Now that the National Basketball Association is officially past the All-Star break, the season enters its final stretch. Sure, there are a little less than 30 games left to be played — and that’s a lot of basketball. So much can happen during that span. If the season ended today, there wouldn’t be that many playoff surprises (minus the fact that the Houston Rockets would be on the outside looking in and the Chicago Bulls would squeak into the field).
It seems like the unexpected happens every season come the NBA Playoffs. But that’s what makes playoff basketball so exciting. While the league’s parity isn’t what it used to be (let’s be honest, if you’re a seven- or an eight-seed in the East or West, you’re not winning in the first round), everyone else has a fighting chance to go all the way. Those top seeds likely won’t be knocked out early; they’re the only ones that are presently locked in for the playoffs. So, the race is on for those last couple playoff spots in each conference.
Either way you spin it, between now and April 16 (the start of the playoffs) every game will matter a little bit more than the one before it. But at some point, especially for the teams atop the standings, it will become more about seeding and matchups and less about making the playoffs at all. That won’t be the case for everybody, though. Here are three teams that would currently be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but we don’t think they’ll be there when the playoffs actually start in a few months.
1. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a 27-25 record. Chicago’s just one half-game ahead of the eighth-place Charlotte Hornets and one game ahead of the Detroit Pistons. While the Washington Wizards sit three games behind, they have the firepower to go on a hot streak. In a nutshell, though, neither the Pistons nor the Wizards will be the sole reason the Bulls come up short of the postseason.
Chicago’s undoing will be itself. The Bulls are trending the wrong way right now, and that downward trend doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. Considering that Chicago entered the season as one of a handful of favorites to win the Eastern Conference, this playoff uncertainty is quite disappointing. The Bulls’ problems start with an injury to Jimmy Butler this week.
While he’s just one player, his absence will pose problems for Chicago — problems they can’t afford. The Bulls are 3-7 in their last 10 games and went just 1-5 to start the month of February. Sure, there’s still time to turn things around — they are in the playoff picture as of right now — but barring a drastic change, they might have to watch the playoffs from the couch in a few months.
2. Utah Jazz
Whereas the Eastern Conference has a couple teams knocking at the door, the West does not. And this bodes better for those fringe teams — and fringe teams there are in the Western Conference. Currently, the Portland Trail Blazers are tied with the Jazz for the final two playoff spots, and either one could miss. What is more certain, though, is that the current ninth place team — the Houston Rockets — probably won’t end up there.
Remember, this is the same Houston team that finished in second place last season in a deep West. This is also the same team that boasts a star-studded roster with the likes of James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Ty Lawson. And because of this powerful lineup, the Rockets won’t disappoint and miss the playoffs, which will leave the Jazz in the lurch.
3. Charlotte Hornets
The second Eastern Conference team on this list, Charlotte, seems even more likely to miss the postseason than the Bulls. Not only do the Hornets lack any true star power — though as the 2004 Detroit Pistons showed, that isn’t necessarily indicative of what’s to come — but they’re a young team. This will certainly play a role for the Hornets down the stretch.
Despite Charlotte’s reasonable remaining strength of schedule, for them to avoid a similar fate to that of Bulls, they’ll need to stay healthy. Because they rely so much on guards Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum, this could be a double-edged sword. It hurt them in early January when they lost nine of 10 games, and it will continue to plague them down the stretch.