In or Out? Predicting Postseason Fates for Every Fringe NBA Playoff Team
Are you a glutton for mental punishment? A sucker for seemingly unending hypotheticals? Someone who appreciates trying to solve a Rubik's Cube that has the power to fight back?
Well, then, the 2018 NBA playoff race is for you.
Not one of the 16 postseason seeds is a forgone conclusion. Contenders are jockeying for first place in both conferences, while a dense fray of hopefuls are staging an all-out war for everything else.
Like usual, most of the chaos is unfolding on the fringes, among teams fighting for their playoff lives. But this scope is wider than normal, because the Western Conference has decided its annual bedlam needed more anarchy.
Eight teams are vying for the final postseason slots behind the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. With just four wins separating third place from 10th place, they all make the fringe cut.
Singling out the Eastern Conference's borderline outfits is a little more straightforward. Seeds No. 3 through No. 8 are within close proximity of one another, but those on the outside looking in carry bare-minimum clout.
FiveThirtyEight's postseason odds support this: The Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks all have a 92 percent chance or better of making the big dance. Milwaukee is now eighth in the East but has the benefit of the doubt. That benefit of the doubt's name is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Miami will be the team tasked with staving off the bubble competition for this exercise.
Predictions will be offered in the form of playoff seeds, because why not? Everything is taken under advisement when churning out the order—injuries, tiebreaker situations, recent hot streaks, strength of schedule, blind faith, Magic 8 Ball outcomes, etc.
East's No. 10 Seed: Detroit Pistons
FiveThirtyEight: 3.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 9.1 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 8.0 percent
Let's get this out of the way: The Detroit Pistons aren't making the playoffs. They barely belong in this fringe-postseason heap anymore. They've gone 7-9 since the Blake Griffin trade and essentially played themselves out of realistic contention with a March 3 loss to the Miami Heat, current owners of the Eastern Conference's No. 7 seed.
Four of the Pistons' next five games come against likely postseason teams. Their 17-26 record versus opponents with winning records implies imminent disaster.
Then again, it might not matter who the Pistons play. They dry-heaved their way through recent losses to the Atlanta Hawks (Feb. 11), Charlotte Hornets (Feb. 25) and Orlando Magic (March 2).
Reggie Jackson's impending return does little to lift their fading playoff hopes. The Pistons need a better mix of shooters and playmakers around Griffin and Andre Drummond. Jackson is an up-and-down marksman who has grappled with a Jekyll-and-Hyde identity when operating off the ball. He doesn't elevate the ceiling of an offense that ranks 26th in points scored per 100 possessions through its last 10 games.
Detroit's ceiling on the more glamorous end is altogether capped when looking at its disjointed floor balance. Lineups featuring both Drummond and Griffin are getting obliterated by almost 10 points per 100 possessions since before the All-Star break. Coach-president Stan Van Gundy doesn't have the mix of shooters to prop them up—or lighten Griffin's load as a face-up scorer and outside shooter—even with Stanley Johnson catching fire.
"I don't care about that," he said when asked about the Pistons' fading playoff odds, per the Detroit News' Rod Beard. "I've said that and you guys keep asking me. What matters is that we play well and win games. We have no control over the rest of it. I don't give a [crap] about that."
Good thing, too. Because, with five games sitting between them and the eighth-place Bucks, the Pistons' postseason chances aren't worth giving a crap about.
East's No. 9 Seed: Charlotte Hornets
FiveThirtyEight: 16.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 6.4 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 4.0 percent
Props to the Hornets for getting more playoff love from FiveThirtyEight than the Pistons.
This doesn't say much in the grand scheme of things. The Hornets still aren't going to the playoffs. Considering where they were just a few short weeks ago, though, sneaking into ninth place and buoying their artificial postseason odds qualifies as a nifty consolation prize.
Joining the NBA's tank race was never a legitimate option for the Hornets. They weren't bad enough to rock-bottom their way to top-five lottery odds even at their worst. But leapfrogging the Pistons and finishing within an Aaron Rodgers throw of the Heat could seduce owner Michael Jordan into thinking his team is on the cusp of something special.
Sidestepping yet another opportunity to rebuild would be disingenuous to the Hornets' future. They've already opted not to renew the contract of general manager Rich Cho. Swapping out front office regimes can often be the byproduct of a capped-out roster that promises little flexibility or upside—change in the name of the inability to make changes elsewhere. It can also open the door to a fresh start.
After they miss the playoffs for the third time in four years, the Hornets will need a clean slate. But their recent, um, success lingers.
