The conclusion of All-Star break marks the year’s unofficial beginning of the last third of the season. With many solid teams in playoff contention, it is time to point out the biggest pro and con each playoff hopeful has to continue their season past mid-April. Teams on this list are seven to seeds, who more than anyone else, are worried about the possibility of losing out on playoff basketball.
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 87%
At this point in the NBA season, teams often struggle from the wear and tear of the season. Oftentimes, their players grow tired and fragile as benches shrink, in order to eliminate underperformers. Fortunately, the Miami Heat have a solution which should help them outlast midseason struggles. Rotationally, the Heat are pretty stacked at just about every position.
At point guard, they have Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson. Dragic is a terrific slasher, while Johnson is a solid game maintainer. Their size gives them the ability to play together in lineups, as well. At the wing, they have Dion Waiters, Dwyane Wade, Wayne Ellington, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, all very different players who are each productive in their own right. At combo forward, Luke Babbitt and James Johnson share similar versatility. Babbitt spreads the floor like very few in the league, while Johnson provides terrific playmaking for someone at his position and world-class defense, with the ability to defend threes to fives. At center, Kelly Olynyk gives them a very good stretch option, while Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo are more classic pick and roll, post up bigs. But in common, the three are all very capable defenders.
If an injury, unfortunately, derails this team, they surely have the depth to get back on track. The Miami Heat truly have possessed a “next man up” mentality this season, and it could be what gets them to the playoffs.
Outside of Kelly Olynyk, Josh Richardson and Wayne Ellington, no one on this team is playing to their potential offensively this season. Despite being named an All-Star, Goran Dragic is having his third worst offensive box plus-minus and true shooting year of his career. His three-point percentage has plummeted by more than four percent, which has taken a toll on the totality of his game. Hassan Whiteside has suffered offensively, as well, with the worst field goal percentage and OBPM of his career.
Their offensive rating has dropped by two points per 100 possessions, and have produced the fifth highest turnover percentage this season. Despite having plenty of young guns and athletes, the team is one of the lowest transition frequency and points per possession teams in the NBA. The Heat offense seems very uninspired and bland. With Dragic having a down year, the Heat do not have a go-to scorer to get them out of funks either.
If they want to renovate their offense before the playoffs come around, it needs to start with their point guard and best offensive player. If not, this team could miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 97%
In 54 games, the Philadelphia 76ers have already exceeded their win total of last season, all while playing the hardest schedule in the NBA so far. That’s pretty impressive. They have already played all of their games against the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder, and so the end of the season should come off as more of a breeze.
Outside of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who they will play once, and the new look Cleveland Cavaliers, who they will play twice, no team is that much better than the Sixers when they are at full strength. If this team can remain healthy, they could end up with a win total in the high-40s.
That’s the problem. Who knows if the Sixers can realistically remain healthy? Starters Joel Embiid and JJ Redick have both missed ten or more games apiece, with the former player being the best player on the team, and a top ten player when healthy. If either of them or point guard and probable Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons, who missed all of what would have been his rookie year last year with a broken foot, miss an extended period of time, this team could see themselves sneaking out of the playoff picture. Both lineups without Embiid and lineups without Simmons produce negative point differentials, which doesn’t exactly read “playoff team.” In order for the Sixers to make the playoffs, Embiid, Simmons and Redick must all stay healthy, as if not, the team’s chemistry could be tampered.
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 21%
By trading for Blake Griffin, the Detroit Pistons built one of the best frontlines in the league. Blake Griffin provides much-needed playmaking for the team, while center, Andre Drummond, is having the best year of his career, with highs in BPM, rebounding percentage and assist percentage. Outside of the two stars, backups James Ennis and Anthony Tolliver are both consistently solid players who make an effort on both ends of the court. The two also allow the Pistons to go smaller and quicker when necessary, as against some matchups, playing Drummond and Griffin just won’t work for over 30 minutes.
To say the Detroit Pistons’ backcourt is thin is like saying Stanley Johnson seems annoying: it’s true, but an understatement. By trading Avery Bradley, the Pistons got rid of easily the best guard on their roster and were left with almost no one to fill his void.
