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Will the Cleveland Cavaliers overcome their recent struggles and begin a climb back toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings? What will happen with the crowded 10-team playoff picture in the NBA’s tougher half? How about the more than half-dozen squads actively working to earn the best odds for the top pick in the 2018 draft?
Only a month remains in the 2017-18 NBA regular season, but the drama hasn’t gone anywhere. On the contrary, it’s only ramping up. Everything is still in play, and only a few teams have nothing left to play for at this stage of the campaign.
Fortunately for us, that makes getting prediction-happy much easier.
We aren’t focused on individual players here (with one notable exception) so much as the teams still battling for positioning. We want to pinpoint the risers and fallers. We want to figure out what’s going to happen to some of the non-elite squads in the West.
We want to get bold.
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Heading into the 2017-18 season, the thought of the Cleveland Cavaliers dropping out of the top four seeds in the NBA’s weaker half would’ve been unfathomable.
Even after their first-half struggles, the trade-deadline acquisitions of Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and George Hill were supposed to propel the squad back toward the No. 1 spot. Instead, the LeBron James-led team is now in danger of going on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
The Cavs currently sit at No. 4, trailing the Indiana Pacers by 0.5 games, while they’re well behind the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. More troublingly, they’re only 1.5 games ahead of a surging Washington Wizards bunch that should get an infusion of John Wall before too long. The Philadelphia 76ers are also within striking distance, while the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat are both within 3.5 games.
Someone will pass last year’s Eastern representative, whether it’s the Sixers taking advantage of the NBA’s easiest remaining schedule, per Tankathon, or the Wizards using their superior talent and newfound chemistry to make the necessary surge. Cleveland just doesn’t quite have “it” this year, and the results haven’t been too positive even with their numerous new rotation members.
In the 14 games since the trade deadline, the Cavs have posted a 4.7 net rating—the No. 8 mark throughout the Association. That fell to minus-0.3 in their last five outings before a rout of the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, which featured dropped games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. They’re scoring plenty of points, but they’re giving up even more as the defense struggles to build chemistry and avoid hemorrhaging points on the interior.
Perhaps they’re still capable of flipping the switch during the postseason. That seems more unlikely this time around, though ruling out a James-led squad is never wise.
But that flippage ain’t coming before the end of the regular season for a team that still ranks No. 17 in Basketball Reference’s simple rating system (based on margin of victory and strength of schedule), behind the Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, Wizards, Indiana Pacers and Heat in the Eastern Conference alone. Cleveland’s postseason path this year will be far more perilous.
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The Cavaliers may be sliding toward a road-based first-round battle, but it’s hard to pin much of the blame on LeBron James. Though his defensive effort has occasionally waned in 2017-18, the 33-year-old continues to be Northeast Ohio’s one consistent basketball power.
Let’s turn to NBA Math’s total points added for an indication of just how valuable James has been to the Cleveland cause.
Throughout 2017-18, he’s accumulated 458.59 TPA, which leaves him trailing only James Harden in the leaguewide standings. Twenty different teammates have joined him on the floor this year, and Larry Nance Jr. (27.63) and Kevin Love (27.37) are the only ones to submit positive scores. Ante Zizic has played to a net zero in his 101 minutes, leaving him just shy of turning the trio—which, thanks to the midseason acquisition of Nance and the injury to Love, has never appeared together—into a quartet.
Factor in the rest of his 2017-18 teammates, both past and present, and the non-James portion of Cleveland’s roster has combined for minus-464.52 TPA—barely more negative than he alone has been positive.
James surely understands his importance to the team, which has manifested itself in some eye-popping numbers. He averaged 27.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists during February, making that the first month of his illustrious career in which he averaged a triple-double, per ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin.
He isn’t going to slow down.
In seven March outings, James has posted 28.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists, and those latter two numbers should climb back up into double digits before the end of the campaign. As he sees Cleveland continuing its descent outside the East’s top four seeds, he won’t be able to help himself. Big minutes are coming, and big production will follow.
By the end of the season, the four-time MVP will have gone from zero months averaging triple-doubles throughout his career to back-to-back portions of the calendar accomplishing the feat. Cleveland’s record will just keep dropping—in accelerating fashion, no less—if he doesn’t.
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Perhaps this doesn’t seem all that bold because a Monday night loss to the Houston Rockets dropped the San Antonio Spurs on the outside of the playoff picture (by virtue of a tiebreaker in the jam-packed Western Conference).
But this is the Spurs we’re talking about. They could be dead last in their half of the NBA with a week to go, and predicting them to watch the postseason from home still would feel bold. After all, they haven’t missed the playoffs since 1996-97, when Gregg Popovich replaced Bob Hill as head coach just 18 contests into the year.
