Last week, the Cleveland Cavaliers were officially eliminated from playoff contention. That means for the first time in four years, we are guaranteed to see a new matchup in the NBA Finals come June.
While nobody expected the LeBron-less Cavs to be anything more than a lottery team, it’s still an exciting prospect. It is impossible to fully predict the playoffs, but here are some of the best and worst bets you can make as the regular season grinds to its conclusion.
Best Bets: The Milwaukee Bucks secure the first seed in the East
While the Raptors are only three games behind the Milwaukee, as of March 13, it is hard to see any other team coming out of the East on top. Despite an extreme lack of talent past their starting five, Coach Bud (Mike Budenholzer) has really created something special out of this roster.
They claim the highest offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage (eFG percent) in the East. As a result, the Bucks hold the highest net rating in the league, at +9.0. Their dominance should be rewarded with guaranteed home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Best Bets: The Los Angeles Lakers miss the playoffs
This year we might see the first LeBron-less playoffs since 2005, when he was just 21 years old. The last time LeBron missed the playoffs, his current coach, Luke Walton, was finishing his own second season. “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent was the No. 1 song in the U.S. Blockbuster still had 9,000 stores. Steph Curry didn’t even have his driver’s license yet, and I was finishing first grade. However, not even LeBron could carry this team. They are anemic on offense and nowhere to be found on defense. Honestly, about half of this team belongs in the G League. If I was LeBron, I would be furious with the Lakers’ front office.
Anyone’s Guess: Who will claim the first seed in the West
I still have no doubt that no team in the association could beat Golden State in a seven-game series. However, they have been playing without inspiration as of late, and Denver has a real shot at stealing home-court advantage from the reigning champs. While the Warriors did blow Denver out last Friday, the Nuggets have an easier schedule for the remainder of the season. Furthermore, outside of this convincing win, the Warriors have seemed complacent for the past few weeks and for good reason.
There’s really no need for them to go all-out to secure home court advantage when they’ll be massive favorites no matter the series. However, come mid-March, Steph and the crew always seem to go into another gear. With just a two-game difference between the two teams, the first seed could really come down to just one or two bad shooting nights from either team.
Anyone’s Guess: Which Southeast team will snag the eighth seed
Currently, three of the four teams in the Southeast division are within 1.5 games of each other: the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets. Most likely, whichever team pulls away as the number one in the division will also secure the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Despite my love for my Hornets, I don’t think it will be them. As of now, they are 3-7 in their last 10 games. Furthermore, this team lives and dies with guard Kemba Walker, and he has been working through a cold streak for a while now. While the seed is currently held by the Heat, the Magic are just one game behind.
Both teams are 5-5 in their past 10 games, but the Magic have a significantly easier schedule going forward. Then again, this is the time of the year when young teams like Orlando fall apart. This last month of play will really come down to experience versus talent.
Longshot: The Sacramento Kings make the playoffs
Currently ninth in the West, the Kings would have to make up a four-game deficit against San Antonio for a playoff berth.
That’s a huge gap to bridge with less than 20 games left in the season. However, it is possible. Guard De’Aaron Fox and coach Dave Joerger have created something special with their fast-paced offense, and that will likely prove more effective down the stretch, compared to the old and slow Spurs. Despite having the greatest coach in NBA history (yeah, I said it), the Spurs look like they could collectively get a senior discount at a Denny’s at 11 a.m. on Sunday. This doesn’t bode well for them as they prepare to face one of the toughest and most athletic remaining schedules. Everything would have to go right, but the Kings just might be able to pull it off.