Sure, Reggie Jackson should be back from his right ankle sprain in March, but ever since his knee injury of last season, he has been incredibly inconsistent, and even worse defensively than usual. Despite being a solid backup point guard, Ish Smith simply does not have the skill set to play fourth quarters, as opponents treat every three-pointer he takes as a joke. Though attaining Jameer Nelson was a pretty low-risk move, let’s not forget that he lost a lot of his minutes at the end of his half-year tenure in New Orleans, to Ian Clark, of all people. Their new starting two-guard, Stanley Johnson, suffers from a similar three-point incapability as Ish Smith. Despite looking good in 16 games, Dwight Buycks is definitely not a sure option for the Pistons. And Langston Galloway is having a very bad season this year.
Oddly enough, it seems as if rookie Luke Kennard might be the most trustworthy guard on the team. And with that being the case, it is quite evident that the Detroit Pistons suffer immensely at guard. If the Pistons want their playoff hopes to continue, they must be able to get stable guard minutes out of at least two of these sorry options.
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 12%
Yes, yes. I’ve already used the schedule as a make or miss reason twice before this, and after the Hornets, I use it twice more. But believe it or not, the competition you play plays a big part on how teams perform. And the Hornets, like the Sixers, have already seen their share of baddies earlier in the season. They’ve already played their Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder and Timberwolves games for the season, and only have to play on more game against all of the Raptors, Celtics and Cavaliers. That is why the Hornets still have over a ten percent chance of making the playoffs, despite having a 23-33 record, and why their SRS is just -.33. If they can finish the season strong, there is an actual chance that the Hornets can make the playoffs.
It is not that the Hornets roster is terrible, but instead just remarkably mediocre and underperforming. Sure, Kemba Walker is still Kemba Walker, one of the most dangerous scoring point guards in the league. But outside of Kemba, the roster really falls off. Kemba’s wingmen, Nicolas Batum and Dwight Howard have been disappointing this year. After missing the season’s first twelve games, Batum came back with the worst BPM season of his career. Not only did he continue shooting inefficiently, a staple of his tenure in Charlotte, but his playmaking has also declined, with the worst usage percentage he has ever had in Charlotte.
And despite people thinking that Dwight has been revived, due to a couple points per game tacked onto his average, his field goal percentage has declined by more than nine percent from last season, giving him the worst true shooting percentage of his career. For just the second time in his career, Dwight has posted a negative box plus-minus. Snd at age 32, it seems that Dwight’s once world-class athleticism has worn out. He went from being one of the league’s best rollers last year to landing in just the 48th percentile this year. And though still a good rim protector, he has been much worse this season than last.
Cody Zeller’s game has also suffered this season, due to injury, playing the second least minutes per game of his career.
And so with almost no support around Kemba, the Hornets could very well end the season out of the playoffs, even if they were playing teams of middle schoolers.
Portland Trail Blazers
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 65%
On the ball, Lillard and McCollum and in the 89th and 79th percentile respectively in isolation attempts. And as pick and roll ball handlers, they are 92nd and 71st. On pull up threes, Lillard and McCollum are two of the best shooters in the league, shooting 38.8% and 39.3% on threes off of the dribble. And though the shot itself is not very efficient, Lillard and McCollum are both excellent mid-range shooters, shooting 45.9% and 43.4$ on those attempts. McCollum is also one of the best catch and shooters in the league, shooting 49.5% on threes.
Backing up Lillard and McCollum, Shabazz Napier has been incredible, with a .96 RPM and 40.3% three-point percentage. He has played well with Lillard both on and off of the floor, which is very important as a backup point guard. And recently, Evan Turner has also played very well for the Blazers with his oversized playmaking. With guards like these, any offense would be able to stay afloat and enter playoff contention.
See what I did there? It’s the opposite of the Pistons. And much like the Pistons who have no reliable players in their backcourt, the Blazers have none in their backcourt. Much like many centers of his kind, Nurkic’s slow, post up offensive skill set has not produced efficient offense this season. Though his defense is keeping his total RPM positive, his ORPM is a disgustingly low -2.49 right now. Though Al-Farouq Aminu has always brought terrific defense to the table and has been hitting the three at a solid 39.4% clip this season, history would suggest that he is still an incredibly inconsistent offensive player.
Same goes for Maurice Harkless, who has declined from his solid 2016-2017 season. For a strong center with the inability to do anything ten feet from the basket, Ed Davis has been a surprisingly poor roller this season. Meyers Leonard has barely played this season, and rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan have seen scarce minutes, putting up poor numbers in the rare times they have been on the floor. Is there anyone consistent to be found in this sad, overpaid mishmash of one-way players?
