Last month, we gave you some NBA Playoffs scenarios about halfway through the season. Now that the season’s getting even closer to winding down, it’s worth taking another look at how each team is doing. Some teams are still doing about the same, but the rankings have undergone some changes since we last checked in on them.
This time around, we’re going to look at the current standings to see how each team’s performance has changed (or stayed the same) since February. Each team only has around 10-12 games remaining in the regular season, so there would have to be some pretty big upsets to result in any major changes at this point. We’ll therefore discuss each team’s chance of maintaining their standing for the rest of the season, and why each team either should or shouldn’t worry about the next few games leading into the 2015 NBA Playoffs.
Boston didn’t really show up on our radar last time, and we’re still not entirely certain that they should. They seem to alternate between a run of wins and a run of losses, and most games have been close regardless of who came out on top. They haven’t even been that consistent when playing against the same team, as evidenced by their recent win against the Orlando Magic just five days after a loss to the same team. They’ve beaten some pretty decent teams this season like the Chicago Bulls (although not with any consistency whatsoever), but they’ve also lost to some iffier ones like the Charlotte Hornets and the Brooklyn Nets.
Speaking of which, both Charlotte and Brooklyn are less than two wins behind Boston, so there’s a chance that one of them could wind up taking the eighth spot on the bracket. We had originally predicted that Charlotte might make the seventh spot until they got bumped off the list, but they still have a chance to get back there. While we hadn’t predicted anything for Brooklyn (they were doing abysmally at the time), their chances are looking much better lately. They still aren’t one of the better teams in the association, but they can pull out a win when they absolutely need to.
We had also predicted that the return of Paul George to the Indiana Pacers would mean big things for the team. They’ve managed to turn things around after a really rough first half of the season, and now it looks like they might be destined to take the last spot on the Eastern Conference Playoffs bracket from the Celtics. Out of the Pacers, the Nets and the Hornets, the Pacers are certainly the best contender to upset the current conference standings. The Hornets are a close second.
In any case, getting back to the current standings, the seventh spot is currently taken by the Miami Heat. This is about where they were at last time, and their game hasn’t changed much. Hassan Whiteside is still their ace in the hole, which is bad news since he’s out for an undetermined period of time due to injury. They’re already playing sans Chris Bosh, and they might not be able to deal with the loss of another major player. Our original prediction that the Heat would fall off the bracket in favor of the Hornets and Pacers advancing may not have been too far off.
Last time around, we predicted that the Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks would take the fifth and sixth spots on the bracket, respectively. That’s exactly where they’re at right now, although Milwaukee may be faltering a bit. The Bucks have lost seven of their eight games, and their most recent game against the Heat was only won by a single point. They lost six of those games in a row, and another losing streak like that with so little time left in the regular season could make it pretty easy for any of the teams above to come from behind and known Milwaukee out of the rankings entirely. If they want to stay in the bracket for the 2015 NBA Playoffs, they’re going to have to step up their game by leaps and bounds.
The Wizards had just recovered from a losing streak when we looked at the rankings back in February, and we had pegged them as one of the more unpredictable teams in the conference. This really hasn’t changed much. Much like the Celtics, they seem to alternate between winning streaks and losing streaks. Most of the games in either streak will be fairly close, with usually one game in each where they win or lose by at least thirty points. They aren’t looking quite as bad as they were back in January and February, in part due to their acquisition of Ramon Sessions and their reinstatement of Bradley Beal back into their lineup, so they’ll probably maintain a mid-level place in the rankings. The real question is how far they’ll make it in the postseason.
Back in February, the Toronto Raptors were vying for the second and third ranks in the conference, with the Cleveland Cavaliers in a dead heat for fourth. Things have been mixed up a bit in this regard, with the Toronto Raptors having dropped down to fourth. They don’t have any especially troublesome games coming up during the rest of the season, with the possible exceptions of a game against the Houston Rockets and one against the Memphis Grizzlies, both of which have beaten the Raptors earlier in the season. Even so, Toronto might hold their spot in the rankings barring any unexpected issues. Even so, their boasts earlier in the season that their game was about to undergo major improvements seems to have been little more than hot air.
