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NBA Play-In Tournament: the scenarios facing the Wizards, explained, Part I

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The Wizards are now ninth in the Eastern Conference and the play-in tournament seems inevitable! Here’s how they can finish 9th, 10th ... or even 11th.

In a previous piece I dived into the Draft and Draft Lottery consequences of the NBA Play-In Tournament. In the next two pieces, I’d like to review the possible seeding scenarios as we are literally one week away from the end of the NBA regular season.

Let’s dive right into it and analyze the five different scenarios for the Wiz: finishing either in 11th, 10th, 9th, 8th, or 7th in the East. In this piece, I’ll dig into how the Wizards stay at the No. 9 seed, or move down to 10th .... or even out of the playoff picture. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how the Wizards could move up to the 8th or even 7th seed.

Far-fetched: the Wizards drop to 11th

Theoretically, this is still possible since Washington hasn’t clinched a Top-10 seed yet. However, this would require one of the following:

  • The Wizards lose their remaining four games which includes a home game against the tanking Cavaliers that are desperate to claim a bottom four standing. The Cavaliers are currently tied for the fourth-worst record with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Orlando Magic, so every loss for them is critical. Simultaneously, the Bulls win four of their remaining five games. Then both teams end the season with 32 wins, but thanks to those back-to-back wins of Satoranksy and Porter, Jr. against the Wizards back in December the Bulls own the tie-break with the Wizards. Now, this is doable but tough for the Bulls as those games include a home & away matchup with the Brooklyn Nets and a game against the Bucks. True, these two teams might be resting as they have basically secured the second or third spots in the East. But then again, they might not be resting as they battle each other for the second place in the East and a chance to face a team in 7th that just came out from the Play-In Tournament (as opposed to a rested 6th seed). In this scenario, the Pacers would also need to win two of their remaining five games, but that seems quite likely as they have games against the Cavaliers and the Raptors. When it’s all said and done, the Pacers will host the Bulls for the 9/10 game if the Pacers win at least three games, while the Bulls would secure the 9th spot if the Pacers win exactly two games.
  • The Wizards lose three of their remaining four games, and the Bulls win all of their remaining five games, while the Pacers win at least three of their remaining games and the Hornets win at least one of their remaining games. In this scenario, the Pacers will host the Bulls for the 9/10 game.

Most likely: the Wizards stay in ninth place

The Wizards just beat the Pacers at Indianapolis yesterday, in a signature Russell Westbrook grit win (with a bit of help from the refs at the end of OT). This means that Washington has climbed to 9th ahead of Indiana at 10th. Even before this win, the Wizards already owned the tie-break between the two teams. The previous two wins came at home, this third win was the most impressive of the three and it was an away win with both teams desperate to get to host the play-in game between them. But wait.

In a rather far-fetched scenario, the Pacers could crumble for the next five games of the schedule, and let the Chicago Bulls pass them for the 10th spot. In fact, this is not completely far-fetched as Chicago Bulls own the tiebreak against Indiana Pacers.

Thus, if the Bulls can string together three more wins than the Pacers in the last five games of the schedule they will advance to 10th (or 9th — see next paragraphs) and face the Wizards.

There is however one additional, crazy, scenario which can occur where a 4-team tie appears. Suppose the Wizards lose (exactly) three of their remaining four games, the Bulls win all of their remaining five games, the Pacers win (exactly) two of their remaining games, while the Hornets lose all of their remaining five games. This creates a 4-way tie (!) for the 8/9/10/11 spots with the Wizards, Bulls, Pacers, and Hornets all having an identical 33-39 regular season record. We then have to go through the NBA’s notoriously antiquated tiebreaker procedure which becomes quite interesting here:

  1. First tiebreak criteria: Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division. In this case, however, this criteria is moot as the Wizards and the Hornets have already conceded the Southeast Division to the Hawks long ago, while Indiana and Chicago conceded the Central Division to Milwaukee weeks ago as well.
  2. Second tiebreak criteria: better winning percentage in all games among the tied teams. This is interesting. The Wizards are 3-0 against the Pacers, 1-2 against the Bulls, and 1-2 against the Hornets (as we are assuming the Hornets lost all of their remaining games, which includes the game on May 16 against the Wizards!). The Pacers are 1-2 against the Hornets and 1-2 against the Bulls. The Hornets are 0-3 against the Bulls. Collectively, then the Bulls are 7-2 and win this tiebreak and the 8th spot, while the Pacers are 2-7 and definitely lose this tiebreak and obtain the 11th spot. The Wizards are 5-4 in this internal group, while the Hornets are 4-5! Thus, the May 16 winner of the Hornets—Wizards game obtains the 9th spot, and the loser lands the 10th spot: the Wizards finish 9th and the Hornets 10th.

Pessimistic: the Wizards drop to 10th

Since Washington hasn’t clinched a Top-10 seed and were 10th yesterday, they could still end up in this position.

  • The Pacers string together two more wins than the Wizards in the coming week. In this case, the Pacers will host the 9/10 game against the Wizards. This will require the Pacers to beat at least one, but probably both of the 76ers or the Bucks and is quite unlikely.
  • The Bulls string together three more wins than the Pacers (the Bulls own the tie-break with the Pacers) but at least four wins of their remaining five games. At the same time, the Wizards lose at least three of their remaining four games. Then the Bulls either finish with 32 or 33 wins and claim the 9th spot due to owning the tiebreak with the Wizards.
  • An interesting sub-scenario is the following: The Wizards lose (exactly) three of their remaining four games, the Bulls win all of their remaining five games, and the Pacers win (exactly) two of their remaining games, while the Hornets win at least one of their remaining games. Then the Hornets finish 8th, while a 3-way tie occurs for the 9/10/11 spots with the Wizards, Bulls, and Pacers having an identical 33-39 regular-season record. We then again have to go through the NBA’s tiebreaker procedure which now becomes even more interesting:
  1. First tiebreak criteria: Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division. In this case, however, this criteria is again moot.
  2. Second tiebreak criteria: better winning percentage in all games among the tied teams. This is interesting. The Wizards are 3-0 against the Pacers and 1-2 against the Bulls. The Pacers are also 1-2 against the Bulls. Thus, the Pacers lose this tiebreak and end up 11th. The Wizards and the Bulls remain tied according to this tiebreak with identical 4-2 internal records.
  3. Third tiebreak criteria: Division winning percentage — only if teams are in the same division. This is not applicable.
  4. Fourth tiebreak criteria: Conference winning percentage. The Bulls easily win this 4th tiebreak as they are currently 18-19 against Eastern Conference teams, while the Wizards (who have caused quite some misery for Western Conference teams this year going for 18-12, that’s 0.600!) are only 14-24. Thus, in summary, in this scenario, the Wizards finish 10th and travel to Chicago to play the 9/10 game.