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The NBA Playoffs Start In A Month. Which Title Hopefuls Should Be Worried?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): There’s a little more than a month left in the NBA season, and there is movement afoot in the FiveThirtyEight projections. Let’s start today’s chat by looking at the top of the heap — which teams are looking strong and which teams should be worried.

The Los Angeles Clippers are on a tear and are first in our Elo ratings. Are they the team to beat now?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): They certainly might be the hottest team in the league right now, winning five straight.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I think it could be more of a bloodbath coming out of the West than the East, so I still like Milwaukee’s chances better than anyone else’s.

The Clippers’ matchup with the Lakers on Sunday will be fun to watch, no doubt.

neil: I continue to marvel at our model never having Milwaukee be No. 1 for very long, despite the season it’s having.

What needs to happen for RAPTOR to Fear The Deer???

chris.herring: For RAPTOR to have less faith in the Sixers, probably.

neil: That’s a good point. Seems like those two things move in lockstep.

chris.herring: I feel like our model and I have one major fight every year. This would be my fight this year. It won the fight last year, when it was down on the Warriors and believed wholeheartedly in the Raptors.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): How do you like your chances this year, Chris?

chris.herring: I think the Bucks are historically dominant and the best team in the league. But even if I didn’t, I feel way more strongly about them coming out of the East than I do anyone coming out of the West. I think we’ll end up having to judge the Malcolm Brogdon deal once we see how the Bucks fare in the playoffs without him. Because if we go off how they’ve looked this year, they’ve been a total wrecking crew against just about everyone.

sara.ziegler: Nothing really seems to slow them down, that’s for sure — and I never get tired of watching Giannis Antetokounmpo.

chris.herring: I kinda can’t wait to see how they look in the postseason.

A Bucks-Clippers finals would be insane. So would a Bucks-Lakers finals.

neil: Meanwhile, Philly’s injuries and recent cold streak have dropped their odds some, but 11 percent to win it all is still kind of high for a team that can’t really figure things out even when they’re at full strength.

I remain struck by the Sixers’ home-road split: 28-2 at home and 9-23 on the road! For a team that might not even have home court in Round 1, that might be a bad split.

tchow: I’m still curious and slightly confused about why RAPTOR loves the Sixers so much. Is it all about individual talent?

chris.herring: Exactly. I haven’t seen much else this year that would explain why the model trusts them so much. They have a ton of talent, but they’re not always fully able to blend that talent. Bad home/road splits. Lineups can be a mess at times. Horford hasn’t worked the way they hoped he would.

tchow: One good thing for the Sixers is that they seem to have the easiest schedule left in the league.

sara.ziegler: Their players are all very good — the top seven in the rotation all have above-average RAPTOR metrics:

How much does RAPTOR know about how those players fit together?

chris.herring: Probably more than I do, if they end up making noise in the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: A month or two ago, I still wasn’t worried about the Sixers. But to what Neil said, even if you aren’t completely worried about them now, you have to be at least a little concerned with how terrible they’ve been on the road since they will almost certainly not have home-court advantage.

neil: And just to circle back and close the loop on that home-road split (as I furiously type code into my computer), that split is the largest in history:

The Sixers have history’s widest home-vs.-road split

Biggest gap in winning percentage between home and road games in a season for NBA, ABA and BAA teams, 1946–2020

Winning Percentage
Season Team Home Road Diff.
2019-20* PHI .933 .281 +0.652
1951-52 INO .769 .138 +0.631
1988-89 DEN .833 .209 +0.624
1950-51 FTW .757 .147 +0.610
2002-03 CHI .659 .073 +0.585
1969-70 DNR .860 .283 +0.577
1983-84 ATL .767 .205 +0.563
1990-91 SAC .585 .024 +0.561
1976-77 DEN .864 .318 +0.545
1951-52 PHW .781 .243 +0.538
1950-51 TRI .629 .091 +0.538
1978-79 POR .810 .279 +0.530
1950-51 PHW .853 .324 +0.529
1988-89 BOS .762 .233 +0.529
1968-69 DNR .814 .286 +0.528

*2019-20 data through games of March 3.

tchow: Who the hell is INO?

neil: LOL, that is the Indianapolis Olympians, who last played in 1953. Which tells you how far back this record goes!

chris.herring: The Sixers will get healthy at some point, but having to restart that process of jelling this late seems less than ideal. And we don’t even know yet how serious the stuff with Simmons’s back is.

