The NBA Playoffs begin in one month, and no one, despite many educated guesses, has any clue which team is going to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy come June. After a four-year run of Miami Heat domination in the Eastern Conference and the epic Oklahoma City/San Antonio Spurs battles out West, the field is wide open this year. While the latter two teams do remain threats to win it all (if the Thunder get in, that is), the other six teams in the West could also make a run at the title. The team that’s going to represent the East in the NBA Finals is really anyone’s guess.
While most of the contending teams in each conference have all but clinched their post-season berths—and some, like the Hawks and Warriors, are officially in—there are more than a few teams still scrambling to make the dance. In the West, it looks like a two-team race to finish as the eighth seed, but in the East, teams ranked sixth through 11th are separated by just six and a half games.
Although finishing as the seventh or eighth seed may not be everyone’s idea of sound franchise development—few lower seeds ever progress far in the playoffs, and by virtue of finishing in the playoffs they remove themselves from the potential rewards of the draft lottery—players and coaches always want a shot at post-season glory. It’s for the front office to worry about long-term strategy.
Here’s how the race to make the playoffs currently shapes up.
Not guaranteed, but likely in: Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the surprise teams of the season, bouncing back after finishing their 2013-14 campaign with the worst record in the league—not exactly an easy feat considering they play in the same league as the Philadelphia 76ers. New coach Jason Kidd has been a breath of fresh air, moulding a young, athletic group of players into a collective unit somewhat reminiscent of his own skillset as a player: long, tough and with an intense defensive focus. In fact, defence is where the team has made a name for themselves this year. They currently rank second in defensive efficiency, only giving up 99.1 points per 100 possessions.
Offensively the Bucks aren’t quite there yet—players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and the newly acquired Michael Carter-Williams are still incredibly raw at that end of the floor. The team struggles to win games on the nights when their defence isn’t firing on all cylinders. They have gone through a rough patch in recent weeks, as most young teams are prone to do, but they remain over .500 with a four-game cushion over the seventh and eighth seeds. Barring something drastic they should be in.
In, but holding on for dear life: Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat
At the time of writing, last year’s Eastern Conference finalists are currently occupying the final two playoff places in the East. What a difference a year makes.
Despite losing their last two games, the Indiana Pacers have been playing the best basketball of all the teams currently fighting for a playoff place—they’ve been victorious in seven of previous last 10 games. They began the season looking like a lottery team. Their only two off-the-bounce threats from last season, Lance Stephenson (free-agency departure) and Paul George (injury), were missing, and the team was also dealing with injuries to George Hill and David West. It looked like a forgone conclusion that the Pacers wouldn’t be able to generate nearly enough offence to stay competitive.
However, Frank Vogel, a candidate for Coach of the Year, has done an excellent job forming a coherent unit out of a collection of previously uninspiring role players (who knew Rodney Stuckey was still relevant?). His team battles hard every night and remains stifling at the defensive end. With players like David West and Roy Hibbert, last year’s Eastern Conference finalists still have the size and physicality to cause teams problems. They have momentum and should get in regardless, but if Paul George can return in a few weeks (some are skeptical) they could create some noise in the first round.
Like the Pacers, the Miami Heat have dealt with crippling injuries all season, delaying their playoff push. The Heat did some excellent business at the trade deadline bringing in disgruntled point guard Goran Dragic, but the next day the team received word that Chris Bosh would miss the remainder of the season due to blood clots. In the space of 24 hours they went from a dark horse contender to a team that’s in a dogfight just to scrape into the post-season.
Shot-blocking and rebound-gobbling sensation Hassan Whiteside has been a nice X-factor for the team this season, but because of injuries (and partly because of some awful point guard play, pre-Dragic) the Heat have struggled to find any consistency. Their post-season chances will ultimately depend on the health of Dwyane Wade (never a sure thing) and Luol Deng—those two players need to play a big role down the stretch if they’re to have any chance of making it in.
Outside looking in: Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets
Part of why the Miami Heat don’t look like a sure thing is because the Boston Celtics have been defying all expectations this season. The team, coached by the immensely talented Brad Stevens, have punched well above their weight all season—they currently have an identical record to the Pacers and Heat and only find themselves in ninth position by virtue of a tie-breaker.
