Eastern Conference Playoffs: Who will Miss Out?

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By MacBell

Caption: Feb 15, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks' Julius Randle (30) protects the ball from Atlanta Hawks' John Collins (20) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.

We’re closing in on the halfway point of the season, and with the presence of a play-in tournament, more teams than ever are hoping to make the playoffs. Even with the play-in, only 10 teams will qualify in either conference. In the Eastern conference, some new teams are looking to make their mark. With 5 fringe teams vying for 3 play-in spots, the rest of this season should be interesting.

The Knicks are the 7th seed in the east (that still feels weird to say), and behind them are the: Hornets, Bulls, Pacer, and Hawks. The last 3 teams in the conference (Orlando, Washington, Cleveland, and Detroit) have a much smaller chance at the playoffs, so they will be fully ignored. Sorry to all fans of those teams, as a consolation prize, you can all duke it out in the Cade Cunningham lottery race.

Out of those 6 teams, the Pacers are clear outliers. They have been regulars in the Eastern Conference playoffs for a while now. It’s safe to assume they will have a spot in the playoffs come May.

So that leaves us with the 4 teams contending for the last 3 spots in the playoffs/play-in tournament. These 4 teams are some of the most interesting in the league and are always a great watch on league pass. Now it’s time for a deep dive on each of these teams and what their chances are this year.

The Knicks

Feb 21, 2021; New York, New York, USA; RJ Barrett #9, Reggie Bullock #25, and Alec Burks #18 of the New York Knicks high-five during the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Madison Square Garden on February 21, 2021 in New York City. The Knicks won 103-99.
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

This list will be ordered by the standings before the games are played on February 27th, so the Knicks come up first. The Knicks are easily the most surprising team on this list. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2013 and have pretty much been the laughingstock of the NBA for as long as most people can remember. For a deeper dive, check out my article on the Knicks’ rebirth from earlier this year, but for now, let’s look at their playoff chances this year.

Out of these 4 teams, the Knicks may end with the best regular-season record. The reason for that is their defense; they currently have the 3rd best(!) defensive rating in the league; the other 3 teams aren’t even in the top 10. This high-level defense will win the Knicks many games, and it’s also something that sticks. Their elite defense will keep them consistent throughout the year, barring any injuries.

When predicting how teams will fare the rest of the year, a super useful tool is Tankathons Strength of Schedule ratings. It looks at a team’s schedule for the rest of the season and ranks the league based on their respective schedules’ difficulty. The Knicks have an average schedule remaining; according to Tankathon, it is the 13th hardest in the league. Couple that with the fact that they are a very competent team, with a very competent coach in Tom Thibodeau, and they will more than likely end the season with a similar record to the one they have now.

So the Knicks will probably end the season with about a .500 record, making them one of the 3 fringe teams that make the play-in tournament. Here’s how that will work: if a team is the 7th or 8th seed, they will have to beat the 9th or 10th seed in 1 of 2 games. The 9th or 10th seed would have to beat that higher seeded team in 2 of 2 games. For the Knicks, it’s simple; I think they are good enough to beat any of these 5 teams in 1 game, but not enough to beat them in 2 straight. The Knicks should secure the 7th or 8th seed, which would give them a great chance at making the playoffs (and a potential first-round series against the Nets!). This leaves the other 3 teams with 2 spots to fight for.

The Bulls

Feb 24, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) goes to the basket past Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jarred Vanderbilt (8) during the first half of an NBA game at United Center.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago is currently 15-16, the 7th seed in the eastern conference. Nothing jumps off the page by way of team stats. They’re 16th in the league in offensive rating and 19th in defensive rating. They owe their current record, and any chance they have at the playoffs, to Zach Lavine.

Lavine is having far and away the best season of his career. Averaging career-highs in points (28.6), rebounds (5.4), and assists (5.1), he’s playing like a legit number one option. He’s making the right plays to get guys involved, such as passing out of double teams. Not only is he making these plays when he has to, it feels like he wants to. He’s showing a better understanding of what it takes to lead a winning team. This year he’s been selected as a first-time all-star, a well-deserved honor due to his play.

He’s made strides on the defensive end as well. Watching Bulls games, you can see he’s putting in a lot more effort. Lavine is showing all the signs of a guy who wants to win, and not so surprisingly, the Bulls are winning as a result.

Some credit needs to go to new Bulls head coach Billy Donovan. He left the Thunder after last season and quickly found a new home in Chicago. Players have well-defined roles within their offense that fit their skills. The Bulls were 16th in the league in pace last year. This year they are 5th. With Lavine and Coby White in the backcourt, playing at a high pace makes sense for this team.

