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.
First up: Which team will take the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference?
Kelly Dwyer: The Phoenix Suns' recent declaration that they would be playing hardball in any potential trade negotiations featuring Goran Dragic means that we can just about gauge the Suns in full. There is a possibility that the team could make a move to strengthen its frontcourt — Alex Len’s dodgy wheels always worry — but by and large, these are your Suns. And they may not have enough.
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A brutal schedule featuring two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder and four combined contests against the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers could easily knock Phoenix out of the playoff bracket. A healthy Thunder team still features a killer triptych of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and should have enough to make up for their half-game deficit behind Phoenix out West.
Ben Rohrbach: Now that the Thunder have battled within a half-game of No. 8 after a 3-12 start to the season, it’s hard to imagine an Oklahoma City squad with a healthy Durant and Westbrook missing the playoffs, especially since they face an easier road than both the Suns and Pelicans.
OKC plays three more home games and three more games against teams below .500 than Phoenix over the final two months. Despite remaining relatively healthy this season, the Suns have one win over a team in the West playoff race since Christmas — a five-point victory against the LaMarcus Aldridge-less Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 21 — and they play exactly half of their final 28 games against the 10 teams currently in contention for Western playoff berths, compared to 12 of 29 for the Thunder and 10 of 29 for the Pelicans.
In reality, New Orleans should make things more difficult on Oklahoma City than Phoenix, especially since the Pelicans won three of their four head-to-head meetings with the Thunder. Monty Williams’ charges play 14 of their final 29 games against teams below .500, including five of their first six coming out of the All-Star break, and they own the best record of these three contending teams against opponents with winning records (14-16).
Still, the Pelicans play the majority (15) of their remaining games on the road, where they’re 10-16 on the season, and doubts surrounding the health of Anthony Davis (shoulder), Jrue Holiday (leg) and Ryan Anderson (elbow) make any schedule more difficult. Even if all three return to form down the stretch, it’s hard to imagine a team with zero playoff experience fending off an OKC squad that has a combined 73 postseason games under its collective belt over the past five seasons, especially as the importance of each game becomes magnified in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the Thunder are 17-9 with both Durant and Westbrook in the starting lineup, including a 2-0 record against the Suns and blowout victories over the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies during their current three-game win streak. OKC’s net rating of plus-8.5 with both All-Stars in the lineup ranks between that of the Golden State Warriors (plus-12.3) and Atlanta Hawks (plus-7.1), per NBA.com/stats. With those two each playing 30-plus minutes a night, the Thunder should establish themselves as quite possibly the most dangerous eighth seed in league history.
Eric Freeman: It is very difficult to pick against the Thunder for this spot when they are only a half-game away from the Suns with just fewer than 30 left to play. The Thunder didn’t exactly use the prolonged absences of Durant and Westbrook to their advantage — it’s hard to say that any players have stepped into substantially bigger roles. Yet the simple likelihood that two superstars will play a greater percentage of the rest of the season than they already have should be enough to lift OKC into the playoffs. This analysis is admittedly basic, but sometimes having better players than your competitors is enough. Congratulations on your good fortune, Scott Brooks and friends.
At the same time, the Thunder’s pursuit of the eighth (or better) spot does not necessarily read as the most dramatic or fascinating storyline of this West race. We have seen Pelicans monster Anthony Davis take great strides this season from mere stardom to arguably one of the best statistical seasons in the history of the NBA. Unfortunately, Davis’s teammates have not always matched his example with quality supporting performances. The Pelicans have often looked entirely dependent on Davis to rescue them from their worst mistakes, and he’s been up to the task often enough to suggest that it’s within his considerable abilities. Attempting to make the playoffs without another star alongside him will be the Brow’s biggest test yet.
If Davis can bring New Orleans to the playoffs for the first time since the departure of Chris Paul, the feat will also do a great deal for his status around the league. While Davis already has the stats to rank among the best players in the sport (by every conceivable metric), he has yet to happen upon a signature moment or accomplishment. He is a great player without a narrative, a star who means much more to basketball diehards than the sports world at large. He deserves more attention, whatever it takes to get him there.
Dan Devine: I'd really like the answer to be Phoenix. They came so close last year and have gotten the short end of the stick so often this year; it'd be cool to see the pendulum swing the other way. Plus, they score like gangbusters, they push the pace and it'd be neat to watch Jeff Hornacek juggle his fun oddball pieces in hopes of overwhelming Goliath.
But it's Oklahoma City's spot to lose.
The Thunder have looked alternately monstrous and messy since getting Durant back in early December, but have, on balance, been much closer to their customary excellence. They're just shy of joining the Warriors and Hawks as the only teams to rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball since KD's return. They've been dominant when Durant and Westbrook have shared the floor with Ibaka, outscoring opponents by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions.
That trio plus Steven Adams and Andre Roberson has been one of the league's most effective five-man units, trailing only the starting lineups of the Warriors and Kings (no, really) and two Clippers alignments (one featuring J.J. Redick, one with Jamal Crawford) in net rating among groups that have logged at least 200 minutes.
Adams' health is a concern, as he'll miss a couple more weeks after surgery to repair a broken bone in his right hand. So's the prospect of opponents ignoring Roberson, a 22.9 percent career 3-point shooter, to key on more dangerous targets. There's other stuff to figure out, too — whether and when to ship out Reggie Jackson; how to get more out of Dion Waiters; whether to import another big or if now-healthy rookie Mitch McGary is help enough, etc.
It won't be a walk. Their poor record in close games aside, the Suns are good, and have plenty of chips — young players on rookie deals (Len, Archie Goodwin, Miles Plumlee, Tyler Ennis, T.J. Warren), vets with movable contracts (hey there, Gerald Green), all their own future draft picks and an incoming protected first-rounder from the Lakers — with which to pursue reinforcements before Thursday's trade deadline. Davis, who regularly makes the ridiculous seem routine, could well carry the Pelicans past both OKC and Phoenix, given some help from Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and the hopefully-healthy-soon Holiday and Anderson.
But it's hard to overlook how permissive both Phoenix (17th in defensive efficiency) and New Orleans (25th) have been, and just how much the Pelicans fall apart whenever Davis hits the bench. With Durant's foot reportedly feeling better, the KD-Russ-Ibaka core back together, Adams likely back soon and plenty of home cooking coming up, OKC seems the smart pick.
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