New Orleans Pelicans
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 55%
Make: Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday
Even with DeMarcus Cousins out of the lineup, the Pelicans will always be a solid team with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday on the floor. Their pick and roll is incredibly dangerous, and separately, the two players are having one of the best years of their careers. Anthony Davis has had the second best BPM and points per game numbers of his career while putting up a career-high true shooting percentage, while Jrue Holiday is putting up the best true shooting and point per game of his career. Both have been terrific this year on both sides of the floor.
Offensively, Davis has been more versatile than ever. He is shooting a career-high 74.6% from within three feet, while also shooting a career-high 36.7% from three, including 50% from the corners. His isolation game has improved by an incredible .2 points per possession, putting him in the 85th percentile among one-on-one scorers, has shown to once again be one of the best roll and pop double threats, and has proved to be able to play with the big boys, being in the 79th percentile for post ups. His defense is equally as versatile, being one of the best defenders in the league both outside of 15 feet, and inside of six feet, with a 2.59 DRPM. No matter the play type, Davis has once again shown to be an incredible defender, using his elite length, strength and athleticism to lock down opponents.
Holiday is shooting a career-high 56.4% from two, due to incredible 69% shooting from within three feet. He has proved to be successful both as the point guard in a lineup, and when sliding down to the two while playing with Rondo. He has shown to once again be one of the best defensive point guards in the league, with a 1.21 DRPM. He is in the 84th percentile for pick and roll defenders at ball handler, due to his length, and if Davis and Holiday can play big minutes for the Pelicans in the final stretch of the season, they should be in the playoffs.
Miss: Everyone Else
Outside of Davis, Holiday and Nikola Mirotic, the Pelicans are stockpiled with inconsistent, one-way players. E’Twaun Moore, Darius Miller, Rajon Rondo, Ian Clark, Emeka Okafor and Cheick Diallo are all seeing big minutes for the Pels, and not one of them is reliable. Despite being knock down shooters, E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller have shown to be pylons on defense, Emeka Okafor has not shown an ounce of offensive skill playing for the Pels, and from night to night, who knows how good Rajon Rondo, Ian Clark and Cheick Diallo can be? With those being the Pels supporting players, you can see why they might not make the playoffs, as teams are built off of full rosters and not singular players.
Los Angeles Clippers
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 58%
Much like the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Clippers are stacked with solid players. At guard, they start the much improved Austin Rivers and solid Avery Bradley. Backing them up, they have the master scorer, Lou Williams, who currently has the seventh highest ORPM in the league, passing wizard, Milos Teodosic, and defensive stalwart, Tyrone Wallace. Starting at forward, the Clippers have the stretchy scorers, Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari. At center, they have the powerful roller and defensive master, DeAndre Jordan. And behind him, the energetic Montrezl Harrell has been playing the best basketball of his career. Therefore, despite losing Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers still seem to have the firepower to make a playoff run.
And also despite losing Blake Griffin, the team is stacked with players who are severe injury risks. Lou Williams, Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley have all had injury filled pasts, and Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Austin Rivers have all missed large portions of the season. Therefore, the depth is more necessary than luxurious. If everyone on their roster can stay healthy, there is no doubt that the Los Angeles Clippers can make the playoffs, but if not, they need to pray that their depth outweighs their injured players for the rest of the season.
FiveThirtyEight Playoff Chance Percentage: 87%
The main reason why the Utah Jazz’s playoff chances are so high according to FiveThirtyEight is because of their schedule up to this point, as well as their crazy eleven game win streak, which carried them to the All-Star break. Before the break, they played the majority of their tough competition for the season. In their overall win streak, they were able to handle four tough opponents, as well, in the Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs twice. Though they do play the Rockets, Spurs, Celtics and Timberwolves and Warriors twice in the season’s final stretch, that competition will be balanced by 11 games against the Mavericks, Kings, Magic, Grizzlies, Suns, Hawks and Lakers. If the Jazz play decent basketball, this competition should get them out of the ten seed and into the playoffs.
Due to the length of the season, many teams seem to get beaten up in the final stretch of the season, and usually more durable contenders are the ones who make the playoffs. Being that this is the case, the Utah Jazz should be nervous. Though their playoff chances are so high, in Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio, the Jazz have three starters with extensive injury histories. If Gobert goes down, the Jazz playoff hopes are effectively over. If Rubio or Favors go down, they are severely stunted. Simple as that.