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Jermaine Taylor Ready for NBA Comeback

After a year-long bootcamp, Jermaine Taylor is in terrific shape and determined to make an NBA comeback.

Alex Kennedy

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Mention the name Jermaine Taylor to an NBA player or coach, and two things will typically happen.

First, the person will rave about Taylor’s talent or work ethic. Even though he only played two seasons in the NBA, he made a very strong impression on the people who were around him on a daily basis. Here’s a sampling of what players and coaches said about Taylor when contacted by Basketball Insiders.

DeMarcus Cousins (played with Taylor in Sacramento): “Jermaine is an extremely athletic guard who plays hard no matter the circumstances. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around – a true pro in all aspects. And I would say the best thing about him is he’s a great teammate, somebody guys always want to be around and appreciate having in the locker room.”

Courtney Lee (played with Taylor in Houston): “I had the chance to play with him in Houston, so I know he works extremely hard on his game. He’s a low-key guy who would [produce] without causing any problems on and off the court. Not to mention, he’s a good looker room guy who puts the team before himself.”

Garrett Temple (played with Taylor in Houston and Sacramento): “He’s always been a guy who just had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. His ability to score is something that can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t, and he does.”

Francisco Garcia (played with Taylor in Sacramento): “He was a good teammate – very professional with a great work ethic. He has a natural-born talent and a good feel for the game. He can be a great asset to any team.”

Sacramento Kings assistant coach Elston Turner (coached Taylor in Houston): “When Jermaine came to us in Houston, he had just as much talent as any player at his position in the whole NBA! He had the ability to score from transition, ISOs and jumpers. He also was incredibly athletic; he had great tenacity and a will to win.”

Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Phil Handy (coached Taylor in Cleveland): “Jermaine was incredible when he was in Summer League and training camp with us. He’s just a tremendously hard worker. Whatever we asked of him, he did it with no questions asked. He was extremely professional every day and has a workmanlike attitude. Not even mentioning the physical attributes, he impressed me with his mentality and professionalism. The way he approached every day and the way he worked so hard every day, I gained a lot of respect for that kid while he was with us. He’s an NBA talent. For guys like him, sometimes it’s just about finding the right place and even having a little bit of luck. He’s a tremendous athlete, thrives in the open court, brings a lot of energy and he’s improved his jump-shot to the point where he can make open shots. I think everyone knows that he’s a tremendous athlete, but he’s a gifted scorer as well. If [given] the right opportunity, he can bring a lot of energy and athleticism to a team.”

Assistant coach T.R. Dunn (coached Taylor in Houston): “J.T. is a very hard-working, coachable young man. I had the opportunity to work with him on two separate occasions. He is, in my opinion, an athletic scorer who runs well in transition and has the ability to aggressively attack the rim off the bounce. Defensively, he is very competitive and not afraid of a challenge. Finally, he’s a good person and very professional about his career.”

Second, the person will usually ask the same question: Why isn’t he in the NBA right now? After the players and coaches finished talking about Taylor’s game, many wondered why he isn’t on a roster. The former teammates seem confused. The coaches wonder if they missed something and, since Taylor is only 29 years old, they ask when he’ll be back.

After spending the last year obsessively working on his game and making drastic life changes in an effort to maximize his potential, Taylor is confident he’ll be back on an NBA roster for the 2016-17 season.

“You have no idea how hungry I am right now,” Taylor told Basketball Insiders. “My whole life is designed around basketball. Between the time I wake up in the morning and the time I go to sleep at night, everything I do is about basketball. I changed my diet completely and started juicing. It’s why I endure intense workouts several times a day. It’s why I changed my sleep schedule. It’s why I’m starting yoga five times a week, deep-tissue massages three times a week and cryotherapy-chamber treatments three times per week. Hungry doesn’t begin to describe this. Starving doesn’t describe it either. There isn’t a word for what I’m feeling right now.”

******

Casual NBA fans may not remember Taylor all that well, as the 6’5 shooting guard only played 65 games in the league before heading overseas. Taylor first made a name for himself at the University of Central Florida, where he averaged 26.2 points (on 48 percent shooting) and 5.2 rebounds as a senior.

He was drafted with the 32nd pick in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards and traded to the Houston Rockets shortly after. He spent his two years in the NBA with Rockets and then the Sacramento Kings.

In Sacramento, he played well enough to earn eight starts, in which he averaged 11.9 points and three rebounds while shooting 58 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. Taylor played well when given significant minutes. In one game against the Dallas Mavericks, he filled the stat sheet with 17 points, five assists, three rebounds, four steals and a block while shooting 58.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range.

One week after that impressive outing against Dallas, he led the Kings to victory over the Orlando Magic – a game that meant a lot to him since he grew up less than an hour outside of Orlando and attended nearby UCF. He had a career-high 21 points (on 9-12 shooting from the field) and five rebounds, and the crowd cheered him on even as he helped the Kings defeat the Magic. He was one of the most electrifying scorers in the country while at UCF, and fans in the area still love him. With Taylor doing so well when given playing time, it seemed like NBA success was imminent.

