NBA Playoff Race Update: Can the Bulls Actually Sneak In?

The Chicago Bulls seemed like a long shot to make the postseason a week ago. How much have their playoff odds changed since then?

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:

Sure Things
These are teams with a playoff probability of 99% or more. These teams would have to have the meltdown of the century to miss out on the playoffs.

Bubble Teams
These are the teams that have a good 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 (53-22, clinched)
(2) Toronto Raptors (50-24, clinched)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (45-31, clinched)
(4) Miami Heat (43-31, 100.0%)
(5) Charlotte Hornets (43-31, 100.0%)
(6) Boston Celtics (43-32, 100.0%)

The Hawks joined the Cavaliers and Raptors in clinching a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after a 3-1 week, while putting a game of separation between themselves and the cluster of the Heat, Hornets, and Celtics in the race for the last two homecourt seeds. Meanwhile, the Heat and Hornets each went 2-1, remaining in a dead heat (although Miami holds the divisional record tiebreaker), while the Celtics went 1-2 and fell half a game behind in the standings. The tiebreakers involved with the Hawks, Heat, Hornets, and Celtics are fairly convoluted, but we'll try to break down the different scenarios that are still in play in next week's final edition of this column.

Bubble Teams

(7) Detroit Pistons (40-35, 83.7%)
(8) Indiana Pacers (39-36, 80.3%)
(9) Chicago Bulls (38-37, 32.1%)
(10) Washington Wizards (36-39, 3.9%)

In the three weeks that we've been doing this column, the Pistons have gone from ninth and a 56.2% chance of making the playoffs, to eighth and a 69.7% chance, finally to seventh and an 83.7% this week. They have climbed to the top of the Bubble Teams in the East, while the Pacers' playoff odds dropped 13.3% this week after going 1-3.

Both still seem very close to being Sure Things with postseason probabilities north of 80%, but the pesky Chicago Bulls just keep hanging around. After going 2-2 this week, the Bulls raised their playoff chances from 20.6% last week to 32.1% this week and sit only a game behind the Pacers in the standings and two behind the Pistons. The kicker? They hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pacers and have a chance to even the season series with the Pistons at 2-2 on Saturday. What's more, they currently hold the advantage in divisional record against the Pistons, which would be the next tiebreaker to come into effect between the two teams should they end up with a tied head-to-head record. Things could get interesting.

Oh, and the Wizards went 1-3, losing to two lottery-bound teams in the Timberwolves and Kings and are all but done with a mere 3.9% chance of reaching the postseason at three games back of the eighth-place Pacers.

Dead or Dying

(11) Orlando Magic (32-43, eliminated)
(12) Milwaukee Bucks (31-44, eliminated)
(13) New York Knicks (30-46, eliminated)
(14) Brooklyn Nets (21-54, eliminated)
(15) Philadelphia 76ers (9-66, eliminated)

The Magic, Bucks, and Knicks were all officially eliminated from playoff contention this week. The Magic leapfrogged both the Bucks and Knicks in the standings with a 3-1 week, but all that serves to do is lower their draft lottery odds at this point.

Western Conference

Sure Things

(1) Golden State Warriors (68-7, clinched)
(2) San Antonio Spurs (63-12, clinched)
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder (53-23, clinched)
(4) Los Angeles Clippers (47-28, clinched)
(5) Memphis Grizzlies (41-34, 99.7%)

The Clippers joined the Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder in clinching a Western Conference playoff spot this week, and the seeding order of those four teams is all but locked up. The Warriors are currently 5.0 games ahead of the Spurs, who are 10.5 games ahead of the Thunder, who are 5.5 games ahead of the Clippers. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, saw their playoff likelihood dip from 100.0% to 99.7% after an 0-3 week, but they remain with the other Sure Things because they have only seven games to go and a comfortable 4.5 game lead on the ninth-place Rockets.

Bubble Teams

(6) Portland Trail Blazers (40-36, 98.5%)
(7) Dallas Mavericks (37-38, 51.8%)
(8) Utah Jazz (37-38, 71.4%)
(9) Houston Rockets (37-39, 78.6%)

The Blazers probably belong in the Sure Things group with a playoff probability of 98.5%, but I set 99% and up as the arbitrary cut-off and I'm sticking to it. That said, the head-to-head record between the Blazers and the ninth-place Rockets is even at 2-2, and Portland owns the divisional record tiebreaker that follows. Now three games ahead of the Rockets in the standings, a Blazers collapse is highly unlikely with each team having only six games to go.

Meanwhile, the playoff probabilities between the remaining three Western Conference Bubble Teams favor the Rockets (78.6%), Jazz (71.4%), and Mavericks (51.8%) in that order, despite the fact that the Rockets currently sit on the outside looking in. The three teams are only separated by half a game, but the Rockets have the best tiebreaker situation of the three. They currently have a 2-1 advantage in the season series with the Mavs (with the final game between the two taking place this coming Wednesday), and their head-to-head record against the Jazz is 2-2.

In the end, the worst-case scenario for the Rockets is that they tie both season series with a loss to the Mavericks, but their divisional record is better than both of the other teams anyway, so they would ultimately prevail if overall records remained even. Throw in the fact that Houston's remaining schedule is super soft -- facing nothing but lottery teams for their last four contests after facing the Thunder on Sunday and the pivotal game with the Mavericks on Wednesday -- and there's a chance that the tiebreakers don't come into play anyway.

Whichever way it ends up panning out, the race for those two final playoff spots between the Rockets, Jazz, and Mavericks should be super compelling to watch down the stretch of the season.

Dead or Dying

(10) Denver Nuggets (32-45, eliminated)
(11) Sacramento Kings (30-45, 0.0%)
(12) New Orleans Pelicans (28-47, eliminated)
(13) Minnesota Timberwolves (25-50, eliminated)
(14) Phoenix Suns (20-55, eliminated)
(15) Los Angeles Lakers (16-59, eliminated)

The Nuggets and Pelicans were officially eliminated from playoff contention this week, but the Kings technically remain mathematically in the race because they hold head-to-head tiebreakers with the seventh-place Mavericks and eighth-place Jazz. Regardless, for the Kings to catch up with either of those two teams, they'd need to go 7-0 in their remaining games, with one of the Mavs or Jazz going 0-7, and the ninth-place Rockets going 0-6. Because that is extremely improbable, our algorithms give them a 0.0% chance of pulling it off. Sorry, Kings fans. It ain't happening.