Midseason NBA Playoff Seeding Predictions

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2020

Midseason NBA Playoff Seeding Predictions

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    The race is on to the 2020 NBA playoffs.

    OK, technically it started as soon as the 2019-20 season tipped off in October. But the first few months are a feeling-out process and a time for the haves to separate from the have-nots. Now, clubs have their realistic targets in sight, and they'll spend the next three months hard-charging toward them.

    Who's likely to make their dreams a reality? That's what we're here to answer.

    With our crystal ball in hand, our eye-test results fresh in our mind and a wealth of statistical data at our disposal, we can peek ahead to predict how all eight playoff seeds will be filled in each conference. Will LeBron James lead the Los Angeles Lakers to No. 1? Can Ja Morant and the streaking Memphis Grizzlies crack the field? How will the fights for second place shake out?

    We'll answer all those questions and more.

East No. 8: Brooklyn Nets

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    Cryptic Kyrie Irving is back, and he's pleading with the Brooklyn Nets front office to go get...something. While Uncle Drew says the mystery need is "transparent" and "glaring," we're struggling to identify a specific target.

    The Nets are outside the top 10 on defense and top 20 on offense, so sure, they could use a two-way boost. But really, what could take this team over the top is a healthy Kevin Durant, and the Nets don't expect him back before next season, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

    After inking an injured KD last summer, Brooklyn knew it would be playing this season with house money. The Nets shouldn't feel any pressure to have a dramatic trade deadline one way or the other, though minor wheeling and dealing might make sense.

    Unless they're desperate to keep their lottery-protected pick away from the Atlanta Hawks, the Nets should play this out. They have enough talent to snag a postseason spot even without KD, and they can use the next three months to help determine which other pieces can be long-term complements to their dynamic duo. There will be rough patches, but not enough to spoil their playoff push.

East No. 7: Orlando Magic

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    After snapping a six-year playoff drought last season, the Magic should have just enough to make it 2-of-2 under head coach Steve Clifford.

    Orlando is almost perfectly "meh." It nearly plays breakeven basketball, finishing one point worse than its opponents per 100 possessions. The offense is a mess, but the defense is stingy enough to keep this club in most games.

    The roster is mediocre. No one comes within arm's reach of superstardom. Jonathan Isaac has a fascinating future, but he's shelved indefinitely by a knee injury and lacks an offensive niche. Markelle Fultz can be fun to watch, but consistency is not his strong suit. The veterans are mostly fine, but their contracts are costly enough that you could talk yourself into trading any of them.

    Sooner than later, the Magic might decide their core is problematically short on growth potential and a fire sale (or something close to it) is a necessary step forward. For now, though, they're still able to paint a first-round exit as a valuable learning experience, and they have the personnel to lock up their spot.

East No. 6: Indiana Pacers

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    Compared to expectations, the Pacers have been incredible. The hope was they wouldn't completely collapse without an injured Victor Oladipo. Instead, they've fared even better than the last two seasons when he was starting his All-Star ascension and changing their fortune in the process.

    With Oladipo nearing his return, some might expect the Circle City's finest to sprint through the stretch run and into a top-four seed. Obviously, we don't share that viewpoint.

    A healthy Oladipo is no doubt a difference-maker. But an Oladipo that hasn't played in a calendar year? Is he noticeably better than what the Pacers already have in their rotation? He could actually be worse, considering he'll be scraping off rust while likely taking touches away from breakout ballers like T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Aaron Holiday.

    The immediate flight plan for Oladipo's return starts with turbulence, but the hope is the Pacers eventually soar even higher. This is the kind of team that could peak in the postseason, which makes it a tricky playoff matchup but also a group unlikely to positively change its performance before that.

East No. 5: Boston Celtics

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    The Celtics are scuffling. They're already trapped in their second three-game losing streak of 2020, and they couldn't even handle the Phoenix Suns at home on a night when they got a mind-numbing 11 triples out of Marcus Smart.

    Boston thinks experiencing adversity now could prove beneficial down the road, and maybe that's true in certain areas. But playoff seeding isn't one of them. The Shamrocks are failing to separate in the logjam behind the Milwaukee Bucks, and they'll pay for that later as they have the toughest remaining schedule of all the clubs jostling for the East's silver medal.

