The All-Star break brings about a general power structure among the NBA teams. Established contenders like Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland are at the top of their divisions and conferences. Traditional playoff locks since the decade’s start Oklahoma City, Dallas, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta, Miami, and Chicago are all finding their place among their conference’s rivals, and emerging teams like Toronto, Boston, Detroit, and Utah are all finding their place in the playoff race. These new teams take the place of last year’s playoff teams New Orleans, Memphis, Washington, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee. The NBA season is complete enough where the outcome of each team can be confidently predicted without too much deviation. Here are the predictions for how the NBA Playoffs will be seeded.
Just Missing – Memphis Grizzlies – Current Record: 31-22
The Memphis Grizzlies are currently the 5th seed in the Western Conference, but a potentially season ending injury to Marc Gasol changes everything. The Grizzlies were already overachieving at their 31-22 record they currently have because their expected win-loss record is currently 25-28. Gasol was the leading scorer at 16.6 points per game for an already shaky 21st ranked offense, and the anchor of the 16th ranked defense. The Grizzlies, despite their over .500 record, have a points per game differential of -0.9, a figure that will get worse without Gasol.
8 – Houston Rockets – Current Record: 27-28
After being a 2nd seed and a conference finalist last season, the Houston Rockets have taken a major step back despite the acquisition of former star Ty Lawson. James Harden and company have abandoned the roots of their success: defensive efficiency. That conference finalist Rockets team was an elite 8th overall in defensive rating, preceded by a 54-28 Rockets team that was a fair 13th in defense. The Houston Rockets are currently 25th in defense, despite the fact that an injury prone defensive star like Dwight Howard has only missed 11 games compared to the 41 he missed last season.
Still though, this team will manage to make the playoffs. The team is 23-21 under J.B. Bickerstaff, and the team is too talented to flounder. If the Rockets get good value in return for Dwight Howard, who they intend to trade, then Houston might even be able get a higher seed. James Harden is still dominating this season with 28.0 points, 7.0 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game, and Clint Capela has really emerged with the third most win shares (2.8) on Houston despite having only the 7th most minutes.
The Rockets will make the playoffs as long as they play defense, but apparently that has been a little much to ask of them this season.
7 – Portland Trailblazers – Current Record: 27-27
The Portland Trailblazers have overcome a lot to get to the current 7th seed they are. Four of the team’s five starters in 2014-2015 left, and replacing them are many inexperienced players. Portland though has the 7th best offense in the league behind back court duo Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Those guards combine for 45.0 points, 11.5 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game. Allen Crabbe, like McCollum, has had a break out year. His shooting has been excellent with 11.2 points per game on 47.5% field goal shooting, and 37.1% from behind the arc.
Portland also has great play from their big men. Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, and Meyers Leonard all contribute something. Plumlee provides a great energy and athleticism with his 9.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game, Vonleh and Leonard can both shoot from distance and space the floor, and Ed Davis is one of the most efficient players in the league. Davis has offensive and defensive ratings of 128 and 104, 4.5 win shares (second on Portland despite being only sixth in minutes played,) and he shoots 60.5% from the field.
This team is young and improving. They are 8-2 in their last ten games and will go into the all-star break on a three game winning streak. They don’t have the experience to be higher up, but playoffs appear to be in store for the Trailblazers.
6 – Dallas Mavericks – Current Record: 29-26
The Dallas Mavericks aren’t the same team they were that won the title in 2011, in fact from that team, only Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea remain, but Dallas is still Dallas. The Mavericks started off their season a very good 9-4, but have steadily slowed down to the point where they are now 29-26. Dallas is currently the 6th seed in the West, and being one of the most consistent teams in the NBA, they are going to stay there.
Dirk Nowitzki has shown no signs of being good for anything less than the 17.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game he averages. Chandler Parsons has gotten better with every month this season. In Feburary, Parsons is averaging 17.4 points 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Zaza Pachulia is playing amazing this season, averaging a double-double of 10.0 points and 10.7 rebounds in just 29.6 minutes per game. Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams are contributing 26.2 points per game from the back court.
They key for Dallas is to just keep winning games. No one expects this team to make noise in the playoffs, but if they can gel, there are a lot of dangerous players on this team, and they could give someone a scare.
