The NBA's annual in-season shuffling came a little late this year and while there weren't any aces dealt, there were plenty of hole-plugging moves that will impact the rest of the season. Next Thursday is the league's deadline for buying out veterans under contract, so there may yet be some player movement. By and large, however, we now have a pretty good idea how the teams are going to look over the course of the regular season and the playoffs.
With that in mind, we loaded the revamped rosters into SCHOENE, our trusty projection system, and simulated the last third of the regular season 10,000 times to see what, if any, shifts have occurred in the NBA's pecking order. The results of this exercise contained some surprises and plenty of what you'd expect. With teams having an average of just 23 games remaining, there isn't much time for the standings to undergo any kind of drastic change, but if these new projections represent the current true team strengths going forward, they may have some ramifications heading to the playoffs.
Some highlights from SCHOENE's crystal ball:
1. Bulls will land the top overall seed
None of the top contenders in the East were active before Thursday's trade deadline, so it should be no surprise that the current standings project to remain mostly steady. Miami has three more games to play than Chicago over the rest of the season and projects to go 18-6 to the Bulls' 15-6, which won't be enough to close the Heat's current 2 1/2 game gap. Both teams project to finish with a better record than Oklahoma City in the West, so the winner of the inevitable Heat-Bulls showdown in the East plays should have homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals.
The projections suggest that the Magic, buoyed by Dwight Howard's semi-commitment to stay, will become further entrenched as the third seed in the East. It's certainly arguable that Indiana and Philadelphia, which are projected to take up the next two spots behind Orlando, will be stronger four- and five-seeds than the East has tended to produce in recent years. Nevertheless, you have to believe that the Bulls and Heat would like to avoid the matchup problem that a motivated Howard would present in the second round. So the race for the top seed is about more than just homecourt advantage for the conference finals.
2. Sorry Knicks
There is no way for SCHOENE to know how the coaching change in New York is going to play, but it can evaluate the Knicks' current roster versus that of the new-look Bucks, who traded for high-scoring Monta Ellis earlier this week. Milwaukee now projects to go 13-10 over the rest of the season, two games better than the Knicks' 11-12 forecast. It's not a huge margin, but that would be enough for Milwaukee to nudge the Knicks into the lottery. Oh wait, the Knicks traded that pick. Oh well. If they keep playing the way they have in Mike Woodson's first three games as interim coach, it might not matter.
Further down the line, SCHOENE sees the Nets rallying for an 11-11 finish now that Gerald Wallace is on the roster. That's actually bad news because not only is that record not good enough to get the Nets into the playoffs, but it serves to push them down the pecking order for the lottery. If the Nets don't pick in the top three, their first-rounder goes to the Blazers as part of the Wallace trade. SCHOENE sees them winning enough games to cost them quite a few lottery balls in the magical hopper.
3. The battle for six
While the Heat and Bulls are vying to avoid the Magic in the second round, the Celtics and Hawks are scrambling to play Orlando in the first round as the six-seed. While meeting Howard and an Orlando squad that seems to be coalescing is no picnic, the alternative is first-round doomsday against either Miami or Chicago. Right now, SCHOENE foresees Boston as being the team that suffers that undesirable fate.
Ironically, the Atlanta and Boston are both trying to get into a series against the game's best center despite missing their own starting pivots. The Hawks are hopeful that Al Horford will return from left pectoral surgery in time for the postseason, but there is no guarantee that he will. Jermaine O'Neal has likely played his last game with the Celtics, though given his 9.5 PER that might be a good thing for Boston.
Should the Celtics take off and do better than the 11-13 finish SCHOENE projects, then the Atlantic Division may still be in their grasp. Currently the Sixers lead Boston by just 1 1/2 games and with a 12-11 closing forecast, we definitely don't see Philly running away with the division. If the Celtics can sneak by the Sixers and land the four-seed, then they not only avoid Chicago and Miami in the first round, but they sneak into a theoretically more favorable matchup, with Indiana instead of Orlando. In either case, the Celtics aren't likely to have homecourt advantage, so it'll be an uphill climb.
4. New Challenger in the West
The West is more tightly packed than the East and feels more wide open, so it's not surprising that there was a lot more trade activity from that conference this week. And guess what? A new challenger has emerged: the Lakers. Yeah, same as the old challenger. The Lakers' point guard position was the biggest hole to fill for any of the league's upper-tier teams and Mitch Kupchak did well by landed Ramon Sessions from Cleveland. He also nabbed Houston's Jordan Hill, which isn't as sexy as a new point guard, but does improve a second unit that was relying too much on Troy Murphy. SCHOENE sees the Lakers going 16-7 over the rest of the season, the top mark in the West.
Some of the strong finish may be due to scheduling factors, but L.A. also projects a little better than Oklahoma City in a schedule-neutral context, which should make for an interesting West Final, if it should come to that. Sessions projects to provide a major boost to L.A.'s offensive efficiency, while Hill might provide improve a defense that already ranks in the league's top 10. The big concern are the heavy loads being carried by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who are all averaging 38-plus minutes per game. That kind of court time looks good to a projection model, but might not bode well for the back end of a compressed season.
