This is easily one of my favourite times of the basketball season. The all-star break and trade deadline are over and the playoff races are heating up as teams jockey for position and hope to break into the postseason.
I already went over the Western Conference playoff race at the end of last month and well I was obviously caught up in the Boogie hype and really though that the Pelicans would overtake the Nuggets for the 8th seed in the West.
Clearly that hasn’t happened as the team has struggled to implement a coherent offense around DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis and beyond Jrue Holiday there haven’t been a lot of good scoring options beyond the Pelicans’ version of the Twin Towers. I mean they could still make a run at it as they sit five games back with 17 games remaining but it doesn’t seem likely right now.
I don’t mind admitting that I’m wrong from time to time.
It seems that the race is likely going to come down to Denver, Portland, Dallas and Minnesota who all have matching 6-4 record in their last ten and all have been finding their groove at the most essential time of the season.
But we’re not focusing on the left coast right now.
Today we’re going to examine the super tight race in the NBA’s Eastern Conference where only 3.5 games separate 6th from 10th in the Conference.
There have been some exciting trends as of late with the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat surging and the Chicago Bulls going ice cold and the wrong time of year. I’d expect a lot of shifting and teams falling in and out of the 8th seed as we head toward the end of the NBA season.
Who will be in who will be out?
That’s the question I’m going to try and answer. Just like the Western Conference article, I’m going to focus largely on why they could make and why they couldn’t. I’m not going to do the “Can they win a game against the Cavs?” section as I did with “Can they win a game against the Warriors ?” in the Western Conference piece, because I’m not even sure that the Cavs will finish as the top seed in the East.
For that matter, the Warriors are no longer 1st in the West since Kevin Durant’s injury caused the team to go into a bit of a free-fall as they have lost five of the seven games they’ve played without him and been passed in the standings by the San Antonio Spurs.
Cleveland has lost four of their last five and the Wizards and Celtics sit just two games back. The Cavs are without Kevin Love and a once again LeBron James is being asked to shoulder a massive burden for a 32 year old who has played an insane amount of basketball over the past seven years – going to the finals six years in a row and playing in the 2012 Olympics in the midst of that run.
That is an insane amount of basketball.
The Cavs are probably going to opt to give LeBron some rest down the stretch rather than commit to going for the 1st seed in the East if it comes down to choice between the two. I think that would be the right call because when Cleveland is at full strength, it’s not like home court advantage will make a huge difference for them. Giving up that top seed might make sense if it means resting guys to prepare for a long playoff run.
In which case I’m not even sure who a potential 8th seed would play, so that question is out as the playoff picture is increasingly more uncertain and exciting than it’s been in quite some time.
So let’s try to make sense of that log jam at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture starting with the team currently occupying the 6th seed.
Record: 34-32, 6th in the Eastern Conference
Last 10: 5-5
Why they should make it: The Pacers had a choice during the trade deadline that would determine the future of the team: they could move superstar Paul George or keep him and hope that he would re-sign when his player option kicks in after next season. They ultimately decided on keeping George which meant that they are going full speed ahead into the playoff race.
PG13 has responded with excellent play since the deadline. In the month of March so far, he’s averaged 26.5 points off of 49.5% shooting to go along with 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and a steal. He has been the engine that drives the team all season and has stepped up his game down the stretch run as well. He’s a force on both sides of the floor for the Pacers and by far their most potent offensive weapon with an ability to hit from pretty much any spot on the floor.
With one of the league’s brightest stars at the helm, it’s hard to imagine the Pacers not making it.
CJ Miles has also been hot since the all-star break including a game earlier this month when he drained four three pointers in a loss to the Hornets. Miles has been one of the Pacers most efficient players out of the all-star break averaging 13 points off 46% shooting this month and being a very consistent shooter for the Pacers. He’s really cemented his starting role heading into the playoffs.
Monta Ellis has also started to get hot at the right time. He’s hit over 40% of his threes since the all-star break and has been another effective weapon for the Pacers during a crucial time of the season. Of course, Ellis has a history of being inefficient and as much as he’s found his stroke in the game, he has struggled at getting to the free throw line, but an effective in-game Monta helps keep opposing defenses off balance and as much as he’s always been a feast-or-famine, trick-or-treat type player, a motivated Monta is a guy you want on your team.
