Teams Still Fighting for Playoff Positioning
It’s not hard to understand why a lot of people view the last two weeks or so of the NBA regular season as a dead period. For many fans, their team is out of playoff contention, so they are either ready to watch the playoffs without any rooting interest or start moving their attention toward the upcoming draft. For other fans, their team locked up a playoff spot weeks ago, and the last few games of the regular season carry little to no consequence for them.
But this season, the playoff race in both conferences is still very active. First, let’s take a look at the current state of West.
The Golden State Warriors have locked in the first seed with their impressive 63-14 record. However, that’s about all that is certain out West at this point. The Houston Rockets are 53-24 and are just a game up on the Memphis Grizzlies in the loss column, and just two games up on the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. In head to head matchups this season, the Rockets are 1-1 against the Spurs, 2-2 against the Grizzlies and 2-2 against the Clippers.
The Rockets have five games remaining, but face the Spurs twice in a row (once on the road and once at home). So though the Spurs are currently the sixth seed, they could jump the Rockets if they win each of their remaining five games, including their two matchups against Houston (which is certainly possible considering how well the Spurs are playing right now). The Spurs control their own destiny at this point, however, Houston is 8-2 in their last 10 games and won’t simply rollover for San Antonio.
Similarly, the Clippers are in position to make a big jump over their remaining four games. The Clippers have a relatively easy schedule moving forward, with the exception of the Grizzlies on April 11. The Grizzlies are 52-25 and currently hold the third seed. But the Grizzlies still have to face the playoff-hungry New Orleans Pelicans, ever-improving Utah Jazz, Clippers, Warriors and Indiana Pacers (who just got Paul George back in the lineup). The Grizzlies are just 5-5 in their last 10 games and haven’t been playing their best basketball lately.
So, like the Spurs, the Clippers control their own destiny for the third seed. If the Clippers beat Memphis on April 11, they will have split their season matchups 2-2, so we would look at their records against the Western Conference to determine their seeding. Assuming both teams win out and the Clippers beat the Grizzlies on April 11, the Clippers will end up with a 37-15 record against the West, which would leave the Grizzlies, at best, with a 36-16 record against the West. Also of note, the second seed is still in play for the Clippers, largely based on what happens between the Rockets and Spurs in their two remaining matchups. The point is, the four-to-five remaining regular season games are huge for these teams.
Next, the Dallas Mavericks are essentially locked in for the seventh seed. However, the eighth seed is still up for grabs between the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans. The Thunder went 0-3 last week and opened the door for the Pelicans to usurp them for the final playoff spot in the West. The Pelicans are tied with the Thunder in the loss column and have the tiebreaker in head to head matchups. The problem for the Pelicans is that they are scheduled to face the Warriors, Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Rockets, Minnesota Timberwoles and Spurs. That is some stiff competition (except for the Timberwolves) and leaves the Pelicans with little chance of going undefeated in their remaining six games.
But the Thunder still have to face the Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Indiana Pacers, Blazers and Timberwolves. Oklahoma City doesn’t have quite as tough of a schedule as the Pelicans, but they will have their hands full with the Spurs, Pacers and Trail Blazers. It’s impossible to know how this all plays out, but the fact remains that the Pelicans control their own destiny and will be the eighth seed if they win all of their remaining regular season games.
Moving to the Eastern Conference, seeds one through six are essentially locked up. However, the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all still jockeying for the seventh and eighth seeds.
The Nets are 8-2 in their last 10 games and are well-positioned to land either in the seventh or eighth seed. However, Brooklyn does have some tough games remaining, including home games against the Trail Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls and a road game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Celtics are also well-positioned to make the playoffs, especially with Jared Sullinger back in the lineup. However, they face the streaking Cleveland Cavaliers twice in three days, once on the road and once at home.
The Pacers and HEAT are tied in the loss column, and both have several winnable games remaining on their schedules. The Pacers are 3-1 against the HEAT this season, and therefore have the tie breaker if both teams end up with the same record. However, both teams have pass up the Celtics before those sort of considerations become relevant.
This is a lot of information to digest, but the point is that these remaining regular season games are not throwaways. There is a lot of meaningful basketball left to play in the regular season for a lot of teams.
We all know who are the best players in the NBA. Guys like Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and so on are the best-of-the-best. However, there are some household names who receive more credit than their actual contributions on the court would justify. Part of the reason is some players post impressive box score numbers, which can potentially mask how effective (or ineffective) they really are in terms of helping their team win games. Another reason is some players have either suffered through injuries or are at the tail-end of their careers and are playing at a lower level than we are accustomed to seeing.
Here is a quick recap of which players are performing below expectations, according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER) metrics.
Some of the names found on this list are not all that surprising. Guys like Kirk Hinrich have been declining for several years. Other guys like Lance Stephenson and Michael Carter-Williams have received their fair share of criticism for their less-than-stellar play.
However, it is somewhat surprising to see a player like Jeff Green on this list. Green was sought after by several teams this season and has earned a reputation as being a versatile forward that makes a positive impact on the court. However, looking at his PER and RPM numbers, we see that Green’s performance has not lived up to his reputation this season. And it gets worse if you look at his on/off court numbers. When Green is on the court, the Memphis Grizzlies are being outscored by 1.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. That may not seem like a big deal, but then if you look at his off court numbers, you see that the Grizzlies are outscoring opponents by eight points per 100 possessions, which is the worst number by far on the team.
Another interesting player is Enes Kanter, who has a solid PER at 19.98. However, Kanter’s RPM rating is at -3.35. Part of the reason for this is Kanter’s poor defense. For the season, the Thunder have a defensive efficiency rating of 102.7, according to NBA.com. But when Kanter is on the court, the Thunder’s defensive rating drops to 109.5, which is worse than the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves’ 109.0 mark.
Some of the other players can easily be explained by injuries. Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant entered this season fresh off of season-ending injuries and both were probably never 100 percent healthy. Other players have been dealing with less than ideal circumstances with their teams, such as Goran Dragic, Brandon Knight and Arron Afflalo, all of whom were traded midseason.
Of course, we should keep in mind that metrics like PER and RPM are limited and don’t perfectly convey how effective or ineffective a player has been. However, there is insight to be gained from such metrics. There are arguably no better examples than players like Jeff Green and Enes Kanter.
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