The Whiteboard: Which NBA playoff races are heating up?

Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports /

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The Eastern Conference playoff picture has come into focus. The Knicks and Wizards are all but eliminated leaving us with 10 teams locked in for the playoffs and play-in tournaments. Essentially everything is set other than the final seedings but it looks the most significant race may be for the No. 6 seed.

Per Basketball-Reference’s model, there is a 69.4 percent chance that either the Cavaliers or the Bulls will finish in that slot. But the Toronto Raptors are lurking, just one game behind the Bulls and two games behind the Cavaliers. The East play-in tournament, at least on the surface, appears to hold more potential for chaos with both the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks in the mix. If the Raptors can climb out of the play-in tournament it will push either the Bulls or Cavs, who both looked like dark-horse contenders at points during the season, into the danger zone.

Last bit of homecourt advantage in the Western Conference playoffs

The top two seeds in the Western Conference are pretty close to being locked in. The Phoenix Suns have already secured the best record in the conference and the No. 1 seed. The Memphis Grizzlies currently have a two-game lead over the Warriors for the No. 2 seed. Basketball-Reference’s estimates the Grizzlies’ odds of holding onto that slot to be 83 percent but that may even be underselling it considering Steph Curry is out indefinitely. That leaves the Warriors, Jazz, Mavericks and Nuggets battling it out for the chance to host the other two first-round series.

Denver’s chances of leapfrogging into the No. 3 or No. 4 seed are extremely small — just 2.4 percent per Basketball-Reference but with Curry out and the return of Jamal Murray and/or Michael Porter Jr. on the horizon, anything could happen. The Warriors are in the strongest position, currently holding a two-game lead over the Jazz for the No. 3 seed but they’re also navigating the next few weeks without Curry.

The Jazz and Mavericks have both been playing well of late, 6-4 and 7-3 over their last 10, respectively. However, the Mavericks have somehow managed that with a negative point differential while the Jazz have been outscoring opponents by an average of 11.0 points per game. There’s a good chance that these two teams may end up playing each other in the first round and the one-game margin between them in the standings, and the ultimate homecourt advantage that rests on it, could be a big factor in who gets out of the first round.

Last spot in the Western Conference Play-In Tournament

This didn’t look like it was going to be a race a few weeks ago but this stretch since the All-Star break has made things interesting. The Lakers are currently the No. 9 seed, with a one-game edge over the New Orleans Pelicans. However, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers have been doing just enough to keep it close, two and two-and-a-half games back, respectively. Per the Basketball-Reference model, the Pelicans have a 13 percent chance of falling out of the play-in tournament completely. The Lakers are at 26 percent.

The Pelicans have been muddling a bit, 7-8 in their last 15 games despite having a plus-5.0 point per 100 possession point differential over that stretch. They were much improved with CJ McCollum but some of that bump seems to have dissipated and it’s not clear how the team will respond to the news that Zion Williamson is done for the season.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are 4-6 in their last 10 games, getting outscored by an average of 4.3 points per 100 possessions. Anthony Davis is reportedly progressing through his recovery but still doesn’t have a date set for his return. In addition, the Lakers have one of the toughest remaining schedules, with 10 games left — six of which are on the road and nine of which come against current playoff teams.

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Other NBA stories:

The Over and Back NBA podcast is celebrating the NBA at 75 by rewatching some of the greatest Slam Dunk Contests in NBA history. Here, they’re looking back to 2003, when the contest needed rescuing again Jason Richardson provided.

Wes Goldberg has a sensational profile of Victor Oladipo at The Ringer, as the former All-Star looks to regain his pre-injury magic.

The Pelicans announced Zion Williamson is done for the season. But he’s healthy enough to be throwing down between-the-legs dunks on Instagram. Weird.

The Mavericks are making a strong push for homecourt advantage in the playoffs. But they’ll have a lot of questions to answer before they get there.

DeMar DeRozan seems like a lock but will Zach LaVine be able to join him on any of the All-NBA teams at the end of the season?

Kemba Walker is done with the Knicks. Could a reunion in Charlotte be the next step for him?

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