The Chicago Bulls have slipped a bit recently as well. What makes their recent losses most surprising is that some of them were against teams that really weren’t doing as well, such as the Charlotte Hornets. They also lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is the Western Conference’s eight-ranked team (although this is more of a testament to how much better the Western Conference is doing right now than anything else). A further slip in the rankings is a stark possibility for Chicago right now, but they might just as easily turn thing around and pull back up to second. Either way, we’re definitely going to see them put up a fight in the postseason.
Cleveland has made some surprising turnarounds since February, becoming the second-ranked team in the Eastern Conference. They aren’t likely to climb any higher than that (although they might get close), but they can at least keep their current ranking if they don’t slip up on any of their next ten games. Their last few wins were exemplary, including their most recent win against Memphis by more than twenty points. The team’s recent rise to the top may be attributed to the return of LeBron James to the team. He was instrumental in the team’s win against the Golden State Warriors back in February, and he appears to have been playing harder ever since he recovered from knee and back strains earlier in the year. The Cavs are going to be mixing things up in the 2015 NBA Playoffs, and they might get far as long as LeBron continues to deliver.
Not too many people are surprised that the Atlanta Hawks are still number one. That said, their performance has been a bit shaken lately. They had a respectable win against the Orlando Magic, but that was preceded by three losses in a row, something that hasn’t happened to Atlanta all season. They just haven’t been playing like the same team that managed to pull off a nineteen-game winning streak. Some think that the team might have just gone through a bit of a slump recently, but it’s possible that they may be slowing down.
While some have countered that there’s no reason for Atlanta fans to worry, and that they’ve only lost to major Playoffs contenders, this is a bit of a facile argument—it’s not like they’re going to be playing against bush league teams when the Playoffs actually start, so this slump may be a sign of things to come. The major problem for the Hawks is that they don’t really have a star player, unlike second-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers. The whole team is going to have to rally if they’re going to pull it together and regain traction during the postseason.
Before getting into the top eight teams in the conference, it’s worth noting the two teams that still have a remote chance of coming from behind and making the rankings. The Phoenix Suns and the New Orleans Pelicans aren’t as close to the top eight as the Nets, Hornets and Pacers are to the top eight in their conference, but they’ve still got a decent shot at making a late-season comeback.
We had actually predicted that New Orleans might have a shot with Anthony Davis averaging close to 25 points per game, but we had also said that he probably wouldn’t be enough. They did just take on a new point guard, Toney Douglas, but with Omer Asik and Tyreke Evans only just recovering from injuries, the team’s a bit shaky. They might have a chance, but it’s very much up in the air.
We had also predicted that Phoenix would probably be knocked out of the rankings as San Antonio saw a spike in performance. The Spurs are now doing well enough that they don’t have to worry about vying for the eighth spot, but the Suns have indeed been knocked out of the rankings. The current standings have them three games behind the Oklahoma City, so the question is whether or not they can make up the difference. Some would call it an uphill battle with Brandon Knight still out of the game, but players like Eric Bledsoe, Marcus Morris, and P.J. Tucker have shown their true defense-minded colors. The Suns might actually stand a snowball’s chance at reclaiming their spot, especially if Oklahoma City has any slip-ups.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the eighth-ranked team right now, which is pretty far below our prediction that they’d be number five for the playoffs. We had, however, predicted that they would move up from the ninth-place ranking they held at the time. This was due to a statistical probability of upward momentum which appeared when looking at their success rate for games in which both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant had participated. However, not long after we calculated those statistics, Kevin Durant played his last game of the season to date, and there are rumors that his injuries will keep him out for the rest of the team’s games. With three more players out due to injury, Westbrook is more or less carrying the team right now. He faltered a bit in the team’s recent 91-130 loss to San Antonio, so it’s up in the air as to whether or not he can help the team maintain their current standing.
Dallas is currently ranked seventh, which is also well below our original prediction. The team’s performance has been respectable, but they’re pushing against the weight of a highly competitive conference right now. They’ve also been losing a fair bit of speed ever since the All-Star break. Coach Rick Carlisle has implied that the team needs to step up their game going into the playoffs, and players like Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki appear to have taken that message to heart during the Mavs’ recent 101-94 win against the Spurs. That said, Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo have both been disappointingly inconsistent, even in some of their good games. The Mavs might maintain their current standing, but their prospects for success in the 2015 NBA Playoffs are somewhat questionable.
