The East’s Stretch Run Could Be a Battle for the NBA’s Future

How much does playoff seeding really matter?

Sure, it determines home court, and the home team nearly always wins Game 7’s, and the eventual champion, almost without fail, is a top-3 seed. But to a large extent, those are all knock-on effects of a team garnering those advantages because they are better than their opponents to begin with, and then capitalizing on that delta. It’s essentially nature running its course in most cases.

But what if you have a bunch of teams of roughly equal quality, most of whom have a lot to lose — in terms of both the current moment and the trajectories of their respective franchises — from the results of the playoffs? In that case, how each team finishes the regular season, and the resulting playoff matchups, could be exceedingly important in charting the course of the league going forward.

Welcome to the Eastern Conference Arms Race of 2019.

Top to bottom, the East is a weird place this year. LeBron’s exodus to LA left a gaping power vacuum. The void has been filled by three distinct strata of teams: a cadre of five elite contenders at the top (Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana, Philly, and Boston); a sad, mostly punch-less middle class pillow-fighting each other for the honor of being thrashed in the first round by the clubs listed above; and the poor, unfortunate dregs at the bottom looking towards ping-pong balls and the future, AKA the “Not Tryin’ for Zion” tier.

Today we’ll only concern ourselves with the first group, the wheat to the rest of the conference’s chaff. The dynamics of this group are fascinating. With five teams in the mix, followed by a bunch of also-rans (apologies to the Nets, who have been a fun story), the three teams who finish at the top will effectively get a bye into the conference semis, while the ones finishing fourth and fifth will have to play each other in the opening round. Not only will one of the teams not even get out of the first round, but the 4/5 winner then has to take on the no. 1 seed in the following round, whereas the teams sitting second and third get to fatten up on relative cupcakes before tangling with each other in round two. So while the difference in quality between the 3-seed and 4-seed is likely to be nearly nonexistent, the difference in difficulty between their respective paths to (at least) the Conference Finals has the potential to be gargantuan.

And the matchups matter, which is what makes this final stretch of regular season games so vital. Here are the standings as they look today, post-All Star break.

Let’s break down what’s at stake, team-by-team:

MILWAUKEE BUCKS: The Bucks are obviously in a strong position, in terms of the amount of games they have remaining, their record, and how good they’ve looked achieving it. They also fortified their roster at the trade deadline, scooping up marksman Nikola Mirotic for what amounted to Thon Maker (whose minutes had already been commandeered by impressive second-year man D.J. Wilson anyway) and a pile of second-round picks they had lying around. We’ve yet to see Mirotic suit up for the Bucks, but he feels like the snuggest of fits for their style of play, allowing them to toggle their frontcourt lineups in a variety of ways to play virtually any kind of game the opponent throws at them, while maintaining the vast chasms of space around Giannis which have helped enable his marauding rim runs. While the Raptors and Sixers made big moves at the deadline as well — picking up Marc Gasol and Tobias Harris, respectively — the combination of the standings, the Bucks’ remaining schedule (one of the league’s easiest, though Toronto also rates highly here), and their “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” play to this point makes me think it would take a pretty major curveball to knock Milwaukee out of the top spot.

So what would be the best way for the standings to shake out below them? First, it’s important to note regular season head-to-head records are not always particularly predictive of how a playoff series will unfold. The hay isn’t completely in the barn yet, either: the Bucks have completed their season series with Toronto (besting them 3-1 and thus holding a potentially critical tie-breaker), but still have a game each against Boston and Indiana and two against Philly. They are currently 1-1 vs. Boston, 2-1 vs. Indy, and 1-0 vs. Philly, so while there is still work to be done in locking up tie-breakers with their non-Canadian rivals, there also doesn’t look to be any team (non-Warriors division) of whom they should be afraid. Stylistically, perhaps Philly could be the closest thing to Milwaukee Kryptonite, as their new-look starting five may be big and versatile enough to throw different looks at Giannis while also being able to contest the Bucks’ waves of three-point shooters. Indiana, sans Victor Oladipo, probably can’t score enough on Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense to be a real threat, so Milwaukee may have some interest in seeing the Sixers and Pacers swap spots in the standings, which feels realistic given the changes those respective rosters have recently undergone.

