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50 Predictions For The 2020-21 NBA Season

Matt John revives Basketball Insiders’ classic 50 Predictions piece ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Matt John

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This article was an annual tradition hosted by Basketball Insiders penned by veteran Joel Brigham. Then our own Drew Maresca took the reins. This year, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Matt John. Fasten your seatbelts.

Now before I begin, I have two things to get off my chest. First, props to both Joel and Drew for writing these up because this is pretty darn difficult to do. When you’re trying to find the right balance between making a truly unique prediction and just spewing out nonsense to get the masses’ attention, it requires a lot of deep thought. Even if you’re trying to come off like Zach Lowe, you may come off like you’re doing your best impression of Skip Bayless.

Second, oh my goodness, this league is so freaking loaded! Most teams are so stockpiled with talent that even with Stephen Curry back and fully healthy, there is a solid chance Golden State doesn’t make the playoffs again. Think about that. Of course, Klay Thompson’s awful Achilles’ tear has something to do with that, but the Warriors still have a solid team around him and it might not matter.

And yes, that’s just the Western Conference being the Western Conference, but the East has a large pool of fantastic teams as well. So much so that Brooklyn could have a good enough offense to put them above the rest of the conference while also having a defense potentially so flawed that they could fall all the way down to the fifth seed at worst. Not because they would be that bad – but because their competition will be very unforgiving.

Anyway, enough dribble – no pun intended – let’s start this baby off! And what better way to start this off than with the award predictions?

Awards Predictions

1. I’m going to pick the bold-but-not-really choice with Luka Doncic as MVP. Admittingly, picking Luka to win is not really much of a hot take these days. He’s clearly one of the future faces of the league, while the NBA voting committee always loves MVP newcomers. With Dallas way ahead of schedule and Doncic leading the way, I fully anticipate this is going to be the first of multiple MVP winning campaigns for the boy wonder.

2. Jayson Tatum will lead the league in scoring. Over the course of the 2019-20 season, Tatum established himself as arguably the league’s best young scorer. Now, with Gordon Hayward gone and Kemba Walker’s knee being a major question mark, there should be even more scoring opportunities for Tatum. Expect Boston’s offense to take a noticeable step back this season, but Tatum’s scoring numbers should definitely make up for what they lost.

3. As crushed as Giannis Antetokounmpo will be to not three-peat as MVP, he will reign again as Defensive Player of the Year. Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Bam Adebayo will fight tooth and nail to get the honor, but Giannis’ build and IQ still make him the NBA’s golden goose on the defensive side.

4. The now financially-prosperous OG Anunoby rewards Toronto’s faith in him by winning the Most Improved Player award. His continued growth as a scorer and vaunted defense plays a huge role in keeping Raptors in the thick of the playoff race. The real shocker though is that the runner-up will be Marvin Bagley III now that he’s fully healthy again.

5. This is going to be the most intense race ever for Comeback Player of the Year with guys like Curry, Kevin Durant and John Wall, among others, gunning for it. Although others will have better performances than him, Wall gets the award. His season will go down as the most impressive seeing how he’s coming off of two consecutive serious injuries and hasn’t played in two years.

6. James Harden won’t make First-Team all-NBA. It sounds ridiculous, but star players do see their All-NBA chances drop when they get traded during the season. Look up Jimmy Butler, 2019. By the way, Harden’s competition is going to be as fierce as ever. Doncic, Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard will all out-shine Harden no matter where he goes.

7. Joining Harden on the All-NBA second team will be Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic. The third team will consist of Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

As a bonus, let’s go with Devin Booker, Trae Young, Bam Adebayo, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell among the biggest snubs. Kyrie Irving would be too but I just don’t trust his ability to stay on the floor. Is it too much to ask for a fourth All-NBA team?

8. Caris LeVert wins Sixth Man of the Year. It’s hard to envision LeVert putting up the same numbers he did in the bubble with Irving and Durant in the picture – but if he’s running the second unit’s offense, then he should kill it in that role. I would have put Danilo Gallinari on here, but I just don’t think he’s going to be Atlanta’s sixth man for that long.

