Amidst one of the most competitive seasons in recent history, the NBA is readying a batch of fresh faces for the playoffs. The surge in talent has led to unheralded teams making significant noise, causing an intense power struggle right smack in the middle of the standings.
This year promises a new theater of competition for the traditionally dominant West and newly resurgent East, but the cast must be shortlisted soon—and the battle for the last tickets to the Playoffs should be interesting, if not unpredictable.
Only two Western Conference teams should be confident enough to lay claim to the playoffs now: the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Kawhi Leonard’s on-off injury and rehab problems for the Spurs (4th) and the preliminary exits of the Pelicans’ (5th) DeMarcus Cousins and the Timberwolves’ (3rd) Jimmy Butler have prompted a sense of vulnerability in those spots. Teams have begun to smell blood in the water, especially with the current third and eighth placers being only three games apart from each other.
On the other hand, who would’ve thought that Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Goran Dragic would be fighting for the Eastern Conference playoffs this season? The Sixers were supposed to be a few more years into the Process, and the Heat weren’t even supposed to win at all. The East has a narrower playing field and looks more set in stone than the West—but a couple of teams will still be looking to go against the grain and surprise like Kyrie Irving’s Celtics and Oladipo’s Pacers have.
THE SAFE BETS
The Portland Trail Blazers will rely heavily on CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, and have done so for a while now. Jusuf Nurkic’s 14.1 ppg and 8.3 rpg has created an interior insurance policy for the trigger-happy Blazers, but does having Al Farouq Aminu and Shabazz Napier as their next best scorers enough to sustain their momentum? The Blazers’ 0.78 remaining strength of schedule (RSOS) is the seventh hardest in the league, including marquee matchups with Boston, Cleveland, Golden State, Houston, Minnesota, and Oklahoma in March. That certainly won’t stop Lillard from shooting, as his team is currently enjoying the third-highest 3pt % in the league.
The Miami Heat have already won the battle for the best alternate uniform in the NBA, and now their odds of making the playoffs seem encouraging even against looming challenges. Coach Spoelstra’s highly diversified offense has led to nine rotation players (including the injured Dion Waiters) averaging double-digit scoring, with Dragic leading the pack with a solid 18 ppg, 4 rpg, and 5 apg.
Even better, Miami legend Dwyane Wade has finally come home and is starting to stretch his legs with his latest home winner against Philadelphia with 5.9 seconds. No longer the starter he used to be, Wade still provides excellent leadership and reliable bench scoring when necessary. But perhaps the most encouraging sign: Hassan Whiteside and the Heat are stifling modern basketball by their unique defense, which ranks fourth in the league in opponent FG%, second in 3PA, and 3rd in assists—showing that they have a way of slowing down fast run-and-gun offenses. Couple that with the second easiest RSOS (-1.91) and things are looking great for Miami.
Brodie’s Oklahoma City Thunder is in a strange place: they’re seventh in the standings but have won only half of their last 10 games, unable to string together key wins and exhibit a consistent brand of basketball (or defense). Their success is almost entirely dependent on whether Melo, Paul George, and Westbrook play well. OKC has been mired in mediocrity both offensively and defensively, but seem to feed on second-chance points generated by their league-leading 12.6 offensive rebounds per game and 9.1 steals per game. They have no choice but to improve on their aggressive defense in the closing days of the regular season.
And Philadelphia, of course—because Joel Embiid has to make it to the playoffs. He just has to.
THE CONVINCING CONTENDERS
The Utah Jazz may be on the outside looking in, but it's not too late for them to make a meaningful push. Riding the second-best winning record during the last 10 games, Utah’s RSOS (-.72) are eighth most favorable among aspirants. Donovan Mitchell is still tearing up the league with his best Wade impression by leading Utah in scoring (19.6 ppg) and providing athleticism, while new entrant Jae Crowder seems to have rejuvenated the bench after replacing Rodney Hood’s scoring with defense and versatility. Joe Ingles’s shooting has also helped make the Jazz the eighth best three-point shooting team in the NBA. Among the outsiders, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Jazz may steal one of the playoff spots from a higher seed. They’re scheduled to play the Warriors and Celtics in March, but otherwise, have a slate of very winnable games in time for the clutch.
The Denver Nuggets, on the other hand, look to go deep in the playoffs with their starters’ scoring and playmaking, while reintegrating Paul Millsap—9 pts 7 reb 2 blk in first game back after a 40-game absence—into the lineup. With Nikola Jokic (aka the second coming of Arvydas Sabonis), Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray spearheading the NBA’s ninth-best FG%, perhaps the Nuggets are one stretch away from being the deadliest underdog and unwanted matchup in the West.
Meanwhile, the LA Clippers are still alive! While it looked like the Pistons got the better part of the Griffin-Harris swap, LA (7-3) are surprisingly better during a 10-game stretch than the Pistons (4-6). Their 0.85 RSOS is the sixth worst in the league, signaling a tough road ahead for the retooling team. Credit Lou Williams for zeroing in on the primary scorer role (23.4 ppg), as well as the friskiness of Montrezl Harrell and Austin Rivers. The Clips still need to maintain consistency lest risk the Jazz, or gosh forbid, their streaking LA cousins overtaking them in the standings.
THE LONG SHOTS
The Charlotte Hornets seem to be stuck in the early 2000s, sporting a vintage low-post Dwight Howard and leading the league in very antiquated stats: first in free throws attempted, first in offensive rebounds, first defensive rebounding percentage, and second in turnovers. They’re a meticulous half-court team that maximizes every possession. They don’t shoot threes as often but are likely to make it when they do (.369 at 9th). This team will likely live and die with Kemba Walker and will have to get support from veterans Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marvin Williams (perhaps for the last season), and timely bench contributions from Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lamb. The Hornets have the ninth best RSOS—but will need to steal a few key wins from their conference rivals if they hope to steal a playoff spot, especially since they play against the Sixers thrice in March.
The Detroit Pistons have fallen off their spectacular post-trade campaign and have since lost three straight games before winning their last one. It looked like the Pistons finally ran into the missing ingredient in Blake Griffin, but have since seen an inconsistent supporting cast driving the offense. The Pistons still sport the fifth-best 3PT% in the league but rely on playmaking and spot shooting to generate points, as they lack one-on-one elite scorers that can create enough shots to keep a comfortable winning margin. Reggie Bullock, Ish Smith, and Langston Galloway will have to pick up the slack.
It’s an extremely long shot—but don’t snooze on the Los Angeles Lakers. Things have slowly fallen into place for the past few games: Julius Randle is suddenly the offensive version of Draymond Green, and Josh Hart has provided stability (and consistent shooting) from the PG position while still allowing Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Isaiah Thomas a free-wheeling style of basketball off the bench. The Lakers had nine of its players score in double figures against Atlanta, but then again, it’s the Hawks. Being the second-best rebounding team in the NBA is a good sign, but the Lakers have to do maximize possessions consistently. It’s just too bad that no one really knows what will happen next season when a fire sale for a potential superstar seems all too imminent, but for now let’s enjoy the slow burn.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE CAVEATS
The key injuries to Kawhi, Boogie, and Jimmy B might have more far-reaching consequences for the West, which may lead to more variability, but overall only a handful of teams have a legitimate chance of challenging the status quo.
But the thinking fan really can’t put too much weight on the RSOS statistic—after all, it’s just a number, one that relies largely on historical information and not prediction. The fact of the matter is, if a team wins against another team it was supposed to lose to, then everything changes dramatically. Thus, take the RSOS with a grain of salt, and take the playoffs for what it really should be: an honest to goodness bloodbath for pride and supremacy.