There are a few interesting stories in the Eastern Conference playoff race, mostly surrounding the chase for the final playoff spots. The most fun part about it is that all of the teams competing for the final spots are under .500. Essentially, it’s not “who will win to get in” as much as it’s “which team will lose the least.” But that’s not the only playoff storyline involving bad teams.
As it stands right now, the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards are set to square off as the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. At the moment, Toronto holds a one-game edge and the home-court advantage. It’s essentially a two-game edge, however, as the Raptors are 3-0 against the Wizards this season. The Raptors have averaged an 8.3-point margin of victory in the season series, and would seem to be the favorite if the standings hold.
But neither team has been good recently. In fact, the only reason they’ve held so high in the standings is the complete lack of competitive teams below them. The Raptors are 8-15 since mid-February, and the Wizards are 11-13 over the same span of time. The Bulls seem to have been doing anything they can to tank their way away from the Cleveland side of the bracket, going 10-10 since Derrick Rose went out with his meniscus injury, but it hasn’t quite been bad enough to get past Toronto or Washington.
Injuries always play a factor, of course. After Bradley Beal missed significant time in the first half of the season, the Wizards have dealt with nagging injuries in the second half. It looks like that may be ending soon, however, as Nene and Paul Pierce look to be returning back to the lineup after missing a short amount of time. The Raptors have been without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, who has played just 10 minutes of game action in the last nine games. DeMar DeRozan missed a stretch of 21 consecutive games earlier in the season, as well.
Part of what has made this season disappointing for each team was that they’ve both had young, promising players not take quite the leap forward that was expected. For Toronto, Jonas Valanciunas has been good, but not great. It’s not that he was expected to be an All-Star by his third year in the league, but more progress would have been nice. After putting up 11.3 points per game last year, fans were expecting more this season. He’s only getting on the floor for 26.5 minutes per game, which is a big part of it.
DeRozan has taken a bit of a step back, with his scoring and shooting percentages going down from last year. Obviously the injury didn’t help and he has had some big games lately, but he’s a streaky scorer and isn’t good enough to be a legitimate go-to player on a championship team. And while he’s a solid defensive player, the Raptors’ defense has been atrocious for much of the year.
The Wizards have had similar issues with John Wall and Beal this year. Beal missed a bunch of games right out of the gate and hasn’t been able to build on his breakout season last year. After putting up 17.1 points per game on 41.9 percent shooting in the regular season and then really breaking out in the postseason, Beal is scoring just 14.9 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting this year. He’s susceptible to forcing bad shots at times, which leads me to believe he struggles a bit with his role in the offense, although we do know that head coach Randy Wittman doesn’t have a problem with some of those questionable long twos Beal likes to take.
Wall is having a good year, no doubt, as he’s on the verge of setting a career high with 10.0 assists per game. But his scoring is down nearly two points per game, and his three-point efficiency has taken a dive from 35.1 percent last year to 30.3 percent. Wall is one of the best point guards in the league, but at 24 years old and in his fifth season in the league, the regression in long-distance shooting is disheartening.
The Wizards were hoping that Otto Porter, the No. 3 pick in 2013, would be playing a bigger role by now. He’s playing just under 19 minutes per game and scoring 5.9 points per game, although he does have one of the better offensive ratings on the team. The potential with Porter is still there, as he’s only 21 years old. But the consistent playing time isn’t, as he has sunk on the depth chart behind journeymen like Rasual Butler.
Toronto looked pretty good recently, posting a three-point win over the Rockets. DeRozan dropped 42 in that one, and he and the Raptors followed it up with a 14-point win over the Timberwolves. But then they ruined it with back-to-back losses to the Nets and Celtics, both who have records under .500. The Wizards have been similarly hot and cold lately, having won five in a row in mid-March only to go on a four-game losing streak in which they averaged a 17.5-point margin of defeat. They’ve won three in a row currently, but two of those three were over the 76ers and Knicks.
When playoff time rolls around, it’ll be interesting to see what happens if these two highly inconsistent teams get together. Would it just be two flailing teams going at it in a display of ugly basketball? Or would these two squads get it together again and play an exciting series? If it was the former, the positive would be that only one of the teams could advance.