What are your team's chances of making the playoffs? Hollinger's Playoff Odds have the answer. How do our writers see things shaping up?
1. Fact or Fiction: The Pacers will finish with the NBA's best record.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Fiction. Yes, the Indiana Pacers have jumped out to the league's best record but I don't see that lasting a full season. Why? This is pretty much the best-case scenario right now. Most of their key players are healthy and have made big strides since last season. I'm guessing "regression to the mean" rears its ugly head at some point and a Western powerhouse prevails after 82 games.
Curtis Harris, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fiction. The Pacers have the inside track on the best record. However, the Heat, Spurs and Thunder are nipping at their heels, so it's a little much to guarantee Indiana finishes first.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fact. The Pacers are consumed by the chase for the No. 1 seed in the East -- if there's a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals this season, they desperately want it to be on their court. Their dominant defense will keep them consistent, and the Spurs have a tougher schedule by virtue of being in the West.
Andrew Lynch, Daily Dime Live: Fact. The key for Indiana is its consistency. Night in and night out, you know what you're getting with the Pacers, particularly on the defensive end. Their defense simply doesn't take nights off. The same can be said for San Antonio this year, but facing weaker competition in the Eastern Conference should be enough to propel Indiana to the top record in the league.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Fact. "They just wanted it more" is usually a dumb sports cliche that explains very little, but it could explain the difference between Eastern powerhouses Indiana and Miami. All indications are that the Pacers want the No. 1 seed more than conference rival Miami. The Heat are resting Dwyane Wade at will, while the Pacers are giving full effort in December. Though the difference between these teams is marginal in terms of capability, the difference in goals will give Indiana the win-total edge.
2. Wizards, Raptors: both or neither will make the playoffs?
Haberstroh: Both. Count the Wizards as in, and the Raptors could be, if they want it. Can Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri find a taker for Rudy Gay's contract? I'm not sure it makes them worse off even if he does. With or without Gay, the Raptors probably have enough talent to get to the East playoffs. That's saying very little.
Harris: Wizards. Losing Bradley Beal is tough, but John Wall has been spectacular in getting Washington to a .500 record. I think they hover around that mark for the rest of the season, which is a guaranteed playoff spot in the East. As for the Raptors ... I won't trust any Atlantic Division team whatsoever.
Herbert: Wizards. Both have the talent to make it as presently constructed; the question is how badly Toronto's front office wants to. General manager Masai Ujiri elected not to demolish the team when he took over in the summer, but you have to think he'd sacrifice a few playoff games for an opportunity to improve the Raptors' long-term outlook.
Lynch: Both. Assuming lasting health for both teams and a timely return for Washington's Bradley Beal, it seems likely that both of these teams are making the postseason. After all, someone has to fill out the bracket in the Eastern Conference. It's to the point that Toronto has a solid chance at winning its division, and I think the Wizards can make a run at .500, which would be more than enough to secure a playoff berth in the weak East.
Strauss: Both will make it, though I'm not sure either is a "playoff team" in the way we typically view that distinction. Of the two, Washington has a better chance of becoming legitimately good. John Wall has superstar potential and his improvement could lift the Wizards a level or two. As for the Raps, a competent defense can lift this dreary offensive team to what passes for a playoff spot these days.
3. Hawks, Pistons: both or neither will make the playoffs?
Haberstroh: Both. The Hawks are my pick for the third slot in the East playoffs and once the Detroit Pistons realize they need two 3-point shooters on the floor at all times (I'm not counting Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith here), I see Andre Drummond flourishing in open space.
Harris: Both. When the season began, each squad appeared to be a legitimate playoff pick for the East. Now with so many teams collapsing, the fact these two have held mostly to form practically guarantees them a playoff berth.
Herbert: Hawks. Perhaps the Pistons have more talent, but it doesn't fit together as neatly as Atlanta's. Detroit certainly is capable of making the playoffs in a shallow East, but I wouldn't feel great betting on it. Numerous teams beneath the Pistons could put it together.
