The NBA has released the remaining regular-season schedule for the 22 teams slated to restart the 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, beginning July 30. There are a few scores left to settle in the eight seeding games each team will play before the playoffs commence on Aug. 17.
Most notably, any of the six teams currently outside the 16-team playoff picture can force a play-in series by finishing in ninth place and within four games of the eighth-place team in either conference. Four teams in the Western Conference are currently within four games of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.
Here is more on that and the six things to watch during the NBA’s eight-game seeding battle:
The No. 1 seeds are probably set in stone
The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers would have to suffer catastrophic collapses over the final eight regular-season games not to enter the playoffs as the top seeds in their respective conferences.
The only chance the second-place Toronto Raptors have of finishing first in the East is if they go 8-0 as the Bucks lose all eight of their remaining regular-season games. No other team can catch Milwaukee.
The Lakers lead the second-place Los Angeles Clippers by 5 1/2 games and the third-place Denver Nuggets by seven games. The Lakers currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nuggets.
The Bucks (53-12) also lead the Lakers (49-14) by four games for the best overall record. No progress has been reported on discussions about creative ways to manipulate home-court advantage in Orlando, but even if the league does adopt one or more of its earlier proposals (i.e., possession to start each quarter), the sizable edge Milwaukee might have had in hosting L.A. for Game 7 of the Finals is gone.
Don’t bet on the East’s top three seeds changing, either
The third-place Boston Celtics (43-21) trail the Raptors by three games and lead the fourth-place Miami Heat by 2 1/2 games. Toronto has also won two of its three head-to-head meetings with Boston. Sure, Miami can close a two-game gap awfully quick, but that half-game looms large with eight apiece to play.
Nothing is guaranteed in the West beyond the Lakers
Four games separate the Clippers (44-20) from the sixth-place Houston Rockets (40-24), and four games separate the seventh-place Dallas Mavericks (40-27) from the Nuggets (43-22). In between, the fourth-place Utah Jazz (41-23) hold a tenuous one-game lead over both the Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24) and Rockets. (OKC is currently in fifth place by way of a 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker with Houston.)
For a clearer picture:
The jockeying for seeding position could be fascinating in the West. Denver infamously rested its best players in the penultimate game of last season, essentially tanking to avoid a potential second-round playoff series against Houston. (It did not work out so well, as the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated the Nuggets in a seven-game Western Conference semifinals anyhow.) If the standings remain the same, the Nuggets and Rockets would meet in a first-round matchup between the Nos. 3 and 6 seeds, respectively.
Nobody should want to meet a rested James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the first round. Likewise, the Clippers are the most talented team in the West, and everyone wants to avoid where Dallas is now.
For various reasons, the Jazz, Thunder and Mavericks are the more favorable first-round opponents. Utah lost Bojan Bogdanovic to wrist surgery during the hiatus. OKC has exceeded expectations in the regular season, but its success feels less likely to translate to the playoffs. And Dallas lost starting center Dwight Powell to an Achilles injury and replacement Willie Cauley-Stein, who opted out of the restart.
The 5-6 race in the East will be fascinating
The overachieving fifth-place Indiana Pacers (39-26) are similar to the Thunder in that both have a number of very good players but lack the star power that traditionally swings a playoff series, unless you count a 35-year-old Chris Paul and Victor Oladipo, who has played 13 games in the last 17 months.
Indiana currently leads the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers (39-26) by way of a 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker. Sixers center Joel Embiid is a nightmare for everyone in the East, especially the Celtics, who would be throwing Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams at Embiid if the playoff started today. Boston lost its season series with the Sixers, 3-1. The Celtics were 3-1 against the Heat and Pacers.
The Pacers and/or Sixers could catch the fourth-place Heat (41-24), another tough matchup. My guess is, if you polled Boston, Miami and Philadelphia, all three would prefer Indiana in the first round, unless the Celtics and Heat are convinced the chemistry issues that have plagued the 76ers prior are lasting.
Portland has a distinct tie-breaking advantage
Not only did the hiatus allow starters Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins additional time to rehab their significant injuries, ninth-place Portland also exits the break with a one-time-only tie-breaking edge.
If the ninth-place team in either conference finishes within four games of the eighth-place team at the end of the eight regular-season seeding games, the two teams would meet in a play-in series, with the ninth-place team needing to win two straight head-to-head games in order to unseat the eighth seed.
The Blazers (29-37), New Orleans Pelicans (28-36) and Sacramento Kings (28-36) are all virtually tied in the standings, 3 1/2 games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies, but because the Blazers have played two more games than either the Kings or Grizzlies, they own a win percentage tiebreaker by .001 percent. In other words, if the standings hold, Portland would advance to a play-in series with Memphis.
Considering four teams are currently within that four-game spread of the Grizzlies (San Antonio is a half-game behind the aforementioned trio), Memphis is almost guaranteed to compete in a play-in series. That is unwelcome news with Damian Lillard and Zion Williamson looming as potential opponents.
There is a glorious tanking opportunity in the East
The eight teams not invited to Orlando will have the best odds in the lottery:
Charlotte Hornets (23-42)
Chicago Bulls (22-43)
New York Knicks (21-45)
Detroit Pistons (20-46)
Atlanta Hawks (20-47)
Minnesota Timberwolves (19-45)
Cleveland Cavaliers (19-46)
Golden State Warriors (15-50)
The six teams that fail to make the playoffs in Orlando will then be slotted in behind them based on their records prior to the season’s restart. Currently, that would put the Washington Wizards (24-40), Phoenix Suns (26-39), Spurs, Kings, Pelicans and Blazers in lottery positions 9-14, respectively. However, any team that should emerge from that group to make the playoffs would then cede its lottery spot.
That means that either the seventh-place Brooklyn Nets (30-34) or eighth-place Orlando Magic (30-35) could tank their way into the lottery. The Grizzlies have little motivation to fall out of the eighth spot, since their first-round draft pick could transfer unprotected to the Celtics next season with bad lottery luck.
The Nets are an intriguing tanking test case. Neither Kyrie Irving nor Kevin Durant will play in Orlando, and Brooklyn has little chance of advancing past the first round, much less competing for a title. Now, imagine the Nets go winless in Orlando, gifting the No. 7 and 8 seeds to the Magic and Washington Wizards (24-40), and then hit on a 5.7 percent shot at a top-four pick to pair with Irving and Durant?
The NBA is back, baby!
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