What’s the NBA’s most intriguing playoff race? Experts weigh in with plenty of contenders fighting for seeding

There is officially less than one month remaining in the 2023-24 NBA regular season. All of the action is set to conclude on April 14 with a potentially wild final day that will see all 30 teams take the court. Given how the standings look now, there may still be a number of races left to decide that afternoon.

Entering this final month, the 52-14 Boston Celtics are the only team that has clinched a playoff spot, and they’re running away with both the Eastern Conference and the best record in the league. They have a 9.5-game lead in the former and a six-game lead in the latter.

The lottery teams are also likely set in both conferences. In the East, the Atlanta Hawks have a 3.5-game lead on the Brooklyn Nets for 10th place and the final Play-In Tournament spot. Out in the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors are likewise 3.5 games up on the Houston Rockets for 10th.

Other than that, though, everything is still up for grabs. As we look ahead to what should be a fascinating few weeks of hoops, here’s a look at which playoff races our experts are keeping an eye on.

Jack Maloney: This is the obvious answer, but it has to be the three-team race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference because there’s so much at stake. The difference between finishing first, which guarantees home-court advantage throughout the West playoffs, and third, which only ensures home-court advantage in the first round, is massive. And that’s to say nothing about the difference in opponents. Whatever happens at the bottom of the conference, the No. 1 seed will avoid the other top-three seeds until the conference finals, while the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds will have to face each other just to get there.

Entering Friday, the red-hot Nuggets, who have won nine of their last 10, and Thunder are both at 46-20, with a one-game advantage on the Timberwolves, who are now without Karl-Anthony Towns for the remainder of the regular season. The Nuggets have the championship pedigree, seem to have flipped a switch since the All-Star break and have the fifth-easiest schedule the rest of the way, so you’d have to give them the edge, but it’s too close to call right now.

Johnny Flores: While everyone’s eyes are on the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, I’m paying attention to the Play-In Tournament seeding race in the West. If the season ended today, the Phoenix Suns would host the Dallas Mavericks (No. 7 vs. No. 8), and the Los Angeles Lakers would host the Golden State Warriors (No. 9 vs. No. 10). First of all, both of these matchups are loaded with generational talent, and so the games on their own merit will be must-see television.

But where things get interesting is within the Play-In Tournament format itself, because the No. 7 or No. 8-placed team only has to win one game in order to advance into the Western Conference playoffs proper. The winner between the ninth and 10th-place seed must win two games, including a winner-take-all showdown with the loser from the former matchup. If you’re any of LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, odds are you’d want at least two chances to make it to the big dance, lest your season end in a one-game showdown.

Right now, only a half-game separates Phoenix and Dallas with respect to hosting a game, and Los Angeles is 2.5 games from the No. 7 seed while Golden State is 3.5. Any one of these squads could feasibly make the Western Conference Finals, but the Play-In Tournament and its seeding is the first hurdle.

James Herbert: It’s the race to stay out of the play-in. Really, there are two of them — in the East, only 3.5 games separate the fourth-place Knicks and eighth-place Heat; in the West, only two games separate the fifth-place Pelicans and eighth-place Mavericks.

If the season ended today, the Knicks, Magic, Pacers, Pelicans and Kings would be in the playoffs outright, while the 76ers, Heat, Suns and Mavericks would all be in the play-in — not an outcome that anyone predicted. Miami managed to make the Finals last year despite finishing the regular season in seventh (and losing the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game), but don’t be fooled: Your odds of advancing in the playoffs are much, much higher if you don’t have to deal with the play-in.

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