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2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Despite missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers came within two wins of winning the 2015 NBA championship. That, certainly, is a testament to the greatness of LeBron James—the man who has appeared in five consecutive NBA Finals. Despite making it to the Finals six times, James has walked away with the Larry O’Brien trophy just twice. As the Cavaliers enter the 2015-16 season as the hands-down favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the world will watch to see if James can deliver the elusive championship to the fans of Cleveland.

Basketball Insiders previews the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers will go down in history as a “what-if” unit. What if Kyrie Irving wasn’t hurt during Game 1 of the NBA Finals? What if Kevin Love wasn’t knocked out of the playoffs in the first round? What if LeBron James had one more teammate able to help him out offensively in the NBA Finals versus the high-powered Golden State Warriors? The good news for Cleveland is that the crew is back for another run and head into the training as the runaway favorites to emerge out of the Eastern Conference.

1st Place – Central Division

-Lang Greene

The Cavaliers are poised to return to the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season. Coming off an NBA Finals run, the LeBron James-led Cavs now have a season of playing together under their belts. The same goes for David Blatt, who completed his first campaign as an NBA head coach. The Cavs will be getting three key members back from injuries at points during the season: Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving. Even if they miss some time, the Cavs have enough talent to get by during the regular season while they recover. It is important for the team to have them healthy in the playoffs, not in the early months. Tristan Thompson’s contract situation will be a major storyline for the Cavaliers until it is resolved. The key will be for the players to not be distracted by it. The roster is constructed with veterans who have been to the top before and know what it takes to get back. Expect the Cavs to jump out atop the conference early in the season and hold on to that number one seed.

1st Place – Central Division

-Jessica Camerato

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere and haven’t realized: I can be long-winded. Fortunately, even for me, there are some things that can be stated succinctly. The Cavaliers are the cream of the crop in the East. Rather than calling LeBron James “the best player on the planet,” we should refer to him as an “all-time great,” because he is. And if you have that guy, along with this supporting cast, the only drama that awaits is whether the rest of his troops can defy attrition the way he has.

1st Place — Central Division

-Moke Hamilton

As the Tristan Thompson contract stalemate looms, the Cavaliers still enter the season as the favorites to win the East, mostly because they did so this past summer without the services of Kevin Love who, coincidentally, plays the same position as Thompson. Regardless of how that works out, LeBron James is still healthy and dominant, and has two star teammates in Love and Kyrie Irving. Those three, with a year of experience together, make this team a dangerous one. The bench is still thin and kind of geriatric, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the Cavs can pace themselves through the regular season, they’ll be nasty in the postseason.

1st Place – Central Division

-Joel Brigham

The Cavaliers were obviously one of the top teams in the NBA last year and I expect them to be even better this season. In year two, their star-studded core will have a season of experience together, which should help them a lot from a chemistry standpoint. That first year is always tough for super-teams since they’re getting acclimated, but they typically click in the second season. David Blatt will also have a year of NBA coaching experience under his belt, and his players should be more comfortable with him and his system. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love form one of the best trios in the NBA, and the Cavs did a great job re-signing Love this summer since there was no guarantee he’d be back. I also liked the addition of Mo Williams, who gives Cleveland a very good veteran point guard who can provide scoring off the bench or step in for Irving when he’s injured (as he will be to start the season). The Williams addition also means the Cavs will rely less on Matthew Dellavedova, which is good since he’s a scrappy player but not someone you want playing a huge role. I like this Cavaliers team a lot and I think a second straight trip to the NBA Finals is inevitable, barring major injuries.

1st Place – Central Division

-Alex Kennedy

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: LeBron James

LeBron James is not only the best offensive player on the Cavaliers, he is the single driving force behind everything that the team does and hopes to accomplish. It seems like such a long time ago that James was renowned as being a poor shooter. Although most teams still play off of him and go behind screens in hopes that he will settle for a jump shot, that is more the result of a play on the percentages than it is a belief that he cannot score efficiently from the outside. Last season, James shot a respectable 35 percent three-point range, and also converted about 38 percent of his midrange shots. Those percentages are a bit lower than in his Miami HEAT days, but they are still above average. Even as he approaches the ripe age of 31 years old, there is no more explosive force in the league than James. He may not be perfect, but with his still-improving post game and his ability to finish in the paint, he is one of the most dominant forces in the league and certainly the top offensive player on his team.

