Image copyright: Bleacher Report
Standings watching began earlier than usual this NBA season.
Even before the All-Star break, teams recognized the tightly bunched Western and Eastern conferences.
No seed in either conference is nailed down. Houston and Golden State are vying for the No. 1 in the West, and Toronto and Boston are battling for the top seed in the East. Through Monday’s games, the Rockets were a ½ game up on the Warriors, and the Raptors were 1½ games in front of the Celtics.
Spots 3-8 in both conferences are up for grabs – just 3½ games separated third place from eighth place in the East, and just four games separated third place from 10th in the West.
“That’s what makes the NBA great,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s what makes it better than it’s ever been because of this parity and all the plots and storylines that are going on.”
It’s rare that both conferences have such close playoff races, and this is the closest at this point in the season over the past 18 years. In 2011-12 – a season shortened to 66 games because of a lockout – six games were between spots 3-8 in the East and 5½ games between 3-11 in the West through games of March 4.
The standings are like an elevator. Teams go up, teams go down. How competitive is it? Houston won 15 consecutive games and still had just a ½ game lead over Golden State. Utah has won 15 of its last 17 games but can’t even crack the top eight in the West.
While in October, the grueling NBA season is considered a marathon and not a sprint. But with one quarter of the season left, it’s a mad dash to the finish line.
Toronto and Boston have the top two seeds in the East just about locked up with five weeks remaining in the regular season. But that race is undecided, and they play each other two more times in what could determine who wins the East.
After that – in order through Monday’s games – Cleveland, Indiana, Washington, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Miami are jammed tight, and the Cavaliers are just two games head of Philadelphia for the sixth seed.
The Pacers have the most difficult schedule remaining in the East, according to basketball-reference.com, with 13 of their 18 remaining games against playoff-bound or playoff-caliber teams – including Golden State twice and Toronto twice.
Washington also has a tough schedule remaining and is without injured All-Star point guard John Wall. The Wizards are six games into a stretch of 13 consecutive games against teams that are playoff bound by today’s standings.
Ten of Cleveland’s remaining 19 games are against teams in playoff contention but 11 of those games are on the road including six in a row starting Wednesday in Denver. There’s no guarantee the Cavs hold onto to the third or fourth spot, and this will be LeBron James’ lowest seed since the 2008 playoffs.
The stakes are even higher in the West, where this game of musical chairs might wind up costing some team – or two – dearly.
With eight teams vying for six spots and less than five weeks to go, consider the possible ripple effects in play.
As free agency recruitment efforts go, it couldn’t get much worse than the Oklahoma City Thunder missing the playoffs just a few months before they hope to re-sign Paul George. The five-time All-Star small forward has made it clear that this isn’t a championship-or-bust situation, but it’s hard to imagine him feeling bullish on the OKC situation if he was going fishing by mid-April. This, of course, is music to the Lakers’ ears.
There’s a bigger picture in play for the Spurs, too, as they’re not only in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in 20 years but also of having their long-term vision fall out of focus. It’s challenging enough that franchise centerpiece Kawhi Leonard is still out indefinitely after playing in just nine games and that his mysterious recovery process from quadriceps tendinopathy has created a well-chronicled divide between him and the organization. But there’s this, too: Leonard is eligible for a supermax contract extension this summer, meaning the Spurs will have to sift through all these subplots while deciding if he’s still the one they want to build around. San Antonio has lost eight of its last 11 games.
Meanwhile in Minnesota, one of the season’s best success stories turned sour quickly after Jimmy Butler tore his meniscus on Feb. 23. There’s still a chance the four-time All-Star returns in time for the playoffs, but the Timberwolves – owners of the league’s longest playoff drought that began in 2005 – would have to get there first. They’re 2-2 thus far without Butler, and a brutal schedule awaits in the next two weeks: Home against Boston and Golden State, at Washington and San Antonio, then back home against Houston and the Clippers (winners of 11 of their past 15).
The New Orleans Pelicans are the most unexpected playoff contenders in the bunch, as they’ve won nine of 14 games – and eight straight – since All-Star center and soon-to-be free agent DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear on Jan. 26. All hail Anthony Davis, whose late entry into the MVP conversation has served as the latest reminder that the Pelicans don’t ever want to let him get away.
The 24-year-old can be a free agent in 2020, but there’s already widespread speculation that the Celtics and likely others will keep trying to land him via trade long before then. Davis’ happiness level is the key to this situation, and it’s safe to assume that a second playoff berth in six years would go a long way toward him feeling good about this season. This late stretch can’t hurt when it comes to the prospect of re-signing Cousins, either, as he’s seeing the Pelicans’ potential on full display.
It wasn’t too long ago that folks around the league were wondering if Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (who are both signed through 2021) were going to stay together for the long haul, but the prospect of a high seed has quieted that noise. The Blazers have won seven consecutive games, and nine out of 10, while rising to No. 3 in the West. Lillard has played his way into the MVP conversation as well, averaging 33.5 points, six assists and 3.9 rebounds in the past 10 games.