This year marks the third iteration of the NBA play-in tournament, and while its single-game format has proven to be wildly popular, some folks may see these games as gimmicks rather than contests featuring true contenders.
To an extent, this is true. Up until now, no team that has had to play in the play-in tournament to secure a playoff spot has ever won a series in the NBA playoffs.
But just because something hasn’t before doesn’t mean that it will never happen. After all, we’ve talked all regular season about how much parity exists in the league standings. That means that even the teams fighting for the final playoff seeds are still venerable opponents.
And with this in mind, we decided to make the case for why each of these teams could prove to be a dangerous playoff team if they emerge from the play-in tournament victorious.
We’ve included each team’s adjusted offensive rating (AOR), adjusted defensive rating (ADR) and overall adjusted team rating in its profile, along with our model’s probability of advancing out of the play-in round and winning a playoff series.
We’ve simulated the playoffs thousands of times to find the chances of each team making it to every round using a model that features the adjusted team ratings. It is also weighed for recency bias (team entering the postseason hot/cold) and credits teams that have done well against good teams more than those who haven’t.
The adjusted team ratings (ATR) normalize a team’s performance (for any sport) from league environmental factors that can either inflate or deflate its numbers. That’s done with a model that uses advanced metrics and other factors on both sides of the ball to calculate how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams are compared to the league-average club during that season.
Miami Heat (44-38)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 21st
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 14th
- Adjusted Team Rating: 20th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 8.2%
Contender Case: The Heat have been to the East finals in two of the last three seasons, with virtually the same core group of players. While much of the league has caught up to their dynamic movement and dribble handoff-heavy offense (hence their bottom-10 offense), they still have one of the best mismatch hunters in basketball in Jimmy Butler. Their middle-of-the-pack defense is more a byproduct of fatigue and incorporating buyout hire Kevin Love into the starting lineup. Before the NBA trade deadline, Miami was fifth in ADR. And based on the Heat’s playoff pedigree, it would be wise to wager that they can flip the switch back into that gear and earn the seventh seed and a first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics. Also, they have played in the second-most clutch games (the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when the game is within six points) with 60, and they have the league’s seventh-highest point differential (0.8 per game) in them. If you win enough close games, chances are you might just steal a playoff series.
Atlanta Hawks (41-41)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 6th
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 23rd
- Adjusted Team Rating: 16th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 9.5%
Contender Case: Despite their scintillating new backcourt pairing, the Hawks have spent most of the 2022-23 NBA season mired in mediocrity. However, they are still working out the kinks with new head coach Quin Synder, who is only 21 games into his Atlanta regime. Synder has a reputation for being a brilliant offensive mind. What if this postseason is the moment he finally figures out the secret ingredient to maximizing the Trae Young/Dejounte Murray duo? As it stands, the Hawks already have the sixth-best AOR in basketball. Remember, they were already on the verge of becoming an elite offense in our most recent look at teams that are playing like contenders. For those who didn’t know, 46 of the last 144 teams (31.9%) who’ve made conference finals have had “elite offenses.” So, if Atlanta could evolve into one of those teams during the playoffs, things could get really interesting. Our model gives the Hawks a 73.2% probability of advancing to face either the Celtics or top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
Toronto Raptors (41-41)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 10th
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 9th
- Adjusted Team Rating: 9th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 5.6%
Contender Case: Despite touting a brigade of lengthy wings and forwards, the Raptors were limited in the number of styles they could play during the first half of the season. On offense, if they couldn’t get out in transition, they were relegated to inefficient isolation and post-up possessions. On defense, their one trick was an aggressive blitzing/trapping style that lost its effectiveness as time went on due to its taxing nature and opponents gaining familiarity with it over time. This all changed when the Raptors acquired big man Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs at the trade deadline. His rim running and passing have added a new dimension to the offense. Meanwhile, his paint protection and drop coverage gives them an off-speed pitch to sprinkle in alongside their more chaotic fastball on defense. Since the trade, Toronto is 13-10 and looking like a more complete team. And in the playoffs, complete teams usually fare pretty well.
