Finally, we’ve arrived. The stretch run of the 2018-19 NBA season is here, and with it come the games that will define the campaign and change the landscape of the upcoming postseason.
The final 20-plus games of the year are going to be thrilling to watch unfold, as teams will be fighting and jockeying for position, with some hoping to earn a spot that will allow them to host a playoff series or two, and others just hoping to qualify for the playoffs, period.
Obviously, some organizations lucked out in having the toughest part of their schedule early in the year, when they were as close to full health as possible. Others, however, have the misfortune of facing a buzzsaw to close the season, one that could knock them out of postseason contention altogether.
Below, using Tankathon’s handy Remaining Schedule Strength tool, which ranks teams based on the win percentages of the opponents that await them to close the year, we break down the five teams with the easiest remaining schedule and the five teams with the most difficult final stretch.
FIVE EASIEST REMAINING SCHEDULES
5. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Remaining schedule strength: 0.472
The race for the top seed in the East should be quite interesting to close this season, what with the top two seeds both finding their way onto this list.
The current No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is the Milwaukee Bucks, who, sit at 43-14 (the best record in the league) with 25 games remaining. Nevertheless, Milwaukee can’t get too comfortable, as they only have a one-game lead on the No. 2 seed in the East, a team that’s coming up first on this list.
What’s more, Milwaukee still has to face the Boston Celtics (twice) and the Houston Rockets (once) to close the year, which are tough matchups that should be quite fun playoff previews, and that will show us what kind of form the Bucks will be on heading into the postseason.
4. PHOENIX SUNS
Remaining schedule strength: 0.460
At the All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns have the league’s worst record at 11-48, so really, their remaining strength of schedule is only interesting for lottery-positioning purposes.
Even then, with the revised lottery odds, the teams with the three worst records will all have an equal chance at the top pick (14 percent), so the Suns only have to worry about not falling out of the bottom three. With games against the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets remaining, however, Phoenix probably won’t have to overly fret about winning too much.
3. ORLANDO MAGIC
Remaining schedule strength: 0.460
As has become a bit of the norm over recent years, the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff standings are wide open as we arrive at the stretch run. Thus, the Orlando Magic, sitting at 27-32, are still in the thick of the postseason race in the East.
In fact, winners of their last five games and with the third-easiest schedule remaining, it’s not too far-fetched to think the Magic really can make a run at the playoffs to close the season. If Orlando does end up making it in, it would be their first postseason appearance since 2011-12.
2. UTAH JAZZ
Remaining schedule strength: 0.452
Although the first half of the season was a mild disappointment for the Utah Jazz, they can take solace in the fact that they have the second-easiest schedule to wrap up 2018-19.
The Jazz are 12-4 over their last 16 games, so considering their form is improving anyway and their soft schedule to close the year, there’s even a chance the Jazz can make a push for home-court advantage in the first round. That would be huge in improving their chances of winning a playoff series for the third year running in the loaded Western Conference.
1. TORONTO RAPTORS
Remaining schedule strength: 0.450
The top seed in the East, the Bucks, have the fifth-easiest schedule to close the year. The team with the easiest schedule to finish the season, though? That would be the Toronto Raptors, the second seed in the East.
Mostly battling it out against lesser foes over the final 20-plus games of 2018-19, Toronto and Milwaukee both have a huge opportunity to finish with the top record in the Eastern Conference. Considering that would mean a first-round matchup against an eighth seed that will likely finish the year with a losing record, as well as hosting every series throughout the postseason, it’s clear why both teams will look to give max effort on a nightly basis and avoid playing down to their competition.
FIVE MOST DIFFICULT REMAINING SCHEDULES
5. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Remaining schedule strength: 0.538
Despite an ugly start to the season, both on the court and off it, the Minnesota Timberwolves (27-30) are only four games out of a playoff spot in the West.
And yet… with the fifth-toughest remaining schedule, it’s a bit hard to see them making a real push at a postseason spot, especially with how battered they’ve been by the injury bug. Their recent form (dropping six of their last nine games) also hasn’t helped matters.
4. DENVER NUGGETS
Remaining schedule strength: 0.540
With just over 20 games remaining, the Denver Nuggets sit second in the West, trailing the reigning champion Golden State Warriors by two games. And although they would certainly love to surpass Golden State by season’s end, their remaining schedule is going to make things difficult.
It is worth noting that they face the Warriors two more times to close the year, so if they can get two positive results out of those matchups, their chances of finishing with the West’s top seed get exponentially better.
3. BROOKLYN NETS
Remaining schedule strength: 0.541
After winning 58 games over the prior three seasons, the Brooklyn Nets have finally turned things around this year. With 24 games left in their campaign, Brooklyn sits at 30-29 and in the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed.
And because of how poorly the teams at the seventh and eighth seed in the East are doing, it looks like the Nets are going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014-15. That’s even despite them having the league’s third-toughest schedule to close the year, with games against the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics still to go.
2. CHARLOTTE HORNETS
Remaining schedule strength: 0.541
Speaking of the teams at the bottom of the East’s playoff standings, the Charlotte Hornets are presently the No. 7 seed in the conference, despite their 27-30 record.
But with three teams within one game of them in the standings, and due to them having the second-toughest schedule remaining, it wouldn’t be all too shocking to see Charlotte struggle to make the playoffs this year.
It’s going to be a grind for the Hornets to close the year, as multiple games against the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors still await them.
1. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Remaining schedule strength: 0.572
One of the six best teams in basketball this year according to net rating, the Oklahoma City Thunder carry the distinction of having the toughest remaining schedule league-wide.
Thankfully, they sit at 37-20 at the All-Star break, doing more than enough to position themselves comfortably among teams looking to host at least one playoff series. Of course, their goal is going to be to finish as close to the top of the West at year’s end as possible, so this final stretch is going to be important for them.
As the current third seed out west, Oklahoma City has a three-game lead on the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, while sitting two games out of the second-seeded Denver Nuggets, and four games behind the top-seeded Golden State Warriors.
Catching up to Denver or Golden State won’t be easy, especially with a humdinger of a schedule still to go, but the Thunder have proven to be an elite team thus far this season, so they may just be up to the challenge.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.