As we mentioned earlier, San Antonio’s performance spike wasn’t too surprising. Tony Parker has been especially beneficial for the team recently, and they’ve won against some solid teams, but they’ve got one of the hardest lineups facing them for the rest of the season out of any other team. Out of their next dozen games, only three are against teams that aren’t in the top eight of their respective conferences. Considering the Spurs upsetting loss against the New York Knicks recently, it’s difficult to say whether they’ll be able to hold it together. They’re still major postseason contenders right now, but some fans can’t help but wonder when the team’s next upset is going to be.
The Los Angeles Clippers are the current fifth-ranked team in the Western Conference, with a solid defense and an assist-to-turnover ratio that’s taken them far in the regular season. Their current five-game winning streak makes it likely that they’re going to maintain their current standing, and they might even manage to move ahead. They only have a couple of games remaining that might prove difficult, against the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies. Aside from that, they should have a fairly smooth ride to the postseason.
When we did our NBA Playoffs scenarios halfway through the season, Portland was looking pretty good. They had struggled a bit, but ultimately they looked like they might have a shot at overtaking the Memphis Grizzlies and rising to a second-place spot in the conference rankings. Instead, they’ve fallen due to consistently poor defense and a currently struggling offense. They also just came off of a five-game loss streak, although it’s worth noting that each of those games was against another team with a probable berth in the Playoffs. The rest of their season is a mixed bag of high-ranked and low-ranked teams, so it’s hard to say whether or not they’ll be able to maintain their current position in the Western Conference rankings.
Let’s just say it, because it needs to be said: we may not have given the Houston Rockets the credit they deserved when we made our predictions back in February. We had predicted them at a sixth-place ranking, but the team is currently third and doesn’t look too likely to be uprooted by anyone. The fact that All-Star center Dwight Howard is back on the court certainly isn’t hurting their chances, either. James Harden has also made some major turnarounds in terms of his defensive game, and became one of the team’s top players in Howard’s absence. Houston also has a solid defensive player in Josh Smith, and defensive specialist Corey Brewer has shown some surprisingly astounding offensive capabilities. In short, the Rockets don’t just have a berth in the 2015 NBA Playoffs—they have a distinct probability at making the Finals this year.
Marc Gasol has been working wonders for the Memphis Grizzlies, and their shooting game overall has kept them in second place throughout the bulk of the regular season. They do, however, have a potentially rough season finish ahead of them, which will include two games against the Golden State Warriors. They’ve also suffered some embarrassing losses this month. Not many would have predicted their twenty-point losses against the Washington Wizards or the Cleveland Cavaliers, not to mention their ten-point loss to the Detroit Pistons. It may look like they have an easy postseason berth ahead of them, but they might be destined for an upset once the 2015 NBA Playoffs are underway.
The Golden State Warriors are the stars of the show this year. They just won the Pacific Division title in a game against Portland, the first time they’ve secured the title since 1976. They’re on their way to achieving more wins in one season than the team has ever managed to achieve in franchise history. They’ve already tied their franchise record for wins in away games. In fact, there’s only one record that some had predicted them to break this year which is now out of the running. Last month, some were predicting that they’d manage to break 72 wins, the regular season record held by the 1996 Chicago Bulls. With 58 current wins and only 11 games left, this is no longer a possibility. However, if they somehow manage to win every single one of their remaining games, they’ll get 69 wins, trying the respective second and third place records held by the 1972 Lakers and the 1997 Bulls.
No matter what, the Warriors will be able to look back on this as an amazing season. As long as they don’t lose more than three games, it’s literally impossible for anyone to oust them from first place in the Western Conference rankings. We’d written before about Draymond Green as a contender for Defensive Player of the Year. Now, it looks like Stephen Curry might be on his way to securing MVP honors. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes have been establishing themselves as key players recently as well. The Warriors are a well-oiled machine right now, and it would take a virtual wrecking ball to stop them from making it to the Finals this year.