It’s cliché to say that “every game matters” when it comes to sports, but it’s the truth. Every game does matter when win tallies are totaled and playoff teams are determined. It’s the reason why the arguments against the NBA of “games don’t matter until after Christmas” or “who cares about a Heat-Magic game in mid-December” ring so false. If anything, the start of the season might be more important to figuring out who the real forces in the NBA are that year than down the stretch after the All Star Break.
For an arbitrary early season cut-off, let’s choose New Years. Before games started on January 1, 2018, 16 teams would have made the postseason (no ties). Of those 16, 14 of them would make the actual playoffs in April. Those 16 teams had played anywhere from 34 to 40 games: not one had even completed half a season. Yet the teams making the playoffs had largely been determined already.
The true early NBA season is a mess. Five and 10 game sample sizes are virtually useless in predictive power, as can be seen every year when certain bad teams start hot and then fall back to earth rapidly. Thirty-five games, on the other hand, carry a large amount of weight, first half of the season or no. Teams have had times to scout each other, figure out rookies, create game plans for breakout players, and so forth.
If anything, it’s more interesting to look at the teams that did move up or down last season, and examine the extenuating circumstances that led to their rise or fall. The two teams that climbed up, the Sixers and Jazz, were interestingly powered by two extraordinary seasons. Ben Simmons’ incredible production, Joel Embiid’s health, and the addition of veterans at the buyout deadline got the Sixers on an incredible roll towards the end of the season. The Jazz’s improvement was similarly straightforward: they gave the ball to Donovan Mitchell more, made a trade for a nice wing in Jae Crowded, and most importantly, got Rudy Gobert healthy.
Meanwhile, the two teams that fell out of the playoffs after New Years also had straightforward reasons for their decline. The Detroit Pistons lost their starting point guard, Reggie Jackson, for much of the season. Then, before the deadline, they made a blockbuster trade for Blake Griffin, who played well for them, but also dealt with injuries, and had the usual struggle of trying to fit onto a new team. The Nuggets’ issue was even simpler: they lost Paul Millsap, their second-best player and best defender, for most of the season, and couldn’t keep up with the rest of the West without him.
Looking at the standings right now can provide some clues as to how the rest of the season might play out. The East has already separated, with five clear playoff teams on top, and a scrum between six more teams for the last spot. Of those six, one (Washington) is already trailing and has significant injuries. The Magic, too, are slowly collapsing after another hot start. I think it’s probable that at least seven of the top eight teams in the East now are in the playoffs at season’s end.
The West, which has 14 teams trying to make the playoffs, is a bit harder to decipher, but it too is starting to reveal itself. Minnesota and New Orleans have started to drop in the standings, and neither particularly look like they have answers on the way. The Grizzlies, too, are falling, and two of their veterans got in a fight today after their loss to the Pistons. Dallas, despite all the Luka magic, is struggling with lack of high-end talent outside the rookie star, and have been rumored in a bunch of trades, which could throw them in one direction or another. The top of the conference – Warriors, Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets – would appear to be secure. All four teams have dealt with real injuries already, and if anything are likely to get healthier and stronger as the season goes along. That leaves six teams that I think will battle it out for four spots (and Lakers as top favorites due to LeBron). If last year is any indication, look to the four teams that currently sit higher in the standings to see the likelier postseason entrants.