Making Sense of the Eastern Conference Playoff Standings | Wizards Blog Truth About

Making Sense of the Eastern Conference Playoff Standings

Updated: March 31, 2018

If you are a Washington Wizards fan, you have probably stared at the Eastern Conference standings for so long it makes your head hurt. Seemingly every night the seeds change, and with them Washington’s playoff fortunes rise and fall. The final post-season match-ups may not be known until the last day of the regular season, but some clarity has emerged over the last few as the cluster of teams at seeds 3-5 (Cleveland, Philadelphia and Indiana) have separated themselves from the teams vying for seeds 6-8 (Washington, Miami and Milwaukee). Let’s sort through what it all means for the Wizards.

1. None of This Matters Without a Healthy Wall

Before we examine Washington’s playoff possibilities, it should be noted that the Wizards are not going anywhere if they continue to play as they have the last two weeks. John Wall is scheduled to return on Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets, but he will likely only play in four of Washington’s final seven games. That’s because the Wizards play three back-to-back sets in their last seven games. Scott Brooks and the medical staff probably will not push Wall to play consecutive games so close to the start of the playoffs.

There’s optimism that Wall will pick up right where he left off when he was fully healthy, but there are no guarantees. If Wall isn’t right, then Washington will lose in the first round. It’s that simple. But what’s the point of dwelling on the negative. There’s plenty of time in the off-season for that.

2. First Round Home Court is Long Gone

It should be obvious by now that any hope of starting the playoffs at Capital One Arena is dead. Interestingly, as I explain below, the possibility of home court in the second round is not as crazy as it sounds.

3. Washington Will Be the #6, #7, or #8 Seed

Washington (41-34) currently leads both Miami (41-35) and Milwaukee (41-35) by a ½ game. Here are the teams’ remaining schedules:

Washington has the toughest remaining schedule and Miami has the easiest, especially when you consider that Toronto will likely rest its stars in the last game of the season. Miami also currently has the tie-breaker over Washington, which is based on division record (Heat are 9-5 and the Wizards are 7-6). Washington would have the tie-breaker over Milwaukee, based on conference record. In the event of a three-way tie, Miami would almost certainly win the tie-breaker.

Here’s what each spot brings:

#6 –  This is potentially the worst seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs because, if the season ended today, the No. 6 seed would play the No. 3 seed Cleveland Cavaliers. It is certainly possible that either Philadelphia or Indiana will grab the No. 3 seed by season’s end, but the fact remains: the only way the Wizards can guarantee they avoid the Cavs in the first round is to drop to No. 7 or No. 8.

#7 – The No. 7 seed will play the Boston Celtics, likely without Kyrie Irving. Boston has played very well despite being short-handed, but their hustling, defensive-minded style of play is more effective in the regular season than it is in the playoffs, when every team hustles and plays inspired defense. Boston’s offensive struggles will be more pronounced when the game slows down, and Wall and Beal should have a pronounced back-court advantage with Kyrie and Marcus Smart out.

#8 – The No. 8 seed will play the Toronto Raptors. While Toronto has been the most consistent team in the East all season and their bench has been superb, they are far from an intimidating opponent. Washington split the season series and has the personnel to slow down the Raptors back-court, as they did in their 2015 first round sweep.

4. The Race for Third Seed is Very Important

Washington really has only one goal when it comes to playoff seeding: avoid Cleveland in the first round. For that reason, every Wizards fan should be rooting for the Sixers and Pacers for the remainder of the season. If either of those two teams passes the Cavs for the No. 3 seed, then it will eliminate any possibility of Washington playing Cleveland in the first round.

Cleveland (46-30) has a 1/2 game lead over Philadelphia (45-30) and a one game lead over Indiana (45-31). Here are the remaining schedules for each team:

Philadelphia has the easiest schedule by far and was projected to overtake Cleveland before Embiid’s injury. However, the Sixers are only 4-8 without Embiid this season and Cleveland would have the tie-breaker if they end with identical records. Indiana has the tie-breaker over Cleveland but they have an excruciating schedule with their next two games on the road against Western conference teams fighting for their playoff lives, followed by back-to-back games against the Warriors and Raptors.

