Now in its second year, the play-in tournament has once again added spice to the last few weeks of the NBA’s regular season. Each team has slightly over 10 games remaining on their schedule and the final standings, especially in the play-in range, are still far from decided.
The duality of the play-in is on full display this season as the Western Conference race has a handful of teams vying for the last two spots.
Meanwhile, the top 10 teams in the East are virtually set given the 4.5 game gap between the 10th seed Atlanta Hawks and the 11th place Washington Wizards. Those involved in the East’s play-in race are focused on grabbing a top six seed to guarantee their seat in the postseason.
In the West, the Minnesota Timberwolves are currently 41-30 and have been comfortably in seventh place for a few months now. The Timberwolves are only 1.5 games out of the sixth seed Denver Nuggets and could even realistically leapfrog them for the last guaranteed playoff spot if things go their way. They lead the eighth place Los Angeles Clippers by 5.5 games and are virtually out of their reach with only so many games remaining.
The Clippers are in somewhat of a no-man’s land since 5.5 games separate them from the teams immediately ahead and behind them in the standings. They have had a strong season, despite the absence of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and have outshined their cross-town rival Los Angeles Lakers who are behind them in ninth place.
The Lakers have had a disastrous season and their 29-40 record is far from what was expected of this team in the preseason. The 37-year-old LeBron James continues to put up elite numbers, but his effectiveness on the floor to a winning cause is clearly declining as he continues to age well past his prime.
Another injury-riddled campaign for Anthony Davis has greatly contributed to their struggles, although the biggest story has been the sudden decline of their key offseason acquisition and 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook.
Regardless of how bad their season has been, the Lakers remain in the thick of the play-in picture and could very well make a surprise run if things fall their way within the next month. Only one game separates them from the 10th place New Orleans Pelicans though and they are ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trailblazers by a mere 2.5 games.
Falling out of the play-in spots is still likely for the Lakers and it would be an unmitigated disaster for this historic franchise that had title aspirations in October. The teams right behind them are in an opposite situation and have no pressure heading into these last few games of the regular season.
The Pelicans are still without their franchise cornerstone Zion Williamson and are playing with house money at this point in time. The same goes for the Spurs and the Blazers who have prioritized developing their young players this season and have everything to gain from this experience.
Over in the East, the seventh seed Toronto Raptors are only 6.5 games out of first place and will be hard-pressed to make a push into one of the guaranteed postseason slots. They are currently on a five-game winning streak and have the same record, 39-30, as the sixth seed Cleveland Cavaliers.
Further adding excitement here are the fifth place Chicago Bulls, the top team in the East just a few weeks ago, who are simultaneously sliding and only have a two-game lead on the Raptors in the standings. It will be interesting to see which of these three teams among the Raptors, Cavaliers, and Bulls have to go through the play-in to secure their ticket to the playoffs.
Right below them, only 1.5 games stand between the other three teams in the play-in spots. The Brooklyn Nets, the Charlotte Hornets, and the Atlanta Hawks are all dangerous squads and could pose problems to whomever they match-up with if they do make it to the playoffs.
Among this group, the Nets are the clear cut favorite to emerge as one of the surviving teams. Similar to the Bulls, the Nets once led the East and would not have been in this situation if they were not plagued by injuries in January. Now that the duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are fully healthy, they may even enter a potential first round series as the favored team which will add an exciting wrinkle to it.
The play-in has clearly served its intended purpose to increase the level of competitiveness in the middle of the standings and bring about more excitement to the latter parts of the regular season. Some of these teams are just happy to be here while there are those who are scrambling to get out of it.
While the teams involved are in for a hectic next few weeks, the league’s fans are in for a treat and it will be fascinating to see what storylines emerge within the next month. The Nets and, to a lesser extent, the Lakers can potentially make a deep run in the playoffs from one of these play-in spots which will only add to the lore of the game’s latest innovation.