Thad Young has seen a minutes reduction as of late, but still remains a defensive stalwart for Indiana as he leads the team in steals with 1.7 per game and
The Pacers have been the model of consistency as of late with the team managing to avoid any major injuries and enjoying a full compliment heading down the stretch run as well which will only be a major boost to them as they look to cement a playoff spot.
Why they shouldn’t make it: The Pacers problem really is that they have been stuck as a model of consistency. They haven’t been able to get a streak going and are 5-5 in their last ten as they literally just alternate wins and losses. Granted they also aren’t getting any losing streaks going either as of late, but with the Bucks and the Heat recently putting impressive stretches together as they remain in the playoff hunt, there is a danger that the Pacers could get leapfrogged by a team on a tear if they can’t shift out of neutral.
There is also the problem of three of their top players being ice cold since the all-star break. Jeff Teague and Myles Turner have seen their production drop off since the all-star break. It’s a concerning time of year for one of your top players to go cold, let alone all three achieve far below their season averages.
During a stretch of 4 key games against important conference opponents Atlanta (win), Charlotte (loss), Detroit (win) and Milwaukee (loss), Turner averaged a paltry 5.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. That’s staggeringly below his season averages on 14.9 points and team best 7.1 board per game. For a young player’s production to fall off at a crucial point in the season is highly concerning. Unless there’s an undisclosed injury or something, the Pacers have to hope that their second year, 20 year old centre can rebound.
Hopefully Turner’s 15 point, 8 rebound performance against the Heat on Sunday night represented a return to form for him, because there is no worse time of the year for the Pacers’ best young talent to go cold.
Additionally, another playoff run would do nothing but good things for Turner’s development as the young big man continues to grow and learn against top NBA competition.
There is reason to believe that Teague’s recent drop in production will improve as well. Over the last ten he’s been 2.3 points and 1.5 assists per game off his season pace of 15.2 and 7.9, but he still hold the top player efficiency rating on the team and he’s still contributing overall to the team. It looks more like the type of veteran fatigue that’s common at this time of year, but Teague will need to pick it up if the Pacers are going to secure their playoff spot with the Bucks and Heat knocking on the playoff door.
The Pacers need to be better than being the definition of mediocre down the stretch run if they hope to make the playoffs.
In or out: This was actually a tougher decision than it should have been. The Pacers haven’t been able string together a run and have seen some key player’s production drop off after the all-star break and genuinely seem like the type of team that could fall out of the playoff.
However I don’t think they will.
Turner had a nice bounce back game against the Heat and I really believe that he will turn a corner. Just getting him going along with George’s stellar play as of late will be enough to help the Pacers get in.
They also have a favourable schedule going forward. They play the Knicks tonight, which has always been a good match-up for their starters and don’t do any extensive travelling for the remainder of the season. Also, a lot of key conference match-ups including three games against the Toronto Raptors means that the Pacers destiny is in their own hands.
I think that this Pacers team is good enough to take advantage of a good schedule and, as long as Turner returns to form, will be in the playoffs and probably cause some problems for whoever they match-up with.
Record: 33-33. 7th in the Eastern Conference
Last 10: 7-3
Why they should make it: The Pistons are read hot as of late winning four of their last five and are going into a match up with the Cleveland Cavaliers after having beat them last Thursday in a 106-101 shocker that has been indicative of both the problems that the Cavs have been experiencing as of late, but also the type of basketball that the Detroit Pistons have been playing as of late.
Andre Drummond has undoubtedly been the face of the Detroit surge. He’s been an absolutely monster on both sides of the floor. He has the best defensive rating in the NBA and while he’s second in the league in rebounds per game at 13.9, he’s first in both overall rebound percentage and defensive rebound percentage. He’s an absolute monster in the middle and one of the best and most underappreciated young players in the entire NBA.
Unlike other celebrated young bigs, Drummond can’t stretch the floor by shooting threes and he really struggles at the free throw line. Unlike Davis, Porzingis, Embiid or Antetokounmpo, the Pistons big man is very much a throw back to the old school. He is most comfortable playing in the middle and he takes full ownership of the paint when he’s on the floor.
Personally, I love it. It’s nice that somebody still plays that old school way in the modern game and Drummond shows that there is still a place where the traditional big man can thrive in the current NBA.
