Breaking Down the NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Bubble

It’s not yet time to brag about that blowout win (or feign a season-ending injury after a few demoralizing losses).

That’s because six NBA Eastern Conference teams balance on the playoff bubble, but only three will see the postseason.

With a few weeks left to go, who are the best bets to secure a playoff berth? Fellow TBW writer Nekias Duncan and I take a closer look:

Who’s in the Hunt?

No. 6: Brooklyn Nets’ (36-34)

Their only star player, D’Angelo Russell, is just 23 and they face the league’s second-toughest schedule ahead. Can their heavy legs hold off the strong kick of the teams behind them? The Nets end the regular season with a home match versus the Miami Heat, but that is their only remaining chance to go head-to-head with the other five teams on the bubble.

No. 7: Detroit Pistons (34-33)

Detroit charged out of the All-Star Break behind their beastly frontcourt (Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin) and 2018 Head Coach of the Year (for the Toronto Raptors) Dwayne Casey. However, they fell hard in critical back-to-back blowout losses: 103-75 to the Nets on March 11 and 108-74 to the No. 8 Miami Heat on March 13.

No. 8: Miami Heat (32-36)

The hard-nosed Heat are finishing strong. They have four more direct shots at other bubble teams before the season’s end. Can the playoff experience of their leadership (Dwyane Wade and head coach Erik Spoelstra) and their gritty defense grind out enough wins to hold onto the last slot?

No. 9: Orlando Magic (32-38)

Feb 14, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) drivers into Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller (40) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Quietly emerging from their rebuild with an All-Star (Nikola Vucevic) player and a solid record, the Magic will close out the regular season with a head-to-head match versus the Charlotte Hornets. Ranked fourth in opponent’s points per game, Orlando has surprised the competition with their D, not to mention Nikola Vucevic’s dominance in the paint.

No. 10: Charlotte Hornets (31-37)

Charlotte’s fate is largely in their own hands: They’ve got the best record against fellow bubble teams (11-5) and will see four of them again before season’s end. However, three are away games, and the Hornets tend to fall apart on the road. Point guard play from backup Tony Parker and soon-to-be free agent star Kemba Walker is key to their tenuous success.

No. 11: Washington Wizards (29-40)

This time without John Wall and Dwight Howard, the ever-injured Wizards made major moves at the trade deadline, sending homegrown products Kelly Oubre and Otto Porter to distant places for Trevor Ariza and Jabari Parker, respectively. Can the new additions do enough to launch them into No. 8?

Who’s making the top 8 and where:

Nov 25, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) shoots for a basket over Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the first half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Nekias: I think we’ll get Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Indiana, Philly, Brooklyn, Detroit, and Miami in terms of the order. I don’t really see Washington or Charlotte making enough of a push, barring a collapse from Miami or Detroit.

Sara:  You have more confidence in the Celtics than I do. I think the top five stay where they are—Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Boston.  I say Brooklyn, Detroit and Miami hold on to playoff berths, but the Nets drop while the Heat rise. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two of them duking it out for No. 6 on the last game of the season in Miami. Both those teams blew out the Pistons bad this month, who otherwise have had a fantastic run since the All-Star break.

The experience of Charlotte’s guards might help them more in this push than Orlando’s youthful energy, but ultimately I think they’re going to stay on the outside looking in. I don’t see Washington gaining any ground.

Did the Nets and Heat Find a KEY PISTons Weakness?  

Mar 13, 2019; Miami, FL, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) drives to the basket as Miami Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. (5) defends during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Sara: Brooklyn and Miami did not expose a Detroit weakness, per se.  The Nets and Heat are just unfavorable matchups for the Pistons on a good day…and these were not good days.

Great rim protection notwithstanding, Detroit had plenty of good lucks and open layups versus Brooklyn that simply weren’t dropping. They didn’t match the Nets’ energy, and the rim was unfriendly. Similar story versus Miami.

If Reggie Jackson was healthy and if the Pistons had a decent break in their schedule, I wouldn’t worry about the Pistons holding onto their playoff berth; but he isn’t, and they don’t.

Nekias: I’ve always been a little wary of Detroit’s guard rotation. Even when Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond play well, the team’s success has mostly been driven by what kind of contributions they get from the backcourt. When Reggie Jackson started heating up, the Pistons looked like one of the best teams in the East. With Jackson hurt again, it’s hard to really view them as a threat.


