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NBA Fact or Fiction: The East and West playoff pictures are coming into clear view

Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last time on Fact or Fiction: Can the league better manage absences of star players?]

The Washington Wizards' win over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night swung both of their odds to make the NBA playoffs by 8% in opposing directions, essentially drawing them even with a little more than a month remaining in the regular season. The two teams meet again in D.C. on Saturday evening with tiebreaking implications on the line for the Eastern Conference's final two berths in the play-in tournament.

We are officially in the heart of the playoff hunt.

Two losses separate the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks from the 11th-place Los Angeles Lakers in the West, but as close as the middle of the pack appears, the overall playoff picture is becoming clearer by the day.

It would take a monumental collapse from either the Philadelphia 76ers or Sacramento Kings to knock any team from its perch in the top three of either conference, and the race between the Milwaukee Bucks (45-17) and Boston Celtics (45-18) for the No. 1 seed in the East is the only spot of the six likely to toggle in the next 18-20 games. Their meeting in Milwaukee on March 30 will determine their head-to-head tiebreaker.

Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley of the New York Knicks celebrate, and they will have plenty more to be happy about as the Eastern Conference playoff picture crystallizes. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Eastern Conference

The Knicks' seven-game win streak has closed the gap between them and the fourth-place Cavaliers, but Cleveland has the easiest schedule in the league down the stretch, per Tankathon. The sixth-place Brooklyn Nets have been free falling since trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, framing the 4-5 matchup in the East in clearer view. New York visits Cleveland on March 31, when the Cavaliers can either tie their season series with the Knicks or risk going on the road for their opening-round playoff match in the event they finish tied.

Take a quick look at this snapshot of the stretch run in the East among seeds 5-13:

5. New York Knicks (37-27)

  • Net rating: 3.0 (since trade deadline: 13.4)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .495 (11th-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 15-18

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 4 (@BOS, @SAC, DEN, @CLE)

  • Games left against this group: 12 (@MIA x2, @LAC, @LAL, @POR, MIN, @ORL, MIA, WAS, @IND, @NOP, IND)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 2 (CHA, HOU)

  • Home/away split: 11 of 18 remaining games on the road (four-game road trip March 9-14)

  • Playoff odds: 98% (via FiveThirtyEight)

6. Brooklyn Nets (34-28)

  • Net rating: 0.5 (since trade deadline: -11.4)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .502 (14th-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 12-17

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 8 (@BOS, @MIL, @DEN, SAC, DEN, CLE x2, PHI)

  • Games left against this group: 8 (@MIN, @OKC, @MIA, @ORL, ATL, UTA, MIN, ORL)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 4 (CHA, @HOU, HOU, @DET)

  • Home/away split: Nine of 20 remaining games on the road (five-game road trip March 7-14)

  • Playoff odds: 79% (via FiveThirtyEight)

7. Miami Heat (33-30)

  • Net rating: -1.0 (since trade deadline: -7.8)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .500 (14th-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 14-16

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 4 (CLE x2, MEM, @PHI)

  • Games left against this group: 13 (NYK x2, ATL x2, @ORL, UTA, @CHI, BKN, @TOR, @NYK, DAL, @WAS, ORL)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 2 (@DET x2)

  • Home/away split: Eight of 19 remaining games on the road (three-game road trip April 4-7)

  • Playoff odds: 75% (via FiveThirtyEight)

8. Atlanta Hawks (31-31)

  • Net rating: -0.2 (since trade deadline: 2.9)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .512 (10th-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 15-15

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 5 (BOS, MEM, CLE, PHI, @BOS)

  • Games left against this group: 13 (POR, @MIA x2, @WAS x2, MIN, GSW, @MIN, IND, @BKN, DAL, @CHI, WAS)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 2 (@SAS, DET)

  • Home/away split: Nine of 20 remaining games on the road (four-game road trip March 4-10)

  • Playoff odds: 53% (via FiveThirtyEight)

9. Toronto Raptors (31-33)

  • Net rating: 0.4 (since trade deadline: -2.2)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .535 (hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 14-23

