We’re almost halfway through the 2014-15 NBA season, which means it’s time to start looking toward the teams jostling for playoff positioning.
In this piece, I’ll predict each of the eight seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences, along with their final records. Below those teams, I will include the three squads who will be on the outside looking in (seeds 9-11) when the final buzzer sounds on the regular season.
Will the disappointing Cleveland Cavaliers pull things together before the postseason starts? Will the Atlanta Hawks continue their torrid winning pace? And will anybody catch the Golden State Warriors in the West? Read below and find out.
1. Atlanta Hawks (59-23)
The Hawks have been one of the most, if not the most, surprising NBA powerhouse so far this season. Their 31-8 record and No. 1 seeding in the Eastern Conference is impressive, but even more staggering is their 24-2 mark since Thanksgiving. Atlanta has accomplished all of this without a true superstar. Many of the teams below them in the East playoff hunt have top-15 players, but the Hawks’ best player is Jeff Teague. Expect this team to continue dominating the competition with its suffocating defense and free-flowing offense.
2. Chicago Bulls (55-27)
People knew the Bulls would be good, and they have been. However, one can only wonder how good this team can be if it plays to its potential. Joakim Noah, an All-NBA First-Teamer from last season, has averaged 7.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game this year. Derrick Rose, whose athleticism looks just as good as it did before his ACL injury, is still struggling to find his shot. Don’t be surprised to see Chicago gain more momentum as it heads into the playoffs.
3. Toronto Raptors (54-28)
A lot of the Raptors’ success in 2014-15 has come because of Kyle Lowry’s overall brilliance. The 28-year-old point guard is averaging career bests in points, (20.3), rebounds (4.9) and assists (7.8) per game, and kept the team winning in DeMar DeRozan’s 21-game absence due to a groin injury. Toronto should stay in contention for the Eastern Conference championship as long as it stays healthy.
4. Washington Wizards (54-28)
After winning 44 games in the Eastern Conference and qualifying for the second round of the playoffs last season, the Wizards have taken the next step to becoming a league power through the growth of their backcourt duo, John Wall and Bradley Beal. Moving forward, however, Washington needs to work on its performance against playoff teams. Against teams in the top eight of their respective conferences, the Wizards are 10-10 with a point differential of minus-2.6 points per game.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (45-37)
Oh, Cleveland. It’s been such a frustrating season for your team. The trio of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving was supposed to light up scoreboards at a dizzying pace, but the players have struggled to mesh their games together. The bigger issue right now is on the less glamorous end of the court, however. Per ESPN, Cleveland is ranked No. 26 in defensive efficiency, with only teams out of the playoff hunt (Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves) slotted below them. Pure talent should get the Cavaliers the No. 5 seed, but nothing higher.
6. Milwaukee Bucks (43-39)
The Bucks are the most shocking playoff team so far this season. On paper, this team doesn’t look formidable at all, but the players fit well together and head coach Jason Kidd has them playing strong defense. At 21-19, Milwaukee isn’t a fluke, either—the team has played 23 of its 40 games on the road and boasts a solid point differential of plus-1.2. It will be interesting to see what rookie sensation Jabari Parker can do with this team when he returns from his ACL injury next fall.
7. Miami Heat (37-45)
Without the departed LeBron James, the Heat don’t have that one guy who greases the wheels on offense and defense. Chris Bosh (21.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists per game) and Dwyane Wade (22.1, 4.0, 5.6) are playing well, but their supporting cast is one of the worst in the NBA. However, Hassan Whiteside has turned heads this year after a two-year stint overseas. The 25-year-old center is averaging 16.9 points, 14.7 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per 36 minutes on 67.6 percent shooting.
8. Detroit Pistons (35-47)
The Pistons have been a clear beneficiary of the “Josh Smith Effect.” Since the 29-year-old shot-chucking forward’s departure, Detroit has won nine out of 11 games. With him, the team was 5-23. When looking down the roster, there really is no reason the Pistons shouldn’t be competing for a playoff spot—Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond is a solid trio, and other quality players appear throughout the rotation.
