We are in uncharted territory with the NBA season nearing its home stretch. An NBA Playoff picture without LeBron James is difficult to imagine.
Most team have around 20 games to go to wrap up their 2018-19 NBA seasons. 16 of 30 teams get to continue playing into the postseason, so most are fighting for seeding or just to make it in. A few of course are locked in the battle of futility, hoping for little more than improved draft odds.
In the East, there are five teams currently standing head-and-shoulders above the rest. The Bucks and Raptors appear to be all but locked into the one and two seeds. The Pacers are clinging to third, but surely the loss of star Victor Oladipo to injury will catch up to them eventually. Coach Nate McMillan and the Indiana role players still deserve a lot of credit.
One of the most talented rosters on paper, the 76ers will be a contender once the dust settles. The Boston Celtics have had a turbulent season despite maintaining about the same roster that led them near the top of the East last year.
The six seed on down currently have sub .500 records. The Brooklyn Nets have been a pleasant surprise with the Pistons, Hornets, Magic, and Heat in contention. The John Wall-less Wizards are looking like a long-shot.
Wild West as usual
As it often is, the Western Conference seeding race is a tight one. The Golden State Warriors are on top as expected, but have already dropped 19 games. That only puts them 1.5 games ahead of the talented Denver Nuggets. The Nugs have a four game lead over the OKC Thunder; that’s where it starts getting very close.
An underrated Trailblazers squad is clinging to fourth, just ahead of the Rockets, Jazz, Spurs and Clippers. Yes, the Spurs are back again after a slow start to their 2018-19 campaign. Conversely, the Clippers overachieved to start the year and initiated a rebuild despite their success. With LA being a desirable free agent destination, they are hoping they can land a star or two next year.
If the Clippers fall off, that leaves two squads that could possibly take their place. The young, surprisingly good Sacremento Kings or LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers stumbled during LeBron’s longest injury absence of his career. Now that he’s back, he says that he has activated “playoff mode”. That didn’t seem to help them much, as they have suffered some of their ugliest losses of the season since.
LeBron doesn’t just have a playoff streak on the line. LeBron James has been to eight consecutive NBA Finals. Eight. Not having him in the playoff picture at all would be incredibly unusual in this era of NBA basketball. To an extent, he knew what he was signing up for with the young Lakers that added bigger personalities than stars over the offseason. Still wild.
The kicker in all this for the Lakers is there remaining schedule, which is one of the toughest in the Association down the stretch (below, from Basketball Reference).
There are still five weeks to hammer out the final standings. The current playoff picture is an interesting one, with surprises both inside and outside the top eight squads from each conference.
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