Using Point Differential To Project the 2018 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference

(Click here for the Western Conference projections.)

Roughly halfway through the 2017-18 season, we’ve seen a few surprises in the league, both good and bad.

The Heat, Pistons, and Pacers have overachieved in the Eastern Conference, while Philly and Charlotte in particular have disappointed.

Out West, the Thunder have fallen short of expectations, the bottom fell out on the Grizzlies, the Lakers remain a joke, and the Timberwolves find themselves on a 50-win pace by record.

Part of this has been the unpredictability of any given NBA season; there are always surprises, often involving rookies who perform beyond anyone’s wildest expectations (Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, looking at you) or related to injuries that blow up promising seasons (or, in Boston’s case, that change the narrative in ways nobody expected, as in Tatum stepping into Gordon Hayward’s spot and providing easily 80 percent of what was expected out of the marquee free agent.)

Teams that outperform their point differential tend to regress to the mean; ask any Grizzlies fan what life was like after the All-Star Game the last couple of seasons. Meanwhile, teams that lag it have a tendency to go on winning streaks (the Thunder winning eight out of nine after they’d been left for dead with a losing record despite a point differential that projected them for 50 wins.)

Let’s start in the East, with a reminder of the current standings through games of January 7:

Team

W-L (Pct)

GB

PtDiff

BOS

33-10 (.767)

+5.1

TOR

27-10 (.730)

3

+8.1

CLE

26-13 (.667)

5

+2.7

WAS

23-17 (.575)

8.5

+2.4

MIA

22-17 (.564)

9

-1.3

MIL

21-17 (.553)

9.5

-0.2

DET

21-17 (.553)

9.5

+0.1

IND

20-19 (.513)

11

+0.4

PHI

19-19 (.500)

11.5

+0.6

NYK

19-21 (.475)

12.5

-0.7

CHA

15-23 (.395)

15.5

-0.9

BKN

15-24 (.385)

16

-2.3

CHI

14-26 (.350)

17.5

-6.2

ORL

12-28 (.300)

19.5

-5.6

ATL

10-29 (.256)

21

-4.8

Now, the first thing you see is that Toronto’s got by far the best point difference; you’d expect them to overtake Boston over the course of the remainder of the season.

Before we continue, a note on methodology; this is purely an examination of point differential, and assumes that past performance predicts future results. In essence, we’re assuming that teams have the same injury luck, personnel performance, and whatnot in the back half of the season as they had in the front half, and just accepting that we can’t predict the future but only extrapolate our data.

So we’re going to take a basic point difference truism—that one point of differential is worth 2.73 wins over an 82-game season. We’ll then project a full 82-game record, prorate it back to the number of games the team has left, add it to their existing record, and spit out standings for the playoffs.

Based on this, we get (plus or minus a win due to rounding)…

Team

Current Record

Remaining Games

Final Record

TOR

27-10

35-10

62-20

BOS

33-10

26-13

59-23

CLE

26-13

25-18

51-31

WAS

23-17

24-18

47-35

DET

21-17

22-22

43-39

MIL

21-17

22-22

43-39

IND

20-19

22-21

42-40

MIA

22-17

20-23

42-40

PHI

19-19

23-21

42-40

NYK

19-21

20-22

39-43

CHA

15-23

21-23

36-46

BKN

15-24

18-25

33-49

CHI

14-26

12-30

26-56

ORL

12-28

13-29

25-57

ATL

10-29

14-29

24-58

So what have we learned?

Well, for one thing, we’ve learned that Toronto’s underrated and that they should be headed for the 1 seed in the East if they keep winning games by an average of over eight points when the Celtics are only winning by five.

For another, there are going to be five teams fighting for four spots between 5 and 8, which should make the playoff chase one heck of a lot of fun.

But other than that? The rest of the teams are, by and large, exactly where we’d expect them to be based on scoring average.