In or Out? Predicting Postseason Fates for Every Fringe NBA Playoff Team
The final month-plus of the NBA regular season is a series of simultaneous races.
The elites are jostling for prime position atop their respective conferences. The cellar-dwellers are racing to the bottom despite lottery tweaks to discourage tanking.
The best battle, though, comes from basketball's middle class. These are the teams that, for better or worse, have largely put their entire efforts into scratching and clawing out one of the league's last playoff spots. A one-and-done postseason showing may not sound like much, but these clubs would tell you that gaining entry to the big dance is all that matters.
We're focusing on that final fight by predicting the playoff fate of every team on the bubble. We'll use a simple designation for that status, too—teams pegged by FiveThirtyEight as having a postseason chance that's less than 99 but greater than 10.
Off The Bubble
Using FiveThirtyEight's playoff probabilities, 11 teams are essentially locked into the playoff picture—five from the East and six from the West.
In the East, the Bucks, 76ers, Raptors, Celtics and Pacers have—mathematically speaking—nothing to worry about. In the West, the Warriors, Nuggets, Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers and Jazz are free to breathe easy during this exercise.
On the other end of the equation, 10 teams are already out of the race for our purposes.
For the East, the Cavs, Hawks, Bulls and Knicks are left for dead with less than a 1 percent chance, while the odds against the John Wall-less Wizards (6 percent) are too long to include them. It's a similar story out West, with the Mavs, Grizzlies and Suns having sub-1 percent chances and the deck being too heavily stacked against the Pelicans (3) and Timberwolves (9).
Now that our bubble is formed with the nine remaining clubs, let's get to punching playoff tickets and dashing dreams.
Brooklyn Nets: In
Current Seed: Sixth in East
Playoff Probability: 86 Percent
It feels a little strange being this confident in Brooklyn, but these aren't your older sibling's Nets. They've been overhauled by the dynamic duo of head coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, who've shown a fondness for modern necessities like three-point volume and maximum versatility.
For the second time this season, though, the Nets are adjusting on the fly to being without a backcourt, breakout star. There were rough patches in the aftermath of Caris LeVert's dislocated foot in November, and it's been more of the same with the torn thumb ligaments that have sidelined Spencer Dinwiddie since late January.
But there's enough time for Brooklyn to get fully healthy and properly aligned with its complete cast of characters. The Nets have been a collective tough cover all season—four different players average at least two triples on above-average shooting—and they'll grow even harder to handle when Dinwiddie, LeVert and D'Angelo Russell can all share the offensive controls.
While not necessarily great at anything, Brooklyn is good at enough to keep contests tight and let its closers take over. The Nets are tied for the most wins in games decided by three points of less (10) and have the fifth-best clutch net rating since the new year (plus-25.2).
Charlotte Hornets: Out
Current Seed: Eighth in East
Playoff Probability: 37 Percent
The Hornets needed to do something at the trade deadline. If they wanted to keep trying to build around Kemba Walker, they should've found him a second star. If they finally accepted a reset was inevitable, they should've used Walker—an unrestricted free-agent-to-be—to fetch a rebuilding starting kit.
They stood pat instead, ensuring their immediate future would include the same directionless meandering that defined their recent past. Walker continues lacking proper support, but he's too talented on his own for the bottom to drop out.
Since Walker found his NBA footing, Charlotte has spent most of his tenure hovering near the playoff picture. But more often than not, it misses the cut due in no small part to an over-reliance on the All-Star scoring guard.
This year looks to be no different. While still (barely) in the playoffs now, the Hornets are fading fast (2-6 over their last eight outings) and ill-equipped to make up ground. They don't win close games (3-10 with margins of three points or less) and don't beat good teams (7-21 against .500-plus opponents). There are too many flaws around Walker to expect him to compensate for everything.
