The NBA trade deadline is officially behind us, and most of the promising players who hit the market after the deadline have already landed with their new teams. That means the league’s collective focus shifts from player development to standings and how the most important games will play out in the final 48 days of the regular season.
This is the first time the top 10 teams in each conference have qualified for at least one round of play, meaning there will be more teams than ever at the finish line.
A quick update on how the play-in tournament works: The teams finishing seventh and eighth in the standings will play each other. The winner gets the 7th place. Teams finishing in ninth and tenth place will also compete. The loser of this game is eliminated. The winner faces the loser of the 7-8 match, and the winner of that match is seeded in place 8.
This means three important games followed by a qualifying tournament:
– Race to finish in the top six to guarantee a playoff spot
– Race to finish seventh or eighth to make the playoffs with a win
– Race to finish tenth to give your team a chance.
For the rest of the season, there will be at least one game every night that will have an impact on the important battles in the standings. Here is the breakdown of what is most important, starting with the eastern peak.
Stephen A. Smith explains why he’s not a Nets fan and adds LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.
Upper Seed East
The Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks have all separated themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference. The team that emerges from this group and finishes the season with the best record in the East will have two distinct advantages.
First, they have home field advantage, at least until the NBA Finals. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the first of these three teams should avoid meeting the other two, at least until the finals of the conferences.
While there are some interesting teams further down, including the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, all but the top three teams in the playoffs in the East are currently hovering around .500. For a team like the 76ers, who are currently ahead of the Nets in the semifinals, playing against one of these teams in the second round would be a huge advantage over a previous playoff run against Milwaukee or Brooklyn.
The three biggest teams have recently taken steps to strengthen their squads for the coming period. The Bucks got forward P.J. Tucker, the 76ers got guard George Hill and the Nets added players Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge after being bought out by their previous teams.
The Nets visit the 76ers on April 14 (7 p.m. ET on ESPN), while the Bucks meet the Sixers in back-to-back games on April 22 (7 p.m. ET on TNT) and April 24. April (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). The outcome of these games could play a big role in the final order of this trio, but ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives the Sixers the edge to hold onto the top spot, in part because Philadelphia has the fifth easiest schedule, well ahead of Milwaukee (14th) and Brooklyn (19th).
East game to
When the NBA resumed play last season, the league added a special feature for the finals of the playoffs when the eighth- and ninth-place teams were separated by four games or less in the standings after the playoffs. The East, where the Washington Wizards performed poorly on the bubble. This will be the first year fans will get to see an Eastern Conference game.
And reaching that point can be a total disaster.
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The Knicks and Charlotte Hornets are currently tied in fourth place, just two games ahead of the Indiana Pacers who are in ninth place. The Chicago Bulls are in 10th place, two games behind Indiana and two games ahead of the Toronto Raptors. Any of these teams, along with the Celtics, Heat and Atlanta Hawks, can finish in the top six to avoid the playoff round or drop to 11th place.
BPI predicts the Celtics and Heat – last year’s Eastern Conference finalists – will finish fourth and fifth, respectively. Boston added Evan Fournier and Miami took Trevor Ariza, Victor Oladipo and Nemanja Belica early. The Hornets are expected to finish sixth and make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The Bulls are expected to finish 11th and miss the playoffs, despite two trades at the deadline to acquire All-Star Nikola Vucevic and big man Daniel Theis.
Western Game at
The situation isn’t as chaotic in the West, where a tier has emerged between the top six teams and the rest of the playoff contenders.
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Wednesday, March 31
– Mavericks v Celtics, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
– Bucks v Lakers, 10 p.m. on ESPN
The ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and tenth-seeded Golden State Warriors will try to hold off the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans, who are separated by just two games. Sacramento and New Orleans had to give up players – Nemanja Bjelica and J.J. Redick, respectively – but retained others in hopes of making the playoffs.
Game 7/8 is also out of reach for both teams, as the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks are just ½ game ahead of Memphis. In fact, BPI predicts that the Warriors will likely play games 7-8 against the Mavs, while the Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs will likely meet in games 9-10.
Where will the Lakers end up?
Always the 18th. In March, the Los Angeles Lakers were second in the West, just 1.5 games behind the Utah Jazz. The idea that they could finish the tournament on a play-by-play basis was ridiculous. But then LeBron James suffered a sprained ankle and joined superstar Anthony Davis on the sidelines.
Suddenly, the defending champions looked vulnerable, losing four games in a row before posting two home victories over the league’s two worst teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic. Now the Lakers are as close to the Mavericks, ranked seventh, as they are to the Jazz, ranked first, and the idea that the poor Lakers will play a game is not that far off.
James will be gone for a few weeks. Davis, who has a calf strain and tendinosis in his right leg, just returned to the field. None of these stars will be back to help soon, which doesn’t bode well for the team’s offense. The Lakers are 23rd in the league in points since Davis left the team in mid-February and 29th in the five games James and Davis have missed.
They received reinforcements this weekend in the form of Andre Drummond, who averaged 17.5 PPG this season in Cleveland before being acquired.
The Lakers have the second-best roster, and the two teams right behind them in the standings – the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers – both made strides to improve at the trade deadline. BPI ESPN is currently predicting that the Lakers will retain fourth place in the West, but winning with both stars won’t be easy.
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