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Who Makes the Eastern Conference Playoffs?

Joel Brigham takes an in-depth look at the teams battling for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

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In the Eastern Conference right now, as many as 11 teams have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs and it’s really been like that all year long. A quarter of the way through the season, it seemed like there was the Cleveland Cavaliers at the top of the totem pole and then 10 other teams all three or four games apart from each other right behind them. In the months since, not a lot has changed.

The Orlando Magic, the 11th-ranked team in the East thus far, are only four games back from a playoff spot but seven and a half games back from the third seed overall. It feels like a million different things could happen not only in terms of who makes the playoffs, but also when it comes to determining the postseason matchups. Finding out who will make it in and where teams will be seeded could come down to the very last game of the season.

The big question, though, is of those 11 teams, which will actually make it in? The Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors are in a tier all their own, meaning there’s a better statistical chance Donald Trump chooses Jeb Bush as a running mate than there is of either one of those two teams missing the playoffs.

According to odds calculated by both Basketball-Reference and ESPN, there are a few other teams that look fairly certain to at least be in the playoffs come April. That’s because the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT all have over 90 percent probability of making the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks have no lower than an 88 percent chance of making the postseason, according to both projections.

Those four teams pass the eye test, for what it’s worth, so if they all were to make the postseason it really wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. These are the best the Eastern Conference has to offer. They’ll be there.

But who will join them? Seeing all six of those teams make it in leaves the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Magic all vying for the last two spots in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

According to both projection websites, each of which simulates the season’s remaining games 7,500+ times on a daily basis, Charlotte (80.8 percent, 84.7 percent) and Chicago (71.5 percent, 67 percent) are the most likely teams to get in. Washington (12.8 percent, 12.1 percent) has a low playoff probability, while Detroit (47 percent, 51.6 percent) has the easiest remaining schedule and look like the biggest threat to knock Chicago or Charlotte out of the postseason picture.

Of course, both Chicago and Detroit are reeling, losing a combined 16-of-25 games over the last few weeks. However, Detroit’s trade for Tobias Harris and the eventual return of Jimmy Butler for Chicago both could have big effects on what ultimately happens.

Washington can’t be counted out either, despite the low odds, just based on talent alone. They have battled injuries and they are a pretty loaded team (especially with Markieff Morris now on the team) that seems better than their record indicates. Not to mention, they’re only three games outside of the playoff picture with 28 games left to play. Considering how poorly Chicago and Detroit have been playing, those 12 percent playoff odds might look pretty low.

Orlando (8.5 percent, 5.2 percent) looks like the only one of the semi-realistic playoff teams to be too far back to make a significant run at a spot in the postseason, but crazier things certainly have happened.

The Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers are headed for the lottery, obviously.

Of course, all this talk about which team makes the playoffs might not mean all that much considering the highest odds any Eastern Conference team has of winning the NBA Finals is 8.4 percent (Cleveland). No other East team has title odds above two percent. On the other end of the spectrum are Golden State (38.1 percent) and San Antonio (37.8 percent), who are the overwhelming favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy and are obviously both in the Western Conference.

Still, even a sliver of a chance is better than none at all, and that sliver only exists for the teams that get in. With just a couple months of the season left to go, there’s still plenty of time to determine which eight Eastern Conference teams will qualify for the postseason.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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