In the most bizarre NBA season in history, we’re getting the most fitting final stretch we could hope for. Thanks to the addition of a play-in tournament to this season’s playoffs, there are more teams with postseason aspirations than ever before.
In years past, only the top eight seeds make it in. This year, the expansion means that all teams from seven to 10 will play a quick tournament to settle who gets the final seven and eight seeds. For a quick explanation of how the play-in works, see here.
The race for the 10th and final Eastern Conference NBA play-in spot sums up the 2020-21 season perfectly
There may be no better microcosm for the 2020-21 NBA season than what we find in the bottom tier of the Eastern Conference playoff chase. The current play-in picture looks like this:
- Seventh place: Miami Heat (31-28)
- Eighth place: Charlotte Hornets (28-29)
- Ninth place: Indiana Pacers (27-31)
- 10th place: Washington Wizards (25-33)
- 11th place: Toronto Raptors (25-34)
- 12th place: Chicago Bulls (24-34)
That’s right, we have a 12th place Chicago Bulls team on pace for 29 wins within a game in the standings away from 10th place and a fighter’s shot at making the playoffs.
It seems ridiculous, but it might make for a truly compelling chase between the Wizards, Raptors and Bulls. All three teams got off to awful starts, and the Wizards were wiped off the board for almost two full weeks in January because of a COVID outbreak. The Raptors had their own COVID outbreak after the All-Star break.
The Chicago Bulls made an all-in, win-now move by at the NBA trade deadline by moving Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. along with two first-round draft picks to the Orlando Magic for Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu. They immediately embarked on a losing streak, dropping the next four games.
They are 5-10 since the trade and have fallen out of what appeared to be at least a safe play-in spot. To top things off, they’ve been without Zach LaVine for the last four games due to health and safety protocols, and his return date has not yet been set. They’re 1-3 over those games.
As for the Washington Wizards, they started the season 0-5, then 2-8, then 3-12. They didn’t play any games between January 12th and the 23rd as their roster was decimated by COVID. However, now they’re in the driver’s seat for the 10-seed thanks to a stunning 6-0 winning streak, starting with a 125-121 road win over the Utah Jazz on April 12th.
The Wizards looked like they were dead and out of the picture less than two weeks ago, and now look at them; sitting atop the pile for the final play-in spot with just over a dozen games left to go.
Finally, the Toronto Raptors have had the hardest road of all. They were forced to play their home games in Tampa, Florida, after the government of Canada declined to allow them to play in Toronto thanks to the ongoing COVID pandemic. The Raptors started the season 2-8, but they battled all the way to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference before free-falling with a nine-game losing streak and ultimately dropping 13 out of 14 games.
Like the Wizards, they’ve picked it up of late with a four-game winning streak and are back in the thick of things.
The Raptors may be in their final weeks with franchise legend Kyle Lowry, who becomes a free agent in the offseason, so getting one last playoff run with him on board must be enticing. However, they’ve battled injuries and recently rested players liberally, so it’s debatable just how much they actually want to get into the play-in at all.
Ultimately, there may be no better summary of this NBA season than a three-team race between a Bulls squad that went all-in to win, only to immediately lose; a Wizards team that missed two weeks of games due to the plague running rampant in their locker room; and a former champion in the Toronto Raptors that may just want to get this godforsaken season over with and go home.