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The NBA Draft Look-Back: 2017

Drew Maresca examines the controversial 2017 NBA Draft, identifying class hits, misses and guys on whom the jury is still out.

Drew Maresca

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In an ongoing attempt to continue to get you your basketball fix, Basketball Insiders is taking a look back at recent draft classes and assessing them relative to the expectations that were in place as of their respect NBA Drafts.

We are grading according to the following criteria:

The Hits – the players that panned out
The Misses – the players that did not pan out
The Sleepers – the players that exceeded minimal expectations
The Jury Is Out – those that have shown flashes

Matt John did a fantastic job assessing the 2014 NBA Draft. Ben Nadeau and Spencer Davies did an equally impressive job reviewing the 2015 and 2016 draft classes, respectively. Up next, we’ll dive into the controversial 2017 NBA Draft class.

The 2017 NBA Draft appeared to be as stocked with high-end talent as any of the other recent draft. But for those of us who needed a refresher on the old “everything that glimmers isn’t gold” adage, 2017 served that purpose.  No one anticipated the struggles that Markelle Fultz would face due to a shoulder ailment and a case of the yips; Fultz is probably the highest-profile “bust” since Greg Oden.

And while Fultz has at least gained some traction in Orlando since his challenging time with Philly, there are plenty of other interesting storylines from the 2017 draft. It was seen as the year of the point guard, but its best players don’t exactly fit that bill. Now with all of that being said, let’s jump in.

The Hits

Jayson Tatum, No. 3

Tatum was special in his lone season at Duke. No one thought he’d be this special, though. Tatum fits perfectly in the modern NBA. He’s as smooth as they come offensively, and his length and mobility make him an above-average defender and rebounder. He’s a dead-eye shooter and he’s one of the best tough-shot makers in the league. Tatum is the rare talent who can put a team on his back for extremely long stretches. Oh, and he also plays nice with others. No one expected Tatum to be THIS good.

De’Aaron Fox, No. 5

Fox was viewed as the steal of the draft before the draft was even over. He was a boom-or-bust prospect whose style fit the league perfectly. He’s a lightning-quick lead guard who wants all of the smoke. Despite being ranked as a lesser prospect, he took it to Lonzo Ball in just about every matchup they’d had in college. And he’s continued to impress in the NBA. Fox is the kind of player around whom you build your franchise. While that’s always been thought of as his ceiling, it’s rare to see players live up to their potential to the degree in which Fox has.

Jonathan Isaac, No. 6

Entering the draft, Isaac was seen as the prototypical stretch-four. He took time to develop – averaging only 5.4 points per game in his rookie season. But he blossomed in his third season in the league. Isaac supplanted Aaron Gordon as the Magic’s best defender, and his defensive versatility gives the Magic options they’d only dreamed of prior to this season. He’s also a pretty efficient offensive player who poster a better than 50% effective field goal percentage. Isaac still has to prove he can play at a high level with consistency, but he made major strides this year – living up to his draft position, and then some.

Donovan Mitchell, No. 13

Mitchell is the major surprise of the 2017 NBA Draft. The Louisville standout was seen as too small to succeed in the NBA. But that way of thinking was quickly debunked as Mitchell proceeded to average more than 20 points per game as a rookie – and he hasn’t looked back since.

Mitchell since established himself as the cornerstone of the Utah Jazz, and he’ll probably hold that title for the next decade or so – if he wants it. Mitchell easily outperformed pre-draft expectations. Phil Jackson, then president of the Knicks, saw potential in Mitchell. Few others did with the exception of the Jazz. And now they’re reaping the rewards.

Bam Adebayo, No. 14

2019-20 was Adebayo’s coming out party. Prior to this season, Adebayo was a reserve. Still, his per-36 numbers projected an effective and versatile big man. This season, he delivered, averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Adebayo affects the game in every way possible. And considering his relatively low profile entering the draft – Adebayo was projected to be drafted 17th overall by NBADraft.net and was called “raw” and an “energy big” by various outlets– he turned out to be a steal in the late lottery.

