HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are fighting for the final playoff spot. And, unless the Dallas Mavericks continue to slide, two of those teams will miss the postseason.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, we’re going to have two playoff teams out of a group that includes …
- The 20-25 Miami Heat, who are missing Dwyane Wade for the next 2-3 weeks.
- The 19-27 Charlotte Bobcats, who have the league’s worst offense outside of Philadelphia and are without Kemba Walker until at least mid-March.
- The 18-27 Brooklyn Nets, who are looking to trade their three highest paid players and are 3-17 against teams currently over .500.
- The 16-28 Boston Celtics, who have already traded two of their three highest paid players and just lost to the 8-37 Minnesota Timberwolves.
- The 17-30 Detroit Pistons, who are 0-3 with a 20-point loss to the Sixers since losing Brandon Jennings for the season.
- The 17-31 Indiana Pacers, who rank 28th offensively and are 2-8 in their last 10 games, with losses to the Sixers, Wolves, and Hornets.
The good thing about the East is that there’s some fresh blood at the top. The top six teams in the standings won a total of one playoff series last year, so we’re going to have a lot of new faces in the conference semifinals.
But who will take those last two playoff spots? The numbers could help us with the forecast.
First, with apologies to Bill Parcells, let’s accept the notion that the standings don’t tell us everything about how well or how poorly a team has played.
Point differential is a better predictor of future success than wins and losses. And there’s a formula to calculate how many wins a team should have (“expected wins”) based on their point differential. That formula says that both the Pacers and Celtics should have about three more wins than they do.
Indiana has a better NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) than Brooklyn, but is 2 1/2 games behind the Nets in the standings, in part because the Pacers are 11-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and the Nets are 11-11.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have the eighth best NetRtg in the East (just a hair behind the Heat), but are 8-16 in close games.
Among the group of teams listed above, the Pistons, Heat and Hornets have played the toughest schedule thus far. But the Celtics aren’t fare behind. And going forward, the schedule favors the Pacers.
Indiana actually has more games remaining vs. teams that are currently at or above .500 than vs. teams that are below. But they have six more home games than road games and have 13 games left against teams that are playing the second night of a back-to-back.
When you adjust for those situations, the Pacers have the easiest schedule of the six teams that have between 17 and 20 wins in the East …
Of course, the Pacers are just 9-12 at home and just 4-7 against teams on the second night of back-to-back. As noted above, they’ve lost to both the Wolves and Sixers this month.
But when you take into account some bad luck in close games and a favorable future schedule, they have a decent chance of moving up from 12th to seventh or eighth.