The end of the NBA’s regular season is typically a time for teams to rest their starters and gear up for either the playoffs or draft lottery. The introduction of the play-in tournament this year has changed that a bit, adding more urgency to the closing stretch of the season as most teams still have something to play for.
The teams that place No. 7 and No. 8 in each conference will still have to earn their way into the playoffs for the first time via the play-in tournament against the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds. There’s also increased competition for the No. 6 seed in each conference, which would mean avoiding the play-in tournament. It’s created a scenario where most games still have meaning in the final stretch of the regular season.
With the season coming to a close and the play-in tournament beginning on May 18, we broke the league into six different tiers. Here’s what every team has to play for before the start of the playoffs.
We’re defining teams in this section as anyone currently at least four games out of the play-in tournament. These squads have nothing to play for but ping pong balls, but the lottery will be more meaningful for some of these teams than others. Check out the odds for every lottery slot at Tankathon:
- Houston Rockets: This has been a nightmare season for the Rockets in every way, and the team will have enormous stakes attached to its lottery chances at the end of the season. Houston’s 2021 first round pick was sent to Oklahoma City as part of the Russell Westbrook trade, but it’s protected 1-4. The Rockets currently have a 3.5-game cushion for the worst record in the league, and if they end the season that way their pick can’t fall any further than No. 5. Unfortunately for the Rockets, there’s still a 47.9 percent chance the pick lands at No. 5 and therefore conveys to OKC. In that scenario, Houston would Miami’s first round pick.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves are in a similar situation to the Rockets as one of the league’s worst teams with a chance to losing their pick. The Wolves traded their 2021 first rounder to the Warriors as part of the D’Angelo Russell trade, but it’s protected 1-3. If the Wolves finish the season with the league’s second worst record, they will have a 39.7 percent chance of keeping the pick in the protected range, and a 60.3 percent chance of conveying the pick to Golden State.
- Detroit Pistons: The Pistons would love a top pick to pair with their promising three-man rookie class this season. They own their pick.
- Orlando Magic: The Magic own their pick, and should finish in the bottom four. Orlando is also rooting against the Bulls: Chicago sent its first round pick in 2021 (and 2023) to the Magic in the Nikola Vucevic trade, but it’s protected 1-4.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder are tanking as transparently as any team in the league right now by shutting down Al Horford, letting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slowly recover from plantar fasciitis, and resting Lu Dort regularly. The dream scenario for the Thunder is landing at No. 1 in the lottery with their own pick and the Rockets falling to No. 5, which would then be sent to OKC.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs own their own pick. If they finish where they’re at now with the league’s sixth worst record, they will have a 37.2 percent chance of jumping into the top-four.
- Sacramento Kings: The Kings are set to miss the playoffs for the 15th straight season. If they finish with the league’s seventh worst record, they will have 32 percent chance at a top-four pick. Give De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton some help!
Fighting for the play-in tournament
These teams just want a chance to prove they deserve to make the playoffs. Each of these teams is fighting for the final spot in the play-in tournament. Remember: the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds will play each other in the play-in tournament, and the winner of that game will face of the loser of the No. 7 seed vs. No. 8 seed game. You can check out the up-to-date standings at NBA.com.
- New Orleans Pelicans: The Pelicans chances at the play-in are teetering on the edge: they’re currently 3.5 games behind the Warriors for the No. 10 seed and final spot in the play-in. For as incredible as Zion Williamson has been this season, the Pelicans are likely looking at ending the season hoping for some lottery luck.
- Toronto Raptors: This has been a disappointing season for the Raptors, but the play-in tournament is still within reach. Toronto is 1.5 games out of the No. 10 seed in the East with 10 games to play. The Raptors have made the playoffs seven straight years and would certainly be a team no one wants to see in the play-in tournament or the playoffs, should they make it.
- Chicago Bulls: Chicago obviously wants to make the play-in tournament after trading its top-four protected first round pick for Vucevic. The worst case scenario for the Bulls — missing the play-in tournament and losing their first round pick to Orlando — is possible, but the team should be getting Zach LaVine back soon from a Covid-related absence (hopefully he’s feeling healthy). The Bulls want to make themselves an appealing destination to future free agents, and making the play-in tournament would be a decent start. How to build the rest of the team around Vooch and LaVine will be the biggest plot of the offseason.