What do they stand to lose if they flop early? A second-round loss would be ugly for a team chasing sixty wins, but probably not as catastrophic as it would be for some of the competition. First-time All-Star Khris Middleton and resurgent bulldog point guard Eric Bledsoe are both set to be unrestricted free agents at season’s end, and Middleton in particular is about to get P-A-I-D for the first time in his career. [Middleton has a player option in his contract which he will undoubtedly decline.] While it’s theoretically possible a humbling defeat could make their eyes wander (Bledsoe, fair or not, does carry the stigma of being seen as something less than the most loyal soldier after the hair salon affair in Phoenix), the Bucks’ front office holds two massive trump cards in the negotiations with their complementary stars: Bird Rights (meaning they can throw in some additional financial security for two guys who probably believe they’ve been underpaid their whole careers), and the opportunity to play alongside the best friggin’ player in the league, who is only 24 years old by the way, for the prime years of his career. Ownership is probably going to have to feel some luxury tax pain — Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will also both be due for hefty raises, though they will likely save some cash by waiving George Hill’s non-guaranteed deal over the summer — but it’s a pill they’ll just have to swallow to keep the core intact. There are paths where things could go sideways for them, but barring an unforeseen pre-agency debacle (which we’ve seen no evidence The Freak has any inkling to initiate), Giannis remains the rising tide that lifts all boats in Milwaukee, and should continue to be even if the playoffs don’t break their way this year.

Credit: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

TORONTO RAPTORS: Though they have two more losses in the bank, do not hold the aforementioned tie-breaker, and are still in active “load management” mode with Kawhi Leonard, overtaking Milwaukee for the top spot in the Conference is certainly not out of the question. Their remaining schedule rates as even easier than the Bucks’, they won six in a row heading into the break, and the addition of Gasol provides them with another dimension of defense and playmaking they didn’t possess with Jonas Valanciunas. [The sample size isn’t large enough yet to definitively say one way or the other, but my gut tells me the Gasol-Siakam pairing is going to be magical.]

Even if they don’t surpass Milwaukee, it’s hard to see them dropping below the 2-seed. Coughing up a  4.5 (to 5.5) game lead in the standings this late in the proceedings would take a pretty big confluence of circumstances, and if that happens, Toronto likely has far bigger problems than its seeding. So who would be the ideal 3-seed for them to face? Look, the easy answer to this question for everyone is Indiana, given how tough it will be for them to overcome the season-ending injury to Oladipo. Indy has rebounded of late, winning six of seven going into the break, but Toronto took two out of three off the Pacers in their season series, as well as three out of four against the Sixers. The Raptors have one game left against Boston (Feb 26th in Toronto), with the Celtics winning two out of three tilts so far. Adding Gasol may not do much to address this troublesome matchup, as the Celtics’ offense is designed to exploit lumbering big men without giving up a mismatch at the other end. The schedule at least sets up ideally for Toronto, as they are finished playing the teams they would rather see ascend in the standings and still have a head-to-head matchup with the team they might prefer stay in the 4/5 side of the bracket.

A premature playoff exit for Toronto has the potential to be devastating. No matter what happens, we simply have no idea what Kawhi Leonard will do this summer. He has been characteristically tight-lipped about his intentions in free agency, and it’s not as though he should get much benefit of the doubt. Because he is so reserved and so many other pre-agency shenanigans have transpired since, we tend to gloss over the fact this guy held what is perhaps the best organization in American sports hostage for an entire year AND THEN demanded a trade. All the Raptors can do is put their best foot forward and hope, but pretending to know what a player with his track record will do and what truly matters to him is galactically foolish. He has a title under his belt already, so even if the Raptors make a deep run and look like a strong contender going forward, Kawhi might be happy to take less money and a more comfortable situation to play where he wants anyway. It has to be maddening, but GM Masai Ujiri and the Raptors were well aware of the gamble they were taking by trading for such an inscrutable superstar.

INDIANA PACERS: This is where things get interesting. We should never count out a group of smart, tough players who defend like their collective hair is on fire, but holding on to the 3-seed is going to be exceedingly difficult for the Pacers, especially with Philly acquiring Harris. Indiana brought in buyout guy Wes Matthews to fill some of Oladipo’s minutes (and perhaps to keep him away from the Sixers, who reportedly also expressed interest in signing Matthews), but the move amounts to slapping a Band-Aid over a compound fracture. Their recent six-game win streak (prior to a loss to the Bucks heading into the break) came in a home-heavy stretch against a weak set of opponents, and the schedule is not kind the rest of the way. Their slate from March 7th onward features road games at Milwaukee, Golden State, Philly, and Portland, as well as two games each against Denver, Boston and OKC. That accounts for ten out of their remaining 24 games, so even if they can manage to split those heavyweight matchups — a tall order — they’ll still need to avoid any slip-ups against the lesser opponents to keep pace with Philly and Boston, both of whom could be primed for a strong sprint to the finish line.

