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NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Northwest Division

With content at an absolute crawl, Basketball Insiders is ready to make comparisons to apocalyptic classics and get you some much-needed virtual water cooler chatter. Up first, a look at the most intriguing potential free agents in the Northwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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So, this is what the wasteland is like, huh?

During 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the titular character – aimlessly stuck in the barren desert sands and forever shooing his inner-demons – makes the best of a terrible situation. In short, Max helps others in need, survives a horrific storm and then releases the floodgates, thus giving the people what they want: Conten…err, water. Our hero gives them water. Yep, definitely water.

It’s been 13 days since the last NBA game. That’s the type of non-action that onlookers have bitterly accepted to be the case in mid-August’s post-free agent landscape and pre-training camp lull. And although the world is dealing with a much more serious issue at hand, it’s been even harder to do so without everybody’s favorite distraction. Hell, without the daily action and locker room availability, Basketball Insiders’ Trending Now column is conspicuously empty and the Slack channel has ground to a halt.

But with no clear end date in sight, a portion of our small team has decided to blow the dust from our bones and resurrect the fountain of professional basketball content. In doing so, we’ll simply do our best. We’ll do our April content plan in March and schedule our May series pieces for April. We’ll tackle draft content whenever a draft happens – whether that’s in June or July or, like, 2021. We’ll throw out all the rules in hopes of providing that slight at-home itch-scratcher, something to satiate you while trying not to click over to Twitter.com again and read more debilitatingly upsetting updates for the 954th time before noon.

We’re no Max Rockatansky; nor are we Furiosa, either. All of us, whether we realize it or not, are just different versions of Nux. Chasing our next high of basketball euphoria – a silly article, narrating your own mixtape, taking to Instagram Live with a beloved teammate, rapping because there are no games to cover, whatever it may take – just to get through another day without the real thing.

So, with all that said: Hello, let’s get to that thinly-veined metaphor of content as water and wade through this oasis side-by-side.

***

Over the following week, Basketball Insiders will go toe-to-toe with 2020’s free-agent class. While there’s no guarantee that the season will resume soon, once it does, there will be chatter almost immediately. By division, we’ll check out presumed free agents of all varieties – restricted, unrestricted, with options, etc. – and wonder just how the dominos might fall. These may not even become definitive Top 8 lists by skill alone, but instead sorted by those with the most interesting situations.

For the Northwest Division, three of the four franchises are in the thick of the home-court advantage chase, while those pesky Portland Trail Blazers just won’t go away. Karl-Anthony Towns finally got his wish in D’Angelo Russell, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are closer to the conference-worst Warriors than the final postseason seed, so that’s not exactly optimistic-adjacent, either.

Their upcoming class of free agents is not spectacularly insane by any means – nor is there a showstopper or hotshot offer sheet to be made. Truly, the biggest decision money-wise will be made by a player that many have already left behind, a fringe Hall-of-Fame candidate that was supposed to push his team up and over the top…

The Classy Veterans

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Early Termination Option – $32,511,624

Given Utah’s rollercoaster ride of a campaign, Conley has taken the brunt of that criticism and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the 32-year-old’s first season outside of Memphis and his numbers are down across the board and dealt with a lingering injury to make matters even worse. But for Conley to rip up the richest final season of a contract that once made him the highest-paid player in the NBA back in 2016, he’d need millions upon millions of reasons why.

(Al Horford just made a similar decision, you’d scream from the rooftops; worse: you’re right!)

On the open market – and without a wildly-prohibitive contract, importantly – there’s no reason to believe that Conley is done just yet. If the Jazz want to remain in that dark horse Western Conference race, they’ll need the point guard to be himself – and, in all likelihood, this is a relationship that’ll last on until 2022.

Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets – Unrestricted – $32,511,624

Also falling into the stalwart-veteran-turned-cap-space-sponge-but-intriguing-on-the-open-market category is Millsap, the Nuggets’ starting power forward that hasn’t stopped doing the little things right. At 35, the best days are behind Millsap, but he’s still contributing in ways that have helped Denver stay within reach of a top postseason seed. Still, at just 12 points per game — his lowest tally since 2009-10 — coupled with the franchise’s need to add another star to the mix, he’s not a must-sign anymore. With Nikola Jokic developing into one of the league’s best centers and Michael Porter Jr. finally looking for more consistent minutes, paying Millsap will be far from an offseason priority.

He’s undeniably well-loved within the locker room, so a team-friendly deal would benefit both sides – but seeing Millsap as a deep bench piece on a bonafide contender sounds like captivating television as well.

The… “Uh, What Are We Calling You?” Category

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $2,159,029

So, you’ve probably heard by now, but Anthony is back…and honestly, he’s held his own. After being unceremoniously ousted from the NBA for over a year, the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer has provided a serious punch to Portland’s attack. At 15.3 points per game, it’s not Anthony’s most prolific performance – again, this is a man that won a scoring title and rocks All-Star appearances in the double-digits – but it should be enough to secure him another gig in 2020-21. Anthony, 35, won’t win you a ring, nor is he anywhere close to being “the missing piece” or third wheel as many that are stuck in 2005 would like to believe.

And yet, why not? Why not put Carmelo Anthony on your squad for a minimum if it’s a fringe franchise case-by-case? Sacramento Kings? Sign him up. Orlando Magic? Let’s get to work. A retirement tour for Anthony, who grew up in Baltimore, would be a dose of fresh air for a Washington Wizards team that needs any sort of silver lining these days. At worst, this lightning-in-a-bottle fizzes out and any hit on the cap will be easily navigated. At best, he’ll end up as the second-best player on the roster behind RJ Barrett.

