Amid all the crazy story lines swirling around the league, we cannot overlook the event that could define a generation — nay, multiple generations: the race for the seventh and eighth playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Perhaps “race” isn’t the right word, since it implies these teams are humming at peak speed. It’s more like a three-legged slog through quicksand.
Since I last wrote about conference imbalance, the East has played the West a bit tougher; Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago scored big wins, leading to some polite suggestions that those of us in the anti-conference group had exaggerated the East-West gap.
But the call to end conferences was never about differences in ability at the top. Even as the Hawks and others rose up, the last nine teams in the East — 60 percent of the conference — have remained a relative train wreck. The “end conferences” concept isn’t about ending conferences; it’s a mechanism to get the 16 best teams in the playoffs.
That isn’t happening this season. Two of the Oklahoma City/New Orleans/Phoenix trio will go home in April, and two of the six teams we’re about to discuss will fall ass-backward into the playoffs. At least the East is on pace — for now — to avoid the shame of supplying the NBA’s first 50-loss playoff team since the 1988 Spurs.
But still, we’ll have to watch two of these teams at least four times on national TV. (Though it’s possible one snags the Hawks’ annual spot with a first-round series on NBA TV.) If you’re a neutral fan, you should be rooting for maximum entertainment value: Which of these teams gives us the best chance of an aesthetically appealing first-round series?
Orlando Magic (15-37, no. 13)
I have a well-chronicled soft spot for these guys. They’re young, with so many quirky pieces — guys with both wonderful skills and gaping holes in their games. It’s a tricky puzzle, especially with such a young roster; it’s not surprising that Jacque Vaughn couldn’t even figure out his preferred starting lineup before the Magic canned him Thursday. Channing Frye, the highest-paid player on the team, has started 38 games — and logged less than eight minutes off the bench against the Spurs on Wednesday.
Orlando has been a disappointment this season — bad on both sides of the ball, last in points allowed per possession over the last month, with a bunch of ugly blowout losses at home. It’s tempting to say it is way behind for Year 3 of the franchise’s post–Dwight Howard life, but this might be the youngest of all three post-Dwight rosters. Since dealing Howard, the Magic have traded or cut almost every veteran player (J.J. Redick, Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, Josh McRoberts, et al.) in exchange for either NBA babies or veterans who can’t play anymore. Frye is really the lone exception — a proven veteran still within his prime.
The Magic start a rookie point guard who can’t shoot, a second-year wing destroyer who needs the ball, and a 24-year-old center who can’t protect the rim. They still can’t decide what position Tobias Harris should play, what pace they like, and whether they should play a shooter (Frye) or a rim protector (Kyle O’Quinn) next to Nikola Vucevic. On some nights, you can see the blurry outlines of an interesting team — a spread pick-and-roll machine with tenacious perimeter defenders and some grit.
On other nights, it’s a mess. The Magic under Vaughn toggled haphazardly between different offensive styles and defensive schemes. There has been no consistent identity beyond “hard work,” and everyone in the NBA works pretty hard. Maurice Harkless vanished for no real reason. A coach with a firmer hand would have imprinted some coherent vision upon this roster by now. The Magic never pursued Mike Budenholzer, another Spurs acolyte, and you wonder what he might have done with this roster.
Vaughn was dealt a tough hand for a first-time coach, and molding this season’s roster might have been his toughest challenge. Still, when a team has no consistent structure and lies down again and again, it’s fair to suggest the coach hasn’t maximized its talent. You can’t be rolling Willie Green out there as your backup point guard.
Hard to Watch But Showing Signs of Life
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
6. Brooklyn Nets (20-28, no. 9)
The league’s two-time defending Boredom Champions have been downright frisky since losing back-to-back road games to the Jazz and Clippers by a humiliating 74 combined points last month. Lionel Hollins appears to have finally found a rotation he likes, and Deron Williams is back to prop up an offense that became frighteningly dependent on Jarrett Jack midrange pull-ups.
For all the (justified) flak he gets, Williams is still a league-average starting point guard, and he has broken out some classic crafty D-Will drives since his return from injury. Even the Williams-Jack combination, dreadful all season, has looked alive over the last two games.
