Can the Raptors Steal the Eastern Conference's Top Seed From the Cavaliers?
The NBA playoff race isn't overly exciting this year by any means.
There hasn't been much intrigue at the top of the Western Conference, unless you were hoping the San Antonio Spurs could catch the Golden State Warriors.
Much the same could have been said in the Eastern Conference, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors being foregone conclusions to lock down the top two seeds.
Even though there are only 19 teams with a better-than-20-percent shot to make the playoffs, according to our algorithms, there still might be a chance at a last-minute shakeup.
With 13 games left on their schedule, the Raptors are just 1.5 games back from the Cavs, who have 12 left to play.
Can they catch them and force the path to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference run through Toronto?
Based on our nERD rating, which is predictive of a team's winning percentage based on efficiency (league average is 50), the Raps are gifted some easy matchups. However, they also have some rough ones ahead.
The average nERD of their remaining schedule is 51.3, meaning they're facing above-average squads. The average rank of these teams is 14.4, solidly within the top 16.
But their schedule is both top- and bottom-heavy. They have seven games against top-11 teams and four against teams 24th or worse, per nERD.
Their median ranks in these categories -- 53.8 nERD and 11th in rank -- is, then, more daunting than their averages.
Further, the Raptors play four back-to-backs in all (one more than the Cavs).
Their two road-road back-to-backs (Houston and New Orleans and then Memphis and San Antonio) are vastly different in opponent quality on the back end.
Their road-home back-to-back (Atlanta and Indiana) features two top-11 squads.
And they've got a home-road back-to-back (Philadelphia and Brooklyn) against beatable opponents, but that does start just two days after already being in Manhattan to play the Knicks.
Does Cleveland have a tougher path?
It must be good to be king.
Although the Cavs have five of their 12 matchups against top-12 squads, they avoid any top-six teams and have a five matchups against teams ranked 21st or worse.
The average nERD of these 12 opponents is just 46.9, and their average rank is 16.8, so the Cavs are seeing below-average competition at a better rate than the Raptors are.
Plus, their median nERD scores is 46.4, slightly lower than their average, and the median rank is 17.5.
The Cavs have only three back-to-backs left to play. The first starts tonight and is a home-road tilt against the Bucks and Nets, both of whom are bottom-21 teams, per nERD. Then, they go from Cleveland against the Nets to Atlanta to face the Hawks, who rank seventh.
Their final back-to-back is of the road-road mold, facing the Bucks and Pacers, who rank 21st and 11th, respectively.
What the Algorithms Say
Our algorithms grade the Cavs as the better team. Cleveland's nERD score is 66.9 -- fourth-best in the NBA.
Toronto's 64.4 ranks sixth.
Our numbers project the Cavs (57.5-24.5) to finish two games ahead of the Raptors (55.5-26.6).
The actual gap in efficiency between the two squads is pretty small, but the schedule won't be doing Toronto any favors as they press for the Eastern Conference's top seed over the closing weeks of the season.