As we inch closer and closer to the end of the regular season, we’re starting to see teams separate themselves from the pack. For the most part, we can project what teams will be playoff bound and what teams will have some extra time off to scout lottery picks. However, there are still a number teams whose playoff hopes hang in the balance. Over the next month and a half, we will see which of these teams rise to the occasion and which teams fold under the pressure.
With that said, let’s take a look at the teams in each conference that are vying for a playoff berth down the stretch.
Games Remaining: 24 (14 Home, 10 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 12
Despite being eight games below .500, the HEAT are currently in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They were aggressive at the trade deadline, landing arguably the biggest name moved in Goran Dragic. However, they also lost a key piece for the remainder of the season, as Chris Bosh will be out after doctors discovered blood clots in his lungs. The absence of Bosh clearly hurts their chances, even with the addition of Dragic, although the emergence of Hassan Whiteside will help lessen the blow of losing Bosh.
While Dragic is without a doubt an upgrade at the point guard position, the HEAT are still a work in progress. In their five games played with Dragic, the HEAT are just 2-3 and those two wins have been less than impressive coming against the Sixers and Magic. Eight of the HEAT’s next 10 games are at home before heading on a four-game trip, so it will crucial that they can string together a few wins over their next stretch of home games.
Games Remaining: 23 (13 Home, 10 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 12
Even while playing without star wing Paul George for the entire season, the Pacers find themselves eighth in the Eastern Conference with only 23 games remaining. They have battled all year long despite playing shorthanded for long stretches and are starting to get hot at the right time. In fact, over their last 10 games, no team in the East has a better record than the Pacers’ 8-2 mark, which is why our own Joel Brigham recently wrote that Indiana could be a scary eight seed.
Their improved play as of late isn’t the only good news coming out of Indianapolis. In addition, Paul George may still take the court this year. It’s tough to predict how George would play after coming off such a significant injury, but at the very least his return should provide a morale boost during the last few weeks of the regular season. The Pacers will have the chance to really help their own cause over the next few weeks. They have two games against the Nets, one against the HEAT and one against the Hornets before the season wraps up. If they can take care of business in those contests and continue their strong play, holding onto the eight seed becomes a very realistic goal.
Games Remaining: 25 (16 Home, 9 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 13
With the talent on the Nets roster, combined with the history of success of coach Lionel Hollins, the Nets were expected to have little trouble making the playoffs in the East. That has not been the case. Deron Williams’ play has been spotty at best and fallen well short of his pay-grade. Likewise, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson have been inconsistent and that’s played a major role in the Nets’ disappointing season. Although the Nets haven’t been great thus far, they are still right in the thick of the race for one of the final playoff spots in the East.
If they hope to make to the postseason, they will have to play much better down the stretch at home. Up to this point, the Nets are just 10-15 at the Barclays Center. After being on the road since February 7, they return home tonight to take on the Warriors. This will be the first of their 16 remaining home games to close out the season, the most remaining home games of any team in the NBA. This is something that should really work in the Nets’ favor, even with their uninspiring home record thus far.
Games Remaining: 25 (12 Home, 13 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 11
The Hornets went out and made a splash this offseason when they signed Lance Stephenson. The addition of Stephenson to a young team coming off a playoff appearance made the Hornets one of the more intriguing teams in the East. Well, it’s safe to say that Stephenson hasn’t worked out in Charlotte nearly as well as the team had hoped. He has been absolutely atrocious shooting the ball, hitting just 36.5 percent from the field and 14.8 percent from three. In addition, Kemba Walker has missed 15 of the last 17 games and it’s no surprise the Hornets have struggled.
On the bright side, the Hornets’ remaining schedule includes 18 games against teams in the Eastern Conference. On the year, the Hornets have fared well in conference games – going 18-16. Walker is also getting close to returning, which should provide them with a nice lift. In his absence newly acquired guard Mo Williams has been playing exceptionally well, averaging 23.4 points and seven assists per game since joining the Hornets. The Hornets certainly have the talent to make a late push and will be a team to watch as the season wraps up.
Games Remaining: 25 (11 Home, 14 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 12
Surprisingly, the rebuilding Celtics still have a realistic shot at sneaking into the playoffs this season. They are just a game behind Indiana, Brooklyn and Charlotte even after trading away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. The Celtics have gone 6-4 over their last 10, due in large part to the play of their recent acquisition Isaiah Thomas, who recently chatted with our own Alex Kennedy about the trade. The diminutive guard has provided instant offense off the bench for Brad Stevens’ club, averaging 21.8 points per game since joining the team. Although Thomas has given the team a boost, it’s hard to imagine the Celtics keeping up their improved play. They have 12 games remaining against teams above .500, which doesn’t bode well for their chances, especially considering they are just 6-23 against teams with a winning record thus far. While only one game back, the Celtics are still somewhat of a long-shot to make the postseason.