It’s also fun to watch the Nets figure out the present and future of their big-man rotation, which includes two pieces — Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett — who will be the subject of trade talks over the next two weeks. Garnett has a no-trade clause, but he holds some appeal to playoff teams who can use a boost off the bench and/or some long-term salary relief — Golden State, Charlotte, Toronto, and others. The Nets won’t engage in any series of deals that leaves them with more long-term salary, so it will be tough to find the right combination of trades that makes dealing Garnett’s expiring contract palatable. But the cranky one can still knock down a midrange jumper and play solid defense.
The Lopez–Mason Plumlee double-barreled center has been a disaster on both ends of the floor, but it’s always interesting to monitor how these kinds of unconventional lineups function over a long sample. Having two guys near the rim clogs up spacing, and Plumlee can’t do much on offense aside from slice to the rim on the pick-and-roll. That forces Lopez to function as more of a floor-spacer, pick-and-popping for jumpers or just spotting up around Plumlee dives:
The combination hasn’t worked on defense, where Lopez has always struggled and Plumlee can get frazzled chasing around rangier power forwards. But it makes the Nets more watchable, and Brooklyn almost has to use it now, with Mirza Teletovic out for the season. Lopez can’t grind the offense down with post-ups if Plumlee is staking claim to the rim area, and Lopez has indeed posted up a bit less often since returning from injury in late December, per Synergy Sports.
Plumlee is growing into a heady passer, both from the post (when teams are dumb enough to double him) and on the move in the pick-and-roll:
He dunks, too! So does Cory Jefferson! Bojan Bogdanovic is playing again! Alan Anderson had a random 20-point outburst and makes mean faces a lot! This team almost looks fun, just in time for Friday’s Subway Rat Bowl against the Knicks and a monster eight-game road trip that could decide its season.
But let’s not get carried away over a few fun games: These guys are still the same slowpokes who can’t penetrate the paint or shoot 3s. Brooklyn missing the playoffs would also raise the possibility of the greatest random transactional moment in NBA history: the Nets’ looming pick swap with Atlanta, which Danny Ferry somehow shoehorned into the Joe Johnson trade — the rare instance in which the team doing someone a favor decided to toss in some last-minute sweeteners for reasons no one has ever understood.
I’m not sure casual fans realize what might happen here. The Hawks have a chance to finish with the best record in the NBA. They could pick 30th! The Nets might miss the playoffs, which would open up something like a 3 percent chance of Brooklyn jumping into the draft’s top three — and then trading all the way down with Atlanta.
We’ve had wacky lottery plot twists before; the Cavs won the Kyrie Irving lottery with a pick they received from the Clippers in the Baron Davis–Mo Williams deal. But that was a straight-up trade of players and assets. Pick swaps are more esoteric.
5. Indiana Pacers (18-32, no. 12)
If you like slowpoke teams that can’t drive to the rim or shoot 3s, have I got the team for you! The Pacers slide above the Nets for only one reason: Larry Bird holding out the carrot of an in-season Paul George return, a scenario Frank Vogel wouldn’t rule out when he came on my podcast in October.
The Pacers offense was hard to watch when they were good, so you can imagine what the viewing experience has been like this season amid a talent drain and endless injuries. There are some positives. They’ll still play solid defense as long as Roy Hibbert is around to protect the rim, and Hibbert is looking spry again after an ankle injury derailed what had been a strong start to his season. He’s grabbing more boards than ever, and though his uptick in midrange jumpers is worth monitoring, he’s making about 45 percent of them — a solid clip.
And George Hill is back — the Pacers are minus-91 for the season, but they’ve outscored opponents by 64 points in just 247 minutes with Hill on the floor, per NBA.com. That number is about both Hill and the quality of his replacements. The Hawks and Raptors are reminders of how powerful it can be to just put five solid players on the floor at once — no glaring liabilities, no one who can’t shoot, and only one or two guys who have to hide someplace on defense.
Hill can defend multiple positions, and he’s a decent 3-point shooter. You’re just not going to score enough playing some combination of Donald Sloan, Rodney Stuckey, and Solomon Hill with two post-up players; Indiana ranks just 28th in points per possession.
Lineups featuring Hill and C.J. Miles hold some promise. In the bigger picture, the Pacers have to decide what they want to be this season — and how David West fits into that. There were rumblings about six weeks ago that the Pacers had made West available for a first-round pick, but those rumblings have quieted, and that price is probably too high. West is in decline and has a thorny player option for next season, but he can get you buckets in crunch time; the Pacers wouldn’t have escaped the Hawks last season without him.
