The NBA playoffs begin in just six weeks so it’s time to start tracking down how the seeds are going to work out. The process for how all of this breaks down is more complicated than most imagine. If you want to really get a sense for how the playoffs look right now, and how they might shake out, consider this your complete guide.
If the playoffs started today ...
Cavaliers (No. 1) vs. Bulls (No. 8)
Celtics (No. 2) vs. Pistons (No. 7)
Wizards (No. 3) vs. Pacers (No. 6)
Raptors (No. 4) vs. Hawks (No. 5)
Warriors (No. 1) vs. Nuggets (No. 8)
Spurs (No. 2) vs. Thunder (No. 7)
Rockets (No. 3) vs. Grizzlies (No. 6)
Jazz (No. 4) vs. Clippers (No. 5)
Seeding analysis and magic numbers
Some notes: SportsLine data is based on 10,000 simulations based on SL’s forecast model. That’s why teams that have yet to clinch have “100 percent” chances at things they haven’t clinched yet. Strength of schedule is courtesy of NBA.com, and rank refers to rank among conference teams. Magic number for the assigned tables refer to their magic number to make the playoffs.
If you’re curious why tiebreakers matter so much? The No .3 through No. 6 seeds in the West were decided by tiebreaker in 2015, the No. 3 through No. 6 decided by tiebreaker in the East in 2016. Teams wind up clumping together at the end. They matter.
Note: “Magic numbers” refers to combination of wins and losses by the competing team. Example: If the Cavaliers have a magic number of seven for a playoff spot, that means they need a combination of seven wins and losses by Miami (the team currently out of the playoffs with the fewest losses).
Race for first-round home-court advantage (Nos. 1-4)
Locks: Cleveland, Boston | In the hunt: Washington, Toronto, Atlanta
Games remaining: 20 (8 Home) | Magic number: 7 | SOS: .518 win pct.
The Cavs are the favorites, obviously. Their magic number for the 1-seed is 18 over Boston, which is a pretty high number with 21 games left but they do lead by four in the loss column. The Cavs would have to lose a quarter of the games they’ve lost over four months in the final month and a half, while the Celtics win out, for Boston to catch. This is still too close to call Cleveland a near-lock, though.
Because of the number of marquee matchups late in the season, Cleveland has a tough schedule, with 11 games vs. teams over .500, six of those on the road. They’re obviously still favored in most of those matchups, but they also have five back to backs remaining. The Cavs don’t need the 1-seed to win the East, obviously, but the easier road, the better, especially with a potential 1-4 matchup with the Hawks --who the Cavs have buried the last two years-- on the board.
Games remaining: 18 (11 Home) | Magic number: 10 | SOS: .434 win pct.
Boston has a decent shot at the 1-seed, but they’re going to need help. They play the Cavaliers on April 5, and that’s a must-win if they’re going to steal it. The good news is that I’m ready to go ahead and call the Celtics a near-lock for the 2-seed, even with being tied in the loss column with Washington and the Raptors having tiebreaker.
However, it should be noted that if the Celtics wind up in a 3-way tie, things go south for them in a hurry. The Raptors and Wizards would finish above them. Boston needs a clean win to avoid disaster. Last year, they wound up in a tie and lost homecourt in the first round vs. Atlanta.
Consider that Boston’s remaining strength of schedule is the easiest of any team in the league, and that 11 of their final 18 are at home. They have another matchup with the Cavaliers left to play. There’s every reason to believe that Boston can catch, but losses like Monday night’s vs. the Clippers where they gave up a huge lead.
Games remaining: 20 (6 Home) | Magic number: 11 | SOS: .511 win pct.
Washington moved into a tie with the Celtics in the loss column on Monday, and they hold tiebreaker over the Celtics. They’re very much in the hunt for a top-two seed. They’ve lost tiebreaker to Cleveland, and given that they’re four games back in the loss column, it’s going to be tough for them to find a way. If they do manage to catch the Cavs, it won’t be until the last week of the season or so, barring a complete meltdown from Cleveland.