Games Remaining: 23 (9 Home, 14 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 10
After finishing December with a record of 8-23, there wasn’t much hope for the Pistons. However, the departure of Josh Smith brought the team together and they have been much improved since. Unfortunately, their resurgence took a hit after losing Brandon Jennings for the season to an ACL injury. The Pistons were busy at the trade deadline, sending Jonas Jerebko, Luigi Datome, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler packing and landing Reggie Jackson and Tayshaun Prince. The trade gives Jackson the chance to start on a regular basis, an opportunity he has been pining for.
Fourteen of the Pistons’ 23 remaining games will be played on the road, including seven of their next nine. They have been alright on the road thus far, going 11-16 in 27 games played. However, that stretch of road games includes four against Western Conference opponents. On the season, the Pistons are just 9-15 in out of conference games. How they play on the road over the next couple weeks will likely decide their playoff chances.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Games Remaining: 22 (14 Home, 8 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents:
This season certainly hasn’t gone as planned in OKC. The Thunder have been decimated by injuries for most of the year, yet have managed to climb back into the playoff picture. Kevin Durant has played in just 27 games thus far, and is currently sidelined with a foot injury. Russell Westbrook, who also missed time earlier in the season, was on a tear, putting up incredible numbers (31.2 points, 11.5 assists and 9.7 rebounds since the All-Star break). However, he suffered a facial fracture in last Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. A timetable for his return hasn’t been provided and Westbrook will be reevaluated later this week.
It goes without saying, if the Thunder hope to hold onto the eight seed in the West they are going to need Westbrook and Durant healthy down the stretch. Durant has been going through light on-court workouts and appears to be getting closer to returning. Westbrook will almost surely miss the next few games, but after that it’s hard to project. The Thunder play 14 of their remaining 22 games at home, where they have a 19-8 record on the year, including five of their next six. This will certainly help their chances as they eagerly await the return of their stars.
New Orleans Pelicans
Games Remaining: 23 (11 Home, 12 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 14
Much like the Thunder, the Pelicans have also suffered crippling injuries over the last few weeks. Star forward Anthony Davis re-injured his right shoulder, which forced him to miss time prior to the All-Star break. This injury has kept Davis out since February 21. Not only have the Pelicans been without Davis in their frontcourt, but sharpshooter Ryan Anderson has been sidelined with a sprained knee. Davis was given a one-to-two week timetable to return at the time of his injury and Anderson a two-to-four week timetable. Jrue Holiday has also been out due to a leg injury and a timetable for his return is unknown.
You would think that without Davis, Holiday and Anderson the Pelicans would be in big trouble. Unexpectedly, they have won five straight and remain just a half game back of the Thunder for the eighth and final spot in the West. While the Pelicans have been great over their last five games, they will need their core players to make a final push for the eighth seed. Fortunately for them, the Thunder are in the same boat without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In the end, it may just come down to which team gets their key contributors back first.
Games Remaining: 22 (11 Home, 11 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 15
The Suns went through a major shakeup at the trade deadline. Most notably, out went point guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas and in came young scoring guard Brandon Knight. Knights’ shooting numbers have dipped a bit since joining the Suns, but his ability to score from the perimeter should complement Eric Bledsoe nicely.
It will be an uphill battle for the Suns to jump both the Thunder and the Pelicans for the final spot in the West. They still have 15 games left against above .500 opponents, which will be a challenge, especially as they adjust to the roster changes. The Suns are just 12-19 in games against above .500 teams on the year. Even though the Thunder and Pelicans have been hit hard by injuries, the Suns’ inability to consistently beat winning teams makes it unlikely that they will make it to the postseason.
The East has a number of teams that are still in the playoff hunt, with a chance to make a move down the stretch. There hasn’t been one team that has been able to separate themselves from the pack thus far, but that may change in the coming weeks. The West on the other hand has a smaller pool of teams competing for one spot. Injuries will play a major factor in the chances of both the Pelicans and Thunder. Elsewhere, if the Suns want to return to the playoffs they will have to learn on the fly and prove they can beat some of the better teams in the NBA. No matter how things shake out, it will surely be exciting to watch.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.