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NBA AM: Looking In On The Key Free Agents

This should be the biggest spending summer in NBA history, but there may not be as many top players to spend money on as you think.

Steve Kyler

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The Free Agency Riddle

There’s almost no question that July 1 in the NBA this summer is going to be manic and chaotic. As things stand today, there looks to be more than $1.09 billion in money available under the salary cap. That’s an important distinction because NBA teams need to spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap. While there is not a punitive penalty for teams that do not spend, there are some mechanisms in place that get sticky for teams that do not meet the minimum salary floor, especially with the NBA projected to fall more than $375 million short as a league in what they are required to pay the players in salary and benefits as part of the contracted revenue share.

The calculus the NBA and the players agreed on in the Collective Bargaining Agreement assumes most teams will be over the salary cap and likely under the luxury tax; however with so many teams falling way below the cap this summer, very few teams will get meaningfully over the cap, and that’s going to create a huge short-fall that will get paid to the players in a lump sum check, and that money will come from the teams that do not spend – further motivating teams to spend the windfall in cap space they are projected to have.

As things stand today, more than 26 teams will have ample cap space, meaning the ability to get to at least one maximum salary slot. There are a handful of teams that can get to two maximum salary slots, which equates to more than $45 million in usable cap space per team.

Current NBA projections put the 2016-17 salary cap in the $92 million range; however, that number does not get locked in until the final accounting for the season is done and certified by both the NBA and the Players Association.

Assuming the cap stays at $92 million, which most league insiders expect may be slightly higher, the maximum salary tiers for players projects to be something like this: $21.6 million for players with up to six years of NBA experience, $25.9 million for those with seven to nine years of NBA experience, and $30.2 million with 10 or more years in the league.

The other notable is that players with some level of Bird Rights can receive 7.5 percent annual increases if they stay with their respective home teams. That number drops to 4.5 percent if they leave for another market.

It’s also important to point out that while the NBA salary cap projects to go up more than 28 percent this summer, it also projects to go up another 20-plus percent next summer.

That’s meaningful for the handful of players finishing their ninth NBA season like Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Atlanta’s Al Horford and Memphis’ Mike Conley, as all three could earn substantially more money as a 10-year player next summer.

As things stand today, there are more than 270 players that could be in the 2016-17 NBA Free agent pool depending on how many options are picked up or declined. Of those players, there are about 40 that most in the NBA would consider significant, meaning the land grab for talent on July 1 could be incredibly hard to predict given how many teams have money and how quickly teams may need to act to ensure they come out of all of this with players.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at what we know about the top of the list:

Kevin Durant

The biggest free agent fish in the pond is Thunder star Kevin Durant. While there have been a lot of reports that say Durant would do this and Durant would do that, sources close to the process say that Durant has been very aggressive with his inner circle that he was not going to talk about free agency with any of them until after the Thunder season ended. This is meaningful because reports prior to the end of the Thunder season are not based on anything Durant has said, and he’s been clear that his camp was not talking.

The prevailing belief around the Thunder is that Durant is more inclined to stay in OKC for one more season than seriously explore life on another team. That said, league sources say the Warriors and the Spurs are planning big pitches to Durant if he’ll take meetings – as most expect he will.

Durant is one of those players that is financially motivated to take a shorter-term deal, not only because of the ballooning cap, but because he’ll cross over to the 10-year experience tier next summer.

The final wrinkle in the Durant puzzle is his connection to teammate Russell Westbrook. While some see their on-court bickering and try to make that a negative, the connection Durant and Westbrook share is real and its meaningful. The belief in NBA circles is that Durant will sign a one-and-one deal with the Thunder and give the situation one more year. Durant will get the benefit of the new salary jump this year and have the ability to re-up next summer at an even higher rate. Staying for one more year also allows Durant to see what Westbrook and teammate Serge Ibaka do with their free agency in 2017. It also allows Durant the chance to see the Thunder through to the potential end without regrets.

