For the past week, Basketball Insiders has gone over the outlook of every team in each division now that we’ve gone past the trade deadline.
This week, we’re wrapping with the Southeast Division. The Southeast has garnered a reputation for being the weakest division in the league. No one in the division is regarded as a contender. In fact, no team in this division is really respected as a playoff team.
Think of it like this – Charlotte currently leads the division with a 27-30 record, which miraculously puts them at the seventh seed in the east. If the Hornets were in the West, they’d be tied for the 11th seed with Minnesota.
No moves were made to boost anyone’s present, but the future became a little brighter after the deadline passed for some of these franchises. Some if it stems from getting cap relief while some of it stems from acquiring good young talent. Even if it didn’t really bring anyone up a level, the Southeast was pretty active before the trade deadline.
Orlando Magic (27-32)
Deadline Moves: Acquired Markelle Fultz and two draft picks from Sixers
Props to all parties involved in the Markelle Fultz trade. Orlando needed a point guard. Fultz needed a fresh start. Philadelphia needed to get something out of Fultz. Everyone wins. Sort of.
Trading for Fultz gives Orlando a low-risk/high-reward project that could work tremendously in their favor. There still is a very limited sample size for Fultz, but at only 20 years old, the potential for him to be something special is still in the cards.
It was one of the worst kept secrets in the league that Fultz was on his way out of Philly one way or the other. What is yet to be determined is if it was because Fultz’ injury issues were legitimate, or that he wasn’t ready for the win-now mentality that the Sixers has since his arrival, or that he just doesn’t have “it”.
We’ll finally get an answer when he plays for the Magic, who provides a more comfortable environment for a project like him. The Magic are currently on the upswing, having won five in a row and have an easy schedule for the rest of the season. Even though the playoffs are in the realm of possibility, they won’t demand Fultz back on the court until he’s ready because they still have a long way to go.
Fultz definitely has a lot of question marks, but for a team like Orlando, gambling on a guy like him is a chance you take ten times out of ten.
Predicted Division Finish: 1st
Charlotte Hornets (27-30)
Deadline Moves: Signed Shelvin Mack
Despite deep discussions centered around trading for Marc Gasol and moving Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte stood pat at the trade deadline. A pretty odd decision given they had the rare opportunity to acquire Gasol or someone of his caliber for cheap.
In their defense, their contract situation is pretty complicated in case you didn’t know. Their roster is filled with solid role players on bloated contracts. But looking at what Memphis got for Gasol, it really boggles the mind trying to decipher what the Hornets’ Front Office was thinking.
All it took for Toronto to get Gasol was trading Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and CJ Miles. Really MJ? You couldn’t top that? Now getting an aging star like Marc wouldn’t have made Buzz City a contender. It still would most likely have demanded more respect from their Eastern Conference competitors than they’ve had in quite some time.
Instead, Charlotte remains the same. A half-decent, lower-seed playoff team with both a limited ceiling and floor. With all apologies to Shelvin Mack, the Hornets didn’t move the needle at all. Since they plan to keep Kemba Walker at all costs after his contract expires, maybe the goal is hold out for a better player this summer. If that is their course of action, then props to them for thinking ahead.
That is, if that plan succeeds.
Predicted Division Finish: 2nd
Miami HEAT (26-30)
Deadline Moves: Acquired Ryan Anderson for Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington
Instead of trying to find an upgrade at the trade deadline, Miami instead opted to save some money. That’s a brilliant move when you look at their cap sheet for this upcoming summer. It’s also kind of depressing since the most brilliant move they could make with how the team is currently constructed was opening up some cap room.
By trading Johnson and Ellington for Anderson, the HEAT will escape the luxury tax bill with Anderson’s contract being non-guaranteed next season. It’s sad because Anderson can be useful among his other faults, but right now the teams who have recently employed him only look his team-friendly contract.
Because of that, it goes without saying that Anderson probably isn’t going to see much time in what is very likely to be just a half-season stint in Miami. The team already has a floor-stretching big in Kelly Olynyk, who wasn’t getting much time anyway thanks to the emergence of Derrick Jones Jr.
By getting rid of Johnson and Ellington, the HEAT also open up more time for some of their other guys to play at the guard position. Justise Winslow has found his calling since running the point, while Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and of course, Dwyane Wade, have all taken time at the guard. With Goran Dragic coming back soon, it was only going to get more crowded.
Miami made out well at the trade deadline by merely making their situation a little less bleak financially.
Predicted Division Finish: 3rd
Washington Wizards (24-34)
Deadline Moves: Acquired Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis from the Bulls, acquired Wesley Johnson from the Pelicans
When it rains, it pours in D.C.
It can’t be fun to tell a player he’s not getting traded only to go back on your word after everything around you just falls apart.
With John Wall out for the foreseeable future, the Wizards decided to rid themselves of Otto Porter in the meantime. By trading him for Jabari Parker and his team-friendly contract, the Wizards, much like the HEAT, are opening up a fair amount of cap room while also adding a dependable young talent in Bobby Portis – the same can’t be said for Parker.
As good as Porter is, he was overpaid for the role he played in Washington. Getting out of his deal while the team has struggled to get to .500 with limited opportunities to improve will probably be the right move in the long run. Taking a flyer on both Parker and Portis in the process is also a nice consolation prize.
Not much has gone right for the Wizards in the past year and a half. While Bradley Beal has played the best basketball of his career, the team’s playoff hopes are fading by the day. Portis and Parker at least add some pizzazz to what’s looking more and more like a lost season.
It seems they’re aware of that, because trading Markieff Morris for Wesley Johnson to get under the tax in their current state would usually signal a white flag.
Predicted Division Finish: 4th
Atlanta Hawks (19-39)
Deadline Moves: N/A
It’s weird how the Hawks aren’t a good enough team to make a win-now type of move, but aren’t bad enough to completely bottom out. They are firmly out of the playoff picture and yet not really in the tanking game.
In all fairness, the Hawks technically did something. They brought in Shelvin Mack and Jabari Bird the same way they brought in Carmelo Anthony. Other than waiving Jeremy Lin, no significant changes were made to the roster.
There’s not much else to say other than it’s surprising that Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon are still on the roster – the latter could still very well be waived. It is encouraging that despite that the Hawks are only one notch above awful, they are still a fun team with a promising future. John Collins is a stud, and Trae Young has gotten better as the season has progressed.
This is only the start of what should be a bright era of basketball for Atlanta. For now, all they can do is just pay their dues until their time comes.
Predicted Division Finish: 5th
Again, the Southeast Division is definitely the weakest one in the league. After the trade deadline, they can at least say that they made moves to make sure it doesn’t stay that way.
NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?
Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?
In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.
Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.
The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain.
In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.
The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.
Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.
Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.
Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.
After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks.
As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.
Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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