The NBA playoffs are the league's great separator. Even teams that get swept in the opening round or fail to advance past the first play-in game know quick exits are better than failing to gain entry in the first place.
Playing beyond the 82nd game (or 72nd this season) is a victory in itself, confirmation that the completed campaign meant something.
Tanking teams are the exception; they're taking a different tack, hoping to imbue a season with meaning by framing it as a pathway to a brighter future. We're not worried about those squads. The ones we'll focus on here want to keep fighting after the regular season concludes.
For our purposes, "fringe" playoff teams are the ones within three games (whether ahead or behind) of the 10th spot in each conference.
Position in the standings will be the jumping-off point for each in-or-out determination, but strength of schedule, performance over the past two weeks and injury outlook will weigh heavily in our forecasts. An "in" prediction means the team will finish inside the conference's top 10, thereby earning at least a play-in berth. An "out" prediction means the team will be watching the postseason from home.
Standings Position: 10th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 9th
Last Two Weeks: 3-5, Minus-1.4 net rating
No on-the-bubble team made a more obvious effort to reach this year's playoffs than the Chicago Bulls, which packaged a pair of future first-round picks for Nikola Vucevic. That's not a move you make with the long view in mind.
The Bulls should be pleased that their new starting five—Zach LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young and Patrick Williams alongside Vooch—has solidly outscored the opposition. Unfortunately, Chicago's other player groupings have given back that advantage, and then some.
With just one of their past 10 games coming at home, the Bulls' lackluster recent performance has to include an asterisk. Then again, Chicago has a higher winning percentage on the road than at home (both are under .500), so.../shrug emoji.
The Bulls are three games back in the loss column from the increasingly healthy ninth-seeded Indiana Pacers, which makes a move up the standings unlikely. And at the risk of spoiling things, there's a certain 2019 champ lurking beneath Chicago that I think will make a better run down the stretch.
Standings Position: 9th
Remaining Strength of Schedule: 20th
Last Two Weeks: 4-4, Minus-2.3 net rating
Slowly but surely, the Indiana Pacers are getting healthier. That bodes well for their efforts to hold onto their current position. And really, considering Indy is closer to the East's No. 5 seed than the No. 10 spot, the best bet is probably on it avoiding the four-team play-in scenario altogether.
Malcolm Brogdon (groin) and Domantas Sabonis (ankle) are both back in action, and Caris LeVert hasn't missed a game since debuting with the Pacers on March 12. All that's left is for Myles Turner to make it back from his ankle injury and the Pacers will be in good shape to capitalize on a soft schedule over the season's final month.
Shore up a couple of season-long weaknesses, namely opponent offensive rebound rate and a struggle to generate trips to the foul line, and Indiana will be just fine.