They're playing .500 basketball since Feb. 1. They've tallied a 16-6 record against teams under .500. They've even started to figure out how to score without Kemba Walker. They're deploying a league-average attack since the start of February when he takes a seat—largely thanks to Treveon Graham-Jeremy Lamb-Cody Zeller bench combinations playing like the bee's knees.
Erasing the chasm between them and the Heat would be more like a curse disguised as a comeback. The Hornets cannot be hoodwinked into riding caveats and disclaimers as they prepare for next season. This nucleus is up against a first-round-exit apex and likely won't even get the chance to reach it. The Hornets need to remember that as they contemplate what's next.
East's No. 8 Seed: Miami Heat
FiveThirtyEight: 94.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 93.3 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 96.0 percent
The Heat are sitting pretty. Not only did they stamp out what little life remained in the Pistons with their March 3 victory, but the Hornets have retreated back into a decided non-threat after their three-game slide.
Although recent quadricep injuries to Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson crimp their spacing, the Heat remain overwhelming favorites to skate into the postseason. They control tiebreakers over both the Hornets and Pistons, and neither squad has a much easier schedule to close out the 2017-18 campaign, per PlayoffStatus.com.
Team president Pat Riley is, not surprisingly, bullish on Miami's chances as a result. As he told the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson:
"We have everything we need. We have shot blocking. We got pick-and-roll bigs who can catch lobs. We've got pick-and-roll bigs who can catch layups. We've got shooters, defenders. We've got a lot of versatility. I think coach has done a great job of developing a system that's for everybody. And so let's get on with it."
Manufacturing consistent offense remains a hurdle. The Heat rank in the the bottom half of accuracy around the rim and from beyond the arc, according to Cleaning The Glass, and many of their most-played lineups approach anemic.
Miami makes do with head coach Erik Spoelstra's constant futzing and fiddling. He unearthed offensive balance in the starting five prior to Johnson's injury, and the Goran Dragic-Josh Richardson connection is developing into a patented force.
Climbing further up the East's playoff ladder isn't off the table. They own the tiebreaker over the eighth-place Bucks and control the fate of their season series with the fourth-place Pacers. Their head-to-head cards against the sixth-place Sixers and fifth-place Wizards remain up for grabs.
If they leverage their penchant for keeping games close—they lead the league in crunch-time appearances—into a few more wins, the Heat could make this last-team-in prediction look foolish. The Bucks have been warned.
West's No. 10 Seed: Los Angeles Clippers
FiveThirtyEight: 56.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 52.7 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 50.0 percent
This year will go down as one of Doc Rivers' best head-coaching jobs. The Los Angeles Clippers have battled through roster turnover and injuries and had to rely on placeholders and no-names. Their two best players in franchise history, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, now reside on other teams.
No one would blame Rivers if the Clippers sat comfortably outside the postseason bubble. Remaining in the thick of things is a victory unto itself.
They've fielded almost as many starting lineups (30) as they have wins. Their best player is contending for the Sixth Man of the Year award, not MVP honors. They carry themselves with the scrappiness of an upstart rather than a team within $1 million of the luxury-tax threshold.
What makes them so endearing also betrays them in this postsesason discussion: They're the easiest to remove from the bunch. They don't have a conventional superstar, and their injury problems aren't going away.
Avery Bradley has played in just six games since coming over from the Pistons. Jawun Evans hasn't seen the court since Jan. 20 while dealing with abdominal and groin strains. Danilo Gallinari is back on the shelf with a non-displaced fracture in his right hand.
It says even more about the delicacy of the Clippers' situation that the expiration on Tyrone Wallace's two-way contract noticeably compromises their outlook. They're 15th in defensive efficiency since the Griffin trade. That feels like a lucky overshot when looking at their available personnel. Wallace, at 6'5", guarded every wing position for them. They'll continue to drop if they don't sign him to a new deal.
Beyond that, sixteen of the Clippers' remaining 20 games come against opponents with winning records. They're 11-22 on the season when facing above-.500 teams. That bodes terribly for their coin-toss playoff chances.
West's No. 9 Seed: Minnesota Timberwolves
FiveThirtyEight: 91.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 92.7 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 95.0 percent
Designating the Minnesota Timberwolves for lottery duty is going to ruffle some feathers. They either own or control the fate over potential tiebreakers with all seven of the West's other fringe playoff squads, and four games separate them from the closest lottery team in the win column.
