NBA Playoff Picture: Hornets, Wizards, Kings fans can start watching college ball


It's early, but we can already pencil in three teams for the NBA Draft Lottery in May. But two others you might be ruling out for the playoffs are actually alive.

It's only the first week of December, but I'm pretty sure three NBA teams have already ruled themselves out of playoff contention. Injuries, failure to progress and, well, more injuries have kept five teams at four wins or fewer a month and change in, and it'll take miracles to get three of them back into the chase. In some cases, it'll take more than miracles.

Over the past five seasons, the average winning percentage for the No. 8 seed in the East has been .482, or the equivalent of 39-43. The worst East No. 8 went 37-45 -- that actually happened twice in the past five seasons. In the West, the standard for a No. 8 seed has been higher: the average winning percentage since 2007-08 is .582, and the worst No. 8 seed went .545. Over an 82-game season, that's the equivalent of 45-37.

Something tells me the following three teams have little to no chance of matching those worst No. 8 seeds' levels. First, the two out West that are both basically dead in the water for very different reasons.


The Hornets came into the season with three players that you'd call above-average. (You might even call a couple of them very good.) The Hornets have played 15 games. One of those above-average players (Ryan Anderson) has played all of them. Another, rookie Anthony Davis, has gotten in six games. The third, Eric Gordon, hasn't suited up yet. So clearly, a big part of the Hornets' story to date is injury. Gordon might be out a while longer -- there's really no telling with him, given the odd dynamic between the guard and the franchise. Davis is expected to miss another week with a stress reaction in his ankle.

Even with one or both back, the hole is deep. We noted how good No. 8 seeds in the West have been in recent years, and that's not going to change this season. You'll need to be a couple games over .500 to make the postseason out West, and at 4-11, the climb for New Orleans is just going to be too steep. To even hit .500, the Hornets need to go 37-30 the rest of the way. To hit that 45-37 marker -- the low mark for West No. 8s in the last five years -- the Hornets would need to go 41-26, or .612. That doesn't look remotely possible.

It is worth noting that the Hornets have played the league's No. 3 most difficult schedule so far. But due to New Orleans being in the West -- and particularly the Southwest -- that's not actually going to improve a whole lot this season. In fact, chances are that when all is said and done the Hornets will have played the league's most difficult schedule since they can't, you know, play themselves and reside in the division with both the Spurs and Grizzlies.


The Hornets can blame injuries for being out of the race so early. The Kings can only blame themselves. Players have missed only three games due to injury or personal reasons -- and four due to suspension. Tyreke Evans, who has been Sacramento's best player, missed a weekend back-to-back, and Isaiah Thomas (who barely plays these days) missed a game due to a death in the family, but that's it.

It's been a mess of uneven, often uninspired play that's gotten the Kings to 4-12. Sacramento's had 10 of its 16 games at home ... and went just 4-6 there. On the road, the Kings are 0-6. DeMarcus Cousins has regressed, scoring less than last season and shooting pretty poorly. Evans has been better than in the last two years, but the point guard play of the team (Thomas, Aaron Brooks, Jimmer Fredette) has lacked anything typically associated with point guards. Meanwhile, it turns out James Johnson was not the salvation at small forward -- he's been benched for John Salmons, who failed miserably in the role last season.

The Kings can get stronger as the season rolls on. At the very least, you expect Cousins to get on track. He's in the best shape of his career, and has all three of his frontcourt mates playing decently. But as is the case with New Orleans, the hole right now is so magnificently deep that crawling out is just not happening. This is a lottery team once again.

Now, the totally shocking team in the East that looks like toast ...


By trading for Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, the Wizards were making a push for the postseason. Welp. This 1-13 start has ended that dream for this season.

The East has been soft in the No. 7-11 range in recent years, but not this soft. To reach .500, the Wizards would need to go 40-28, or .588. That .482 mark -- the average for recent East No. 8 seeds -- would require finishing 38-30. Even with John Wall back, and assuming Bradley Beal turns a corner, and that Nene plays better as he gets his legs back ... for this team? Just not happening. Teams that win only one of 14 don't turn around and win 38 of 68. Not without some mammoth, crazy trade. Or two.

Now you may be thinking, "Whoa, bold position! The Hornets, Kings and Wizards aren't going to make the playoffs?! What a hot sports take!" So maybe the argument to make is that I don't think the other four-win teams -- the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors -- are out of it yet.

Both teams are 4-13. That's quite bad -- worse than either the Kings or Hornets. But that soft East middle helps here. To hit the average No. 8 seed level (.482), the Cavs and Raptors need to go 35-30. That's obviously a lot better than 4-13, but ... not unbelievable. Bolstering this is that the Cavs have played the No. 11 schedule thus far and have played 11 of their 17 games on the road, going 2-9. Cleveland should finish the season with a strength of schedule around No. 20-23, and of course will even up that home-road split. Toronto has played 10 on the road, seven at home. The Raptors' strength of schedule shouldn't change too much from here on out.

But Toronto has lost an inordinate number of close games. Research says close games are typically coin tosses. Point differential indicates that the Raptors have played well enough to be a 6-11 team. Sometimes, point differential doesn't catch up with a team's actual win-loss record over the course of the season. Sometimes, it does. If it does, Toronto will begin looking better than it has, and the small distance between it and the bottom of the East playoff bracket will shrink. (Were Toronto actually 6-11, it'd be only three games behind the No. 8 seed.)

Cleveland's expected win-loss record is also 6-11, thanks to some tight losses. In addition, the Cavaliers had 14 more games against fellow Central teams ... and the Central looks like basketball's second worst division this season, behind the Southeast. (I'm withholding judgment on the Pacific.) There's a decent chance that Toronto and Cleveland could keep some hope alive if things improve soon. We'll know more in a few more weeks as the teams get more home games in.

But for the Hornets, Kings and Wizards? Sorry, y'all. Start watching college ball.


The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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