The home stretch of a given NBA season is vital, and for more than simply the obvious reasons. Yes, the top contenders are hoping to lock up their playoff slots, preferably with a desirable matchup and hopefully with the ability to rest a star or two, while those on the fringes are hoping for that final postseason push.
But there’s much at stake even for several groups who are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs, as well. Recent history shows that the latter half of the previous season can often tell us a lot about a team’s potential success in a subsequent campaign, and a couple squads who are on the right track now may look back on this period as their jumping-off point even if this year isn’t the one where they attain glory.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at a few teams enjoying a strong run to close out the year. We’ll look at both ends of this spectrum – those picking up steam heading into the second season, those laying the groundwork for the future through solid play and even a couple examples of both.
The Celtics lead off, in part because they absolutely exemplify some of both categories mentioned above. Whether one agrees with them or not, Boston has made several large moves this year with the future in mind – Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green have left town, among others, with Isaiah Thomas now on board and producing at a very high level off the bench, plus on an extremely team-friendly contract going forward. Rookie Marcus Smart has been excellent in a large number of minutes they’ve been able to afford him, and a young guard core of Smart, Avery Bradley and Thomas looks to be a strong, and cost-controlled, backcourt the C’s can feel comfortable with for the future.
And yet, despite all the roster turnover and depth personnel that are sorely lacking in many areas, the Celtics continue to fight and claw for a playoff spot, currently sitting in the eighth seed by virtue of a tiebreaker over Indiana and Charlotte. They’re 10-7 since the All-Star break, including victories over Memphis, Miami, Indiana, New Orleans, and a streaking Utah group.
Coach Brad Stevens deserves an enormous amount of credit, and should absolutely get at least a solid mention among Coach of the Year candidates if Boston manages to make the postseason. What Stevens has done with a group that could very easily have gone full-tank from the start given the circumstances is remarkable. The Celtics lack equivalent talent in so many of the matchups they face, yet are competing and even winning in large part due to his airtight game plans which prey on opposing teams’ weaknesses. He’s routinely embarrassing his coaching counterparts with in-game innovations designed directly to take a team out of their preferred scheme, and has very quickly become among the game’s best play-callers out of timeouts, particularly near the end of games.
Even if Boston misses the postseason, they have to be enormously encouraged for the future. Stevens isn’t going anywhere, and a number of friendly contracts should allow this team to stock up on some additional talent and take a true run next season.
“Closing strong” doesn’t fully cover it for the Cavs, who have been the league’s best team by record (26-7) since LeBron James returned from a two-week absence in mid-January. Cleveland very narrowly trails the Warriors for net per-possession rating in that time, and these two teams have lapped the rest of the field in this regard, posting nearly double the positive rating of the third-place Hawks.
Their midseason moves were a big part of this ascension (along with LeBron and Kyrie Irving, of course). Timofey Mozgov has brought a good dose of badly-needed interior defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 45.5 percent near the rim while he defends during his time in Cleveland, a figure that ranks ninth in the league among guys guarding at least five such shots per game. The Cavs defend at borderline top-five levels when he’s on the floor compared with a bottom-five mark when he sits since coming aboard, and lineups with both Mozgov and fellow acquisition Iman Shumpert have been a couple points better than Golden State’s league-best season-long mark defensively.
Units featuring both these guys plus LeBron have absolutely crushed opponents in over 100 minutes together, at a ridiculous plus-23.6 figure overall. Shumpert seems like exactly the sort of piece who makes a real postseason impact with his defensive versatility and ability to hit open shots.
J.R. Smith has been no slouch either since his arrival in Cleveland, shooting over 38 percent from deep thus far. He appears to be benefiting greatly from a lesser offensive burden along with a quieter nightlife, along with space he surely isn’t used to being afforded while playing in this high-powered Cavs offense.
Cleveland has the inside track to the East’s two-seed and will hope to lock it up as early as possible to get LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin Love some solid rest heading into the postseason. They’ll hope they’re peaking at the right time and not too early.
Frank Vogel also deserves to see his name mentioned among COY finalists. His Pacers group is a shell of the team that challenged LeBron’s Heat each of the past two postseasons, missing superstar Paul George and cobbling together a supporting cast around David West and Roy Hibbert that’s seen Solomon Hill play over 400 more minutes than any other Pacer. They’re giving major rotation time to Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles, and yet remain firmly in the hunt for what could be as high as the East’s sixth seed.