But just as quickly as his career started to pick up momentum, it fizzled out. The Kings let him go after that lone season – days before the NBA lockout. This made it tough for him to find a team when the Collective Bargaining Agreement was eventually ratified, and he has been bouncing around a bit ever since. He averaged 24.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals for the Maine Red Claws of the NBA D-League. He had preseason stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers, but was a final cut before he saw regular-season action with either team.

After briefly flashing his talent and potential in the NBA, Taylor went overseas. He played in five countries (China, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Spain and Israel) over three years.

Then, Taylor disappeared from the basketball scene altogether over the last year. He didn’t play abroad. He didn’t surface in the D-League. He talked about joining a friend’s team in The Basketball Tournament (which allows anyone to assemble a team and compete for a $2 million prize), but ultimately backed out. The mystery surrounding Taylor over the last year is why people around the NBA wondered what Taylor is up to these days and where he plans to go from here.

******

When a professional basketball player takes one year off during what seems to be their physical prime, people wonder if they’re walking away from the game for good.

However, Taylor is far from done. His one-year hiatus wasn’t about taking a break from basketball. In fact, it was the exact opposite. He essentially put himself through a year-long boot camp to get himself into the best shape of his life, become more well-rounded as a player and, perhaps most importantly, stop coasting off of his natural talent.

In 2014, Taylor tore his ACL and had season-ending surgery. Eight months later, he was back on the court – suiting up in the D-League and eventually overseas. But because he was coming back from the injury, he didn’t put up the monster numbers people were used to seeing from him.

“When I came back in the 2014-15 season after my surgery, I averaged 13 points in the D-League and 17 points overseas, and people weren’t happy because they felt like I wasn’t the same,” Taylor said. “But it was tough, averaging those numbers eight months after surgery to repair my ACL as well as my meniscus. People didn’t know what it was like going through that or what it felt like. They just said, ‘Oh, he’s not the same player. He’s not as explosive. He’s not blowing past people and dunking.’ At that point, I decided I was going to take one year away from playing for a team so that I could get completely healthy and get in the best shape of my life.

“I changed everything. I feel like a different person. Over the last 10 months, I changed my routine. I wake up every morning at 8 a.m. and stretch and then I juice. I started the juicing, doing yoga, getting deep-tissue massages and doing cryotherapy-chamber treatments because I researched what stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do to keep their body in top shape. I want to do everything I can to get better. Everything people have seen from me to this point was just because of my raw talent. I was just quicker and more athletic than my opponents. Now, I’m pushing myself and doing what’s necessary to take my game to the next level. The game has slowed down for me and I’m doing everything I can to maximize my potential. I can’t wait to get back in front of these NBA teams that saw me in the past because I’m a whole different player.”

Taylor has been working out at UCF and former NBA player Pat Burke’s Training Facility in Orlando. He does morning and afternoon workouts, followed by pick-up games at night that include players like Courtney Lee from the New York Knicks and Toney Douglas from the New Orleans Pelicans as well as a number of overseas stars (such as former Ole Miss guard Chris Warren, for example).

Lee, who played with Taylor in Houston, has been really impressed with Taylor’s growth as a player.

“I think J.T. could bring a lot to a team,” Lee said. “He’s a scorer from inside and out. I’ve been watching him play lately [in Orlando] and he has extended his range past the NBA three-point line. He’s still athletic enough to get by his defender and play above the rim.”

Taylor is thrilled with the results he’s seen from his year off and believes it will lead to an NBA comeback.

“Right now, this is the best I’ve ever been,” Taylor said. “This is the best shape I’ve been and the best that my game has been, and I owe it all to this last year. I have taken my game to a level that nobody has seen before. I wanted to become a better all-around player and that’s what I am now after taking this year off. Not only is my athleticism back, I’ve worked hard to improve as a shooter, as a ball-handler and as a pro.”

Niall Berry, who is the Director of Coaching and Player Development at Pat Burke’s Training Facility, raves about the work that Taylor has put in over the last year.

“What he’s doing is above and beyond what most players do,” Coach Berry said. “I coached at the highest levels in Europe for a number of years and I’ve never seen anyone with his level of determination. He’s on another level. I knew he was trying to go really hard, so I tried to get some workout buddies in here with him. But the workout buddies never lasted. He went through three or four guys who each went through a couple weeks, but none of them could handle it. Usually after about a week, they would start to get flaky and stop showing up. But he’s still here, still going. He was trying to convince the other guys to stick with it, telling them that they could bring their game to another level, but I suppose some players have that intensity and mentality and some players don’t. I think that’s a big difference between an NBA player and someone who doesn’t belong in the league.”

While Taylor says that he feels better than ever, there’s actually solid evidence that he is in the best shape of his life.

