The race for the NBA playoffs in the Eastern Conference will come down to the final games of the regular season. Currently, just 6.5 games separate the third place team in the conference and the 11th place team, indicating that a lot could change before all is said and done.
While the top of the conference appears to be pretty much set in stone, the battle for the other playoff spots will be one of the biggest storylines in the league for the remainder of the season. With the season entering its stretch run and with the race for the playoffs so intriguing, we predicted how the East’s playoff field should look when the postseason begins on April 16.
8. Washington Wizards
Current position: 10th overall (26-30; three games back of eighth place)
The Wizards have underachieved this season thanks to injuries and other issues, but we think the talent of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and company will finish strong down the stretch and sneak into the playoffs. They picked up a nice addition at the trade deadline in Markieff Morris, which should help their cause. They’ll need to put some winning streaks together and win key games against the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets, but the Eastern Conference playoffs would feel empty without the Wizards, so we have to predict that they will make it.
7. Charlotte Hornets
Current position: Eighth overall (29-27)
The Hornets are trending upward as winners of five of their past six ballgames. If they keep playing well, there’s no telling how far up the standings they can ascend, but a seventh-place finish for a team that missed the postseason a year ago feels appropriate. The play of Kemba Walker is a big reason why Charlotte is in a good position. A balanced roster that sees seven players average 10-plus points per game is truly what makes the Hornets a threat to make noise once the postseason begins.
6. Indiana Pacers
Current position: Fifth overall (31-26)
With how well Paul George is playing this season for the Indiana Pacers, there’s really no telling how high this team can rise in the standings. However, with how tight things are in the middle of the conference, sixth place is probably where the Pacers belong, based on their play to this point in the season.
The production after George definitely drops off significantly, even though four other players average double figures in scoring. They’ve proven that they can beat the best teams (Oklahoma City), but Indiana has also shown a lack of consistency (they are just 13-17 on the road this season). Regardless, this is a team that could do some damage, but they will likely have to do so as a lower seed in the playoffs.
5. Boston Celtics
Current position: Third overall (34-25)
The Celtics have really developed under head coach Brad Stevens and appear to be one of the stronger teams in the East. Isaiah Thomas rightfully earned an All-Star selection thanks to his career-high numbers in several categories. Behind Thomas is a heavy array of talented players who score 10-plus points per game (seven players in total do that for Boston).
The only reason we say Boston will slip out of the top four in the conference is because there are so many teams nipping at their heels for that No. 3 seed, making a change in the standings almost inevitable. Regardless of where they finish, the Celtics are a legitimate candidate to get hot and challenge that top team in the East (more on that club in a bit).
4. Chicago Bulls
Current position: Sixth overall (30-26)
We think the Bulls are primed to jump up the Eastern Conference standings before the end of the season and earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It’s not a big assertion, seeing as Chicago is currently just 1.5 games back of fourth place, but many basketball pundits think the Bulls might fall out of the playoffs completely.
However, when healthy, this could be the second-best team in the conference. They have to deal with star guard Jimmy Butler’s injury for the next few weeks, but once Butler is healthy, the combination of him, Derrick Rose, and Pau Gasol gives the Bulls a formidable lineup (along with an improving bench led by Doug McDermott). It’ll be a dog fight for the three and four seeds in the East, but Chicago should land one of the spots.
3. Miami Heat
Current position: Fourth overall (32-25)
The loss of leading scorer Chris Bosh certainly hurts the Miami Heat’s chances of making a run at the conference finals this season, but we still think this team is one of the better ones in the East. With Goran Dragic at the point, Dwyane Wade making acrobatic plays, and Hassan Whiteside turning into a force down low, the Heat have strength at most every position even without Bosh.
Plus, almost every other team in the race for the three seed in the conference is dealing with a major injury or some other debilitating issue. Miami has more reserves than any other contending club, though. They should earn home court in the first round and have a solid chance at reaching those conference finals.
2. Toronto Raptors
Current position: Second overall (38-18)
The Raptors have been the best team not named the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East and have a strong hold on the No. 2 spot (plus-six games). The combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan proves to be one of the best duos in the game and has Toronto thinking Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in their relatively young history.
They’ll have to avoid getting complacent down over their last 25 games, but in a season where there are few surefire things in the East, saying that the Raptors will finish second is as comfortable of an assertion as there is. Only time well tell if they can finally get over their playoff hurdle, however.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Current position: First overall (41-15)
The Cavaliers, while not running away with the top spot in the conference, are still the clear class of the East. LeBron James is enough to make any team a contender, but throw in a now healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and you have a team that can win the NBA title (even with the historic presence of the Golden State Warriors in the West).
They have plenty of key games to get through before the end of the season, including a big one on Friday against second-place Toronto, but if Cleveland didn’t finish first place in the East, it would be one of the most shocking development in sports this year.