    The Celtics need an upgrade at center, but addressing it in a meaningful manner would require the subtraction of a key contributor. Knowing both those things are true, this won't be an easy march toward the uncertainty that is the NBA trade deadline. Names are sure to swirl through the rumor mill, and that only ups the anxiety around what's already a tense time of year.

    Maybe the C's get more comfortable once swap season is finished, but this feels like a club that's still figuring itself out. There are five different cooks in this kitchen, and it isn't always easy to tell who's handling head-chef duty.

East No. 4: Miami Heat

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    The Heat are hard to pin down because they're both better than expected and still looking for more.

    "They are one player away from being really dangerous," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote. "They know. They are looking, sources say."

    As Lowe goes on to detail, though, Miami may lack the funds to afford a difference-maker. Jrue Holiday and Danilo Gallinari may not even be available. If they are, a team that faces severe limitations in trading a draft pick and has made Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro off-limits, per Heavy.com's Sean Deveney, seems unlikely to emerge as the highest bidder.

    The Heat have one of the easiest remaining schedules, but most other trends are working against them. They have a bottom-third defense since the start of December, and their point differential paints them as worse than their record. The deadline could be a lose-lose scenario, too, since the lack of reinforcements might be deflating but major change could be disruptive.

East No. 3: Philadelphia 76ers

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    The 76ers entered this season with one of the most talented rosters in the conference. Three months of so-so play hasn't changed that, even if we're confused as ever about the ultimate ceiling for the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons duo.

    Talent alone only gets you so far, as the Sixers themselves can attest. On paper, they have no reason to be stuck in the East's sixth spot. They might be starved for shooting, but their isolation offense and suffocating defensive length should be enough to get by.

    This won't read as rocket science (because it isn't), but talent still matters—a ton. And Philly has so much of it that this squad stands as the likeliest to embark on a furious stretch run.

    The Sixers have an obvious take-off point: fixing their 20th-ranked offense, which was eighth just last season. This starts and stops with shooting. Getting Josh Richardson and Al Horford up to their career conversion rates would help, then a supplemental move for a sniping specialist—arguably the easiest player type to integrate—could be the final boost.

    Give this group a functional offense and its ceiling will skyrocket.

East No. 2: Toronto Raptors

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    Never count out the Raptors.

    The offseason losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green could have sunk this ship. It steamed out to a 15-4 start instead. The in-season losses of...well, basically everyone—Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have all missed at least 10 games—could have knocked this group back, but it has won twice as many games as it has lost and played even better than that.

    What can stop Toronto now? As shrewd as president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri is, talks of a fire sale have all but silenced, and ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports the Raptors are actually looking to upgrade the roster. They've played one of the trickier schedules to date, but it'll soften up ahead.

    This is the Association's second-best defense, and the offense is a stone's throw from the top 10, a gap easily covered by relief from the injury bug. They have experience, championship pedigree and coaching creativity all on their side, and their ability to plug in young players whenever needed foreshadows a smooth transition for any deadline additions.

    Toronto, in other words, is not only here to stay, but it's also poised to climb the ladder.

East No. 1: Milwaukee Bucks

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    If the Bucks have a rival, it won't come from within their conference.

    Their gargantuan plus-12.0 net rating doubles that of their closest conference peer (Celtics, plus-6.0). The gap between them and second place in the standings (eight games) is wider than what separates the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers from the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets out West (7.5).

    "I feel like they've taken this dominative approach where they're just coming in and smashing teams," Kyrie Irving said, per ESPN's Malika Andrews.

    Some teams in this position might ease up on the pedal down the stretch. That's not Giannis Antetokounmpo's style. He's as fiery a competitor as you'll find, and he'll keep his club running through the tape and into its second first-place finish in as many years.

West No. 8: San Antonio Spurs

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    The Spurs don't make any sense.

    They play 1990s offense (more mid-range shots than anyone, second-fewest threes) but nothing resembling hard-nosed '90s defense (23rd in efficiency). In 2020 alone, they have double-digit wins over the Bucks and Celtics, plus losses to the Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks.

    The roster is just as confusing.

