In or Out? Predicting Postseason Fates for Fringe NBA Playoff Teams
The NBA playoffs are the league's great separator. Even teams that get swept in the opening round or fail to advance past the first play-in game know quick exits are better than failing to gain entry in the first place.
Playing beyond the 82nd game (or 72nd this season) is a victory in itself, confirmation that the completed campaign meant something.
Tanking teams are the exception; they're taking a different tack, hoping to imbue a season with meaning by framing it as a pathway to a brighter future. We're not worried about those squads. The ones we'll focus on here want to keep fighting after the regular season concludes.
For our purposes, "fringe" playoff teams are the ones within three games (whether ahead or behind) of the 10th spot in each conference.
Position in the standings will be the jumping-off point for each in-or-out determination, but strength of schedule, performance over the past two weeks and injury outlook will weigh heavily in our forecasts. An "in" prediction means the team will finish inside the conference's top 10, thereby earning at least a play-in berth. An "out" prediction means the team will be watching the postseason from home.
Standings Position: 10th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 9th
Last Two Weeks: 3-5, Minus-1.4 net rating
No on-the-bubble team made a more obvious effort to reach this year's playoffs than the Chicago Bulls, which packaged a pair of future first-round picks for Nikola Vucevic. That's not a move you make with the long view in mind.
The Bulls should be pleased that their new starting five—Zach LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young and Patrick Williams alongside Vooch—has solidly outscored the opposition. Unfortunately, Chicago's other player groupings have given back that advantage, and then some.
With just one of their past 10 games coming at home, the Bulls' lackluster recent performance has to include an asterisk. Then again, Chicago has a higher winning percentage on the road than at home (both are under .500), so.../shrug emoji.
The Bulls are three games back in the loss column from the increasingly healthy ninth-seeded Indiana Pacers, which makes a move up the standings unlikely. And at the risk of spoiling things, there's a certain 2019 champ lurking beneath Chicago that I think will make a better run down the stretch.
Standings Position: 9th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 20th
Last Two Weeks: 4-4, Minus-2.3 net rating
Slowly but surely, the Indiana Pacers are getting healthier. That bodes well for their efforts to hold onto their current position. And really, considering Indy is closer to the East's No. 5 seed than the No. 10 spot, the best bet is probably on it avoiding the four-team play-in scenario altogether.
Malcolm Brogdon (groin) and Domantas Sabonis (ankle) are both back in action, and Caris LeVert hasn't missed a game since debuting with the Pacers on March 12. All that's left is for Myles Turner to make it back from his ankle injury and the Pacers will be in good shape to capitalize on a soft schedule over the season's final month.
Shore up a couple of season-long weaknesses, namely opponent offensive rebound rate and a struggle to generate trips to the foul line, and Indiana will be just fine.
Standings Position: 11th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 4th
Last Two Weeks: 3-5, Plus-3.3 net rating
Fred VanVleet has missed five straight games with a hip injury and he'll have to sit one more due to a suspension once he's healthy enough to return. Kyle Lowry made it back in a loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday after missing five games due to a foot infection, but the Toronto Raptors have also rested both OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam over the past week.
Point being: Toronto must undertake a difficult climb, one made all the more taxing by a brutal schedule, without any assurance it'll consistently have all hands on deck.
The Raptors have the best overall point differential among their fringe peers in the East—both overall and in the past two weeks—and they also possess the most on-paper talent when healthy. Throw in championship experience, and...well, you already know I can't give up on the Raptors.
Check back in a week, but as long as the possibility of Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam sharing the floor for the stretch run is still in play, these guys are just too battle-tested and proud to rule out.
Standings Position: 12th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 27th
Last Two Weeks: 3-5, Minus-5.7 net rating
You hate to bet against the team with the best individual player among fringe competitors in the East, and the Washington Wizards' soft schedule makes ruling them out even riskier. But we can't just overlook the Wizards' offensive struggles of late.
The Wizards are 28th in scoring efficiency over their past eight games. Bradley Beal has only played in two of them (both wins), which is only encouraging if you presume he'll suddenly get back to full health. It seems more likely the hip and back issues that have recently limited his availability will linger, in which case Washington has even less of a chance than the numbers suggest. Remember, one of the Wizards' recent wins came when Beal converted a game-winning four-point play.
The Wizards can't count on heroics like that every night, especially if the hero in question is at less than full strength or not on the court at all.
Golden State Warriors
Standings Position: 10th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 23rd
Last Two Weeks: 3-4, Minus-4.7 net rating
It's not good news that from a here-and-now standpoint, James Wiseman's torn meniscus ups the Golden State Warriors' chances to at least hang onto their play-in spot.
In the rookie center's 836 minutes of court time, the Dubs posted a minus-8.8 net rating—by far the worst individual figure of any Warriors player with at least 300 minutes of action on the year. One-man net ratings are noisy, thanks to the four other teammates on the floor, but even a cursory viewing of Wiseman this season revealed his lack of experience and feel on both ends.
