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NBA Playoff Race And Tankville

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The 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend was largely one to forget. For those who missed it, you certainly didn’t miss much, as the league continued its trend of failing to put together a compelling Saturday night — at least one that could even remotely compete with February conference play in college basketball. You’d also likely have done far better tailing Colby’s college basketball picks than if you got behind the unforgettable all-star slate that Sean, Ryan, and I put together on the podcast last week. At this point, the whole “All-Star” weekend thing seems kind of ridiculous. Just put the dunk contest and 3-point shootout at halftime of the game itself and call it quits.

The All-Star game itself got off to a slow start, but however did end with a captivating fourth quarter featuring back-and-forth action from the best talent the league has to offer. Surprisingly, the ability of Russ, KD, Lebron, and Kyrie Irving to play together down the stretch actually won them the game. Maybe this isn’t a league of eight-year old girls after all, despite what Kramer would want you to believe. And maybe Lebron will regret being such a dick these last few years after it was Kyrie’s gorgeous assist with thirty seconds left that won him this game, just like it was Kyrie who won him his last finals. Rodney Hood ain’t making those plays.

In sum, it’s clear that the new All-Star format (captains pick teams, play for charity) was a marked improvement over the last few years, and with a few more potential tweaks in the offseason, can certainly become a more important event than the one it is right now.

To recap, the weekend’s winners turned out as follows:

Skills Challenge: Spencer Dinwiddie +400

Three-Point Shootout: Devin Booker +380

Dunk Contest: Donovan Mitchell +110

All-Star Game: PUSH at Lebron -3 (148-145)UNDER 346

All-Star MVP: Lebron James +465

Now that the All-Star break is coming to an end and teams will return to action with a solid Thursday night slate, it’s the perfect time to take a step back and check in with “futures” all across the league. Just as the playoff race and MVP competition will heat up in the coming weeks, so too will the race (backwards, I suppose) for the number #1 pick. Today we’ll look at league-wide races and, tomorrow, we’ll look at individual awards.

Race to the Bottom

It’s go time for everybody in the league — “playing hard and trying to compete every night” is no longer an organizationally responsible strategy in late February. Mark Cuban, a noted opponent of the tanking strategy, even admitted as such in comments this week, seeming to signal to his veteran guys that the Mavericks can only win as an organization by losing as many games as possible in the next two months. Though Cuban called the practice “brutal,” he likewise acknowledged that “losing is our best option.” Without further ado, here’s a look at the present state of tankville:

41 Losses: Phoenix, Atlanta

40 Losses: Dallas, Brooklyn

39 Losses: Sacramento, Orlando

38 Losses: Memphis

37 Losses: Chicago

36 Losses: New York

Just like that, we have 10 teams within five games of each other, all competing to see who can be shittier than the rest. This is one of the least fun, but somehow pretty enjoyable, parts of every NBA season. With all these teams expected to tank as hard as possible, this will be an unfortunately riveting story to follow: who can be the shittiest of them all?

Eastern Conference Playoff Race

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The playoff race in the Eastern Conference can be reasonably shaved down to just nine teams for the eight spots. Toronto and Boston, barring a late-season juggernaut run from the new look Cavs, seem poised to do battle for the #1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Cleveland should come in at the #3 spot, and thus would serve as a theoretical underdog in the second round.

After that, Washington, Indiana, and Milwaukee, all within a game of one another, will do battle over the 4/5/6 seeding. Washington needed the all-star break as badly as anyone, severely challenged by depth after a January injury to all-star point guard John Wall. With Wall poised to come back at some point in the month of March, I’d expect the Wiz to make a late-season surge here for home court in the first round. Milwaukee is, on the flip side, somewhat of a regression candidate as they sit seven games above .500 despite a 0.0 point differential.

The 7/8 spots are going to be earned by two of the three of Philly, Miami, and Detroit. Three games separate the three teams, though Philly and Detroit (after the recent acquisition of Blake Griffin) seem to be trending in the right direction while Miami quietly lost seven of 10 games headed into the break. I like Detroit to make a push into the 8-seed and be somewhat dangerous as a first-round dog.

Western Conference Playoff Race

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The Western Conference Playoff Race can essentially be broken into two separate chapters: the race for the #1 seed, and then everybody else. It probably makes sense, then, to write about the conference with respect to the 9.5 game gap between Houston + Golden State, and everybody else.

The #1 Seed: NBA fans, listen up: this is the most important thing to follow the rest of the season. Currently divided by just half a game, the importance of home-court in this perspective conference finals matchup cannot be understated. I’m willing to listen on the Rockets beating the Warriors in the first place, but that hypothetical goes out the window if they’re flying from Oakland to Houston down 2-0. The Warriors aren’t blowing another lead after the trauma that was 3-1. Houston definitely needs this a bit more than Golden State does. According to playoffstatus.com, the Warriors have the easiest remaining schedule in the Western Conference. Houston, on the other hand, will play the 7th hardest schedule in the league. For two teams who lose so infrequently (both win >75% of their games), I expect this thing to come down to just a game or two in the hand. The quality of schedule would suggest the Warriors pull it out, but I’d also expect Houston to buckle down and commit to the cruciality of the 1 seed. This should be fun.

Everybody ElseSorry… THIS should be fun. 3 through 10 in the conference, from the Spurs down to the Jazz, are divided by just 4.5 games with over 20 games to go. Meanwhile, the Jazz are the hottest team in the league, winning ten in a row heading into the break, while San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota all limped into a much-needed vacation. This thing is nowhere close to over, and has been amplified by the added intrigue that prospective tankers Utah, the Clippers, and New Orleans all decided against the proverbial “blow-up” at the trade deadline. Denver is my favorite team of the bunch, finally coming together and playing their best ball of the season. They also are the only team in this clusterfuck that will get a late-season boost, coming in the form of Paul Millsap’s return from injury. When it’s all said and done, I expect the top 7 to hold their playoff tickets (though seeding should mix up) and Utah to sneak into the eighth seed.

Check in tomorrow for a similar article on all individual awards.

Zach is currently a law student and loves to write about all things hoops. Follow him on twitter @NBAZachB for all of his articles and daily NBA picks.

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