As a result of the high pace, they are 29th in turnovers (15.9/game). For a young team, though, that’s OK. As the season plays out, they’ll improve in that aspect, and a couple of years down the line, they may be better off for it.

The big worry for the Bulls is that they have a tough schedule for the rest of the year. Ranked the 7th hardest in the league by Tankathon. This is much harder than any of the other teams on this list, which means they will have to keep improving as a team to stay in the race.

To reach their potential this season, they will need to stay healthy, though. Only Lavine and White have played in all 30 of their games this season. The biggest problem is none of Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., and Wendell Carter have played in more than 20. If those guys can stay healthy for the rest of the season, This Bulls team will have a good chance of making the play-in tournament. If they don’t, it will be a longshot, all depending on how much Zach can do for his team.

The Hornets

February 26, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego (center) instructs against the Golden State Warriors during the first quarter at Chase Center.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This Hornets team is so fun. Literally so fun to watch. Take their last game against Golden State, for example. Lots of guys struggled that game, but Terry Rozier stepped up and made huge plays at the end to win them that game. It’s not just Terry; it feels like everyone on this team is fun. Lamelo Ball is doing laps around everyone else in the Rookie of the Year race. Gordon Hayward is thriving in his role on this team. Miles Bridges could throw down the dunk of the year at any moment. But it’s not the most exciting teams that make the playoffs; it’s the best.

The Hornets have shown that they are a play-in tournament team. At times, they’ve also shown that they are not. For them, it’s going to be all about consistency. That starts with their 3rd overall pick in the first round, Lamelo Ball.

After Devonte Graham’s injury a few weeks ago, LaMelo stepped into the starting lineup. Since then, he has been way too impressive to take out of it. Since his first start on February 1st, he’s averaging: 19.5, 6.5, and 6.1 to go along with 1.9 steals. He’s been arguably their best player in that stretch. If he keeps up this play, this Hornets team has a huge ceiling. Not just for this year, but many in the future as well. If he doesn’t, they’ll have to get great play elsewhere to keep competing this season. But the very thing that makes this team great is that they don’t have just one guy.

On any given night, Terry Rozier (see the Hornets-Warriors game I mentioned earlier, no really, watch the highlights you won’t regret it), Gordon Hayward, Devonte Graham, even Malik Monk could go off and win a game for this team. Gordon Hayward is the star, and he’s getting the money to show it, but this is no one-man team.

On top of the Hornets being a great team, they have an easy schedule as well. According to Tankathon, they have the 4th easiest schedule remaining. That not only means they have easy games going forward, it also means they have a decent record well already playing a tough schedule so far. This gives the Hornets a shot at making the playoffs.

As it will for all these teams, it’s going to come down to seeding. They’re all pretty evenly matched, so come the play-in tournament, higher seeds will have a great advantage. The Hornets might have the best chance out of all these teams to beat a team two games in a row, winning a play-in as the lower seed. They have a talented, albeit young team that could prove hard to adjust to. They also have Hayward, a veteran who has tons of playoff experience. This is one team I’d rather my team avoid in the play-in tournament, but I will greatly enjoy watching them.

The Hawks

Feb 21, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) celebrates a play with guard Cam Reddish (22) and guard Tony Snell (19) in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at State Farm Arena.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks have had a tumultuous season, to say the least. Their front office made big moves in the offseason and had high expectations coming into this year. Unfortunately, the stars they acquired (Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic) have been largely disappointing so far, and in the case of Bogdan, injured. Fortunately, Trae Young has been great, and so has Clint Capela, who they acquired last season.

When you look at the rosters of these 4 teams, the Hawks stand out as the best, which explains their high expectations coming into the year. Despite the struggles, they are still in the playoff race due to a weak eastern conference. There isn’t much positive to say about this team. For the Hawks, it’s about playing up to their potential in the 2nd half of the season.

That’s going to start and end with the guys they got in the offseason. We already know what Trae Young is going to do. The question is what everybody else can do. Danilo Gallinari’s 38 point, 10 three-pointer performance is a great sign, the impending return of Bogdan, even better.

Like Charlotte, they have a relatively easy schedule going forward, Considered the 7th easiest by Tankathon. That gives them some time to figure things out. The 2nd half of the season will be extremely important to this team. If they start hitting their stride, they’ll rack up some serious numbers in the win column. And honestly, if they’re ready in May, it’s not going to matter what seed they are as long as they qualify for the play-in.

When this team is firing on all cylinders (if they ever are), they could be the most dangerous team in the tournament. Even if they were the lower seed, they could be favored in some matchups. On the other hand, if they continue to struggle, there won’t be a play-in tournament for them.

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