We are just two weeks from the end of the NBA regular season, and the league actually has some on-court drama down the stretch. King James’ throne has turned green; the Warriors have found their groove sans Kevin Durant; and the Spurs continue to be a prod in Golden State’s side. And there’s that whole MVP race, too.
But what about the poor teams who will be trounced by these legitimate contenders in the first-round of the playoffs? It’s time we give them some love before they’re flushed down the drain like our hard-earned tax dollars. So this one goes out to all you little guys, who have a better chance of following in the footsteps of the Baltimore Bullets than advancing in the playoffs this year.
There are four open spots in the Eastern Conference, and technically three in the West, but realistically just one. Here are the odds for the teams in the hunt.
Milwaukee Bucks: 1/49
On February 8th, the Bucks not only lost to the Heat, dropping their record to 22-29, but also lost second-leading scorer Jabari Parker to his second ACL tear. The rest of the 2017 season looked pretty bleak for Milwaukee. Yet, here we are, and the Bucks are on the verge of taking the fifth-seed in the East.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been brilliant, and the whole team has bought into the ball-movement Jason Kidd has been preaching (fifth in assists per game). Kidd is also getting the most out of his team on the defensive end. Matthew Dellavedova and Malcolm Brogdon have been great stopping the ball, while Antetokounmpo is proving to be a solid rim-protector.
Milwaukee sports a 13-4 record in March, including wins over LAC (twice), Toronto, Indiana, Portland, Atlanta, and Boston. If there’s one team in this list that has a chance at advancing a round in the playoffs, it’s Milwaukee. But that’s mostly because they could wind up the five-seed in a weak conference.
Atlanta Hawks: 1/24
I wouldn’t argue too much if you said the Hawks are in one of the worst positions in the entire league right now. That’s not because they’ve dropped seven of their last nine, putting a touch of doubt on their playoff chances. It’s because management has put the team in a horrible purgatory where they’re good enough to make the playoffs, but have no hope of coming out of the East.
In early January, the team sold off Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap’s name was widely discussed on the trading block. It looked like they’d come to the realization that they have no chance of competing with a LeBron James-led team, so why not start acquiring valuable future assets?
But instead of going full 76ers, Atlanta decided to keep Millsap, and now they’re in limbo.
This roster has some pieces, including Dennis Schroder, who’s developed into a decent starting PG; and Tim Hardaway Jr would be a good bench-player on a competitive team. But Dwight Howard is simply a shell of the dominant player he once was. Atlanta is more than just one star player short of being a title contender. But hey, enjoy your short-lived playoff experience.
With three of their seven remaining games coming against Boston and Cleveland, the best thing for this franchise would be to continue losing and miss out on the playoffs. They’d get a much better pick in the upcoming draft, and could re-ignite their fire-sale to obtain more first-round selections. Unfortunately for the long-term health of the franchise, the Hawks will be back in the playoffs this year.
Miami Heat: 2/7
Since January 17th, no team has a better winning-percentage than the Heat (.765). The fact they’re only in seventh in the East says a lot about the way their season started. But that was so long ago; we’ll focus on the second-half Heat here.
Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside have led the resurgence, while Dion Waiters had his week of relevance. Whiteside’s superior rim-protection has resulted in Miami allowing the fifth-fewest points per game (102), and the big will likely receive some DPOY votes for his efforts.
The Heat only sit 1.5 games up on the ninth-place Bulls and they’ve slowed down from their fiery pace. But they are at least still winning the games they should, which is more than you can say for most teams in the race.
Indiana Pacers: 9/20
Larry Bird and the Pacers face a difficult offseason, which may see them trade perennial all-star Paul George. But for now, Bird will do everything he can to induce George to re-sign. Step-one: ensure Indiana makes the playoffs.
While it seems impossible for a player of George’s caliber to miss the playoffs in the East, the reality is, Indiana is a mediocre team on both ends that gets killed on the glass. The Pacers lack secondary scoring behind George, and Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young are just too soft in the front-court.
The Pacers currently hold a 1.5-game lead over the ninth-seeded Bulls, but have to play five of their remaining seven games against playoff teams. The good news: even if they lose five of those seven, Chicago would still have to go 5-3 to close out the season. Enough said?
Chicago Bulls: 14/15
The “big-three” the Bulls assembled in the offseason has been about as effective as a napkin on wing night. Now the Bulls are finding out that their offense may have been better all along with a little bit of ball movement, as Nikola Mirotic has averaged 23.6 PPG over his last three on 70-percent shooting from the field.
Dwyane Wade won’t be back in a Bulls uniform this regular season, which may be for the best; the offense has been better without him. But I don’t foresee Mirotic being able to stay this hot over the next two weeks and Chicago traded the rest of its depth. Still, with a pretty favorable schedule down the stretch (six games against non-playoff teams), the Bulls may be able to sneak their way into the playoffs.
Barring MJ suiting back up, the Hornets won’t be making the playoffs; the same goes for the Pistons.
Portland Trail Blazers: 4/11
A month ago, the Blazers were 24-35 and we were questioning whether Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum could exist in the same backcourt due to their defensive limitations. Portland has since clawed its way back into the playoff picture, posting a 12-3 record in March.
The trade for Jusuf Nurkic is what kick-started the turnaround. The seven-footer didn’t make an immediate impact with his new team, but has averaged a double-double this month; more importantly, he’s provided the Blazers with some interior defense, averaging 2.1 blocks in that time.
Terry Stotts’ team is now average defensively, surrendering 104.6 PPG (16th). While that may sound like a negative, it’s actually a major compliment, as they were allowing 110.2 PPG (26th) prior to March. What a battle cry: just stay average, Portland.
Denver Nuggets: 11/4
Unfortunately, that Nurkic trade hasn’t worked out so well for his former team, the Nuggets. Mason Plumlee hasn’t complemented what Denver does offensively: score points. The Duke product is averaging just 9.1 PPG and 0.8 blocks per game.
The Nuggets have some promising pieces in place and Denver fans can get excited about the future. But the future is not now, and as good as they are offensively (third in PPG), it doesn’t make up for their despicable defense.
“Boogie and The Brow,” or “Fire and Ice” if you prefer, has been fun. But the Pelicans needed a big run to get into the playoffs; posting a 9-9 record since acquiring DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t what they had in mind. It should be noted, New Orleans has gone 3-1 in games he has missed.