Lynch: Both. In fact, I'll go a step further than that -- not only will both of these teams qualify for the playoffs, but one of them is going to host a first-round series. My money's on Atlanta to be playing at home in the first round, but Detroit might have a chance at the fifth seed if its defense continues to come around. As long as the Pistons can maintain a roughly league-average offense, they'll lock up a playoff spot.
Strauss: Both, for Eastern Conference reasons. These teams are underperforming considering the talent on their rosters, but talent should be enough in this terrible conference. I can't see a roster with Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver missing the playoffs this season. I also similarly can't see Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith playing for Eastern lotto dregs. Okay, I can see it, but I'm betting against it.
4. Nuggets, Wolves: both or neither will make the playoffs?
Haberstroh: Neither. This is a tough one! Fully loaded, both of these teams make the playoffs. I'm just not liking the odds that they stay intact. Ricky Rubio's and Kevin Love's injury history, coupled with the stacked Western Conference? Makes me nervous. And I'm not sold on the Nuggets' defense.
Harris: Wolves. Even though Denver is currently ahead of Minnesota, I think the Wolves beat the Nuggets out for a playoff spot. Ty Lawson has been incredible, but I'm putting more faith in Kevin Love's ability to propel a team into the postseason.
Herbert: Both. Aside from their 0-3 start, the new Nuggets have looked a lot like the old Nuggets, which is crazy considering last summer's organizational upheaval. They should be even better when Danilo Gallinari returns. Minnesota's early-season excellence might have been misleading, but the Wolves still have the proper pieces for a playoff push.
Lynch: Minnesota's in, Denver's out. I've been impressed with the Nuggets' recent stretch of performances, but I'm not entirely sure that their defensive effort is sustainable. Coach Brian Shaw gets a lot of credit for their quick turnaround, but whether it will continue is another question entirely. And as the season goes on, I think Minnesota will figure out a way to squeak into the playoffs, as long as it can count on its starters to play for prolonged periods. The more the Timberwolves have to rely on their bench, the less confident I am in this prediction.
Strauss: The Wolves will make it, the Nuggets will not. I'm uncomfortable with that projection because I fear I've already underestimated these Nuggets. Somehow, some way, Brian Shaw has turned Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson into passable defense. I'm just betting that a lack of defensive talent makes for Denver's eventual undoing in a hyper-competitive conference. As for the Wolves, I'm betting on their superb offensive talent and awesome starting lineup.
5. Celtics, Lakers: both or neither will make the playoffs?
Haberstroh: Neither. Easiest of all. I don't see Rajon Rondo coming back soon enough to rescue the Celtics' season, nor do I think he has the tools around him to succeed. The Lakers could make the playoffs with Kobe Bryant ... if they were in the East. Alas, they're stuck in a traffic jam out West.
Harris: Neither. The Celtics fall under the "Never Trust the Atlantic Division" corollary. The Lakers have been surprisingly average this season. The return of Kobe won't be enough to push them into the West's top eight, though.
Herbert: Neither, though the Celtics have a much better shot. The East is wide open and we have no idea what this Boston squad will look like with Rajon Rondo running the show. While we also can't predict the effect a returning Kobe Bryant will have on the Lakers, it'll be tougher to earn a spot in the West.
Lynch: Neither. For the first time in 20 years, the postseason will be without the Celtics and the Lakers. The Western Conference is just too stacked for Los Angeles to make it to the playoffs, even if Kobe Bryant comes back at something resembling 80 percent of his pre-injury self. And Boston seems a sure bet to slide back into the lower third of the Eastern Conference as the season goes by, if for no other reason than the pursuit of better odds in the lottery.
Strauss: Neither makes it, which is great for Celtics fans, but bad for Lakers fans. By every signal, Boston wants lottery picks. Teams tend to get what they want when they want to lose. The Lakers, on the other hand, are trying to win. This will just lead to a pick at the back of the lottery, far away from the Wiggins/Parker/Randle/Embiid/Smart sweepstakes.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Tom Haberstroh covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Curtis Harris, James Herbert, Andrew Lynch and Ethan Sherwood Strauss contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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