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The groin pull that changed the NBA’s landscape (L.A. Daily News)

The NBA’s home stretch is more like an ambulance ride than a horse race.

Advanced analytics… Playoff prognostications… and tons of Lakers schadenfreude!!! Who could ask for anything more?

While many of the trends this season have solidified into consistent performances, it’s worth noting how close the margin of error is for every basketball team.

At the half way point, I wondered which team can maintain their level of play in spite of the injuries that plague most teams? The answers now seem so obvious in hindsight. Teams with a competent front office, good roster construction, and some continuity from the past season will be the least affected (Milwaukee, Toronto, Denver).

Teams that overly depend on one superstar and a bunch of mismatched pieces will suffer (Lakers, Hornets). And then you’ve got a team run by one of the greatest executives in NBA history, coached by a past NBA champion having his best year in a decade, and seemingly enjoying all the good luck that eluded them for most of that franchise’s existence (see below).

The question now, in the home stretch of the season, focuses on those teams fighting to get into or stay in the playoffs…

Which teams can raise their level of play in response to the pressure of every game having a huge impact on the standings?

This time, I’m going to divide the league up into tiers, paying special attention to those teams that have jumped or fallen relative to where they were at the half way mark. After that, I’ll finish up with the teams that are playoff locks and then the lottery teams “dyin’ for Zion.”

Tier 1: Cleared for takeoff

Los Angeles Clippers, Orlando, Sacramento, Detroit

L.A. Clippers

While I predicted the Clipper would be on the borderline of making the playoffs before the season started, I never thought they could trade their one All-Star level player, a second starter and two valuable reserves and still make a solid playoff run. And yet here we are.

Not only did the Clippers open up cap space, and gain a bunch of draft picks, they’re still winning close games. Friday night’s win at Sacramento, combined with the Lakers’ loss, put the Clippers in 7th place with a 4-game margin over the Lakers. Even if the Lakers sweep the last two games against the Clippers, they will still be two games behind, and they own the tie breaker over the Kings.

Jerry West is a freakin’ genius, and the difference between the two Los Angeles teams is his handiwork.

How in the world did the Clippers get more for Tobias Harris then the Bucks got for Kareem Abdul Jabbar?

In addition to the two 1st round and two 2nd round draft picks, the Clippers still turned Harris, Marjanovic and Scott into a 21-year-old starting guard who is shooting 42.5% on three pointers, and a 21-year-old starting center who is averaging 15.8 ppg 12.6 rpg, and 1.6 blocks on a Per 36 minute basis.

The Clippers have made it clear they intend to compete for a playoff spot, even though the will lose their 1st round pick to Boston. That might be a strategic error, as it would strengthen Boston’s trade package and hurt the Clippers when the two teams compete to either sign or trade for a future free agent.

Doc Rivers may have done his best job of coaching since he was in Orlando, in fielding a competitive team without a true superstar, while the Lakers and LeBron continue to be an inconsistent, hot mess.

Even though they only lead Sacramento by two games in the loss column, the West has been so evenly matched, I don’t know if any of the teams fighting for the playoffs can pull off a 5-game winning streak. Those 4 extra games already in the win column seems like an overwhelming advantage.

The Clippers have the 7th easiest schedule remaining, with only 18 games left in their schedule, and 13 of them at Staples Center. If they go 9–9, they will have 44 wins, which looks to be enough to make the playoffs this year.

Congratulations to the Clippers. They have rebuilt their team in two years, have the assets and opened up enough cap space to sign two major free agents, all while still making the playoffs.

Orlando Magic

I’ve been fascinated by Orlando all season after watching them kill the Lakers, and pile up wins against Boston (twice), Philadelphia, Toronto, Houston, and Indiana. They are still a wildly inconsistent team that has somehow won 9 of its last 12 games. There’s no other term to describe them when they’ve gone 5–1 against playoff teams (including wins over Indiana, Milwaukee, Toronto and Golden State), while losing to Chicago and New York. Since Mo Bamba got hurt, the team is 8–3. Since the trade that brought a non-playing Markelle Fultz for a ridiculous price, the team is 6–2. What happens if Evan Fournier regains his shooting form from beyond the arc (career .370 3P%)?

In what alternative universe does a team trade away a solid bench player and two draft picks for an injured former #1 pick, lose its own 6th overall pick to injury, go on a hot streak to climb to four games under .500 and still look like a lock to make the playoffs?