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 7 (@DEN, DEN, @MIL, @PHI, @BOS x2, MIL)

  • Games left against this group: 8 (@WAS, @LAC, @LAL, OKC, MIN, IND, WAS, MIA)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 3 (DET, @CHA x2)

  • Home/away split: 10 of 18 remaining games on the road (five-game road trip March 31-April 9)

  • Playoff odds: 40% (via FiveThirtyEight)

10. Washington Wizards (30-32)

  • Net rating: 0.0 (since trade deadline: 3.2)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .502 (14th-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 14-20

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 7 (MIL, @PHI, @CLE, SAC, DEN, BOS, MIL)

  • Games left against this group: 9 (TOR, ATL x2, @ORL, @TOR, ORL, @NYK, @ATL, MIA)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 4 (@DET, DET, SAS, HOU)

  • Home/away split: Seven of 20 remaining games on the road

  • Playoff odds: 39% (via FiveThirtyEight)

11. Chicago Bulls (29-34)

  • Net rating: 0.7 (since trade deadline: 2.6)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .506 (13th-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 15-19

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 7 (PHX, @DEN, SAC, @PHI, PHI, MEM, @MIL)

  • Games left against this group: 9 (IND, MIN, MIA, @POR, @LAL, @LAC, LAL, ATL, @DAL)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 3 (@HOU, @CHA, DET)

  • Home/away split: Nine of 19 remaining games on the road (three-game road trip March 24-27)

  • Playoff odds: 15% (via FiveThirtyEight)

12. Indiana Pacers (28-36)

  • Net rating: -2.7 (since trade deadline: -4.1)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .492 (10th-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 12-24

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 6 (PHI x2, @MIL, @BOS, MIL, @CLE)

  • Games left against this group: 7 (@CHI, @TOR, @ATL, DAL, OKC, NYK, @NYK)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 5 (HOU, @DET x2, @CHA, DET)

  • Home/away split: 10 of 18 remaining games on the road (four-game road trip March 20-25)

  • Playoff odds: 1% (via FiveThirtyEight)

13. Orlando Magic (26-37)

  • Net rating: -2.7 (since trade deadline: -1.8)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .501 (15th-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 12-22

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 5 (MIL, @PHX, @MEM, CLE x2)

  • Games left against this group: 11 (POR, UTA, MIA, @LAC, @LAL, WAS, NYK, BKN, @WAS, @BKN, @MIA)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 3 (@CHA, @SAS, DET)

  • Home/away split: Nine of their 19 remaining games are on the road

  • Playoff odds: 0.4% (via FiveThirtyEight)

Even if the Knicks finish something like 8-10 in the last five weeks, I cannot foresee a scenario in which any team below them reaches the 45-win mark without a wild buck against both season-long and recent trends.

Likewise, as disorganized as the Nets have looked since the trade deadline, their head-to-head tiebreaker against Miami essentially means they have a three-game lead on the East's final guaranteed playoff berth with 20 to play, and Brooklyn's seven remaining games against the NBA's seven worst teams leave little wiggle room for the Heat. (Some prize it will be for whichever top-two seed lands Miami in the first round.)

A handful of games in the loss column is too much for the Pacers and Magic to overcome in the race for the final play-in berth. FiveThirtyEight's projections give both almost no chance of making the playoffs for good reason. Neither would be best served winning another game, since Orlando and Indiana can position themselves for the fifth- and sixth-best odds at landing prized prospect Victor Wembanyama, respectively.

Even the Bulls, who owe their first-round pick to the Magic (protected 1-4), will have a tough time catching the Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors, two teams that have been playing fairly well since late January. And what does it really matter? Any of the three teams will have to win two play-in games just to secure the East's eighth seed — for the right to get pounded by the Celtics or Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

Again, the only real concern among the conference's top eight teams is which of Boston or Milwaukee wins the No. 1 seed and which has to face Miami in the first round. This is where the play-in tournament creates uncertainty for top seeds, since we will not know the answer to that equation until after the regular season.

