NBA Playoff Race Update: The Bucks Are Climbing the Standings

The Milwaukee Bucks have won 10 of their last 12 games, moving from 10th to 6th in the Eastern Conference standings. How has this affected their playoff chances?

Every Friday 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:

Sure Things
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.

Bubble Teams
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.

Eastern Conference

Sure Things

(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (46-24, clinched)
(2) Boston Celtics (46-26, clinched)
(3) Washington Wizards (43-28, 100.0%)
(4) Toronto Raptors (43-29, 100.0%)

A team had never gone from a "sure thing" to a "bubble team" in the two-year history of this column, but the Hawks just managed to do so (more on them below).

Beyond that, the top four teams in the Eastern Conference have essentially divided into two tiers over the last week. In the top tier, the Celtics put up a 3-1 week and moved within a game of the Cavaliers for first place after the Cavs managed to go 1-2 over that same span. In the next tier down, there now exists a 2.5-game cushion between the second-place Celtics and the third-place Wizards, while the Raptors have moved within a half game of the Wiz after a 4-0 week to Washington's 2-2.

There's still enough time left for those two tiers to blend back together, but for now it looks like the Cavs and Celts will battle for first and the Wiz and Raps will go at it for third. Our algorithms currently project a Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, Washington finish.

Bubble Teams

(5) Atlanta Hawks (37-34, 95.0%)
(6) Milwaukee Bucks (36-35, 86.9%)
(7) Indiana Pacers (36-35, 84.6%)
(8) Miami Heat (35-37, 53.7%)
(9) Chicago Bulls (34-38, 42.9%)
(10) Detroit Pistons (34-38, 27.5%)
(11) Charlotte Hornets (32-39, 9.4%)

The Hawks had an 0-3 week and went from a 98.4% probability to make the postseason to 95.0%. That's still a decidedly high percentage, but with their recent five-game losing streak and admittedly tenuous 3.5-game lead over ninth place, we're not writing them in with ink just yet.

The Bucks, on the other hand, are peaking at exactly the right time, having gone 10-2 over their last 12 and 3-1 over the last week. They went from 10th place and a 41.8% chance of making the playoffs two weeks ago, to 7th with a 63.3% chance last week, and have now settled in at 6th with a playoff probability of 86.9%. Their rise has been meteoric, to say the least, and now they're even knocking on the door of fifth, with the Hawks reeling and only a game ahead in the standings.

At this rate, Milwaukee might even manage to jump up into the "sure things" section of this column before Atlanta is able to reclaim their spot.

Meanwhile, the Pistons and Bulls have plummeted from being in seventh and eighth, respectively, two weeks ago, to now both sitting on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. And, as their playoff probabilities continue to dwindle, the Pacers (84.6%) and Heat (53.7%) draw ever closer to locking up the final two playoff spots in the East.

Finally, the Hornets had a 3-0 week and managed to drag their 3.6% playoff probability last week to a slightly more promising 9.4% this time around. They're still a long shot, but they're not dead just yet with only 2.5 games separating them and the eighth-place Heat.

Dead or Dying

(12) New York Knicks (27-45, 0.0%)
(13) Philadelphia 76ers (26-45, 0.0%)
(14) Orlando Magic (26-46, 0.0%)
(15) Brooklyn Nets (15-56, eliminated)

In the race for draft lottery ping pong balls, the Knicks had a 0-3 week, the Sixers went 2-2, the Magic went 2-1, and the Nets went 3-2 (not a typo). There was no shift in position between these four teams this week, but the Knicks seem the most motivated to move down in the standings (and subsequently up in the lottery) as losers of 9 of their last 11 contests.

Western Conference

Sure Things

(1) Golden State Warriors (57-14, clinched)
(2) San Antonio Spurs (55-16, clinched)
(3) Houston Rockets (49-22, clinched)
(4) Utah Jazz (44-28, 100.0%)
(5) Los Angeles Clippers (43-30, 100.0%)
(6) Oklahoma City Thunder (41-30, 100.0%)
(7) Memphis Grizzlies (40-32, 100.0%)

These seven teams haven't shuffled playoff seeding at all over the last week, as most of the stories from the last edition of this column remain the same: the Warriors and Spurs continue to duke it out for first, the Rockets are locked into third, the Jazz, Clippers, Thunder, and Grizzlies are all within 1.0-1.5 games of each other, and the Grizzlies maintain a commanding 5.5-game lead on the eighth-place Nuggets.

For what it's worth, our algorithms like them to finish in exactly this order.

Bubble Teams

(8) Denver Nuggets (34-37, 45.3%)
(9) Portland Trail Blazers (33-38, 48.6%)
(10) Dallas Mavericks (31-40, 3.4%)
(11) New Orleans Pelicans (30-41, 2.0%)

Two weeks ago, the Trail Blazers were a half-game behind the Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot, but held a 41.3% chance of making it, compared to Denver's 33.6%. Last week, the Nuggets were fresh off a 4-0 week to the Trail Blazers' 2-2, creating a 2.5-game lead for the final spot. This resulted in a flip to the script, as it was now Denver that held a strong 62.8% advantage of getting the final playoff spot to Portland's 26.8%.

This week, the pendulum has swung back the other way. After a 3-1 week, the Blazers have moved back within a game of the Nuggets (who went 1-2 over that span) for that final spot, and with that, their playoff probability of 48.6% is now slightly higher than the Nuggets' 45.3%.

If they end up with identical records, the Blazers currently lead the season series 2-1 and therefore hold the tiebreaker, with the pivotal fourth game coming this Tuesday, March 28th. If the series ends 2-2, it will come down to divisional win-loss percentage, since both teams are in the Northwest Division. In that case, Portland holds a clear advantage with a 7-3 record in division, as compared to a 5-8 divisional record for the Nuggets.

As for the Mavericks and Pelicans, they probably shouldn't even be in this tier with such low playoff probabilities, but at three and four games back, respectively, it's hard to completely rule them out just yet. Let's just say they're not likely to still be sitting here next week, barring some kind of miracle.

Dead or Dying

(12) Minnesota Timberwolves (28-42, 0.6%)
(13) Sacramento Kings (27-44, 0.0%)
(14) Phoenix Suns (22-50, eliminated)
(15) Los Angeles Lakers (20-51, eliminated)

After a 0-3 week, the Timberwolves have officially shifted from being a "bubble team" to "dead or dying", seeing their playoff probability slip from a puncher's 4.7% chance last week, to a negligible 0.3% this time around.

Meanwhile, no other team in this tier managed to get a single win over that span, as the Kings put up a 0-3 week of their own, the Suns went 0-4, and the Lakers went 0-3.

The tankathon is officially on out west.