We are nearing towards the end of what has been a truly remarkable season. Records broken, legacies coming to an end, and young stars establishing their place atop the NBA. However, like the past couple of years, one question remains, who will grab that no. 8 seed in each conference?
It is a close race on both sides of the spectrum. Houston and Dallas are narrowly holding onto their tie of 7th and 8th seed, with Portland barely overtaking the 6th seed and Utah and Denver rounding out the top 10.
It seems as though Houston is starting to find some sort of defense and should safely hold onto their spot in the playoffs with either the 6th or 7th seed. Its a similar situation up in Portland with the Trailblazers. It seems as though both teams are starting to hit a stride (even if is a small one). If both teams can simply hold on to a decent road record with their remaining games, while taking care of business at home, they should safely hold onto their playoff spots.
Where things get a little trickier are when it comes to the Mavericks, Jazz, and Nuggets.
After a rough start to the year, it seemed as though they were on the upswing and vaulting themselves into the playoffs. However, their recent 5-game losing streak calls into question their chances once again.
Much of their issues are stemming from slumps of key players such as Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams. While guys like Nowitzki, and Parsons are playing well and contributing, they just are not getting as much help and aid coming off the bench as they need to.
While their play might improve over the final stretch of the season, it might very well be too late. With teams like the Cavaliers, Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Trail Blazers on their schedule, their eighth seed is hanging on a very tiny thread.
Despite a bumpy start to the season, they have bounced back and are only 2.5 games out of the playoffs. Stellar play by Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, and the young gun Rodney Hood are finally beginning to bring this team from the depths of the West and into the light.
However, there are two things that stand in the way of the Jazz overtaking that 8th seed, Trey Burke and their schedule.
Averaging a mere 11 points and 2 assists this season, Burke has been a disappointment. His shot is not falling and he cannot seem to see the court as well as he should. We have seen flashes of what his game could be, both this season and last season, but he just cannot seem to hit his shots whether they are open or contested. Regardless, as the team begins to play better, Burke will get better and better looks, and the Jazz must hope that he starts converting them.
Their schedule is not something that can be fixed unfortunately. With their final stretch of games, they play teams such as the Cavaliers, Thunder, Rockets, Spurs, and Bulls. Those are some solid teams that they will have to face in the upcoming weeks, and the Jazz can only hope that they bring their A-game to the show.
Similar to the Jazz, this team has bounced back from inconsistent play and injuries to begin the season, and has begun to push itself back into the race, despite being 5-games back from the Rockets/Mavericks.
The solid play by guys like Danilo Gallinari (19.5 points & 5.3 rebounds) and Will Barton (15.1 points & 6.2 rebounds) are what have catapulted them back into the race. Although guys like Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried, and Wilson Chandler aren’t putting up the numbers they probably should be, they are still contributing valuable effort to the team and have been a solid backbone.
Out of all three teams being considered, they have what seems to be the easiest schedule coming up. Although they play teams such as the Cavaliers, Clippers, and the Heat, the rest of their schedule is one they could have at least a .500 record in (considering the 4-game winning streak they are on).
Overall Winner: Dallas Mavericks
Yes they are only 2.5 games ahead of the Jazz, and yes they aren’t on a 4-game winning streak like the Nuggets, but this is all boiling down to talent and coaching.
The Mavericks have by far the most talent out of all of the teams, and they have by far the best coach. With Carlisle at the helm and Nowitzki/Parsons leading the team, this team has more than enough talent to win the games they need to win and secure that coveted 8th seed.
Like the Western Conference, this one is a close race. The Indiana Pacers have a 38-34 record (.528) with the 7th seed and the Detroit Pistons have a 39-35 record (.527) with the 8th seed. The Chicago Bulls are creeping up behind with a 36-36 (.500) record and the 9th seed.
The Pacers have the best record on this list, and compared to the other three, they have a very good chance of keeping their spot.
Guys like Paul George (23.4 pts, 6.9 reb, 4.1 assists) and Monta Ellis (14.1 pts, 3.3 reb, 4.8 assists) are what have kept this team alive, as they have really been the only ones putting up consistent offense as of late. Others, like George Hill, C.J. Miles, and Myles Turner, need to turn on the gas and start being more efficient offensively if they want to compete. Defensively they have been having their will, but it cannot be the only thing carrying them into the playoffs.
Although they have not been playing up to their usual offensive level as of late (as they currently are 26th in the league for offensive rating), they have been consistently punishing teams with their 3rd place defensive rating. While they do not have the easiest remaining schedule (with games against the Raptors, Cavaliers, and Bucks still on the list), games such as the 76ers, Magic, and Knicks should leave them with a solid chance at a .500 record for their remaining games.
The Pistons have been on a tear recently, going 12-6 (.666) over their last 18 games. They currently sit in the middle of the pack in both offensive (12th) and defensive (13th) rating. They too have a good chance at retaining their 8th seed.
Top performers Andre Drummond (16.7 pts, 14.9 reb, 1.5 blks) and Reggie Jackson (18.6 pts, 3.2 reb, 6.2 assists) have fueled this offense, as well as provide some solid play on the defensive end. Guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.5 pts, 3.7 reb, 1.5 st) and Marcus Morris (14.1 pts, 4.9 reb, 2.5 assists) have also provided good assistance with explosive scoring and solid all-around play. As long as their bench keeps stepping up they should have a very good chance.
Coming from behind, only two games behind that coveted 8th seed. Do the Bulls have enough tank in the gas to overtake the Detroit Pistons?
With the steadily-improving play of Derrick Rose and the tremendous All-Star play of guard Jimmy Butler and forward/center Pau Gasol, they have put together enough of an effort to stay somewhat afloat in the much-improved Eastern Conference. However, if players like Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic don’t improve, they could find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Their schedule might be their undoing. They have by far the toughest schedule of any team on this list. With tough teams like the Hawks, Pacers, Rockets, Bucks, Heat, Cavs, and Pelicans, the chances of them going even .400 are very slim.
Overall Winner: Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons
At the end of the season, the final two teams in the East will be the Pacers and the Pistons, with the Pistons overtaking the Pacers for the 7th seed and the Pacers taking the 8th. The Pistons are just playing too well right now to let the season slip away. Combine their play with their schedule, and you get a team that will put itself in a good position come playoff time.
The Pacers, while not as successful as the Pistons, should have enough talent and a decent enough schedule to secure the final spot, although maybe only by a game or so. Nevertheless, the end to the season will be filled with close games and excellent play.