A look at the East play-in tournament through the eyes of the participants

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There’s a current divide in Toronto Raptors fandom about the purpose of the rest of the 2020-21 season. Well I’m always game for a good existential crisis about purposelessness, I thought the conversation as pertains to the Raptors lacked some context. As in: there’s plenty of other teams fighting to reach the play-in tournament. Is the Raptors’ fanbase the only one engaged in trench warfare about tanking versus making the playoffs? Is it common? Right now the Indiana Pacers (30-33), Washington Wizards (29-35), Raptors (27-38), and Chicago Bulls (26-38) are all within striking distance of the 9th and 10th spots. So, how do those other three teams feel about the race?

To answer that question of purpose, I spoke with three incredible writers covering the other teams against whom the Raptors are struggling. Tony East of  West Side Community News, Forbes Sports, and elsewhere, Albert Lee of Bullets Forever, and Vijay Vemu of Bulls Blogger were kind enough to join me and answer some questions. I’ll toss in my own views on the Raptors in answer to the same questions.

1) Would making the play-in game be a good or bad thing for your team in regards to long-term trajectory? Do you think the presence of the play-in game as a concept helps or hurts your team?

Tony East: Making the play-in specifically would mean little for the Pacers’ long-term path. Finishing 7-10 in your conference in the NBA has long been called basketball purgatory, and the addition of the play-in tournament does little to change that. That said, should the team actually make the playoffs from the tournament, they could (depending on injuries) finally get a chance to evaluate the Turner-Sabonis pairing in a postseason series, which would be appealing. But in general, the play-in concept has minimal impact on the Pacers since it isn’t pushing them in either direction (towards wins or losses) and isn’t going to alter their future.

Albert Lee: I would say that making the play-in is a good thing for the Wizards’ long-term trajectory only if this experience also means that it helps them become a perennial playoff team in the longer term. While Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans are the biggest veteran names, the younger players like Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija (who is out for the rest of this season) and Daniel Gafford will have to become key starters and core pieces over the next two-three seasons as well. Washington doesn’t have the cap space to sign a max level free agent next season.

Vijay VemuI think it would be a good thing [for the Bulls to make the play-in]. They were aggressive at the trade deadline and acquired Nikola Vucevic in order to chase a playoff berth. Not to mention that there is a good chance that they don’t even have their own pick in this year’s upcoming draft. I think if they were somehow able to sneak into the play-in game, it would be great for the franchise. I think the play-in game as a concept might have hurt Chicago this season overall as it gave them hope that they had the roster of a playoff team (one of the eight best in the East) when that clearly wasn’t the case. I do think this season still had its share of positives as they did get better with Zach LaVine taking the leap and acquiring Vucevic.

Louis Zatzman: Making the play-in tournament would probably be a negative for the Raptors. They would drop in the draft, and their players have plenty of playoff experience already; it’s not like a few playoff games one way or the other would change Toronto’s developmental picture. It would be nice for Malachi Flynn, but he has time to learn. Ultimately, I don’t think the play-in tournament matters to Toronto. They’re probably not going to make it despite their theatrical win over the Lakers, and they are even further away from moving up in the lottery standings. They kind of are where they are at this point, and that wouldn’t change with or without the presence of a play-in tournament to involve the 9th and 10th seeds in the playoffs.

2) If your team reaches the playoffs, does it have a chance against either the Nets or the Sixers?

Tony East: No, they don’t. It’s possible they get gentlemen’s swept, but they cannot take down either of those teams in a 7-game series.

Albert Lee: The Wizards went 2-1 against the Nets this season so I think they will have a better shot against them than the Sixers, who swept them.

Vijay Vemu: As much as I would love to believe in a first round upset or even a scenario where they take either the Nets or Sixers to seven games, I do not think Chicago has a chance. LaVine and Vucevic will certainly keep them in games with their scoring but as a team, the Bulls really struggle on defense. With the amount of offensive weapons that Brooklyn has, they can create mismatches with Chicago all over the court and will be really tough to stop. Joel Embiid cooked the Bulls the last time they met and that was without Ben Simmons playing. Philadelphia will also overpower Chicago if they meet in a playoff series.

Louis Zatzman: Some years there are untested number one seeds ready to be challenged. Not this year (in the East). Raps don’t stand a chance either way.

3) What would the ideal (but still realistic) situation be for the remainder of the season for your team?

Tony East: Injuries are currently forcing the Pacers into their ideal situation — they need to put the focus on giving minutes to their younger/more inexperienced players. It would allow those players to grow, and it will allow the Pacers to see how those guys fit with some of the key long-term pieces the team has (Brogdon, LeVert, and one of the big men). With so many guys out, the Pacers have youngsters such as Oshae Brissett, Aaron Holiday, Edmond Sumner, and Domantas Sabonis playing often, and second-round pick Cassius Stanley has played in all of the teams last four games. Indiana is still getting enough wins to stay in 9th, but the various injuries the team has is allowing them to toe the line between developing youngsters and success.

