Ness Notes: The Ides of April (NBA Playoffs a Month Out)

by Larry Ness

It's April 15, better known as tax day (although it's been pushed back to May 15 in 2021), or using some literary license, "The Ides of April." The last day of the NBA regular season is scheduled for May 16. The No. 1 through No. 6 seeds in each conference will be guaranteed playoff spots, while seeds 7-10 will be part of the NBA's new "Play-In" format. Any team that finishes worse than No. 10 will be in the lottery and since there is a chance for teams to finish with an uneven number of games played due COVID-19, the NBA will use winning percentage to determine the standings. There will be six total games involving eight teams as part of the play-in tournament. Those games will begin May 18 and end May 21, with the first round of the NBA playoffs tipping off May 22.

Here's the set-up for the "Play-In" round. Game 1 has the No. 7 seed (by winning percentage) hosting the No. 8 seed  in each conference with the winner earning the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The losing team gets another chance in Game 3. In Game 2, the No. 9 seed will host the No 10 seed, with the winner moving on to Game 3. The loser is eliminated and enters the NBA draft lottery. The final spot in each conference will be determined when the loser of the No 7 vs. No 8 matchup will host the winner of the No. 9 vs No 10 matchup, with the winner securing the No. 8 seed in the postseason. The losers of the two Game 3s also enter the lottery. Recapping, the teams with the seventh-highest and eighth-highest winning percentages will have TWO opportunities to win one game to earn a playoff spot, while the teams with the ninth-highest and tenth-highest winning percentages need to win two straight games to advance. Got it?

If the season ended (April 14), the "Play-In" matchups would be: In the Eastern Conference: Charlotte Hornets (No. 8) at Miami Heat (28-27) and Chicago Bulls (No. 10) at Indiana Pacers (No. 9). In the Western Conference: Memphis Grizzlies (No. 8) at Dallas Mavericks (No. 7) and Golden State Warriors (No. 10) at San Antonio Spurs (No. 9)

The top-six seeds look like this. In the Eastern Conference: No. 1 76ers (38-17), No. 2 Nets (37-18), No. 3 Bucks (34-20), No. 4 Hawks (30-25), No. 5 Celtics (29-26) and No. 6 Knicks (29-27). In the Western Conference: No. 1 Jazz (41-14), No. 2 Suns (39-15), No. 3 Clippers (39-18), No. 4 Nuggets (35-20), No. 5 Lakers (34-21) and No. 6 Blazers (31-23). 

Random Thoughts: Will the NBA count an appearance in the "Play-In" tournament as having "made the playoffs?" The longest current playoff droughts belong to the Sacramento Kings (14), the Phoenix Suns (10) and the NY Knicks. The 22-33 Kings are currently 9 1/2-games back of the West's No. 6 seed, so a "Play-In" berth is their only chance and as the saying goes, "Slim just left town." I wonder if Sacramento fans ever wonder why the Kings fired Rick Adelman. He led the Kings to EIGHT consecutive playoff appearances, twice winning the Pacific Division (during the Kobe/Shaq era) with 61-and 59-win seasons. Sacramento's current playoff drought began the first season after Adelman's firing. As for the Suns, their 10-year playoff drought is OVER. Phoenix is 39-15 and its .722 win percentage is on pace to be the third-best in team history (2004-05 Suns were 62-20, .756). Only the 41-14 Jazz have a better record than the Suns this season and NO team owns a better ATS record than Phoenix (Suns are 35-19, or 65%). That leaves us with the Knicks and their seven-season playoff drought. At 29-27, the Knicks currently own the East's No. 6 seed, coming off a 21-45 record last year. The East's No. 4 through No. 8 seeds are tightly-bunched (separated by just 2 1/2-games) but New York is almost guaranteed a "Play-In" berth, as the Knicks are currently SEVEN games clear of the East's 'dreaded' No. 11 seed. I wonder how many know that the Knicks own the NBA's second-best ATS record of 34-21-1 (62%).

Gregg Popovich's first full season as the Spurs' head coach was in 1997-98 and beginning with that year, he led San Antonio to 22 consecutive postseasons, while winning FIVE championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014). That remarkable streak came to an end in last year's pandemic-shortened season and "Pop" and his Spurs could miss for a second straight year here in the 2020-21 season. The Spurs are currently 26-27, which places them 10th in the West. Seeds 8 through 10 are tightly-bunched (separated by only ONE game) but the underachieving Pelicans (dreaded No. 11 seed) are just two games back of San Antonio. Earning a No. 6 seed (which would avoid the Play-In route), seems like a 'bridge too far' (Spurs are 4 1/2-games back of the Blazers) but San Antonio should qualify for the "Play-In" tourney, giving Pop a chance to "coach'em up"  and into a 7 or 8 seed.

With the Spurs missing the playoffs last season, the current active leader in consecutive playoffs made is Houston, as the Rockets opened the current season having made EIGHT straight NBA postseasons. However, that streak is O-V-E-R. James Harden left OKC and signed with the Rockets prior to the 2012-13 season and eight consecutive playoff appearances followed. The previous three seasons Harden has led the NBA in scoring but in NONE of his eight seasons, was he and his ever-changing group of cohorts able to get the Rockets into the NBA Finals (just two, Conference Finals appearances). Harden pouted and 'held his breath' early this season until the Rockets sent him to Brooklyn and Houston currently sits 14-41. That's the NBA's worst record and for good measure, the Rockets also own the NBA's worst ATS mark of 18-37 (33%).

Portland and Toronto each entered the 2020-21 season with SEVEN consecutive playoff appearances, The 31-23  Blazers are currently the West's No. 6 seed and need to hold off the 30-24 Mavs to avoid falling into the "Play-In" tournament, As for Toronto, the Raptors 'fall from grace' has been dramatic this season. Toronto won the NBA title in 2019 and even in last year's pandemic-shortened season (without Kawhi), entered last year's playoffs with the NBA's second-best overall record of 53-19 (a half-game better than the eventual champion LA Lakers). Toronto is currently 22-34 (No. 11 seed), which leaves them 7 1/2-games back of the East's No. 6 seed (last guaranteed playoff berth). The Raptors' ONLY chance for postseason success will be getting into the 7-10 "Play-In" field. Toronto is just ONE game back of the No. 10 seed (Bulls) but is FIVE games back of the No. 9 seed (Pacers). Toronto will need to catch the Bulls first (doable) but then win two consecutive road games to earn the No. 8 seed. The Clippers are securely in the West's playoff field, so maybe the Raptors can 'rent' Kawhi for two games, if they promise to send him back to LA after that?

I'll check back in on the 'state of the NBA union' on May 3.

Good luck...Larry

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