Washington’s .511 remaining SOS means they have the second-toughest remaining schedule among East playoff teams. They have a five-game road trip vs. beatable teams starting this week that began with a win over Phoenix and they need to come out with a strong set of results. They’ve been shaky since the All-Star Break, despite some wins. Their schedule features the Celtics, Clippers, Cavs, and Warriors to close out the year, and notably, their final three games vs. Miami twice and Detroit means they likely won’t be playing teams resting, as they will still be battling for position.
Washington’s magic number for homecourt in the first round is 16.
Games remaining: 19 (9 Home) | Magic number: 12 | SOS: .474 win pct.
Toronto is trying to hang on without Kyle Lowry, and they have quite a few things going for them. For starters, they have tiebreaker over both Washington and the Celtics. They have an easier schedule than Washington, Atlanta, and Cleveland, 10 of their 19 at home and 13 against teams below .500, the same number as Boston. It’s just a matter of surviving Lowry. If Lowry were healthy, you’d have to think they’d be the favorite to re-take the No. 2 spot or challenge for the 1-seed after adding P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka. But Lowry’s injury complicates things.
Toronto only having a 15 percent chance to win the second-round matchup via SportsLine is surprising, but then, the model was not high on Toronto last year, either. Lot of variance there, and much of that factors in a possible drop to the 4-seed and a second-round matchup vs. Cleveland.
Games remaining: 19 (9 Home) | Magic number: 15 | SOS: .487 win pct.
Honestly, the Hawks don’t have a lot going for them. They have a relatively tough schedule that’s home and road balanced, a 35 percent chance of winning homecourt via SportsLine, they had to bench their starting point guard in a loss to Golden State Monday, and they’ve lost six of eight. They’ll make the playoffs, their magic number is just 16, meaning just a .500 finish the rest of the way would probably do it, but a slip to the 7th or 8th seed is not out of the question. They are just three games up in the loss column on 8th seed Chicago.
The Hawks have six back to backs remaining, including a set where they play three back-to-back sets consecutively between March 28 and April 7. In the last seven days of the season, they play give games, including the Cavs twice, Boston, and then a set vs. Indiana and Charlotte who may still be battling for position.
The road does not look optimal.
Race for final playoff spots (Nos. 6-8)
Contenders: Hawks, Pacers, Pistons, Bulls, Heat, Bucks, Hornets
Games remaining: 19 (10 Home) | Magic number: 18 | SOS: .495 win pct.
Indiana is trying to stabilize after another rough patch, but I might consider them the favorite for the five-seed, based on all conditions. They only have three more back to backs, and two of those are at home. They play a balanced schedule overall that features a lot of basement dwellers; they have Philadelphia twice and Orlando in between tougher games. They’re going to control their destiny with a tiebreaker game vs. the Hawks on the last night of the season.
Their only worry spot is a late-March three-game road trip to Memphis, Toronto, and Cleveland. If they come out of that 2-1, they’ll be in excellent shape. Indiana’s going to wind up having a much better season on paper than it has felt like this year.
(Unless they fall apart again, which is entirely possible with this squad.)
Games remaining: 19 (9 Home) | Magic number: 19 | SOS: .483 win pct.
The Pistons have clawed their way back up out of the bubble and into the 7th spot after the win Monday night vs. Chicago, which gave them a 2-1 lead for tiebreaker over the Bulls. But they have six back to backs remaining, including games vs. Cleveland, Toronto, and Washington. Their schedule has more road games (10) than home (9) and their whole team feels like a house of cards in terms of team chemistry. A late-season two-game road trip to Houston and Memphis could decide a lot.
Their magic number is 18, but teams are coming up fast from the bubble.
Games remaining: 19 (9 Home) | Magic number: 7 | SOS: .487 win pct.
