All six Eastern Conference teams on the playoff bubble have exactly four games remaining as we enter the final week of the 2015 NBA regular season. The Milwaukee Bucks are on the verge of solidifying their spot and the Charlotte Hornets are about to burst, but the other contenders are separated by only one game.
The Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets both have 36 wins and occupy the seventh and eighth seeds, and the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are knocking on the door with 35 wins.
Which teams have the best chances of making the playoffs? Should fans be preparing for a playoff run or lottery luck? Let's dive in and look at the odds.
ONetRtg is the average opponent's point differential per 100 possessions. OAdjNet accounts for game location and back-to-backs, as described here by John Schuhmann. A positive score means the schedule is more difficult, and a negative means it is easier.
The Bucks have by far the easiest schedule, with games against New York and Philadelphia, but it's worth noting they have lost their last six games on the second night of a back-to-back, so their match against the 76ers might not be a cakewalk.
On the flipside, the Celtics have the hardest schedule according to the data, except that might not turn out to be the case if LeBron James sits out both games, as rumored. Cleveland has been an average team with James sidelined, so that would significantly increase Boston's chances of success.
Since LeBron James returned on Jan 13th, the Cavs have a -0.4 Net Rating when he's off the court. They're +13.7 when he is. Huge difference.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 9, 2015
It'll be a brawl between Brooklyn, Indiana, and Miami, but the Pacers have the toughest schedule of the bunch and a back-to-back before facing Memphis on the final day of the season. The Hornets may flat line before the weekend is over, and arguably could've been left off this list considering their chances of making the playoffs are almost nonexistent.
But specifically how slim are their chances?
To get a better handle on how this is likely to play out we've created a model of the rest of the season using game odds based on Basketball-Reference's metric Simple Rating System. With this each remaining game was simulated 5000 times. To begin with, how likely each team was to land on a particular wins total was projected. Using this information, and by adding in all the tiebreaker possibilities, each team's odds of making the playoffs were estimated.
The results are that the race is nearly down to three teams for two spots. Here are the complete odds, with the likely fates of direct qualification or tiebreakers for all of the teams involved.
The Bucks are a virtual lock for the playoffs and the Nets have an advantage over the Celtics and Heat, who are functionally tied in the chase for eighth. The Pacers are just hanging on and the Hornets are close to eliminated. Tiebreakers are the reason for this cluster of odds, all of which were covered by SB Nation.
Miami is Boston's great nemesis in this. The Celtics win all two and three-team tiebreakers with Brooklyn and Indiana, but lose when the Heat get involved. The only positive tiebreaker the Celtics can have with Miami is a three-teamer for seventh, because then Boston slots into the eight seed. Any tiebreaker involving Miami for eighth sends Boston to the lottery.
Let's looks at how likely just the Celtics are to qualify based on wins from here out. This is important because our model doesn't take into account opponents resting their players, so it thinks the most likely outcome for Boston is a 1-3 finish.
As mentioned, it looks like Cleveland will rest players in their next two games. But the other team to watch is Milwaukee. While it's tempting to think they can still be caught, it's actually better for the Celtics to consider them an ally. They win the tiebreakers, so it's extremely unlikely that the Celtics top them.
The best thing for Celtics fans to root for is that Milwaukee beats Brooklyn to lock up the sixth seed, then rest against Boston to close the season. If the Boston Celtics go 2-2 from here they're very likely to make the playoffs and an uninterested Bucks team may be the difference maker. But no matter what happens the race will almost certainly come down to the final game or two of the season.