Welcome to the Eastern Conference.

Orlando has the 4th easiest schedule left in the NBA, but 11 of their 19 games will be on the road. With games against Atlanta (x2), Cleveland (x2), Memphis (x2), New York, Washington, Dallas, Miami, and New Orleans, maybe the Magic should be worried, given their recent record of doing the unexpected.

On the other hand, they have a floor spacing All-Star center in Vucevic, who has maintained his level of play throughout the season, giving fits to teams with more established big men. Just think what the Magic could do if they could add a high quality point guard. (Kemba Walker, are you listening? No state tax, some quality bigs, and you get to stay in the Eastern Conference.)

They also have two huge road games: at Detroit and at Charlotte. If they win those two games, and take care of business against all the losing teams, I think they will sneak into the 8th spot. (I wrote this before they beat Indiana on the road, which lifts them back into the #8 seed.)

Sacramento

The Kings may be the biggest feel good story in the Western Conference. With a good young coach who finally let his team turn on the jets, all the young guys (Fox, Hield, Bagley, Cauley-Stein, Bogdanovic, Giles) have been developing steadily while the team has hovered around .500 throughout the season.

The Kings play with so much energy, they have made a habit of erasing double digit fourth quarter leads against better teams on a regular basis. But they’re not ready to win these games yet (four losses to the Warriors by a total of 12 points) because they don’t have the experience to execute at the very end.

The other problem is they got bit by the injury bug at a critical time, just as Marvin Bagley started playing his best basketball of the season, and that might be just enough to short circuit their flight plan to reach the #8 seed.

The Kings are unique among young teams because of their overwhelming energy and desire. Where most young teams get fired up to play their best games against elite teams (which they do), the King have maintained their level of play in dominating weaker competition, with a 22–8 record against sub .500 teams. The only teams with a better winning percentage against losing teams are Golden State, Denver, Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana and Philadelphia.

With the third easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, and 11 games against losing teams, the Kings have an excellent chance to end the season above .500 for the first time since 2006.

Even if the Kings don’t make the playoffs, this season has been a huge success, as Fox(17 ppg, 7.3 apg, .367 3P%) and Hield (20.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .443 3P%) will anchor this team for the next 6–7 years.

Detroit

In the Eastern Conference, talent only matters for the elite teams. As we’ve seen with undermanned Celtics teams during the last few years, a good coach can make a ton of difference.

How else do you explain the Pistons trading away their best 3-point shooter and then going 5–2? They’ve got an aging All-Star on a horribly expensive long term deal, a 127-million-dollar dinosaur of an NBA center who can’t spread the floor or shoot free throws, and a ball stopping point guard with a big contract that no one wants.

Detroit is not necessarily a good team, but they look like they can get close to .500, as they have the 10th easiest schedule. And in the Eastern Conference, that should be good enough to give the Pistons their first spot in the playoffs since 2008. For a team with no cap space and little upside, just getting to the playoffs is a huge accomplishment for Dwayne Casey.

Tier 2: May Day! May Day!

San Antonio, Miami, Minnesota, Charlotte, Los Angeles Lakers

I was going for aviation-themed tiers, but now realize that these teams will also never see the light of May. The first day of May means a lot of things. For the workers of the world, it’s a day to unite. For many countries it’s a traditional springtime festival. But for the NBA, it’s the time of harvest, as the teams that have sown the right seeds and properly used their resources to nurture their roster finally see the fruits of their labor in the form of playing in the conference semi-finals. Aside from the Spurs, these teams have combined to win exactly one first round playoff series since 2015.

San Antonio

The Spurs are actually the toughest team to figure out based on their body of work this year.

For a while, they had the worst defense in the NBA, and in spite of shooting lights out from everywhere, were mired near the bottom of the West at 11–14. In December, they jumped up to a top 10 defense, and went 11–5. Then, in January, they fell back to being a bottom 10 defense, but kept winning, going 10–5. Last month, they slipped back to #29 on defense and went 3–7. What is the story with this team?

The once proud Spurs used to be the one of the best road teams in recent NBA history. They just finished their rodeo road trip 1–7. With the exception of Charlotte, they have the worst road record of any playoff team in either conference, so even if they reach the playoffs, this team has no chance to get past the first round.