While it’s possible a pitch from the Warriors or the Spurs sways Durant away, the belief around the league is that Durant is not going anywhere this summer. That could very well change next summer.

Mike Conley

The narrative all season around Conley was that he was staying in Memphis. However, sources close to Conley’s camp said recently that Conley is more open to new situations than anyone in Memphis would be comfortable with. The narrative from those sources is that Conley is concerned that the Grizzlies cannot add enough to the roster to get them seriously into championship status and if that does not happen, he’s not willing to tie his career to Memphis in the long-term.

Like Durant, Conley is financially motivated to give Memphis one more year – as he too becomes a 10-year player in 2017. Doing a shorter term deal would allow Conley to let the Grizzlies add more to the roster, without the long-term commitment.

The fact that Conley likely meets with other teams is going to create some buzz, especially with teams like the Knicks and the Rockets said to covet Conley significantly.

The dark horse in the Conley race is the Spurs. More than a few league insiders have pegged the Spurs as having more than a passing interest in Conley as a free agent and, much like with Durant, they are prepared to break apart some of their core to lock in another high level player.

The smart money says Conley is back in Memphis, however it’s far from the lock that it seemed four months ago when the idea of Conley leaving was laughable within his circle.

Hassan Whiteside

The HEAT have a big problem when it comes to retaining Whiteside. Because the HEAT signed Whiteside to a two-year deal, they do not have full-Bird rights on Whiteside this summer and will have to fit any deal worth more than 175 percent of his previous salary under the salary cap. This gets compounded because HEAT star Dwyane Wade carries a $30 million cap hold that basically erases any salary cap space the HEAT would have, meaning the HEAT have to sign Wade’s deal first and fit Whiteside into whatever is left. As things stand today, the HEAT could get to about $40 million in cap space, but that figure has to account for Wade’s new deal and whatever is paid to Whiteside. While Whiteside was drafted in 2010, he only has two full years of NBA experiences, which sets his maximum possible starting salary at $21.6 million. The HEAT can make that work with a little help from Wade.

The problem for Miami is that while they can keep Wade and Whiteside, they’d lose the ability to keep almost anyone else and would have no means to add to the team beyond the room exception and minimum deals.

The wrinkle for Miami is that Whiteside has not earned serious money in the NBA yet and will turn 27 next Monday, so this is his chance to lock in his future and those around him say he’s not open to much flexibility.

The narrative around Whiteside has been that he’d like to stay in Miami. He’s comfortable there, has had success there and they can pay him the most money of any team in the league. Assuming that’s the offer from the HEAT, there is a better than average chance he signs a new deal. If the HEAT try to play games, sources close to the situation say Whiteside will go shopping.

There is a sense that Whiteside is one of the top names on the Lakers’ wish list of free agents, with the Celtics also interested. The problem with trying to peg either as having some edge over the other neglects that Whiteside could be the most obtainable free agent in the class and likely gets a lot of interest beyond those two suitors.

League sources said this weekend that Whiteside is getting a full max deal – the question is will it be from the HEAT or someone else?

Harrison Barnes

There is no pending free agent that’s more polarizing right now than Barnes. So despite how you may feel personally about Barnes, there’s a reality to his situation: Barnes is getting a max offer. The question is will the Warriors match it?

Sources close to the Warriors say they are absolutely planning to return the entire team and if that means matching a crazy offer sheet, the Warriors a prepared to do that.

The wrinkle for the Warriors is Kevin Durant. If Durant says “yes” to a free agent deal, all bets are off and much of this Warriors team will get scrapped including Barnes. If Durant says “no thank you,” the band stays together.

As silly as that may seem, there is a unique window the Warriors have that few teams experience. Without a roster break-up for Durant, the Warriors will not be a salary cap team this summer, meaning the money they would pay to Barnes is only available to Barnes. It’s not dollars they could spend on any other player and given the ballooning cap, it would not impair the Warriors in anyway going forward to pay Barnes.