To put that in perspective, the Spurs don’t just boast the league’s longest streak of postseason appearances. Their 20 consecutive showings are double the second-place Atlanta Hawks’ 10—a streak already guaranteed to end this season. If both miss, the new title could go to the Los Angeles Clippers, whose potential appearance this year would be their seventh in a row. Next up? The Golden State Warriors, now with a guaranteed sixth.
That isn’t all that makes this bold, regardless of where the Spurs sit in the current standings. Here’s Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News:
“‘I’ll see Kawhi [Leonard] tomorrow and we’ll see how he’s feeling and see how ready he is and see how ready I think he is, and we will go from there,’ Popovich [said].
“League sources have said Leonard is targeting either Tuesday’s game against the Orlando Magic or Thursday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans for his return.”
For reasons detailed in full here, the Spurs still won’t be able to emerge from the morass of teams competing for Western playoff spots, especially now that Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania is reporting Leonard will remain out through Thursday’s contest against the New Orleans Pelicans.
They Spurs have the second-hardest remaining schedule, lost their defensive identity in recent outings and lack the established talent necessary to hang with the other postseason contenders. Plus, as Tony Parker recently said, per Orsborn, “I saw reports that say he [Leonard] wants to come back Thursday, and that will be 14 games left. It is what it is. We will try to do our best…Hopefully, when Kawhi comes back, he can helps us. We know it is not going to be easy because he hasn’t played for two months now.”
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Breaking news: Playing without Jimmy Butler is tough.
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor detailed how the Minnesota Timberwolves could overcome the loss of their do-everything superstar, but it’s tough to see them staving off the entire field. Even with the Spurs out of the picture (due to our above prediction rather than their place in the standings), the ‘Wolves only have a 1.5-game lead over the Spurs, the red-hot Utah Jazz and the inspired Los Angeles Clippers.
Sure, the Wolves have one of the easier remaining schedules. But since Butler had surgery to repair a right meniscus injury, the only indication they can beat anyone other than the NBA’s tanktastic cupcakes is Tuesday night’s success against a Washington Wizards outfit still operating without John Wall.
To be fair, they haven’t had many opportunities to prove otherwise. Victories against the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings were expected. So too were losses to the Portland Trail Blazers, Jazz and Boston Celtics. The coming games will tell us more than anything we’ve already seen.
But on the season as a whole, Minnesota has posted a minus-5.5 net rating when Butler is on the bench, either resting or out with an injury. The defense plunges into vomit-inducing territory (113.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), while the offense declines 5.3 points per 100 possessions to become a solid but unspectacular unit (107.8). Comparing that to the season-long hierarchy, the Butler-less ‘Wolves would boast the league’s No. 8 offense, No. 30 defense (with room to spare) and No. 26 net rating, most comparable to the Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies.
That shouldn’t inspire confidence, especially when they’ll need a record well above .500 to remain in the hunt for a playoff berth. The Nuggets, Clippers and Jazz are only going to keep winning games at an impressive clip, and Minnesota will need to right the ship quickly while relying on incumbent pieces—hint: Derrick Rose isn’t the answer—to end a playoff drought that dates back to 2004-05.
As painful as it may be to wait another year, ending the dry spell after 15 campaigns is better than nothing.
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The Memphis Grizzlies, losers of 18 consecutive games, have been unabashedly terrible without Tyreke Evans on the floor. During his breakout season, the swingman has served as the one consistent source of offensive production, and the Beale Street residents still haven’t figured out how to account for his absence while he recovers from a cartilage tear in his ribs.
Not only have the Grizzlies posted a team-worst minus-11.3 net rating when Evans is off the floor, but he isn’t re-entering the fray anytime soon. Nearly three weeks after going down with the rib injury, he remains without a timetable to return.
This is the time of year when bottom-feeding outfits shut down even marginally injured contributors so they can gain better lottery odds. Rushing Evans’ return would be even more ill-advised since he’s set to enter free agency this summer. It would be surprising if he played another minute on his current contract, even if he’s practicing with the team in limited fashion.
That doesn’t leave the Grizz in a good place. Mike Conley is out for the year. Marc Gasol, whether malcontent or busting his butt in vain, has been showing his age and struggling to provide reliable offense. Andrew Harrison and Mario Chalmers are dealing with injuries of their own, leaving Xavier Rathan-Mayes (who didn’t even make his NBA debut until this month and, per ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes, isn’t getting a second 10-day contract) and Kobi Simmons as Memphis’ lone healthy point guards.
Since the beginning of March, Memphis has trotted out Dillon Brooks, Chalmers, Gasol, JaMychal Green, Jarell Martin, Ben McLemore, Chandler Parsons and Simmons in its ever-changing starting five. Those lineups aren’t going to win many games.