I think the only explanation has to be that Popovich and his system have gotten this team to overachieve, but the odds of winning on a steady diet of mid-range jumps shots looks like an even worse formula for success than scoring all your points in the paint. If Aldridge, DeRozan and Gay don’t shoot well, the offensive system comes to a screeching halt, as evidenced by their #19 offensive rating in the month of February. Both Aldridge at 33 (.479 FG%) and Gay at 32 (.469 FG%) had big drop offs in their performance after shooting well above their career averages in December and January. If they cool off, the Spurs could crash short of the playoff runway.

Going forward, the Spurs have to survive some major turbulence over the next 11 games, but end the season against the following teams: at Charlotte, Cleveland, Sacramento, Atlanta, at Denver, Washington, at Cleveland and Dallas. Whichever way it ends, the Spurs are going to get splattered on the tarmac if they do reach the first round. (Naturally, since I wrote this, the Spurs took advantage of Paul George’s injury and beat OKC easily. It makes me wish I had put them in the “soft landings” tier.)

Miami

Dwyane Wade’s retirement tour has been a feel-good balm to an otherwise miserable season for the Heat. In spite of losing 7 of their last 10 games, there are enough highlights to remind fans of the team’s former glory. Just look at this ridiculous game winner over the Warriors.

That will keep Heat fans happy and distracted for a while… until they start thinking about the future of the team.

The fact that Wade is still their most valuable wing player (highest PER rating, lowest contract) is all you need to know about a team that is mediocre (#17 rated offense, #14 three point percentage, #19 assists) to bad (#23 rated defense, #23 in turnovers ) in just about everything they do. The problem is they have an excellent coach who steals too many games to give Miami a top draft pick, and front office leadership that may be finally over the hill.

The Heat is in a salary cap stranglehold this year, and are in the process of getting rid of anything not nailed down. But even after getting rid of Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington, they are dragging around the bloated contracts/corpses of Ryan Anderson, Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters.

Miami has six players who combine to average 58.3 points, 25.3 rebounds, 12.4 assists at a cost of $104 million. (Lakers fans, count your blessings)

What’s left is hoping to keep their good young core of Adebayo, Winslow, and Richardson as these guys go off their rookie deals, and striking gold with what should be a top 10 first round draft pick this June.

Minnesota

The Good: Karl Anthony Towns is unleashing the most ferocious beast in the NBA, averaging 30.9 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 4.1 apg on .622 FG% for the month of February. Guess which elite modern centers have done this?

None. Not Anthony Davis, and not Joel Embiid.

Not Shaq. Not Olajuwan. Not Malone.

Only Kareem, Wilt and Baylor have played at that level for an entire season.

For $38 million per year over the next five years, Minnesota fans will count their blessings that Towns is anchoring the team in his absolute prime until he is due a new contract at age 28.

Guess who else will earn over $30 million NEXT season? LeBron James (age 35), Chris Paul (age 34), Paul Millsap (age 34), Al Horford (age 33), John Wall (age 30), and Blake Griffin (age 30), and Gordon Hayward (age 29). Even for $38 million, Towns looks like a bargain.

The Bad: The Timberwolves continue to look like direwolf pups when it comes to playing defense (bottom 5 in February), so they continue to waste huge games by Towns, like his 42/17/4 gem in a loss to Indiana, where some other guy named Bogdanovic put up 37 points, and the Pacers shot almost 60% on their three pointers. Hmmm, I wonder who plays small forward for Minnesota?

The Ugly: Even though I’m sure Brandon Anderson would jump at the chance to give up a 1st round draft pick to be able to ship Maple Jordan off to a bunch of saps like Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the ugliest thing about the T-Wolves is not Andrew Wiggins’ contract.

The truly ugly thing about Minnesota is their past history — the Wrath of Kahn — of taking Hall of Fame players like Kevin Garnett and draining the life out of them.

If Minnesota doesn’t get a competent front office, T-Wolves fans will be howling every time the slightest hint of frustration in their franchise player fills the frosty air in the North that’s further north than Toronto, but not as far north as Portland.

Towns will be a free agent at age 28, with three more years of service than Anthony Davis had when he pulled the plug and sunk the Pelicans. Ouch.