Albert Lee: The ideal scenario for Washington is to make the Round of 16 in the playoffs starting as the 9th seed so they get a home game in the play-in. Once they make the Round of 16, they would face the Nets as the lowest seed remaining since I would rather see Brooklyn win the top seed. I don’t see them finishing 7th or 8th given that they don’t have many games left and have a losing record vs. the Hornets who are still 2.5 games ahead, and they already lost the tiebreaker as well.

Vijay Vemu: At this point, unless they are able to muster up a late season winning streak against some tough competition, it might be time to tank it out. The Bulls first round pick for this upcoming draft is top three protected otherwise it heads to the Orlando Magic. So given where they are in the race for the 10th seed, it might be time for Chicago to start thinking about lottery odds instead.

Louis Zatzman: The most important part of the remainder of the season for Toronto is the emergence of OG Anunoby. His self-creation game has been thriving, putting him on more of a star trajectory. The Raptors can’t really move up or down the lottery standings at this point, barring a collapse from one of their play-in competitors, so the key development is what’s already on the roster. May Anunoby live long and prosper.

4) If you could choose the results for the season, how would each of the Pacers, Wizards, Bulls, and Raptors finish in the standings? Why?

Tony East: Ideally, I would like to see the Pacers finish 8th. They are currently only one game back of the Hornets, so that is an obtainable finish. 8th is a unique spot to be — it is still in the play-in tournament but can end with the Pacers finishing in the 2-7 series, the 1-8 series, or the lottery, which creates a ton of interesting discussion about the preferred route while also giving the team the most likely chance to both be in the lottery and evaluate some guys in a postseason setting.

I don’t really have a preference for the rest of the teams. Seeing Russ and Beal in the playoffs would be fun, as would LaVine and Vucevic, so I would be pleased to see either of those teams reach the 9 or 10 seed. The Raptors, who have had some incredible playoff runs in recent seasons, have been a joy to watch in the postseason, but I think most of the players on the roster are just looking forward to this Tampa-filled season being over (VanVleet’s comments come to mind). So for their sake, I hope they miss the play-in tourney. [Editor’s note: you got a good read on this, I believe, from the Raptors’ perspective.]
Since I was a Wizards fan as a child, I’ll go with Pacers 8, Hornets 9, Wizards 10, Bulls 11, Raptors 12. The question didn’t include the Hornets though, so let’s go with Pacers-Wizards-Bulls-Raptors.

Albert Lee: There are a lot of head-to-head matches between the teams so I have to make sure I get it right. So I’ll pick this one at a time. I’ll start with the Wizards since I’m most familiar with them.

The Wizards have eight remaining games and I think they will go 3-5 (which includes a game against the Raptors and two against the Pacers. I will say they will lose to the Raptors and go 1-1 in their games against the Pacers. While Washington has done very well at the end of the season with Westbrook playing at a very high level and Daniel Gafford being a defensive spark off the bench, I think teams are going to take them more seriously than they did back in January. Also, while their remaining schedule isn’t difficult on the surface, they are playing many games against teams that are in the play-in rounds (Charlotte/Indy).

The Pacers will go 5-4 (They go 1-1 against the Wizards, will beat the Raptors). Indy has been the most consistent team of the four you mentioned and I’m confident they’ll have the best record of the four.

The Bulls will go 3-5 in their remaining eight games where they will defeat the Raptors in their head-to-head matchup. They have gone 2-0 vs. them previously, and one of the wins happened after the Nikola Vucevic trade.

With the Raptors, I will say that they go 2-6. I have them defeating the Wizards but losing to the Bulls and Pacers in the head-to-heads I’ve described previously. So they are 1-2 in their remaining matchups. I don’t see Toronto losing all five of their remaining matches outside of these head-to-heads though they haven’t done as well this season as past years, which is why I see them getting a win. I think the Los Angeles Lakers is a team that’s quite vulnerable for an upset, this time by the Raptors! [Editor’s note: this was submitted before the Raptors played the Lakers, so give this man his Nostradamus props.]

Vijay Vemu: I would certainly put the Bulls in one of the two play-in spots for sure. I would have them 9th with Indiana 10th. I think certainly Washington with the way they have played the last month deserves to be in the play-in spots but Indiana is still the best out of the three remaining teams. 

So if I had to choose the results for the season, I would place it in this order: Bulls, Pacers, Wizards, Raptors. The reason is because making the play-in would be a great outcome for Chicago’s season and something which was a goal of theirs after the moves they made during the trade deadline. However, the chances of the Bulls getting the 10th seed are getting less and less likely as the season winds down.

Louis Zatzman: Bulls (I believe in this team, even if they don’t believe in themselves. Also: Thad Young Forever), Pacers (Nate Bjorkgren!), Wizards (boo), then Raptors. This won’t happen, because the Bulls can’t win games, but it’s what I want.

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