The Bulls are either going to surge into the playoffs, or crash into the sea in a blaze of glorious flaming disaster. Their last six opponents are New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Orlando, and the Nets again. They are 16-18 vs. sub-.500 teams this season. These are the exact games you want if you’re in this position, and the exact games the Bulls lose.
The Bulls only have four back to backs remaining, mostly vs. beatable teams, and have good records vs. most of the good teams they have yet to play.
Chicago should make the playoffs. But “shoulds” are not something they have handled well this year.
Games remaining: 20 (8 Home) | Magic number: N/A | SOS: .478 win pct.
I was a skeptic. I’ll cop to it. When the Heat went on a crazy run before the All-Star break, I thought it was a blip on the radar and they’d settle back down. Nope. Since the All-Star break they’ve won 5 of 7. Since January 17, they have two wins vs. the Rockets, two wins vs. the Cavaliers, and a win vs. the Warriors. They’re good, and they’re rolling. Erik Spoelstra is a level-50 nechro-mage.
And they are set up beautifully. They have 11 of their final 18 at home. They have just three back to backs. They have the easiest schedule overall of any team outside of Boston and Toronto in the East. Their closing three-game set of Wizards-Cavs-Wizards could be vs. three teams locked in their seeds and resting players. This has worked out beautifully.
I’m not sure the Heat are the best team among this group, but they have played like it over the past two months and are in by far the best position. They are three games out of the sixth seed.
Games remaining: 20 (8 Home) | Magic number: N/A | SOS: .519 win pct.
The Bucks are actually only one game back in the loss column from Chicago and Detroit for the 7th-8th seeds, but their road is tough. They have the toughest remaining schedule in the East, and seven of their nine games vs. teams over .500 are on the road. They have a six-game road trip with games vs. the Clippers and Warriors. If they don’t go 3-3 on that trip, it could sink them.
The Bucks have only a 24.7 percent chance of the postseason, via SportsLine.
Games remaining: 19 (11 Home) | Magic number: N/A | SOS: .495 win pct.
I’m keeping them here, because they’ve shown an uptick on the West Coast road trip they just finished, despite the loss to Phoenix. Their schedule is balanced, and by that I mean they play a bunch of teams all right in the same range. Their final nine games are all against teams either in the playoffs or firmly in the hunt.
SportsLine gives them just a 17.5 percent chance of making it. Their tragic number is 17.
The rest are out:
I’m ready to bury the following:
- New York (Tragic Number: 14)
- Philadelphia (12)
- Orlando (11)
- Brooklyn (eliminated)
New York is six games back in the loss column. Just not enough time for them to realistically catch up.
Race for top three seeds
Locks: Golden State, San Antonio | Near-lock: Houston
Golden State Warriors
Games remaining: 19 (12 Home) | Clinched | SOS: .502 win pct.
The Warriors have clinched a playoff spot. The Warriors, despite Kevin Durant’s injury, remain a heavy favorite to win, well, everything. The No. 1 seed, homecourt, the West, the Finals, you name it. SportsLine gives them a 44.8 percent chance at winning the whole shebang, which sounds about right.
The No. 1 seed is basically going to come down to the final two meetings between them and San Antonio. If the Spurs win one of those, they clinch tiebreaker, which gives the Warriors no margin for error, and without Durant, that’s going to be tough. They have to keep resting guys in order to make sure they can have the playoff run they want. San Antonio’s only two games back in the loss column, and Golden State’s magic number for the No. 1 seed is 18.
The Warriors have four back-to-backs left, 12 out of their final 19 are home games, and three of their final four games are vs. teams under .500, with Utah possibly having clinched its spot. Six of their last seven are home. They have the advantage going in, and if they can win the two games vs. San Antonio, that will effectively end the Spurs’ run at the 1-seed.
San Antonio Spurs
Games remaining: 20 (13 Home) | Clinched | SOS: .538 win pct.
The Spurs are going to be a top-two seed. Their win Monday over Houston in a thriller put them seven up in the loss column, and clinched tiebreaker. It’s over for Houston. San Antonio will have homecourt through the first two rounds. Their magic number for that is just 13.