- Washington Wizards: The Wizards have been the hottest team in the NBA in April outside of the Knicks. Yes, everything about that last sentence is completely wild. Washington snapped its eight game winning streak against the Spurs earlier this week, but they have a one-game lead for the No. 10 seed with 11 games to play. Wizards fans might have preferred better odds in the lottery than a doomed play-in run, but any team with Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook is going to be hellbent on trying to win.
Fighting for play-in tournament positioning
Just making the play-in tournament isn’t good enough for everyone: there’s also value to grabbing the No. 7 or No. 8 seed. While the teams that finish No. 8 and No. 9 will immediately play an elimination game to start the tournament, the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 seed game will still a shot to qualify for the playoffs in a game against the 9-10 winner. You can check out the up-to-date standings at NBA.com.
- Indiana Pacers: The Pacers just can’t catch a break this season with year-ending injuries to Myles Turner and T.J. Warren, and a nagging back injury for Domantas Sabonis in the second half. Indiana is currently the No. 9 seed and have a two-game lead over Washington and a three-game lead over Chicago for the No. 10 and No. 11 seeds. This Pacers team looked impressive to start the season, but it’s becoming fair to wonder where this core is headed long-term.
- Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets’ season can already be called a success for finding a future star in LaMelo Ball and blowing past their preseason expectations. Charlotte has been hanging tough as injuries have piled up over the last month, but Ball, Gordon Hayward, and Malik Monk could all healthy and ready to play in the play-in tournament.
- Golden State Warriors: The good news: the Warriors have been on-fire, winning eight of their last 12 games as Stephen Curry has forged his way into the MVP race. The bad news: it’s mostly happened after No. 2 overall draft pick James Wiseman went down with a season-ending torn meniscus. The Warriors have a comfortable 3.5-game lead for the No. 10 spot, and Curry alone makes them a team no opponent will want to face.
- Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies have new life with the recent debut of Jaren Jackson Jr, who is playing his first games all season after recovering from a torn meniscus. Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas have kept the Griz afloat, while De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, and Grayson Allen have taken their play to career-best levels. After losing to the Blazers in the play-in game last year, Memphis would like nothing more than to get some real playoff experience for their young players this season.
- San Antonio Spurs: After 22 straight playoff appearances under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have missed the postseason last year. They are playing to get back to where they belong while Pop, now 72 years old, is still leading the way. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, and Keldon Johnson have developed into a solid young core but the Spurs still need a star. San Antonio and Memphis will be jostling for the pivotal No. 8 seed in the West.
Fighting to stay out of the play-in tournament
The teams in this group have the same list of goals: stay at or above the No. 6 seed to avoid the play-in, get home court advantage, and get a first round matchup they feel confident in. You can check out the up-to-date standings at NBA.com.
- Miami Heat: The Heat haven’t felt fully right this year yet coming off a short offseason following last year’s run to the Finals in the bubble. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo remain an elite 1-2 punch, but it’s the rest of the Heat who have slipped, specifically the shooters. The Heat and Celtics are tied for the last spot out of the play-in tournament right now and still have two games left against each other this year.
- Boston Celtics: Boston is another team that hasn’t looked as good as they did last season throughout this year. While Jaylen Brown has leveled up again, Kemba Walker has been slowed down by injuries and Jayson Tatum has had to battle unfortunate side effects of Covid. The Celtics will think they can make a run if they have their full team healthy for the postseason, but they’ll want to avoid the play-in tournament to get there.
- Portland Trail Blazers: Portland lost five straight before Tuesday to fall to out of the protected playoff seeds, but they’re only a half-game out of the coveted No. 6 spot. The Blazers’ next five games are on the road in a that will likely determine if they’re safe from the play-in or not. On the plus side, Portland won the first ever play-in game in last year’s bubble, and might have a better chance as the No. 7 seed vs. the Suns than as the No. 6 seed vs. the Clippers.
- Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks want to continue to show they’re a franchise on the rise after their torrid second half led by interim coach Nate McMillan. New additions Bogdan Bogdanović and Clint Capela have given Trae Young the veteran help he needs to create a top-10 offense. Atlanta would love to get De’Andre Hunter — who was on the verge of a breakout season before suffering a knee injury — healthy and back in the lineup before the playoffs. Either way, it’s already been a successful season.
- New York Knicks: The Knicks are the NBA’s most pleasant surprise, and would be in line to host a first round playoff series if the postseason started today. New York’s nine-game winning streak is over, but the way this team is playing lately feels real. Tom Thibodeau has pushed the defense to elite levels, while Julius Randle’s breakout season has given the Knicks enough to work with offensively even with such poor team-wide shooting. For such a feel-good year, the Knicks would love nothing more than to win a playoff series for only the second time since 2001.
- Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic didn’t quite live up to his preseason MVP hype, but he’s still been one of the best players in the league and gives Dallas a puncher’s chance in any series. The historically good offense that powered the Mavs last season has been replaced by a unit that barely ranks in the top-10, while the defense has stayed about the same. Doncic will strike fear into the heart of any opponent in the first round, but Dallas still has more work to do before joining the West’s elite tier.
Waiting for the playoffs to show how good they are
These teams all could have been near the top of the conference standings under different circumstances, but they know it’s all about the playoffs anyway. You can check out the up-to-date standings at NBA.com.
- Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis is back and LeBron James will be back soon. The Lakers remained elite defensively even without their two superstars, but the offense doesn’t have as much shooting as it did last year. The Lakers have earned the benefit of the doubt to be the favorites to come out of the West, but it feels like they’ll be in for a tougher road this year than what they had to face in the bubble.
- Denver Nuggets: Denver was looking significantly better than last year’s team that went to the conference finals before Jamal Murray’s heartbreaking season-ending knee injury. It’s tough to view the Nuggets as a legit title threat without Murray, but they do have a few things going for them: Nikola Jokic is a deserving MVP, Michael Porter Jr. has been incredible as a movement shooter, and Aaron Gordon is a big defensive wing who can make an impact on offense with his cutting. This team would be fascinating if only Murray was still around.
- Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks have spent the regular season experimenting with defensive coverages and how to use Giannis Antetokounmpo on offense in ways they didn’t when they blitzed the league the last two regular seasons. The bigger reason for optimism this year is the arrival of Jrue Holiday, who has been excellent in his first season with the team and should be significantly more trustworthy than Milwaukee’s guards in the past. Here’s the scenario to watch for the Bucks: a 3-6 first round matchup with Miami after the Heat stunned them in the bubble last year.
Fighting for the No. 1 seed
These teams want homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. The top spot in the East is particularly enticing, because it means you avoid the one of the other two elite teams in the field until the conference finals. You can check out the up-to-date standings at NBA.com.
- Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers will hope a new coach in Ty Lue and another year of experience playing together can get them past their playoff troubles last year. Otherwise, they’ll need to rely on the magic of Playoff Rondo. LA is only two games out of the top seed, but the bigger concern is the matchups they’ll face on their run. The Clippers likely aren’t too scared of the Jazz or Suns, but would want to put off a matchup with the Lakers for as long as possible.
- Phoenix Suns: The Suns have become one of the great stories of the season with Chris Paul and Monty Williams revitalizing the franchise. After going 8-0 in the bubble last year but still missing the playoffs for the 10th straight season, the Suns are only a game back of the No. 1 seed with 11 to play. While this season has obviously been a huge success for Phoenix, the playoffs will be the ultimate test to see how close to a championship they really are.
- Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers crumbled in the face of expectations last season, but have looked so much better this year with Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers in charge. Joel Embiid’s MVP caliber season and Ben Simmons’ All-Defensive Team-worthy effort have drawn headlines, but the addition of Seth Curry and the quiet improvement of Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and even Tobias Harris have been nearly as important. Hopefully this season has been an end to the yearly referendum on the long-term viability of an Embiid-Simmons led team, but the Sixers need a deep run to end that talking point.
- Brooklyn Nets: The Nets haven’t really been trying for the No. 1 seed as Kevin Durant and James Harden have missed long stretches with injuries, but they have it right now anyway. Getting Harden back into the lineup and Durant fully healthy is the biggest key for the Nets. If they have all three of their stars, Brooklyn’s level of shot-making is so historic that it feels like only they can stop themselves. This is the favorite in the East, but it would be a lot easier if they didn’t have to go through both Miami and Milwaukee to get there.
- Utah Jazz: The Jazz have been the best team in the regular season all year, leading the NBA in both net rating and point differential by more than two full points. It feels like the Jazz should have been bigger lead for the No. 1 seed, but they still have work to do as they close the regular season. The Jazz are top-five both offensively and defensively, and lead the league in three-point rate while being No. 4 in three-point percentage. Utah won’t be scared of anyone come playoff time after such a dominant season, but it’s inevitable that their playoff performance will be seen as a referendum on how good they really are. For Utah to reach its ceiling, Donovan Mitchell is going to have to push his career-best year to even greater heights.