NBA Playoff Race Update: Are the Rockets Slipping Out of the Picture?

The Houston Rockets are only one year removed from making the Western Conference Finals and might not even make the postseason this year. What are their chances?

Every Friday for the last three weeks, we've been releasing a new edition of this column to update the NBA playoff picture. With the season coming to a close this coming Wednesday, this will represent the last such update.

One last time, 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 (or have already clinched a spot).

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 (56-23, clinched)
(2) Toronto Raptors (52-26, clinched)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (47-32, clinched)
(4) Boston Celtics (46-32, clinched)
(5) Miami Heat (46-32, clinched)
(6) Charlotte Hornets (45-33, clinched)
(7) Indiana Pacers (42-36, 99.8%)
(8) Detroit Pistons (42-37, 98.0%)

The Cavaliers are now 3.5 games ahead of the Raptors for the top spot in the East, so the only way the Raps could catch up is if they win all four of their remaining games and the Cavs lose all three of theirs. Because that's not very likely to happen, and no one else can catch the Raptors for second at this point, the top two seeds are pretty well locked in place.

After that, third to sixth place seems destined to come down to the final day of the season. The Hawks, Celtics, Heat, and Hornets are all separated by a game and a half in the standings with three to four games remaining each (and interestingly enough, the Celtics play the other three teams once each to close out the season). The tiebreaker situation has the potential to get pretty complicated because the rules change depending on if there are two or more teams that end the season with the same record. 

If two teams are tied, the first tiebreaker will be based on the head-to-head record, then if one of the two teams is a division winner (which is possible for the Hawks, Heat, and Hornets), then divisional record (if the teams are in the same division, as the Hawks, Heat, and Hornets are), then conference record, and so on. If there are more than two teams tied, then being a division winner takes precedent over head-to-head record, then comes divisional record (if all teams are in the same division), then conference record, and so on. There are a lot of different ways this thing could end, so it's probably best not to think about it too much and just see how it all plays out.

Finally, the Pacers and Pistons (separated by only half a game for the seventh spot) are very close to clinching their respective playoff berths, so they graduate from being Bubble Teams to Sure Things this week for the first time. They each only have one possible scenario that could cost them a trip to the postseason, which we'll discuss below.

Bubble Teams

(9) Chicago Bulls (39-40, 0.2%)
(10) Washington Wizards (38-40, 2.0%)

Honestly, the Bulls and Wizards should both be categorized under Dead or Dying instead of as Bubbles Teams, but it's important to highlight that each team still has a shot at making the playoffs (but boy, is it a long one).

In fact, they both only have one remaining scenario that would result in a postseason berth. For the Bulls to make it, they need to win their three remaining games and have the Pacers lose all four of theirs. That would result in the teams having identical 42-40 records and the Bulls would win the tiebreaker because they won the season series between the two teams 3-1 (the same scenario would not work with the Pistons, though, because the Bulls lost that season series). 

Meanwhile, for the Wizards to make it, they'd have to win all four of their remaining contests and have the Pistons lose all three of theirs. That would result in both teams having identical records of 42-40 and the Wizards would win the tiebreaker because they've already won the season series, having taken the first three meetings with the final matchup taking place tonight (the same scenario would not work with the Pacers, though, because the Wizards dropped that season series). 

So, yeah, don't count on either the Bulls or Wizards making the playoffs this year.

Dead or Dying

(11) Orlando Magic (33-45, eliminated)
(12) Milwaukee Bucks (32-46, eliminated)
(13) New York Knicks (31-48, eliminated)
(14) Brooklyn Nets (21-57, eliminated)
(15) Philadelphia 76ers (10-68, eliminated)

These five teams were all eliminated from playoff contention at this time last week. They are all still very much eliminated. 

Moving on.

Western Conference

Sure Things

(1) Golden State Warriors (70-9, clinched)
(2) San Antonio Spurs (65-13, clinched)
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder (54-25, clinched)
(4) Los Angeles Clippers (50-28, clinched)
(5) Memphis Grizzlies (42-36, clinched)
(6) Portland Trail Blazers (43-37, clinched)

The Grizzlies and Trail Blazers both clinched playoff berths this week but have been headed in distinctly different directions. The Grizzlies are injury-ridden and have lost 10 of their last 13 contests, while the Blazers have been defying expectations all season long and have won eight of their last 11 games. 

The Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers are all locked into their current seeds heading into the playoffs, but the Trail Blazers could still overtake the Grizzlies for fifth before all is said and done. If the Blazers don't end with a better record outright, they currently have a better record against Western Conference opponents, which would most likely be the prevailing tiebreaker because the two teams split the season series, neither has a chance of winning a division, and they aren't in the same division.

For what's it worth, we're projecting the Trail Blazers to win 44 games and the Grizzlies to win 43.

Bubble Teams

(7) Dallas Mavericks (40-38, 87.9%)
(8) Utah Jazz (39-39, 75.5%)
(9) Houston Rockets (38-41, 36.6%)

This time last week, the Mavericks had the lowest playoff odds of these three Bubble Teams, but after a 3-0 week, they now have a full one-game lead on the eighth-place Jazz and 2.5 games on the ninth-place Rockets. The Jazz are also in a good position after a 2-1 week, now sitting 1.5 games ahead of the Rockets. 

The Rockets, meanwhile, are slipping out of the picture after going 1-2 this week and dropping from having the best playoff odds of these three teams to the worst in the process. There's still hope, however. Houston plays their last three games against three teams with nothing left to play for but lottery balls in the Los Angeles Lakers (16-62), the Minnesota Timberwolves (27-52), and the Sacramento Kings (31-48). If they can take care of business there and the remaining opponents for the Mavericks and/or Jazz can help them out a bit, the Rockets could still manage to sneak into the postseason.

Dead or Dying

(10) Denver Nuggets (32-47, eliminated)
(11) Sacramento Kings (31-48, eliminated)
(12) New Orleans Pelicans (29-49, eliminated)
(13) Minnesota Timberwolves (27-52, eliminated)
(14) Phoenix Suns (21-58, eliminated)
(15) Los Angeles Lakers (16-62, eliminated)

This time last week, the Kings were still technically in the hunt for a playoff spot, but they needed to go a perfect 7-0 to close out the season while at least two of the Bubble Teams had to finish things out going 0-6 or 0-7. That extraordinarily unlikely outcome died when the Kings lost their next game. 

As for the rest of these teams? Still eliminated. Nothing more to see here.