“Pat Burke runs our facility and he played in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, so he went to the Suns and was able to get some of Jermaine’s athletic results from when he was doing pre-draft workouts,” Coach Berry said. “When he was trying to enter the league out of college, he had a no-step vertical of 34 inches, which is pretty good. When he began working out here, he started with a 30-inch no-step vertical. Now, his most recent no-step was measured at 34.85 inches. I didn’t even realize he had increased it that much. That’s absolutely crazy, but that’s a testament to how hard he works. For that to be higher now than he was when he was entering the NBA blows me away. I didn’t even realize until we got these results. He has put in months and months of work. This didn’t happen overnight.”

In addition to working on his athleticism and conditioning, Taylor has been working hard to become an even better ball-handler and shooter. He has always had a knack for scoring the ball, but he wanted to ensure that these skills were in peak form should he get that NBA opportunity. When asked how he feels he would fit in today’s NBA, Taylor doesn’t hesitate to respond.

“I think I fit perfectly in today’s NBA because creating your own shot and playing in space have been huge parts of my game for my entire life,” Taylor said. “I’ve been a big-time scorer since fourth grade, when I first started playing. I’ve always been able to score the basketball and I’ve been asked to be a star for a lot of my teams. I always have the belief that I’m one of the best players on the court, even if there’s somebody like LeBron James out there with me. If LeBron is on the court, I’m going to make things hard on him and he’s going to work for every point. I want them to show me why they’re great. In my rookie year, I guarded Kobe Bryant and it was the same thing. Some people thought I’d back down, but I had my best game as a starter and he had his worst-scoring game of that whole season. I don’t back down from anyone.

“Because of that, plus the fact that I’m older and more mature now so I know how to go out there and fill a certain role for a team, I know I can contribute in today’s NBA. Since the last time I was in the league, the game has slowed down for me so much. I look back on my [old NBA game film] and I was out of control, always at 100 percent speed. Now, things have slowed down, my basketball IQ has improved and people have never seen my handles the way that they are right now. It’s like the ball is on a string for me now. Like I said before, everything before was just me using raw talent. My man would be guarding me and I’d just try to drive past him using my athleticism. Now, defenders have told me that I’m really unpredictable. Now, I can go through my legs, [hesitate], act like I’m going to shoot it and then go. The game has slowed down for me and my arsenal of moves is completely different.”

Having witnessed all of the work that Taylor has put in and watched his transformation firsthand, Berry is campaigning for the 29-year-old to get another look in the NBA.

“I think he’s definitely good enough,” Coach Berry said. “When you have the scoring ability that Jermaine has, he would be an asset to any team. Me, personally, I am very confident that he can help an NBA team, but I’m not aware of all of the politics that go on so I can’t comment from that point of view. But from a talent and work ethic and scoring point of view, there’s no question he can help a team. He has been in the league before and with where he’s at physically now, he’s at a level I haven’t seen in many other athletes that I’ve worked with. I’ve seen what he can do and how hard he works and how coachable he is. I’m an Irish coach who introduced him to some new things, and he’s absolutely open to everything. If he’s part of an NBA team, he’s going to be extremely coachable and eager to learn, and that’s what every coach wants. I also loved what I saw from him when he was working out with the other players. He brings people together and leads and pushes everyone around him, so he’s great to have in the locker room too. I just think there’s too many positives here, so if he gets that opportunity I can’t envision him not helping an NBA team.”

Taylor’s basketball journey hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, but he’s grateful for every stop and the valuable lessons he took from each.

“I feel like I matured a lot and it felt like I grew five years in these last two years with all of the experiences that I had,” he said. “I know who I am now. Before, I started questioning myself when things weren’t going my way. But taking this year off allowed me to look back on my life and think, ‘Look at what you’ve done.’ To come from where I came from – the background I have, growing up without a father and everything I’ve been through – I’m not supposed to be where I am. But I made it here. It put everything in perspective and made me realize that what I’m doing now – working for this – is nothing for me. With what I’ve been through, I can do this. I know who I am now and I have more confidence.

“I’ve grown so much because I don’t take anything for granted now. When I was in the league, everything was happening so fast that I didn’t enjoy the moment and take it in. I want to yell at that kid, ‘Your dream came true! You’re in the NBA!’ It wasn’t until I went overseas and didn’t have that lifestyle anymore that I started appreciating it so much more. It also made me respect the guys who go bounce around year after year after year chasing their dream. I started respecting them so much more, because I know how hard it is to be thousands of miles away from everything you know. You don’t know anyone, the language is different, you’re out of your comfort zone. What I’ve learned the most is just to appreciate everything. And the same goes for my overseas experiences, because the things I experienced there turned me in to who I am now. Had I not gone overseas and had those experiences, I’m not the same person today. It changed my game and certain parts of my skill set too.”

Taylor hired a new agent, Daniel Hazan, who has talked with a number of teams about setting up a workout for Taylor to put his new-look game on display. Taylor is salivating at the opportunity to get in front of NBA talent-evaluators and show what he can do.

“I’m excited about that,” Taylor said with a smile. “I’m open to doing workouts for these NBA teams. The way I look at it, it’s like nobody has seen me play before because my game is so different now. I want to show how my game has evolved. I’m ready.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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