Meanwhile, the Thunder projects to limp home with a relatively-poor 14-9 mark. It's not that Oklahoma City is headed for a slide, but the Thunder has over-performed relative to its point differential this season. Plus the finishing slate is tough with a five-game road trip and the Bulls, Heat, Spurs and Clippers among their remaining home opponents. Luckily, the Thunder have built up enough of a lead to hold off the Lakers and Spurs for the top seed.
5. Clippers helped themselves
If Sessions filled the biggest hole on a Western Contender, the Lakers' Staples Center counterpart also plugged a major gap by bringing in Nick Young to play shooting guard. On paper, this looks like a terrific move, one that SCHOENE thinks will propel the Clippers to a 15-9 finish. That's got to sound pretty good for a team that has dropped eight of 13. Young is a talented scorer who sometimes has trouble playing within the team concept. He's also playing for a contract, so the motivation should be there. It'll be key for Vinny Del Negro to convince Young that the road to guaranteed riches is paved with wins, not points.
The Clippers could make run at the Spurs, who project to go just 14-11 the rest of the way. It's hard telling what San Antonio will get out of newly-acquired Stephen Jackson, but he should at least be a solid stand-in for Richard Jefferson. Part of the Spurs' modest projection is due to an anticipated regressions from its overachieving role players. Then again, San Antonio's role players always overachieve.
6. The logjam continues.
There is a cluster of teams straddling the playoff cutoff in the West and a couple of those squads were active at the deadline on Thursday. SCHOENE doesn't see it making much of a difference. Houston and Denver made splashes yesterday, while Dallas, Minnesota and Utah all stood pat. The end result is that all five teams project to finish one or two games above or below .500 over the rest of the schedule. The Nuggets have a 10-12 forecast, which suggests the Nene-for-JaVale McGee swap won't pay immediate dividends, though it should be noted that SCHOENE still sees Nene more as the player we thought he was entering the season than the player he's actually been.
The Jazz have hung around the periphery of the playoff chase all season and given the presence of veterans Raja Bell and Josh Howard in their stating lineup lately, it would seem that Utah is intent on making a push for the postseason. Funny thing that. Utah would probably be better off playing its kids and does not project to get into the playoffs with its stand-pat mentality.
Houston, with Marcus Camby now on board to team with Samuel Dalembert in the middle, came out 12-10 in the simulations. Coupled with Dallas' yawn-inspiring 11-10 mark, it looks like the Rockets will not only get into the postseason, but will engage the Mavericks in a neck-and-neck battle for the sixth seed. Meanwhile, the Rubioless Timberwolves can expect a 10-12 finish that will land the Clippers in the lottery once again, since L.A. has Minnesota's first-round pick this June.
REVISED SCHOENE TEAM PROJECTIONS
Team W L sW sL pW pL SD IMP
Chicago Bulls# 36 9 15 6 51 15 1 -2
Miami Heat# 31 11 18 6 49 17 2 0
Orlando Magic 28 16 14 8 42 24 3 0
Philadelphia 76ers# 25 18 12 11 37 29 4 -1
Indiana Pacers 25 16 15 10 40 26 5 0
Atlanta Hawks 24 19 12 11 36 30 6 -1
Boston Celtics 23 19 11 13 34 32 7 -2
Milwaukee Bucks 19 24 13 10 32 34 8 +3
New York Knicks 19 24 11 12 30 36 -- +1
New Jersey Nets 15 29 11 11 26 40 -- +4
Detroit Pistons 16 27 8 15 24 42 -- -1
Cleveland Cavaliers 16 25 7 18 23 43 -- -3
Toronto Raptors 14 29 9 14 23 43 -- +2
Washington Wizards 10 32 6 18 16 50 -- 0
Charlotte Bobcats 6 36 7 17 13 53 -- +4
Team W L sW sL pW pL SD IMP
Oklahoma City Thunder# 33 10 14 9 47 19 1 -4
Los Angeles Lakers# 27 16 16 7 43 23 2 +2
San Antonio Spurs# 28 13 14 11 42 24 3 -3
Los Angeles Clippers 24 18 15 9 39 27 4 +1
Memphis Grizzlies 24 17 13 12 37 29 5 -2
Houston Rockets 24 20 12 10 36 30 6 0
Dallas Mavericks 25 20 11 10 36 30 7 -1
Denver Nuggets 24 20 10 12 34 32 8 -2
Minnesota Timberwolves 22 22 10 12 32 34 -- -1
Utah Jazz 21 22 11 12 32 34 -- 0
Portland Trail Blazers 20 23 11 12 31 35 -- 0
Phoenix Suns 21 22 9 14 30 36 -- -2
Golden State Warriors 18 22 9 17 27 39 -- -3
Sacramento Kings 14 29 10 13 24 42 -- +3
New Orleans Hornets 10 34 7 15 17 49 -- +2
IMP: team's revised projected win total versus current
Note: Based on 10,000 simulations of remaining schedule
# - division champion
sW-sL: simulated record for remaining schedule
pW-pL: projected final wins and losses
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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