With less than a month to go, there is much to be decided in the NBA playoff races.
In the East, the eight seeds are almost locked, but there could be a lot of movement from No. 3 to No. 8 as teams battle for home-court advantage and easier first-round opponents.
In the West, seven teams are separated by only two games, likely leading to one of the most exciting regular-season endings we’ve seen.
Who will get those final playoff spots, and what matchups can we look forward to?
Using team power ratings driven by real plus-minus (RPM), adjusted for playing time and injuries, we simulated the final days of the season thousands of times to come up with projected wins, most likely seeds and most likely playoff opponents for each NBA team.
Toronto Raptors | Projected wins: 60.0 | Most likely seed: No. 1 (98 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Bucks
The Raptors played catch-up with the Celtics for much of the season but are quite firmly locked into the No. 1 spot now, thanks to nine consecutive wins and Boston’s stumbles. With the Celtics 4.5 games behind, the chances of the Raptors falling out of the top spot are less than 3 percent.
Their reward in slightly more than half of our simulations is a matchup with the Bucks. While Milwaukee has been outscored on the season and is just 14-10 under new coach Joe Prunty, two of the three regular-season games between the two teams ended in overtime — potentially a sign for an exciting series.
Boston Celtics | Projected wins: 55.0 | Seed: No. 2 (98 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Heat
The Celtics had a rough week, with news of player injuries coming out almost daily, which dropped them to seventh in our injury-adjusted power ratings. Though a run for the No. 1 spot appears very unlikely, it’s also unlikely Boston will drop in the standings — that happens in less than 1 percent of simulations. That means they’ll most likely have the opportunity to renew their postseason rivalry with the Heat — under quite different circumstances this time, of course. The three regular-season meetings — all before Christmas — were decided by six points or fewer. Buckle up.
Cleveland Cavaliers | Projected wins: 47.5 | Seed: No. 3 (40 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Wizards
Despite positive reviews for Cleveland’s trade deadline deals, the Cavs haven’t exactly been lighting the world on fire — after an initial hot streak, they’ve lost six of 11. And they rank just 11th in the injury-adjusted power ratings.
Yes, LeBron switches gears in the playoffs, but the question remains the same as before the deadline: Is the roster strong enough?
The Cavs will probably face the Wizards or the Pacers in the first round.
Philadelphia 76ers | Projected wins: 47.5 | Seed: No. 4 (27 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Pacers
While the Sixers stand in sixth, they are actually fairly likely to snatch the third seed away from the Cavaliers. Why? For one, with health factored in, Philly projects to be the fourth-best team in the NBA. Furthermore, having the easiest remaining schedule should help: The 76ers play only four more games against teams above .500.
Mark your calendar for their game against the Cavaliers on April 6, which could have major implications.
Indiana Pacers | Projected wins: 46.5 | Seed: No. 5 (21 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: 76ers
The Pacers are a big surprise, currently third in the East standings. And Victor Oladipo should be on MVP radar screens.
The bad news? They have the third-toughest remaining schedule. That includes two games against both the Raptors and the Warriors, although those teams now have less to fight for.
The simulations show a wide range of potential outcomes for the Pacers, including approximately a 40 percent chance of holding home-court advantage in the first round. Most likely they’ll finish fifth and face the 76ers or Cavs. The Pacers won the season series against both.
Washington Wizards | Projected wins: 46.1 | Seed: No. 6 (25 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Cavaliers
The Wizards have played fairly well in the absence of John Wall, who is scheduled to play again in about a week. Wall’s return could mean more upside in the postseason, but could also result in more uncertainty in the regular season as he tries to get back into rhythm and mesh with his teammates.
The Wizards are not out of the race for home-court advantage in the first round. To have any real chance, though, they need to take care of business at home against Indiana on Saturday.
Miami Heat | Projected wins: 43.7 | Seed: 7 (38 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Celtics
The Heat have not been convincing lately, but should benefit from the third-easiest remaining schedule. They don’t have any matchups left with East playoff rivals, and it’s not clear they would be better off finishing sixth and facing Cleveland or Philadelphia, given Boston’s injuries.
