NBA Playoffs Tracker: 6 East teams bunch up below Heat

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We've hit the midpoint of the NBA season, so it's time to start paying attention to playoff seeding. On Monday we look at the East, where teams are bunching up below the Heat.

The Heat became the last team to hit the midpoint of the 2012-13 season on Sunday. With 40 or fewer games to go for everyone else, it's time to start taking a closer look at playoff seeds. Who will get home court advantage? Who will fight for the last spots in the postseason? How much cushion do the Celtics have in that No. 8 spot with Rajon Rondo out of the season?

Let's start with a graph.

Playoffseast_mid2013_medium

This graph shows the team's cumulative winning percentage over the course of the season. (Too. Many. Red. Teams. Sorry, Atlanta.) Looking at the far right of the graph will give you our current seeding, with the Heat on top. What's notable is how close the top seven teams are. In the standings, only 5.5 games separate the No. 1 Heat and the No. 7 Bucks. Looking at the chart, it's pretty clear that there will be some ebb and flow within that group -- I'm not saying the Hawks or Bucks will catch the Heat, of course, but the six teams below Miami are all pretty much interchangeable in terms of performance.

Just two games separate the No. 2 (New York) and the two teams tied for No. 4 and No. 5 (Brooklyn and Indiana). That's the difference between home court advantage throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs and going on the road in the first round. But frankly, the seeding may only matter in a) avoiding the Heat for as long as possible and b) getting home court. As we said above, the teams are otherwise fairly interchangeable in terms of results.

That could change. Notice where the Bulls sit: in the No. 3 spot, a half-game ahead of Brooklyn and Indiana. The Bulls and Pacers have been getting better as the season goes on. Those lines are rising over time. Chicago will soon get back Derrick Rose, the best point guard in the NBA. He could be a huge factor in launching the Bulls' offense into the top half of the league, which could be a huge factor in boosting Chicago above the pack in the East. The Bulls could conceivably eclipse the Heat for the No. 1 seed before the season is out.

The Pacers have a similar situation: the team has gotten much better as the season has moved along, and Danny Granger's return lurks in the future. Rose is much better and more important to his team than Granger, but the impact could be similar in shape if not scope. In other words, while Chicago could challenge at the very top, Indiana could make its case for the No. 3 seed and push down New York.

Of course, last season the top of the East was Chicago-Miami-Indiana. None of the three teams changed all that much, so until you account for all of the injuries you'd expect the frame to look the same. That it still could despite the injuries is pretty amazing.

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After that, the Bucks are beginning to look more like one of these competitive teams in the East and less like a squad simply competing for a playoff spot. That last seed is held by Boston, who holds a 2.5-game lead over Philadelphia. Injury-wise, those teams are going opposite directions: we're still trying to ascertain what the C's will do without Rondo, and the Sixers should have Andrew Bynum back before long. But as always: bury the Celtics at your own risk.

Do the Raptors and Pistons belong in the conversation? In my opinion, only if the Celtics sell everything and Bynum has a hang-up. The Raptors' move up the standings might have stalled; Toronto made a huge climb six weeks ago, but has been average over the past three weeks. The Pistons are still improving in performance, but at a slow enough pace that Boston looks a long way off. It'll take a really strong second half run for either team to truly enter the mix. For now they are on "half-assedly monitor" status.

On Tuesday we'll take a look at the much messier West.

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