It’s the final stretch of the season. Teams have anywhere between 11-13 games left in their schedule.
The best teams are fairly secure: Golden State, San Antonio and Houston have secured playoff spots in the west, while out east Cleveland (secured playoff spot), Boston, Washington and Toronto have a comfortable cushion to securing their playoff spots in the coming weeks. Sure, there are valid arguments against a championship for at least five of them, but a few lucky breaks and/or untimely injuries can swing the race in anyone’s favor.
The worst teams are also sure of their lost season: Brooklyn is clearly out of playoff contention, with Orlando (reset mode), Philadelphia (add another year to “The Process”) and New York (but, but, Rose...sigh) closing in on an early summer, while out west, the Lakers are out of contention, with Phoenix (Eric Bledsoe done for the season), Sacramento (largely Randive’s doing) and Minnesota Timberwolves soon to join the pack. After all, tanking is in order for one of the best, and most important, drafts in recent history.
All this while, much like in the real world, the middle class, struggles.
Being a mid-level team in the NBA could mean several things, but for the purposes of this article, we will assume mid level to be a team that has less than 10% chance of landing a top-3 draft pick and has no home court advantage in any round the playoffs. History makes it a bit easier, with teams usually seeded 5 through 11 (at the time of going into the playoffs) usually meeting this criteria.
Going by the above definition we have fourteen mid-level teams:
- WEST: LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, and New Orleans Hornets
- EAST: Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets.
Assuming that making the playoffs and (increasing their chance of) winning a championship is a priority for an NBA team; we can divide the fourteen teams further into four categories:
The established contenders:
The Mavericks’ brought in Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes to fortify the team in the twilight of Nowitzki’s illustrious career. They managed to snag Nerlens Noel in a trade-deadline deal. None of these moves have yielded more wins, with the Mavericks on pace to end up with the franchise’s worst record since 2000. They rely on Nowitzki, but the clock’s ticking on his brilliant career, which isn’t good news for a franchise that has a ton of money tied up with stars who are yet to bring the W’s.
The LA Clippers’ Big Three have made the playoffs in each of their six seasons together. Injuries to Griffin in 2013, and Blake/Paul last season have derailed hopes of a Championship this far. Both Paul and Griffin are free to opt out of their contracts this season. Assuming, both Paul and Griffin re-sign with the team, the window of opportunity to win becomes narrow due to Chris Paul’s aging body. If they decide to leave, it gives Doc the opportunity to rebuild. Question is, rebuild around whom?
Coach Fizdale’s masterstroke of getting Randolph off the bench to spearhead the second unit allowed Gasol to take over the first unit to average career-high numbers. Mike Conley is an All-Star when healthy. The problem is Chandler Parsons who isn’t the player the Grizzlies were hoping would solve their outside shooting woes. It also doesn’t help that he had a season-ending injury. Memphis could trade Parsons to stock up on younger wings that, or wait till he regains his form. Question is how long is the team willing to wait?
No short term solution. All the teams are stacked with pricey contracts for established players. They can either blow up the current roster (highly unlikely), or make a few smaller moves (likely) and continue to pound away until a stroke of luck has them holding an NBA Championship.
The young guns:
Denver has been blessed with the arrival of Nikola Jokic. It’s a treat to watch Jokic, just 22, to unleash mayhem at the offensive end as he slowly discovers himself. Suit him up with Gary Harris (22, improving y-o-y), and Emmanuel Mudiay (21, injured this season) and the Nuggets have a decent core around which to build a contender.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans now have the luxury of having at least one superstar on the floor for all 48 minutes. When Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure out how to play with each other, there will be no perceivable way to stop the Pelicans. Both are solid 3-point shooters, can put the ball on the floor like guards, and also possess old-school post-up moves. The Pelicons are also armed with a very competent point guard in Jrue Holiday, an upcoming role-player in Tim Fraizer, and a dead-eye shooter in Omri Casspi. Assuming this core stays intact, this is a championship contender in two seasons
The Bucks have the most enviable young core of the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton. Fortunately for the Bucks, Middleton returned a few games after Parker went down. Their 12-6 record since the Parker injury (third best in the NBA) is enough of a tease for what is to come when this core plays a fully healthy season in the near future.
All also have a their fair share of future stars, veterans both young (5-10 seasons) and established (10+ seasons), to go along with experienced coaches in Mike Malone, Alvin Gentry and Jason Kidd respectively. All that stands between them and an NBA championship is time and experience.
The alpha-dog teams:
A looming Rondo trade/exit and a bigger roster thanks to the Gibson / McDermott trade, the Bulls are in position to trade for, or outright sign a big(ish) name to be Butler’s running mate. Jimmy Butler is hitting his peak which, unless you are LeBron James, only last for about 4-5 seasons. The Bulls would do well to move quick and smart and surround one of the League’s ten best players with a roster that can contend for a Championship.
Paul George is still among the top-20 players in the League and that number climbs if you take into account his ability as a defender as well. However, even with the addition of Jeff Teague, the Pacers are just about mediocre. They are a perennial lock in the postseason as long as George is healthy, but the Pacers will have to dig in deep to find George a running mate who can complement him, before he decides to leave. Jeff Teague is not the answer.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This isn’t a championship team, yet. Much of that can be written off to Russell Westbrook’s quest to prove he can win it all by himself which, of course, he cannot. Westbrook is one of the league’s top-5 players, but isn’t fun to play with. They have interesting pieces in Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and of course Oladipo. Playing with a ball dominant alpha dog, however, significantly affects production numbers of those around him. Weak numbers lead to smaller contracts. Just how many of the current Thunder lot stay on with the team, is yet to be seen.