    They're almost halfway split between a youth movement and a team looking to win now. Their return for the Kawhi Leonard trade looks entirely uninspiring, and yet, the chief member of it is their leader in points, assists and minutes (DeMar DeRozan). They could be buyers or sellers, and it's unclear what they'd chase in either pursuit.

    This spot feels like it should go to someone else. The red-hot Grizzlies would be a fascinating addition to the playoff field. The New Orleans Pelicans are picking up steam ahead of Zion Williamson's return. The Portland Trail Blazers have Damian Lillard and the ammunition to make more win-now moves. The Minnesota Timberwolves have Karl-Anthony Towns and an All-Star point guard in their sights.

    But the Grizzlies and Pelicans lack experience. The Blazers haven't had a rhythm all season. The Wolves have no obvious ways to get a D'Angelo Russell deal done. Somehow, someway, the Spurs seem like they'll figure out how to secure an absurd 23rd consecutive trip to the postseason.

West No. 7: Oklahoma City Thunder

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    From a macro view, the Thunder are still transitioning from one chapter to the next. The star-studded days of yesteryear are gone, but OKC hasn't yet handed the castle's keys over to the youngsters.

    Head coach Billy Donovan has improbably struck a balance that allows his inexperienced players to find their footing while the veterans—presumed placeholders before the season started—help steer the West's most surprising playoff ship.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is blooming before our eyes. Danilo Gallinari remains one of the best scorers no one ever talks about. And Chris Paul is piloting things as only a Point God can, as ESPN's Royce Young explained:

    "He has been sensational for the Thunder in a variety of ways beyond the ridiculous clutch play and general shepherding of the team. Paul is effectively an extra assistant coach, and is said to be invested and connected with his teammates and the coaching staff. He has embraced a mentorship role and played the part of good citizen."

    OKC can't be blinded by its play. Short-term buying makes no sense at this stage of the post-Russell Westbrook rebuild, and selective selling—looking at you, Gallo—helps fatten the asset collection. But the Thunder will stop short of self-destructing, and they have enough of a cushion built up to withstand a subtraction or two.

West No. 6: Denver Nuggets

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    Breathing room doesn't exist in the middle of a traffic jam. The Nuggets might be clinging to the West's third seed for now, but a fall need not be steep to qualify as calamitous when things are this tight.

    That's the worry with Denver point guard Jamal Murray—second-best in points, assists and threes—sitting out for the "foreseeable future" with an ankle injury. It's a concern for a club facing the third-toughest remaining schedule. Oh, and let's note that the numbers already thought the Nuggets were playing over their heads.

    It's not all doom and gloom for Denver, of course.

    Even after a slow start, super-skilled center Nikola Jokic has played his way into MVP consideration. This offense is lethal around him (fourth in efficiency since the start of December), and this defense has at least one stopper for most matchups.

    But look at the standings. A really good team is going to end up in the sixth spot. Given the minuscule margin for error, Murray's absence, the rise in competition and the absence of a second star all feel damaging enough to trap Denver at No. 6.

West No. 5: Houston Rockets

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    No matter the opponent, the Rockets will always have a (bearded) puncher's chance. Their offense can bury opponents under a barrage of threes and freebies, and if James Harden gets rolling, it's hard to even put a realistic cap on his production.

    "I'm pretty sure if he put his mind to it, he could score 100," DeMar DeRozan said to the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald.

    Russell Westbrook's takeover ability is somewhat similar, though on a much smaller scale. Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker can all look like game-changers on the right night, too. But Houston still gets a little too Beard-or-bust at times, and if Harden is anything other than awesome, it can't always pick up the slack elsewhere.

    This group has finished fourth or better in the West each of the last three seasons. This time around, it will suffer a small step back due to the adjustment period with Westbrook, the nearly two months it played without Gordon and the ongoing defensive issues along the perimeter that won't be easily solved at the deadline.

West No. 4: Dallas Mavericks

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    You never want to ask for too much, too soon from a young player, but Luka Doncic is the exception. He hasn't even celebrated his 21st birthday yet, and he's already appearing on the short list of elites.

    His 30.1 player efficiency rating leads everyone not named Antetokounmpo or Harden. He trails only those two, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis in win shares. Doncic is this season's third-best scorer and distributor, and he's top-20 on the glass.

