Now that the NBA trade deadline has passed and the buyout market is shaking out, it’s worth taking a deeper look at the playoff picture. How many close races do we have at this point, and do those races matter in the grand scheme?
As it turns out, not much of import is at stake.
The Cavaliers and Warriors have solid cushions in the race for home court advantage and Golden State will certainly have the advantage if they make the NBA Finals. Each conference also has seven teams reasonably assured a playoff spot at this point. It’s more certain in the West than in the East, where the cushion is thin enough to avoid grand proclamations. But the sheer number of spots truly ups for grabs is quite narrow.
That doesn’t mean we will lack drama, though. Here’s a look at the races to watch as the playoffs approach.
The race for No. 3
Technically the Nos. 1 and 2 spots are really up for grabs. The Celtics are three games behind the Cavaliers for No. 1, and the Wizards and Raptors are each three games behind Boston for No. 2. But the race for No. 3 is more interesting.
Why is No. 3 so important? It means avoiding Cleveland until the conference finals. No offense to Boston, but the C’s haven’t won a playoff series in the post-Garnett era. Cleveland is the defending champion. You’d much rather face Boston in the second round than the Cavaliers.
Washington is one game ahead of Toronto in the loss column, but the Raptors upgraded heavily at the deadline. Toronto is up 1-0 in head-to-head games with two more games coming (Wednesday in Canada, Friday in D.C.). Those games will decide the tiebreaker. Even more immediately, if one team sweeps the home-and-home, they’ll get a jump in the standings.
The Hawks are also technically in this race, just 2.5 games back. But the Raptors and Wizards are far more likely to be there in the end.
The race for No. 8
The top five in the East — Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto, and Atlanta — are getting into the playoffs. The Bulls and Pacers, tied at 30-29 on the season, are likely to make it too on account of 3-game cushions on the No. 9 team (the Heat!). They could still fall into danger and we’ll reassess if that happens.
Barring that, the last playoff spot in the East looks like it will come down to the Pistons, Heat, or Bucks. Detroit is ahead of Miami by one game. Milwaukee is also a game back, though tied with the Pistons in the loss column. The Hornets are two further games back — they are still in it, but have some work to do. The Knicks, Sixers, and Magic are pretty much out of it at this point.
Miami, of course, has been surging, winning 16 of its last 18. If the Heat keep that up, they’ll run away with the playoff spot (and probably pass Chicago and Indiana, too). Miami is 1-2 against Detroit this season with the final match-up scheduled for March 28. The Heat have already clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker with Milwaukee. The Bucks are currently up 2-1 on Detroit with the last battle scheduled for March 31.
The races for Nos. 4 and 6
The No. 4 seed in the Western Conference is a bitter fruit. Sure, you get home court advantage in the first round ... but then you get the Warriors in Round 2. It’s not like the Spurs or Rockets would be a cakewalk, but Golden State might legitimately be the most overpowering team in league history. That’s the pill you have to swallow to earn home court in the first round and that extra arena gate.
The Jazz are in that spot right now, but just one game ahead of the Clippers in the loss column. The Grizzlies and Thunder are three games behind Utah in the loss column. Odds are that Utah and L.A. will win Nos. 4 and 5 and Memphis and Oklahoma City will split Nos. 6 and 7. You’d rather win No. 4 than No. 5 and No. 6 than No. 7, but No. 6 might be more attractive than No. 4.
The Clippers are 2-0 against the Jazz with games remaining on March 13 and March 25. The Thunder have taken two of three from the Grizzlies with the last game set for April 5 in Memphis. This jam could get really weird if the Jazz or Clips struggle or the Thunder or Grizz ramp up.
The race for No. 8
The New Orleans Pelicans were supposed to be marching to this final playoff spot after grabbing DeMarcus Cousins. They have gone 0-3 since adding Boogie. But the good news is that the Pels’ chief rivals for No. 8 haven’t exactly been gangbusters since the All-Star break either.
As it stands, the Nuggets are in the No. 8 spot at 28-33. The Kings and Blazers are each a game back in the loss column. The Mavericks are two games back, the Timberwolves are three games back and the Pelicans are (yikes) four games back in the loss column. Those three straight losses really sting.
These teams have a good number of intramural games between themselves. Dallas and Sacramento are expected to drop out of the race — the Mavs waived Deron Williams and traded Andrew Bogut, the Kings are giving young players some run — but stranger things have happened. Minnesota has been better than their record all season and could go on a tear if the youngsters click into Tom Thibodeau’s defense. Denver’s defense remains awful, but all things are possible through Nikola Jokic.
New Orleans has its work cut out for itself. That makes for the wildest race left in the NBA six weeks out from the playoffs. You thought the No. 8 seed in the West was depressing? No way.