tchow: Insert obligatory “Trust the Process” here.

sara.ziegler: What about the other East contenders? The Celtics’ odds have gone up a little in our predictions, while the Raptors’ odds have gone down. What do we make of those teams?

chris.herring: Jayson Tatum’s play alone for the Celtics makes me want to become a believer.

neil: The Raptors have hit a little bump in the road, losing three of their past four and not looking especially competitive against a Milwaukee team that the playoff road will very likely pass through. We’ve talked about what a fun story they are, but it does raise the old concerns about whether they can seriously go far in the postseason.

tchow: I think the Raptors vs. Bucks game last week was kind of a good snapshot to where those two teams are now in the East.

neil: Exactly.

tchow: I actually got a reader email asking why we had the Raptors favored for that game. I said something about the Brook Lopez injury and the Bucks coming into the game on the road on the second night of a back-to-back and yadda yadda yadda. None of that seemed to matter.

neil: What can we say, the model is pro-dinosaur to a fault.


neil: LOL, Tony.

chris.herring: I go back and forth between whether I like the Celtics or the Raptors more in a series against the Bucks. Or whether either team would have better than a 10 to 15 percent chance of taking Milwaukee down.

neil: Subjectively, it does seem like the Celtics will be better suited for the playoffs. They have more star power in Tatum and Kemba Walker and are better all-around — top 5 on both offense and defense this year.

But to your point, Chris, I don’t really think it would matter much vs. Milwaukee.

chris.herring: Sidenote (and I didn’t see it live, because I was locked in on the Super Tuesday stuff more than I should have been): How on earth did the Celtics let up FIFTY-ONE AMERICAN POINTS to the Nets in the fourth quarter Tuesday?!

neil: American points, LOL.

Chris, your fellow Wolverine Caris LeVert scored 51 as well. (In the game, not just the fourth quarter.)

chris.herring: Granted, I’ve seen it happen before! (I covered some horrendous Knicks teams in my day, and they gave up 51 in a quarter to a Lakers team that didn’t have Kobe, Pau, Nash or Dwight playing that night.) But still. That was something. Neither here nor there. But wow.

neil: I love how the Nets are surging now that Kyrie Irving is out for the year.

Just furthering the narrative that he is a team-killer.

(Which I don’t really fully believe, fwiw.)

sara.ziegler: LOL — just dropping that 💣in there, Neil.

neil: Hey, somebody had to do it!

Can’t wait to see him and KD next year though.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

chris.herring: Back to the contenders, I am encouraged by how dominant Tatum has been lately. And I saw an interesting number the other day on how the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam has struggled a bit against elite defenders compared to merely average or below-average ones this season.

neil: That is really interesting. Seems like another way to speak to concerns that they don’t have the extra gear to succeed in the playoffs without Kawhi.

chris.herring: Maybe. But after last year, I’m not making any proclamations to count them out!

Never know when someone might go on a Fred VanVleet-style run before our eyes.

sara.ziegler: So if we feel pretty confident in the Bucks coming out of the East … who do we like in the West?

chris.herring: I have no clue out West. But one thing our model has been bullish on, and that’s starting to look less crazy, is the Rockets — even after the loss to the Knicks.

tchow: Russell Westbrook had a pretty pretty good February.

chris.herring: Their new style of play, and what it’s unlocked for Russell Westbrook, seems to be way more than just a cute feature. This is who they are, and they’ve found a way to play pretty incredible defense with it at times.

The idea that Robert Covington is among the league leaders in blocks since joining the Rockets is preposterous but true.

sara.ziegler: We had a story Wednesday about the brand of small ball the Rockets are playing. They may be shorter than everyone else in the league, but they’re not actually smaller — they are rarely outweighed on the court.

I found that really interesting!

tchow: According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Westbrook and James Harden both averaged 30 points and five assists in February, making them the first pair of teammates to do that in a calendar month. I haven’t had time to do the math, but I wonder if this would still be true if they both hadn’t played decent games on Feb. 29 against the Celtics.

neil: God bless Leap Days!

tchow: I think Chris talked about this in our last chat, but the small-ball Rockets against, say, the Lakers in a playoffs series would really be something.

sara.ziegler: For sure, Tony. We still give the Lakers a slightly better chance to win the finals than the Rockets — 18 percent to 16 percent. Which team do you guys like better?

chris.herring: I think it’s still a bit hard to imagine the Rockets beating a team like the Lakers come playoff time.