Milwaukee Bucks | Projected wins: 43.3 | Seed: No. 8 (55 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Raptors
Firing Jason Kidd has not led to big improvements — the Bucks are just 3-7 in their past 10 games and lost to Orlando on Wednesday. Fortunately for them, it looks like the ice-cold Detroit Pistons have fallen out of the race.
But Milwaukee’s bad performance will have its consequences: It’s now very likely they will finish eighth, meaning they’ll match up against the well-oiled Raptors, the NBA’s third-best team.
Houston Rockets | Projected wins: 64.4 | Seed: No. 1 (90 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Spurs
Golden State Warriors | Projected wins: 62.1 | Seed: No. 2 (90 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Pelicans
According to our projections, with the Warriors losing two of their past three, the Rockets have the No. 1 seed almost locked up, along with home-court advantage throughout the entire postseason. Given how banged up the Warriors are, their focus appears to have shifted toward getting their players healthy for the playoffs.
This would mark the first time in four seasons the Warriors are not the NBA’s top seed for the playoffs.
There is a combined 35 percent chance that one of these two powerhouses will face the Spurs, perhaps with a healthy Kawhi Leonard, in the first round. While they might prefer to avoid that matchup, for the most part it is out of their hands.
Portland Trail Blazers | Projected wins: 48.6 | Seed: No. 3 (40 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Thunder
Minnesota Timberwolves | Projected wins: 47.5 | Seed: No. 4 (28 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Jazz
Riding a 10-game winning streak, the Blazers have almost a 75 percent chance of holding home-court advantage in the first round, something few people predicted before this season.
The Timberwolves have kept themselves afloat with Jimmy Butler out and now are about 50-50 to have home court and have only a 4 percent chance of missing the playoffs.
Both teams have a wide range of potential playoff opponents, and it’s not clear they will be favored in the first round, even with home-court advantage, particularly if they match up with the surging Utah Jazz. The Blazers have a rather pedestrian power rating for a No. 3 seed, and Butler’s health is a source of uncertainty for the Wolves.
Utah Jazz | Projected wins: 46.9 | Seed: No. 5 (20 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Timberwolves
The Jazz were knocking on the Western Conference playoff door for weeks — having won 19 of 21, they are finally in for the moment.
Factoring in health, which is now a positive for Utah, the Jazz rate as the NBA’s No. 5 team, with the league’s best defense. Given how well they have been playing, the Jazz are a team no one wants to face in the first round.
Oklahoma City Thunder | Projected wins: 46.8 | Seed: No. 6 (18 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Trail Blazers
New Orleans Pelicans | Projected wins: 46.3 | Seed: No. 7 (17 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Warriors
The Thunder have not been the super-team some expected them to be. And worse, they lost defensive specialist Andre Roberson to a season-ending injury.
The Pelicans, on the other hand, have fared well since DeMarcus Cousins went down — they’re playing their best basketball of the season, in fact.
Both teams have a wide range of potential spots in the standings, from fourth to ninth.
With OKC hampered and New Orleans short on playoff experience, these project to be among the least scary first-round opponents in the West.
San Antonio Spurs | Projected wins: 45.8 | Seed: No. 8 (20 percent)
Most likely playoff opponent: Rockets
The Spurs are difficult to project given the injury to Leonard, their most important player. We’re assuming he comes back reasonably healthy and will impact the game in similar ways as he did before this season.
But with their weak play lately, the Spurs have dropped from the No. 3 spot and now reach the playoffs in only 70 percent of our simulations. If they do make the postseason, they’re about 50-50 to face either the Rockets or Warriors, which is a recipe for a quick exit unless Leonard can get back to full health.
Denver Nuggets | Projected wins: 44.9 | Seed: No. 9 (23 percent)
LA Clippers | Projected Wins: 44.3 | Seed: No. 10 (40 percent)
Denver is rated favorably by RPM projections for two big reasons: Paul Millsap is back in the lineup, and the trade of Emmanuel Mudiay to New York was a boost to the quality of the Nuggets’ backcourt.
But Denver has the worst current starting position of the West playoff contenders, meaning its chances of making the postseason are not much better than 50-50.
The Clippers don’t rate strongly and have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the league — so they make the playoffs in only 38 percent of our simulations.
Source : ESPN