NBA Power Rankings Update: Key Games for the Stretch Run
Each week, we'll be translating numberFire's NBA power rankings into words. The rankings are driven by our nERD metric, which is a predictive statistic to help define what the team's winning percentage ultimately will be.
Most teams have just five or six games to play over the next nine days, but a lot of things could still change. In the Western Conference, only two things are certain -- the Warriors are the surefire 1 seed, and the Blazers have at least the 4 seed, though home court is still in question. Other than that, a lot is up in the air.
In the East, there is even more to be decided. The Bulls, Raptors and Wizards are competing for the 3, 4, and 5 seeds, though there may not be much of a fight left. But six teams are locking horns for the final three spots: Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Boston, Indiana, Miami, and Charlotte are only separated by 4.5 games right now.
These next nine days are going to see a lot of teams change seeds and drop out of the playoff race. Take a look below at this week's rankings to see what games could cause potential pitfalls for many of these teams.
#30 New York Knicks (nERD: 19.5, Record: 15-62, last week: 30)
#29 Minnesota Timberwolves (nERD: 22.8, Record: 16-60, last week: 28)
#28 Philadelphia 76ers (nERD: 23.1, Record: 18-60, last week: 29)
#27 Orlando Magic (nERD: 31.3, Record: 24-53, last week: 27)
#26 Los Angeles Lakers (nERD: 32.4, Record: 20-56, last week: 26)
#25 Sacramento Kings (nERD: 36.8, Record: 26-50, last week: 25)
#24 Denver Nuggets (nERD: 38, Record: 28-49, last week: 23)
#23 Brooklyn Nets (nERD: 40.4, Record: 36-41, last week: 24)
#22 Miami Heat (nERD: 41.3, Record: 34-43, last week: 22)
#21 Detroit Pistons (nERD: 45.7, Record: 30-47, last week: 21)
#20 Charlotte Hornets (nERD: 46.6, Record: 33-43, last week: 19)
#19 Boston Celtics (nERD: 47.2, Record: 35-42, last week: 20)
#18 Milwaukee Bucks (nERD: 48.5, Record: 38-39, last week: 17)
#17 Indiana Pacers (nERD: 49.2, Record: 34-43, last week: 18)
Hold on to your seats for the 6, 7, and 8 seed fights folks! The Bucks keep going backwards (having lost four of their last 10) to allow the Pacers, Celtics, Hornets and even Heat and Nets all a chance to nab a playoff spot. These six teams are only separated by 8.8 points in nERD in our standings, and just 4.5 games separate them in the NBA standings.
The team that currently lines up with the hardest chance to make the playoffs is the Hornets as they have the Hawks, Rockets and Raptors (all with a lot on the line as well) as three of their five remaining opponents -- a big reason our algorithms give them just a 11% chance shot to make the playoffs. They're only 1.5 games behind the 8 seed, but they have the Heat and Pacers ahead of them in the standings.
The team that is surprisingly ahead of the Heat, Pacers, and Hornets is the Boston Celtics. Our algorithms give the Celtics a 46% chance of making the playoffs despite two critical matchups with the Cavaliers (who still need a few wins to lock up their division and the 2 seed).
And finally, thanks to the Heat going 3-7 in their last 10 games and winning 9 of their last 11 games themselves, the Nets are currently the 7 seed. And with the Hawks being the only top-10 team remaining on their schedule, the Nets have a 81.8% chance to make the playoffs when it was 21.0% just two weeks ago.
#16 Phoenix Suns (nERD: 49.8, Record: 39-38, last week: 15)
#15 Utah Jazz (nERD: 50.6, Record: 35-42, last week: 16)
#14 New Orleans Pelicans (nERD: 52.7, Record: 41-35, last week: 14)
#13 Oklahoma City Thunder (nERD: 53.8, Record: 42-35, last week: 12)
Separated by just 1.1 nERD points in our standings and a half game in the West are the Oklahoma City
Westbrooks Thunder and the Anthony Davis-led Pelicans as they battle for the right to play the Warriors.
However, the Pelicans will have to go through the gauntlet to prove they belong. Four of their six remaining games are against top-10 teams. But the Thunder have gone on a three-game losing streak against some of the West's best and face a hot Spurs team in their next matchup. They have it slightly easier as only two of their remaining five opponents are top-10 teams and currently hold the better chance (61.2% to 38.8%) to make the playoffs over the Pelicans.
