The race between Eastern Conference bubble teams for the final playoff spot in the conference is more of a limp than a sprint. Only three and a half games stand between the eighth spot and the 11th spot, and each of the four franchises involved are sad in their own way. For most of the season, these teams have been their own greatest obstacles. It’s unrealistic to think that any of them—Miami, Orlando, Charlotte, or Washington—is capable of a first-round upset, which would likely require them to beat either the Bucks or Raptors.
The last team in is destined for only a moral victory. But which one needs it the most?
Currently: Eighth in the standings, 32-35
Why they need to get in: Recruiting
Few teams have the ability to recruit like the Heat, whose location, personnel, and culture set them apart. Or used to, before cap space in the age of player choice became better currency than 80-degree weather. Now Miami is competing with second-tier big market franchises like the Nets and Clippers as a free-agency destination. This summer, the Heat can’t even engage to the same degree as those teams: While the Nets and Clips can, in theory, both create room for two maximum contracts, the Heat won’t have any cap space until next summer, when they’ll have upward of $40 million.
But despite that, a playoff bid would keep the Heat on the radar, and would provide experience for young players like Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo.
Currently: Ninth in the standings, 32-38
Why they need to get in: To earn their spot as an up-and-comer
Many teams on a timeline similar to Orlando’s emerged from years of tanking this season. Sacramento and Brooklyn, for example, are finally doggy-paddling above water. They’ve earned their League Pass keep as two of the most entertaining and fresh young teams; conversation around the Kings or the Nets is almost always optimistic for the first time in years. The Magic don’t get that same optimism, yet their record isn’t far behind that of the Nets and the Kings; they had a representative in the All-Star Game this season for the first time since Dwight Howard, and they, too, have compelling young players. Making the postseason would be a moral victory for the Magic, who have been incapable of even that for the last six years, and a declaration that there’s more to come. The rest of the NBA is stanning for Sacramento’s and Brooklyn’s potential (2019: already weird). Orlando still has to pipe up for itself.
Currently: 10th in the standings, 30-37
Why they need to get in: To keep Kemba Walker
The list of star free agents that could sign with Charlotte begins and ends with Walker, who really only qualifies because he’s already there. The 28-year-old’s discount deal (four years, $48 million) expires this summer, meaning the Hornets could lose their most talented player since they were Bobcats. Not much has happened in the postseason during Walker’s eight-season career; he’s been twice, both first-round fizzle-outs, and missed the last two playoffs. Apart from the extra year on a maximum contract, the Hornets don’t have much to incentivize Walker to commit his prime to the franchise. Making the playoffs after a two-year drought seems like the bare minimum to keep him.
Currently: 11th in the standings, 29-39
Why they need to get in: Recruiting—maybe
Bradley Beal isn’t disillusioned about the state of the Wizards, even if the rest of the organization might be. Before All-Star, he told reporters he understood his role in recruiting that weekend. He wanted to establish relationships and feel out other players—perhaps he knows that he’s the sole reason any other player would be interested in coming to Washington. A late-season rally—they’ve won four of their last six—would help his pitch, and re-establish what exactly the Wizards are doing here, which is trying to win, even as this roster makes it look like a rebuild is in order.