NBA playoff predictions: Who will win the big seeding races?

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What will happen in the key NBA standings races in the final weeks of the regular season? What are the biggest storylines and teams to watch?

We polled the ESPN Forecast panel of experts — including NBA writers, editors and analysts — for their predictions now that we are two-thirds of the way through the 2020-21 NBA season. The topics include the likely No. 1 seeds in each conference, the most likely guaranteed playoff teams and the franchises that will miss the play-in on their way to the lottery.

As a reminder: The teams that finish Nos. 1-6 in each conference will be guaranteed playoff spots, while teams Nos. 7-10 in the standings will enter the play-in. Any team that finishes worse than No. 10 will be in the lottery. Because there is a chance for teams to finish with an uneven number of games played due to COVID-19 complications, the NBA will use winning percentage to determine the standings. Get more details on how everything works here.

Here are the forecast results for both the Eastern and Western conferences.


Which team will earn No. 1 in the East?

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets are the only three teams with a real shot to claim the top seed in the East, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). They also are widely considered the top tier of Finals contenders in the conference. Earning the top overall seed means likely avoiding the other two giants until the conference finals.

Both our panel and BPI like Philly, with BPI giving the Sixers a 64.9% chance at No. 1. Their easy schedule and relative health will certainly help their case.

MORE: Goldsberry projects the playoff race

Which East team is most likely to avoid the play-in?

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

Assuming Brooklyn, Philly and Milwaukee stay on top of the standings, that leaves three guaranteed playoff spots in the East. The Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks were runaway choices here, with the New York Knicks being the only other team to receive a vote.

Voters picked their top two choices

  • Miami Heat: 59.4%

  • Boston Celtics: 53.1%

  • Atlanta Hawks: 34.4%

MORE: NBA expert debate on the East

Fact or fiction: Toronto or Washington will make the play-in

AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

A majority of our panel has the East playoff and play-in participants set as is, with neither the Toronto Raptors nor the Washington Wizards crashing the party. But with about 18 games left, both squads are close enough to sneak up on the Chicago Bulls and steal one of the top-10 spots.

  • Fiction: 68.8%

  • Fact: 31.3%

MORE: Latest NBA Power Rankings

Which team will earn No. 1 in the West?

Rick Bowmer/AP

Only a few games separate the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and LA Clippers atop the West standings, but our panel is trusting Utah to hold on to this one.

Home-court advantage certainly matters to some degree in the postseason, but the No. 1 seed could also be stuck facing the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the second round. Ending up as No. 2 or No. 3 might not be the worst thing.

  • Utah Jazz: 75.0%

  • Phoenix Suns: 18.7%

  • LA Clippers: 6.3%

MORE: Pelton’s NBA mailbag

Which West team is most likely to avoid the play-in?

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Despite a string of unfortunate injuries — Jamal Murray for the Denver Nuggets, LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the Lakers — both Denver and L.A. are the favorites to secure guaranteed playoff spots in the West.

A number of teams are in the mix for that sixth and final spot, but our panel likes the Portland Trail Blazers to grab it.

Voters picked their top two choices

  • Denver Nuggets: 68.8%

  • Los Angeles Lakers: 56.3%

  • Portland Trail Blazers: 18.8%

  • Dallas Mavericks: 6.2%

MORE: What Murray’s injury means for Denver

Which West team is most likely to fall short of the play-in?

AP Photo/Brandon Wade

For now, it looks like there are three teams fighting for the final two play-in spots in the West: The San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Golden State Warriors.

Our panel has the Pelicans as the most likely team to fall out of the race and enter the lottery, though the Spurs weren’t far behind in the voting.

Voters picked their top two choices

MORE: How lockdown defenders would stop Doncic

Fact or fiction: The Lakers will finish in the top six

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

LeBron James hasn’t played since March 20, and Anthony Davis has been inactive since Feb. 14. Still, the Lakers have a comfortable cushion on No. 7 Dallas, so our panel isn’t too concerned about the champs falling into a risky play-in scenario.

MORE: Drummond still figuring out Lakers fit



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