Projected NBA Playoff Picture


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(Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Connor Easterday

With the All-Star break ending, we are roughly two months away from the NBA playoffs. While we do have a rough picture of what the postseason could look like, there are questions left unanswered. Will anybody catch up to the number one Los Angeles Lakers? Who’s getting into the heated eighth spot in the West? How about the 2-3-4-5 battle in the East between the Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, and Heat? I’m going to try to answer all of these questions.

Eastern Conference

Number One Seed: Milwaukee Bucks (Projected Record: 68-14)

Has there been an easier prediction? Answer: Nope. The Bucks have relentlessly torched their path to number one in the Eastern Conference. They are currently up seven games on the second place Toronto Raptors. With a mere eight losses on the season, the Bucks are untouchable. The goal for this team will be the 70-win threshold. A bar that only two teams have reached; the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. To be in that company would certify this Bucks team as one of the greatest regular season squads ever. With a tough stretch coming up in their schedule, this may be a more difficult task than it seems. However, Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the helm of the challenge. If we know anything, the Greek Freak should be anything but doubted.

(Photo: Brandon Dill/Associated Press)

Number Two Seed: Toronto Raptors (Projected Record: 57-25)

Winning 17 of their last 18 games, Toronto has placed their stake on NBA grounds as an underestimated militia of ardent, ring-flashing champions, focused on bringing home yet another championship banner. After losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green this past offseason, that scenario seemed out of reach. They were shunned from Finals contention among NBA pundits. But boy were they all proven wrong. This team has gathered an amalgamation of passion, pride, and consistency to roll the ball as far as second place in the Eastern Conference. They’ll be marching into the playoffs with more experience than anyone else, and will look to pull off what was once deemed impossible.

Number Three Seed: Boston Celtics (Projected Record: 57-25)

The Celtics are blossoming into quite a team. The premonitions coming into this year were that Boston is at a three-year low. Well, in the past month-or-so, that theory has been put into the shredder. In fact, the opposite is true. This past Sunday, the Celtics went down to the wire with the Los Angeles Lakers in a riveting, mud fight of a battle. The Lakers walked away victorious, but the narrative was much different. Jayson Tatum went 12-20 from the floor and 4-7 from beyond the arc, putting up a total of 41 points, five rebounds, two assists, a steal, and two blocks. The game served as Tatum’s coming out party, and bringing about the possibility of the young wing being a top-15 player in the league. He also exposed a deficiency in Lakers ability to defend big wings. If his play holds through April, the Celtics could be entering the playoffs as an unforeseen title contender.

Number Four Seed: Philadelphia 76ers (Projected Record: 53-29)

The 76ers are in a bind. What do you do when your two best players are seemingly the worst fit possible for each other, yet when separated, lack the depth to contend? You can keep them apart and balance their minutes for a little while, but come the final minutes of the game, you have no choice but to play them both. Not to mention, one of their key acquisitions this off-season, Al Horford, has struggled immensely, while the rest of the team has been awkward at best. The 76ers could fill a bible-sized journal with flaws and knit picks; yet, they may go into the postseason as the most dangerous team in the East, not including the Bucks. This is the Philadelphia 76ers complex. How they conform to the final stretch of the season will be key.

Number Five Seed: Miami Heat  (Projected Record: 52-30)

The Heat are F-U-N, fun. Led by a ferocious bully in Jimmy Butler, one of the best two-way centers in Bam Adebayo, a rookie sniper Tyler Herro, two more undrafted rookies, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, and a gang of experienced role players, the Miami Heat are going to be dangerous when they get to the postseason. While they don’t have the immense talent of Philadelphia, or the Championship DNA of Toronto, the Heat do have a ridiculous amount of depth, including a mixture of youth and veteranship. This provides them with a path to go all the way, come April.

Number Six Seed: Indiana Pacers (Projected Record: 45-37)

The Pacers are stuck. While they only sit 2.5 games back from the fifth spot, Indiana seems a little stuck in the mud, amidst a promising Victor Oladipo return. On the bright side, another month and a half will allow them to become more acquainted with this newfound rotation that has slowly integrated Oladipo more and more into the offense, which should help ready them for the playoffs. The team is far from a true contender; however, don’t count them out to be a potential spoiler in the postseason.

Number Seven Seed: Orlando Magic (Projected Record: 37-45)

The Orlando Magic are 1.5 games back from the seventh-place Brooklyn Nets. With their best defender, Jonathan Isaac, likely out for the remainder of the season, and a recent slew of bad showings, why predict them to leap the Nets? A couple of reasons. One, Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn’s leading man, recently suffered a right knee sprain that will keep him out for the rest of the year. Another important note, the Magic have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. That, with the fact that Orlando just defeated Brooklyn on Monday, and remain one of the best defensive, and most versatile teams in the league, all lead me to believe that they will in fact avoid a first-round matchup with the juggernaut Milwaukee Bucks.

Number Eight Seed: Brooklyn Nets (Projected Record: 36-46)

Welp, somebody had to come in eighth. This shouldn’t bother Brooklyn fans, who will see a healthy Kevin Durant make his Nets debut next season. However, there aren’t many other ways to look at the sub -.500 team as anything but a disappointment. You could chalk it up to injuries, or chemistry, or some combination of the two. But ultimately, the season is what it is. A wash. Whether they finish in seventh or eighth doesn’t matter. A first-round exit is inevitable for this years’ Brooklyn team. There’s always next year, right? While that consolation may not serve useful for most fanbases, this one has a big ole’ pile of Kevin Durant to look forward to.

Who Missed the Cut?

Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets

Western Conference

Number One Seed: Los Angeles Lakers (Projected Record: 63-19)

The Lakers are quite a case study. They are led by two behemoths, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Other than that, who is a legitimate threat in the playoffs? Kyle Kuzma, maybe Danny Green, or Dwight Howard. Even those are a stretch. This team has seemingly no depth and they don’t precisely fit together either. Yet somehow, some way, it is increasingly impossible to imagine anybody but them defending the west in the NBA Finals. Not only that, but the Lakers may very well be the favorite to win the whole thing. So what happened here? Well, for starters, having two of the five best players in the league today probably helps. And while you can point your finger at the Front Office for not accruing the best roleplayers to play alongside them, head coach Frank Vogel has done quite a job making it work. The team is elite defensively, extremely physical and demanding on either side of the floor, and holds enough experience to make a clean shot at the title.

(Photo: Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Number Two Seed: Houston Rockets (Projected Record: 56-26)

The Houston Rockets always have and always will be doubted. When Daryl Morey came to town preaching analytics and an abundance of math that values three pointers over two pointers, he was ridiculed and smeared. Then what happened? The Rockets not only came to glory as one of the four best teams in the league, but also changed the way that basketball is played to this day. A couple years later, Morey signed Chris Paul to a massive deal. Once again, doubt, doubt, doubt. People mocked the fit of Paul next to Harden, claiming that they are both on-the-ball players who can’t operate in any other situations. Wrong again. Houston finished that year on top of the West with 65 wins. Now what? Well, a day before the trade deadline, Houston engaged in a four-team deal that sent away their only true big man. This left them with 6’5” PJ Tucker as their starting center, and nothing else. Small ball taken to another level. Was it met with optimism? Positivity? Excitement? You guessed it. People tore it apart. They wanted nothing more but to see Houston finally fail. Well you know what I’m not going to do? Fall for it. In fact, the Rockets have already begun proving the doubters wrong. They are 4-0 since making the trade, and are at an optimal spot to steal the second or third spot in the West.

Number Three Seed: Los Angeles Clippers (Projected Record: 55-27)

What a disappointment. Now I know it’s early, but the Clippers have been so underwhelming this season that there’s no other way to feel than at least somewhat let down. Steve Balmer and the Los Angeles Clippers came into the season with two new stars, and hopes to make L.A. a two-team city. Well, we’re almost done with year one, and there’s a pretty strong argument that the opposite has been done. What’s the problem, here? For one, they are littered with ball-stoppers. Even Paul George, the team’s second best player, slows down the motion and rapidity of their offense. Another thing is how the Clippers carry themselves. They play with so little effort that you’d think they already won their title. But they haven’t. If the Clippers don’t answer some of these questions by the postseason, they will only go in seriousness.

(Photo: Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images)

Number Four Seed: Denver Nuggets (Projected Record: 55-27)

The Nuggets are one of the league’s most complicated teams. At various points, many of Denver’s best players have had career-low stretches. For the first month of the season, Nikola Jokic looked like any fat, white guy off the streets, but just a foot taller. Gary Harris hasn’t been himself all season, either. But when they put it together, they are dangerous. Denver is 15-8 versus teams above .500. That’s impressive. Who knows which team we’ll see in the postseason. But whichever one it is will greatly affect their chances of moving on.

Number Five Seed: Utah Jazz (Projected Record: 52-30)

The Jazz, a team that has been more of a disappointment than a surprise so far, is still only three games behind Denver for second-place in the West. That is, without their off-season prize, Mike Conley, playing well. In fact, Conley has been a liability. If he lives up to expectation of the aggressive, playmaking guard that we have known him to be, the Jazz could shoot to another level.  

Number Six Seed: Dallas Mavericks (Projected Record: 49-33)

The Mavericks are a success story. Coming into the year, their success was based off of Luka Doncic’s potential. After the All-Star break, they are a legitimate contender for a top-three seed in the West. But there are questions. Kristaps Porzingis has been anything but a steady second option. Other than Doncic, who remains a name in the MVP race, the Mavericks truly don’t have another player for their opponents to worry about. If they can figure that out, expect them to make a run in the postseason. If not, they may be a first round exit.

Number Seven Seed: Oklahoma City Thunder (Projected Record: 48-34)

Speaking of success stories, the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the biggest surprises in the league. Yes, they have a thin bench. Yes, they have an unorthodox rotation of ball-handling point guards. Yes, they still don’t have that guy. But they do have about seven solid players who show up every night. Chris Paul is having one of the best seasons of his career, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed into one of the best young players in the league, and Steven Adams and Danillo Gallinari are perfect complements to the two. The Thunder have a difficult stretch near the end of the season, which is why I project the Mavericks to leap them. But no matter what happens the rest of the way, Oklahoma City has proven to be one of the years best wonders.

Number Eight Seed: New Orleans Pelicans (Projected Record: 41-41)

The race for eighth is heating up. Who are our contestants? The current placeholders, the Memphis Grizzlies, the ever confusing Portland Trail Blazers, and none other than the Zion-led New Orleans Pelicans. This isn’t some wishful thinking ploy to speak a Pelicans playoff push into existence. No, New Orleans is a legitimate threat to break into the top eight. They currently sit 3.5 games outside of the spot, but since Zion’s return, the Pelicans have had quite an impressive run. Yes, they are fun and flashy and run up the scoreboard. But more importantly, they are deep. The Pelicans have six-or-so guys who can get you a bucket consistently. That’s unforeseen among non-playoff teams. They also have one of the league’s softer schedules the rest of the way. While it may be a long ride there, the New Orleans playoff train is one to get on.

Who Missed the Cut?

Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs