comes to a close.
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Welcoming Victor Oladipo back into a lineup that was already deadly without him seems like a recipe to climb the standings, right?
Don’t bet on it just yet.
The Indiana Pacers play the Bucks and Lakers three more times this season and have the 13th-hardest remaining strength of schedule, which is a tougher slate than any team above them besides Milwaukee (who is too far ahead to catch) and Boston (one of three teams in the East with a winning record against over-.500 teams).
In addition, though Oladipo became known in recent years for being a relatively low-maintenance superstar, Indiana will still have to expend plenty of game time both helping him shake off the rust and figuring out how he fits alongside Malcolm Brogdon.
Considering Brogdon’s similar comfortability playing on and off the ball, it might not take much time for the pair to jell, but considering the obstacles to a Pacers ascent and combining them with the fact that the best teams in the East are pretty good, it’s safe to assume Indiana will stay right where it is.
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As usual, the Heat have been one of the NBA’s most fun stories this year. But at some point, talent often starts to win out over effort, and we could be seeing the beginning of that.
Miami is four games into a six-game road trip, and it has lost three of those games. Granted, Jimmy Butler sat out two games. But with a back-to-back remaining, the Heat are primed to drop a little bit.
That’s without even mentioning the integration of Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, the latter of whom had not played since June before he made his Miami debut Sunday night.
It would be incredibly on-brand for the Heat to defy this prediction and finish the season on a scorching hot streak. They’re going to be a playoff team—and one of the more entertaining ones—no matter what. But don’t be shocked if this scrappy band of overachievers struggles to maintain its staggering pace over the next two months.
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It’s been a trying year for the Philadelphia 76ers. Their much-hyped starting five hasn’t gotten comfortable yet. Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson have missed time with injuries. The bench is lacking in significant contributors.
And yet they may go into the postseason as dangerous as ever.
The rest of the way, Philly has the fifth-easiest schedule in the NBA. The Sixers have 28 remaining games, and get to fatten up with matchups against the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks (twice). For a team in need of a reset, playing some of the worst squads in the league should provide one.
Of course, even if Philly enters the postseason having won 20 of its last 25 games or something like that, Embiid and Ben Simmons will still not be a great fit. That the Sixers own the fourth seed despite a realistic expectation before the season that they could make the Finals is a glaring reminder of that. But even with shaky on-court chemistry, if Philadelphia enters the postseason playing its best basketball, it will be a threat to every team in the East.
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Buzz around the Celtics seems to be at a three-year low, which is strange, because this is their best team since the Big Three disbanded.
Boston is one of a trio of squads, along with the Lakers and Bucks, with a top-five offense and a top-five defense and also has a 12-8 record against teams at or above .500—two stats that bode quite well for its playoff chances.
However, as great as the Celtics have been through much of this season, they have a couple of long road trips ahead that may diminish their shot at the second seed. After the All-Star break, they go west to take on four teams, including the Lakers and Utah Jazz, and then play four games in six nights up and down the Eastern Seaboard in March.
Boston also has a six-game homestand from March 27 through April 8, but that might be too late for it to combat so much travel and a condensed schedule.
Don’t count the Celtics out, but they may not get as high in the standings as they would like.
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It’s easy to downplay the Toronto Raptors’ 15-game winning streak, as only five of those wins have come against teams in playoff positioning. But the streak is merely a summation of the Raptors’ season-long defiance of expectations.
After losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Toronto was universally demoted from Finals contention.
Nearly all season, at least one key Raptor has been hurt, and it hasn’t mattered. There was a period of multiple weeks when Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and Marc Gasol were sidelined, and Toronto still beat the Celtics and Dallas Mavericks.
No matter the configuration of players, coach Nick Nurse somehow manages to bring the best out of his team.
The ability to win without starters will become especially important during the stretch run, when players throughout the league sit out to rest for the playoffs. The Raptors have proved that while they may not defend their title, it won’t be because of a lack of talent.
