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Oklahoma City Thunder 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Basketball Insiders

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Which scenario will strike an odder chord when the 2016-17 NBA season fires up: Seeing Kevin Durant wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey taking passes from Steph Curry, or not seeing Durant in Oklahoma City with his running mate of eight years, Russell Westbrook? A team without No. 35 in Thunder blue wins our vote.

The Durant move to Golden State was obviously a devastating and mostly shocking loss for the organization on all levels. It was a painful and even personal loss for OKC fans who are relatively new to experiencing the heartbreak that can accompany professional sports. Fortunately, the Thunder managed to lessen the pain of losing Durant so abruptly in one swift action. The team accomplished the unexpected and signed Westbrook to a multi-year contract extension. Instead of facing a full rebuilding scenario, he has been handed the reins. This is Westbrook’s team now.

The Thunder have been busy in the offseason, adding many new players for head coach Billy Donovan to implement into the system. While still a very talented team that should make at least the first round of the playoffs this season, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Thunder took a giant step backward with Durant now out of the fold. They probably won’t be title contenders anytime soon. Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti continues to make roster moves, though, so perhaps there are more surprises to come.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

-Susan Bible

FIVE GUYS THINK

The bad news: Oklahoma City lost a top-five player in free agency this summer. The good news: Oklahoma City’s other top-five player elected to sign a contract extension and delay testing the free agency waters. While things could be better for the Thunder entering the 2016-17 campaign, things could be significantly worse. After receiving All-Star guard Russell Westbrook’s commitment, the team can at least begin to build for the future with confidence. Westbrook will be in the MVP conversation from day one of this season, but the team is far from a contender as currently constructed. If things go well, there’s no reason to count the Thunder out from making a playoff run. But the club will need to reload before challenging the powers out West for true supremacy.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

I wrote at length about my feelings on Kevin Durant’s departure, so there’s no need to harp on that here. Officially, I’m going with the Thunder to win the Northwest Division, even without Durant and Serge Ibaka. I could see the Trail Blazers stealing the crown, but I’m leaning toward Russell Westbrook and the main reason why is because I think he has yet to play his best basketball. When you think back to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers, the team that won the 2001 Eastern Conference was one that was beautifully built around his strengths. I think we are going to see something similar happen this season in Oklahoma City. Westbrook is the basketball equivalent of a blood-thirsty shark and Durant’s departure, for him, is an open wound in the middle of the sea. So long as he stays healthy, I think we will see his game go to another level, and that’s scary. The Blazers may prove to be the deeper, more talented team, but for now I’ll take my chances with the basketball versions of Jaws. I also believe we will see good things from Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter, so all is not lost if you’re a Thunder fan.

1st Place — Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

No human being in their right mind would ever count out Russell Westbrook. While the Thunder lost a former MVP in Kevin Durant over the summer, they kept Westbrook – who is arguably the most insanely driven player in the league right now. Westbrook, if he stays healthy, has a great shot at winning an MVP trophy of his own this year. At the very least, he’s going to lead the league in usage rate by a wide margin, and he’s a guy you actually want dominating the ball. The Serge Ibaka trade looks like it will work out well for the Thunder, who turned one fine asset into three really good ones. Victor Oladipo is the new Dion Waiters, while Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis aren’t bad Ibaka consolation prizes for the frontcourt rotation even if neither comes close to their predecessor in defensive ability. So the Thunder won’t be as good as they were with Durant, but they’re still going to be pretty good. If there is a Basketball God, he’ll pit these guys against the Warriors at some point in the postseason. There’s literally nothing NBA fans would rather see this spring.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

I can’t stress how excited I am to see pissed off Russell Westbrook putting up ridiculous numbers and racking up triple-doubles all season long. When Westbrook’s leash was removed in the past, he was insanely dominant. Now, with the departure of Kevin Durant, the leash is off and Westbrook is mad. I think losing Durant removes the Thunder from contention in the Western Conference, but I still have them winning a lot of regular season games, taking the Northwest Division crown and providing us with must-watch Westbrook throughout the campaign. (But as I’ve stated in previous Northwest previews, I have the Thunder, Blazers and Jazz all finishing within a handful of wins of each other. Honestly, the top three could shake out in any order and it wouldn’t surprise me).

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

We all know that Kevin Durant is joining the Golden State Warriors, but Oklahoma City also lost other players like Randy Foye, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters and Nazr Mohammed. The good news is that the Thunder are bringing in Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis and Joffrey Lauvergne among others. Oladipo, in particular, should pair up nicely with Russell Westbrook in the backcourt. While the overall talent is down this year after the loss of Durant, I do believe we could see the Thunder find a more cohesive style of basketball moving forward. Too often over the last few years, Westrbrook and Durant would take turns dominating in isolation. Now, the Thunder can try to work off of one another more efficiently, with Westbrook as the focal point. Still, even if that happens seamlessly, it still probably isn’t enough to offset the loss of Durant. I still think the Thunder can do some damage in the Western Conference, but there’s no question the loss of Durant hurts tremendously.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook

Expect even bigger things from Westbrook this season. A legitimate MVP candidate, his scoring output should explode as he puts the team on his back and attempts to prove to the world he can steer a Durant-less Thunder team to success. Last year, Westbrook averaged 23.5 points in the regular season (26 PPG in the playoffs) and this number could possibly spike to around, or even over, 30 points per game. Westbrook logged 18 triple-doubles last year, which matched Magic Johnson for a single-season record within the past five decades. Westbrook won the scoring title (28.1 PPG) in 2014-15, and in doing so provided a 39-game glimpse of what he can do without Durant (out with a Jones fracture) on the floor. He kept his team on the winning side with a 22-17 record and averaged 31.4 points, 9.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds. His supporting cast of players are much more talented now, so Westbrook, as the team’s sole superstar, should go nuts this season. It doesn’t hurt that he shines at the foul line (81.2 percent) and at grabbing steals (two per game) as well.

Top Defensive Player: Steven Adams

Power forward Serge Ibaka has been inserted in this category for the past several years, but a surprising draft-night trade sent him to the Orlando Magic. Adams, who just turned 23 years old, was a revelation in last year’s postseason, averaging a near double-double of 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds (including 3.4 offensive boards) in 18 games and serving as the Thunder’s driving force down low defensively. It was a remarkable leap given his season average of eight points and 6.7 rebounds, and resulted in critics and supporters alike taking serious note of the improving seven-foot center. It was an NBA breakthrough performance in every sense of the term. Adams is a true court warrior, unflappable in any situation, and he will undoubtedly have a larger role this year. He’s extremely mobile for his size, is a very efficient finisher and his pick-and-roll timing is already well-developed. Adams doesn’t have Ibaka’s track record as a rim protector, but he’s continued to improve there each year and he’ll get more opportunities this season.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook has to be inserted into this category as well. The explosive point guard loves nothing more than having the ball in his hands, constantly moving, attacking and keeping the defenders guessing. He does tend to take too many jumpers off the dribble and shoot panic threes, but his decision-making skills have grown sharper over the years. He has shown tremendous improvement in looking to involve his teammates. Last season, he averaged a career-high 10.4 assists per game (which ranked second in the league) and led the category during the playoffs with 11 assists per game.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook

Yes, there is a trend here. Westbrook is the best all-around player on the Thunder’s roster, which is why he appears in multiple categories on these type of “top of” lists. As for clutch play, he’s the most reliable player to get the job done. He can be equally frustrating and exciting to watch with his insistence on taking the clutch shot, but he is the one most likely to succeed in a close game.

The Unheralded Player: Andre Roberson

The quiet, unassuming Roberson – who was already an underrated defender – revealed a different side to his game in last years’ playoffs. Coach Donovan showed great confidence in his abilities by moving Roberson to the power forward position in smaller lineups, and he ended up being a key player in the Thunder’s two blowout wins over the Warriors in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals. His teammates continued to try to build his confidence by involving him in plays as the Warriors basically ignored him, allowing him to demonstrate his versatility. Roberson, standing 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, is the Thunder’s best wing defender, habitually frustrating opponents with his length. Watch the way he moves without the ball; if his offense catches up to his defense, Roberson could develop into a really solid ball player.

Top New Addition: Victor Oladipo

The Thunder filled a need for a two-way shooting guard by landing Oladipo as the primary piece in their Ibaka trade with Orlando. A Thunder backcourt featuring a duo of high-octane players in Westbrook and Oladipo is a threat to opposing backcourts. The 6-foot-5 Oladipo averaged 16 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists last year in Orlando as he was shifted around between a starting role and sixth man duties. We saw glimpses of greatness during his three years with the Magic. In Oklahoma City, the 24-year-old has the chance to live up to his potential. He’s a slashing, attacking guard who can defend very well, and he should thrive alongside of his new backcourt partner.

– Susan Bible

WHO WE LIKE

1. Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova will be able to provide some of the things the Thunder lost with the departures of Durant and Ibaka. A true stretch-four, Ilyasova looks to become the Thunder’s starting power forward. He’s able to shoot three-pointers (hitting 37 percent for his career) and space the floor. Process of elimination leads us to believe Ilyasova wins the starting job: Enes Kanter settled in nicely in the sixth man role, Nick Collison turns 36 years old next month, Sabonis needs time to grow his NBA footing, Mitch McGary should be shown the door soon with news of a second suspension recently released (he will now miss the first 15 games of the season) and newly-acquired Joffrey Lauvergne is more of a bench player who could develop. Ilyasova has a natural instinct for getting to the proper spots at the right time, even leading the league last year in charges drawn despite averaging just 25.4 minutes. The eight-year veteran has career averages of 10.6 points and six rebounds in 24.1 minutes per game. Ilyasova is a tough, gritty hustler who fits the Thunder’s DNA perfectly.