But whereas I would have considered that a near-impossibility before, I’m at least interested to see whether the Rockets can keep this up through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. There’s seemingly something sustainable there. Finding a way to get the most efficient version of Westbrook — to get him to stop chucking threes and to get him barreling toward the basket — was always going to be the biggest question for Houston. They seem to have done that, and it’s made a world of difference.

neil: I can’t wait to see Houston try to slow down a team that has over 50 more dunks than any other team, according to Second Spectrum.

tchow: Did the Lakers already take “Lob City” away from the Clippers?

neil: I mean, the Clippers are also fourth this year — So much dunking in L.A. this season!

L.A. is Dunk City this year

Total dunks for 2019-20 NBA teams*

Team Dunks Team Dunks
1 Los Angeles Lakers 480 16 Toronto Raptors 282
2 Atlanta Hawks 426 17 Denver Nuggets 282
3 Chicago Bulls 359 18 Detroit Pistons 280
4 Los Angeles Clippers 344 19 Dallas Mavericks 267
5 Miami Heat 344 20 Cleveland Cavaliers 266
6 Brooklyn Nets 336 21 Houston Rockets 262
7 New York Knicks 333 22 Phoenix Suns 259
8 Golden State Warriors 328 23 Orlando Magic 258
9 New Orleans Pelicans 306 24 Sacramento Kings 252
10 Utah Jazz 305 25 Boston Celtics 243
11 Milwaukee Bucks 294 26 Washington Wizards 238
12 Charlotte Hornets 291 27 Portland Trail Blazers 237
13 Oklahoma City Thunder 290 28 Minnesota Timberwolves 211
14 Memphis Grizzlies 287 29 Indiana Pacers 177
15 Philadelphia 76ers 284 30 San Antonio Spurs 162

Through games of March 3.

Source: Second Spectrum

sara.ziegler: I do really like that the Rockets recognized what kind of team they were and just decided to lean in all the way to it.

(Considering how much Harden already “leans in.”)

neil: Haha

sara.ziegler: I’ll be here all week, folks.

What about the teams that should be worried in the West? The Jazz and Nuggets have fallen recently in our ratings. Does either team still have a shot?

neil: Those are ALWAYS the teams out West that we seem to doubt.

tchow: Does either team have a shot to do what?

sara.ziegler: WIN IT ALL

tchow: LOL. Um…

chris.herring: They both look really off.

Utah is having the same problem with Mike Conley that the Sixers have had with Al Horford to some extent — probably an even tougher time, honestly, because of Conley’s earlier injuries. So they’re fidgeting with lineups.

My real concern with Utah and Denver is on the defensive end lately. Both have been among the league’s bottom six in defensive efficiency over the past 10 games. This is particularly concerning for the Jazz, since that had generally been their calling card. (Though they’ve been less stellar this year to be sure.)

tchow: Rudy Gobert can only do so much by himself.

chris.herring: Gobert has been lackluster lately, too. The effort just doesn’t look to be there.

neil: It’s funny that we will give the benefit of the doubt to one of the more superstar-powered teams when they go through a rough regular-season patch. But we’re less generous when it comes to a team like Utah or Denver, I think. (And maybe that’s correct!)

sara.ziegler: So of the four contending teams we’ve talked about slumping — Utah, Denver, Philly and Toronto — which one should be panicking the most?

chris.herring: I’d say Philadelphia. Then Utah.

tchow: I think it’s gotta be one of the West teams, probably Utah?

neil: I’m with Chris on worrying about Philly.

chris.herring: Both Philly and Utah have lineup stuff to figure out. Philly came in with really high expectations and now has health stuff to be concerned about, too.

neil: Between Ben Simmons’s injury, Joel Embiid’s constant fragility and the aforementioned questions about fit and ability to win on the road, I’m panicking if I’m a Sixers fan right now.

chris.herring: I think there’s a much greater chance something major changes in Philadelphia this offseason if they bow out in Round 1 (maybe even Round 2, to be honest). Although Utah has to be feeling kind of sick to its stomach in light of the Conley deal, which I thought was a solid one at the time.

sara.ziegler: So the best chance for the finals matchup, at this moment in our model anyway, is Clippers-Bucks, which would be so entertaining.

But am I wrong for wanting it to be Bucks-Rockets? I just want to watch Giannis and Harden in a skill-off.

neil: When Harden’s not walkin’, he’s talkin’.

sara.ziegler: 🤣🤣🤣

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.