Chicago Bulls (40-42)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 24th
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 2nd
- Adjusted Team Rating: 12th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 3.4%
Contender Case: The Bulls are 6-6 against the top-three teams in the East, with most of those games coming before the addition of playoff war hero Patrick Beverley (the team is 14-9 since he joined the mix). As strange as it sounds, these top-end teams present a more favorable matchup for their personnel. The Bulls are great at limiting transition opportunities (lowest frequency allowed in basketball, per NBA.com) and defending great on-ball scorers (first in defensive isolation efficiency). On the other end, their offense – quarterbacked by great isolation scorers like DeMar DeRozan (88th percentile in efficiency) and teammate Zach LaVine (83rd percentile) – is well-equipped for the grind-it-out nature of the postseason. They make things ugly, and the upper echelon of the conference hierarchy doesn’t feel like dealing with ugly.
Los Angeles Lakers (43-39)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 16th
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 12th
- Adjusted Team Rating: 14th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 17.8%
Contender Case: No team in the NBA saw a more impactful facelift at the deadline than the Lakers. At the deadline, they were 25th in ATR. Now, they are 14th. That is the largest ATR improvement in the entire league during that time. In today’s era of blending versatility with superstar firepower, the roster formula for playoff success seems to be the two stars plus six-to-eight role players you can oscillate between depending on the series. The Lakers have that with MVP-caliber stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis (both rank in the top 10 in DRIP) and a rogue’s gallery of role players, including but not limited to Austin Reaves, Jarred Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell, Troy Brown Jr., Malik Beasley, Rui Hachimura, Wenyen Gabriel and Dennis Schroder. As long as they can stay healthy, they have the star capital to go blow for blow with the heavyweights and the bullpen to accommodate multiple different styles of play. A first-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies could be in the cards.
Minnesota Timberwolves (42-40)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 23rd
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 8th
- Adjusted Team Rating: 19th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 15.4%
Contender Case: The elevator pitch for this team would sound a lot more enticing had they not just recently lost Naz Reid (wrist) and Jaden McDaniels (hand) for significant periods of time (oh, and who could forget the huddle fiasco that netted Rudy Gobert a one-game suspension). Still, with a four-man core of Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Mike Conley (four players in the top 70 in DRIP), this Wolves team is brimming with top-end talent. On top of that, Edwards is a budding star, and guys like that have a tendency of making their ascension known on a national stage (you’ll recall what James did to the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 playoffs). If the Timberwolves can move past the Gobert/Kyle Anderson incident and figure out the on-court fit between the former and Towns, this team could start looking a lot more like the one we thought they would be before the season started.
New Orleans Pelicans (42-40)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 20th
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 3rd
- Adjusted Team Rating: 6th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 26.0%
Contender Case: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Pelicans, with a healthy Zion Williamson, are a very scary team. In December, when we looked at which teams were playing like contenders based on the data, the Pelicans emerged as one of the seven teams in the NBA with a similar statistical profile to past conference finals teams. At that time, they boasted the second-best ATR in the entire league. Simply put, the Pelicans are a dark horse contender with Williamson, and if they somehow manage to get the two-time All-Star back during the playoffs, the rest of the league better look out. That’s evident in our model giving the Pelicans a 26.0% of sneaking into the eighth seed and winning a first-round series against the Denver Nuggets after the play-in tournament games. That’s higher than the Los Angeles Clippers (21.6%), New York Knicks (21.6%) and Lakers (17.8%).
Oklahoma City Thunder (40-42)
- Adjusted Offensive Rating: 18th
- Adjusted Defensive Rating: 17th
- Adjusted Team Rating: 18th
- Chances of Reaching the East Semis: 2.6%
Contender Case: One more tanking season, and then we’ll look to compete. That was the plan after it was announced that second-overall pick Chet Holmgren would miss the entire season with a foot injury. Or at least, that was what everyone outside of the Thunder thought the plan was going to be. The Thunder have surprised everyone this season with their well-coached, futuristic defense (that relies heavily on length, communication and switching) and simple yet effective offense (they drive eight times more than the second-placed team in drives per game, per NBA.com). Oklahoma City knows how it wants to play, knows it isn’t supposed to be where it is, and knows it won’t back down from anyone. That’s a deadly trio of things to know about one’s self. If the Thunder make it through the play-in, any team that draws them as an opponent is sure to have its hands full.