The races for seeding are far tighter than usual this year.
We’re well past the halfway mark of the NBA season. In fact, only about a quarter of the season remains. Once All-Star Weekend and the trade deadline pass, it’s time for us to hone in on the various playoff races across the conferences.
Some hot squads at the bottom of the West chase have made things as interesting as we’d believed they’d be coming into the season. We also have a legitimate race for the No. 1 seed in the West.
In the East, the top three seeds look decided at this point, but jockeying for a preferential match-up and a battle for the No. 8 seed loom.
Here’s our projection of where things will end up when the dust settles in mid-April. Note that this differs from the current standings in a few places where we believe teams will move up or down, in or out of the bracket. We have one team currently outside the playoff picture taking a spot, and one team moving out. We also have some jumbled seedings based on recent play and schedule remaining.
Warriors (1) vs. Jazz (8)
Rockets (2) vs. Blazers (7)
Timberwolves (3) vs. Nuggets (6)
Spurs (4) vs. Thunder (5)
No. 1 seed
The Warriors and Rockets sit in a death match for the No. 1 overall seed. The only issue is that Golden State doesn’t seem to particularly care, while Houston appears to care very much! That would normally indicate that the Rockets, who want something, will get it in the end.
But the fact that the Warriors are just a half-game back while shrugging through at least a dozen games tells me that they are legitimately better. Houston has had injuries to Chris Paul and James Harden (plus others), but I’m erring on the side of recent history and top-level talent. The Warriors are definitely good enough to accidentally win the No. 1 seed, even with a foe as enormously excellent as Houston.
No. 3 seed
The No. 3 seed doesn’t actually matter much since we don’t know whether the Warriors will be the No. 1 or 2 seed. That No. 1 spot being contested makes the No. 3 seed far less valuable. Again, no knock on Houston. The Warriors have won two of three titles. Everyone is more afraid of them.
Minnesota gets the nod here because they care and the Spurs don’t — and more importantly, probably won’t have Kawhi Leonard.
Nos. 5 and 6 seeds
Among the other teams chasing, a few of them are in position to make a play for No. 3 or 4 if they get hot! Oklahoma City is only two games out of the No. 3 seed, and Denver and Portland are each 2.5 games out. But assuming these teams settle in here, landing No. 5 or 6 is much preferred to No. 7 or 8 because it means avoiding Houston and Golden State early.
The Thunder have a slight standings advantage currently and have far underplayed their scoring margin this season (owing to clutch troubles early on). Denver is coming on well but that defense (22nd in the league) is suspect. Portland has Damian Lillard playing out of his gourd, yet just holds steady. The Nuggets have Paul Millsap coming back in a month, so they get the nod here, along with OKC.
No. 8 seed
Including OKC, Denver, and Portland, six teams are within 2.5 games of each other, fighting for four playoff spots. The Clippers have been survivors through injury and the Blake Griffin trade. The Jazz have won 11 straight to vault back into the race behind the electric Donovan Mitchell. The Pelicans haven’t been a total disaster since DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles. But two teams will be left out.
My sense is that Utah will not be denied — that defense is resilient and Mitchell is still catching opponents off guard.
There’s also a fear that reality will set in for New Orleans just enough to knock them out. L.A., too, is a candidate to meet gravity.
It’s a tough choice, but Portland and Utah get in. I think. Sheesh.
Raptors (1) vs. Heat (8)
Celtics (2) vs. Pacers (7)
Cavaliers (3) vs. Sixers (6)
Wizards (4) vs. Bucks (5)
No. 1 seed
Toronto is getting this. The Raptors and Celtics are moving in opposite directions, and Toronto has a 2-game edge. The tiebreaker is still in play, so that could matter.
Cleveland has looked great since the trade deadline, but 6.5 games is too big a gap to close. Frankly, the 4.5 games separating the Cavaliers from No. 2 Boston is too big, too, so the next race to look at is …
No. 4 seed
Several of the second-tier teams in the East are so evenly matched that home court in the first round could matter. We have the Wizards holding off the Bucks and others for No. 4; those two, Indiana, and Philadelphia and currently in play for it, and Miami could get hot and get in there, too.
We actually have the Pacers dropping a spot from the current standings because the 76ers are smoking again and have played three fewer games — Indiana, Milwaukee, and Philly all have 25 losses.
Again, Miami could get into this mix. If not …
No. 8 seed
The only team currently outside the bracket with any shot to slip in is Detroit, who started the Griffin era on a win streak before falling off. The Pistons are a game under .500, but just one game behind Miami in the loss column. Detroit needs some help from Miami to get in, or it needs to finish really strong. (This is bold analysis, I know.)
One hurdle: the Heat have 15 home games and nine road games left, while the Pistons have 10 home games and 15 road games left. Detroit’s home-road splits are pretty steep, so the tough finish could cost them a playoff spot.
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