At this time of year, with the NBA’s postseason lurking just over a month away, typically the most interesting races in the standings come at the top or at the bottom: championship contenders jockeying for home-court advantage via playoff seeding or the dregs of this year’s teams, waiting to see which one will sink the lowest into the lottery quagmire. The teams in the middle, the ones relegated to the fringes of the playoff races and the middle of the first round, are usually the teams of least consequence.
If you’re not paying attention to the lower rungs of the playoff race this season, however, you’re missing out. Thanks to injuries, the depth of the league and a host of other mitigating factors, the competition for the final playoff spaces is fierce this season. Fierce to the point that there might be some legitimate sleeper teams lurking among the bunch, maybe even a contender or two.
So, as we wait for everything to shake out, playoff-wise, maybe avert your eyes from the guys at the top, and take a gander at the dudes at the bottom, from the unfairly competitive chase for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot to the East’s dumpster-fire -cum-postseason-race among a half-dozen teams with losing records. This is where amazing is happening, and as the teams near the top struggle to simply stay upright by the time the playoffs roll around, the teams vying for the bottom are putting everything on the line, every night, and are making for the some of the most interesting basketball in the league as the regular season winds down.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF BOTTOM
7. Miami Heat, 26-33
8. Brooklyn Nets, 25-33
9. Indiana Pacers, 25-34
10. Charlotte Hornets, 24-33
11. Boston Celtics, 23-34
12. Detroit Pistons, 23-36
While technically still a playoff race, the less eloquent, more accurate way to describe the bottom of the East’s playoff ladder would be a cluster-“rhymes with ‘duck’,” as there are six teams within three games of each other contending for just two playoff spots.
The Heat, Nets and Pacers are the “been there, done that” members of this group, while the Hornets, Celtics and Pistons are trying to make some noise in the playoffs for the first time in a few years.
In the immediate aftermath of the trade deadline, it seemed like Miami’s trade for Goran Dragic from Phoenix would push them to the top of this group of teams, but they promptly lost Chris Bosh for the season to a blood clot scare, bumping the Heat back down a notch as they try to adjust on the fly to life with Dragic and without Bosh.
The Heat still have Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside and one of the league’s best coaches in Eric Spoelstra, however, so they aren’t panicking about being able to hold off the field.
Brooklyn is right behind Miami and fresh off a Monday night win against the league’s top team in Golden State. Still, the Nets don’t instill a ton of confidence, with a ton of aging players who could wear down under the burden of season-long heavy minute-loads and a team defense that might as well have ushers leading you to the basket.
The Hornets’, Pistons’ and Celtics’ chances could each hinge on the arrival of their respective backcourts. Without Kemba Walker, Charlotte has struggled to stay afloat in the East, as Lance Stephenson has never come around to being the secondary ball handler and scoring option they hoped he would become. The Pistons are hoping that Reggie Jackson can smoothly replace Brandon Jennings and help the team get to the postseason and find something to build on. The Celtics finally decided they would try to make the playoffs for the first time this season under coach Brad Stevens, and acquiring Isaiah Thomas at the All-Star break has been a boon to this team, one that their front office is surely hoping will put them in the playoff basement.
The most intriguing team of the bunch is probably the Pacers, who have struggled through a year of injuries to Paul George, George Hill and David West, but have now re-emerged and posted the league’s best record in February. At this time last season, Indiana’s season was falling apart, but this year, everything seems to be coming together at the right time for the Pacers, who are also potentially just a couple weeks away from a George return and will enjoy 13 of their last 23 games at home.
Last season, the Pacers were at the top with everything to lose, and this season, they’re starting from the bottom with nothing to lose. If this team welcomes back a healthy, contributing George, one of the league’s top two-way players, in time for the playoffs, things could get very interesting.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF BOTTOM
6. Dallas Mavericks, 40-22
7. San Antonio Spurs, 36-23
8. Oklahoma City Thunder, 33-27
9. New Orleans Pelicans, 32-28
10. Phoenix Suns, 31-30
As usual, teams in the Western Conference are feeling a bit jipped in comparison to their Eastern Conference counterparts. The teams on the peripherals of this playoff picture are infinitely more qualified and obviously of a higher caliber, but until Adam Silver makes good on his playoff realignment promises, this is simply the reality of being a Western Conference contender.
Still, that’s a small consolation for whatever two teams wind up on the outside looking in this year, and right now, those two teams look like New Orleans and Phoenix.
The Mavericks look safe––with just 20 games remaining, they’re four games up on the Spurs and six games up on the Thunder. Things get considerably tighter once you look past Dallas, however, and given San Antonio’s recent troubles, you can’t blame the Spurs for looking over their shoulder.
Still, given their history, the Spurs should be fine. That team has great experience and focus that bodes well for this heated late-season run. Coincidentally enough, the two teams with the least experience out West, the Pelicans and Suns, look like they might be the odd ones out in this scenario.
Phoenix was already sinking before the Dragic trade, and the team is just 3-10 in their last 13 games. While that trade certainly didn’t help, this team’s issues go far beyond Dragic and pertain mostly to their inability to guard anyone. Already 2½ games back of the Thunder for the final spot, it’s hard to imagine the Suns shoring things up enough to catch OKC, especially if they can’t shore up their abysmal 23rd-ranked defense.
The Dragic situation was a bad break for Phoenix, but NOLA has arguably had worse luck, as the team is currently without three of its best players (Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson) and has still managed to remain in the chase, just a game behind the Thunder.
While the resilience of Monty Williams’ team has been incredible, they probably don’t have enough talent to sustain a playoff push without Davis. If Davis comes back healthy, however, and reports indicate that he’s close, it would be great to see this team sneak into the back end of the playoffs, because that would mean postseason Brow, a treat we’ve yet to enjoy.
Still, as it has been all season, the story surrounding the final spot in the West is all about Oklahoma City.
The Thunder have been hard-charging for the final playoff spot all year, fighting off multiple injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and hoping the pair won’t be totally burned out from their balls-to-the-wall climb out of a deep hole, record-wise. Now, they’re finally here, and Oklahoma City’s front office tried their best to find a supporting cast for their two stars at the trading deadline, snagging Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler as role players who can help key a playoff run. If this team can get healthy, they’re not just going to be a big-time sleeper choice, but they’re going to be a legitimate title contender, even though they’re a long way from the top right now.