Sara: This is a tricky one. It’s hard to go against the experience of Dwyane Wade (especially after the unlikeliest buzzer-beater over the Golden State Warriors this season) and defensive difference-makers like Justise Winslow and Kelly Olynyk on the squad.

However, the Hornets’ spiritual leader Marvin Williams and blitzing point guards Kemba Walker and Tony Parker could push them over the top. The Magic win the stat game, though. Orlando’s DJ Augustin, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic are all listed among the league’s best clutch players. If the last playoff berth comes down to these teams’ head-to-head season closer April 10, it’s anyone’s guess who will take home the game ball.

What would it take for Washington to Make The push from 11 to 8?

Sara: Bradley Beal needs to stay healthy and continue to be stellar, and someone (anyone) needs to provide him some help. Beal was fantastic to start last night versus Charlotte, yet Washington was down 20 before four minutes were gone in the second quarter. Bobby Portis, Trevor Ariza and Tomas Satoransky are all capable of giving that lift, and the Wiz must find a way to make that happen.

What Coach is best suited to carry their team INTO THE PLAYOFFS?

Mar 13, 2019; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra reacts on the sidelines against the Detroit Pistons during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Sara: Miami’s Erik Spoelstra may have the most playoff success, yet Detroit’s Casey (and perhaps his newly bearded star Blake Griffin) could be powered by their playoff disappointments with former teams.

Of all the coaches in this group, though, the Nets’ Kenny Atkinson is the best suited to his team—being a player development specialist for a young squad he’s been with since the beginning. Although he doesn’t have playoff experience as a head coach, he does as an assistant, and therefore may be a greater coaching asset for getting to (if not getting through) the playoffs.

Nekias: I think Mike Budenholzer has the easiest job moving forward.

Sara: Fair point, since his Milwaukee Bucks have already clinched a playoff berth and are the best team in the league. We’re supposed to be talking about “bubble teams” right now! But we all love the Bucks, so tell me more.

Nekias: Their 4-out, Giannis-at-the-nail offense is virtually guaranteed to generate good looks. They have good enough defenders to make their “drop” scheme work, and they have the bodies to throw out some switch-everything lineups if need be.

My only mild concern with them in the playoffs is what they’ll do against spacing bigs—specifically Boston. Having Brook Lopez drop against Al Horford is begging to get lit up from three, and Boston doesn’t really have a non-shooter the Bucks could comfortably hide Lopez on. But even that concern can be mitigated by some Giannis-at-5 lineups.

Since we’re straying outside the bubble, Any tips for the top teams?

Nekias: The Sixers don’t have a great bench, so they’ll need to be smart with their staggering. For example, keep Ben Simmons paired with at least one of Tobias Harris or JJ Redick at all times.

The Raptors need to dedicate the rest of the season to making sure Marc Gasol is comfortable. In theory, he’s the perfect complement to their other stars. If Gasol is in rhythm as a spacer, post threat and passer, the Raptors will be incredibly tough to deal with.


Feb 25, 2019; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert (22) and Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell (1) react in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Sara: When the New York Knicks play the Nets at Barclays Center, Knicks fans flood the arena and root for the road team…and that’s generally been the only time one can rely on the stands at Barclays being full for a basketball game.

That’s beginning to change. March 11, Barclays Center was more full of Nets fans than I’ve ever seen, and although the outcome was certain by the end of Q3, the stands remained full until 00:00 of Q4 to cheer for a Brooklyn victory. This squad is lovable, they’re succeeding despite years of mismanagement, and at least some New Yorkers are giving them the support they deserve. So, I’d like to see what the Nets can do in the postseason.

Nekias: It’d be fun if the Heat were able to make some noise. I’ve been pretty vocal about them needing to prioritize their pick over playoff odds, but I’ve always known that wasn’t realistic. It just isn’t what they do.

If the Heat are going to make the playoffs, I’d like them to make things interesting. Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson could continue their breakout years and gain valuable playoff reps. Give me a Dwyane Wade moment in his final postseason run.

Among the Heat/Pistons/Nets, the Heat probably have the best chance at making a series ugly. They have talented wings, a versatile big man stable, an elite head coach, and a high variance squad of shooters. Seven games is a pretty short sample, however. If they can hit threes like they have been in March, I can see them making the Bucks or Raptors sweat.

Sara: Agreed on that. And while I really do want to see Kemba Walker competing in the playoffs as a Hornet one more time before free agency, I think we need a last glimpse of playoff D-Wade more.