Final Seeding Predictions for 2020 NBA Playoffs
It's reboot week in the NBA, and the teams in the Orlando bubble are ready to jockey for playoff seeding between now and the start of the postseason Aug. 17.
With only eight games for each of the 22 remaining squads, it'll be tough to accomplish significant movement in the standings, but several seeding races are close enough to still be in question.
Which of the 16 teams will still be standing when the playoffs tip off? And where will those teams fall in the standings?
In the context of the thoroughly unpredictable 2020 sports calendar, let's make a few predictions.
8-5 in the East
8. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have a shell of the roster they assembled last summer. Kevin Durant was never expected to play in 2019-20, but they'll also be without much of the rest of the team in Orlando.
That leaves a group headlined by Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Garrett Temple and Rodions Kurucs.
If the Washington Wizards, who are currently six games back of Brooklyn, were bringing Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans to the action (they're not), getting within four games and forcing a play-in would almost feel like a safe bet.
With both rosters thoroughly depleted, the Nets should be able to hang onto eighth.
7. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic enter the bubble in relatively decent shape. Jonathan Isaac might even be ready to go by the time the playoffs start.
But they're currently nine games behind the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. Given Brooklyn's roster, that means Orlando is pretty much locked into seventh place.
6. Indiana Pacers
With All-Star big Domantas Sabonis out with a foot injury and Victor Oladipo's status for the restart still up in the air, it's tough to imagine the Pacers, currently tied with Philly, making a push for home-court advantage.
5. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat seemingly drew the short straw and have the most difficult remaining schedule in the league. Two of their last three games are against the Pacers, though. And if Sabonis and Oladipo are both out, those will be opportunities to solidify fifth place.
Of course, they're in fourth now. So, why the drop? Philly is on the other end of that strength-of-schedule spectrum. The New Orleans Pelicans are the only team with an easier remaining slate than that of the Sixers, who could conceivably start 6-0 in the seeding games.
4-1 in the East
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia's first six games in the run-up to the playoffs are against the Pacers (without Sabonis), San Antonio Spurs (without LaMarcus Aldridge), Wizards (without Beal and Bertans), Magic, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns.
For a roster with as much top-end talent as this one, the Sixers should be able to make some hay through that portion of the schedule.
No longer playing Joel Embiid and Al Horford together should help too.
"Brett Brown says that Joel Embiid and Al Horford have not played together at all in practice thus far," ESPN's Tim Bontemps tweeted. "He says Horford has been 'great' in accepting what likely will be a significantly lesser role in the new arrangement Philadelphia is operating under."
3. Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics have the third-easiest remaining schedule of the bubble teams. The Toronto Raptors, currently in second place, have the second-hardest. The temptation to bump Boston up to that No. 2 spot is strong.
But making up a three-game gap with only eight to play is a big ask. And though the Celtics have a relatively clean injury report, one or two off nights would probably doom the chase for second place.
2. Toronto Raptors
After being decimated by injuries during the pre-hiatus portion of the season, the Raptors enter the bubble with their entire roster intact and ready to go.
Despite being largely written off as a title contender when Kawhi Leonard left, that means the Raptors have a real chance to defend their 2019 crown.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
No one's catching the Milwaukee Bucks, who are 6.5 games ahead of the Raptors and working on the seventh-best simple rating system (point differential plus strength of schedule) in NBA history.
8-5 in the West
8. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans are currently 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, but they only have to be within four to force a play-in game.
Predicting the outcome of a single game that's already hypothetical with any degree of certainty is impossible, but the Pelicans are already heavy favorites by FiveThirtyEight's projection system for the Aug. 3 game between the two teams.
It's not hard to see why. New Orleans' roster is loaded with veteran talent. Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick are all battle-tested. And their youngsters offer plenty as well. Brandon Ingram was an All-Star this season, and the team plays like a playoff lock when Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson share the floor.
When they're in, the Pelicans are an eye-popping plus-15.7 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile). And the individual numbers of both within those lineups are impressive:
- Zion: 27.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals per 75 possessions, 61.5 true shooting percentage
- Lonzo: 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.9 steals per 75 possessions, 41.9 three-point percentage, 59.1 true shooting percentage
As good as the Grizzlies have been this season, the safer bet in a play-in game (assuming there is one) is the Pelicans.