A middling schedule to close out the season, per PlayoffStatus.com, should render the Wolves postseason locks. Statistical projection models are still treating them as such. But Jimmy Butler's meniscus injury changes everything.
Butler's four-to-six-week timetable puts him back in action by the end of March at the earliest. Even if he's ready to rock before the playoffs, it will take reps for him to regain his dark-horse MVP form—if he ever gets there.
Minnesota has the ancillary shot creators to offset his team-high usage. Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will keep the offense afloat with or without the best possible version of Butler. But this team doesn't have the defensive depth to survive in its current shorthanded form.
Opponents are hanging 113.7 points per 100 possessions on the Timberwolves when Butler is off the court—akin to the league's worst mark. Though five of their 10 most-played lineups don't include No. 23, only one of them notches better than a bottom-five defensive rating. He is the team lone's wing or guard who rates as a positive stopper, according to NBA Math's Defensive Points Saved.
Guaranteeing a fully healthy Butler in one month's time wouldn't necessarily mean anything. Take a gander at the Timberwolves' next eight games: vs. Celtics (March 8); vs. Warriors (March 11); at Wizards (March 13); at San Antonio Spurs (March 17); vs. Rockets (March 18); vs. Clippers (March 20); at New York Knicks (March 23); at Sixers (March 24).
That would make for a hellacious stretch of basketball even with Butler. Playing through it without him could result in a 1-7 record that displaces Minnesota from the West's postseason bracket.
West's No. 8 Seed: Denver Nuggets
FiveThirtyEight: 68.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 66.4 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 67.0 percent
Blowing a 19-point lead on Feb. 27 against the Clippers, a fellow playoff hopeful, looked like a potential death knell for the Denver Nuggets. Rattling off two straight victories in response to that letdown hasn't done much to reverse their topsy-turvy place in the West.
Striking offensive balance between Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap figures to be an especially taxing chore. The former has assumed a secondary role in the early going of Millsap's return, attempting a total of 18 shots across three games.
Purchasing stock in small samples is dangerous. Jokic is an inherently passive player who revels in deference, and Denver has been a net plus per 100 possessions when he lines up beside Millsap since the latter's return. But the offense lags during this time. It has lagged in general whenever Millsap is in the game.
His re-integration is a legitimate roadblock—mostly because this is hardly a re-integration. Millsap appeared in just 16 games before exiting the rotation. The Nuggets' starting five at the time fared like one of the league's best lineups, but the roster at large is not exactly familiar with its overall makeup.
Spending more time on the road than at home only complicates matters. The Nuggets are 11-19 away from Pepsi Center, giving them the lowest winning percentage in hostile territory among above-.500 teams. Their closing schedule isn't especially difficult, but it does feature road tilts against the Clippers, Raptors, Sixers, Timberwolves, Wizards and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Slight optimism persists anyway. Denver has a top-five offense since Jan. 1, Jamal Murray is still balling and Millsap should improve the Nuggets' defensive stands over the long haul. And whereas the Timberwolves have to worry about treading water without Jimmy Butler, the Nuggets are trying to forge chemistry with their best players. That's an objectively better problem to have.
West's No. 7 Seed: San Antonio Spurs
FiveThirtyEight: 66.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 84.2 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 77.0 percent
Oh, how the seemingly invincible have fallen.
"Halfway through the season, we were aiming for the third spot," Manu Ginobili said after the Spurs' March 3 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, per the San Antonio Express-News' Tom Orsborn. "Now we are aiming for the playoffs. A lot of things changed."
You can say that again. You can also say the Spurs are dead where they stand. They are 12-15 since Jan. 1, with a defense that's starting to show cracks, and they have the league's toughest remaining schedule, according to PlayoffStatus.com.
Getting Kawhi Leonard back would help. San Antonio needs another self-sufficient scorer. LaMarcus Aldridge subsists on a steady diet of difficult turnarounds. He isn't someone you lean on to face up and generate points from scratch with the game on the line. Danny Green is the closest the team comes to a lockdown defender without a healthy Leonard.
The Spurs are suffering accordingly. They're 4-10 since the turn of the calendar in games during which neither side leads or trails by more than five points...with the NBA's second-worst defense. Their 13-21 record versus opponents with winning records doesn't inspire any confidence. Fifteen of their final 18 matchups pit them against above-.500 contingents.
But blind faith is at play here. The Spurs are the Spurs until further notice. Their streak of consecutive 50-win seasons—which hits 20 if you prorate their 37-13 showing during the lockout-truncated 1998-99 campaign—is already on life support. Penciling them in for the lottery is too surreal.