Top Defensive Player: Anderson Varejao

Yes, one could certainly argue that LeBron James is the top defensive player on the Cavaliers, but aside from him, it is Anderson Varejao who is the vital defensive cog. While both Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are plus-defenders, Varejao is far more nimble and adept at playing out on the perimeter than either. With his speed and agility, a fully healthy Varejao provides substantial resistance to opposing offenses, as there is almost no advantage in putting him in pick-and-roll situations. He is one of the strongest rebounders in the game, as evidenced by the 12.6 rebounds per-36 minutes that he hauled in over the course of the last four seasons. What is most appropriate to wonder about Varejao is whether he will actually be able to continue to be as impactful as he has been to this point. He managed to play just 26 games last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in December, and overall, has missed 238 of a possible 410 games over the past five years. Staying healthy has been his biggest issue.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

That LeBron James has seemingly done so much with so little is a testament to his ability to make plays not only for himself but also for his teammates. Long before he brought the 2014-15 Cavaliers to within two games of winning the title, James helped to lead the HEAT to victories, despite enduring long stretches that saw him play without Chris Bosh and/or Dwyane Wade. And long, long before that, he led an underwhelming cast of running mates in Cleveland to a franchise-record 66 wins back in 2009. The following year, the Cavs won 61 games in a season in which James averaged a career-best 8.6 assists per game. With all that he is required to do on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, James has an impressive 6.9 assist-per-game average over the course of his career, and although Kyrie Irving is officially listed as the point guard in Cleveland, at this point, he can only dream of being the playmaker that James currently is.

Top Clutch Player: LeBron James

When one thinks of clutch LeBron James moments, his buzzer-beater that defeated the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series last spring may come to mind, but one could certainly argue that James was at his finest during the waning moments of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Although Ray Allen will always be remembered for hitting one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history, it is James who single-handedly kept the HEAT around long enough for Allen to even have the opportunity to make that difference. Any player who comes up huge in the Finals has our respect, as the stakes will never be higher. Once upon a time, James was thought to lack the courage and fearlessness required of a top clutch performer. Today, the same argument cannot be made, and without reciting his long list of game-winning and game-clinching shots, anyone would be hard-pressed to argue against this assertion.

The Unheralded Player: Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson is just one of many young Canadians making an impact in the NBA today. He has dominated the post-July headlines across the NBA, as it was recently reported that Thompson and the Cavs are at an impasse as it relates to his next contract. Thompson is reportedly looking for a five-year maximum offer from the Cavs that would pay him $94 million total, while the Cavs have refused to offer more than $80 million. While it is arguable that Thompson is not worth that type of investment, the fact of the matter is that he is an incredibly gifted athlete. Thompson’s unique blend of athleticism, power and agility enables him to stay in front of smaller offensive players, yet still battle bigger players at the rim. The staff in Cleveland loves his motor and work ethic and at just 24 years old, Thompson’s ceiling is nowhere in sight. What will get him to the next level is becoming a more versatile offensive player. He is not a threat from the perimeter and still seems to lack the overall poise, patience and balance of a dominant low-post threat. Still, limited as he may be, Thompson has proven that he can be a meaningful player on a winning team and he has shown that he can fit in with LeBron James and the other shot-happy Cavaliers. He fits in quite nicely, but may be overlooked since he doesn’t make the highlight plays in Cleveland – opting instead to do the important dirty work.

Best New Addition: Mo Williams

Because this past summer was marked by the Cavaliers deciding to re-sign their own players, Mo Williams almost wins this label by default. However, over the course of last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets, Williams was very effective. With the Wolves, he scored a career-high 52 points. Then, after being dealt to the Hornets, he remained productive. Although he was not able to help the Hornets qualify for the playoffs, Williams gave them 17.2 points per game and looked pretty good during various spurts. Now, he returns to Cleveland having unfinished with LeBron James. At this point, Williams’ ball handling is still respectable, but it is his off-the-dribble shooting ability that will continue to help him find minutes at the NBA level. Last season, he converted 34 percent of his three-point shots, and this season, with open looks created by playing off of both James and Kyrie Irving, that number may increase. Williams also provides the Cavs with another ball handler who can score when given the opportunity, certainly solidifying the point guard rotation that proved incredibly weak when Irving went down over the course of the 2014-15 season.

