NBA Playoff Race Update: The Nuggets Stake Their Claim on the 8 Seed
Every Friday from now until the end of the season, we're dropping a new edition of this column to update the NBA playoff picture.
We'll explore each team's playoff probability (based on our algorithms), divide each conference into different tiers of playoff hopefulness, and then discuss any movement among the teams from week to week.
The tiers are as follows:
These are teams with a playoff probability of 99% or more. These teams would need to have the meltdown of the century to miss out on the playoffs.
These are the teams that have a decent to very good chance of making the playoffs, but still need to earn their spot and hold off other teams to get there.
Dead or Dying
These teams will need a miracle to make the playoffs or have already been eliminated.
There was no movement in the top six spots in the Eastern Conference this week, but the Hawks jumped up a tier from being a bubble team last week to a sure thing as far as our rankings are concerned. They have gone 2-2 since the last edition of this column, while the Raptors had the worst week of these five teams, going 1-3.
Atlanta is two games behind Toronto for the 4 seed and would have home-court advantage in a possible first-round matchup if the teams were to finish with identical records because they won the season series 2-1.
Meanwhile, the hunt for the 1 seed now looks to be a three-team race between the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Wizards (with the Raptors essentially falling out of contention). We project the Cavaliers ultimately to come out on top with a 53-29 record.
The Pacers are inching closer to being a sure thing for the playoffs, according to our algorithms, even if they currently only have a two-game lead on the ninth-place Heat from sixth.
The Bucks, meanwhile, vaulted up from 10th to 7th in the conference since last week after going 3-1, causing their playoff chances to jump from 41.8% to 63.3%. The red-hot Heat -- who have won 22 of their last 27 contests -- are next in line with a 62.9% chance of making it.
Toss in the Pistons at 57.3%, and it looks like we'll have a three-team race for the final two playoff spots in the East going forward.
Falling quickly out of the race, the Bulls saw their playoff chances drop from 48.8% last week to 30.7% this time around after a 1-3 week. They're still only a game out of eighth, but they're simply playing worse basketball than any other playoff contender in this tier and just lost Dwyane Wade for the rest of the season with a fractured elbow.
Finally, the Hornets basically belong in the "dead or dying" tier because their playoff hopes are essentially on life support, but a four-game deficit in the standings and 3.6% chance of making it isn't quite impossible enough for us to bump them down just yet.
Dead or Dying
The Knicks rightfully saw their minuscule 0.4% chance of making it last week dissolve completely to 0.0%, as they now sit a whopping 6.5 games out of eighth. The Nets remain eliminated, and the 76ers and Magic will join them soon enough.
(1) Golden State Warriors (54-14, clinched)
(2) San Antonio Spurs (52-15, clinched)
(3) Houston Rockets (47-21, clinched)
(4) Utah Jazz (43-26, 100.0%)
(5) Los Angeles Clippers (40-29, 100.0%)
(6) Oklahoma City Thunder (39-29, 100.0%)
(7) Memphis Grizzlies (39-30, 100.0%)
The Spurs continued to gain on the Warriors for the best record in the NBA this week after going 2-1 to Golden State's 2-2. They now sit 1.5 games back of the Dubs and already own the season series if a tiebreaker ends up being needed.
Beyond that, the Rockets clinched their playoff spot this week after going 3-0. They are pretty well locked into third in the Western Conference, as they trail the Spurs by 5.5 games, while leading the Jazz by 4.5.
The Jazz are also pretty safely in fourth, with a three-game lead on the fifth-place Clippers. From there, the 5 through 7 seeds (Clippers, Thunder, Grizzlies) are all separated by a game and look destined to shuffle around a lot between now and the end of the season.
It's pretty wild that the top seven teams in the conference have already clinched a playoff spot or have a 100.0% playoff probability (according to our algorithms) with three and a half weeks to go in the season.
It will be interesting to see if the team that ultimately locks up the 8 seed can even take a game from the Warriors or Spurs in a first-round series.
The Nuggets have created a bit of distance between themselves and the rest of the pack for the eighth and final playoff spot out West, as they now sit with a 2.5-game lead on the ninth-place Trail Blazers. The Blazers had the highest playoff probability of these four teams last week at 41.3%, but that number has shrunk to 26.8% this time around. Meanwhile, the Nuggets have jumped from 33.6% to 62.8% after going 4-0 this week.
Both the Mavericks and Timberwolves should probably be in the next tier down at this point, as they sit 3.5 and 4.5 games behind the Nuggets, respectively, but it's hard to count them out just yet as they both have winning records and top-10 net ratings since the All-Star break. This might be their last week in this tier, but they've each played well enough for us to believe in their chances just a wee bit longer.
Dead or Dying
The Kings and Pelicans have identical records and now each sit a whopping six games behind the Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis frontcourt in New Orleans hasn't quite gelled yet, and they've pretty well run out of time to figure it out and make a playoff push this year.
Now, the Kings have two draft picks (theirs and New Orleans' via the Cousins deal) that are both trending towards the top of the lottery, making the Boogie trade look better for Sacramento by the day.
The Suns and Lakers have yet to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention at 11 and 13 games behind eighth-place Denver, respectively, but that should be coming this week.