Charlotte

Nothing has changed much for Charlotte this season. Aside from a white-hot shooting streak by Kemba Walker to start the season, the Hornets are pretty much exactly what they’ve been for the last few years, a border line playoff team that never gets a top draft pick or has the cap space to sign a major free agent.

What do you get when one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA runs a team and builds a mish mosh line up young prospects, horrible contracts, and washed veterans that depend on one star player to play out of his mind to win games? It’s not pretty, and they don’t even have palm trees and a nice beach to distract their fans.

And if you think it can’t get worse for the East coast version of the L.A. Lakers, just remember that the Hornets signed Mitch Kupchak to be their president of basketball operations. If Charlotte is trying to tank by losing 7 of its last 10 games, even that message came too late.

Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James is playing for a lottery team. It’s hard to even put these two subjects into the same sentence, but it appears to be what could happen this season.

The combination of terrible roster construction, giving up good young players for nothing (Julius Randle, Thomas Bryant) or next to nothing (Ivica Zubac), enraging the rest of the league with Lakers exceptionalism (even in cases where the front office wasn’t tampering), destroying the team’s morale with a desperate trade offer and a “pep” talk that rivals Kobe’s motivational gem “soft like Charmin”, and consistently over hyping while under-delivering should have made it clear to Lakers fans that the biggest mistake Jeannie Buss ever made was to not do everything in her power to get Jerry West back with the Lakers.

Magic and Pelinka have made the Lakers organization look like a WWII fighter plane that loses a rudder in a dog fight, goes into a slow tail spin and then takes forever to crash. It’s a sight that may make most people uneasy, but as long as it’s the Lakers, everyone is happy to watch from the ground, while getting their s’mores ready for the fiery crash.

That’s not even counting the hatred so many fans have for LeBron James, his influence over coaches and front offices, and his passive-aggressive comments that infuriate fans and depress his teammates. The backlash against the Lakers, LeBron and Lonzo ball has created a tidal wave of schadenfreude that engulfs everything this team does.

Now add all the things that can go wrong with the players, coaches and referees¹ — the injuries, player unrest, lack of effort, no offensive system, terrible substitution patterns — and you’ve got a team that constantly disappoints their fans with close losses, then rebuilds expectations with a signature win, only to disappoint again with more horrific losses.

And all of this is accompanied by the gnawing hole in fans’ stomachs that nobody in the front office is learning anything from these disasters, as Magic will continue to make the same idiotic decisions that have turned this Lakers season into something that might have been imagined by the tortured brain of Dante Alighieri.

Welcome to the Lakers’ seven levels of Purgatory.