Detroit Pistons: In
Current Seed: Seventh in East
Playoff Probability: 89 Percent
Admit it: You thought the Pistons' trio of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson could be a Big Three by salary only. For most of this season, you had legitimate reasons to feel that way.
But something is happening in the Motor City. Three somethings, actually. Griffin is forcing his way onto MVP ballots. Drummond is raising his career ceiling by several stories. And Jackson is reminding everyone why the Pistons once placed his worth at $80 million.
Truth be told, Griffin has been awesome all season. He's never averaged more points (25.8) and only once dished more assists (5.4), numbers that helped him return from a three-year All-Star hiatus. Drummond and Jackson, though, are turning February into their personal showcases. Jackson is up to 19.4 points on 48.4 percent shooting, while Drummond is tallying an absurd 22.4 points, 16.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
Together, the trio has an incredible plus-16.5 net rating in the 203 minutes it's shared this month. Tack on the arrivals of Wayne Ellington and Thon Maker, plus the re-emergence of Luke Kennard, and there are enough reasons to believe the Pistons' uptick will carry them all the way into the postseason.
Los Angeles Clippers: Out
Current Seed: Seventh in West
Playoff Probability: 75 Percent
It speaks to the Clippers' tremendous depth that all their deadline wheeling and dealing didn't equate to abandoning their playoff pursuit. They traded away their top scorer (Tobias Harris), dealt another starter (Avery Bradley) and waived their starting center (Marcin Gortat), but they're still pushing for the postseason.
While their trade returns were future-focused, they didn't entirely neglect the present. In fact, newcomers like Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac—notably, both young enough to fit any long-term plans—have already hit the ground running and added new layers to this attack.
But it's fair to wonder if L.A.'s biggest subtraction will eventually prove its undoing.
The Clippers already faced steep odds of trying to navigate the star-studded West without a star of their own. But when Harris made the leap to pseudo-star, it almost seemed possible. The fact that he's gone and wasn't replaced by a potential offensive fulcrum feels like it'll be too much to overcome as the race tightens down the final stretch.
Los Angeles Lakers: In
Current Seed: Eleventh in West
Playoff Probability: 17 Percent
LeBron James seems to be grasping the full scope of his new challenge in L.A. He joined a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard were leading the charge. And since Anthony Davis will call the Big Easy home the rest of this season, James is learning what it's like to have an unproven, inexperienced roster around him.
"The last few years, everyone's so accustomed to the losses that I'm just not accustomed to," James told reporters. "I'm not accustomed to it. I will never get comfortable with losing. So losing Game 1 to Houston [at home], it feels the same way as losing Game 59 in New Orleans to me. It's just how I'm built."
James' verbal challenge to his teammates can go one of two ways.
The first would make this prediction seem silly. Think of it as a lit match tossed into a locker room already made combustible by the uncomfortably public pushes to add Davis. The team fractures, the record worsens, James takes his criticisms public and the fractures become more pronounced as the cycle keeps repeating. Consecutive losses to the Davis-less Pelicans and lowly Grizzlies suggest this process might already be in motion.
The other outcome, though, is James' words serving as a rally point to a talented group of youngsters who could all benefit by following his example. This isn't the highest-percentage probability now, but remember, this is King James we're talking about. The guy hasn't missed the Finals since 2010 and made the playoffs every year since 2006. He's always an expected participant unless the math says it's impossible.
Miami Heat: Out
Current Seed: Tenth in East
Playoff Probability: 14 Percent
Dwyane Wade's Last Dance might not have as many steps as he hoped. The Heat have been free-falling for the better part of two months (9-15 with a minus-3.8 net rating in 2019), and their cost-cutting deadline dealings only diminished their on-court collection.
It doesn't help that this roster has been hit hard by injuries. But it's fitting for this team that on the night Goran Dragic, a 2017-18 All-Star, returned from a two-month absence, the Heat were throttled by 23 points on their home floor and nearly outscored by a point per minute with Dragic in the game (minus-11 in 16 minutes).