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This is the easiest prediction yet.
Up 6.5 games over the Raptors with 29 games to go, the Bucks won’t be touched.
Oh, they have the eighth-hardest schedule the rest of the way? No matter. At 12-6, they’re the best team in the league against teams above .500. What happens if Giannis Antetokounmpo gets hurt or sits out to rest? Well, the Bucks have a 7.9 net rating without their best player—which ranks last for any individual player on the team but would still be the top mark in the NBA.
There could be one impediment to the Bucks’ claiming home-court advantage for the playoffs, which is that their co-owner Marc Lasry said he wants them to win 70 games. As the Warriors showed, chasing history can have dire consequences, but that didn’t harm Golden State until the Finals.
In short, there aren’t many scenarios in which Milwaukee will lose its perch atop the East. It is even ahead of Los Angeles by 5.5 games.
The Bucks could have things wrapped up by March Madness.
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It’s been a great run, Grizzlies fans. But even the most optimistic among you have to admit it’s gone a little too well thus far.
Because of a possible talent-induced regression to the mean and the NBA’s toughest remaining schedule, the Grizzlies are primed to fall out of the eighth seed. But fear not.
The Portland Trail Blazers, who trail Memphis by just 2.5 games, are another team that’s just as exciting and ready to take the Grizzlies’ place.
Thanks to a historic hot streak by Damian Lillard, the Blazers have been on a roll, winning six of their last eight games, including against high-level opponents in the Pacers, Lakers, Jazz, Heat and Houston Rockets. Portland seemingly does this every year, starting a little slow and picking up steam around the All-Star break, but this season has featured the team’s lowest low in several years, so the recent surge has been that much more exciting.
Add in the sixth-easiest schedule from here on out, and it makes perfect sense that last season’s Western Conference silver medalists will return to the postseason.
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After a hot start, the Mavericks have drifted toward the bottom of the West playoff picture and are now one-half game behind the ascendant Oklahoma City Thunder. That may seem disappointing for Dallas fans, but it’s OK.
The Mavericks have proved to be ahead of schedule. With Luka Doncic just 20 years old and Kristaps Porzingis shaking off rust, Dallas rocketed to a 16-6 start. It has gone just 16-16 since. That fall-off could be due to a variety of factors—most notably Doncic missing 11 games and Dwight Powell tearing his Achilles—but the Mavericks may not have as much supporting talent around their top two players as one might think.
Dallas is playing the long game with Doncic and Porzingis, and you usually have to be the seventh seed before you’re the second seed. Plus, as long as Doncic is healthy, Dallas is still a threat to challenge any of the top teams in the West in a playoff series.
Remember that epic battle with the Lakers in November? We could get six or seven games like that with the Mavericks and whomever they play in the first round.
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Despite a thin bench, the Thunder are surpassing all expectations.
Oklahoma City has seven above-average players, and they all usually play well every night. Thanks to a return to form by Chris Paul, a sophomore leap by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and smart complementary seasons from Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, the Thunder are smack in the middle of the playoff picture, and it doesn’t seem like they’ll regress.
The Thunder have a more difficult schedule than the Mavericks the rest of the way (14th-hardest vs. 18th), but given the wealth of experience on their roster plus Luka Doncic injury, Oklahoma City has the edge. It may have a lower ceiling than Dallas, which still has the best offensive rating ever, but all that means is every game against the Thunder in a playoff series will be a battle.
This team will almost certainly not look the same next year given that Gallinari is set to be a free agent and Paul will have one fewer year on his contract. So, when it comes to one-season wonders, this team slots high on the list.
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Fresh off a five-game losing streak, the Jazz have won three in a row. They start a six-game homestand Wednesday. Add in the All-Star break, and Utah should have an easy return to the difficult Western Conference.