Western Conference

The West is settling into a similar scenario. The fourth-place Phoenix Suns own the conference's best record over the last six weeks, and they just integrated Kevin Durant into the fold. It is hard to imagine them losing ground over their final 19 games — unless the fifth-place Golden State Warriors, who have won four straight and are expected to return Stephen Curry to the lineup on Sunday, can finish with a better record. (The Suns own the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two.) What a first-round series that would be.

The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers are respectively attempting to work Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook into the mix, and whichever one figures it out first could get the final guaranteed playoff berth. The Mavs have a one-game lead in the loss column over the Clips, the easier schedule and a firm hold on the tiebreaker between the two teams (record in the conference, where Dallas is 24-17 and L.A. is 19-20).

What do you see on this snapshot of the stretch run in the West among seeds 5-13?

Anthony Davis and the 11th-place Los Angeles Lakers have the second-easiest schedule remaining, but their season could effectively be over by the time LeBron James returns (Justin Ford/Getty Images)
Anthony Davis and the 11th-place Los Angeles Lakers have the second-easiest schedule remaining, but their season could effectively be over by the time LeBron James returns (Justin Ford/Getty Images) (Justin Ford via Getty Images)

Western Conference

5. Golden State Warriors (33-30)

  • Net rating: 0.9 (since trade deadline: 5.8)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .513 (ninth-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 15-16

  • Games left against home playoff seeds : 7 (@MEM x2, MIL, PHX, PHI, @DEN, @SAC)

  • Games left against this group: 10 (NOP x2, @LAL, @OKC, @LAC, @ATL, @DAL, MIN, OKC, @POR)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 2 (@HOU, SAS)

  • Home/away split: 11 of 19 remaining games on the road (five-game road trip March 15-22)

  • Playoff odds: 86% (via FiveThirtyEight)

6. Dallas Mavericks (33-31)

  • Net rating: 0.7 (since trade deadline: 2.2)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .481 (sixth-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 16-16

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 6 (PHX, @MEM x2, MEM, @PHI, SAC)

  • Games left against this group: 8 (UTA, @NOP, @LAL, GSW, @IND, @MIA, @ATL, CHI)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 4 (@SAS, CHA, @CHA, SAS)

  • Home/away split: 10 of 18 remaining games on the road (five-game road trip March 26-April 2)

  • Playoff odds: 87% (via FiveThirtyEight)

7. Los Angeles Clippers (33-32)

  • Net rating: -0.4 (since trade deadline: -4.5)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .515 (seventh-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 11-24

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 5 (@SAC, MEM, @MEM x2, @PHX)

  • Games left against this group: 12 (TOR, NYK, GSW, ORL, @POR, OKC x2, NOP, CHI, @NOP, LAL, POR)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 0

  • Home/away split: Seven of 17 remaining games on the road (three-game road trip March 29-April 1)

  • Playoff odds: 61% (via FiveThirtyEight)

8. Minnesota Timberwolves (32-32)

  • Net rating: 0.1 (since trade deadline: -5.6)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .521 (fifth-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 15-16

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 5 (@SAC x2, PHI, BOS, @PHX)

  • Games left against this group: 12 (@LAL, BKN, @ATL, @CHI, @TOR, @NYK, ATL, @GSW, LAL, POR, @BKN, NOP)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 1 (@SAS)

  • Home/away split: 11 of 18 remaining games on the road (three-game road trip March 26-29)

  • Playoff odds: 59% (via FiveThirtyEight)

9. Utah Jazz (31-32)

  • Net rating: 0.7 (since trade deadline: 0.9)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .521 (fifth-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 13-23

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 7 (BOS, SAC, MIL, @SAC, PHX, @BOS, DEN)

  • Games left against this group: 10 (@OKC x2, @DAL, @ORL, @MIA, POR, @BKN, LAL, OKC, @LAL)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 2 (@CHA, @SAS)

  • Home/away split: 11 of 19 remaining games on the road (six-game road trip March 3-13)

  • Playoff odds: 15% (via FiveThirtyEight)

