Breaking Down the Raptors Playoff Chances

I feel dirty. This article is going to talk about whether the Toronto Raptors can actually make the NBA playoffs this season or not. It seems silly, sitting six games out with multiple teams to jump and just 29 games left, but it’s actually not that improbable, so I guess I owe it to the Republic to have a look.

Now, I’m personally of the mind that a near-miss is probably best for the team. Making the playoffs would result in a quick dispatching by the Miami Heat (unless somehow the seventh seed were to be snagged). Since the team doesn’t own its lottery pick (top-three protected), there’s no incentive to miss the playoffs by a wide margin for a better pick. And since this is a relatively weak draft, it’s a good year to give up that owed pick.

A near-miss also allows this young team to play in a lot of meaningful basketball games and get the experience that comes with a playoff push. If they come up short in the end, they can always point to the 4-19 start and call it a moral victory that they were even able to come close.

This article wouldn’t have even been necessary if it weren’t for the Raptors ripping off an unlikely four-game winning streak before the All Star break, so it warrants mentioning that the team is playing pretty well right now. With a somewhat favourable schedule coming out of the break, is it possible for them to snag the eighth seed?

raps playoff odds

This is re-produced from ESPN’s playoff odds, which run simulations to determine the likelihood of various outcomes. The odds peg the Raptors to finish in the ninth spot, five games out of the playoffs. However, the simulator doesn’t know things like Rudy Gay being acquired or the Celtics losing three rotation players for the year. The fact that the odds are as high as 19 percent even without this knowledge built into the system is definitely a positive.

It’s interesting that the simulator sees such a wide range of outcomes for the Raptors from here on out, with 14-15 being the most likely but 2-27 and 25-4 both being possible in at least one simulation. If that seems crazy to you, it should, because these are the extreme outliers that occurred in at least one simulation out of the 5,000 trials run.

The simulator knows some things, but perhaps we can get a better feel for the Raptors’ chances if we break things down further. First, let’s just look at how many winnable games the Raptors have. To do this, I took the Hollinger Power Rating for each opponent, adjusted it for where each game will be played, and from there determined the “likelihood of a win.” Basically, I used the rating to determine what the line would be (this is how I get “Hollinger Pick” for my pre-games as well). Any game within three points is 50/50, any game where the Raptors are favoured by more than three is “winnable” and any game where they’re greater than three-point underdogs was “tough.”

raps playoff skedbread
So that doesn’t look good or bad, really, it just puts the onus on the team to get hot. But what about the other teams in the mix?So we can see that the Raptors have a few cupcakes, a few tough ones, and a lot of 50/50 propositions. This makes sense, as it’s completely what you’d expect if records were normally distributed throughout the league and the Raptors were a mid-level team.

raps playoff 5tm
This is where things turn far more positive for the Raptors. If we look at strength of schedule (based on opponent winning percentage, NOT the Hollinger ranking this time) and home-versus-road splits, the Raptors appear to have the easiest task the rest of the way.

Boston, along with being banged up pretty badly, spends most of their time on the road. The same goes for the Pistons and the Sixers, the latter of which face a tough schedule the rest of the way. Finally, the Bucks have an even home-road split but face a significantly harder schedule than the Raptors.

Another fortunate note is that the Raptors play the Bucks, Celtics and Pistons twice each, giving them six games that essentially count double in the playoff push. Only two of those games are at home, though, so the Raptors will be in tough to go 4-2 in that stretch and make some gains. Circle those ones on your calendar.

The entire Raptors remaining schedule is below, along with the opponent’s winning percentage. You can judge for yourself how you think this will go. There are some nice cherry games in there, including four against the Wizards (but a warning: they have gotten much better of late and are pretty solid defensively, they just may be in tank mode now) and two against the Bobcats. The real tests, other than coming out of the break hot, will be the four-game trip at the start of March and the three-game trip at the start of April. The Raptors don’t have any sustained home stand except for right out of the break, so there’s no longer a spot to gain a tonne of momentum at home.

raps playoff sked
So, how do the Raptors have to finish? Arse, Wally and Casciaro think 19-10, Koreen thinks 17-12 is the minimum necessary to possibly get them there, and the Playoff Odds suggest 19-10, depending on who certain wins come against. Let’s have a look at what would need to happen at different performance levels. This table shows different Raptor records and the highest record for each team in the hunt that would still allow the Raptors to finish ahead of them (not tie, as the tiebreakers are still too wide open). Note that this doesn’t mean each team has to have that record for the Raptors to make the playoffs, but at least three of the four would.

raps playoff scenarios

A chunk of this analysis depends on how you feel about the Sixers and Pistons. Personally, I don’t think either has a better chance than the Raptors to make the playoffs. Toronto is playing better and is healthier, with an easier road the rest of the way.

However, one of Milwaukee or Boston needs to fall off in a pretty serious way. Even if the Raptors went on a 21-10 tear, one of those two teams would still have to play sub-.500 ball the rest of the way for the Raptors to catch them.

It’s certainly possible that Boston will, given that they are now missing Rondo, Sullinger and Barbosa and allegedly shopping Kevin Garnett to rebuild on the fly. You can definitely make the case that this aging, banged-up crew won’t handle living on the road well. But is them going 10-20 at all realistic given how well they’ve played of late? It seems unlikely, unless a trade comes before Thursday (perhaps I should have saved this article for then?).

What about the Bucks? The narrative could fit just as well here, with the Bucks becoming sellers at the deadline to try and add more pieces for next year when they won’t just be first-round fodder. With LARRY SANDERS! out for a while and the team really struggling this month, you certainly wouldn’t blame John Hammond for trying to unload a few pieces. If I were him, I’d be shopping Samuel Dalembert and Mike Dunleavy as expiring contracts and veteran help, hoping to either pick up a draft pick or find a team willing to also add on Drew Gooden’s contract (two more years at $6.7M per) to pry loose one of those players. Would a deal like that drop them to 13-18 the rest of the way, especially considering their true talent level is probably well below that of a 26-25 team? It’s possible.

So let’s highlight 19-10 as the target. That means the Raptors have to win their seven winnable games and 12 of the 15 50/50 games (or a couple tough ones), while either the Bucks go 13-18 and/or the Celtics go 11-19. That’s a lot of things that have to break right, and I wouldn’t put the odds any higher than, say, one-in-three, perhaps two-in-three if they manage to go 19-10, which isn’t at all a certainty.

The deadline on Thursday will tell us more – did the Celtics buy or sell, did the Bucks make a move, did Brian Colangelo unload Andrea Bargnani and for what? In the meantime, all I can really leave you with is this:

Correction: I originally said Eric Koreen thought 17-12 would get them in, but I had misread his tweet. He simply said that’s the absolute minimum for it to even be possible. Sorry, EK.

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