As for the 1-seed, San Antonio’s schedule is pretty brutal. They have two games vs. the Warriors, two games vs. the Grizzlies, two games vs. the Thunder, and a game against the Cavs. But, of the 12 games vs. teams over .500 they have left, eight of those are at home. They have four back to backs remaining.
At some point, the Spurs will have to decide how badly they want to keep chasing, or if they start resting. Is homecourt going to swing a potential Western Conference Finals matchup? Maybe. How Gregg Popovich plays this will be fascinating.
Games remaining: 18 (10 Home) | Magic number: 3 | SOS: .488 win pct.
The Rockets will be the 3-seed. As discussed above, they’re not catching Golden State or San Antonio. Their magic number for the 3-seed is 15, very doable, especially with Utah’s hellacious closing schedule. Their schedule is home-heavy and five of their final six are against teams under .500. They’re a near-lock for the 3-seed, even with Utah only being four back in the loss column.
If you’re the Rockets, are you hoping for San Antonio or the Warriors in Round 2? San Antonio won three of their four matchups, but three were close. Then again, Kawhi Leonard is one of maybe four guys who can really defend James Harden. Then again, the Spurs’ offense could struggle to keep pace. Then again, they’re the Spurs. Then again, it means less travel. It’s a tough one, but at least it’s out of the Rockets’ hands to decide. And they’re no lock to get out of the first round, either, at just 59.6 percent according to SportsLine.
Race for seeds 4-7
LOCKS: Utah, Clippers, Memphis, Oklahoma City
Games remaining: 18 (7 Home) | Magic number: 8 | SOS: .579 win pct.
The Jazz are going to have to earn homecourt. Eleven of their final 18 are on the road, with seven of those vs. teams over .500. They have the hardest remaining schedule, via NBA.com. They close with games vs. the Spurs and Warriors, who might still be squabbling over the 1-seed.
More concerning for Utah is their tiebreaker situation. Utah trails Memphis, the Clippers, and OKC in head to head season series. Memphis has already clinched tiebreaker. If the Jazz wind up in a four-way tie with those three, they get the short end of the stick. The Thunder would nab the highest based on winning the division, then Memphis and the Clippers would go ahead based on record among the three remaining teams. Utah could go from the 4-spot to the seventh seed and a matchup vs. the Warriors or Spurs very easily. They need to win their remaining games vs. the Clippers and Thunder.
Their magic number for homecourt is 18.
Los Angeles Clippers
Games remaining: 19 (11 Home) | Magic number: 9 | SOS: .469 win pct.
Despite how many horrible losses to good teams they’ve had, the Clippers are in great shape. They lead Memphis and Utah in tiebreaker (with games remaining). Eleven of their final 18 are at home. They have five back to backs, but three are vs. bottom feeders and one is against mediocre Denver. They have the easiest strength of schedule of any of the top seven teams, three of their final five are vs. sub-.500 teams, and their second-to-last game is against Houston who will be locked into the 3-seed. I would put them as the favorite for homecourt right now; SportsLine agrees, at 57.4 percent.
Games remaining: 18 (10 Home) | Magic number: 12 | SOS: .495 win pct.
Memphis is in a slump, which has their fans panicking a little bit. First off, they’re making the playoffs; their magic number is 12, with the competing teams all unlikely to finish with less than 8 losses the rest of the way. (A 12-8 run for Portland or Dallas would be really strong, for example.) So they’re going to be a top-seven seed, it just depends on where. Their schedule is balanced, with nine teams under-.500 (who they usually lose to) and nine teams over-.500 (who they usually beat). They’ve only got three back to backs left, and they face three weak teams (NYK, DET, DAL) to finish the year.
A 4-5 matchup with the Clippers or Jazz should be a priority for them. They can feel good about a series vs. the Rockets but will be substantial underdogs. However, the door is still open for them to steal the 4-seed, despite being four back in the loss column. But losses like Monday’s to Brooklyn’s are what have plagued this team this season, and will likely result in their having to face Houston, San Antonio, or Golden State in the first round. They’re pretty much the same Grizzlies team they are every year.
