Examining the Eastern Conference Playoff Race: Who Will Claim the 6, 7, and 8 Seeds?
It's no real surprise that the Western Conference playoff race is a heated one.
I mean, 11 of the top 16 teams -- and 7 of the top 9 -- in our power rankings are in the West. The whole conference is just so good from top top bottom and start to finish that it makes us reconsider everything we know about how playoffs in professional sports operate.
It's like a work of art, honestly, with all of its ins-and-outs on a nightly basis, its many subplots (the Thunder, the Spurs, the Warriors), and its genuine mystique: we really know nothing about how things will end because of all the talented teams. It's like the Hamlet of playoff races except without the ghosts.
But if the West is like Hamlet, then the East is probably more along the lines of Much Ado About Nothing. Yeah, the name will likely prove apropos by the Eastern Conference Finals, but Paul George is back from the dead, the Celtics might get to postpone their punishment of being a middle-of-the-pack squad by clinching playoff berth, and there's a dark humor about the unfortunate fates of average NBA teams shrouding all of it.
Simply put, the Eastern Conference playoff race is undeniably a bit comedic, but because of its underlying truth -- that one of these teams can actually make a push in the playoffs -- it cannot be dismissed because it doesn't quite live up to its Western counterpart.
The Potential Six
According to our algorithms, six teams have a shot to secure the 6, 7, and 8 seed in the East. Currently, the Milwaukee Bucks own the 6 seed, the Brooklyn Nets own the 7 seed, and the Boston Celtics own the 8 seed. Odds are, that's how the playoffs will round out.
|Team||Record||Playoffs||Champs||Proj W||Proj L||Offense||Defense||nERD||nERD Rank|
Five of the six teams -- Charlotte excluded -- have only five games left to play. Charlotte has six. The Bucks currently hold a 2.0-game advantage over the Nets for the 6 seed but trail the Wizards by 6.0 games for the 5 seed.
Only one team in the mix has a winning record in its last 10 games (Brooklyn is 8-2), and only one team has a positive point differential on the season (Milwaukee is at +0.1).
Further, none of these teams has better than a 0.80 percent chance to win the NBA Finals, which isn't exactly news, because not a single one of them is projected to finish at least .500 on the season. That's why no team has a nERD, which aims to predict a team's winning percentage, better than 50.0.
In fact, Milwaukee, the likely 6 seed in the East is just the 18th-best team in the NBA, per our math.
Are They All Pretenders?
If the question is whether three of these teams will make the playoffs, the answer is obviously yes. But if the question is whether any of them can really take advantage of a potential first-round matchup against the Hawks, Cavaliers, Raptors, Bulls, or Wizards, then the answer is still pretty obvious. Each of the six are below average based their full season, but three of them, at least, are on the right side of 16 in terms of Net Rating (Offensive Rating minus Defensive Rating) since the All-Star Break.
|Post All-Star Break||Win%||Rank||ORtg||Rank||DRtg||Rank||NetRtg||Rank|
The Bucks just haven't been what they used to be since the All-Star Break, but the Pacers have actually been a top six team in terms of Net Rating since the festivities. The Celtics are nearly a top-12 team since the Break, too. It's not inconceivable to think that one of these teams could actually advance, but since the Bucks have the best bet to secure the 6 seed (and avoid the Hawks and Cavaliers), it's shaping up to be too little too late for the rest of the pack.
The big question is, then, can the Bucks really hold onto the 6 seed? Based on schedule, it's likely.
Here is the remaining schedule for the six teams in contention.
|1||CLE||ATL||at DET||at NYK||CHA||at MIA|
|2||at NYK||WAS||at CLE||at DET||CHI||TOR|
|3||BKN||at MIL||CLE||OKC||TOR||at ATL|
|4||at PHI||CHI||TOR||WAS||ORL||at DET|
|5||BOS||ORL||at MIL||at MEM||at PHI||HOU|
Here it is broken down game-by-game and nERD-by-nERD.
The Bucks have the easiest average opponent remaining and an easy schedule throughout. The Heat actually have the second easiest schedule left, though the Bulls and Raptors loom. Indiana's schedule gets tougher by the game, but overall, there isn't too much resistance.
Who Will Get In?
Factoring in schedule and current standings, the algorithms still expect things to stay the same way and give the Bucks, Nets, and Celtics the best shot to secure a postseason berth. However, the Pacers and Heat could take advantage of winnable schedules.
The Pacers are the best team in the race, based on nERD, but own just a 26.0 percent chance to make the playoffs. Still, they're playing like a top six team in the league since the All-Star Break, and that could cause any team -- even the Hawks or Cavs -- to sweat a first-round matchup with last year's number-one seed in the East.
For the sake of the first round's watchability, let's hope the Pacers can sneak in and make some noise. Unless you're a Nets, Celtics, Heat, or Hornets fan, that is.