Some perspective/incredibly damning evidence: When remarkably unspectacular center Kevon Looney plays with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Golden State owns a plus-17.4 net rating. Swap Wiseman in there, and the number plummets to minus-7.3.
It shouldn't come a a shock that a 20-year-old with three games of college experience is not yet a helpful player. And now, Golden State will give its minutes at the 5 to Looney, Green and Juan Toscano-Anderson. The results will be better across the board—likely for the rest of the season.
When Zion Wiliamson tore his meniscus in October of 2019, injury expert Jeff Stotts noted the short end of the recovery timeline (which comes with removal of the meniscus, not repair) is six to eight weeks. You'd have to think Wiseman is done for 2020-21.
The Warriors are the only team competing for one of the last playoff spots that has a two-time MVP. They'll get a boost now that Curry should be ready for more action.
Head coach Steve Kerr recently loosened what had been rigid playing-time restrictions on Curry, allowing him to return with more than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter of a win over the Milwaukee Bucks, rather than his typical re-insertion somewhere around the six-minute mark.
Golden State is not a powerhouse. This is a mediocre team woefully short on shot-creators and consistent two-way threats. But the Dubs are good enough to play break-even ball the rest of the way, and might be capable of more now that they no longer have to balance Wiseman's development against the desire to win in the short term.
Standings Position: 8th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 22nd
Last Two Weeks: 5-3, Plus-9.9 net rating
The question isn't whether the Memphis Grizzlies will make the playoffs. It's whether they'll stick at No. 8 in the West or give the Dallas Mavericks a run for the seventh spot. Slippage seems unlikely.
The Grizzlies play harder than their opponents most nights, and they own the top-ranked defense (eighth in the league) among the nine teams we're scrutinizing here. Few teams in this grouping are better equipped to handle scoring droughts than Memphis, which makes its No. 2 offense over the past two weeks something of a luxury.
Jonas Valanciunas has been dominant lately, averaging 21.8 points and 13.6 boards on 64.4 percent shooting since March 28. Maybe the old-school, plodding 5 has limited uses in the playoffs, but Valanciunas' performance this year is a key reason the Grizzlies project to get there.
The Grizzlies were a good bet for regression following last year's ahead-of-schedule arrival. Instead, they've improved their winning percentage and point differential from 2019-20 levels. All this without so much as a second from Jaren Jackson Jr.
New Orleans Pelicans
Standings Position: 11th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 12th
Last Two Weeks: 4-4, Minus-6.4 net rating
Zion Williamson has the ball now. Full time. As a point guard.
In a 101-94 win against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 9, Pelicans addressed the absence of Lonzo Ball by leaning all the way into the Point Zion experiment with which they'd been tinkering. Williamson hit a new gear in February when head coach Stan Van Gundy gave him more of an on-ball role, but that win over the Sixers marked a new level of commitment to that approach.
Zion ripped off 37 points, 15 boards and eight assists. Then he hit the Cleveland Cavaliers for 38 points, nine rebounds and four assists on 16-of-22 shooting two nights later.
None of this affects a Pels defense that continues to bleed points. New Orleans ranks 28th in defensive efficiency on the year. They've been better than that of late, but the Pelicans are still a far cry from "good" on D.
The schedule is daunting, and we shouldn't forget how a soft slate and some exciting momentum made it seem like the Pelicans were going to crash the playoff party late last year...only to fall flat.
But it's always a good idea to put the ball in your best player's hands, and if Williamson is as special a talent as he seems, this stretch run could become one of the first key entries in a legendary career. Sure, we're getting caught up in a narrative that hasn't even happened yet. But who doesn't love a good story?
Standings Position: 12th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 13th
Last Two Weeks: 1-6, Minus-9.8 net rating
It looks like the league's longest playoff drought will get a little longer.
The Sacramento Kings have two key factors working against them: They've got the most ground to make up between themselves and the West's No. 10 spot, and lately they've been playing worse than any of the other fringe candidates in either conference.
Defense remains Sacramento's critical flaw. It ranks dead last in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions.
De'Aaron Fox is a highlight machine who's won the West's Player of the Week honor twice this year, but other than his fourth-year leap and Tyrese Haliburton's sterling rookie season, there's really not much to suggest better results are ahead in future seasons.
San Antonio Spurs
Standings Position: 9th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 2nd
Last Two Weeks: 2-6, Minus-6.6 net rating
Struggling on both ends over the past two weeks, the San Antonio Spurs face a densely packed and road-heavy schedule through the end of April.
And then the slate gets really tough.
In May, San Antonio will face just one team, the Kings, that is currently out of playoff/play-in position. You never know what incentives opponents might have late in the year; calculated losses could factor into ideal seeding and stars might rest. But there's really no way to spin what's ahead for the Spurs as easy.
DeMar DeRozan remains a reliable source of points inside the arc, but the Spurs have been dead broke as a team from long range over the past month, resulting in a slip to 22nd in the league in three-point accuracy.
Even if San Antonio were playing well, the outlook would be grim. But the Spurs have been sputtering, and a long line of tough games awaits.