The Misses

Markelle Fultz, No. 1

Fultz got all of the hype you’d expect a first overall pick would receive. Despite missing the NCAA tournament in his lone season at Washington, he was a generational athlete who shot it well from deep and possessed game-changing size and physicality for a point guard.

But Fultz’s rookie season was derailed thanks to shoulder issues. He was (probably) mismanaged by the Philadelphia 76ers and allowed to play too early, leading to a loss in confidence and – ultimately – his departure from Philadelphia. Fultz contributed far more consistently in Orlando in 2019-20, but he still underperformed for his draft position. And he’s still not anywhere near as good as pundits felt he’d be prior to the 2017 NBA Draft. It’s a sad story, but it’s not over yet. At least he’s righted the ship.

Josh Jackson, No. 4

Fultz might provide more interesting – albeit premature – headlines, but Jackson’s path been more painful to watch – mostly because his setbacks are mostly his own fault. Jackson entered the 2017 NBA Draft as the Swiss Army knife of the bunch. He was seen as a do-it-all wing whose game fits the modern NBA’s as perfect as any prospect. Instead of hitting the ground running, Jackson had multiple run-ins with the law, resulting in suspensions and a trade from the Phoenix Suns. But Jackson flourished in the G-League after being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he continued to play efficiently after being called back up.

Jackson could still easily turn his career around. But the setbacks he’s undergone make his first three years a major disappointment.

Dennis Smith Jr., No. 8

Smith Jr. was one of the more celebrated prospects in 2017. And based on his rookie season, his profile seemed justified. But then Luka Doncic shook up the NBA – and Smith Jr.’s effectiveness waned.

Still, Smith Jr. has shown signs as recently as the end of 2018-19. He was traded to New York as part of the deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 20 points and 5 assists in March 2019. And while he might not have looked like a cornerstone, that was more than the Knicks had at point guard in some time. He struggled with personal loss and a back injury early on this season and he never recovered. And while he possesses the athleticism and ability to be a borderline All-Star, he’ll need to prove it on the court before this writer is comfortable calling him anything less than a miss relative to expectations.

Sleepers

John Collins, No. 19

Collins has progressed pretty much exactly how teams like their young stars to do so. His scoring average, minutes per game and PER have all shot up in the last three seasons: 10.5 points in 24.3 minutes per game with an 18.3 PER in 2017-18; 19.5 points in 30 minutes per game with a 21.8 PER in 2018-19; and 21.6 points in 33.2 minutes per game with a 23.5 PER in 2019-20. Further, he’s an excellent three-point shooter (40.1% in 2019-20) and extremely active around the rim.

Collins is not THE centerpiece of a contending NBA team, but he’s got all the right attributes to be a starter and a third option. And at 22-years-old, Collins could get even better. Not bad value at all for the late-middle of the first round.

Jarrett Allen, No. 22

Despite the fact that Allen’s status on his own team is in question, he’s still an elite defender who’s an above-average lob-catcher and screener. He’s versatile enough to switch on to ball-handlers in screen-and-rolls, and he’s already built an impressive highlight reel of blocked shots that includes LeBron James and Giannis Antetokunmpo.

Yes, Allen was an integral part of a playoff team as recently as two months ago. But expectations were nowhere near that high for him. And while there is some uncertainty ahead for Allen, his talent and work ethic will win out. While he’ll probably never develop a consistent jump shot, his motor and defensive gifts render him a starter in the NBA for years to come

OG Anunoby, No. 23

Anunoby was pegged as a breakout player for 2018-19. But Pascal Siakam stole his thunder. While Siakam delivered again this season, Anunoby would not be ignored in two straight seasons.