9. Gordon Hayward makes it back to the All-Star game. As overpaid as he is, Hayward was the biggest name in free agency to change sides. Hayward’s diminished role in Boston made him underrated as an overqualified fourth option wasn’t good for his production. In Charlotte, he will see the ball a lot more – which should lead to a closer resemblance to Utah Hayward. That is, as long as his continued streak of freak injuries finally stops.

10. For maneuvering Philadelphia back on track, Daryl Morey will win Executive of the Year.

11. Morey’s case will be based on the improved cohesion with the team as a whole. That will be sparked by Ben Simmons, who will lead the league in assists.

Rookie of the Year Predictions

12. This will be the first Rookie of the Year race to not really have a clear frontrunner since 2016. This draft was supposedly filled with less overall superstar talent but more talents that can be vital rotation players on playoff teams.

13. I’m going to go with the surprise lottery pick this year, Patrick Williams. LaMelo Ball will make more highlight reels and has the highest upside, but Williams looks very NBA-ready on a team that will need him right away.

14. Tyrese Haliburton will get the nod over Anthony Edwards for NBA All-Rookie First-Team. That’s not a knock on Edwards. He’s got a good future ahead of him. Haliburton just looks like he has a better feel for the game right now.

Trade Predictions

15. The James Harden saga is going to drag on and on through this season. Houston has all the leverage in this situation because of what remains of his contract and the Antetokounmpo situation shockingly resolved. He will be traded mid-season but only after we all get a feel of the NBA landscape in 2021.

16. Who wins the Harden sweepstakes? Golden State. They have the assets. They have the contracts. They know Curry isn’t going to play forever. They know the Western Conference will be a free-for-all. They give up the farm for Harden – and they don’t think twice.

17. Oklahoma City will trade Al Horford without sacrificing any assets. Horford will look more like the player in OKC that he was originally paid to be in Philly as the full-time center. They won’t redeem his value as they did with Chris Paul, but they will get rid of him the first chance they get.

18. Boston will use their massive trade exception before the trade deadline. Hayward’s departure and Walker’s balky knee kills their playmaking in spite of bigger strides from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. At the deadline, they’ll trade for a player in the hopes of specifically aiding that department.

19. Atlanta will trade John Collins, a move which they both will come to realize is best for all parties.

20. Cleveland will not trade Kevin Love, even though they also know it would be best for all parties if they did.

21. Rumors about the Bulls will be splitting up that Lauri Markkanen/Wendell Carter frontcourt pairing – but the encouraging progress from both of them along with the chances of another high lottery pick will convince them to give the pair one more chance.

Team Predictions

22. Boston, Miami, Denver and the L.A. Lakers will all start the year sluggishly. Not because of anything they did wrong this offseason, but for the mere fact that their previous seasons all ended just two months ago! I expect them not to burst right out the gate though I also expect them to still be among their conference’s elite.

23. For that same reason, teams like Philadelphia, Dallas, Portland and Utah will be off to the best starts because they had an appropriately-sized time off between the end of their last season and the beginning of this one.

24. The Detroit Pistons and the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the worst teams record-wise in their respective conferences.

25. Minnesota and Charlotte will be the teams that most fans will think of when they hear not-good-but-fun.

26. Dallas will get the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference – and for more reasons than just Luka Doncic. Josh Richardson was exactly what the doctor ordered, ideally, Kristaps Porzingis will have a healthier season. With them in play, Dallas will be right at the top.

27. Milwaukee will get the No. 1 seed for the third consecutive year because it’s their postseason efforts in question – not their past regular season results.

28. Brooklyn’s going to struggle at first because while their offense will be top-3 in the league, their defense will be bottom-10 to start. But with the solid assets they have, they’ll trade them for defensive personnel as the season goes on, pushing them to the No. 2 seed.

29. Joining Milwaukee and Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference will be Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana in that order.

30. Joining Dallas and the Lakers in the Western Conference will be the Clippers, Denver, Portland, Utah and Golden State in that order.

