Evaluating possible first-round playoff opponents

Who would you prefer: Chicago, Brooklyn, Washington or Charlotte?

The magic number for the Toronto Raptors is three. Any combination of Toronto wins and New York Knicks losses that totals three means the Raptors have clinched their first playoff berth since 2007-08, and it’s all but a formality at this point.

The Raptors are in the playoffs, save for an incredibly unlikely lose-out-plus-Knicks-win-out.

Final Standings and Remaining Schedules
The attention, then, can turn to the final standings. The Raptors currently sit in third in the Eastern Conference at 39-30, with a realistic range of third to fifth, perhaps as low as sixth, as a final landing spot. Here are the three-through-eight standings in the East on the morning of March 24:

Team W L Win% GB3rd GB4th
Toronto 39 30 0.565
Chicago 39 31 0.557 0.5
Brooklyn 37 31 0.544 1.5 1
Washington 36 34 0.514 3.5 3
Charlotte 34 36 0.486 5.5 5
Atlanta 31 37 0.456 7.5 7

Realistically, Charlotte and Atlanta will be facing Indiana and Miami in some form, though Charlotte’s recent stretch of hot play makes it conceivable they could catch Washington for sixth. The battle for third and fourth, and thus home court in the first round, is still fairly up in the air.

The table below shows the likely landing spot for the teams, from ESPN’s Playoff Odds and Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report:

Team Playoff Odds Proj W Proj L Proj Seed Playoff Odds Proj W Proj L Proj Seed
Toronto 100% 48 34 3 100% 47.5 34.5 3
Chicago 100% 46 36 4 100% 45.7 36.3 4
Brooklyn 100% 45 37 5 100% 44.5 37.5 5
Washington 100% 43 39 6 100% 42.8 39.2 6
Charlotte 99.50% 41 41 7 99.60% 40.7 41.3 7
Atlanta 91.10% 38 44 8 97% 38.4 43.6 8

This isn’t all that surprising – based on talent level, which after 70 games should be obvious, these systems don’t see a lot of room for teams to bounce around in the final dozen games of the season. Basically, 12 games aren’t enough to reliably predict big swings in the standings, even if they are fairly close at present.

However, it’s pretty unlikely the standings end up exactly as they are now. Differences in schedule the rest of the way, and performance of late, could tip the scales. Here are the remaining schedules for each team:

Team Opp1 Opp2 Opp3 Opp4 Opp5 Opp6 Opp7 Opp8 Opp9 Opp10 Opp11 Opp12 Opp13 Opp14
Toronto at Cle at Bos Bos at Orl at Mia Hou Ind at Mil Phi NYK at Det Mil at NYK
Chicago Ind Por at Bos Bos at Atl Mil at Was at Min Det at NYK Orl at Cha
Brooklyn at NO at Cha Cle Min Hou at NYK Det at Phi at Mia at Orl Atl Orl NYK at Cle
Washington Pho Ind Atl at Cha Bos at NYK Chi Cha at Orl Mil Mia at Bos
Charlotte Hou Brk at Orl Was at Phi Orl at Cle at Was at Bos Phi at Atl Chi
Atlanta Pho at Min Por at Was Phi Chi Cle at Ind Det Bos at Brk Mia Cha at Mil

That’s a lot of text so let’s try and make it easier. The table below shows how many home and road games each team has left, how many games against .500 teams they have left, how many back-to-backs they have to play, and their net rating over the past 60 days (this is simply points per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions).

Team Home Away +.500 B2B NetRating last60day
Toronto 6 7 3 4 4.5
Chicago 6 6 3 3 2.4
Brooklyn 7 7 3 4 2.8
Washington 8 4 4 3 2.1
Charlotte 6 6 5 2 2.6
Atlanta 9 5 8 4 -3.9

I think we can pretty safely rule out Atlanta from the three-to-six range, which is what we’re obviously interested in here. Brooklyn, meanwhile, has their fate in their own hands more than any other team because they have 14 games left to play, to 12 for the others (and 13 for Toronto).

Tiebreaking Procedures
The Raptors still look like favorites for home court advantage, especially since they’ve been playing even better than these other teams (as strange as that may sound given how hot Brooklyn is). Their grasp on the three-seed, however, is a bit more tenuous, because the game “in hand” they have over Chicago profiles as a road game in a back-to-back situation (obviously one specific game isn’t the “game in hand,” but Toronto has an extra roadie and back-to-back on the Bulls).