He’s been on fire along with his team, averaging 17.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 2 steals and a block over his last five with no signs of slowing down. This level of dominance during a stretch where they have played all opponents within the conference (Philadelphia, Chicago, Indiana, Cleveland and New York) in games that meant a great deal to the standings as the Pistons head down the stretch run.
Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson have also been playing out of their minds since the all-star break for the Pistons. Since the all-star break, Harris has been averaging a season best 17.4 points, 6.1 boards and 2.3 dimes in arguably the best stretch of basketball of his career. This version of Harris is the player that Stan Van Gundy knew he was getting when he traded for him last season and he’s delivered on that promise since coming to the Motor City.
Jackson has also been on a tear since the all-star break, including torching the Cavs for 21 and the Bulls for 26 in key match-ups for the Pistons. His last five have been incredible with averages of 18.6, 5.2 assists and 2.6 boards. Getting Reggie driving out of the back-court and slicing through opposing defenses has really opened things up for the Pistons offense and it’s really all systems go for Detroit and their starting point guard at the most important time of the season.
Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have also been hitting season peaks following the all-star breaks and everything is really coming together for the Motor City at the right time. It really looks like Detroit is heading back to the playoffs after their big return there last season.
Why they won’t make it: The Pistons’ bench scoring has been hit or miss all season. They are only 24th in the league in bench scoring and really need to what has been an inconsistent reserve squad to step up big time down the stretch.
They really need big things from Jon Leuer, Ish Smith, Aaron Baynes and Stanley Johnson and Van Gundy needs to be able to rely on any of these guys to go when it’s time. That hasn’t always been the case all season and while it’s lead to entertaining SVG meltdowns in time outs, it can’t happen for the Pistons at this key time of the year.
Beyond worries about the bench though, the Pistons starters have looked great and the team seems to be coming together at the most important time of the year so it’s tough to come up with a reason why they won’t be in the playoffs.
In or out: I don’t see any scenario where the Pistons are out. Their young core has been performing unbelievably well down the stretch and like the Pacers, they have a favourable travel schedule down the stretch.
I really expect to see Detroit in the playoffs and just like last year play their first round opponent really tough in true Pistons fashion.
Stan Van Gundy has really built something special in Detroit and I think that with continued health and great performances from Drummond, Harris and Jackson, the Pistons will stay a player in the East for a long time coming.
Record: 32-34. 8th in the Eastern Conference
Last 10: 7-3
Why they should make it: Two words: Giannis Antetounmpo. The Bucks have the best player that has played for their organization since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar departed for the Lakers in 1975, which is incredible considering that Kareem’s numbers with the Bucks were staggering. They didn’t track steals or blocks until the 1973-74 season in which Kareem averaged 27 points, 14.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 3.5 blocks with a player efficiency rating of 24.4.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also, one of, if not the best player in NBA history.
Giannis this season is averaging 23.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 2 blocks per game with a player efficiency rating of 26.6. He is likely going to become only the fifth player in NBA history to lead his team in all five major statistical categories after Dave Cowens (1977-78), Scottie Pippen (1994-95), Kevin Garnett (2002-03) and LeBron James (2008-09).
The Bucks have themselves a generational talent and a 22 year old with the ability to completely take over a game due to an unparalleled skillset. Giannis 6’11” with a 7’4” wingspan which gives him the ability to play virtually any position on the floor, including point guard. His athletic gifts make him a dominant defender while also being near impossible to defend.
Watching him completely humiliate heralded defenders like Serge Ibaka, Paul George and DeAndre Jordan during the Bucks recent winning streak spoke to his almost otherworldly talents. The fact that he’s only 22 years old is terrifying because as dominant as he is now in virtually every facet of the game, he’s only going to get better.
As long as the Bucks have Giannis, they will be able to compete.
Even though they lost young star Jabari Parker due to a torn ACL, they are in a stretch where they have played the best basketball of the season including a six game win streak that launched them back into a playoff position. A lot of that is due to the fact that the team has a generational superstar.
Another key to the Bucks success has been the play of the President of the United States, Malcolm Brogdon. The 24 year old rookie is looking like a steal in the second round as since Joel Embiid’s injury, he now looks like the favourite to take home rookie of the year honours.
