Denver Nuggets

Which non-playoff teams are worth keeping an eye on?

Sixteen NBA teams will advance to the 2017 playoffs, each striving to survive and advance in the springtime tournament with hopes (some more realistic than others) of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy come mid-June. But a team doesn’t need to be in line for a postseason berth to be worth keeping an eye on over the final three weeks of the season

The Minnesota Timberwolves were everybody’s preseason pick for a “surprise” playoff run — to the point that it wouldn’t have shocked anyone — before it quickly became apparent we’d jumped on the bandwagon too soon. Still, Tom Thibodeau’s got this, we said. If anyone can mold this roster full of offensive wonder into a stellar defensive unit, it’s him, we figured.

Due to excitement over a team that not only featured Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio, but a wealth of über-athletic twenty-somethings, including Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng, we overrated Thibodeau’s ability to harness their inexperience so quickly. But a 6-18 start to the season, with the Wolves sporting one of the league’s four worst defenses in mid-December, made it clear this was a transitional year for the franchise — a development we should’ve seen coming, given the symbolism of Kevin Garnett’s retirement at the start of it.

A month later, Minnesota had shown signs of improvement, even if their record didn’t reflect it, and a month after that, they lost LaVine for the season. The Timberwolves were 19-33 by the time LaVine underwent season-ending knee surgery, and any hope for resurgence seemed to be lost.

The only question left appeared to be whether we had any right to believe in the Wolves in the first place. They’ll have cap space to improve the roster this summer, but first they must figure out who they are … and who they are may still be who we thought they were.

Despite a 9-9 record since Feb. 8, they own a top-five net rating over that span, including a respectable defense. (Even Tuesday’s 100-93 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, their fourth straight, illustrated improvement on that end.) There’s hope for them yet, if only for next year, and an upcoming string of winnable games — three each against the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers — along with tests against the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets might help convince Thibs that this is still a roster worth building around and not tinkering with too much.

Minnesota nearly made a catastrophic swap of Rubio for Derrick Rose at the deadline. Since then, the Spaniard is averaging a healthy double-double (on 43 percent 3-point shooting, to boot) since the All-Star break. Towns and Wiggins are combining for 50 points a night. Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica (sadly lost for the season) are proving their value as a supporting cast.

How annoying it is that someone could be rewarded for shooting a 24-foot shot some 26 feet (without arc) into a painted box on a pane of glass? And that bull[Steigenga] counts for three points?

If the Chicago Bulls make the playoffs in 2016-17, it will be because they banked in a 3-pointer.

There is room for this to happen, literally, in the team’s last game of the season against bloody Brooklyn, because as you expected in July and came to accept in March, the Bulls rank at the bottom of the NBA in 3-point makes and second from the bottom in 3-point attempts and percentage. (Thank you, Orlando and Minnesota, two teams built in part by recent ex-Bulls employees.)

The squad was built to make the playoffs, but only in the Chicago Bulls Way: poorly, and without the price tag you’d assume (only 21st-highest in the league). That’s a low total for a team featuring current and former All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, alongside an eight-figure guy in Robin Lopez, who was hating life as a Bull on Tuesday night even in the team’s wild, successful first half in Toronto, due to a series of missteps in what has otherwise been a fantastic year for the center.

By the time Lopez expressed those frustrations (he’d missed some box-out assignments and passed up a shot) with a punch thrown in the direction of Serge Ibaka’s head, the Bulls (who had previously won 11 straight over T-Dot) fell, despite running out to a 16-point lead.

That game was lost once Butler’s legs went, deep into the fourth quarter and overtime, as most of these Bulls contests go. Coach Fred Hoiberg, brought in to brighten and clarify Tom Thibodeau’s deadening offense, either calls for stifling and easy to snuff out isolation play late in contests, or sees his play calls ignored in favor of it.

The team is made of excuses, though, which is why it can point to 2016-17 as a rebuilding year of sorts, even if it misses the playoffs for the second straight season. They can point to Wade’s freak season-ending injury, forgetting that Chicago was lucky to trade in Wade’s typical average annual allotment of 21 missed games (prorated, for lockouts) due to general weariness for an injury suffered in one fell swoop (he’d missed 11 of 68 games before that).

They’ll point to off-years from Nikola Mirotic and the departed Doug McDermott, as if the Bulls hadn’t moved heaven and earth to acquire them in years past, as if they didn’t let Thibodeau (brilliant, but clearly allowed to be a Bull for one season too many) poison their confidence forever with his work in their rookie seasons.

They’d point to the uncertain play of Rondo, hoping we’d forget the four years of uncertain work that preceded Chicago signing him — completely needlessly — to a two-year deal last summer. The Bulls bid against themselves for a biggish name to appease those who are gifted free lower-bowl tickets, the punters who still wonder why the team couldn’t get more in that Joakim Noah trade.

The Bulls are two games out of the playoff bracket with 11 left to play, with the easiest remaining schedule. The team runs rookies Paul Zipser (a brilliant basketball player by human standards, a top-500 basketball player by NBA standards) and Denzel Valentine ragged during clutch sets. The group still sees fit to let everyone know that it’s everyone else’s fault. Everyone, even Wade if the market is dry, could have the same job with the Bulls next season.

Even the wins get short shrift. Butler credited the team’s 11-game winning streak over Toronto, which had covered the Raptors’ three-year run as Atlantic Division champions, to Chicago “just catch[ing] them on off nights,” a preposterously accurate quote from a pro athlete that speaks to just how blithe this team is about its relevance in this league moving forward.

