Blueprints for NBA Playoff Bubble Teams to Make the Cut

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJanuary 30, 2013

Blueprints for NBA Playoff Bubble Teams to Make the Cut

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    NBA playoff bubble teams continue to fight for a chance to compete in the playoffs. They will, however, need a solid blueprint moving forward if they’re going to succeed at achieving that goal.

    As the 2012-13 NBA season approaches the All-Star break, fans have a good idea which teams are bound for the playoffs or the NBA draft lottery. While many teams fall into one of these two categories, a few teams are on the fence of the playoff picture.

    The Western Conference is vastly more competitive than the Eastern Conference in terms of teams that can make the playoffs. Even so, the playoff picture may see a great deal of variation moving forward.

    If playoff bubble teams abide by the following blueprints, they’ll have a good chance of making the postseason.

    Note: All statistics/records in this article are accurate as of Jan. 29, 2013.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers have been fighting an uphill battle this season, posting an 18-26 record (including a 3-7 mark in their past 10 games). They’re currently three games out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

    A major reason for the team’s struggles can be attributed to the four-team Dwight Howard trade. Since Andrew Bynum has missed the season thus far with injury, the Sixers essentially netted a washed-up Jason Richardson in exchange for Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and a first-round pick.

    The season-ending injury to Rajon Rondo has opened a window for the Sixers to make a run at the playoffs, but without Bynum, Jrue Holiday simply has to do too much on both offense and defense.

    Holiday has been phenomenal, posting career highs in points (19.4 per game), assists (nine per game), rebounds (4.2 per game) and field-goal percentage (46.2 percent), but even his breakout year hasn’t led to a winning record.

    Fortunately for Sixers fans, Bynum is reportedly eyeing a return to the court “right after” the All-Star break, according to Jason Wolf of USA Today.

    Bynum, if healthy, will provide a gigantic boost for a team in desperate need of a low-post scorer. The Sixers have averaged just 22.9 shots attempts per game at the rim during the 2012-13 campaign, which ranks them 25th in the league, according to HoopData.

    As an interior threat and one of the best centers in the NBA, Bynum will help the league’s 25th-ranked offense get some easy buckets inside.

    If Bynum does return after the All-Star break, the Sixers will be a superior team. Nevertheless, head coach Doug Collins will need this team to jell almost immediately if the Sixers are going to make a playoff push.

Boston Celtics

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    The remainder of the year in Boston could play out in one of two ways following Rajon Rondo’s season-ending ACL tear.

    Option one is that the Celtics decide to stand pat and compete with the talent they still have available.

    The second option is dismantling the roster and commencing a rebuilding process of sorts as Rondo heads off on his road to recovery.

    In either scenario, the future for the Celtics doesn’t seem too bright.

    If Boston intends to make the playoffs in 2013, the blueprint would be to stand pat with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, play with pride and hope to grab a low playoff seed. Considering that the Celtics weren’t great or even good with Rondo this season, that plan already seems like a lost cause.

    It’s never easy to count out veteran teams with playoff experience. However, as Bill Simmons says in the video, “They’re certainly not a contender.”

    No team in the East wants to end up with the eighth seed and have to face the Miami Heat in the first round. Should the Celts remain where they are in the standings, however, that’s exactly where they’ll be.

Utah Jazz

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    Throughout the season, the Utah Jazz have been duking it out with Portland and Houston at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. As seeding currently stands, the Jazz are 24-21 and the seventh seed in the West.

    While they’ve been solid in a lot of aspects, a recent 45-point home loss to the Rockets (the worst loss at home in franchise history) is not a good sign.

    The goal in Utah appears to be building on last year and making the playoffs. The Jazz need to continue to lean on their great frontcourt and interior skills via Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap (the team’s top-two scorers and rebounders) to make that a reality.

    Utah shares the ball (seventh in the league in assists per game) and rebounds extremely well. However, the Jazz need to buckle down and play better team defense the rest of the way, as Houston exploited them in a big way.

    Although Millsap and Jefferson are the keys to Utah’s playoff hopes, the franchise has a decision to make regarding those two big men moving forward. Both Jefferson and Millsap are set to become free agents at season’s end.

    The Jazz can either play out the season with those two big men in place, or they can decide to trade one of them for valuable pieces for the future.

    With the frontcourt depth that they have in place (think Derrick Favors), perhaps they can manage to trade away Millsap or Jefferson and still remain a playoff-caliber team.

Houston Rockets

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    It may be hard to believe considering the Houston Rockets are just the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but James Harden and company are the NBA’s second-best scoring team in terms of points per game (104.9).

    They proved just how offensively potent they can be in a 45-point road win at Utah, which is known as one of the toughest places to play on the road.

    In fact, the Rockets have six different players averaging double-digit points per game. Offensively, Houston has created a very balanced attack.

    Kevin McHale has done an amazing job this season molding a young Rockets roster into a potential playoff team. If this team hopes to hold on and make the postseason, however, the young roster (led by the young backcourt) will have to continue to shine and perhaps play even better.