Outside looking in: Charlotte Hornets (35-47), Indiana Pacers (34-48), Brooklyn Nets (33-49)
1. Golden State Warriors (65-17)
Maybe the Warriors’ decision to fire former head coach Mark Jackson last May wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, it’s paid off pretty well for West-leading Golden State, which holds an NBA-best 31-5 record under Steve Kerr. Splash Brothers Stephen Curry (23.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.0 assists per game) and Klay Thompson (21.3, 3.5, 3.0) are leading the charge, but Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and Marreese Speights are all playing good basketball as well. This team has stars, it has depth, it has everything. Consider the Warriors the title favorites, for now.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (58-24)
Watch out NBA, because the Grizzlies are coming with a vengeance. For the past couple of years, Memphis has boasted a nice threesome of point guard Mike Conley, power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol. What was missing from the team, though, was an offensively formidable wing. Enter small forward Jeff Green, who brings his 17.6 points per game over from Boston via trade. With Green in the lineup, Memphis will be more versatile, both offensively and defensively.
3. Portland Trail Blazers (57-25)
Can we continue to push the “Rain Bros” nickname for Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The Splash Brothers (6.1 made threes per game) are more popular, but the Rain Bros (5.8 made threes per game) are pretty cash from three-point range themselves. This Blazers team has continued to develop together, so much so that it is 30-9 despite a hand injury to Robin Lopez and a down year for Nicolas Batum. Portland might fall a little bit off of its winning pace before the season is up, due to some depth issues, but the team will still be a tough out in the playoffs.
4. Houston Rockets (55-27)
The Rockets were supposed to regress when they lost Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin last offseason. But thanks to James Harden’s MVP-level play (on both sides of the ball, surprisingly), Houston is right in the thick of the race for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The acquisition of Josh Smith has produced mixed results, but the team’s depth has overall been a lot better than expected. Players like Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan have turned in career years to help the Rockets’ cause.
5. Dallas Mavericks (54-28)
On paper, the Mavericks have the best starting lineup in the NBA. Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler on the court together looks like a perfect balance of talents. The lineup hasn’t been great so far, but it still has some time to gel before the playoffs, when it could truly frighten other teams. Dallas’ main problem is on the bench, where the talent in the frontcourt is lacking, to put it kindly.
6. San Antonio Spurs (53-29)
Putting the Spurs here involves some faith on my part. I believe San Antonio will close the season well as it gets healthy and prepares itself for the postseason. Reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is probable to return to the lineup tonight against the Trail Blazers after a month out with a torn ligament in his right hand. Through the season, the Spurs’ preferred starting lineup of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter has only played seven minutes together. When this team starts gearing up for the playoffs, it will be tough to handle.
7. Los Angeles Clippers (53-29)
The Clippers’ positional strengths are similar to the Grizzlies’ strengths before Memphis traded for Jeff Green. Los Angeles is totally set at point guard (Chris Paul), power forward (Blake Griffin) and center (DeAndre Jordan), but small forward is a problem. Matt Barnes, C.J. Wilcox and Dahntay Jones isn’t exactly a rotation that screams “title contender.” If the Clippers want to win a title, they’ll need to beef up their strength on the wings.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder (48-34)
Call me crazy, but I think the Thunder can make up the 3.5-game cushion the Phoenix Suns currently hold over them. For starters, they have the league’s best one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder’s supporting cast is still adjusting to playing with their two stars, and I think they will be ready by playoff time. Also, Oklahoma City is currently pursuing a deal that would land it Brook Lopez, per ESPN’s Chris Broussard. Imagine the Thunder with a crunch-time lineup of Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Lopez—this could be the scariest No. 8 seed in the history of the NBA.
Outside looking in: Phoenix Suns (46-36), New Orleans Pelicans (45-37), Denver Nuggets (38-44)