Aaron Gordon, Blake Griffin, D'Angelo Russell, Bradley Beal, Kemba Walker
Bruno Rouby, ESNY Graphic

The teams racing for the final three playoff spots in the East is a strange, yet fascinating group led by the Brooklyn Nets.

Prior to the playoffs, the NBA season is characterized by teams jockeying for position. For the elites of the league, they battle for homecourt advantage in the playoffs—the real season. For the tankers, they jockey for lottery positioning in hopes of landing the superstar that will turn the franchise around.

For the teams somewhere in the middle, there’s usually a race to see who can snag the final few spots in the playoffs. It’s usually followed up with a first-round exit, but it’s a playoff berth nonetheless.

This year, the Eastern Conference can be separated into three distinct tiers. The elite tier contains the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Toronto Raptors. The Indiana Pacers also qualify for this tier despite losing Victor Oladipo. They won’t drop below fifth in the East.

The bottom tier includes the four teams tanking for lottery positioning—the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, and Atlanta Hawks. These four teams should find themselves at the bottom of the barrel after 82 games.

That leaves a ragtag group in the middle of the pack. The Brooklyn Nets are leading that pack right now. At 32-32 (as of March 6), Brooklyn is in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Detroit Pistons (31-31) and Charlotte Hornets (29-34) occupy the final two playoff spots in the East.

But lurking are the Miami Heat (29-34), Orlando Magic (30-36), and to some extent, the Washington Wizards (26-37). All six of these teams have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. The Nets appear to be safest, while the Wizards would need a serious hot streak to sneak into the postseason.

While most fans are keeping an eye on the superior Western Conference, the middle-of-the-pack teams in the East are chock full of reasons to keep an eye on this race.

Eastern Conference Standings (as of March 6)

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (48-16)
  2. Toronto Raptors (46-19)
  3. Indiana Pacers (42-23)
  4. Philadelphia 76ers (41-23)
  5. Boston Celtics (39-26)
  6. Brooklyn Nets (33-33)
  7. Detroit Pistons (31-31)
  8. Charlotte Hornets (29-34)
  9. Miami Heat (29-34)
  10. Orlando Magic (30-36)
  11. Washington Wizards (26-37)
  12. Atlanta Hawks (22-43)
  13. Chicago Bulls (18-47)
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-48)
  15. New York Knicks (13-51)
Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell
(AP Photo/Chris Nicoll)

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are so close to joining that top tier of teams, but they still fall short. Despite some of their recent success, they’ve been up and down for much of the season. They are probably the only team in the middle tier capable of stealing a first-round series, but they’ll likely need to match up against the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers.

But before they worry about their first-round matchup, the Nets will look to build some continuity down the stretch. D’Angelo Russell has been the rock for head coach Kenny Atkinson. His All-Star selection was well deserved. He’s carried the Nets to their current record despite not having Caris LeVert or Spencer Dinwiddie for extended periods of time. How Russell, Dinwiddie, and LeVert play together is the biggest thing for Nets fans to watch down the stretch.

The Nets are a year or two ahead of schedule, but the young roster could become a force in the East for the next five years. They may need to attract a star this summer to truly become a title contender. But either way, the Nets are one of the best surprises from the 2018-19 season and they look poised to qualify for the postseason when no one was picking them at the beginning of the season (except me).

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have been disappointing this season. After starting the year off with 13 wins in their first 20 games, Detroit has fallen on hard times. They’ve gone 18-24 over their last 42 games. They entered the season with playoff aspirations and the expectation was that Blake Griffin would lead them there. The former Los Angeles Clipper is having a career year and doing a little bit of everything.

Unfortunately, the team around Griffin hasn’t lived up to the task for much of the season. Fortunately, the team seems to be finding its rhythm at the right time. Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are starting to play better and Detroit has won 9 of its last 11 games.

Much like Brooklyn, so long as they don’t suffer a major collapse, they should qualify comfortably in the Eastern Conference. It’s not a given, but they are in a position to snag one of the final three spots.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are a solid basketball team, but they are dependent on their star point guard—Kemba Walker. The New York native was named a starter in the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. The high usage point guard is willing Charlotte towards a playoff spot. Walker is averaging a career-high 24.9 points per game.

Unfortunately, Walker doesn’t have much help and Charlotte wasn’t successful in bringing in Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. Cody Zeller, Nic Batum, Malik Monk, Jeremy Lamb, and Marvin Williams are a woefully inadequate supporting cast.

That being said, Walker is worth the price of admission. His excellence could be enough to spur Charlotte to a playoff berth. Although they are tied with Miami right now, they only need to split their final two games of the season to secure the tiebreaker over their division rival.

That being said, the Hornets are far from a lock to snag a playoff berth. Charlotte has have dropped eight of their last 11 games. Furthermore, Walker and company have a record of 9-21 on the road and still have 11 road games left to play. They are the most vulnerable of the teams currently occupying a playoff spot.

Dwyane Wade
(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Miami Heat

Miami has been nothing short of an enigma this season. They are 14-18 at home, but a very respectable 15-16 on the road. The Heat dropped a home game to the Phoenix Suns and looked like they might be ready to bow out of this race. They came back two nights later and knocked off the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

No one really knows exactly what to expect from the Heat this season. Although they don’t have a legitimate star player to carry them like some of the other teams in this race, they do have Dwyane Wade. He’s one of the best shooting guards in the history of the game and he’s showing the world that he still has something left in the tank.

Wade posted 23 points and five assists in a crucial victory over the Atlanta Hawks recently. Additionally, he dropped in five three-pointers and 25 points in that stunning victory over the Warriors. If nothing else, watching Wade try and lead his team to one last playoff series will be reason enough to watch the Heat.

Orlando Magic

How much do you know about the Orlando Magic? Unless you live in the Orlando area or you’re a true NBA junkie, chances are not much. Prior to the season, Orlando was expected to be fighting for the top pick in the lottery, not looking for a playoff spot.

But lo and behold, here we are. Head coach Steve Clifford has engineered a nice turnaround in sunny Florida. Orlando has already surpassed last season’s win total by five. Whatever happens next is gravy.

The Magic are led by All-Star Nikola Vucevic’s 20.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. The dynamic center is flanked by the uber-athletic Aaron Gordon, offensive-minded Evan Fournier, and veteran point guard D.J. Augustin.

With 36 losses to their name already, a playoff berth is unlikely, but it’s not completely out of the question. It will take a serious run and some masterful coaching from Clifford, but it’s still a possibility.

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Washington Wizards

They’re talented enough to be disappointing. Once thought to be a dark-horse contender in the Eastern Conference, that notion was quickly put to rest after a 2-9 start to the season. The Wizards now sit at 26-37 so that 2-9 record wasn’t completely indicative of what kind of team Washington is.

That being said, any chance they have at making the playoffs is a long shot, at best. John Wall is out for the season (and likely much longer). Otto Porter was traded to the Chicago Bulls where he’s excelling. All that’s left of the Wizards’ old core is Bradley Beal.

That being said, if the Wizards are going to surprise the league and sneak into the playoffs, it’s going to be because Beal puts the rest of his team on his back. Washington seems too far behind at this point to stage a comeback. That being said, every team in front of them is capable of collapsing down the stretch. It’s a longshot, but that’s Washington’s only hope at this point.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.