-Moke Hamilton

Who We Like

Kyrie Irving: Despite a lack of post-high-school basketball experience, Kyrie Irving entered the NBA with high expectations that we have seen crush some of his predecessors. Despite the pressure, he has hit the ground running and, like Damian Lillard, has already become one of the top point guards in the game. Best of all, he is just 23 years old and is already a three-time All-Star, averaging 21 points per game over the course of his young career. The 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals that Irving racked up in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals before his postseason ended showed the type of all-around, dominant performance he is capable of having on a daily basis. This season, we will be watching intently to see if he can continue to thrive and progress, despite somewhat being in LeBron James’ shadow.

Iman Shumpert: Iman Shumpert fell out of favor with New York Knicks fans and management after his attitude and demeanor deteriorated. As a rookie, Shumpert opened eyes across the league as he quickly earned a reputation for being a top-flight defender and explosive athlete. It certainly seems as though the trade to the Cavs rejuvenated Shumpert and helped him refocus on being a pesky on-ball defender. It seems that is the skill and talent that will help him remain in the league for many years to come. He needs to continue to work on his shooting, though, as his field goal percentage dipped to just 36 percent during the course of last year’s playoffs. Still, Shumpert filled a major void for the Cavs last season, and with championship expectations and a brief taste of success, we believe that Shumpert can re-tap some of the potential that had him among the NBA’s most talked about rookies back in 2011.

Kevin Love: After trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, it would have been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Love to have taken his talents elsewhere this past summer. Fortunately, for the Cavaliers, that didn’t happen. Although Love seemed to have issues fitting in with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving last season, his re-signing in Cleveland is an obvious indicator that the trio is intent on making their partnership work. In theory, Love’s skills in the low-post and proficiency from behind the arc should fit seamlessly with the diverse skill set that James possesses and many continue to believe that it is merely a matter of time before the two figure out how to work together more proficiently. Now that James knows that Love is all in, expect whatever tension that existed between the two before to dissipate and for them to be fully focused on winning.

-Moke Hamilton

Strengths

Sharing the ball is a strength for the Cavs. Despite having three of the most offensively gifted players in the NBA, the Cavaliers were 10th in the league in assists per game last season with 22.1 a night. With increased chemistry and familiarity, that could easily rise this year. Another advantage for Cleveland is their experience. Their roster features many players with postseason and championship experience. Also, losing to Golden State in last year’s Finals may ultimately be good for some of the younger players on the roster – as a learning experience and team-building opportunity. Sometimes, suffering heartbreak in the Finals can draw a team closer and allow them to dig deeper in trying moments. The experience of coming up short against the Warriors is one that the Cavaliers are, no doubt, thinking about quite often. But with proven leadership and a talented core, the experience of reaching the 2015 NBA Finals should be a positive for this team as they attempt to join the 2014 Spurs, 2012 HEAT and 2009 Lakers as teams that won the championship after losing the Finals the previous year.

-Moke Hamilton

Weaknesses

It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating: health is going to be the major concern for the Cavs during the 2015-16 season. As we saw their hopes for a championship thwarted, we were collectively served a stark reminder that having all the talent in the world at your disposal won’t help you win if it isn’t on the court. All eyes will be on Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao to stay healthy this season given their injury histories.

The team’s big men rotation and rebounding are also weaknesses. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked a mediocre 18th in the league in rebounds, with just 43 boards per game. Because of the team’s lack of reliable big men last season, coach David Blatt opted to play smaller lineups and often depended on players who were undersized to help out with rebounding the basketball. If Varejao can remain healthy this season, he will go a long way toward helping to cure these ailments, but as it stands, the Cavaliers did not address the apparent need for another dependable big man. In the end, that could end up haunting them.

-Moke Hamilton

The Burning Question

Can the Cavaliers win the 2016 NBA Finals?

In a word, the answer here would be “YES!” Had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love each been 100 percent healthy for the entire postseason last year, the Cavs may very well be entering the 2015-16 season as the defending NBA champions. With those two stars returning and Anderson Varejao (hopefully) becoming a difference maker on the floor once again and the addition of Mo Williams, the Cavs should be able to fix some of the weaknesses that were exposed last season. When you have one of the best players in history on your roster and one of the best young point guards in the NBA  playing as his second option, you do not need very much to be a good team. That the Cavs have an awesome supporting cast to play off of their three superstars makes them the clear-cut favorite in the Eastern Conference and should give them a legitimate opportunity to defeat any team that survives the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. If the Cavs earn home-court advantage in the Finals and if they can remain relatively healthy as a unit, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them win it all. Those are big ifs, but this team appears to be on the cusp of greatness.

-Moke Hamilton

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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