The NBA will return July 31 with 22 teams and an eight-game regular-season schedule, followed by four rounds of playoffs consisting of best-of-seven series. Teams more than six games out of contention are done, and if the ninth-place team finishes within four games of eighth, they’ll battle it out in a play-in tournament. (The No. 8 seed will have to be defeated twice by the No. 9 seed in order to give up its playoff spot. The No. 9 seed will be eliminated with a loss to the No. 8 seed.)
Teams will play the next eight games of the normal schedule, skipping games against teams not going to Orlando, Florida, where games will be played at Disney World.
We still don’t know the details of how the NBA will handle issues like home-court advantage or unauthorized trips to Disney World. But with the Bucks and Lakers about to lock up the top seeds and the seventh-seeded Mavericks seven games ahead of the eighth-place Grizzlies in the West, the real drama comes at the bottom of the standings.
Three teams are vying for the last two playoff berths in the East, and the wild West has six teams battling for a single place. Let’s look at these nine teams and determine who has the best chance to continue on in what should be the strangest postseason in NBA history.
EAST: Brooklyn Nets (30-34, 7th)
Remaining games: Clippers, Sacramento, Washington, Boston, Orlando, Clippers, Orlando, Portland
Combined record: 272-244, .527
Key game: The Nets can’t move up to sixth place, but they could slide to eighth. But their biggest concern is to avoid the play-in. Beat Washington in their third game, knock the Wizards out, and then Kyrie Irving has five games to shake off the rust, sit out games, or argue with employees at Epcot Center about space travel.
What they need to do: Get Kevin Durant back. He's missed all the season following Achilles surgery but might be ready to return. To finish seventh and avoid a first-round matchup with the Bucks, Brooklyn must at least split with Orlando, against whom they’re 0-2 on the season. With Durant, it’s a lot more plausible -– Orlando simply isn’t equipped to win a shootout against KD and Kyrie. A 5-3 record with an Orlando split gets them the seven seed and opens the door for a Cinderella playoff run, where KD can get revenge on second-seeded Toronto’s fans for cheering his Achilles injury last June.
Keane's playoff chances: 95% chance to make it in; 60% chance to get the No. 7 seed.
Orlando Magic (30-35, 8th)
Remaining games: Sacramento, Brooklyn, Indiana, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, Boston
Combined record: 280-234, .544
Key game: The second game of the restart is the biggest one for Orlando, although it will be Brooklyn’s fifth -– this schedule is going to be weird. They need to beat Brooklyn, because their last four games are brutal.
What they need to do: Get Dwyane Wade to pick the Wizards. The most motivated we’ve seen Aaron Gordon this year was when he accused judge Wade of stealing his Dunk Contest title. If Gordon can display that kind of fire on the court, Orlando could overcome the bad schedule luck that removed their next four games against doormats (Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit, and Cleveland) and gave them two Boston games, plus matchups with Philadelphia and the New Orleans Zion Williamsons. Sweep Brooklyn and they’ll get the seven seed, but they could go 1-7, lose the first play-in game, and still make the playoffs, as long as they beat Washington in the last game.
Keane's playoff chances: 40% for the No. 7, 90% for the playoffs overall.
Washington Wizards (24-40, 9th)
Remaining games: Boston, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Boston, Phoenix, Milwaukee
Combined record: 327-189, .634
Key game: It’s the very first game against Boston, considering the Wizards have a very small margin of error. They have to gain two games on the Magic just to reach the play-in, so they need to bust out the black suits for another funeral game against the Celtics.
What they need to do: Hope the Bucks clinch the No. 1 seed early. The Wizards have the toughest schedule of all the teams in the running for the last seed, but it could get easier if the Bucks have nothing to play for. It will be an uphill battle even in the unlikely event that John Wall comes back, but conspiracy theorists will argue that Bradley Beal will shoot a ton of free throws in the mini-season, since the league wants that sweet play-in game cash. Still, anything less than 6-2 record will send them home.
Keane's playoff chances: 10%, slightly higher if Wall or Dick Bavetta make a miraculous return.
WEST: Memphis Grizzlies (32-33, 8th)
Remaining games: Portland, Utah, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, New Orleans (2 games), Boston
Combined record: 289-225, .562
Key game: Game 1 against Portland. With a 3.5-game lead, it’s going to be tough for anyone to pass Memphis. If Memphis wins just three of its last eight games, two trailing teams would have to go 7-1 to knock them down to 10th place. So dealing Portland a loss early is huge. Dame Lillard will be a great test for Ja Morant, and the returning Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins will be irresistible targets for his wildly ambitious poster dunk attempts.
What they need to do: Go 3-5 – and get Justise Winslow up to speed. Do the Grizzlies have a beef with the NBA for adding the play-in? No, because no team with a losing record should feel entitled to a playoff spot. In fact, the short season rules help them – with awful teams gone, their rivals’ schedules are relatively harder, and the double-elimination element of the play-in is a huge advantage for whoever finishes eighth. Memphis can hold their spot by not totally face-planting in Orlando. Adding Winslow to the rotation should guarantee the young Grizzlies stay upright.