5. Injuries Have Seriously Changed the Playoff Landscape

Two recent injuries have the potential to play a huge role in Washington’s playoff run: Kyrie Irving’s knee and Joel Embiid’s eye.

Kyrie had surgery on his ailing left knee on March 24 and is out three-to-six weeks. The playoffs start 21 days after his surgery, which means there is a very good chance he misses the entire first round. Given how Washington has played of late, and the fact that Boston keeps plugging away short-handed, the Celtics would probably still be favored in a rematch. However, there’s no denying that the Wizards would be catching a huge break if they fall all the way to No. 7 and get to face a hobbled opponent in the first round.

Joel Embiid suffered an orbital fracture and a concussion on March 28. Embiid will require surgery and his timetable to return is estimated at two-to-four weeks. That means Embiid will likely miss some, if not all, of the first round. Embiid’s injury is a double-edged sword. The Sixers are obviously much worse without Embiid and Washington would be favored in a series against Philadelphia if he misses at least a few playoff games.

However, Embiid’s injury also makes it much harder for the Sixers to catch Cleveland. For those who subscribe to the “anyone but Cleveland” mantra, Embiid’s injury was bad news.

6. Best Case Scenario

With the Wizards losing nine of their last 14 games, the mood in Chinatown has been understandably grim. However, somewhat counter-intuitively, there are several scenarios where the Wizards could actually have their most advantageous path to the Conference Finals in the last 35 years.

Scenario 1: Washington stays at No. 6 and the Joel Embiid-less Sixers land at No. 3.  Even if Embiid does return for the playoffs, the Sixers are inexperienced and prone to bouts of turnovers. I’m not saying the Wizards would be favored, but with a healthy John Wall, that match-up is a toss-up at worst.

In addition, in this scenario, Miami or Milwaukee would play Boston. With Kyrie on the shelf, either team could pull off an upset. If that happened, Washington would actually have home court advantage in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Scenario 2: Washington stays at No. 6 and Indiana lands at No. 3. Indiana keeps chugging along as the surprise team in the East, but they are not a terribly worrisome match-up for Washington. The Wizards won the season series two games to one and the Pacers lack the one piece of Kryptonite that the other three potential first round opponents have: a mobile center.

Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi struggle mightily against stretch 5s and Boston (Al Horford), Cleveland (Kevin Love) and Philadelphia (Joel Embiid) have three of the best. Myles Turner was supposed to develop into that type of player but he has been wildly inconsistent in his third season, with averages of only 28.7 minutes, 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He is still an elite shot blocker and his three-point shooting (37.1%) is very good for a big man, but he does not put it together on a nightly basis.

Again, in this scenario, Washington has a shot at home court advantage in the second round against Miami or Milwaukee.

Scenario 3: Washington falls to No. 7 against Boston and either Indiana or Philadelphia move up to No. 3. With the Pacers or Sixers at No. 3, Washington would avoid Cleveland until the Conference Finals. A series win against Boston would be far from guaranteed, but this path of facing a Kyrie-less Celtics team followed by an inexperienced Pacers or Sixers team would be incredibly fortuitous, all things considered.

7. Worst Case Scenario

You already know.

Adam Rubin on EmailAdam Rubin on Twitter
Adam Rubin
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Adam grew up in the D.C. area and has been a Washington Bullets fan for over 25 years. He will not refer to the franchise as anything other than the Bullets unless required to do so by Truth About It editorial standards. Adam spent many nights at the Capital Centre in the ‘90s where he witnessed such things as Michael Jordan’s “LaBradford Smith game,” the inexcusable under-usage of Gheorghe Muresan’s unstoppable post moves, and the basketball stylings of Ledell Eackles.