"I don't have the answers," Wade told reporters afterward. "I wish I did, but we've been talking about this all year. You can't just turn it on because the game means more. We are who we are. ... We've been terrible at home this year."
The Heat are short on both present star power and future potential. They have a lot of decent players, but few who are above that level or even capable of climbing beyond it. Unless the 37-year-old Wade stumbles onto a time machine, Miami looks like it will land outside of the playoff picture for the third time in five seasons.
Orlando Magic: In
Current Seed: Ninth in East
Playoff Probability: 69 Percent
The Magic have often struggled staying out of their own way during their playoff drought of six years and counting. But their luck might finally be changing, albeit at a painfully sluggish rate.
This has been the ninth-most efficient team in basketball since the calendar flipped (plus-3.9 net rating), although you might not know it from Orlando's 12-13 record in 2019. But with six of those losses being decided by five points or less, the upside was obvious should things ever break this franchise's way.
That potential flip started late last month, when the Magic closed January with a seven-point triumph over the Pacers. Follow that with a 13-point win over the Nets two nights later, and Orlando had consecutive wins for just the second time in 2019. Fast-forward a few weeks, and the Magic's surge is up to eight victories in 10 tries, which is tied for the Association's best record over the last 10 games.
The Magic took the risk of keeping impending free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross past the deadline, and the two have delivered 39.2 combined points during this 10-game swing. Jonathan Isaac is perhaps playing the best ball of his career, and Evan Fournier hasn't been this productive all season. If Aaron Gordon gets back on track, Orlando could wind up with a relatively comfortable path to the playoffs.
Sacramento Kings: In
Current Seed: Ninth in West
Playoff Probability: 15 Percent
The Kings are quietly looming as a potential thorn in the side of the NBA's elite. Already this month, Sacramento's up-and-coming roster has dispatched Philadelphia, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, plus given the two-time champs all they could handle.
"I love their team and love what they are doing," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters. "... Every time we play them it's high energy and it's beautiful basketball. They are tough to guard. They put a lot of pressure on you."
It starts at the top with defense-shredder De'Aaron Fox and quantity-plus-quality bomber Buddy Hield. That's not only almost 40 points per night, but it's also 45-plus percent shooting from each backcourt mate. The Kings also continue seeing good-to-great things from rookie Marvin Bagley III, have their missing big forward in Harrison Barnes and own a super-intriguing wild card in Harry Giles.
The Kings close with one of the softest remaining schedules, which should be ample opportunity for Barnes to find his place and help this club reach greater heights. It's possible a lack of experience proves a fatal flaw, but this expanding talent collection is rich enough to earn our prediction.
San Antonio Spurs: Out
Current Seed: Eighth in West
Playoff Probability: 81 Percent
San Antonio's playoff berths have ranked right alongside death and taxes in terms of year-over-year certainty. But this isn't so much about doubting the Silver and Black—never a good strategy with Gregg Popovich at the helm—as it is realizing this is not the Silver and Black we all once knew.
In the last two summers, the Spurs have subtracted Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Their new starting point guard, Dejounte Murray, tore his ACL before the season started. Their offense now runs through players you'd never have expected to see in the Alamo: DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay—all previously dinged for being too ball-dominant.
Remarkably, Popovich had been keeping this group afloat with a somehow-it's-working inside-the-arc offense, but the lack of spacing, shot-creating and any kind of defending are all coming back to bite this team. The Spurs are 2-7 in February with the month's worst efficiency rating (minus-11.7).
This defense is disastrous—it just allowed 130 points to the Knicks, then 19 threes to the Nets—and the offense isn't good enough to keep covering for it. The Spurs seem in need of a savior, but they don't have the internal growth potential of the Kings nor the fiery motivation of a laser-focused LeBron. Maybe a ticked off Popovich is good enough, but this keeps feeling like the year when San Antonio's playoff ship finally sinks.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.