    Jeremy Lin experienced a rough start to the 2012-13 season, posting just 10.2 points per game in November. Although he’s turned his fortunes around a bit, his scoring average and shooting percentages are down across the board compared to last season with the New York Knicks.

    Additionally, Lin is still turning the ball over more than three times per game, although he is contributing two steals per game.

    Meanwhile, Harden, who has blossomed into a superstar in Houston, could also stand to improve his shooting efficiency.

    The former Sixth Man of the Year award winner is pouring in 26 points per game, fifth-best in the NBA. But despite the lofty numbers, during a seven-game losing streak in January, Harden had off-shooting nights of 21.7 percent against Dallas, 26.3 percent against Indiana and 27.8 percent against Minnesota. He followed that up by shooting 5-of-20 in a win against the Charlotte Bobcats.

    It’s silly to blame Harden for anything because he’s the reason the Rockets have been a surprise team this year. However, if the Rockets are going to hold off other playoff bubble teams, he has to show up big on a nightly basis.

    It's clear that the Rockets' success depends heavily on Harden and Lin.

Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks fought to keep their heads above water until Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury. The Mavs did manage to hover at or above .500, but by the time Nowitzki returned, Dallas was 12-15. As Dirk was slowly conditioned back into the rotation, the Mavericks lost four consecutive games, falling to 12-19.

    After continued ups and downs, the Mavs stand at 19-25, but they have an outside chance to make the playoffs.

    For that to happen, not only will Nowitzki have to return to MVP-caliber form to lead this team to winning streaks, but Dallas will also have to depend upon the struggles of other bubble teams.

    If Nowitzki and O.J. Mayo continue to find chemistry while the Mavs as a whole stop giving up 103 points per game (29th in the league), they’ll put themselves in the hunt.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers could have been misconstrued as a rebuilding team considering that they had two first-round picks in the top 11 of the 2012 NBA Draft. Additionally, two veteran guards, Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, left for different teams via free agency and have played well in their new threads.

    Despite those factors, the Trail Blazers have managed to hold their own this year due to Rookie of the Year award front-runner Damian Lillard.

    Lillard has played so well for Portland as a rookie that he’s seemingly overshadowed longtime Trail Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge, who made the 2013 All-Star team for the Western Conference.

    Portland has the talent to compete, but it is relying on a lot of young players to shoulder the load. It will be interesting to see if Lillard continues getting better or if he’ll run out of gas toward the end of the 82-game schedule.

    The Trail Blazers have a very solid starting five highlighted by the tandem of Aldridge and Lillard (not to mention the breakout year from J.J. Hickson), but their bench has been a disappointment.

    According to Hoops Stats, the Portland bench is averaging a lowly 16.5 points per game. The next-worst second unit in the NBA is Indiana's, but it averages 25.8 points per game off the bench—nearly 10 points more per game than Portland.

    The low point total off the bench is disappointing to be sure, but the Trail Blazers bench averages the least minutes per game in the league.

    Head coach Terry Stotts needs to find a unit he can trust off the bench. If he doesn’t, and the starters continue to log huge minutes, there’s no doubt that the team will run out of steam.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Defense, defense and more defense.

    Considering that the Los Angeles Lakers have frequently been spotted playing transition defense like this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that playing D needs to be a huge priority.

    The Lakers offense has certainly been spotty at times with Dwight Howard complaining about the amount of touches he gets, Steve Nash not fitting in seamlessly and Pau Gasol being shunned to the bench.

    However, the Lakers’ sixth-ranked offensive numbers are healthy compared to ranking 26th in opponent points allowed.

    The Lakers still have a lot to correct on the defensive end of the floor, which won’t be an easy task with Mike D’Antoni at the helm. Despite that fact, a noteworthy change has the Lakers playing their best basketball in what has otherwise been an abysmal season.

    During the Lakers’ current three-game win streak, Kobe Bryant has notched double-digit assists in all three contests. The only other time Bryant recorded double-digit assists this season was Nov. 18 against the Houston Rockets in, you guessed it, another Lakers win.

    It’s gotten to the point where I feel as if I’m banging my head against a wall, but I’ve been saying for years that the Lakers are a better team when Bryant is distributing the ball and getting his teammates involved.

    Not surprisingly, the numbers back this up. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Lakers are 14-3 when Bryant attempts 19 shots or fewer and 6-22 when he takes 20 shots or more (stat updated to reflect Tuesday's win).

    With the new distributing Kobe coming to the forefront, fans jokingly refer to him as “Magic Bryant” or “Kobe Johnson.” Meanwhile, I just can’t help but wonder what Bryant’s career stats would look like if he made a conscious effort to pass like this throughout his career.

    Bryant’s newfound ability to dish out assists has made the Lakers offense that much more dangerous. If they can manage to become even a mediocre defensive team, they’ll have no trouble making the playoffs.

    In fact, they may manage to make some noise if they get to the postseason.