5 – Utah Jazz – Current Record: 26-26
The Utah Jazz have a long way to go before they get this high up in the standings, but they definitely can. The Jazz are currently the 8th seed in the West with a record of 26-26. That record, however, is with 17 games missed by Derrick Favors, 20 games missed by Rudy Gobert, and 34 games missed by Alec Burks. Despite their injuries, Utah has the 5th best point differential in the Western Conference, above average ratings in both offense (10th) and defense (13th.) When Gobert and Favors start to rack up games for Utah, however, that defensive rating will be among the top five in the NBA. Utah also has a tendency to finish seasons very strong; last year’s roster, which is nearly identical roster to the current one, finished 20-11 to close out the season after starting off the season 18-33.
The Jazz are 13-7 with their healthy (besides Dante Exum) starting line-up of Raul Neto, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Favors, and Gobert. Hood has been excellent this season, and he’s gotten better every month to the point where he is now averaging 19.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game in Feburary. Hayward has been a great player for some time now. He’s averaged 19.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists on the year now. Favors is putting up 16.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and Gobert is his typical uber efficient self with 60.0% field goal shooting and offensive and defensive ratings of 120 and 99. Trey Burke, Alec Burks, and Trevor Booker have all played excellently off the bench.
Utah has a long way to climb, and nothing has been given to them, but they certainly can climp up the Western Conference standings to reach the 5th seed.
4 – Los Angeles Clippers – Current Record: 35-18
The Los Angeles Clippers have been in the news a lot recently with everything that has been going on with Blake Griffin, his suspension, and trade rumors and possibilities. It is hard to blame the Clippers for exploring their options, however, as they sit at 4th place in the West right now with an 18-5 record without Griffin, and a 17-13 record with him. The Clippers offensive rating (6th) and defensive rating (8th) are both excellent marks that show great success on both sides of the ball.
Chris Paul the best he has in years, statistically. Paul has averaged 19.3 points, 9.4 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game on the year, and 21.1 points, 10.4 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game in Janurary. Paul has been a major part of Los Angeles’ success without Griffin. So had J.J. Redick, who’s averaging 16.4 points per game on 47.5% field goal shooting and 47.6% three point shooting. Jamal Crawford is chipping in 13.5 points per game, and DeAndre Jordan is again playing very big with 12.0 points and 14.3 rebounds per game on 70.3% shooting.
The Clippers look very hard to beat right now, and only time will tell whether playing better without Griffin holds true in the playoffs.
3 – Oklahoma City Thunder – Current Record: 39-14
The Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t changed much since switching head coaches from Scott Brooks to Billy Donovan. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook still dominate. Durant is averaging 27.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game, and Westbrook is averaging 24.1 points, 10.0 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per game.
The Thunder’s big men have also had a new influence on the team’s play this season that we have not seen before. Serge Ibaka has been an established third option for some time now, but Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are both playing very well for Oklahoma City. Ibaka is putting up 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Adams is the starting center, and the team is 9.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. Kanter was excellent after being acquired from a trade with the Jazz last season, and his excellent play continues this season with 20.8 points and 13.3 rebounds per 36 minutes in a sizable role off the bench.
There is room for improvement on Oklahoma City’s 14th ranked defense, but it is still above average, and they don’t rely too heavily on defense with their 2nd most efficient offense. After getting off to a shaky 7-6 start, the Thunder have been flat out rolling with their current 39-14 record. This is a team that will be tough to beat if healthy, even for Golden State or San Antonio.
2 – San Antonio Spurs – Current Record: 45-8
The San Antonio Spurs have the highest point differential of any team in the NBA. It is a real shame that their own historic level of current success has to coincide with Golden State’s, or else everyone would be talking about the Spurs. San Antonio has the 3rd most efficient offense in the league, and the most efficient defense.
When this roster was put together over the summer, it was hard to believe the amount of talent that was on one team between Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and David West. All of those players are extremely good at what they do, and they have gelled quite greatly as evidenced by their 45-8 record.
Leonard and Aldridge are both all-stars. Aldridge has taken a step back statistically from his Portland days, but still has averaged 17.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Leonard has simply been at an MVP level. He is averaging 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game with offensive and defensive ratings of 122 and 94. The starting line-up is composed of all-stars and hall of famers, while the bench is number one in the entire NBA. It is very hard to beat a team like that, and it will be even harder in the postseason.
