Why does seeding matter?
Here's one example.
On the final night of the 2006-07 season, the Toronto Raptors had clinched the Atlantic Division and was locked into the third seed. Their first round opponent was still be determined, as the New Jersey Nets and Washington Wizards were both in action that night, and were both 40-41. The Nets were a team built around Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. The Wizards had Antawn Jamison, but not Caron Butler or Gilbert Arenas, who were both out with injuries.
I remember all of this because I knew which team I would have preferred to play in the first round.
The Nets and Wizards both won that night, which gave the Nets the sixth seed. They would beat us in six games in the first round. Meanwhile, the short-handed Wizards were swept out of the first round by Cleveland.
I understand those why say that if you're going to win a championship, you're going to have to play all the good teams eventually. But I also follow a team that's won one playoff series in franchise history. Getting to the second round matters, and if it's an easier path there, so be it.
Where do things stand?
The race atop the Eastern Conference is starting to clear up. Unless something drastic happens, the top four teams will be Toronto, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington in some order.
The division winners and the best non-division winning team get the top four seeds, sorted by record. Because Toronto has essentially wrapped up the Atlantic Division, they're guaranteed one of those spots, barring a team like Brooklyn closing the gap, a scenario we'll file under not very likely for now.
The Cavs are still within striking distance of the Bulls in the Central Division, but with Chicago rounding into form and Cleveland without LeBron James for two weeks (or more), it's likely that gap will only increase in the Bulls' favor.
So, what would be the ideal seeding to finish at? It seems like a strange question since the number one seed guarantees home court throughout the East playoffs, but I'd venture to say any of the top-four teams would prefer to avoid the Cavaliers in the first round, and if possible, avoid the bracket that would set up a potential second round matchup with the Bulls.
The Cavs have been a mess on the defensive end so far this season, and have a very thin roster. But if they hit the playoffs healthy, they still have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. I would personally prefer to face off against a younger team like the Milwaukee Bucks, or a team with much less talent overall like Brooklyn.
Of course, the Cavs could end up anywhere in the bottom-four depending on how these next two weeks go in LeBron's absence, and it's not as easy as it sounds to tank yourself into a lower playoff spot. But for Toronto (and Atlanta and Chicago), the ideal scenario would be for Chicago and Cleveland to fall into the same side of the bracket, while they end up on the other side, and avoid both of those teams until the Conference Finals.
How does the rest of the season look?
So, how does the rest of the schedule stack up for the top four teams? Let's take a look. I've defined quality opponents as any of the top four teams in the East, and any of the eight teams in the West playoffs right now, plus the Thunder:
- 49 games left, 24 at home
- 20 games against quality opponents
- Notable stretches: a seven-game home stand at the end of January, a six-game West Coast road trip in mid-March (Nuggets, Suns, Lakers, Kings, Warriors, Thunder)
- The Hawks have games against Washington and Chicago in the final week of the season.
- 48 games left, 25 at home
- 19 games against quality opponents
- Notable stretches: six-game road trip starting end of January (Warriors, Lakers, Suns, Rockets, Pelicans, Magic). A seven-game home stand at the end of February stretching into early March. Two games against the Raptors within five days in late March
- 48 games left, 24 at home
- 16 games against quality opponents
- Notable stretches: a six-game home stand in January starting this Thursday, a five-game home stand in February
- The closing April schedule is road heavy, but also very manageable: at Minnesota, at Brooklyn, vs. Boston, at Charlotte, at Orlando, at Miami, at Boston, vs. Charlotte.
- 49 games left, 23 at home
- 18 games against quality opponents
- Notable stretches: four-game West Coast road trip at end of January (Blazers, Nuggets, Lakers, Suns)
- Close with five of last six regular season games on the road
This race should be fun.