The 2021-22 NBA title race ranks among the most wide open in recent memory, continuing a run of near-historic parity for the league. Four different teams have won the past four titles—and if another new team wins this season, it will be the first half-decade stretch without any of the same winners since 1977-81.
What are the chances that each team will emerge from the crowded field to lift this season’s trophy? As the post-All-Star schedule begins Thursday, we are unveiling the 2022 edition of The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, which will update daily with information about each team’s odds of reaching the playoffs, qualifying for the play-in tournament, landing a top-five draft pick, and more.
For now, the Suns are the favorites, with the league’s best record and point differential; Phoenix wins the title in 24 percent of simulations, with the Warriors second at 16 percent. But there are many more takeaways from the Odds Machine’s initial run, too—starting with two prospective juggernauts who haven’t remotely met their potential.
1. The Lakers and Nets are in trouble.
At this point, the two preseason title favorites are both more likely to miss the playoffs than win a championship. As a reminder, in the still-new play-in format, only six teams in each conference automatically qualify for the playoff bracket, while the next four teams in the standings play a mini-tournament for the final two seeds. And thanks to injuries, underperformance, and unfortunate trades, both the Lakers (currently in the West’s no. 9 spot, with a negative point differential and Anthony Davis injured) and Nets (the East’s no. 8 seed, with a point differential of precisely zero and Kevin Durant injured) are heavy favorites to be forced into the play-in tournament.
The Lakers reach the play-in tournament in 88 percent of simulations, and in fact might be in even worse shape: They’re far more likely to fall outside the top 10—and miss the play-in entirely—than they are to sneak into the top six. Here is their current distribution of seeding possibilities:
Top 6: <1 percent
Seventh: 2 percent
Eighth: 18 percent
Ninth: 48 percent
10th: 21 percent
Outside top 10: 12 percent
Add up all those probabilities and factor in L.A.’s chances of advancing through the play-in tournament—which, if they finish as expected in the no. 9 or 10 spots, would require winning two consecutive elimination games—and the Lakers have only a 32 percent chance to reach the actual playoffs.
And even if they do survive that gauntlet, their difficulties would only increase from there. Just looking at the scenarios in which the Lakers qualify for the playoffs, they would then play Phoenix 72 percent of the time, Golden State 19 percent, and Memphis 8 percent. The Lakers are a combined 1-7 against those three teams this season, the only win coming in a three-point home squeaker against Memphis in October.
The Nets, for comparison, have more upside potential because of both a more talented roster and a more crowded Eastern Conference race. (The Lakers are six games back of the no. 6 seed; the Nets, just 2.5.) But the combination of uncertainty around Durant’s return and Ben Simmons’s debut with a difficult remaining schedule—their post-All-Star slate opens with six consecutive games against teams ahead of them in the Eastern standings—means the Nets are even more likely to land in the play-in tournament. Brooklyn finishes the simulations with an average record of just 42-40, and is a play-in team in 89 percent; only the Clippers (98 percent) have a higher play-in probability.
2. The Eastern playoff picture looks as hazy as ever.
The Heat enter the stretch run in a tie with the Bulls for the best record in the East, with a much more favorable schedule; accounting for opponent, location, and opponent injuries, the Bulls have the league’s hardest remaining slate, while the Heat have the sixth-easiest. Thus, Miami has a 58 percent chance to finish with the East’s no. 1 seed.
But after Miami, there is no consensus around where teams might finish in the remaining playoff spots. Look at the odds for various teams to land the no. 4 seed, for instance:
Bucks: 20 percent
Bulls: 18 percent
Celtics: 17 percent
76ers: 17 percent
Cavaliers: 14 percent
Raptors: 9 percent
Heat: 5 percent
Good luck making sense of that chaos. The same sort of pattern appears for the East’s other seeds, too. With so many teams involved, basically every remaining night on the schedule will include at least one crucial matchup between Eastern contenders.
Part of the problem is that no Eastern team is all that special this season: The Heat have the conference’s best-projected record at just 52-30 on average. That would be the worst record for a no. 1 seed since the Pistons went 50-32 in 2002-03. And the presence of a bunch of decent teams, as opposed to the lower quantity but better quality of the West’s contenders, means the East looks less likely to produce the title winner this season.
Consider the defending champions for an example, as the Odds Machine says Milwaukee has just a 4 percent chance to repeat. Yes, the Bucks have been great when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday have all played together, with a plus-13.8 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass. But here’s a fact that should worry Milwaukee fans: Right now, the Bucks have outscored their opponents by an average of just 3.35 points per game. Out of the 38 champions since the playoff field expanded to 16 teams, only one—the historically anomalous, sixth-seeded 1994-95 Rockets—won the title with a worse regular-season point differential.
3. The Western playoff picture is much more settled.
The Heat are the only team in the East’s top 10 with even a 40 percent chance to finish in any one particular spot in the standings. But out West, the 1-through-8 order might already be set.
Even with Chris Paul injured, the Suns—with a 6.5-game lead and an easier remaining schedule than the Warriors and Grizzlies have—still have a 98 percent chance to retain the West’s top seed. The Warriors are at 66 percent to finish second. The Grizzlies are at 55 percent to finish third. The Jazz are at 64 percent to finish fourth. The Mavericks are at 51 percent to finish fifth. The Nuggets are at 50 percent to finish sixth. The Timberwolves are at 60 percent to finish seventh. And the Clippers are at 59 percent to finish eighth.
And even if teams do jostle around a bit, they’ll certainly move less than their Eastern counterparts. Phoenix, Golden State, and Memphis all already have a 99-plus percent chance to finish with a top-four seed and earn home-court advantage in the first round.
4. Some first-round matchups may already be set.
The Western standings’ relative simplicity means a couple of teams can almost start preparing for likely playoff matchups, even this far out from their start. Here is every potential first-round pairing in the West with at least a 15 percent chance of occurring:
Most Likely First-Round Matchups: Western Conference
|Team 1||Team 2||Odds|
|Team 1||Team 2||Odds|
In the Eastern Conference, the most likely first-round matchup occurs in only 20 percent of simulations. In other words, the top 10 most likely pairings are all in the West. Here is that same chart for the East—imagine if the Heat win the no. 1 seed, only to face a healthy Durant in the first round.
Most Likely First-Round Matchups: Eastern Conference
|Team 1||Team 2||Odds|
|Team 1||Team 2||Odds|
5. The race to the bottom of the standings—and top of the lottery—will be just as fierce.
In addition to simulating the rest of the regular season and postseason, the Odds Machine also forecasts the lottery—so there’s reason to check it out even if your team is punting on this season, Pistons and Magic fans. Indeed, Detroit and Orlando look poised for a close fight for the league’s worst record, with the Pistons finishing simulations with an average of 20.2 wins and the Magic 20.8. The Rockets (22.9 wins) are close behind, giving three clear leaders in the race for the best lottery odds, which conveniently go to the three teams with the league’s worst records.
Some teams could even land multiple top-five picks—though it’s a long shot this season, with the Nets, Lakers, and Clippers all owing unprotected first-round picks to other teams but unlikely to land that high in the lottery, along with other longer-shot combinations, like the Trail Blazers getting lottery luck for both their own pick and the Pelicans’ top-four-protected selection.