1 – Golden State Warriors – Current Record: 48-4
The Golden State Warriors are on pace to have the best record in NBA history. To not have them as the number one team would be nonsense. Stephen Curry continues to defy everyone who doubts him, as he is on his way to his own personal greatness. Curry is averaging 29.8 points, 6.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.1 steals in just 33.8 minutes per game. Klay Thompson is putting up 21.3 points per game of his own. Draymond Green made his first all-star team this season with 14.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game to go along with terrific defense and energy, and everyone else just rains in points.
To no one’s surprise, Golden State has the best offense in the league, and they also have the 4th best defense in the league as well. Of the four games they lost, the Warriors did not have Harrison Barnes nor Draymond Green against Denver, Barnes or Curry against Dallas, Barnes against Milwaukee, but against Detroit, their entire starting line-up was healthy. The Warriors have yet to lose at home, and if they didn’t lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Spurs, or Thunder at home, there is a very real possibility that the Warriors go 41-0 at home.
No one wants to play this team. This team has as much a chance to win it all as any team in NBA history during their given year. They are just that good.
Just Missing – Detroit Pistons – Current Record: 27-27
The Detroit Pistons came a long way from their 3-19 start last season to this season. So to has Andre Drummond; the best center in the league. Drummond is averaging 17.0 points and 14.9 rebounds per game. Those are insane numbers that have only been seen four times during the three point era (after 1979:)
Drummond is in very good company with those three other players, and he has the best shooting percentage among all of them with 51.8%. Unfortunately though, Drummond’s team has not been as great as Drummond himself. Reggie Jackson is playing well with 19.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game, but Jackson needs to do a better job getting his teammates involved, as Jackson averages an entire 1.2 more assists in wins than in losses. The other starters, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, and Ersan Ilyasova have all chipped in with scoring, combining for 39.7 points per game between the three of them. The bench, however, has not been great.
After getting off to a quick 5-1 start, Detroit has been about a .500 team at 27-27 now. Usually that would be good enough to make the playoffs out east, but not this season.
8 – Charlotte Hornets – Current Record: 27-26
After a one year absense, Charlotte looks like they will return to the playoffs once again. Kemba Walker is playing fantastically with 20.5 points, 5.0 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game. Nicolas Batum is playing great as a point forward with 14.9 points, 5.6 assists, and 6.5 rebounds per game, and Charlotte is getting great contributions from its bench. The Hornets have the 13th best offense and 11th best defense in the NBA, and it will only get better as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson work their way back from injury.
Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, and Marvin Williams have all stepped up with the secondary scoring load. They all can score in multiple ways, and have combined for 33.1 points per game. The Hornets’ new secondary scoring help to Walker and Jefferson are a reason they are primed to return to the playoffs again.
This team is simply built better than Detroit, and that is why they will edge them out for the playoff spot if Kidd-Gilchrist and Jefferson return soon enough.
7 – Indiana Pacers – Current Record: 28-25
The Indiana Pacers got off to a great start this season. At one point they were the 2nd best team in the East with a record of 12-5. They have the 2nd best defense in the league behind superstar forward Paul George and his 23.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. The offense, however, is suspect. The Pacers only have the 22nd best offense in the league despite having great options like George, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, and George Hill.
It is really quite bizarre why Indiana can’t seem to win games they are in control of. Their expected win-loss record is 31-22, but their actual record is only 28-25. It is hard to criticize teams that overachieve due to defense though, and that is what the Pacers have done.
Paul George is going to be a match-up nightmare in the playoffs, whatever team plays them can only hope that Indiana doesn’t get much from their other guys.
6 – Miami Heat – Current Record: 29-24
The Miami Heat are another team that is back in the playoffs after a one year absense. They are also another team that prides itself on defense. Despite having many offensive options like Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, and Amar’e Stoudemire, all of whom have been 20 point per game scorers or all-stars at one point in their career, they only have the 26th best offense in the league. It is on defense, that they have been 7th in the league, and a force led by center Hassan Whiteside.
Whiteside is averaging 12.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per game, very good numbers in just 28.2 minutes per game. Bosh is averaging 19.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as the new face of the Heat franchise. Wade is averaging 18.7 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.0 rebounds per game as his career winds down. Those three guys are the Heat’s best players, and they have not gotten too much help from other players.
The Heat are 29-24, but without a consistent three point threat, this team doesn’t have a chance to be on top of the East.