2. Ronnie Price

The primary reason we like Price is the veteran leadership he will provide to a team that doesn’t have many veteran voices. As the third point guard, he figures to have the ear of sophomore Cameron Payne, who needs to show what he can do this year. Price, 33, is known as a good locker room guy; he was voted best teammate on the Phoenix Suns in the 2016 NBPA Players Choice Awards. In addition, the defensive-minded Price can still play, recording a career-best 49.7 percent in effective field goal shooting last year.

3. Billy Donovan

The decision to fire Scott Brooks as head coach of the Thunder and replace him with Donovan last year was met with varying reactions. Brooks hadn’t done anything particularly wrong; in fact, he probably did the best any coach could really do with the Thunder’s injury-plagued rosters during the playoffs over the past three seasons. But Presti opted to bring in a fresh perspective and went with Donovan, the decorated former Florida coach with no previous NBA experience. It didn’t take long to realize the vast difference between Brooks and Donovan: The new coach’s penchant for shaking up rotations depending on matchups and how the game was flowing, especially in the postseason. Brooks was a stickler for keeping the same rotations and schemes, but Donovan showed a knack for offensive creativity, in-game lineups and a knowledge of who to insert or remove and when to do it. He showed a lot of confidence and coaching maturity in each round of the playoffs against highly respected coaches such as Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Golden State’s Steve Kerr. Some would say Donovan out-coached these revered leaders in many aspects of the game.

4. Enes Kanter

It was a joy to watch Kanter play for the Thunder last season. Not only is it obvious he is immensely happy being on this team, he quickly fell into a pivotal role off the bench as the Thunder’s sixth man. That role should continue into the new season, and he should remain one of the Thunder’s top scorers. Last year, he averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in just 21 minutes per game. His defense is still suspect, but he brings so much on the other end that value remains. Kanter reminds you that this is a game meant to be enjoyed by players and fans.

– Susan Bible

SALARY CAP 101

Losing Kevin Durant was clearly a blow to the Thunder, but with the All-Star off their books, the team was able to get under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap. While some of that space was used to acquire Ronnie Price, Joffrey Lauvergne and Alex Abrines, the bulk of it went to Russell Westbrook in a contract restructuring and extension. The Thunder now have 15 guaranteed players, but they will presumably make room for Lauvergne, whose $1.7 million salary is $854,860 guaranteed. Mitch McGary, who is under suspension for 15 games for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy, could be the odd man out via trade or waiver.

Next summer, the Thunder could reach about $33 million in spending power under a projected salary cap of $102 million. That assumes the team takes the rookie-scale options of Cameron Payne, Josh Huestis and McGary before November – although McGary’s $2.4 million is not assured. Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson are all eligible for extensions by the end of October. While Ersan Ilyasova is eligible to have his contract renegotiated like Westbrook’s, the Thunder do not have the necessary cap room.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

An angry Westbrook is typically a productive Westbrook, and you know he has a chip of massive proportions on his shoulder right now. He will want to show the NBA, and really the universe, that he’s ready to be the number one man and leader of this team. The local fan base has already thrown their full support his way. With as much production he’s sure to dole out and a sky-high usage rate, he may just average a triple-double this season. Even though there are new teammates to get acclimated to, the chemistry Westbrook already has with bigs such as Adams and Kanter is huge and should ensure effective pick-and-rolls keep flying. All of a sudden, this is a relatively young team with a solid frontcourt and exciting new backcourt. The Thunder have elite rebounding guards who penetrate the paint and a very promising defender and finisher in Adams. Donovan has a lot of options and versatility to experiment with, and we know he won’t hesitate to do it.

– Susan Bible

WEAKNESSES

Losing a player of Durant’s caliber can only be looked upon as the ultimate loss for this franchise, and is the biggest problem they have to somehow overcome going into the new season. There is no way to totally make up for what he brings, and as it stands now, the Thunder are woefully lacking at the small forward position. The Thunder ranked second in offensive rating last season; it’s daunting to think how much that rating will fall without Durant’s numbers in the mix. This group needs to have confidence that all is not lost. Defense, once a Thunder standard, has really dipped in recent years. This needs to be a main focus in training camp and throughout the season. Another consideration is the tough schedule they face this year. According to Full Court Press Radio, the Thunder have the fourth-toughest schedule in the league.

– Susan Bible

THE BURNING QUESTION

How far can Russell Westbrook take the Thunder this season?

As you can tell, the spotlight is squarely on Westbrook this year. It’s up to him to pilot the Thunder through battle in a grueling 82-game season. He can handle the pressure and any criticism that comes his way – we all know that – but can he lead the group to the playoffs? Once there, he’ll need to have enough faith in his teammates to share the ball, trust their play and refrain from reverting to panic shots. Westbrook will need to become a real team leader who inspires all the players around him on the court and on the bench to do whatever it takes to win.

– Susan Bible

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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 as ever 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 might have led to their participation in the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

Though they’ve gone just 7-8, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars and, as a result, their drop in the standings has been rather painless, falling from third at the time of James’ injury to now fifth 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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