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Projecting the NBA Playoff Race

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LeBron JamesThe NBA’s regular season is down to its final six weeks and as is always the case every year, this time of the season usually means one thing: playoff races. There’s also that matter of tanking, but that’s a discussion for another time.

In this space, playoff races is where it’s at, because, well, you can’t underestimate just how important it is for basketball handicappers. When teams are fighting for a playoff spot, games have higher stakes because a string of losses usually means dropping out of the race while a hot run could vault a team up the standings and right smack into a higher playoff seed. Fortunately, one conference this year pretty much has a straight-forward order already, even if we’re still just days into March.

Eastern Conference

One look at the standings of the Eastern Conference and you can immediately tell that at least six teams have pretty much booked their spot in the playoffs and it would take a combination of a dry spell and hot run from any team out of contention to make things interesting. So cross out the Indiana Pacers, the Miami Heat, the Toronto Raptors, the Chicago Bulls, the Washington Wizards, and the Brooklyn Nets. They’re all likely to make the playoffs, leaving only two spots for three teams that are still in the hunt.

If the playoffs started today, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks would the bottom two seeds in the East with the Detroit Pistons missing out.

Judging by the schedules of each of the three teams, it’s probably a safe bet to assume that the Charlotte Bobcats are in. They’ve got a favorable schedule down stretch with a pair of games each against the moribund Orlando Magic and the equally depressing Philadelphia 76ers, not to mention games against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, and a home and home game against the Hawks.

Speaking of the Hawks, the schedule also favors them, even though the current six-game road-trip it’s currently in should determine whether they make it or not. They’re currently 0-2 with games against the Portland Trailblazers, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Utah Jazz still on tap. It’s reasonable to think that Atlanta can lose its next three games before winning that Jazz game. If it does better than that, it’s going to be an easier road for Atlanta with 13 of its last 20 games being played in Atlanta.

Unfortunately, that leaves out Detroit, and if being already three games behind the Hawks for the eighth seed isn’t daunting enough, the Pistons have the unenviable task of playing 14 of its last 22 games on the road. That’s a precarious position to be in for Motown’s Finest given that the team is a mediocre 10-17 on the road with games against the the Hawks, the Cliippers, Pacers, and Thunder still on the schedule.

So are we eliminating Detroit? It’s going to be a tough road for those guys and we’re confident that they can at least make either the Bobcats and/or the Hawks sweat it out, but ultimately it won’t be enough to supplant the two teams its chasing for those 7th and 8th seeds.

Western Conference

If the Eastern Conference playoff race is straight-forward, the Western Conference should provide tremendous drama heading into the final week of the season. Like the East, five teams are pretty much shoe-ins to make the playoffs: the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets, the LA Clippers, and the Portland Trailblazers. All five teams are four-and-a-half games apart from one another so that should be a pretty entertaining race for seeding purposes.

But after that, five teams are still in the running for the final three seeds in the West. We’re including the Minnesota Timberwolves because they still have an outside chance if the Dallas Mavericks and/or the Phoenix Suns plummet down the standings and the Wolves go on a hot run. The Golden State Warriors currently occupy the sixth seed, two games ahead of 10th place Memphis. Steph Curry and co. will also play 13 of its last 21 games at home where they’ve been a good enough 18-10. Home games against both Phoenix and Dallas could separate the Warriors from the pack and assure them of at least a sixth seed. Likewise, a five-game home stand against the Magic, Bucks, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Knicks are also on the docket at the end of the month. Is it reasonably to think that the Warriors can at least go 4-1 in that stretch? If it does, the team should position themselves nicely to hold off the competition when April hits.

So here we are again: three teams jostling for the final two playoff seeds in the West.

The seventh seed Mavericks are in a curious position because they’re playoff fate will likely be decided earlier than most teams. For the rest of the month, the Mavericks play the Thunder twice and the Pacers, Blazers, and Clippers once each. Those are the must-win games that Dallas needs to have on its pocket. A seven-game home stand in the last two weeks of the month should help the Mavs’ cause, especially if they’re able to beat OKC and LA as part of that home stand. If the Mavs can hit April with say, a 9-4 record to end March, it should position themselves to keep that seventh seed, possibly even catch Golden State for the sixth seed.

So its down to the Phoenix Suns and the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the West. So who are we picking?

We’re going to take Memphis to sneak into the playoffs and drop the Suns, who, for all intents and purposes, have already overachieved, out of the postseason. Looking at the schedule, both the Suns and the Grizzlies each have 14 games left on the road, and Memphis actually has a tougher stretch of games ahead. But we’re going to chalk this race up to experience. The Grizz are battle-tested and they’re 34-25 record is more of a reflection of the injuries they’ve had than the talent of the team. Now that Memphis is healthier than they’ve ever been throughout the season, this team is a legitimate playoff contender, something we unfortunately can’t say for the Phoenix Suns.

Listen, we love what they’ve done throughout the year and point guard Goran Dragic has been one of the most electrifying players in the league, but there comes a point when youth and inexperience takes a toll on your team, especially when you don’t have the kind of veteran leadership that the Grizzlies have. Phoenix will make Memphis work hard for the final seed in the West, but ultimately, we think the Grizzlies can claw their way back into the postseason where they could pose serious problems for any of the top seeds.