Here’s how the NBA landscape looks as teams position themselves from now up until the All-Star Game in Charlotte on February 17…
The Bucks and Raptors have some separation from the rest of the East as they push for the top two seed positions. As this week opens, Milwaukee and Toronto join Golden State as the only teams playing at a better than .700 clip. The Bucks and Raptors have the star power to win in the postseason, with Gianni Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard respectively.
What they don’t have is local markets that are good for TV ratings and in a league with the NBA’s history that invites questions as to whether they’ll have to be extra good to overcome teams with a more marquee profile. Which leads us to….
Both franchises are steeped in history, their fan bases passionate, their markets big and their star power good for entertainment value. I find it hard to believe they won’t each get a little extra push in the postseason from that invisible hand in the league office. But will they be good enough for it to make a difference?
Situated at #3 in the current standings, right between the Milwaukee-Toronto and Boston-Philadelphia mini-battles, Indiana is a sad case. Victor Oladipo is out for the season. The Pacers are a dead team walking. They’ll likely fall to fifth or lower in the East and even if they don’t, the loss of Oladipo eliminates any hopes they had of being a threat in the playoffs.
Brooklyn has gotten on a roll at home and gained some separation from the rest of the playoff bubble. If Indiana starts to struggle right away, the Nets could still get as high as #5 in the East. In either case, very unlikely that they could win a playoff series.
The last two playoff spots come out of this group of five teams. It’s an awfully mediocre grouping, to say the least, and there are non-playoff teams in the West that are better. That’s also another reason Milwaukee and Toronto’s position at the top is important–to draw a first-round opponent they can dispatch in four or five games.
If Golden State gets the 1-seed, the Western Conference playoffs are a foregone conclusion. Even if the Warriors don’t get the top seed, they’re still the heavy favorite. They’ve proven they can a win a road Game 7 in the playoffs. After four straight appearances in the Finals, they have to be bored with the regular season grind. The cumulative physical effect of those deep playoff runs means players have to pace themselves through the grind.
What that means is that even if Golden State struggles, I’m not going to waste time reading too much into it. And if they don’t struggle now, they sure aren’t going to come spring.
That places the focus of the West squarely on the Nuggets. They’re the only team running neck-and-neck with the Warriors for homecourt advantage in the playoffs and have been able to keep the rest of the West challengers at least at arm’s length. If the regular season in the West is about determining the challenger to the Warriors, the Nuggets lead that race right now.
The #3 seed in the West would be a nice bracket spot. You get away from Golden State, and Denver would hardly be an imposing #2. It’s a good path to the conference finals. These three teams are tightly packed in the race for that spot. The runner-ups would have to play each other, with the winner moving immediately into a beatdown by the Warriors. That makes this little three-team battle right here an important one on the Western landscape.
All three teams are consistent and they’re all overachievers. Nice stories. None of the three are going anywhere in the playoffs, and one of them will miss the postseason entirely because…
LeBron’s Lakers might be ninth in the current standings, but they aren’t missing the playoffs. At the very least, Adam Silver will find a bylaw in the league rules that prohibit a postseason starting without LeBron. And even beyond conspiracy theories, LeBron is back from his groin injury and will make Lakers legitimately good enough to move up the ladder.
All three are better than the whomever the bottom two playoff teams end up in the East being and you can make a good argument they’re all better than the Nets or the Oladipo-less Pacers. But the math to get to the postseason out of the West is imposing.