We’re somewhere in the 42-46% mark of the 2013-14 season, depending on how many games each team has played. And just shy of the midway point, there are really only 5 or 6 teams in the entire NBA that are virtually out of contention for the postseason.
The Eastern Conference, of course, only has three teams with winning records, and it’s certainly on the table that a team with a .500 or worse win-loss mark could manage to land home court advantage in the opening rounds of the playoffs, and that a team with 30ish wins could make the playoffs.
Yes, it’s too early to know who will make the playoffs. But we’ll take a look at those that are definitely in, most likely in, and which ones of the bubble teams will have the strongest likelihood of emerging from the pack.
1. Miami Heat
This is weird, but these two teams are the only sure thing. Atlanta would have been the third, but after Al Horford’s season-ending injury, all bets are off for the Hawks. Less than 5 games separate the #3 and #8 teams in the East. After the top-two, it’s anyone’s guess.
Likely in the playoffs
The Hawks are still a playoff team in this horrible conference, but they’ll likely fall a couple spots moving forward. The Raptors are only improving after shedding the overrated and inefficient Rudy Gay, and the Wizards are probably the best of these three squads. They have the deepest roster, and enough young players that are still improving to possibly even slide up to the three-spot.
The final three spots
The Next Three: Charlotte, New York, Detroit
The Luol Deng trade certainly hurts the Bulls a great deal, and also boosts the Cavaliers. Cleveland has just a 12-23 record on the season, but is only two games out of the final playoff spot. Deng takes the Cavs from zero NBA-caliber wings to one very good one. Cleveland could climb even higher, but teams like Brooklyn and Chicago, as they stand, are deeper and have a current advantage in the standings. Of course, trades that aid the race to the bottom of the standings (and the top of the draft lottery odds) can and likely will shake things up.
The Bobcats will be the first team out of the playoffs. Depending on Tyson Chandler’s health, the Knicks still have a shot of making the playoffs. And Detroit’s Frankenstein monster of a team simply won’t have enough to make the playoffs.
Every single one of the above five teams would be one of the top-three seeds in the Eastern Conference. The Thunder and Spurs will battle it out for the top slot in the West, but I would expect Gregg Popovich’s propensity to rest his aging stars and Russell Westbrook’s eventual return to boost the Thunder into the number one seed.
Before the season began, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers were the consensus third and fourth best teams in the Western Conference. Injuries to Marc Gasol ruined the season for Memphis, and injuries to J.J. Redick and more recently Chris Paul have kept the Clippers from realizing their full potential. The Warriors, despite a worrying lack of depth, have continued to improve.
The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, have been one of the biggest surprises in the league. They’ve come back down to earth quite a bit, going 5-5 over their last ten games. An easy schedule and a lot of luck helped them early on, but they’re set up so well now that it would be a shock if they didn’t make the postseason.
Likely in the playoffs
The Rockets have a very nice 23-13 record, but their +3.4 point differential is just 7th best in the conference. With superstars like James Harden and Dwight Howard and a rising star like Chandler Parsons, the Rockets are deep enough, young enough, and potent enough to continue on an upward trajectory. A wild card here could be any trade involving big man Omer Asik, who is currently not playing for the Rockets but should fetch a nice return.
The final two spots
The Next Three: Phoenix, Memphis, New Orleans
The Wolves currently have the worst luck in the NBA, going 0-10 in games decided by three points or less, and their point differential of +4.6 is better than that of 23-13 Houston, 21-13 Phoenix, and 20-16 Dallas. It would also rank third in the Eastern Conference. The poor record in close games isn’t all bad luck, but there is something to it.
It would be an upset of historical proportions if a team with the peripherals of the Timberwolves did not make the postseason. But they’ve put themselves in a huge hole, currently sitting at 17-18 and 2 1/2 games behind the eighth spot.
Monta Ellis has apparently figured some things out for the Mavs, and as long as Dirk Nowitzki can continue to stave off Father Time to some degree, Dallas should be able to squeak back into the playoffs. The Phoenix Suns, who are the best story in basketball thus far, have had some decent luck thus far, and Eric Bledsoe is out indefinitely. They’ll be the best team that misses out on the playoffs.
Gasol should return soon for the Grizzlies, and Anthony Davis should lift New Orleans to a win total in the high 30s. While the bottom seed in the Eastern Conference will likely win somewhere between 30 and 35 games, the bottom seed in the West could very well win 45+ games at this pace.
Again, a lot can happen in the next 3+ months. Injuries and trades will certainly have a say in the proceedings, as will strength of schedule. What we do know is that the eight-seed in the West could easily have a record that would be good enough to be the three-seed in the East.
So that’s where we’re at. Teams like Minnesota, Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis, and Phoenix are all better than the majority of the teams in the East, but three of those five will be sitting at home come mid-April. It’s the unfortunate reality that is today’s NBA, especially considering that arguments could be made for both Memphis and Minnesota that they should be in the East. But that’s NBA geography. And now, we’ll get last-rate playoff match-ups for the entire (L)Eastern Conference.