As for the other teams in the hunt for eighth, a surge from Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers wouldn't be shocking, but they and the other teams feel like much longer shots.
The same projection system at FiveThirtyEight gives the Blazers an 11 percent chance to get in, the Sacramento Kings a 9 percent shot and both the Spurs and Phoenix Suns a worse than 1 percent shot.
7. Dallas Mavericks
Predicting the order of the rest of the West seems like a fool's errand. The second-place Los Angeles Clippers only have four more wins than the seventh-place Dallas Mavericks. Throwing the names of the six teams in that clump in a hat and pulling them out might be as effective a prognostication as any.
There are some clues as to where these teams might wind up, though.
For the Mavs, being three back of sixth place in the loss column and only having three games against teams ahead of them suggests they'll stay put in seventh.
6. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are currently in fourth place, but they only have a one-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. And those teams aren't entering the reboot without their second-leading scorers.
That's what faces Utah, which lost Bojan Bogdanovic to a season-ending wrist surgery during the hiatus.
Bogdanovic averaged 20.2 points and posted a 60.3 true shooting percentage this season. When he was on the floor, Utah was plus-6.3 points per 100 possessions. It was minus-3.5 when he was off, giving him a net rating swing that ranked in the 93rd percentile.
With the standings as tight as they are in the West, that's a massive loss.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Houston has a slightly more difficult remaining schedule than OKC, but consider this a bet on the Rockets' ceiling with James Harden looking fit and Russell Westbrook essentially playing point center. More on that later, though.
The Thunder were perhaps this season's biggest surprise. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder both blew expectations away. Veterans Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari showed they have plenty left in the tank. And Steven Adams remained the steady presence he's been for years.
Consider them staying in fifth place a nod to all of the above, rather than a prediction this Cinderella run is over.
4-1 in the West
4. Houston Rockets
Houston's micro-ball approach may have been on the verge of exposure right before the league shut down in March.
After a four-game losing streak that included games against the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets, it was fair to wonder about the efficacy of playing without a traditional center.
Early returns on what that philosophy does for Westbrook are overwhelmingly positive, though.
When playing without a 5 on the floor, Westbrook is putting up 28.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per 75 possessions with a 59.2 true shooting percentage that is over six points higher than his career mark.
If that trend continues in the bubble, Houston will have one of the game's most lethal one-two combinations. That should be enough to help them edge out the Jazz, Thunder and Mavericks.
3. Denver Nuggets
If the scrimmages are any indication (they may not be), the Denver Nuggets are ready to get weird in Orlando.
This won't continue when Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton are available, but the Nuggets started Nikola Jokic (7'0"), Jerami Grant (6'8"), Bol Bol (7'2"), Paul Millsap (6'7") and Mason Plumlee (6'11") against the Wizards last week.
Even if it was a one-off, that lineup demonstrated the versatility of this team, particularly its All-NBA center. Jokic was the point guard for that group, which is exactly what he has functionally been for years.
Grant, Bol and Millsap were the floor-spacers around him, and when Jokic has legit shooting to pass to, Denver is dangerous.
When Jokic shares the floor with Barton and Murray, the Nuggets' top two in threes made, the team is plus-10.0 points per 100 possessions (95th percentile).
Westbrook may be the new point center garnering attention now, but Jokic has been on that corner for a while. And after flirting with a Western Conference Finals appearance last year, he may be anxious for a deeper run.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
With an easier remaining schedule and a roster built for the kind of high-leverage possessions that are sure to be common in the seeding games, the Los Angeles Clippers should be able to hold off the Nuggets.
The context of those seeding games could certainly change, though. The Clippers don't really have cause to fear anyone in the league, but if the 3-6 matchup suddenly becomes more enticing than the 2-7, then a few load management games for Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or both wouldn't be surprising.
Assuming the stars play every game and get relatively normal minutes, L.A. probably won't move.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
This one doesn't deserve much more explanation than the Bucks.
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers would have to implode to give up the top seed in the West. They're 5.5 games up with eight to play.
Though they have one of the more difficult remaining schedules in the bubble, every team there is going to have to play against plenty of above-.500 squads. That's what happens when you dismiss the eight worst teams early.
The Lakers are going to get a few wins, and that's all they'll need.