  1. PRIDE (or lack thereof): the Lakers start 0–3, giving up 395 points in three games with Kyle Kuzma as a small ball center, and LeBron’s refusal to play defense resulting in opponents making open three-pointers that helped turn a close game into a two possession deficit, or a sure win into a close loss. James Harden and Chris Paul mop the floor with the Lakers — literally. That’s how many times they knocked L.A. defenders to the ground, while never being called for an offensive foul. The quietest Laker, Brandon Ingram, mentally snaps and causes a brawl which gets him suspended for four games. Humbled by the terrible start, the team somehow beats then-undefeated Denver to regain a measure of pride.
  2. ENVY (of teams that can make outside shots): Lakers go 2–3 while giving up what seems like a million open three pointers in the fourth quarter. Somehow the team breaks a 16-game losing streak at Portland, where playoff Rondo sweeps aside the Trailblazers again — this time in a Lakers uniform — but breaks his hand and is lost for a month and LeBron finally plays like the best closer in the game. This is followed by one of the worst losses in Lakers history, as Toronto (without Kawhi Leonard) shoots .777 FG% and hits 6 of 10 three pointer in the first 10 minutes of the game, exploding to a 41–10 lead.
  3. WRATH: Lakers become a top 5 defense with the signing of Tyson Chandler, go on an 11–4 run and move up to the 6th seed. It all unravels against San Antonio in two games. In the first, Lamarcus Aldridge steps under Brandon Ingram on a jump shot, who sprains his ankle and is out for seven games. Without Ingram, Demar DeRozan turns into peak LeBron the very next game (36–8–9 on 55% shooting), and the Spurs score 44 points in the fourth quarter to overcome a 15-point deficit. Three games later, the Lakers play Houston, and Harden gets 19 (not a typo, not a team stat) motherf — ing free throws. Lakers fans are enraged.
  4. SLOTH: Javale McGee contracts pneumonia and never recovers the form that made him a top 5 shot blocker and dunk threat for the first third of the season. The defense falls asleep again and the Lakers begin to fall apart, with terrible, no-effort losses to Washington and Memphis. The worst game in this span is to Brooklyn, as it allows D’Angelo “Ice in My Veins” Russell to finally hit a three point shot that isn’t a Summer League game.
  5. AVARICE (a Christmas Miracle) — the Lakers deliver on their preseason promise as LeBron leads the team to a 19-point lead against the Warriors at full strength, only to injure his groin. After the Warriors draw within two points, Playoff Rondo makes his second appearance of the season and leads the bench players to a 27-point fourth quarter lead. Naturally, Rondo gets hurt again and misses the next month. The Lakers move into the #4 seed, only a game back of OKC and the coveted “not in Golden State’s half of the draw” position. For 48 hours, Lakers fans greedily fantasize about beating the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
  6. GLUTTONY: for the next 18 games, the Lakers play without LeBron and Rondo and becomes gluttons for punishment, blowing big leads, losing to the worst teams in the league, or getting blown out by better, healthier teams, while Lakers fans eat their feelings. The one ray of hope that Lonzo, Ingram and Kuzma will finally figure it out comes in an overtime win at OKC, and the complete domination of the first half at Houston. However, that hope is extinguished immediately as Lonzo gets hurt badly (out 8–12 weeks), the Lakers lose, falling to 25–22, and Lakers fans begin to wonder if it’s really possible for things to get worse. We’re only at the sixth level of purgatory, so the answer is pretty obvious.
  7. LUST: Without Lonzo, and with McGee, Chandler and Hart playing like a shadow of their former selves, the defense craters again to #27 and the front office completely destroys team morale by going beyond “all in” on an Anthony Davis trade offer. The team goes 5–12, never winning consecutive games, and losing especially embarrassing games at Indiana, Atlanta, New Orleans and Memphis. Big comeback wins over Boston and Houston only serve to raise expectations again, which make the bad losses that much worse. While the Lakers Front Office lusts after a second superstar to play next to LeBron, Lakers fans are panicking at the thought of Magic and Pelinka trading away the young core.

So where does it go from here? According to Catholic doctrine, Purgatory is a place where the dead go to cleanse themselves of their sins before they enter Heaven. Will Magic and Pelinka learn the lesson on how to build a team, or will they take fans down into the 9 Circles of Hell?

(Update: the Lakers managed to blow a 12-point 3rd quarter lead against Milwaukee and then lost to the Suns the next night. Watching Luke’s lineups, I almost feel like he’s saying to Magic “this is the shit vision you had for the team, so I’m going to remind you what happens again when we play Kuzma at center and completely ruin any chance the team has to win.”)

The Lakers are now 4.5 games out of the playoffs with only 19 games left, and still haven’t figured out basic things like rotations and substitution patterns (hint: it is not Rondo playing 39 minutes). While the front office killed any chance for the team to get through all these injuries and terrible roster moves (how much could the team have used Zubac to guard a player like DeAndre Ayton, who can’t spread the floor?), Luke Walton has no real offensive system and he just isn’t good enough to consistently win when he needs to make in-game adjustments.

I like Luke Walton and the progress he made with the defense over the last two years, but unless the team brings in an offensive assistant guru, a shooting coach, and a new analytics support team, he’s not a good enough coach to get the Lakers to the next level.

And with LeBron’s influence over coaching hires and personnel decisions, Luke may have been a dead man walking the entire year. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Walton get fired over the weekend because, according to Magic, “He is going to finish the season, unless something drastic happens, which it won’t.” I don’t know, do you think losing games to New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, Phoenix, Memphis and New Orleans (without Davis) might qualify as “drastic?”

Even if the Lakers somehow manage to sneak into the playoffs (they must go on a 5-game win streak to do so, and it has to come now, regardless of how tough the schedule is), this season has turned into one of the least enjoyable seasons since the last title run. At least when the Lakers were really bad, we had Nick Young to entertain us.

To all the Lakers fans who said they didn’t want LeBron to ruin the development of the young core, maybe you were right all along.

Tier 3: Soft Landings

Boston, Brooklyn, Indiana, OKC

These teams have done enough through the first 60 games to be comfortably in the playoffs, even if they are going to slide back a little.