As you may have guessed, with a race this tight, tiebreakers become very important. Here are the standings tiebreakers, per NBA.com:

(-) Tie breaker not needed (better overall winning percentage)
(1) Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division
(2) Head-to-head won-lost percentage
(3) Division won-lost percentage
(4) Conference won-lost percentage
(5) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, own conference
(6) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, other conference
(7) Net Points, all games

The first is winning a division, which means that should the Raptors tie with anyone other than Brooklyn for the third seed, it will go to Toronto. From there, head-to-head match-ups, in-division record and in-conference record are used to decide ties. Here’s how these teams stack up in each regard:

Team vTor vChi vBrk vWas vCha Div Win% Conf Win%
Toronto x 2-2 2-2 3-1 0-3 0.727 0.6
Chicago 2-2 x 2-1 0-2 2-0 0.615 0.643
Brooklyn 2-2 1-2 x 0-3 2-1 0.615 0.512
Washington 1-3 2-0 3-0 x 1-1 0.636 0.61
Charlotte 3-0 0-2 1-2 1-1 x 0.182 0.512

The Raptors appear safe in a tie against anyone except for Charlotte, who happens to be the least likely to catch them. Toronto is .500 or better against Chicago, Brooklyn and Washington, and would own the division tiebreaker at present. Should a three-way tie occur, things get more complicated (instead of head-to-head, it becomes winning percentage against all tied teams) but the Raptors still look fairly secure and, assuming they don’t drop three of five against Boston (2), New York (2) and Philly, they should be secure with the in-division tiebreaker.

Now, all of that is to say, should the Raptors continue to play well, they should be looking at home-court advantage. It’s not a certainty, but they’ve done enough to give themselves a cushion, both in the standings and tiebreakers, entering the home stretch.

Sizing Up Opponents
That brings up the question of who the Raptors may prefer to meet in the first round. A necessary caveat is that it doesn’t matter. These teams are all fairly close in overall talent level, the Raptors have had mixed success against each team except Charlotte, and each has pretty clear strengths and weaknesses. They’re also all playing well heading towards the playoffs, with each having split their past 10 games, at worst.

I threw the question out on Twitter, asking who people would prefer the Raptors draw. The consensus seems to be Washington, with many people citing their relative lack of playoff experience as a reason why. A few said Brooklyn or Chicago, and none said Charlotte, probably because for whatever reason this franchise is inexplicably zero for their last four against the Bobcats (and 3-11 over the past four seasons).

I was unable to find anything concrete that a team’s overall experience aids them in a playoff series, though you can obviously make the argument pretty coherently as to why it would help  For posterity’s sake, here is the total playoff experience for each team in total playoff games played, excluding players injured for the season (the third column is for only the team’s top-eight players in terms of minutes, conceivably their playoff rotation):

Team Total Top-8 MPG
Brooklyn 562 414
Chicago 335 257
Washington 287 181
Toronto 156 59
Charlotte 127 69

If experience is the concern, there really is no good match-up, because the Raptors are devoid of it.

The Options / My Preference

Washington – Like the majority on Twitter, I find the Raptors match up best with the Wizards on paper. John Wall is obviously a major factor, and the return of Nene and a sustained hot streak from Bradley Beal could all pose problems, but in three of the four meetings between the teams, keeping Washington’s average offense in check wasn’t an issue. Hollinger’s power rating sees Washington as the second strongest of the four, but at just three-quarters of a point better than Brooklyn or Charlotte.

Charlotte – The least likely option since Charlotte would have to make up appreciable ground in the standings, I could see past the Raptors being snake-bitten against this team and appreciate the opportunity to face a similarly-experienced team. Kemba Walker has the “clutch gene” (and passed it on to Shabazz Napier, apparently) and Al Jefferson has been a second-half MVP candidate, plus Steve Clifford is, by all accounts, a fantastic coach. But Charlotte is weaker than Chicago or Brooklyn, and it would only take on win to shake the “we can’t beat them” track record.

Ben Swanson of Rufus On Fire on this potential match-up: I would feel better about the Bobcats’ chances against the Raptors than any other team in the top four spots in the East, I suppose. The Heat and Pacers are both playing rather mediocre basketball currently, but I still have confidence they can flip the proverbial switch when the playoffs start, and then grind the Bobcats with a mortar and pestle. Plus, the Bobcats swept the Raptors this season. The Bobcats’ defense does well in defending the paint and penetration, which could frustrate Toronto’s offense. The combo of Kemba and Jefferson could turn up big, too.

Brooklyn – Even given how hot they’ve been and their incredible experience, I’d prefer the Nets to Chicago. With additional rest from a spaced-out playoff schedule and a short trek to and from locations, the Nets may just fire on all cylinders for such a series. The teams have basically played to a dead lock in four meetings, though, and the counter to experience is youth and energy. It would be a difficult series, to be sure, but not the most difficult.

Chicago – I want no part of Joakim Noah. I want no part of Tom Thibodeau. And I want no part of a team that has had an us-against-the-world mentality all season long, essentially copying the Raptors in the we-refuse-to-tank department. Their defense is smothering and, while they can’t score, every game is pretty much guaranteed to come down to the wire. While that doesn’t seem like an advantage for them since they lack a go-to scorer at present, and the Raptors’ athleticism can win out, they still seem like the toughest possible opponent to me.

Rich Kraetsch of Hickory High on this potential match-up: Of all the teams in the Eastern Conference outside of Indiana and Miami, Toronto is the one I fear most as a Chicago Bulls fan. Toronto has taken two of four from the Bulls including two of the last three, the last of which was a meager two-point victory for the Bulls. Athleticism is one of the few ways to break Tom Thibodeau’s defense and Toronto oozes it. I still like Chicago’s chances as they have re-energized themselves after some key acquisitions (thanks for DJ by the way) and veteran players like Mike Dunleavy have begun embracing Thib’s system.


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