That’s another interesting subplot: the potential of a Hawks-Pacers 1-versus-8 rematch, with the seeds reversed! I’m sure Hibbert is dying to chase Atlanta’s centers around the perimeter again!
4. Boston Celtics (18-30, no. 11)
Exactly what Mr. Simmons wants: Boston chasing the no. 8 seed and a certain first-round curb-stomping over another dip into the lottery!
These guys aren’t unappealing. They can play five-out when Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk are both available (and on time!), Avery Bradley has been canning jumpers lately, and Marcus Smart is a goddamn velociraptor on defense. He’ll gamble himself out of position now and then, but Smart is an in-your-grill torment who is somehow immune to being screened. Seriously: You can’t set a clean pick on him! He’s also shooting a tidy 36 percent from deep; Boston has been much better on offense with Smart on the floor, and when Brad Stevens really wants to amp up the pressure, he can put Smart, Bradley, and Jae Crowder out there together.
Olynyk has also been a boon to Boston’s offense, since he can shoot 3s1 and work the pump-and-drive game:
Notwithstanding a recent slump.
The C’s are playing small ball more without him. That would normally open the door for Gerald Wallace and Tayshaun Prince to steal minutes from younger players — Prince has been canning jumpers in Boston — but a hip injury and Wallace’s general lack of offense has mercifully forced them both back to the bench.
There’s just a certain lack of dynamism here. The C’s ping the ball around a lot, but they can’t get the juiciest shots out of it; only four teams take more long 2s in the first half of the shot clock, per SportVU data provided to Grantland, and only the hapless Knicks get to the line less often. The Celtics don’t have enough heft or rim protection up front to be much better than average defensively.
You Could Talk Me Into It
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
3. Charlotte Hornets (22-27, no. 7)
If you want to approximate the experience of time-traveling back to the early 1990s Eastern Conference, watch the Hornets, the league’s stingiest defensive team since the calendar flipped to 2015. They slow the pace to a crawl, dump the ball into old-school post-up Professor Al Jefferson, chuck midrange jumpers, and hand essentially the entire crunch-time offense over to Kemba Walker — who’s out another few weeks with a knee injury.
They’ve all but punted the entire concept of floor spacing by starting Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the wings, and it’s kind of working.
The offense still stinks — Charlotte ranks 29th in points per possession — but the Hornets are squeezing out just enough points to let their defense nudge them across the finish line. That defense has held strong since Jefferson’s return from injury, an encouraging sign since the Hornets could not stop anyone until Bismack Biyombo (temporarily) replaced Jefferson in the starting lineup. The Hornets get back on defense and clean the glass better than anyone in the league — just like last season.
The Hornets have fattened up on a soft-ish schedule, but they’ve also defended well against some quality teams in the last month, including the powerful Spurs and Raptors. The team has figured some things out about its rotation. Steve Clifford was smart to (mostly) separate Jefferson and Marvin Williams by starting the improved Cody Zeller, and it appears Lance Stephenson will come off the bench for the rest of the season. “It’s better for both Kemba and Lance that way,” Clifford tells Grantland. “To play the way we want them to play, they both need to be the primary ball handler.”
Stephenson looks healthier now, and he’s at least trying to move the ball in Charlotte’s pick-and-roll-heavy system instead of holding it for fancy dribbles that go nowhere. “He’s making quicker decisions now,” Clifford says.
This team isn’t exactly a delight to watch, but Kidd-Gilchrist is irresistible. He crashes the offensive glass like a madman, he’s more confident in his midrange jumper, and he can manufacture points with a herky-jerky driving game that knocks defenders off-balance. He will always outwork your ass; he is challenging Danny Green’s perch as the league’s unheralded great transition defender:
Kidd-Gilchrist and Henderson are relics of a lost NBA age, but they’re pretty good at what they do. Henderson is a sneaky vicious dunker, he can keep things flowing with a workable side pick-and-roll, and he can look like a mini-Kobe posting up on the right night. If Big Al regains his post-up artistry and Gary Neal figures out how to shoot again, this team has some watchability potential.
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
2. Miami Heat (21-28, no. 8)
Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Hassan Whiteside have played only 80 minutes together. I’d like some more of that, please. The Heat have blitzed opponents by nearly 21 points per 100 possessions in those 80 minutes, and Whiteside has provided a huge lift to their punchless offense.