Boston

For all the hand wringing over the Celtics and the fact that they aren’t the super team the media and their fans may believe, going 4–6 is not the end of the world, right Gutbloom?

They still have a powerful home court advantage, and they are on track to win close to the 50 games I’ve been predicting for them since before the season began.

Given the fact that Brad Stevens will coach circles around his counterpart in Philadelphia, Boston fans should be overjoyed at the prospect of playing the 76ers again in the first round.

It doesn’t matter if they climb to the #3 seed or fall to #6, they’re either going to play a team they have owned the last two years, or another scrappy overachiever missing their sold All-Star player in Indiana. The bottom line is that Boston will need to beat both Milwaukee and Toronto without home court advantage in either series.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn is sliding back to their rightful place as a sub- .500 team, which should still be good enough for their first playoff appearance since the Garnett-Pierce heist.

Brooklyn has the second hardest remaining schedule, with 11 of their final 18 games on the road. But home may not be so sweet as three of their last four games are against Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a recent loss to one of their closest playoff rivals, the slumping (3–7) Hornets, came as a result of terrible defense and the awful high volume shooting (22 points on 24 shots) of D’Angelo (how many asterisks do I need to put behind this guy’s name in order to show how overrated he is?) Russell, the Nets’ faux “All-Star.”

I think the bottom of the East is so bad, it will be hard for any team to string together enough wins to overtake the Nets, but their stay in the playoffs will be over before they know it.

Indiana

The Pacers are on the exact opposite side of the spectrum compared to teams that rely on superstars. Their best player, Victor Oladipo is very, very good, but he is currently very very injured. And yet Indiana’s record without him (17–12) would still put them in 5th place in the East with a sizeable cushion ahead of the team behind them. Unfortunately, they also had Sabonis go down with an ankle injury and may find themselves in danger of losing home court advantage in the first round.

As I’ve written earlier, the Pacers’ record the best in the East is not good. They are 3–7 against Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston, with the only wins coming on a buzzer beater, against pre-Butler/Harris Philadelphia, and Toronto on a night resting Kawhi.

It’s even uglier against the West, as they are 0–4 against the top 5 teams, with six games remaining against the Warriors, Nuggets (x2), Thunder (x2), and Portland.

Even though this is not truly an elite team, credit Pacers fans for reaching elite levels of douchiness. In their game against the lifeless Lakers (who had learned that everyone was going to be sent packing to get Anthony Davis), the fans serenaded the younger players with chants of “LeBron is going to trade you!”

All I can say is “may you stay in Indiana, forever.” (Was that too terrible a curse to utter in public?)

Having said all that, Nate McMillian and the Indiana front office deserve tons of credit for constructing a roster that can compete in the regular season, even if they can’t attract super star free agents. They defend well, know their roles, and play as a team without all the drama associated with franchises like Boston and the Lakers.

Oklahoma City

The Thunder have continued their winning ways in the regular season, and I continue to have my doubts about them. They are still an elite defensive team and a middle of the road offensive team on the strength of Paul George’s brilliant play this year.

But there are so many reasons to think they will fade a little and get passed by one or more teams that are rising in the West. They slipped to #13 on defense for the month of February. Paul George’s three point shooting is also coming back to earth (.386 3P% in February), after a scorching December (.432 3P%) and January (.442 3P% ). OKC has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, and Russell Westbrook is starting to reassert himself as the offensive leader. He scored 84 points in two games that resulted in an overtime win and a close loss.

I don’t like the Thunder’s prospects going forward — they have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, Paul George is cooling off, and Russell Westbrook is starting to reassert himself as the offensive leader in crunch time. Even if they retain the #3 seed in the West, I don’t trust them to get through the first round.

The last big problem I see for the Thunder is their coach. Billy Donovan couldn’t figure out how to win with Westbrook and Durant and properly use Victor Oladipo. In a first round match up, I think D’Antoni (Houston), Stotts (Portland), and Snyder (Utah) will all have an edge. (An even bigger problem is the injury bug. If Paul George misses a few games, OKC could find itself back in the #6 seed.)

Tier 4: Rocketing Men

Houston, Portland, Philadelphia, Utah

Even though these teams are safely in the playoffs, there are different reasons each team could make a late push to get home court advantage, or a better tournament draw.