But rewind a bit and you’ll read about a risky prospect projected to fall into the second round. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Masai Ujiri and his staff saw the potential of Anunoby, and he’s rewarded them for their faith. He came into his own in 2019-20, establishing himself as a legitimate starter in the NBA. Who knows what he’ll look like next season.

Kyle Kuzma, No. 27

Kuzma quickly proved his worth, averaging 16.1 points per game as a rookie. His scoring average jumped in his sophomore season (18.7); but his production took a fairly big hit in 2019-20 after his good friend Lonzo Ball was sent to New Orleans alongside Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and numerous draft considerations in exchange for Anthony Davis.

But Kuzma is still viewed very favorably around the league. His fit alongside the win-now Lakers might not be ideal, but he’s still seen as an extremely valuable building block for most teams – especially ones in the middle of a rebuild. Kuzma was selected late in the first-round, and he’s already outperformed even the highest of expectations for the 27th pick of virtually any draft. In the right situation, he could put up All-Star-caliber numbers. And the Lakers are running low on trade chips. This writer wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuzma playing elsewhere as soon as next season – whenever that is.

Derrick White, No. 29

Thomas Bryant, No. 42

Dillion Brooks, No. 45

Monte Morris, No. 51

Jury Is Still Out

Lonzo Ball, No. 2

Ball entered the NBA with tremendous fanfare thanks, in part, to his father’s loud endorsements. LaVar Ball wasn’t entirely wrong about his son, though; It’s just that Lonzo hasn’t translated as well as his dad predicted.

But Ball’s quickness, court vision and defense render him a huge net positive. His shot, on the other hand, has hurt his ability to stretch the defense and be a scoring threat at all times when on offense – even though it did look significantly better in 2019-20 than in years’ past. Ball isn’t the first player who’s experienced relative success in the league while also undershooting expectations, and he won’t be the last. He could still grow into an All-Star, but he’s not the transcendent talent we were led to believe he’d be.

Lauri Markkanen, No. 7

By the parameters of this series, Markkanen looked way more like a hit entering 2019-20. But then this season happened. Markkanen was used as more of a spot-up shooter than he’d been in the previous two seasons. His minutes dropped slightly, as did his scoring (18.7 to 14.7 per game), rebounding (9.0 to 6.3) and his three-point percentage (36.1% to 34.4%). And his field goal attempts were down considerably from inside the three point line all the way to three feet from the basket.

But Markkanen doesn’t qualify as a bust, either. He still averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in less than 28 minutes per game. He’s a seven-footer who is still an above-average marksman given his size and position, and he’s still just 22. Markkanen might end up as a multi-time All-Star, so no need for too much alarm. And expectations weren’t too high on him as of 2017. But he’s hasn’t established himself as much as the “hits” featured above.

Frank Ntilikina, No. 8

The Knicks were dead set on a point guard in 2017. They were reportedly down to Ntilikina and Smith Jr. – ironically, they now employ both. But where Smith Jr. started off strongly and tapered off, Ntilikina took time to ramp up. In fact, he’s still ramping. Ntilikina is a sneaky good defender whose offensive prowess continues to grow. He’s a high-IQ player who will require more polished offensive talent around him if he’s going to start on a contender. But ultimately, the jury is still out. Ntilikina hasn’t been nearly consistent enough to be deemed anything but an unfinished product. He flashes the ability to oversee the offense, remain aggressive on offense, create for others and (obviously) defend multiple positions at a very high level. He just hasn’t done it regularly. He’s still only 21, so there is still ample time for Ntilikina to fulfill all of his potential and then some.

Every draft class is interesting with its share of hits and misses. While analyzing how well players perform relative to past expectations feels unnecessary, it’s also really fun. And doing so with the 2017 draft class is no different – and it provides even more opportunity than most to examine the draft order really closely and embrace the “what ifs.”

2017 might not have brought us any new entries into the GOAT debate, but it certainly left us with plenty of other items to discuss.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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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 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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