With All-Star Weekend in full swing, it’s about time to take a look at the standings for the Eastern and Western Conferences. With 20-odd games left in the season, the playoffs are quickly approaching as certain teams look to finish strong, while others are trying to get back on track.
Looking at the East, the current standings show the Milwaukee Bucks holding a slim advantage over the Toronto Raptors for the first seed. With Toronto only a game behind, it is safe to say that either the Bucks or Raptors will finish in first place. Both the Bucks and Raptors will likely try and keep their momentum going through the rest of the regular season in an attempt to secure the first seed, rather than rest players in order to have them fresh for a deep playoff run.
Further down the Eastern Conference standings, the Indiana Pacers hold a one game advantage over the Boston Celtics for the third seed. Despite losing their All-Star guard in Victor Oladipo with a season-ending knee injury, the Pacers have yet to plummet down the standings. The Pacers have won 6-of-11 games since losing Oladipo but this is, in part, due to their relatively easy schedule as they secured wins against the struggling New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Hornets, and Cleveland Cavaliers. It is difficult seeing the Pacers finish the season with the third seed as more than half of their matchups post-All-Star break are against playoff, or possible playoff, teams. Expect the Pacers to drop to the fifth seed.
For the Boston Celtics, they currently hold the fourth seed and will look to claim the Pacers spot as the third seed, if not higher. However, out of their last 24 games this season, 14 of them are away games and for a team who is 14-13 on the road, it is possible that Boston struggles while finishing out the season. The Celtics will also be facing playoff teams in more than half of their remaining games. But, with Kyrie Irving returning from his knee injury, Gordon Hayward improving each month, and overall team chemistry improving, it won’t be a surprise to see the Celtics finish as one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
Looking at the Philadelphia 76ers, who are currently holding the fifth seed, they are in position to finish the season strong and advance in the standings. The 76ers have favorable matchups with more than half of their remaining games being against struggling teams who are not in the playoff discussion. Despite having 13 of their final 24 games on the road and having a 14-14 road record this season, the Sixers will likely finish the season much in the way they did last year, on a winning streak that extended into the playoffs.
Two of the remaining three teams (the Charlotte Hornets with the seventh seed and Detroit Pistons with the eighth seed) in the Eastern Conference playoff picture are below .500 and have to be considered nonfactors come playoff time. The Brooklyn Nets, who hold the sixth seed, is only a single game above .500 (30-29) and will likely see a quick playoff exit as well.
Looking at the Western Conference, there is no surprise that the Golden State Warriors hold the first seed. With the addition of Demarcus Cousins, the All-Star center who tore his Achilles last season, the defending champions made an improvement to their already ridiculously talented roster and look to win their third championship in a row. The Warriors will likely win just enough games to remain in control of the first seed while simultaneously giving their star-studded team enough rest to make a deep playoff run.
The Denver Nuggets, who hold the second seed, have taken most NBA fans by surprise this year. With an MVP-caliber season from center Nikola Jokic, a COTY-caliber season from head coach Mike Malone, and an overall talented roster, Denver looks to finish the year strong, despite a difficult schedule to finish out the regular season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a improved team from last year, despite having almost the same exact roster. With Paul George torching his opponents so far in this calendar year and Russell Westbrook having another historic season, the Thunder look to have a better playoff run than in the past couple seasons with early exits in the first round. Despite a somewhat difficult schedule, OKC looks to remain dominant as a top-three team in the West.
The rest of the heavily-competitive Western Conference is difficult to analyze. Although the Portland Trailblazers will likely remain one of the top teams in the West, seeds five-through-ten are all in playoff contention. In particular, despite currently being the tenth seed at 28-29, it is almost impossible to fathom the Los Angeles Lakers missing the playoffs with LeBron James on their roster. It is much more likely that the Los Angeles Clippers, who currently hold the eighth seed, or the young and inexperienced Sacramento Kings, who hold the ninth seed, miss the playoffs due to LeBron’s refusal to not be playing basketball come April.