The 9 Most Interesting NBA Playoff Probability Graphs Through the All-Star Break
Throughout the NBA season, we monitor uncountable things. From team ratings to player minutes and much more -- there's a lot to keep tabs on if you're a follower of the NBA. That's especially the case in today's game, which is full of advanced metrics and next-level insight.
But occasionally during the hustle and bustle of the regular season, the ultimate goal gets lost in the fold. For most teams, that goal is to reach the playoffs.
If we can all agree on this (and I think we can), that means the probability of making the playoffs is very important. Teams need to know where they stand, specifically as the regular season winds down.
Due to the rise of algorithms in sports, we can track each team's progress toward the playoffs at any given time. We here at numberFire do just that.
With the All-Star break coming to a close and the unofficial start of the NBA's second half about to get underway, here are the nine most interesting playoff probability graphs of the year so far.
To start out the new season, all eyes were on Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves to take a step forward. They entered with playoff aspirations, and before they even hit the floor for opening night, their chances of reaching the playoffs maxed out at 41.7%. They haven't been close since and have watched a steady decline take place.
At the 10-game mark, they were down to 40.1%, but now -- despite an 8-3 spurt in mid-January -- they sit at just a 3.6% likelihood with 25 games remaining. Absent the services of an injured Zach LaVine, they're very unlikely to make a run down the stretch.
Portland Trail Blazers
After winning 44 games and a playoff series a year ago, the Portland Trail Blazers also entered this season with high expectations. We joined them in that belief, having given them a 75% chance of returning to the postseason.
It got even more promising after 11 games, as they owned a 7-4 record with a season-high 80% probability of extending their season come April. That now seems like a distant memory.
From there, Portland slipped to 13-17 rather quickly, at which point their playoff chances moved to 56.4%. The slow decline continued after 10 more games, falling to 51.8%. Since January 13th, they have not returned to the 50% mark and currently have just a 21.5% chance of making the playoffs.
Like the Blazers, the Charlotte Hornets were a playoff-caliber squad a year ago. And, like the Blazers, they were also likely (67.1%) to maintain that title. With 30 games played, Charlotte was nearly a lock (92.4%) to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Even through a 3-7 stretch, the Hornets' playoff chances held steady at 81%.
However, they finished 4-12 leading up to the All-Star game, and as a result, saw their chances fall off a cliff. Going into the second half, they're fighting math. The Hornets have just a 28.8% chance to make the playoffs, according to our algorithms.
The Rocky Road
The young Milwaukee Bucks were expected to be a team to make a jump in the East. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker hitting their strides together, our preseason playoff probability of 17.9% was probably a little conservative. But it didn't take long for that to change -- Milwaukee's chances shot to 31.3% after a 5-5 start.
They continued climbing over the next 20 games, even with Middleton on the shelf for the entire season to that point. At the 30-game mark, they had a 69.6% chance of creeping into the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
After holding steady for the next 10 games, they hit a major rut between games 40 and 50, resulting in their probability plummeting from 73.5% to 32.2%.
To make matters worse, Parker tore his ACL in a February 8th game against the Miami Heat. That type of loss dropped Milwaukee to 23.7%, but only for the time being. Since Parker's injury, the Bucks have added Middleton back into the mix, finishing 3-2 and pushing their playoff chances to 46% heading into the All-Star break. It'll be interesting to see which Bucks team we get as they play out the fourth quarter of their up-and-down campaign.
New York Knicks
We now go from a team building on a young nucleus to one doing the complete opposite in the New York Knicks. Their story this season is quite the same, but just on a different scale. Despite whatever the expectations were, our models presented New York with just a 6.5% probability of clinching a postseason berth.
And 10 games in, it was more of the same (15.2%) after a 4-6 start. Throughout the next 20 games, though, they slowly increased their chances to 46.1%, but it was immediately clear that this was their peak.
With 40 games behind them, Carmelo Anthony and company positioned themselves at just 16.9% to bust into the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Between then and the All-Star break, amid franchise turmoil and the Charles Oakley saga, the Knicks finished 5-12, leading to a lowly 3% probability.
As it turns out, the first 30 games led to just false hope for Knicks fans.
Their preseason playoff probability of 48.2% accurately depicted that uncertainty, but injuries and inexperience quickly caught up with them. They started 2-8, and with a probability of 26.2%, were much more likely to miss out on the playoffs than make them. After 40 games, they were even worse off, with just 11 wins and a 0.4% shot of playing in the postseason.
Five days later, Miami finally started to rise back up by rattling off 13 straight wins and 14 of 16 before the All-Star break. It's cliché to say, but the Heat are scorching hot and have brought themselves back to a 27.3% probability of making the playoffs. They're two games back of the 8 seed in the East and are likely to push ahead as we roll into March.
Well, coach Mike Malone struggled to work out the proper rotations as it pertains to Jokic, Nurkic and the rest of his young talent. Through 20 games, the Nuggets went from a 12.3% playoff probability to 9.8% thanks to a 7-13 start.
Then, after missing three games due to injury, Jokic worked his way into more minutes, and ultimately, the star player role. Thereafter, Jokic flirted with triple-doubles and the Nuggets started winning more. In fact, they finished with an even 18-18 record over their last 36 games.
If the playoffs were to start today, they would own the Western Conference's 8 seed. We currently give them a 40.8% chance of doing just that.
With much more experience and an added weapon in Chandler Parsons, the preliminary expectations for the Memphis Grizzlies were much higher than that of the Nuggets. Rightfully so, their playoff probability was at 70.3% on October 15th. A 5-5 start dropped that figure to 57.7%, but that decline was short-lived.
By December 3rd, Memphis (at 82.3%) made up ground and so much more. They were 12-8 at the time, but are now every bit of a sure thing for the Western Conference Playoffs. After heading into the All-Star break with a 34-24 record, their probability of maintaining one of the top eight spots stands at a confidence-boosting 100%.
Besides their respective rises, there is not much shared between the Nuggets and Washington Wizards. As the season got underway, the Wizards had much more in common with the experienced Grizzlies. It was time for John Wall, Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris to put it together and get the franchise back to the playoffs.
A 2-8 start caused panic in the nation's capital, with the Wizards sporting a lackluster 26.3% chance of cracking the top eight in the East. Things worsened during the next three weeks, as Washington's playoff probability fell to a season-low 18.3% before sky-rocketing with a 27-8 record of their last 35 gams.
Thanks in large part to Otto Porter's outstanding play, their playoff chances climbed to 100% over the break. Even if they level off, they're all but assured a seat at the postseason table.
As we can see, each team's trek toward making the playoffs is unique, which is part of the reason why it's so interesting to track their journey.
The NBA's regular season is coming down the home stretch, and while there are a number of teams basically guaranteed a spot to play for a championship, there are plenty of others trying to fight their way back into the picture.