Playoff Predictions

31. Note that in both conferences, the previous two predictions total out to only seven teams each. I did that because we are in for some very fascinating play-in tournaments. In the East, we’ll get Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington duking it out for No. 8.

In the West, we’ll get Phoenix, New Orleans and Sacramento doing the same. Washington will snag that last spot in the East, while Phoenix gets the last spot in the West.

32. Even though things are going to look so much better than they did last year, both Philadelphia and Utah suffer yet another first-round exit. Although, no matter who they face, both of them will be the one team everyone in their conference will want to avoid in the playoffs for there will be a grueling seven-game series.

33. We are going to get the much-discussed Lakers-Warriors playoff matchup in the first round and it’s going to be one for the ages. Harden and Curry push the defending champs to the brink, but the Lakers prevail in Game 7.

34. Plus, the much-hyped Lakers-Clippers series not only happens in the second round, but the Lakers take it in five.

35. As hot as the Mavericks will look, the Nuggets will overtake them in an intense second round matchup, which will only serve as further proof that this is just another stepping stone for Dallas.

36. The Bucks will do much better than that abomination they put up in the bubble, but that’ll be because the playoff matchups will favor them more by avoiding Miami.

37. And they won’t have to play Miami when they make it back to the conference finals, as Brooklyn will be their opponent. However, the Nets will barely pull away in a tight seven-game series against the Bucks.

38. When L.A. faces off against Brooklyn, the Nets will do better than when those two faced off back in 2002, but the Lakers will repeat as champs as they take the series in five games.

Individual Predictions

39. Jamal Murray will prove his bubble dominance was not a fluke as he continues to shock audiences with his electrifying 25+ point performances that will spark not an all-star appearance, but all-NBA.

40. T.J. Warren sadly won’t do the same, but he will continue to prove that he’s one of the best bargain contracts in the NBA.

41. Joel Embiid will be only one of two players in the NBA to average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds. The other will not be Anthony Davis, but it will be a Nikola – Vucevic, that is.

42. Blake Griffin will barely play half the season in Detroit in spite of the numbers he’ll put up while he’s on the floor.

Coach Predictions

43. Even though Utah will look better than last year, the hot seat buzz will start kicking for Quin Snyder. He’s done a great job with the Jazz, but if Utah fails to get past the first round for the third straight year, it’s hard to see how Snyder avoids the lion’s share of the blame.

44. Drew predicted this the last two years, so I guess it’s going to be a tradition until further notice: Scott Brooks will lose his job. Not at any point during the regular season but after the Wizards get swept by the Bucks in the playoffs. He’s had the excuse of John Wall’s persistent injuries. Not anymore.

45. It’s for that same reason above that Steve Clifford avoids the boot. It’s true that Orlando will miss the playoffs but they’ll attribute that toward Jonathan Isaac blowing out his knee more than anything else. Management will give Clifford the benefit of the doubt. The question is for how long?

Miscellaneous Predictions

46. Atlanta will lead the league in starting lineup changes. Their roster is one big puzzle made up entirely of blue sky that will need the whole season to be put together. The only two players I expect to be mainstays in the starting lineup are Trae Young and Clint Capela, if healthy. That’s it.

47. We’re going to see teams ease up on the three-point shooting. They’ll still come at a high volume, but we saw the Lakers in the bottom-10 in both attempts and percentage from three-point land, and look where they are now. Milwaukee’s lived and died by the three for the last two years and they’ve only achieved regular-season success.

48. We won’t have any new All-Stars this year, barring injury.

49. COVID-19 is definitely going to leave its mark on this season and beyond. Both on the personnel and revenue. It’s happened to the other sports, but there’s no way anyone wanted another bubble.

50. Finally, for the first time possibly ever, San Antonio will intentionally tank their season based on inferior talent versus losing their star player to injury as they did in 1997. You’d have to go back to the days of President Reagan to think of the last time the Spurs were intentionally bad, but that’s the state they are in. If there was an NBA equivalent to 2020, it would be the Spurs waving the white flag after all these years.

And basketball is back! Let me know how I did or what you’re rooting for on Twitter, we’d be happy to hear how wrong these will all be.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

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It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

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