With the 2015 All-Star Game now behind us, it's time to turn our attention to the two-month sprint to the finish of the NBA's regular season. Over the next couple of days, we'll take a look at several issues of interest for the stretch run and beyond.
Next up: Which teams will take the seventh and eighth playoff spots in the Eastern Conference?
Kelly Dwyer: Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat. Six teams have a sound chance of making the seventh or eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. We’re not trying to mock from afar or act a smart-aleck when pointing out that this is so, so incredibly sad. It’s just accurate.
The Indiana Pacers, two games out prior to the NBA’s re-emergence on Thursday, are in the running in spite of what was considered to be a season-ending-before-it-even-began leg injury to Paul George, who is now considering returning in March. The Pistons are two games out, and despite Stan Van Gundy’s insistence that they won’t make a pound-foolish move to enhance the roster, rumors abound that the Pistons would like to make a terrible trade and send what would have to be about six players to the Brooklyn Nets for Joe Johnson, who will make $24.9 million next year and is decidedly average in every basketball way.
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Those Nets (one game out) announced a heretofore unrealized fire sale earlier in the year, always a sound negotiating tactic, after years of Billy King’s sometimes hilarious mismanagement pegged them with a lacking roster. The Boston Celtics, who might soon be without the white-hot Tayshaun Prince, are just 1 1/2 games out despite being 11 games below .500 and decidedly rebuilding. They also have just about all of the Nets’ next 97 draft picks.
The Heat and Charlotte Hornets are tied for those final two spots, and those teams spent a combined $177.5 million last summer to commit to Lance Stephenson (once heavy minutes are concerned, possibly the most destructive player in the NBA this season), Chris Bosh (awesome, but also almost 31) and Dwyane Wade (an All-Star, but also 33 after missing 17 games thus far and possibly owed under-the-table money when his contract expires in 2016). Kemba Walker is out for a while. The Heat are desperately clinging to Norris Cole prior to the trade deadline. These are your contenders.
So, fine, give it to Detroit. Give it to Miami. Let them fritter it all away and inspire another lockout.
Just don’t let them anywhere near the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls or Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. No hard fouls, no injuries to the actual contenders and, for perhaps the last time — no more sub-.500 teams in the playoffs.
Ben Rohrbach: Heat and Celtics. All of this comes with the caveat that not one, but two Eastern teams could lay claim to the worst playoff seed in NBA history this April, which is remarkably sad.
It’s quite a clusterfunk.
Despite Dwyane Wade’s knees, the Heat should have enough with whatever they get from their 10-time All-Star the rest of the way, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Mario Chalmers and Mr. Brightside Hassan Whiteside to secure the seventh seed. They’re in, and any point guard help at the deadline might even make them an upset special.
Kemba Walker’s surgery is a massive blow in a series of punches the Hornets have absorbed this season. While they started 6-1 without their point guard, they’ve lost three straight, including a 28-point loss to the Pistons, and they face the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Bulls coming out of the All-Star break before visiting Boston for the final game of the month. They could own the East’s fourth-worst record by March 1. Same goes for the Pistons, who lost Brandon Jennings for the season, and face the Bulls, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers in five nights starting Friday.
Despite getting significant minutes from erstwhile All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, as well as Team USA’s Mason Plumlee, the Nets have been awful since the calendar year turned (6-15). We don’t know what it takes to crush KG’s will, but Brooklyn is doing its best to drive a stake through his championship heart.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have two fewer losses than the Pacers and a significantly lighter schedule going forward (17 games against sub-.500 teams, including nine head-to-head against this group jockeying for the East’s final two playoff seeds). As long as Danny Ainge doesn’t gut his roster even further, Brad Stevens’ surprising C’s should be able to hold off Indy, even if a less-than-full-strength Paul George returns in mid-March.