10. New Orleans Pelicans (31-32)

  • Net rating: 0.9 (since trade deadline: -7.6)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .474 (second-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 13-21

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 4 (@SAC, @DEN, SAC, MEM)

  • Games left against this group: 11 (@GSW x2, DAL, OKC, POR, LAL, @LAL, @POR, LAC, NYK, @MIN)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 4 (@HOU x2, SAS, CHA)

  • Home/away split: Nine of 19 remaining games on the road (four-game road trip March 25-30)

  • Playoff odds: 46% (via FiveThirtyEight)

11. Los Angeles Lakers (30-33)

  • Net rating: -0.7 (since trade deadline: 1.7)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .474 (second-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 13-24

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 3 (MEM, PHX x2)

  • Games left against this group: 14 (MIN, GSW, TOR, NYK, @NOP, DAL, ORL, OKC, CHI, @CHI, @MIN, @UTA, @LAC, UTA)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 2 (@HOU x2)

  • Home/away split: Seven of 19 remaining games on the road (five-game road trip March 31-April 5)

  • Playoff odds: 51% (via FiveThirtyEight)

12. Portland Trail Blazers (29-33)

  • Net rating: -0.7 (since trade deadline: -6.9)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .514 (eighth-hardest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 13-20

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 6 (@BOS, @PHI, BOS, SAC x2, @MEM)

  • Games left against this group: 12 (@ATL, @ORL, @NOP, NYK, LAC, @UTA, CHI, OKC, NOP, @MIN, @LAC, GSW)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 2 (@DET, @SAS)

  • Home/away split: 11 of 20 remaining games on the road (six-game road trip March 3-12)

  • Playoff odds: 7% (via FiveThirtyEight)

13. Oklahoma City Thunder (28-34)

  • Net rating: 0.9 (since trade deadline: 1.3)

  • Remaining opponents’ win percentage: .474 (second-easiest in the NBA, via Tankathon)

  • Record vs. teams above .500: 13-24

  • Games left against home playoff seeds: 4 (@PHX, PHX x2, MEM)

  • Games left against this group: 13 (UTA x2, GSW, @NOP, BKN, @TOR, @LAC x2, @LAL, @POR, @IND, @GSW, @UTA)

  • Games left against tanking teams: 3 (@SAS, CHA, DET)

  • Home/away split: 11 of 20 remaining games on the road (four-game road trip March 21-26)

  • Playoff odds: 2% (via FiveThirtyEight)

The Thunder are all but eliminated. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has not played since participating in the All-Star Game with what the team has diagnosed as an abdominal strain, and he just entered the league's health and safety protocols to boot. Leapfrogging three teams for the final play-in berth is neither realistic nor worth the effort, since Oklahoma City can also secure proper lottery odds from its current position.

The Lakers have only a handful of games left against teams that are not ahead of them in the standings, and they just learned LeBron James will not have his injured foot re-examined for another three weeks, when their season will likely be over. How FiveThirtyEight is still projecting the Lakers for 41 wins is beyond me.

The Blazers certainly have the talent to catch the Pelicans for the final play-in berth, but New Orleans has an easy schedule and just won in Portland by double digits on Wednesday without Zion Williamson, whose status will not be updated for another week (and whose best-case scenario would set his return even later.)

There is always the chance the Jazz finally tank out of the play-in altogether. Utah's latest injury report lists its starting backcourt sidelined for a vital game against Gilgeous-Alexander-less Oklahoma City on Friday. Regardless, barring a complete embarrassment from either the Mavericks or Clippers, these teams are all chasing the Timberwolves for the West's final playoff seed and the right to lose to Denver in the first round.

The biggest question in the conference is less about who makes the playoffs and more likely to be which of the Mavericks or Clippers the Grizzlies and Kings will have to host in the opening round. On both sides of the bracket, the postseason picture will be in full view sooner than later, because there is not much to gain for any team beyond seventh place in either conference, other than a week or two less offseason vacation.

Determination: The East and West playoff pictures are coming into clear view.