#12 Washington Wizards (nERD: 54.8, Record: 44-33, last week: 13)
#11 Chicago Bulls (nERD: 56.9, Record: 46-31, last week: 11)
#10 Toronto Raptors (nERD: 57.8, Record: 45-32, last week: 10)
Don't expect the Wizards to jump up to the 3 or 4 seed anytime soon despite being just a game behind Toronto and two behind Chicago. Four of their five games are on the road, and they have been horrendous on the road, winning just 16 of their 37 road contests this season. The Raptors are in the same situation with all but one of their remaining five games being on the road too (and went just 19-18 in road games), but since they won their division, they are assured of at least the 4 seed.
Chicago currently has a one-game lead on the Raptors for the 3 seed in the East, and they likely want to stay there. With games against some of the worst teams in the league (only one top-10 matchup), the Bulls should maintain this lead and could face the current 6 seed, the Bucks. Chicago went 3-1 against them this year. A fall to the 4 seed would mean another playoff matchup with the Wizards, who they split the regular season series with. Miami and Brooklyn loom though, and both are fighting for a playoff spot. Each could potentially make a first-round series tough for the Bulls.
#9 Houston Rockets (nERD: 58.3, Record: 53-24, last week: 9)
But while the East is looking tight, it's even more complicated for the top seeds in the Western Conference. As we mentioned last week, the Southwest Division could send five teams to the playoffs, and it's three of those teams (Houston, Memphis, and San Antonio) that have the most on the line seeding-wise right now. Let's start with the Rockets.
The Rockets currently hold the 2 seed in the West, but our rankings suggest that the Rockets may be playing above themselves. Keeping a hold on the 2 seed would allow the Rockets to avoid the Warriors for as long as possible.
Having the 2 seed would also allow Houston to face an "easier" opponent in the Mavericks for the first round, against whom they went 3-1 in the regular season. If they drop to the 3 seed, they would face either the Grizzlies, Spurs, or Clippers.
They split the series with Memphis and Los Angeles and have two games left against San Antonio. If the the Southwest comes down to tiebreakers, the Rockets could be in for a big headache -- earning at least a split with the Spurs and winning two of their last three could be just enough for James Harden and company to capture the division.
#8 Memphis Grizzlies (nERD: 58.6, Record: 52-25, last week: 8)
If the Southwest division does come down to tiebreakers, the Grizzlies currently have an edge in both their divisional record (8-7) and conference record (33-15). Wednesday's game against the Pelicans will be critical for their divisional record if they tie with the Rockets for the division lead. A win against the Pelicans coupled with the Rockets winning at least two of their divisional game could force the conference tiebreaker. They currently have a two-game edge over Houston in that department. The Grizzlies won't have it easy either as four of their five remaining opponents are in the top 15 in our rankings.
#7 Dallas Mavericks (nERD: 60, Record: 46-31, last week: 6)
#6 Portland Trail Blazers (nERD: 60.6, Record: 50-27, last week: 7)
The Blazers can't drop below the 4 seed because they won the Northwest division, but they can lose home court advantage if their record isn't better than the 5 seed's. They can likely net another win when they face Minnesota, but with the rest of their opponents all in the top-15 (and something on the line for all of them but the Warriors), losing home-court could hurt as they are 19-19 on the road and 31-8 at home, one of only 4 teams with 30 or more home wins.
#5 Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD: 61.8, Record: 50-27, last week: 5)
#4 Atlanta Hawks (nERD: 64.1, Record: 57-19, last week: 4)
#3 San Antonio Spurs (nERD: 66.1, Record: 51-26, last week: 3)
The Spurs have been on fire lately, winning 17 of their last 20 to battle for the Southwest division crown. However, if tiebreakers are needed, they won't go their way as they're 6-7 in their division and 28-19 in the conference currently -- with two games against the Rockets and a season finale against the Pelicans (who could still be battling for the 8 seed), the Spurs don't have an easy task. They'll likely have to win four of five, if not all five, to win the division and claim at least the 3 seed in the conference.
The Spurs would benefit from moving up from the 6 seed. The defending champs have struggled on the road this year (20-18) but have been great at home (31-8) this season, so moving up to the 5 seed and earning home court advantage over the Blazers could prove critical to their postseason run.
#2 Los Angeles Clippers (nERD: 72.3, Record: 52-26, last week: 2)
The Clippers may be in the best spot right now, even if the 5 seed isn't ideal -- but as we've been saying, the 5 seed will likely have home-court advantage over the Blazers right now. That would allow our most efficient offense in the league (with an Offensive Rating of 112.5) to stay at home and face a Portland team they beat three times this year. However, if Southwest division teams continue to beat up on each other, the Clippers could squeeze back into the 2 seed, as only one of their four remaining opponents are a top-10 team in our rankings.
#1 Golden State Warriors (nERD: 81.5, Record: 63-14, last week: 1)