Houston

As much as I hate the way James Harden scams referees and players across the league to get to the free throw line, he is still a top 5 offensive player, even without his shenanigans.

Harden single-handedly kept the Rockets in the playoff picture, and has them only 1 1/2 games away from getting home court advantage and avoiding the Warriors’ half of the Western Conference draw. However, they have a much tougher remaining schedule than Utah or Portland, with games at Boston, at Toronto, Philadelphia, Golden State, San Antonio. at Milwaukee, Denver, Sacramento, at Sacramento, at Clippers and at Oklahoma City.

In spite of all the stops and starts to their season, the Rockets have quietly won all of their games this season against the Warriors. They will probably get the chance to test their skills much earlier in the playoffs than they had hoped.

Could this be the year the Rockets finally break through? God, I hope not.

Portland

Portland has quietly stayed competitive in the West, and are now tied for the coveted “let’s avoid the Warriors as long as possible” seeding. They made some small moves to make space for Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter, and improved their bench. And core players in Jusuf Nurkic, Mo Harkless and Jake Layman have raised their games at just the right time. The Trailblazers looked great in a recent game at Toronto, where the Raptors had to play flawless basketball to pull out a last second victory.

Portland has the 8th easiest schedule left and they have finished all their games with Golden State, Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Houston. Key games left: OKC, at Clippers, at San Antonio, Indiana, at Denver, and Denver.

The Trailblazers have played close games against elite teams, but they always seem to come up one crucial shot short at the end of games.

Philadelphia

The 76ers pushed in all their chips when they made the trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and raised the white flag on Markelle Fultz.

Philadelphia may have improved their team enough to be a threat in the East, as long as they don’t have to play the Boston Celtics. To borrow a phrase from Joel Embiid, Al Horford owns a lot of real estate in the Philadelphia center’s head.

Philadelphia has the 7th easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, and a better record against 500 and above teams than their closest competitors. They should end up with the #3 seed and avoid their nemeses, but their playoff run will probably end at the hands of the Raptors, who are deeper and better coached.

In spite of all that talent in their starting lineup, Ben Simmons’ inability to hit a jump shot will remain Philadelphia’s achilles heel. Watching the end of the Golden State game, they are still a hair short of being an elite team.

Utah

Just like last year, the Jazz started out struggling, with a mediocre defense Donovan Mitchell mired in a three month long shooting slump and a ton of tough road games that resulted in 14–17 record. In January, the Jazz regained their place as a top 5 defense, Mitchell caught fire (.412 3P%, averaging over 27 ppg) and Utah went on a 22–9 roll since those dark days in December.

Once again, the schedule makers put the Jazz through the gauntlet early, then rewarded them with a clear path to home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Believe it or not, Utah has only four games left against teams with a record of .500 or better. That’s music to the ears of Jazz fans.

Not only do they have the easiest schedule in the NBA, even the potentially difficult final three games of the season (at Lakers, Denver, at Clippers) may turn out to be walkovers as the LeBron shuts it down for the season once it’s clear the Lakers can’t make the playoffs, Denver rests their starters, and the Clippers tank their last game to keep their draft pick and have a better trade package for the big free agent Jerry West has already lined up.

In my original predictions, I picked Utah to finish as the #3 seed.

Now I can claim to be a genius to divert attention away from my horrendous prediction for the Lakers. The Jazz are not afraid of Denver, having won 2 out of their three games so far, so a potential #2 vs #3 matchup could be the closest second round series in the playoffs.

Tier 5: In Orbit

Golden State, Denver, Milwaukee, Toronto

There’s the old saying that the rich get richer. Since 2019 began, look at the goodies picked up by these top teams:

Milwaukee: In December, the Bucks reshaped their bench, acquiring George Hill and getting rid of Dellavedova and Henson, then traded for Mirotic before the trade deadline. Now, they will get the championship experience of Pau Gasol for next to nothing.

Toronto: traded for Marc Gasol and signed Jeremy Lin (can you believe he’s the #4 guard on the team?!)

Denver: no moves, but Isaiah Thomas is finally healthy and playing, which should be a nice boost for their offense.

Golden State: the luxury of being able to wait until Boogie Cousins was recovered and ready to play.

Now these teams are already starting to rest their stars in selected games.