The Heat before the Whiteside eruption were kind of like a souped-up version of the Hornets and Celtics — a team that passes and moves a lot in the half court, but doesn’t get anywhere all that well. They can’t attack the basket or generate corner 3s like they could when LeBron was around, they have the worst point guard rotation in the league, and they don’t threaten anyone from long range.
It has been jarring to watch a team that once seemed so dangerous from deep look so meek. Mario Chalmers has fallen off a cliff, Norris Cole is already on the ground below him, and Shabazz Napier just refuses to shoot some nights. LeBron’s spot-up brigade is gone — either out of the league or earning undeserved contracts in Cleveland. Luol Deng has had a nice season as a jack-of-all-trades, setting picks and cutting around the floor, but he doesn’t spook defenders into staying attached to him.
Teams have gotten braver and braver loading off everyone to throw multiple defenders in Bosh’s line of sight:
Miami’s defense has tightened up over the last month, but the offense sans Whiteside has been ugly. No team plays a slower pace, and despite all the coaching staff’s creativity and emphasis on movement, a lot of possessions end up in Bosh isolations or Wade old-man dribble-drives.
But Wade’s old-man game is so wily, and it has been rewarding to see Bosh stretch his wings again. And Whiteside? The dude is just rampaging over the league like Godzilla. He has rebounded 26.5 percent of all missed shots while on the floor, a mark that would rank as the fourth-greatest ever. He has a shockingly soft touch on putbacks, jumpers, and hooks.
He has blocked 11 percent of opponent shots while on the floor, a mark that would break the NBA record. These aren’t empty blocks, either; Whiteside keeps a lot of them in bounds, and opponents are shooting an awful percentage at the rim when he’s around, per SportVU data.
He’s a legit threat to dunk anything on the pick-and-roll, which opens up driving lanes for Miami’s sad point guards and allows Bosh to gobble up easy spot-up looks:
The Whiteside show alone merits the no. 2 spot here. Toss in some residual fear factor — the Eastern Conference hotshots have a healthy respect for these guys — and it’d be a ball to see the Heat grit their way to a 2-2 tie in a first-round series against an Eastern Conference juggernaut. You know they’re comfortable in the pressure cooker. Pat Riley & Co. would like to upgrade at the trade deadline, but they just don’t have the assets to make it happen. Still, a Cleveland-Miami series in the 2-versus-7 slot is not implausible …
The Easy Winner
1. Detroit Pistons (19-31, no. 10)
These guys won’t be as good now that the Brandon Jennings supernova has burned out, but they’re still fun as hell — especially compared with the rest of this lot. America needs the Pistons in the playoffs. The world needs the Pistons in the playoffs.They’re not quite the Warriors, but with D.J. Augustin at the point, Detroit is trying to run off every miss — and even off some makes and free throws:
They’ve edged up the ranks in pace and fast-break points, and they jack it up a notch when Greg Monroe sits. Giving a big chunk of Josh Smith’s minutes to Anthony Tolliver has allowed Detroit to station three shooters around a pick-and-roll, a system that works best with Andre Drummond rising for lob dunks. (Drummond is also posting up much less often than he was early in the season.)
But the real story is how well Monroe and Drummond have functioned together since Smith’s exile. Four coaches have shown varying degrees of reluctance to play them together for heavy minutes, but Stan Van Gundy has no choice now, and the Pistons are thriving. Detroit has outscored opponents by about seven points per 100 possessions with both Monroe and Drummond on the floor since waiving Smith, a couple points better than their overall scoring margin in that span. The spacing can get tight, but Monroe’s a bully with some fancy passing skills at the elbow, and Drummond is an expert at lurking along the baseline for offensive rebounds.
They’ve also managed some whip-smart big-to-big passing together:
Detroit has slipped on defense of late, and there will be nights when the Monroe-Drummond combination doesn’t work. Monroe is ground-bound and slow, and though he’s working harder to chase power forwards around the perimeter, he runs out of steam fast. Drummond scares people at the rim, but he’s learning the art of NBA positioning and timing. Smart guards can get him turned out.
The rest of the team is hit-or-miss, and the Pistons need to figure out their backup point guard situation. But we need some new blood in the playoffs, and it’d be a joy to see these big fellas beat the crap out of people on the postseason stage. FORM A FUCKING WALL around that eighth seed, Pistons!