League sources told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright that Leonard is targeting a return sometime in March. That matters. This isn't the Timberwolves (potentially) rushing back Jimmy Butler or the Nuggets acquainting themselves with Paul Millsap all over again. Leonard has been medically cleared for a while, Wojnarowski and Wright reported, and he spent all of last season as the Spurs' entire system. The grace period attached to his return won't be as stark.
Equally important: The Spurs have forfeited just one tiebreaker among the West's gaggle of postseason hunters. They're 0-3 against the Utah Jazz. Everything else is up in the air or in their control—though they do trail the New Orleans Pelicans 0-2 with two meetings to play. This, plus head coach Gregg Popvoich, plus the potential return of Leonard, plus their uncharacteristically unsettling 20-11 record when holding up to a five-point lead in the fourth quarter, suggests they're overdue for some good-enough luck.
West's No. 6 Seed: Utah Jazz
FiveThirtyEight: 62.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 43.6 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 47.0 percent
Sliding into the All-Star break on an 11-game winning streak at first acted as the Jazz's "Get out of the lottery" card.
Then the Western Conference happened.
Tight races across the board have turned the Jazz into something less than a playoff formality. They're just one win behind the No. 8-seeded Nuggets, but that feels like a mountainous gap with eight outfits jockeying for the same six positions.
Still, the Jazz's appeal has not dissipated. Writing them off, or even viewing them as a longer shot, overcomplicates all the evidence that points to the contrary.
Yes, the Jazz are in 10th place. They're also a few games above .500. And they've gotten here while playing out the NBA's second-toughest schedule, according to PlayoffStatus.com. Only the Rockets, Timberwolves and Warriors have more wins against above.-500 squads.
Utah's starting five has been a terror over this stretch, outpacing opponents by 17.8 points per 100 possessions. Sub in Jae Crowder for Derrick Favors, and the extra space has given way to even more dominant returns, albeit over a teensy-tiny 52-minute sample.
With the easiest remaining schedule among the West's fringe postseason teams, and given all they've already done, ticketing the Jazz for a playoff cameo seems far safer than not.
West's No. 5 Seed: New Orleans Pelicans
FiveThirtyEight: 79.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 83.8 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 89.0 percent
Anthony Davis has decided the Pelicans are going to make the playoffs.
"You kind of have to have that Russell Westbrook mentality," he told The Jump's Rachel Nichols over the All-Star break in reference to playing without DeMarcus Cousins. "When [Kevin Durant] went out...Russ just went out there and played. He shot 40 shots sometimes. Whatever it takes to help your team win. We're kind of taking that approach."
Channeling his inner Westbrook is working.
Babies born after Feb. 9 don't yet know what it's like to live through a Pelicans loss. The Pels have rattled off eight consecutive victories, three of which came in overtime, and suddenly find themselves contending for home-court advantage through the first round.
The going will get harder. The Pelicans haven't solely capitalized on a cupcake schedule, but they have arguably the least-enviable slate awaiting them in the final three weeks of the regular season: at Rockets (March 24); vs. Blazers (March 27); at Cavaliers (March 30); vs. Thunder (April 1); vs. Memphis Grizzlies (April 4); at Phoenix Suns (April 6); at Warriors (April 7); at Clippers (April 9); vs. Spurs (April 11).
Just two of those sparrings (Grizzlies and Suns) profile as possible gimmes. Everyone else should be playing for something—including the Warriors, as they seek to fend off or catch the Rockets. Slipping up during this stretch or failing to take care of business beforehand could culminate in an 11th-hour free-fall.
Davis' leaguewide takeover is the Pelicans' #WellActually to all of this. He's averaging 32.6 points on 49.7 percent shooting, 13.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.4 blocks since Cousins suffered his season-ending Achilles injury. And he's pushed the bill even farther during New Orleans' winning streak, posting 37.3 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.9 steals and 2.8 blocks while slashing 52.9/37.5/84.9.
Over-relying on Davis isn't a long-term solution, as he doesn't have the cleanest health history. But the Pelicans have tapped into survival mode when he's taking a breather. They have a positive point differential per 100 possessions without him during their recent run of perfection, and Jrue Holiday is piloting effective lineups on his lonesome in the aftermath of Cousins' injury.
In the immortalized words of Tom Thibodeau, New Orleans has "more than enough to win"—a spot in the Western Conference playoff shindig, that is.