Indy sports the league’s fourth-best net per-possession rating since the All-Star break and its second-best defense, helping them to a 9-5 mark that includes wins over Cleveland, Golden State and Chicago. They’ve managed to maintain their strong defensive culture without George, especially recently.
George Hill has missed much of the year, but is having easily his best NBA season when he’s been able to stay on the court. He’s back to full health over the last two months, and the Pacers are blitzing teams while he’s on the floor since he returned full-time in mid-January. Paul George will reportedly return within the week, and if he’s able to find his way back on the court and even make some portion of his previous impact, Indiana could turn from an afterthought into a legitimate first-round headache in a very short period of time.
The league’s best per-possession figure since the All-Star break belongs to none other than the Jazz, who are riding the wave of a remarkable defensive surge since shipping Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City at the deadline. Utah has far and away the league’s best defense in this time, a startling 89.6 per-100 figure over a sample that continues to grow, now at 15 games (second-place Indiana sits at 96.3 in this time, as a barometer).
Much of this is due to the un-shackling of Rudy Gobert and, to a slightly lesser extent, Derrick Favors in Utah’s frontcourt. No longer burdened by Kanter’s woeful defense eating up 25 or more minutes a night, the two are destroying worlds down low as the league’s most imposing interior wall. Both now sit among the NBA’s five stingiest rim protectors among high-volume defenders (guys guarding at least five shots at the rim per game), per SportVU data – Gobert has remained first much of the year, allowing 40.1 percent, and Favors is now fifth at 44.2 percent. Their pairing has allowed both to key off of the others’ strong suits and create a sum greater than the parts effect, one that’s trickled down to the team as a whole.
Utah has had some struggles offensively minus Kanter, who certainly brought an offensive skill set to the table none of the Jazz’s bigs are capable of matching. But many of these issues are those of style and appearance rather than concrete results; Utah’s offense was 15th in the league on a per-possession basis before the trade and has dropped two spots to 17th since, although their actual figure has dropped about two points per-100.
But the Jazz have some space under the cap this offseason, and a massive treasure trove of future assets: a remarkable 18 picks in the next four drafts, plus multiple international prospects. The front office appears ready and more than willing to cash in some of these pieces for immediate help in the form of an established player or two, whether it be through a trade or free agency. They’ll be on the hunt for some added shooting on the wings and perhaps at the third big position – if they manage to land both and see no major regression from any major pieces over the summer, this group has the potential to drastically upset the balance of power in the Western Conference as early as next season.
San Antonio Spurs:
We all knew this was coming, and yet we doubted. It seems like every single year since 2010 or so (last season excluded), a number of high-profile prognosticators determine that the wonderful Spurs machine has finally reached its twilight… only for Popovich, Duncan and the rest of the gang to put things back together and remind us all why they’re the league’s most successful franchise in this millennium.
The Spurs are 7-2 since going below .500 on their annual rodeo road trip for the first time in the Popovich era, and are fourth in the league for per-possession efficiency since the break. Their long-distance shooting has ticked up a couple percentage points as they’ve found their groove, with Danny Green in particular lighting up opponents to the tune of 43.8 percent from three-point range on nearly five attempts a night.
Likely the largest factor, however, has been Kawhi Leonard’s play as he’s fully erased the memory of an early-season injury bug. Leonard has been a two-way monster, playing a team-high in minutes since the break while checking opposing stars on a nightly basis. He was the final omission on my DPOY ballot a couple weeks ago, but his current level of play may all but force voters (those watching the games, of course) to include him despite the time he missed earlier in the season. No other wing defender in the league can so thoroughly neutralize opposing top options while bringing as much as Leonard does offensively, and teams who rely on a wing player to spearhead their offense will want no part of him in the playoffs.
Yet again, the Spurs are out to prove us all premature in forecasting their demise. Pop, as usual, has spent much of the year prioritizing rest and solid health for his aging core, and they should enter the postseason as whole as they’ve been all season. They’re in a dogfight for the fifth seed with the Mavs and Clippers that seems to rotate daily, but at this point it’s unlikely the Spurs care much who they face with home advantage likely out of the question – these guys will terrify anyone in a conference that’s seen this storyline play out before.
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