The Bulls’ best player doesn’t even want to be associated with the team’s victories. Or, at the very least, he doesn’t want what were the usual Chicago hallmarks under the late Jerry Krause, even in the lean years — ball movement, attempts at stout defense, an obsession with staying ahead of the Approaching Mediocre — to be credited for taking down a great team, 11 times in a row.

The Bulls don’t even want anything to do with the Bulls. And yet, with three weeks to play, the team is just three wins in the standings away from extending its season.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ All-Star Sunday deal for DeMarcus Cousins ranks as the biggest trade of the past year, a move to add a legitimate force alongside Anthony Davis and potentially build a contender. Add in the fact that Cousins was named in rumors for several seasons, and it’s easy to see why so many were anxious to see how one of the league’s most talented big men would fare next to Davis, a player who could eventually supplant LeBron James as the NBA’s best.

It hasn’t exactly worked out as planned. The Pelicans were 23-34 at the time of the trade and have split their 14 games since, including a current three-game winning streak. That .500 record would be good enough to put them in the postseason over 82 games, but it’s hard to say that the Cousins-Davis pairing looks like a great fit. They’ve scored 20 points in the same game just three times and only once in March (although they came close on Tuesday), and the duo appears more comfortable trading off dominant stretches than amplifying one another’s strengths.

To be fair, the dominant trends and styles of today’s NBA dictate that a coach needs time to figure out how to play two ball-dominant big men together. Pelicans boss Alvin Gentry was forced to bring Cousins into the team structure past the halfway point of the season and has not had a homestand longer than three games to allow for multiple practice days. Regardless, there’s a decent chance that Davis and Cousins overlap too much and cannot excel simultaneously. Maybe it’s not working because it can’t.

These last 11 games could go a long way toward determining how the Pelicans approach the remainder of their time with Cousins, and how long that period will last. As a free agent in the summer of 2018, he also has the chance to begin deciding if his long-term future lies in New Orleans. Will the Pelicans decide it’s worth it to go all in on bringing in better role players to chase contention? Will they mostly stay put and hope an offseason smooths out the new relationship’s rough edges? Or will they cut and run, and trade Cousins again for whatever they can get?

Pretty much everything I wrote about the New York Knicks in our “who needs to get their s*** together before season’s end?” roundtable two weeks ago applies very neatly to this topic, too. But I, like the rest of the world, am sick of the Knicks, so let’s shift our glare from Broadway to Brooklyn, New York City, where they paint murals of (and hang banners for) Biggie.

The Brooklyn Nets don't win often, so they celebrate hard when they do. (AP)

The Brooklyn Nets don’t win often, so they celebrate hard when they do. (AP)

And yet, as dire as the situation seems, there have been whiffs of friskiness emanating from Barclays Center of late. The Nets are 5-9 since the All-Star break, and while the winning percentage of a 29-win team doesn’t seem like much to write home about — and while it’s worth noting that two of those wins came over the nearly-as-abysmal Knicks — it represents some progress for a squad that won just 21 a year ago and managed only four more wins in 47 more tries before the break. (Hell, 29 wins would have Brooklyn on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race.)

After spending the first two-thirds of the season in the NBA’s basement on both offense and defense, Kenny Atkinson’s team has skyrocketed toward mediocrity over the past month, ranking 17th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession since the break, and 21st in points allowed per possession. When point guard Jeremy Lin’s been healthy enough to share the floor with stalwart center Brook Lopez, sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and rookie Caris LeVert — whom Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, which he snagged from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for not-in-the-future-plans power forward Thaddeus Young, a nifty way of figuring out how to add cost-controlled young talent at a time when the Nets don’t control their own draft destiny — the Nets have been downright solid of late, scoring like a top-five offense with that quartet on the court and posting a net rating (whether you outscore your opponents over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa) equivalent to the Toronto Raptors’ full-season mark.

Despite perennially finding his name bandied about in trade rumors, Lopez has remained the lone constant for the Nets, carrying the offense both inside and, increasingly, out, and standing as Brooklyn’s go-to option for buckets, early and late. One year after suffering the leg injury that ended his career at Michigan, the 6-foot-7 LeVert is showing flashes of the multifaceted game that made him a lottery prospect, averaging 9.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.1 steals in 24.3 minutes per game since the All-Star break while shooting 51.7 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from beyond the arc. Hollis-Jefferson hasn’t made major strides as a shooter from Year 1 to Year 2, but he remains a versatile defensive weapon and has shown some promise as a small-ball power forward over the past month and a half.

There’s not much titanic talent or many long-term answers on the Nets roster right now. There is, however, some youth, athleticism and apositional weirdness that — when combined with a defined push-the-pace-and-move style, a mix of young players trying to carve out their NBA niches and vets trying to earn ongoing employment in the league, and the competitive approach that come with a coach who has everything to prove and a team that has absolutely no reason to tank — can make for a kinda-sorta intriguing watch on the right night.

This summer, Marks will look to add to his burgeoning oddball core with two late first-round picks in this year’s draft — one from the Celtics, after Boston exercises its right to swap spots, and one from the Washington Wizards, imported at last month’s trade deadline in exchange for Bojan Bogdanovic — and with more than $26 million in salary cap space to use to try once again to target restricted free agents who could fit Brooklyn’s rebuilding timetable. Swingmen Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter Jr. would seem like obvious targets for a team seeking shooting, defensive skill and versatility on the wing; it’d be interesting to see ex-Spurs assistant coach and personnel man Marks try to poach explosive San Antonio wing Jonathon Simmons.

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