It is March. That means it is officially time to have the annual “Milwaukee Bucks for No. 8″ conversation. There will not be a definitive answer to the question of “Who will claim the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot?” for a while. Such is the nature of the eighth seed, with seven teams trying to claw their way into position for what is, typically, a first-round elimination.
The Bucks are the definition of average, considering their record, and ESPN’s John Hollinger is projecting them to finish with more losses (42) than wins (40). They are 1.5 games out of seventh place, currently held by the Boston Celtics. History tells us that Boston is a perennial postseason contender and the Bucks, well…you know. The picture is far from grim, however. The worst Milwaukee can do is lose 26 consecutive games, which probably won’t happen; the best they can do is move up to No. 7 and find a bit of comfort with a one-team buffer; and the middle ground would have the Bucks holding pat, retaining the eighth seed and cracking the postseason for the first time since 2009-10. The Bucks are faring better than those in the eighth-seed chase, sitting on top of a heap of teams that are either limping toward the finish line or too far back to catch up. Here’s a quick recap of every team in the East not currently locked into the playoffs:
The Deer still have an 87.7 percent chance of making the postseason, according to Hollinger’s playoff odds. Monta Ellis’ off-balance buzzer-beater in Houston brought the Bucks back to .500 with a 28-28 record. The strength of their remaining schedule is .495. Only seven other teams in the NBA have easier paths ahead of them, but four of those teams (Cleveland, Detroit, Orlando and Toronto) are behind Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings, with three of them (Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto) statistically still in the playoff race.
The Bucks’ only chance of avoiding the scrum for the eighth seed is to overtake the Celtics and secure the No. 7 seed. The C’s face a similar SOS (.497) but having a much better power ranking at 13 to the Bucks’ 20. Although the games are played for a reason, the power rankings are indicative of a team’s collective talent and coaching. The Bucks won the season series against the Celtics, 3-1, and it is now on other teams to do their part in sinking Boston. It may be unlikely, but there is an outside shot for this to be a reality.
They are feeling the impact of injuries just as the Celtics are, but the 76ers are on the other side of the postseason cutoff and hope is dwindling. What this team has going for it is simple: Jrue Holiday. Maybe even Evan Turner, depending on the evening and the individual match-up. Philadelphia’s 1.7 percent playoff odds do not bode well. Their projected win-loss record of 42-40 could still get them into the playoffs if a few things break right, namely the Bucks losing games that should be won. At 6.0 games outside of the eighth seed, that differential is just small enough to dissolve in a hurry, unless the 76ers fall in the rankings, which is more likely.
Speaking of the 76ers being edged out of playoff contention, have you noticed the Raptors doing a solid impression of a decent team? Since having Rudy Gay in uniform, Toronto is 7-5 with wins in Indiana and New York to go along with home victories against the Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets. Nonetheless, the Raptors are only projected to go 11-13 down the stretch to finish at 34-48, six games behind the Bucks for the eighth seed. With a .493 SOS remaining, they have one of the easiest season-ending schedules in addition to the re-energizing factor sparked with Gay’s acquisition. Some people don’t believe in momentum since it is unquantifiable, but if any team has momentum, it is the Raptors. They have one more win and two more losses than the 76ers, but they also have quickly improving playoff odds, currently at 10.6 percent.
The Bucks’ biggest threat is the Toronto-based squad, whom they host twice before the regular season ends. One is this Saturday, March 2, but the potentially pivotal game is on April 6. It could be the contest that decides the final playoff picture.
While Jose Calderon took over the starting point guard role and has put up mostly respectable numbers since being dealt in same trade that sent Gay to Toronto, “re-energized” is not an accurate description for the Pistons. In fact, they have been sliding, losing seven of 12 since the trade and currently sitting in the 11th spot in the East. Some of this is due to the absence of Andre Drummond, the NBA’s best rookie big man (by far), and the departures of Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye, which left holes in the frontcourt rotation to the tunes of 32.4 and 14.5 minutes per game, respectively. A .493 strength of schedule means a chance still remains for a Pistons appearance in the playoffs, but with the slim payoff odds of 1.1 percent and Drummond still unable to condition, Detroit will be lucky to remain static in the standings.
No one wants a 0.7 percentage of odds to make the postseason, except the three teams below the Cavs in the East. Everyone likes Kyrie Irving, but the mish-mash of role players around him is not deserving of a playoff spot, not even the eighth seed. Some of them (*cough* Tristan Thompson *cough*) will surely be held over until the day Cleveland is good again, which is slowly approaching. For now, the Cavs should appreciate and use their easy .490 SOS to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Okay, the Wizards have an even less promising chance to make the playoffs than Cleveland (0.6 percent), but keep the following in mind: Washington had a magnificent January. They were top-six in the NBA in both offense and defense. From the point John Wall took to the court for his first minutes of the season on Jan. 12 until the end of the month, the Wizards went 6-5, beating playoff teams (Atlanta, Denver, Chicago) and accruing solid wins against the Clippers and both NYC teams. Arguably more important are the Wizards’ victories over the other teams striving for the East’s eighth seed, winning in Milwaukee and Toronto. Night-in, night-out consistency is not a fixture in Washington — as it is missing for most of the teams fighting to make the East playoffs — and things are not likely to congeal in time for the Wizards to shoot up far enough to seal a place in the postseason. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them overachieve and beat their projected record of 30-52, especially if they continue locking down on defense and finding different ways to score while playing off Wall’s frenetic speed.