The 2018-19 NBA regular season is finally over, and the playoffs start this weekend. In anticipation — and in honor of our first season tracking the league with our new depth-chart forecasts — we wanted to share visualizations of the most interesting storylines of the regular season. These charts trace our projected seedings as the schedule progressed, giving a sense of the ebb and flow of each team’s place in the conference pecking order.
We’ll begin with one of the most shocking outcomes of the regular season: the game’s signature star missing the playoffs.
LeBron’s Lakers fall short
The biggest story of the NBA offseason in 2018 was where future Hall of Fame free-agent LeBron James would take his talents. And when James decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers, the expectations were that L.A. would return to the playoffs after a franchise-record five-season absence. James’s new supporting cast looked odd, but it seemed at least good enough to be competitive among the middle of the Western Conference pack. Instead, however, James was injured on Christmas Day and missed 18 games at midseason, while his veteran teammates struggled and the young would-be stars around him never emerged. Add in the drama of failed Anthony Davis trade talks, a brutal March slide (despite LeBron’s vow to activate “playoff mode” early) and Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation as team president this week, and King James’s first season with the Lakers had anything but a Hollywood ending.
The Pelicans and Wizards take long, sad slides
But each situation turned extremely sour in a hurry. Washington started the season 2-9 and never recovered, losing Wall to a season-ending injury at midyear, trading Porter to Chicago before the deadline and falling out of the postseason picture for good by the middle of February. As for New Orleans, its disappointing record hovered a few games below .500 around New Year’s. But what truly wrecked its season was a January injury to Davis and, of course, Davis’s public request to be traded. The resulting soap opera — which involved accusations of tampering against the Lakers, counteraccusations that the Pelicans used trade talks to sabotage L.A.’s season and no actual Davis trade — left the Pelicans sitting their disgruntled star on and off down the stretch as the team went 10-20 from February onward. Now the Wizards and Pelicans must both piece themselves back together and figure out where to go from here.
The Kings go on a valiant run
One of the best stories of the season was the unexpected rise of the Sacramento Kings, to whom we assigned an NBA co-worst 23 wins in preseason. Sacramento defied that prediction by spending most of the year either above or around .500; they finished the season with 39 wins, easily making them this season’s most impressive overachiever. The breakout was fueled by huge improvements from most of the team’s starters, including second-year guard De’Aaron Fox’s ascent from one of the NBA’s worst players last season to one of its most promising youngsters this year. A 9-16 skid after the All-Star break left the Kings shy of the postseason in the end, but they have something encouraging to build off of for the first time in a very long while.
The Clippers ride out a bumpy playoff path
Projected in the preseason for 33 wins after losing free-agent center DeAndre Jordan (on top of trading away Blake Griffin late last season), the Los Angeles Clippers were not supposed to be major players in the Western Conference playoff chase this year. Instead, the team has come together around an unsung cast of veterans (Pat Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams) and young players (Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) alike. It wasn’t always smooth sailing — we projected the Clippers out of the postseason until late November, after which point they rose into (and dipped out of) the playoff picture a few times. But even after trading away its best player, Tobias Harris, at the deadline, L.A. maintained its grip on the West’s final playoff slot, finishing the regular season with 14 wins in its final 19 games.
The Magic, Heat and Hornets clash in the East
Raise your hand if you thought that the Orlando Magic would be in the thick of a late-season playoff race — much less that they’d actually come out on top. Orlando hadn’t visited the postseason since 2012, and our preliminary forecast gave the Magic just a 19 percent chance of snapping that streak this year. But after a mediocre 20-31 start to the season, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Co. saw their playoff bid pick up serious steam with a 22-9 finish that locked them in a stretch-run Southeast Division battle with the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat. Although our model liked the Heat best out of that trio around midseason, an up-and-down second half — punctuated by losses in six of its final nine games — left Miami outside the playoffs. And while the Hornets looked like the best bet in early February, a 5-13 stretch leading into late March also sent their odds tumbling. That was all the opening the suddenly red-hot Magic needed to swoop in and usurp both rivals — even leapfrogging the Pistons to grab the No. 7 seed in the East.
The Nuggets rise in the West
The 2017-18 Denver Nuggets were one of the hardest-luck nonplayoff teams ever, finishing one game out of the postseason despite a 46-36 record. Our projections thought the team would have a better go of things this year, but even they couldn’t foresee Denver’s rise to the No. 2 seed in the West. The Rockets stumbled out of the gate (before James Harden’s incredible 30-point streak), leaving an opening for another team. So Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets seized that opportunity: They tangled with the Jazz and then the Thunder for second billing behind Golden State, eventually holding off all challengers with a 15-10 record after the All-Star break. The upside for Denver? It can now avoid the Warriors (or Rockets) until a potential Western Conference finals showdown.
The Bucks and Raptors jockey for No. 1
After finally earning the No. 1 seed in the East, last year was supposed to be the Toronto Raptors’ year. Then they were promptly humiliated (again) by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. So when LeBron left the East, this would surely be Toronto’s time. Right? It looked that way early, with Kawhi Leonard leading the new-look Raps to the East’s best record by Christmas. But the Milwaukee Bucks went 37-12 from that point on, spurred by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP-caliber performance. Milwaukee overtook Toronto as our projected Eastern Conference top seed in early February and hasn’t looked back — though the teams could still be on a playoff collision course, provided that Philly and Boston (or maybe Indiana) don’t have ideas of their own.
The Warriors are who we thought they were
Most of the other charts here have a lot of fun ups and downs … but not this one. The Warriors started as the Western Conference favorite and never deviated from it, creating the only perfectly flat line in our playoff-seed charts this season. Golden State wasn’t quite as dominant in terms of winning percentage as it was in other recent seasons, but we can chalk that up to the Warriors pacing themselves as much as anything else. Our CARMELO ratings continue to think Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and friends are far and away the best team in the league at full strength (even though our classic Elo model only ranks them fourth) and give them a staggering 78 percent chance of making the Finals, with a 60 percent chance of winning their fourth championship in five years.
And maybe that’s a fitting way to end our regular-season roundup. Although there were a lot of fun storylines and battles deeper in the standings — and although the playoffs should contain some exciting subplots of their own — it’s pretty likely that the end result of this season will be basically the same as it’s been most recent seasons: another Golden State title. Love them or hate them, the Warriors are already one of the top dynasties in basketball history, so good that all of the jockeying for seeds and playoff positioning might give way to a single flat line of dominance engulfing another NBA season.
Jay Boice contributed research.
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CORRECTION (April 11, 2019, 1 p.m.): Previous versions of the charts in this article mistakenly reversed the final playoff seedings for some teams.