In spite of the woeful state of the bottom of each conference playoff chase in the NBA, it looks like every bubble team should consider themselves desperate.
The clock is clicking louder by the day for the NBA’s fringe playoff teams. While the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed is a virtual lock, the Western Conference is settling into place with just the same status.
In spite of the fact that it seemed like no team in the Eastern Conference below the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers even wanted a playoff spot, the 29-34 Brooklyn Nets and the 29-35 Orlando Magic are in the midst of a heated battle to decide which of them finishes eighth and gets swept in likely record fashion by the Milwaukee Bucks.
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While the top of the East is formidable, the bottom portion is something of an embarrassment given that it appears two losing teams are going to make the playoffs. Their most formidable foes, the Washington Wizards, have faded over the last 10 games going 3-7.
The incredible thing is that the Wizards, who are now 23-40, could have actually made some real progress in their playoff chase with even a 5-5 record. That’s right, a 25-38 record more than two-thirds of the way through the season would have been good enough to trail the eight seed by just 3.5 games.
As it happens, the deficit is 5.5 with 19 games left, so stick a fork in them.
The Western Conference race is nearly as settled, although more teams put up more of a fight and did so for longer.
With a 32-32 record, the surprising Memphis Grizzlies have a near-stranglehold on the eighth seed. FiveThirtyEight’s ELO projections give them a 59 percent chance of getting in, and they have a four-game lead over the ninth-place New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings with matching 28-36 records. All three teams have just 18 games left.
They’re followed closely by the Portland Trail Blazers, another team that picked the worst time to fall apart. Damian Lillard was on the run of a lifetime before the All-Star break before suffering an injury that forced him to miss time, and the Blazers have never been able to regain their momentum. They are also 3-7 in their last 10 and have been unable to capitalize on the struggles of the injury-ravaged Grizzlies who have gone 4-6 in that stretch.
The only team with any reason to feel especially good about their recent play is the resurgent Kings, who once left for dead have gone 7-3 in their last 10. Alas, nothing shy of a disaster from the Grizzlies will get them in, but that’s a team battling injuries to multiple key contributors like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke. Disaster might be in the cards for them after all.
The NBA’s Eastern Conference lineup is set. It’s just a matter of what order they fall in. The Western Conference is less certain, but a couple wins by the Grizzlies matched by losses from the Blazers, Kings and Pelicans would seal the deal quickly. The clock is ticking, and the outsiders need to go on a spectacular run just to give themselves a chance to get in.