What’s to truly lose?

Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $27,093,018

Undeniably, his origin story remains great as a second-rounder turned G League graduate turned multi-year millionaire – however, somewhere along the way, the narrative turned sour. Between the poor free throwing shooting and suspect effort, Whiteside, in spite of his stat-packing performances, became this weird entity of box score bliss. Even today, the 7-foot center is enjoying averages of 16.3 points (second-highest of his career), 14.2 rebounds (career-high) and 3.1 blocks (shockingly not a career-high but is today’s league leader) per game and there’s zero buzz about his impending free agency.

With the center, it’s always been about finding the right fit or coach and, at 30, his best days are likely behind him. Given the Trail Blazers’ unexpected woes, we’ve not heard about Whiteside much outside of recent comments asking for consideration in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. When the season kicks back up, the talented Whiteside will likely cede minutes to Jusuf Nurkic, a big man that is signed to a long-term deal. For Whiteside, much of his future depends on how the remainder of 2020 shakes out – but has he done enough to change the tides?

The Serviceable Section

Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets – Unrestricted – $14,041,096
Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – Unrestricted – $13,437,500
Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder – Unrestricted – $10,740,740

All three have proven to be worthy-rotation pieces in the past: Plumlee as a capable passer and rim-runner, Clarkson as a microwave scorer and Roberson as the potential-laden defensive stalwart. All three, too, might be paid less as free agents this offseason.

Plumlee, 30, was tossed behind an emerging Jokic in 2016-17 and has since struggled to break out from that role – but he’s still shooting 61.7 percent from the floor this season and knows his limits. As an energy guy, he could remain in Denver and his average status across the board makes him an adequate, affordable solution for franchises filling out a depth chart.

Clarkson, 27, hasn’t always been on top, but he certainly helped resurrect Utah’s half-sunken ship earlier this season. Since the red-hot shooter arrived from Cleveland in December, he’s single-handedly saved the Jazz on multiple occasions. As a fine enough three-point shooter and consistent scorer, Clarkson is somebody that Utah would like to keep, but that might prove difficult given roster hurdles. But for a bench unit that has desperately needed the 6-foot-4 guard’s scoring punch, the conference contender ultimately may not have much choice.

The road for Roberson has been the most challenging of all, but not without plenty of promise. In Jan. 2018, the standout defensive player ruptured his left patellar tendon and missed the remainder of the year. Following setback after setback, Roberson still has yet to feature in another NBA game. Unbelievably, that makes him one of the most intriguing free agents in the entire class.

During an incredible breakout campaign, Roberson reached the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, mentioned alongside names like Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Throughout that 2016-17 season, Roberson was one of 11 players to finish with at least a block and steal per game. So if the 28-year-old is half the defender he used to be, he’ll be a steal in free agency – whether that’s in Oklahoma City again or elsewhere.

The Danilo Gallinari Category

Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder – Unrestricted – $22,615,559

The esteemed Danilo Gallinari Category only features Danilo Gallinari – go figure, right?

After entering the 2019-20 season as for-sure trade bait on a likely-to-be-bad Thunder roster that had just lost Paul George and Russell Westbrook, Gallinari has strongly spotlighted on the league’s biggest surprise team. In fact, despite his status as an unrestricted free agent barrelling down the pipeline, Oklahoma City decided to hold onto the Italian-born veteran to keep their dazzling postseason chase alive.

At the time of the season’s suspension, the Thunder were 40-24, a league-best 8-2 in their last 10 games and proud owners of the No. 5 postseason seed. Without question, Gallinari is a major reason why, and keeping him was worth the risk – even if he ends up leaving for nothing.

He’ll be 32 whenever the next campaign begins, and although he’s a talented scorer, a spotted injury history doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Since he was drafted in 2008, Gallinari has played 70 or more games just twice (2009-10, 2012-13) and struggles to get back on the court once he’s initially hurt. In any case, after all these years, he’s posted back-to-back career seasons – one with the Los Angeles Clippers, then this campaign for Oklahoma City.

At 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 three-pointers on 41 percent from deep, he’s been an excellent fit with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schröder and Steven Adams – and that very five-man lineup sports the best offensive rating by a considerable amount.

It’s hard to tell what will become of this once-makeshift Thunder roster when the offseason finally commences: Will they let Gallinari walk? Will Oklahoma City try to trade Paul again? What about Adams? For a franchise that was ready to reach the bottom of the barrel in their first-ever rebuild following that long-ago move from Seattle, this is uncharted territory.

If a return to the Thunder doesn’t pan out, Gallinari will have suitors – at the trade deadline the Miami HEAT aggressively pursued him, reportedly. And even if he doesn’t pull down another whopping $22.6 million per year deal again, Gallinari’s ability to space the floor and work as a secondary playmaker makes sense for most, if not all, of the usual suspects.

With basketball nowhere closer to resuming, and much of the collective public close to losing their minds, try to use Basketball Insiders’ coverage to your advantage. Whether as a simple distraction, a way to supply staff-meeting-at-the-virtual-water-cooler fodder or just as another reminder to go watch Mad Max: Fury Road again, we’ve got you covered.

We are all but hopelessly-optimistic Nuxs and this sand-filled, dunk-absent landscape feels a little less empty with some content — so, please, dig in.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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

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

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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