Keane's playoff odds: 65%. Even if the ninth-place team had a 60% chance to beat Memphis in any given game, the odds are only 36% to beat them two straight.
Portland Trail Blazers (29-37, 9th)
Remaining games: Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Utah, *Memphis (reportedly this opponent will be determined by league algorithm; Memphis would have already played eight games)
Combined record: 297-221, .573
Key game: Game 2 against Houston. The Blazers will look significantly different with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injury. But that added frontcourt depth might not matter against the Lilliputian Rockets, who decided they hate playing centers more than Tilman Fertitta hates paying luxury tax. A rested Lillard is the scariest player in this group of teams for a win-or-go-home game, but to get there he’s going to have to break the hearts of Houston and Russell Westbrook one more time.
What they need to do: Play defense like they did with a healthy Nurkic in 2017-18. Who knows what they’ll get from Collins and Nurkic, but it will be an upgrade – and allow them to limit the power forward minutes of their young and/or bad players. They probably need to go 6-2 unless they win both Memphis games –- could Carmelo Anthony get a COVID-19 exception and play in a hoodie?
Keane's playoff odds: 12%. As tough as Dame is, the schedule is tougher.
New Orleans Pelicans (28-36, 10th)
Remaining games: Sacramento, Clippers, Utah, San Antonio, Memphis, Sacramento, Memphis, Orlando
Combined record: 262-252, .510
Key game: Both Memphis games. To us, it’s clear why the NBA chose an eight-game season to resume play. It was the best way to guarantee two matchups between Zion and Ja. If the Pelicans want to make the playoffs and earn a revenge series against the Laker team that used to employ half their roster, they’re going to have to sweep Memphis.
What they need to do: Control their own destiny. The Pelicans not only have an easy remaining schedule, but they get to play five games against three of their four biggest rivals -– only Portland avoids the wrath of Zion. Specifically, they need to hit their open three-pointers, which should be plentiful when Zion gets double-teamed. And go 6-2, or 7-1 if they can’t sweep Memphis.
Keane's playoff odds: 15%. It should be lower, but Zion defies the laws of physics and probability.
Sacramento Kings (28-36, 11th)
Remaining games: New Orleans, Brooklyn, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, New Orleans, Indiana, San Antonio
Combined record: 262-254, .508
Key game: Game 1 against New Orleans. The Pelicans were a different team without Zion, but De’Aaron Fox was just as important to the Kings, who went 16-13 when he played in 2020. The Kings haven’t been to the playoffs in 14 years, so the first game will be huge for this young team's confidence. Plus, it’s one of just three games the Kings get to play against their competition for the 8/9 slots.
What they need to do: Get De’Aaron Fox to follow Marvin Bagley III on Instagram again. Look, we have no idea if or why they’re feuding, but the clearest sign for locker room dissension is the Instagram unfollow, which Fox hit Bagley with recently. If these teammates don’t like each other, or “like” each other, this Kings' playoff run is doomed. Also, they need to sweep the Pelicans.
Keane's playoff odds: 3%, and 0% if Bagley blocks Fox on Twitter in revenge.
San Antonio Spurs (27-36, 12th)
Remaining games: Denver, Memphis, New Orleans, Utah, Utah, Denver, Sacramento, *New Orleans (reportedly this opponent will be determined by league algorithm; New Orleans would have already played eight games)
Combined record: 284-231, .551
Key game: The Spurs need to get revenge on Denver for last year’s playoff defeat, and they need to beat them twice. Sure, Denver is more talented than San Antonio, but that was also the case last season, and their playoff series came down to the final seconds of Game 7.
What they need to do: Get Gregg Popovich a personal chef and sommelier, because the restaurants of Orlando aren’t going to be up to his standards. The Spurs do get a hobbled Utah team twice, and get two shots at New Orleans, and a well-fed Coach Pop could possibly outscheme them. It’s a long shot, but think of how hilariously disappointed ESPN would be if they got a first-round Spurs series instead of Ja or Zion!
Keane's playoff odds: 5%, and that’s purely out of veteran experience, craftiness and spite.
Phoenix Suns (26-39, 13th)
Remaining games: Dallas, Clippers, Dallas, Indiana, Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Oklahoma City
Combined record: 307-214, .589
Key game: The second Dallas matchup. The Suns have to leapfrog four different teams and gain two games on Memphis just to reach the play-in. Given their brutal schedule, the most important thing is to not get eliminated by Dallas. Because otherwise, they’ll have to endure another round of experts blasting them for passing on Luka Doncic with the No. 1 pick.
What they need to do: Pray. If they got to play any of the West teams between 8 and 13, their chances could go from “impossible” to “extremely slim” but they're playing four East teams instead. Even going 8-0 might not be enough –- and they’re not going 8-0. So Devin Booker & Co. need to enjoy the closest thing to postseason basketball they’ve had in 10 years. And take Ricky Rubio on Space Mountain! He’ll love it!
Keane's playoff odds: 0%
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