West's No. 4 Seed: Oklahoma City Thunder
FiveThirtyEight: 85.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 87.0 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 83.0 percent
Oklahoma City shouldn't be here, scrapping and clawing among the what-ifs.
Their record says otherwise. Three wins seperate them from the closest lottery team. They don't rise to the occasion on the road (16-18) and have failed to convincingly dispatch sub-.500 opponents, against which they're an unimpressive 18-11.
Turning to individual tiebreakers doesn't improve their resume. They hold an edge over the Clippers (2-0, with one game left) and Jazz (3-1), but they've already surrendered stalemate rights to the Blazers (0-3), Pelicans (0-2, with one game left) and Timberwolves (1-3). They're trailing the Nuggets (1-2) leading into their final date (March 30) and knotted up with the Spurs (1-1) entering their final two meetings (March 10 and 29).
Staring down a potential 2-5 hole in the tiebreaker department is detrimental to any team. The Thunder are walking an especially rickety path. They will play out the NBA's second-hardest schedule from here, according to PlayoffStatus.com, and have yet to pick up the pieces of Roberson's absence. They're 17th in defensive efficiency since he went down.
Throw in Anthony's shooting struggles—his true shooting percentage has never been lower—and the Thunder have real problems. The newly added Corey Brewer is a body to throw at opposing guards and bigger wings, but he doesn't begin to replace Roberson. Lineups that roll out Josh Huestis in his stead have found some success, but they've started to crinkle on defense.
Star power ultimately carries the Thunder past some of their peers. Adams, George and Westbrook continue to crush opponents when they aren't playing alongside Anthony. Sorry crunch-time efforts work in their favor as well. They're 17-17 through games in which neither team leads or trails by more than five points entering the final five minutes.
Flip a couple more of those close calls in their favor, and the Thunder are in business. Measuring-stick tussles against the Rockets (March 6, April 7), Spurs (March 10 and 29), Celtics (March 20) and Warriors (April 3) could throw wrenches in this projection, but Oklahoma City remains too talented to wallow on the clutch-time fringes all year.
West's No. 3 Seed: Portland Trail Blazers
FiveThirtyEight: 93.0 percent
Basketball-Reference: 89.5 percent
PlayoffStatus.com: 91.0 percent
What if someone told you before the season that fewer than five wins would separate the West's No. 3 seed from the No. 10 seed entering the final 20ish games? Would you have believed it? Perhaps. The West is wonderfully wild and wacky.
What if you were then told that, among those eight teams, the Blazers would have the highest probability of snagging a postseason appearance? Would you have believed that? Definitely, positively, unquestionably not.
Statistical projections technically lean toward the Timberwolves, but they aren't accounting for Butler's sabbatical. The Spurs don't have Leonard. The Thunder don't have Roberson. The Pelicans don't have Cousins. The Nuggets are trying to work in Millsap. The Jazz still have too much ground to make up. The Clippers, too.
Portland, meanwhile, is playing its best basketball of the season—and, perhaps, of the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era, as Blazers Edge's Peter Sampson wrote:
"The Blazers are 15-5 in their last 20 games. After flipping back and forth for much of the season, the offense and defense are clicking at the same time. The Blazers have maintained a 107.2 offensive rating while having a 6th rated 103.4 defensive rating over their last 15 games.
"The defense has ramped up even more of late. Since the All-Star break, the team has an NBA-best 98.1 defensive rating and a net rating of 9.9 during that span—behind only the Warriors, Raptors, and Rockets. Portland has beaten quality opponents and, just as crucially, found a way to win games when things weren’t clicking from the get-go. That’s the hallmark of a good team."
Recapturing their Moda Center mojo is a huge part of the Blazers' upswing; they're 13-1 over their past 14 home games. This most recent stretch has reinforced their capacity to close games. They're 7-2 through their last nine crunch-time performances, with a handful of fourth-quarter comebacks under their belt.
Damian Lillard has been sensational. CJ McCollum is doing his thing. Shabazz Napier is playing his way into closing lineups. Jusuf Nurkic isn't hijacking too many offensive possessions. Evan Turner is shooting 37.5 percent (9-of-24) from downtown over his last 20 games. Zach Collins is flashing nice help defense around the rim and reaffirming himself as a lethal pick-and-pop option. His frontcourt partnership with Ed Davis has been straight fire.
Indeed, the Blazers are good—much better, it seems, than the first half of the season portended. As far as playoffs locks go in an ever-shifting Western Conference, they're as certain as it gets.