Like the Pacers, the Celtics lack a superstar—or anyone resembling a starter on a contending team, in fact. Nonetheless, they’re young, scrappy and they play hard every night. Stevens is a coach who makes the right decisions and puts his team in a position to succeed. They’ve had success despite the fact that the front office may not be too enthusiastic about the team’s playoff push. General Manager Danny Ainge has already traded away the team’s two best players this season in Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo, all in the veiled hope that this would result in a tumble down the standings and a high draft pick come the summer. However, it appears he may have underestimated the resolves of his own team and his head coaches.
While the Celtics have taken a step forward this season, last season’s dark horse—the Charlotte Hornets (then, the Charlotte Bobcats)—have taken a step back. The team is only now clawing its way back into playoff contention after a brutal start to the year. Out of all playoff bubble teams the Bobcats probably have the most talent on paper, but that hasn’t played out in practice.
Kemba Walker, the team’s point guard, has missed time with injury, while Lance Stephenson, the team’s big summer free agent acquisition, has been a disastrous bust. Despite their weird chemistry—not mention the awful spacing—the Hornets are just half a game shy of the eight seed and remain well in the running. One big reason: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The former second overall pick still can’t shoot to save his life, but at the defensive end he’s a game changer that has helped make the Hornets a top-10 defensive team.
The Brooklyn Nets currently sit two and a half games back of the eight seed, and with no defensive game-changers to speak of. The Jay-Z-led hype and hoopla from two seasons ago is no more—the bubble has well and truly burst. The Nets, seemingly one of the most glamourous teams not so long ago, are now a plodding mess (they rank 25th overall in pace) that has no draft picks and no long-term plan in place. They still possess talent on the roster—Joe Johnson can still hit some big shots and Brook Lopez is a talented centre when healthy—but this team has phoned games in one too many times this season to be taken seriously. If there’s any justice in the world, the Nets will miss the playoffs this season.
In, but holding on for dear life: Oklahoma City Thunder
At the time of writing the Thunder hold a half-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth spot (that could change if the Pelicans beat the Bucks on Tuesday night). It’s a very tenuous lead, to say the least.
The Thunder have had an up-and-down year, mostly resulting from their age-old enemy: franchise-crippling injuries. Both Kevin Durant—who still isn’t right—and Russell Westbrook have missed time dealing with injuries and the latest setback comes in the form of a Serge Ibaka knee injury that should see him (the team’s best defender) miss time at the worst possible point in the season. Somewhat ironically, even though the team finds itself in a battle just to make the playoffs, if they do make it they’ll be one of the few eight-seeds in NBA history to be one of the favourites to win it all. There’s so much talent on this team.
When the Thunder have been on form this season, they’ve been really good—Russell Westbrook, a walking triple-double, has carried the team in Durant’s absence and is a legitimate MVP candidate. Westbrook has also developed some good pick-n-roll chemistry with Enes Kanter, the team’s newly acquired centre. If Durant can get back on the court and the team can ride out Ibaka’s injury, the Thunder should make the playoffs.
Then again, we’ve felt like that all season long, and the Thunder have yet to create any real separation from these next contenders.
Outside looking in: New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans won’t listen to Thunder fans complain about injuries: they’ve had more than a few themselves. Jrue Holiday, Ryan Andersen and the transcendently brilliant Anthony Davis have all missed substantial time this season, but even in their absence the Pelicans have kept their collective heads above water. Tyreke Evans is much improved this year, while Eric Gordon has gotten better over the second half of the season. But it’s the aforementioned Davis, who, when able to play, has been the key to this team’s success.
In two or three seasons from now there’s a good chance that Davis will be the best player in the NBA—as of right now, he’s pretty darn close. This season The Brow is averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and almost three blocks per game. His Player Efficiency Rating is 31.6! He’s also quickly becoming one of the best defensive players in the NBA. But Davis cannot do it all. While the Pelicans have beaten some of the best teams in the league this season, they’ve also had huge letdown games—they’ve lost to the 76ers (inexcusable), and last weekend they blew a very winnable game against the Denver Nuggets. Those losses could come back to haunt them.
That said, if the Pelicans finish with an identical record to the Thunder, they would make the playoffs by virtue of the tie-breaker—a tie-breaker earned when they beat Oklahoma City thanks to an insane buzzer-beating three from Davis.
Going, going, almost gone: Phoenix Suns
Toronto’s woes against the West continue
Where’s the North?
Meet the replacements