Portland Trail Blazers
Nurkic will eventually turn into a front-court mainstay, while Crabbe and Harkless have shown potential to be key rotation players. Yet, one cannot fight this nagging feeling that the Blazers are underperforming, even in a comparatively tougher Western Conference. Thankfully, the Blazers are stacked with assets to make the right moves in the coming offseason, giving Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum the supporting cast he deserves to turn the team into a contender.
Trade, trade, trade. All four have get cracking to load up their teams. The Blazers have a core to build around, so it should be easier. The Thunder are banished to Westbrook-Ball Land for now. Until he comes around, there is no helping them. The Pacers and the Bulls have a roster full of players who aren’t indispensable. The clock’s ticking on all the four teams’ stars’ peaks. Trade, trade, trade.
The teams that need to hit the reset button:
They remain mediocre and don’t have too many trade assets with which to make the team a Championship contender. In related news, Paul Millsap turns 32, and isn’t a franchise player. The Spurs have shown that you do not need a “franchise player” to win a Championship. Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer knows that model; he was assistant coach on the Spurs. The Hawks have no choice, but to reset the roster, scout and recruit well at the Draft and build a contender from ground up.
They overachieved last season. They carried that confidence into this season. Kemba Walker, with a fairly competent roster, can take you to 40 wins. That is the ceiling, though. That is smack in the middle of the pack. If Charlotte wants to compete with the big guns, they would have to make their peace with the current roster, let them go, and go fishing in the Draft.
Like the Hornets, the Pistons overachieved last season. Unlike the Hornets, they have Andre Drummond who has the potential to become the League’s best center. He cannot shoot free throws, though. How do you build around a potential franchise player, when he cannot be on the floor in a close game? Tobias Harris is an exciting prospect and along with Drummond could form the core of a potential East contender. A better roster, though, and a few years of experience can make them Championship contenders
In Miami, hope is riding on Hassan Whiteside blossoming into one of league’s top-15 players (has the potential). Goran Dragic has risen into one of the league’s elite scoring point-guards. Dion Waiters’ remains one the league’s most polarizing players. Even with the growth of Tyler Johnson and return of Justise Winslow, the Heat are just a 45-win team (sixth-seed) in the East. The Heat have recruited well enough to have a roster of players that could either mature and turn them into a contender in a couple of seasons, or become trade pieces for an All-Star level player.
The solution for these teams?
Hit the “reset” button.
- Keep one (or two) core pieces: Hardaway / Schroder in Atlanta, Walker in Charlotte, Drummond / Harris in Detroit, Whiteside in Miami.
- Trade away older / valuable assets: Howard in Atlanta, Batum in Charlotte, Morris / Jackson in Detroit, Dragic / Waiters in Miami.
- Trade for younger legs and potential
- Trade for younger legs and potential
- Tank for the high draft pick
Best of the week:
Performance of the Week: John Wall vs Chicago Bulls, 14 points / 20 assists
John Wall is having the time of his life leading this surging Wizards team into the playoffs. The game against the Bulls was an indicator of why, despite being the team’s star, Wall does not need to score the ball. Wall dished out a career high 20 assists (committing just two turnovers in the process) to guide five more teammates to score in double figures in the win over the Bulls. He has firmly established himself as an elite level point guard. Wall, now second in the in NBA with 10.9 assists, is a throwback to the old-school point guard, his power of passing and getting teammates involved clear for all to see as he has the healthy roster he needed to succeed.
Game of the Week: Washington Wizards vs Portland Trail Blazers, 125-124 (OT)
Also known as the Battle Of The Backcourt, the Wall-Beal combo took on the Lillard-McCollum duo to give us a controversial game, which stood out in a week that also had a Warriors-Spurs duel and this James vs James duel. The Blazers are still gunning for the eighth spot in the West (they are 1.5 games behind the Nuggets), while Washington would love to climb into the No. 2 seed in the East (they are 2 games behind). The battle did not disappoint; with both duos combining for over 60 points each. Wall (39) and Beal (26) also dished out 15 assists in the win. Lillard (33) struggled from the the 3-pt line (4 of 11) while McCollum (34) fared much better (5 of 9)
Player of the Week: Paul George, 29.7 PPG / 8.3 RPG / 53%-46%-100%*
Much like last season, George has put a mediocre Pacers team on his back and leading them towards another playoff run. His numbers may not reflect it, but George has established himself as an elite-level two-way player in the NBA. Behind George, the Pacers took care of business against two conference rivals, including an important win over Miami who are 1.5 games behind them in 7th place in the East. He capped off his week with a career-high 39 point outing against the Charlotte Hornets, and going a perfect 100% from the free throw line.
Team of the Week: Milwaukee Bucks: 3-1
Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets all had perfect 3-0 records. Four other teams had 3-1 records. The Bucks, however, had the most to gain with a winning week. Their season was written off with the loss of Jabari Parker to injury. The Bucks had other ideas. After falling out of playoff contention for a short while, they are back and in eighth seed at the time of writing this. They are far from secure with both Detroit (1 game behind) and Chicago (1.5 games behind) on their heels. The Bucks will be tested this home stretch to make the playoffs once again.
*Shooting splits: Field Goal% - Three Point% - Free Throw%