Take a good look at the NBA standings today, because you’re looking this season’s playoff teams. Mostly.
There will be some shuffling of seeding, but once we get past Christmas the 16 teams set for the playoffs don’t change much — 87 percent of the teams in the top eight in their conference on Dec. 26 the past 10 seasons have gone on to make the playoffs. No fewer than 13 of the 16 teams in those playoff slots advanced. Teams down in the standings rarely come charging up to surprise anyone.
If anything, this season likely sees less movement — because of the early start to the season (to space out games and add rest), most teams have played 33 or so games, five or six more than they historically would have.
Sorry Philadelphia and Utah, and the fans of every other team on the outside looking in. It’s not impossible, but the odds your team climbs back into the playoffs are slim.
Last season, when the Christmas Day games were done, Cleveland and Golden State — the two teams to eventually meet in the NBA Finals — were on top of the standings in their respective conferences. Last year, 13 of the 16 teams to make the playoffs were already set (the Hornets and Knicks fell off in the East, replaced by the Bulls and Wizards, and in the West Portland made up the one game it was behind Sacramento and got invited to the dance).
That season fits the trend, in fact it saw more movement than most. I looked at the standings for the last decade (excluding the 2011 lockout season that started on Christmas) and things were largely set. Most years 14 or 15 of the teams set into the top 16 the day after Christmas advanced to the playoffs.
While not statistically probable, comebacks are not impossible.
The worst record to comeback and make the postseason? The 2013 Brooklyn Nets started 9-19 but came on to not only make the playoffs but beat the Raptors in a seven-game first round playoff series. In 2015, the Trail Blazers started 11-20 (.355 winning percentage) and both made the playoffs and beat a banged up Clippers team in the first round. The 2009 Chicago Bulls were 10-17 after Christmas and came back, but in a down year in the East they only had to make up 1.5 games on the Raptors to do that. The 2006 Nets and the 2007 Sixers were both 11-16 (.407 winning percentage) at Christmas and came back to make the postseason.
It’s likely one or two teams climb into the playoffs this season, although an injury to a team already in is mostly likely the reason it happens.
The best team at Christmas not to make the playoffs? The 2010 Utah Jazz were 21-9 and on top of the Northwest Division, but that was the season Jerry Sloan retired and Deron Williams forced a trade out, and they fell off the map and missed the postseason. Hopefully no team has to go through that this season.