In fact, given the difficulty of the Grizzlies’ remaining schedule—their upcoming opponents have combined to produce a .500 record—they aren’t even going to win twice more before the season mercifully ends. They shouldn’t be counted on to topple anyone but other tanking organizations, and just two remain on the calendar: March 15 against the Chicago Bulls (far more talented and healthy) and April 6 against the Sacramento Kings (younger talents with the motivation of proving themselves to be building blocks).
Perhaps Memphis could spring an upset against the Brooklyn Nets on March 19 or Charlotte Hornets three days later. But both those games come on the road, where the Grizz haven’t won a game since the calendar flipped to 2018.
Get ready for these bears to become the latest entrants in the under-20-wins club, which hasn’t featured a new member since the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers.
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Since making the 2013 playoffs during a tumultuous season that featured Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff and Mike D’Antoni all calling the shots at separate times, the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t submitted a single winning season:
- 2013-14: 27-55
- 2014-15: 21-61
- 2015-16: 17-65
- 2016-17: 26-56
The Purple and Gold have already earned four more victories than in any of the previous four go-rounds. And they aren’t going to stop there, as they’ll continue to climb the Western Conference standings until they win a 40th game.
Sure, that 40th victory might come on the last day of the season against a Los Angeles Clippers squad battling for its playoff life, but any record starting with a four is far better than one starting with a three. It represents progress for a young team looking to maximize the talents of its up-and-coming contributors while luring in marquee free-agent targets such as LeBron James and Paul George.
Even though the Lakers are no longer in the Western Conference’s playoff picture, they have everything to play for. They don’t have access to their own first-round pick. Young players such as Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Julius Randle are eager to strut their stuff. They want to show potential offseason additions that they’re tracking toward competitiveness and are actively working to change their culture.
Oh, and they’ve been quite good lately.
Since the start of 2018, they’ve posted a 1.5 net rating. That’s climbed to 5.2 since the beginning of February—a mark bettered by only the 76ers, Warriors, Jazz, Raptors and Rockets. And since Ball re-entered the fray in a Feb. 23 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers have outscored their adversaries by 8.0 points per 100 possessions.
The Lakers do face a daunting schedule from here on out, but this is a hungry organization eager to prove itself against tougher competition. Finishing the year 9-6 (or better) is by no means out of the question.
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- Houston Rockets, 8.87
- Toronto Raptors, 8.25
- Golden State Warriors, 8.05
- Boston Celtics, 3.96
- Utah Jazz, 2.83
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Quick: Guess how many remaining games the Toronto Raptors have against any of the 10 Western Conference teams with a shot at earning a postseason berth.
Go lower still. The Oklahoma City Thunder travel to Canada for a March 18 contest; then the Los Angeles Clippers follow suit one week later. Next up is yet another home game, this time against the Denver Nuggets. Those are three of the weaker teams in that Western megarace, and they each have to travel to an arena in which Toronto has lost only five times.
Better yet for the Raptors, they have two more games remaining against the injury-riddled Boston Celtics, and another two with the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers. The stage is set for them to continue their season-long dominance and open up a substantial gap between themselves and the rest of the Eastern Conference. And they’re already ahead by four games.
At this point, it should be common knowledge that the Raptors are the best team in their half of the NBA, and they’re closer to the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors than anyone in the East. Net rating justifies that, as Toronto’s mark of 8.5 is nearer to Houston (9.1) and Golden State (10.0) than Boston (4.3) or the Philadelphia 76ers (3.0). Ditto for Basketball Reference’s SRS:
However, perception lags behind. That’s perhaps justifiable given Toronto’s previous postseason struggles, though those shouldn’t have any bearing on upcoming playoff performances thanks to the drastic changes head coach Dwane Casey made to his team’s style while relying on unforeseen levels of depth.
And if that perception changes—which it will when Toronto opens up a chasm between itself and Boston in the standings—Casey will run away with Coach of the Year.
That’s a competitive award right now, with Kelly Scaletta of FanRag Sports recently mentioning a whopping 13 notable candidates: Brett Brown, Casey, Mike D’Antoni, Alvin Gentry, Steve Kerr, Nate McMillan, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Quin Snyder, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens (the other listed front-runner), Terry Stotts and Luke Walton.
“When an award is this open, it’s often because no one really has earned it, but this is different,” Scaletta wrote. “There are myriad candidates who are very deserving, and that makes it harder than ever to pick. It’s to the point where we have to consider the candidates by tier, rather than just rank them.”
Toronto has a legitimate chance to go undefeated the rest of the season. At most, it’ll drop a handful of games along the way. And when that aforementioned chasm comes to fruition, Casey will live in a tier of his own as the runaway Coach of the Year favorite, competitiveness and wealth of candidates be damned.