Why can’t the Jazz jump the Rockets and gain home-court advantage in the first round? Well, Houston, despite its seemingly obvious personnel flaw, has the seventh-easiest remaining schedule and finishes its season with five straight games against fringe playoff teams, while Utah faces the Blazers, Thunder, Denver Nuggets (twice) and Los Angeles Clippers in the last two weeks of the season.
Is it fair? Perhaps not. But that’s the longer-term downside of Utah’s early-season struggles.
After getting easily dispatched by Houston in each of the last two postseasons, Utah will likely pose a much bigger threat to the Rockets or any of the top West teams this season thanks to the additions of Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson. But for a team whose home-court edge is a true advantage, it would help to have the extra home game.
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As we just mentioned, the Rockets have a relatively easy schedule to close the season. And they still get to play five of the six worst teams in the league at least once more, which should help them improve their seeding.
But quietly, the Rockets are also starting to play better.
Houston has won seven of its last 11 games, a stretch during which the 6’5″ P.J. Tucker became the team’s starting center. The day after they traded center Clint Capela, the Rockets beat the Lakers.
After struggling to fit in early on, Russell Westbrook has been his best self since the beginning of December, while James Harden is also starting to even out after a rough stretch in January. Get the two of them operating at maximum efficiency, and watch out.
Houston took a big risk last week, but if its two best players, future Hall of Famers alike, start firing on all cylinders, rebounding may not matter at all.
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The Nuggets are an interesting, at times incongruous, team. At various points this year, several of Denver’s key players have struggled. Nikola Jokic was operating at half-capacity for the first six weeks of the year, while Gary Harris still hasn’t gotten going.
Yet, in a testament to their depth, the Nuggets are likely going to be a top-three seed in the West for the second year in a row.
One of the most interesting stats about Denver is that it is 15-8 against teams at or above .500, which is particularly notable given that the team faces the league’s fourth-hardest schedule the rest of the way. That level of competition may be enough to drop the Nuggets out of the second seed, but their proficiency against playoff-caliber squads should also be enough to help them keep home-court advantage—a commodity that, just like for the Jazz, is especially useful in Denver.
With the addition of Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. to an already loaded roster, the Nuggets could improve upon their conference semifinals loss last season. But in the regular season, their ceiling is capped.
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It’s all coming into place for the Clippers.
Though Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have played together in just 22 games, though Patrick Beverley has been in and out of the lineup, though Los Angeles is integrating Marcus Morris Sr. and though there has been some locker room turmoil, the Clippers are tied for the second seed in the West.
And if that weren’t a scary thought for the rest of the conference, Los Angeles has the ninth-easiest remaining schedule.
Now, the Clippers have shown a troubling propensity to play down to the competition, losing to the Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves. But an easier group of opponents to finish out the year should make managing the numerous internal questions easier.
It was always going to take some time for Leonard and George to sync up and for the incumbent players to adjust to their lead. But the fact that Leonard and George are still missing time and have barely played a quarter of the season together is troubling. The Clippers need to use their remaining 29 games to get in a rhythm for the playoffs.
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There were rumblings at the trade deadline surrounding the Lakers, from a potential Kyle Kuzma deal to the prospective signing of retired point guard Darren Collison. Los Angeles didn’t make a move before Thursday’s deadline, however, and that was likely for the best. If it ain’t broke…you can finish the sentence.
It doesn’t matter that LeBron James is the nominal starting point guard. It doesn’t matter that James and Anthony Davis start with JaVale McGee. It doesn’t matter that a great many Lakers aren’t great shooters—and in fact, that’s not even true this season. Los Angeles is making a solid 36.3 percent of its threes this season, 12th in the league. All that matters is that James and Davis are two of the five best basketball players in the world. Everybody else orbiting those two becomes positive-impact players, warts and all.
That is not to say the Lakers are flawless. In fact, DAZN’s Micah Adams on Monday tweeted a stat about their struggles against the league’s best teams. But in times of pressure, Los Angeles will have two titans on its side, which often should be enough to seize victory.