Matching an offer sheet includes getting the lower annual raises and the shorter-term deal, both of which are meaningful to the Warriors.

It’s possible a team like the Lakers or the Magic construct an unfavorable contract structure to try and steal Barnes away, but the reality is a shorter deal like the two-plus-one structure that Chandler Parsons signed with Dallas wouldn’t be nearly as bad for the Warriors as it was for the luxury tax skirting Rockets a few seasons ago.

The smart money says Barnes is back in Oakland next season, even at max money, mainly because the Warriors can pay that without consequence to anything they are planning. The only wrinkle is the Warriors’ pursuit of Durant. If that pitch gets life, there may be a window for someone else. But the truth of the matter is, that’s not very likely.

Nic Batum

Like Barnes, opinions on the contract value for Batum vary among fans; however, in NBA circles, there is little doubt Batum is going to get a max deal and it sounds more likely than not that it will be with the Charlotte Hornets.

There are a few teams that have planted seeds with Batum – the Knicks would do a deal in a heartbeat but can’t get to the $25.9 million in space they would need to offer a max deal to Batum without dumping off salary cap cash.

The Raptors are said to have serious eyes for Batum, but like the Knicks, they can’t get to $25.9 million in cap space without making two significant cap dump trades.

If things don’t go fluidly with the Hornets, there is always a chance that Batum moves on but the narrative around him is that he’s really happy in Charlotte and feels like head coach Steve Clifford is the right coach for him. Assuming the team ponies up the dollars, which they absolutely can do without much issue, it seems more likely than not that Batum is staying where he is.

DeMar DeRozan

This may be the easiest free agent synopsis to write. Say it with me: DeRozan is re-signing in Toronto.

Both sides want to do a new deal. The Raptors are prepared to pay DeRozan and unless something goes terribly wrong over the next four weeks, he’ll be back with the Raptors on a new max deal.

There were reports suggesting DeRozan would look at other situations, but sources close to his camp say it’s going to be a short process for DeMar.

Drummond, Beal and Clarkson

There are three notable soon-to-be restricted free agents and while they have the option of seeking offer sheets, it’s unlikely that any of them would.

Detroit’s Andre Drummond passed on a contract extension last summer mainly to help the Pistons create cap space this summer. Had Drummond done a deal in October, his new contract would hit the Pistons’ cap on the first day of free agency. By opting to wait, Drummond’s $8.180 million cap hold gives the Pistons some cap space to play with in July and then exceed the cap to re-sign him to his max deal. This one is basically cap management and it’s unlikely Drummond even takes a meeting with another team.

Washington’s Brad Beal is in a similar situation. While his $14.236 million hold is higher than Drummond’s, it’s still less than the $21.5 million max salary Beal will receive after the Wizards finish their free agent shopping. This one is also mostly cap management. There is no sense that the Wizards are going to play games with Beal; they simply needed to wait to maximize their salary cap space.

Lastly is the Lakers’ soon-to-be free agent Jordan Clarkson. Unlike Drummond and Beal, Clarkson is a little harder to poach because of his status as a Gilbert Arenas rule player. Sometime ago, a rule was put in place in the Collective Bargaining Agreement for second-round picks like Clarkson that limit what another team can offer in salary. The Lakers and Clarkson have had talks on a new deal and it seems more likely than not that the Lakers are going to pay Clarkson quickly and settle the situation.

It’s possible Clarkson’s camp seeks an offer sheet, simply to set more favorable terms, but the odds of Clarkson being anywhere but the Lakers next year are extremely small.

Over the next few weeks, we will try to spend more time on the pending free agent market, but as a handful of agents pointed out during Pro Days this past weekend, this will not be a normal free agency where there is a lot of early information on what players and NBA teams are doing. There will be something of a Wild West mindset and a lot of teams are keeping their wish list close to the vest to try and keep something of an advantage.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba and @CodyTaylorNBA .

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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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