Brodgon has been a force since the all-star break as he’s averaged 13.4 points per game on 49% shooting including 44% from three. The young guard is a dynamic scorer and can hit from virtually anywhere on the floor. He’s also emerged as an excellent passer, dishing out eight assists in his last game and averaging 4.1 for the season. Brogdon’s elevated play has helped the Bucks hit a peak at the right time of the season and help make up for the loss of Jabari Parker.
The return of Khris Middleton has also bolstered the team and put them right back into the playoff hunt. A few weeks into his return, he’s rounded into form and the Bucks are all the better for it. Milwaukee’s net rating is six points better with Middleton on the floor. During their six game win streak they were a +18.1 with the fifth year swingman playing and a -1.9 with him on the bench. That’s a 20 point swing per 100 possessions. On the back end, the Bucks defensive rating goes from 107.7 without Middleton to 95.8 with him on the floor.
Middleton’s return could not have come at a better time for the Bucks and his 16.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game over his last ten have added to the Bucks offensive attack that had been severely depleted by the loss of Jabari Parker.
The Bucks’ bench has also been stellar lead by Sixth Man of the Year favourite Greg “Moose” Monroe and the veteran presence of Jason Terry, Spencer Hawes (who got back into the rotation and was a key piece in their big win over the Toronto Raptors in the second win of their recent six game streak), John Henson, Mirza Telotovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Michael Beasley.
The Bucks are a deep team and getting seem to have peaked at the right time as they surged back into a playoff spot.
Why they shouldn’t make it: Milwaukee has a terrible schedule going forward. They kicked off a gruelling six game west coast road swing with a loss to Memphis on Monday night. This is probably the worst time of the year to have such a trip and they have by far the worst schedule out of all five of the teams fighting for the last three spots in the East.
Even upon their return from the west coast, they are spending six of their last eleven games of the season on the road. That’s a tough schedule and it includes a four game in five day stretch with important conference match-ups against Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte and Boston.
The Bucks have a really tough schedule for the last of the season.
If they don’t make it, the travel will play a big part in that.
In or out? I am totally biased here. The Bucks are my favourite team to watch this season largely because of the unbelievable season that Giannis Antetokounmpo is having.
I get that the travel schedule does not favour the Bucks, but I think that their talent, depth and the returning Middleton can boost the team into the playoffs.
I’m going to do for in. I think they hold on to that 8th seed.
Record: 32-35. 9th in the Eastern Conference
Last 10: 4-6
Why they should make it: Like the Pacers, the Bulls had a big choice to make with a major star. It was heavily rumoured they would be trading Jimmy Butler at the deadline in an effort to rebuild their team and move on from the current core.
Butler’s contract is up in 2019 and unless the Bulls’ fortune’s significantly improve by then, it’s not likely that he will be back. Moving on from him in a season where the team was in disarray made sense, but the East is still bad enough that a team with a superstar like Butler and a half decent supporting cast should be able to string together a record around .500 to make the playoffs.
At least that had to be the Bulls thinking.
Butler has been spectacular in his sixth NBA season as he’s averaged a career highs with 23.4 points, 6.2 boards, 5.2 assists and 1.9 steals. He remains one of the NBA’s best all round players as he is the Bulls best player on both ends of the floor. He’s a superstar that can do it all and absolutely has been for the Chicago Bulls this year.
Dwyane Wade has been a great contributor for the Bulls this season averaging 18.8 points, 3.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds with his former club and has been solid for the Bulls as of late even while battling a thigh injury. The veteran has been a key contributor to his hometown club and it’s too bad that Wade’s efforts are wasted carrying a team that seems to have no consistent approach at any level.
Why they shouldn’t make it: Well even though they decided to keep Butler, the Bulls traded key contributors Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Antony Morrow, Cameron Payne and Joffrey Lauvergne. A move that has robbed the Bulls of their top rebounder and one of their most consistent shooters for three players who haven’t contributed a whole lot since coming over.
It’s the type of move you make if you’re shedding cap space to rebuild. Except the Bulls haven’t committed to a rebuild.
This is also a team that has been in-fighting all season due to the presence of noted locker room diva Rajon Rondo, who when he hasn’t been totally inconsistent on the floor, has been feuding with his teammates on social media. The Rondo experiment has been an unmitigated disaster for the Bulls and I’m sure the team will try to move on from him in the off-season.
