We’re a little more than one month into the NBA season, so I wanted to share some thoughts on how the two conferences are shaping up. If you’re unaware, the playoff format has been altered. There will be a "play-in tournament" for teams ranked 7th through 10th in each conference from May 18–21. The 7th place team will play the 8th place team, with the winner earning the 7-seed. The 9th place team will play the 10th place team with the loser of that game being eliminated. The 7th-8th loser will then play the 9th-10th winner, with the winner of that game earning the 8-seed and the loser being eliminated.
The top six in each conference do not have to worry about the “play-in tournament” and are assured of playoff berths.
Let’s look at who I think has a good shot at finishing in the top six in the East and West.
East: The current top six of Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Indiana, Boston & Atlanta are who I expect to be the top six when the regular season concludes. The order will likely shuffle with Milwaukee being my pick to finish on top, which they’ve done the previous two seasons. The Bucks are #1 in the East in both point differential and net efficiency. Brooklyn is #2 in both and now that they have James Harden, will probably finish no lower than third. I expect them to duke it out with Philadelphia for the #2 seed. The Sixers have cleaned up against sub-.500 foes so far (11-2 SU) and did just beat the Lakers, but I don’t see them making the Conference Finals. Atlanta is among the league’s most improved teams so far and as the likely winner of the Southeast Division could finish ahead of Indiana and Boston, if all goes well.
As for the play-in spots, I think you have to look at the likelihood of both Toronto and Miami improving. These teams have been negatively impacted by COVID with the Raptors playing home games in Orlando and the Heat having a thin roster. The East is too weak for these teams not to finish in the top 10. It’s so weak that even teams like Charlotte, New York and Cleveland have a shot at making the playoffs. When all is said and done, expect the Raptors and Heat to round out the top eight.
West: The top three have really solidified themselves already. As expected, the Lakers and Clippers are among those three teams. The surprise is Utah, who has won 11 in a row as of this writing, and currently leads the conference. There’s no “smoke and mirrors” either. The Jazz are 12-3 in games decided by 10 points or more and have the best point differential in the NBA. They’ve covered the spread in all 11 games during this win streak as well and have the best ATS record in the league. The Jazz have actually been favored in 17 of their 19 games so far, so the strong start should actually NOT be that surprising. They have yet to face the Lakers, but did beat the Clippers on New Year’s Day.
Denver, who has finished top three in the West each of the previous two seasons, would seem like a lock to finish in the top six again this year. I’ve been very disappointed with the Mavericks recently as they’ve lost five straight to fall to 8-12 SU. But like the Raptors and Heat in the East, expect the Mavs to rise up and I’ve got them projected for the top six here. Phoenix is a young and exciting team and I think they’ll also finish above the “cut line” for the playoff scenario.
The West is deeper than the East, making the race for the Play-In spots more intriguing. Unlike the East, I think there are some teams that you can easily “write off” though. Oklahoma City, Sacramento and Minnesota are all pretty bad and I would be stunned if any of those three finished in the top 10. That would leave six teams - Memphis, San Antonio, Houston, Portland, Golden State and New Orleans - fighting for the four spots. All of these teams would make the playoffs if they were in the East. They all have significant flaws, Portland’s horrible defensive efficiency for example, but those things can be overcome. I think it’s pretty clear the Warriors are never getting back to their previous championship heights. Memphis and Houston are both solid defensive teams. San Antonio is one of only three teams currently covering at a 60% rate or higher, so they’ve been undervalued. New Orleans is the worst of the six teams, according to every metric. Since it’s so early in the season, I’m not really comfortable choosing which four of these six will get the chance to play playoff basketball.
I’ll be checking back in as the season progresses.