We’ve entered the stretch run of this NBA season, and every team that’s remotely in the playoff picture still has real motivation to play out the whole schedule. A new playoff structure has added inflection points to the standings, so instead of fighting just for the top eight spots, now teams must fight for the top six, and the top eight, and the top 10.
Finishing in the top six means escaping the whims of the play-in round. Finishing in the top 10 means making the play-in. And finishing in the no. 7 or 8 spots means two chances to win one game to qualify for the playoff bracket, while nos. 9 and 10 must win two games in a row, at least the second on the road.
So using the latest simulations of The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, here is the outlook on all of the major prizes still left to play for with about 10 games to go—from the top seeds in each conference to the top spots in the draft lottery. (Note that strength of schedule is ranked from hardest to easiest, so lower numbers mean harder remaining schedules, and higher numbers mean an easier set of opponents. Within each chart, teams are presented in order of the current standings.)
The Top of the East
Let’s start at the top of the East, where three teams have clearly separated from the rest of the pack. Look at the closeness in the race for the top spot! The Nets have a one-game lead, but the 76ers have the tiebreaker if the teams finish with the same record, as well as the league’s easiest remaining schedule. The Nets still play the Nuggets, Bucks twice, and Mavericks; the 76ers play only one more opponent, the Hawks, that’s in the top six in either conference.
The East’s top spot might well be decided by which team rests its stars more down the stretch, which is impossible for the Odds Machine to predict with any certainty. But whichever team wins this race will escape a slugfest against the Bucks until the conference finals, thereby securing a much easier path through the first couple rounds.
Speaking of those Bucks: They trail the Nets and 76ers by 3.5 and 2.5 games, respectively, so it’s most likely they’ll remain in the third slot. But with an easy schedule and the fewest health concerns of the three Eastern powers, they move up in about one-fourth of simulations.
The Middle of the East
The middle of the East’s playoff bracket features four teams jockeying first to avoid the play-in games, and second to push into the 4-5 matchup to avoid the conference’s top three teams in the first round.
The Knicks are best positioned in this group because they’re ahead of all three teams in the standings, but they still tumble out of the 4-5 pairing a quarter of the time due to a hellacious schedule, which includes a road trip through Memphis, Denver, Phoenix, and both L.A. teams all in a row. Atlanta is up next, with a one-game lead on Boston and Miami and a much easier schedule than New York.
Boston and Miami are in a similar position to one another not just because of their playoff pedigree but because every time it’s seemed like this season’s rosters are righting the ship, they go out and lose to the Thunder or Timberwolves. That lack of consistency is likely to doom one of them to the play-in round—though with two more Celtics-Heat games on the schedule, plus a Celtics-Knicks contest to end the season, there is still plenty of room for this quartet to play Chutes and Ladders in the middle of the Eastern standings.
The Bottom of the East
Finally, the last group of Eastern teams is working mainly to qualify for the play-in round—and land in the 7-8 game instead of the 9-10 game to start. The Hornets and Pacers are near locks to participate in the play-in contests, with both teams doing so in at least 94 percent of simulations, and the worst team out of the aforementioned quartet will as well, but the final spot is a wide-open race.
The Wizards are favored, following a stirring eight-game win streak, because they have both a two-game advantage over the Bulls and Raptors and the easiest remaining schedule of the trio. Chicago and Toronto face particularly brutal slates the rest of the way: A full half of the Bulls’ final 10 games come against the Nets, 76ers, and Bucks, while the Raptors are about to embark on a road trip against the Nuggets, Jazz, and both L.A. teams that could dash their playoff dreams early.
The Top of the West
Now let’s shift to the West, where the Jazz have held the no. 1 seed every day since February 2. The team’s lead has dwindled, after consecutive losses to the Timberwolves, to just one game over the Suns. Yet thanks to an advantageous schedule, the Jazz remain heavy favorites to finish with the conference’s top spot.
Denver looks just as locked into the no. 4 seed, with a five-game lead on the Lakers in fifth place, as the Nuggets have won seven of eight games since Jamal Murray’s injury. That leaves Suns vs. Clippers for the no. 2 and 3 seeds as the primary battle in the top half of the bracket—a seemingly small distinction that could prove crucial if the Lakers end up falling to the no. 6 slot.
The Clippers hold the tiebreaker, but the Suns took a giant leap toward securing a top-two spot on Wednesday night with a win over the Clippers in Phoenix. Next up for the Suns? A meeting with Utah on Friday, which could help settle the outcome of the conference’s top seed.
The Rest of the West
The entrants to the Western playoff field seem much more defined than in the East, so let’s combine the rest of the conference’s relevant clubs into one chart.
For obvious reasons, the Lakers’ final standing offers the most intrigue; at this point, they would have to completely collapse down the stretch to fall to the play-in round, but they’re also very unlikely to push up to the top four in the West and gain home-court advantage in the first round. No matter where they finish, they will stare down an absolute gauntlet to defend their title. Here are the Lakers’ most likely opponents to start their playoff run; a one-in-four chance of Lakers vs. Clippers in Round 1 dizzies the brain:
Possible Opponents to Start Lakers’ Playoff Run
That potential rests in large part on the Mavericks’ ability to pass the Lakers, whom they trail by just 1.5 games, with the tiebreaker in hand and the easiest remaining schedule in the conference. That position gives Dallas a wide range of possible finishes, with both the upside of a no. 5 seed and the still meaningful downside of the play-in round.
The four play-in spots are a total muddle with 10 games to play, especially with the disparate schedules between the four squads holding those positions: The Grizzlies and Warriors should be able to pound lottery teams down the stretch, while the Trail Blazers and Spurs face playoff-bound clubs with theoretical motivation to win. However, that motivation might disappear by the end of the season—if Phoenix, for instance, is locked into the no. 2 seed and starts resting its stars, the Spurs’ season-ending back-to-back with the Suns won’t look nearly so grim.
That bit of forecasting is impossible this far out—but one near-certainty is that the 10 Western teams currently in the playoff or play-in fields will stay there. New Orleans, in 11th place, is now four games back of 10th, and catches up to the field only 10 percent of the time.
Finally, at the opposite end of the standings, a half-dozen teams have a real shot at finishing with one of the league’s three worst records—which would mean the joint-best odds in next month’s draft lottery.
Houston is a near-lock to finish at the bottom, as it boasts both the league’s worst record and the hardest remaining schedule. The Rockets should enter lottery night with essentially a 50-50 chance to keep their top-four-protected pick; otherwise, it will convey to Oklahoma City via a pick swap.
The other trade implication of note here at the bottom of the standings concerns the Timberwolves, who will lose their pick to Golden State if it lands outside the top three. With the Timberwolves winning games of late and inching their way up the standings, they have a 37 percent chance to keep the pick after the lottery draw, which would cause it to roll over to an unprotected selection in 2022.