The good news? Relatively speaking, playoff expectations are low in the wake of Oladipo’s injury. They also don’t have any real franchise-altering free agents coming due this summer, so the stakes are not nearly as high for them should they bow out in the first or second round this spring. Bojan Bogdanovic will be a free agent and may have earned himself a healthy raise with his tremendous play of late, and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Domantas Sabonis will be due for a massive extension. Even so, Indy’s cap sheet is clean as can be going forward, giving them both a nice, young core and the flexibility to improve the roster in a number of ways.  While they may be the easiest out among the East’s contenders this season, that is unlikely to be a lasting state of affairs.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Our biggest wild card. On paper (and in the small sample of games we’ve seen so far), their new Big Four (Five?) starting lineup looks like a monster, with the acquisition of borderline All-Star Tobias Harris adding shooting, length, and versatility to a team needing those exact elements. If it all jells over a larger number of minutes and is enough to overcome their depth issues, the upside is there to challenge Toronto for the 2-seed. Regardless of the seed, what really matters, whether they will admit it or not, is ending up on the opposite side of the bracket from Boston. The Sixers are 0-3 (with one more game to go, March 20th in Boston) against the Celtics, and the combination of Al Horford and Aron Baynes has frustrated Joel Embiid to no end. Getting the 3-seed feels more urgent for Philly than for the other teams, since it likely gets them away from Boston and Milwaukee for both of the first two rounds. A potential Brooklyn-Toronto path to the ECF is no picnic — they’re 1-3 vs. the Raps — but it’s far more palatable than the possibility of Boston and then, if the Sixers survive, Milwaukee.

It’s hard to know what the ramifications of a quick playoff exit would be, but they probably aren’t pretty. Even if Philly makes a deep run and GM Elton Brand convinces the notoriously fickle Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris — and let’s be honest, himself — to keep the band together, this core gets EXTREMELY expensive in short order. Butler and Harris will be looking for max deals (or close to it), and Ben Simmons will be eligible for a max extension this fall, which the Sixers will rightly grant him at the first possible moment. So they could be on the hook for FOUR max contracts (including Embiid) starting in ’20-’21, which will push them deeeeep into the luxury tax once they fill out the remainder of the roster. If they are competing for titles, then it’s probably worth it to ownership. If they flame out in the playoffs this year, management may decide to let Butler walk (rather than pay $189 million for an injury-prone star who would be 34 by the contract’s expiration) and pitch Harris as his replacement rather than as his complement. [It’s entirely possible the trade for Harris was this exact sort of hedge in the first place, and after being traded four times in eight years, Tobias may jump at the opportunity to finally feel like he has a long-term NBA “home.”]

In any case, “The Process” is dead and buried, and it’s time for this all-in roster to put up or shut up. The next seven weeks will be a good indicator of which one it will be.

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BOSTON CELTICS: Boston rooked me — and many others — into thinking they would be a juggernaut, so sitting tied for fifth in the East this late in the campaign has to qualify as an unmitigated disappointment. With that said, there is still an elite team lurking within this talented-but-inconsistent roster. The Celtics were basically M.I.A. for most of November, going 4-8 over a three-week span, but outside of that stretch, have racked up a 33-13 record and been one of the best teams in the league. By Simple Rating System (a measure accounting for point differential and strength of schedule), the C’s are the NBA’s third-best team, behind Milwaukee and Golden State, unsurprisingly. They play the other elite teams tough, and as previously mentioned, have manhandled the Sixers. The schedule is rough down the stretch (.526 remaining opponents’ win percentage, with 14 of 24 games on the road), but they will have a big hand in determining playoff seeding, with two games still to go against Indiana and one each against Milwaukee, Toronto, and Philly.

Three of the five teams we’ve discussed won’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, and no one has more riding on NOT being one of those three than the Celtics. For Boston, an early dismissal from the postseason could be borderline apocalyptic. As Kyrie Irving has continued to open his mouth and consequently make his commitment to the franchise appear less and less ironclad (along with all the other bread crumbs turning up connecting him to the Knicks and/or Kevin Durant), the fortunes of a franchise which has spent the better part of the decade building up its war chest through shrewd personnel moves now feel increasingly dependent on the results of a handful of playoff games in which its best player may already have one foot out the door. If things go south and Kyrie bolts for less-green pastures (literally and probably figuratively), Danny Ainge would then need to rethink whether or not it makes sense to throw the kitchen sink (read: Jayson Tatum plus their glut of extra draft picks) at a potential Anthony Davis deal if he has no superstar with which to pair The Brow. [That last sentence probably reads like porn to Lakers’ fans.]

Selling Kyrie on sticking around long-term (and everything which could flow from his decision) starts with a deep postseason run this year, and blowing out these next seven weeks would go a long way to setting them up for success. All the numbers say they have it in them, but can they consistently harness it?

Top Photo Credit: Sporting News

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