5 – Chicago Bulls – Current Record: 27-25
The Chicago Bulls started off an excellent 22-12, but have since gone 5-13. Injuries to Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Rose, and Jimmy Butler are to blame, as well as the fact that seven of these eighteen games occured on a road trip, with 13 total games on the road of the last 18. The Bulls have been plagued with offensive inefficiency that Head Coach Fred Hoiberg was supposed to fix, yet the Bulls have only the 25th best offense in the league. The 10th best defense is redeeming for them, and it is why they have a +.500 record, if barely.
Jimmy Butler has been terrific with 22.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Pau Gasol continues to defy father time with 17.0 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.0 blocks per game, and Derrick Rose has played in 87% of his games: a mark he hasn’t hit since the 2010-2011 MVP year. In those games, Rose averages 15.9 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game.
The Bulls have beaten just about every legitimate team besides Golden State. They’ve beat the Spurs, and they’ve gone 2-0 against Oklahoma City, Cleveland, and Toronto. For them, it is about consistency and finding reliable offense.
4 – Boston Celtics – Current Record: 32-23
The Boston Celtics have defied all odds this season. They now sit with the East’s third best record despite not having one traditional superstar. Isiah Thomas has played like one, however, as he got selected to the all-star game with averages of 21.5 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.0 rebounds per game. The Celtics are already a great 32-23, and their expected win-loss record is even better at 35-20. The Celtics have the 9th best offense in the NBA and the 3rd best defense. They have about 10 guys who must be guarded on their roster. It is their unique balance and combination of talent that makes them so dangerous.
They have depth at every position. They have Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley at guard. Jae Crowder and Evan Turner the wing positions as well, and a plethora of bigs like Jared Sullinger, David Lee, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, and Jonas Jerebko.
This team is scary to play against because their balance at each position makes them so new and unlike anyone else in the NBA. They go after the opposing’s team weakness because that is their strength.
3 – Atlanta Hawks – Current Record: 31-24
The Atlanta Hawks have taken a step back from their conference finalist season last year that also saw them win 60 games in the regular season in 2014-2015. Atlanta hasn’t quite clicked the same way this season, but the reasons for that are legitimate. The Hawks lost a big part of their team from last season with DeMarre Carroll‘s departure, and while Kent Bazemore has done an admirable job trying to replace him in the starting line-up, it simply isn’t the same Hawks team without Carroll. Also Kyle Korver had offseason surgury on his shooting elbow, and his percentages are down considerably.
Despite this, Atlanta is still 4th in the East with a 31-24 record, and they are getting better as the season goes on. Paul Millsap has been amazing behind averages of 17.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Bazeore have all been good as well.
This Atlanta team is going to be dangerous if Kyle Korver keeps up the recovery process. This was a team that was unstoppable last season for a long stretch during the winter.
2 – Toronto Raptors – Current Record: 35-17
It is a good time to be a Toronto Raptors fan. After setting the franchise record for wins in a season last year, this year’s team is on track to beat it, as well as finally winning a first round matchup for the first time since 2001. The Raptors have the NBA’s 5th best offense and 9th best defense, and they are looking unstoppable as of late. Toronto has gone 14-2 in their last 16 games, losing only to Denver and Minnesota on a road trip of theirs.
Behind their great play is Toronto’s backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan. Lowry is averaging 21.0 points, 6.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game, while Derozan is averaging 23.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. Their other players are also playing very well, and there is a new defensive edge to this team that hasn’t been there the last few seasons.
Toronto is going to win their first round series. This is the year. They are also going to get the two seed, which would be the highest in franchise history.
1 – Cleveland Cavaliers – Current Record: 38-14
The Cleveland Cavaliers are just the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron alone guarantees this team a top two spot in the playoffs, and the fact that he has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love around him just put him even higher up in the standings. The Cavaliers have seemed to not skip any beats when transitioning head coaches from David Blatt to Tyronn Lue, and non-playoff teams and lower seeded teams are just not powerful enough to stop a star studded team.
Cleveland has the 4th best offense and the 6th best defense in the NBA. Those are great marks, but they are not immortal by any means. Every year LeBron gets older brings with it a higher chance that some other team makes it out of the Eastern Conference besides his own. The 2014-2015 Chicago Bulls were up on the Cavaliers 2-1 in the Conference Semifinals, but that was the closest anyone came to beating Cleveland out for the East’s representative spot in the NBA Finals.
There are more legitimate teams this season in the East. Boston has emerged, so too has Toronto, Chicago is still Chicago, and Atlanta has experience playing against them now. Every team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture will likely be +.500, so the road to the championship is going to be a lot harder for Cleveland this season.