SportsLine, never a big Grizz believer, gives them just a 24.5 percent chance of getting out of the first round.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Games remaining: 18 (9 Home) | Magic number: 13 | SOS: .504 win pct.
OKC’s schedule is top and bottom heavy. They face fewer teams under-.500 than over, but the tough teams they have left to face include the Rockets, Spurs and Warriors. Their tiebreaker scenario is sound. They lead the Grizz and Jazz, are tied with the Clippers, and in any multi-team tie (more than two), if they win the division over the Jazz, that trumps other tiebreakers. Their final four games are all vs. teams under .500, including two vs. Denver (who may be scrapping for a playoff spot).
The loss to Portland hurt. They are now five back in the loss column, but could still steal as high as fourth.
They don’t have a lot of room for a slump, however.
Their magic number for a playoff spot is 13, for a top-seven seed it’s 14. Warriors-Thunder first-round is still on the table.
The Great Western Eighth Seed Maw or Awful (Or “Mawful”)
Games remaining: 19 (9 Home) | Magic number: 19 | SOS: .515 win pct.
Their schedule is tough... in an interesting way. Denver faces more teams over .500 at home, and weak teams on the road, but all that means is their areas of opportunity are tougher. Their magic number for a playoff spot is 19, but Portland leads for tiebreaker, and Denver’s only up one in the loss column. They face the Celtics and Wizards at home this week. They could be in 10th by Sunday night, easily. They’re going to have to earn this 8th spot.
SportsLine likes them, though, at 59.5 percent probability to reach the postseason. They need OKC to be locked into their seed before they play them twice in the final three games, and their second-to-last game, vs. Dallas with tiebreaker on the line, could be huge. A five-game road trip in late March also looms.
Portland Trail Blazers
Games remaining: 20 (12 Home) | Magic number: N/A | SOS: .479 win pct.
The Blazers dug a hole for themselves, but they’re in pretty good shape. They have an easier schedule than Denver or Dallas, with twelve of their final 20 at home. They have a fair amount of scrub opponents left, and only two real juggernauts (Houston and San Antonio). Six of their final seven are at home, and Jusuf Nurkic has given them a boost. They’re going to have to battle, but from a schedule perspective, they have the high ground, and their tiebreaker advantage (2-1 with one to play) over Denver looms huge.
Games remaining: 19 (8 Home) | Magic number: N/A | SOS: .489 win pct.
Dallas has played the best of any of these teams over the past two months and look like a legit threat. Their schedule is road heavy and sorted by very weak and very strong teams. SportsLine only gives them a 15.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, but you wonder what the impact would be if just taking the results with this current roster. The Denver game could be huge in their second-to-last contest.
The rest are out:
I’m ready to put the rest out. Minnesota is only three back in the loss column, and could easily climb out of this... But... 12 of their final 17 are on the road, their strength of schedule is the second-toughest in the league, and six of their next seven are against teams in the playoffs or in the hunt. They still have the Warriors twice, San Antonio, and Houston left. The schedule is just too brutal.
The Pelicans fell to five games back of Denver in the loss column and look like a mess since adding DeMarcus Cousins. Sacramento looks like, well, the Kings without DeMarcus Cousins. Phoenix and the Lakers are too far gone.
The Wolves have the best chance to push, and could make things interesting if they put together a run, but Minnesota is 8-21 vs. teams over .500 this year, and face 10 more of those teams this season.
We’ll be updating this with every edition, but here’s where the tiebreakers are at for the East and West right now:
|Does (Team) have tiebreaker over:||CLE||BOS||WAS||TOR||ATL||IND||DET||CHI||MIA||MIL||CHA|
|Does (Team) have tiebreaker over:||GSW||SAS||HOU||UTA||LAC||MEM||OKC||DEN||POR||SAC||MIN||DAL||NOP|