    "He's a great young talent," LeBron James said in November, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "I love his game, his ability to not only create shots for himself, but you guys know I love the fact that he can get great looks for his teammates. ... He just plays the game the right way."

    The Mavs are asking a ton of Doncic, but he's delivering. There's no reason to think that will change.

    Dallas could make a major move at the deadline (size, spacing, shot-creating and perimeter defense could all be targeted), but it might opt to play this out and determine exactly where Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Co. land on the Western Conference hierarchy.

    As you can guess, we think they'll be pleased with the answer.

West No. 3: Utah Jazz

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    Last season's Jazz weren't even a .500 team before the calendar flipped, and they still emerged as a No. 5 seed with the league's No. 2 defense. This year's version didn't take nearly as long to find its footing, and it has the chance to grow into something much greater.

    Donovan Mitchell has never looked better as a scorer, shooter and table-setter. Rudy Gobert is as ferocious as ever on the defensive interior, and he's never left a bigger imprint on the glass. Bojan Bogdanovic has been everything the Jazz wanted and more; who had him down for 21.3 points and 3.0 triples per game? He's the No. 2 option so many expected Mike Conley to be.

    Speaking of Conley, the newcomer seemed like a fish out of water before a nagging hamstring injury cost him more than a month. But the possibilities surrounding his re-acclimation only raise the ceiling higher. He was a per-game supplier of 21.1 points and 6.4 assists just last season; he could easily provide a bigger lift than anyone who changes jerseys at the deadline will.

    In 2020 alone, the Jazz are 8-1 with a gargantuan plus-11.7 net rating. Push the starting point back to Dec. 11 and they're 16-2 with a plus-10.4 net rating. A generous schedule explains some of that success, but this looks more like an elite team forming its identity.

    As Conley grows more ingrained in it, the good times will keep rolling in Salt Lake City.

West No. 2: Los Angeles Clippers

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    Have the Clippers flexed their championship muscle yet? Sure, they've had championship moments—two wins over a certain other Staples Center resident come to mind. But doesn't it seem like we've yet to see their best?

    They're fifth on offense and sixth on defense, which would be a badge of honor for most teams but feels a tad "blah" for this roster. Maybe it's just a matter of getting healthy and pushing past the point of load management, but some see this group is an imperfect fit around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

    "They need another playmaker," a Western Conference executive told B/R's Eric Pincus. "Patrick Beverley isn't a point guard. ... They need more size, and they're not getting a lot out of their bench outside of Lou [Williams] and [Montrezl Harrell]. They may be able to beat the Lakers in a series, but will they get that far?"

    Maybe we're glass-full optimists, but we have a hard time finding flaws with this roster.

    At the very least, it's built to dominate in the regular season. Leonard and George can take over games on a nightly basis, and when one or both are unavailable, Williams and Harrell can carry the scoring load. They'll win an incredible amount of games down the stretch, and that's without even knowing if they'll land an impact piece at the deadline.

West No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Lakers either sit atop the NBA ladder with the Bucks or have the 1B rung all to themselves. The LeBron James-Anthony Davis connection is just as ridiculous as we all thought it would be, and when the King has carried the torch alone, he's shown the crown fits him better than anyone else.

    "This is the best LeBron James has been in the regular season since Miami," DAZN's Micah Adams wrote. "A top 3 player of all-time is playing as well as he has at any point of his career and sprinting away with the West."

    The Lakers have yet to conquer the Clippers, yet they're running away with the Battle for Hollywood. The Purple and Gold possess the West's only winning percentage north of .700 (.810) and have nearly a 1.5-point cushion on the conference field in net rating (plus-8.4, next is Dallas' plus-7.0).

    Oh, reinforcements might be coming, too, either internally, externally or both.

    They haven't seen the best of Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green's shooting rates are down considerably from last season, and they're sorting out their other sniping specialists. They could help themselves at the deadline (playmaking, perimeter defense and shooting are all on the wish list), and they might still nab a free agent (Darren Collison) or buyout recipient.

    L.A. is great and poised to get greater. It's not relinquishing control of the conference.

                         

    All stats, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference and accurate through games played Jan. 19.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.