The race to be the least terrible in the Eastern Conference has gone down to the wire. With two games remaining in the NBA regular season, three teams – Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat – can still secure the final postseason spot behind the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic.
Detroit are the incumbents, sitting a game ahead of Miami and Charlotte. The Pistons have been on a slide of late but finish the year against the Grizzlies and Knicks in the knowledge that two victories will guarantee a playoff place.
The Hornets kept their hopes alive with a win against Detroit on Sunday. Wins against Cleveland and Orlando in their final two games with a slip up from the Pistons will see them take eighth, as they hold the tiebreaker over Detroit and Miami.
The Heat are the outsiders, needing to beat the Sixers and Nets while hoping for Charlotte and Detroit to drop games.
Below the big five, the Eastern Conference has remained intriguing because several teams wanted the playoffs rather than trying their luck in the lottery. Which of the three remaining contenders needs the eight seed the most?
Dwane Casey was appointed to get the Pistons back to the playoffs. Detroit, despite trading for Blake Griffin midway through last season, fell short in 2017/18 and are desperate to host postseason basketball again, having not done so since a 2016 first round exit.
The Pistons’ 2016 elimination is their only playoff appearance since the Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups 2009 team. Little Caesars Arena is yet to witness postseason NBA action, and falling into the lottery again this year would hurt the franchise’s appeal in Detroit.
Having been hot through late winter, the Pistons looked to have locked up a top eight spot and were in a strong position to claim sixth. Settling for eighth from where they were would be a disappointment, let alone missing out altogether.
The Griffin trade was a win-now move. It altered all expectations for the Pistons. It would be a shock to see Detroit miss out, particularly considering their final two opponents. Of the three, there’s no doubt they have the most to lose.
Charlotte have gone 7-3 over their last 10, including three wins in their last three. The Kemba-Walker-inspired win against the Pistons on Sunday gave them a fighting chance, which is miraculous considering how far back they were when they lost six of eight during a tough March stretch.
Walker, who is a contender for an All-NBA spot, has carried the team this year, and Charlotte’s need for a postseason appearance is as much about him as it is about the franchise.
The All-Star point guard is a free agent at season’s end. The Hornets can offer the most money, but that might not be enough to keep Walker. He is an icon in the city, but the prospect of teaming up with another elite talent elsewhere must be tempting for a player who has only made the playoffs twice and was knocked out in the first round on both occasions.
Walker could stay in Charlotte even if they miss out but snatching the eight seed will help the Hornets’ case.
Like Detroit, Miami spent much of the season as one of the favourites for a playoff spot. The Heat are riddled with bad contracts and lack a Griffin or Walker level star.
They came into Dwyane Wade’s final homestand knowing that three wins would secure a final postseason hurrah for the future Hall of Famer. Losses to Minnesota and Toronto leave the Heat needing snookers as they host Philadelphia on Tuesday night.
Committed money leaves Miami stuck. Pat Riley will be a spectator during an offseason that will alter the landscape of the NBA. This team is going to be much the same in 2019/20 – their best chance of improving is to get lucky in the lottery.
The Heat are not an organisation that will think of it like that, though. They want a postseason series and will believe they can make it difficult for the Bucks, but their position as rank outsiders suits their relative need for playoff basketball compared to Charlotte and Detroit.