Eric Freeman: Heat and Pistons. What does it even mean to make the playoffs as one of the East’s final two seeds? If the West is known for the relative parity of its top seven squads, then its counterpart has been defined as the conference that figures to boast just one especially competitive first-round series. A team vying for the seventh or eighth seed might be better off resting veterans and hoping for some lottery luck. What’s the use in winning one or two games, at best, against the cream of the conference?
There’s no way to prove that the Hawks are having a great season because they took the Pacers to seven games after earning a playoff berth the franchise didn’t seem particularly excited to get. Yet it’s unlikely that the experience hurt the Hawks, who can now look back on that positive series when they enter the postseason this year. A team like the Pistons (now 11th), not yet considered a veteran group, feels like the closest analogue to last year’s Hawks. They could squeeze into the playoffs without looking overly impressive and use it to their benefit in 2015-16.
The Heat have been a major disappointment, but they may hold onto a playoff spot just because contention is so central to the franchise’s identity. A team that was supposed to have weathered the loss of LeBron James about as well as possible now looks severely diminished, with the return to clear stardom of Chris Bosh and emergence of Hassan Whiteside serving as real but insufficient positives. Perhaps it would be better to end up in the lottery and nab a potential successor to Dwyane Wade as Miami's leading backcourt scorer.
However, consistent contention in the absence of serious injury is essentially built into the Heat’s DNA at this point. It’s hard to imagine Bosh, Wade, and anyone who plays alongside them going down without a fight. The Heat are a winning franchise and will act like one until they’re no longer able.
Despite the cliché, simply wanting it more than other teams isn’t enough to accomplish every goal. In the case of the East’s default playoff teams, though, it might be enough.
Dan Devine: Heat and Pacers. Miami looks to have the friendliest run home of the teams vying for those last two spots. Erik Spoelstra's club will spend much of the final two months at AmericanAirlines Arena — 17 home games, just 13 road contests — with four of their seven meetings with the other teams in contention for the last two spots will come at home, and their road slate including visits to the playing-out-the-string New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers.
PlayoffStatus.com pegs the Heat as having the second-easiest remaining schedule among those scrapping for a spot, behind only the Celtics. ESPN Insider's RPI metric, which factors in stuff like home/road splits, rest and total distance traveled, gives them the league's softest upcoming slate.
Beyond that, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and first-half sensation Hassan Whiteside have barely played together. Miami has outscored opponents by 29 points in their 80 shared minutes, a strong number, and while small-sample-size caveats abound, it stands to reason that if Miami can get them on the floor together more frequently — which seems more likely now that Wade's allegedly fully healthy after resting through the All-Star Game — the Heat should stay in playoff position.
Indy might not the most thrilling watch, but they feel like a team capable of squeaking across the finish line just ahead of the pack.
Frank Vogel and Roy Hibbert have coaxed a just-outside-the-top-10 defense out of this undermanned crew despite getting just 358 minutes out of George Hill and zero out of Paul George. Hill's back now, which is big; the Pacers are 9-6 when he's in the lineup and 6-2 when he starts. Indiana's outscoring opponents by a whopping 9.7 points per 100 possessions with Hill on the floor, scoring and defending like a top-five squad.
There's likely some small-sample noise in there, especially on offense, where Indy's only been better-than-average once in Vogel's tenure. But the lack of answers elsewhere has forced Hill to look for his own offense more often, which has worked out; he's scoring a career-high 14.1 points in just 23.9 minutes per game (far above his prior per-minute output) on career-best shooting (46.6 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point land) and assist (dropping dimes on 29.4 percent of teammates' buckets) numbers.
Indiana's stands a good chance of improving on both ends with Hill consistently available over the next two months, even if Larry Bird and company can't swing something big by Thursday's trade deadline (read: David West doesn't go out, Goran Dragic doesn't come in). Plus, the Pacers get 16 of their final 28 at home, and could still re-introduce George come mid-March; even in what you'd expect would be a limited capacity, that could bolster a push for No. 8 and a potential role-reversal rematch of last year's series against the Hawks.
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