Golden State, Denver, Milwaukee and Toronto are like the cool kids in the Hunger Games hanging back, resting, and watching as teams exhaust themselves to make the playoffs, and then beat each other to a bloody pulp to win a first round series. Then the real slaughter begins.

I will be shocked if any of these top four teams fail to make the Conference Finals.

Tier 6: Falling Fast

Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis, Washington, Atlanta

There is not much to say about these teams in the tank. Their only problem is they have just enough talent to keep stumbling into wins and hurt their lottery position. Dallas and Atlanta have the most to be happy about, as both Doncic (not surprising) and Young (I had my doubts) are turning into really exciting players that give their fans hopes.

Tier 6: Into the power dive

Phoenix, New York, Cleveland, Chicago

In the immortal paraphrasing of Winston Churchill, “never was so little (effort) given to so many (the fans) by so few (tanking franchises)”.

If there is any justice in this world, I hope the Pelicans win the lottery and Anthony Davis changes his mind about leaving New Orleans.

Final Conclusions

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my original conference predictions. In the West, key injuries and front office problems were the main reason New Orleans and the Lakers fell short, and they were replaced by my next two picks.

I didn’t expect to see the huge leaps in performance made by Jarett Allen, Joe Harris and D’Angelo Russell in Brooklyn, Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, and Fox and Hield in Sacramento this year. Nor did I expect to see the regression in shooting by the young Boston players and almost every player on the Lakers. Note to self: improvements in performance do not continue in a linear or arithmetic progression, so watch to see if those same players fall back to earth next season, while the young stars in Boston and L.A. may be ready for their own jumps.

In the East, I simply made a horrible pick when I thought Colin Sexton might be something special based on a couple of Summer League games, and the false bravado of Tristan Thompson.

I did not foresee the effect that good coaches would have on their new teams. Budenholzer completely transformed Milwaukee, with the only change in the starting lineup being Brook Lopez. Dwayne Casey made Detroit respectable, and Steve Clifford figured out a way to take Orlando’s mismatched pieces and make them work in a way that Luke Walton never could with the Lakers.

One other note: sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. The Bucks let Jabbari (Why do we have to play defense?) Parker go in free agency and they jumped from #18 in defense last year to #1 this year.

(I hope I will be able to say the same thing about the failed attempt to empty the cupboard by the Lakers in their desperate attempt to trade for Anthony Davis. If Ingram and Kuzma continue to play the way they have over the last two months, the Lakers would be idiots to trade them. Ingram and Kuzma have been playing the best basketball of their careers, averaging a combined 42 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists for the month of February. Combined with LeBron’s numbers (25.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 10.6 apg), that’s a playoff-level Big Three performance of 67.6 ppg, 20 rpg, 16.1 apg.²)

Finally, I never realized how big a difference it would make to have Jerry West go to the Clippers. While everyone makes jokes about James Dolan, Dan Gilbert and Suns owner Robert Sarver, I never imagined that the Lakers’ dysfunctional culture could be made even worse by Magic Johnson.

¹While every team gets robbed by the referees, blown goal tending calls may have cost the team four wins over the past two years. And, of course, everyone gets abused by James Harden.

²For context, here are the Big Three’s of a number of teams:

Curry-Durant-Thompson: 77.9 ppg, 16.1 rpg, 13.4 apg

Harden-Paul-Capela: 67.7 ppg, 23.6 rpg, 17.3 apg

LeBron-Ingram-Kuzma: 67.6 ppg, 20 rpg, 16.1 apg

Embiid-Simmons-Harris: 66.1 ppg, 30.3 rpg, 13.9 apg

Giannis-Middleton-Brodan: 60.3 ppg, 23.2 rpg, 13.4 apg

Leonard-Ibaka-Lowry: 57.0 ppg, 19.9 rpg, 14.0 apg

Jokic-Millsap-Murray: 51.3 ppg, 22.1 rpg, 14.4 apg

Towns-Wiggins-Teague: 53.4 ppg, 19.8 rpg, 13.7 apg

Obviously, the next five guys on each roster make a huge difference in the quality of each team, but nothing says that signing a big free agent is going to make for a better team than getting a bunch of solid role players who can play defense and make some outside shots. Just look at the difference between Philadelphia with their four stars and Boston, which arguably doesn’t have even one of the best three players on the court when they play.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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