Once promising, Nikola Mirotic has also been wildly inconsistent this season. As his unfulfilled promise this year has really summed up the Bulls under-performance.
It all game to a head on Sunday when the Bulls put up a 9 point first quarter against the Boston Celtics in one of the ugliest performances by a team ever.
In or out: Out. The Bulls seem to have checked out since the trade deadline and really any chance they had at making it went with Gibson and McDermott.
This is a team that probably should have just moved Butler and committed to the tank and they are really heading in the wrong direction and don’t have a lot of depth to steady the ship.
Record: 32-35. 10th in the Eastern Conference
Last 10: 7-3
Why they should make it: The Miami Heat have been one of the NBA’s feel good stories this year. Nobody gave them any kind of chance this season (including me), but they’ve surpassed anybody’s wildest dreams.
A lot of credit needs to go to Erik Spoelstra who is honestly one of the most underrated coaches in the NBA. I know that’s a strange thing to say about a coach who went to four NBA Finals in a row and won two championships, but most discount Spoelsta’s abilities as a coach due to the fact that he had the Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on his squad.
Well people need to take note of Spoelstra’s abilities as a coach now. He’s got the Heat within striking distance of the playoffs three years after LeBron has left and also having lost Chris Bosh to health problems and Dwyane Wade to horrible negotiations on the part of Pat Riley.
Instead Spoelstra has the Heat winning with a Big 3 of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and….Dion Waiters?!?!
Yup that’s right, kids. Dion Waiters is a major reason why Miami is still in the hunt. He’s had by far the best season of his career with 16.1 points, 4.4 assist and 3.4 rebounds per game. That’s right, Spoelstra has Waiters moving the ball. It’s incredible. Everyone loves a good redemption story and Waiters has been absolutely spectacular for the Heat this season.
I mean who would have thought he’d be a pillar of Miami’s unlikely run? But here we are.
Another great story in Miami has been James Johnson who after spending two years glued to the bench in Toronto, has broken out with a career year in Miami. Off the bench for the Heat, the veteran forward has enjoyed career highs in 12.1 points, 4.9 boards and 3.4 dimes per game.
Just like Waiters, Johnson is a reclamation project. A journeyman that wasn’t really given a chance anywhere but now is thriving under Spoelstra in Miami.
Goran Dragic has been unbelievable this season in Miami. He has been the driving force of the team’s offense with 20.1 points and a career best 6 assists per game to go along with 3.8 boards. Dragic has been dialed in all season as he’s shooting a career best 42.4% from three point range and has also been carving up defenses with his blinding speed and ability to cut and slash on the inside.
He’s found a partner in the back court with Waiters and the perfect pick and roll partner in Hassan Whiteside. Dragic has recaptured the form he enjoyed at his peak in Phoenix and has established himself as one of the premier point guards in the NBA once again.
Whiteside has been a monster in the middle this season. He is averaging a league best 14.2 rebounds per game and a career high 16.6 points per game. Like Andre Drummond in Detroit, he is an old school big that patrols the middle and grabs boards as opposed to stretching and spacing the floor with outside shooting, which suits Dragic and Waiters just fine as they can let it fly from range while Whiteside draws double teams.
The Heat are a fun team and the most unlikely story in the league this year.
Why they shouldn’t make it: Honestly, the team has defied every single reason why they shouldn’t make it. Dragic was taken out with an elbow just seconds into a game against the Toronto Raptors and they still won because Wayne Ellington (!) and Tyler Johnson ran the point and Waiters shot out the lights.
This is a team that defied all expectations and it’s hard to count them out. They managed to put together a massive thirteen game winning streak in January and February that has brought them back to prominence and have had a winning record since.
They have defied the odds all season and even beat the defending champion Cavaliers in a back-to-back. Why not the Heat?
Well, their schedule down the stretch is hard but includes two games against the Raptors, two games against the Wizards, a game against the Celtics and one against the Cavs. The travel may not be as gruelling as it is for the Bucks but the quality of opponents may be even more imposing down the stretch.
In or out: I kind of backed myself into a corner and have to say out simply because I put the Bucks in. But I think the Heat could do it. If the Bucks falter on the West, Miami will get in. It’s going to come down to one or two teams, but if Miami gets in, I will say this: Erik Spoelstra should probably win coach of the year, because that would be an incredible accomplishment.
Bring on the stretch run!