Garbage Time in the NBA is upon us!
Actually, I'm not sure why anyone would be excited about that—aside from scrubs and journeymen, of course.
The final weeks of the regular season are usually rife with superstar DNPs and terrible teams attempting to tank behind only the thinnest of veils. Those at the top, like the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, have all but secured prime real estate for the playoffs, while those at the bottom, like the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Charlotte Bobcats, have little (if anything) to gain from winning games at this point.
All of which is bound to skew our season-long grades from here on out. Of course, there are still plenty of intriguing races for playoff positioning to keep the bulk of the league engaged and motivated to keep the Association's regular-season product up to par.
And, for all you folks at home, this week's report card grades should keep you busy for at least the next few minutes.
Record: 17-57 (.230)
Offensive Efficiency: 98.2 (28th)
Defensive Efficiency: 109.6 (30th)
The Charlotte Bobcats appear to have regained their signature losing touch. They've lost three in a row in the wake of their scorching hot 4-4 stretch.
The 'Cats managed to hang with the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers, but they couldn't quite keep it together long enough to challenge the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, Charlotte lost its 15th game in 16 tries at the Bradley Center while allowing the wayward Milwaukee offense to put up 131 points—its highest single-game output in four years!
Record: 19-56 (.253)
Offensive Efficiency: 99.4 (27th)
Defensive Efficiency: 106.9 (26th)
The Orlando Magic needed a miracle to overcome John Wall's 35-point explosion during their 97-92 win over the Washington Wizards.
And by "miracle," I mean a combined 48 points from Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless. Orlando's two young forwards have been ballin' of late, even if the team hasn't been on the whole. Harris has hit double digits in each of his last seven games—including a career-best 30-point effort against the Wiz—with averages of 18.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.7 blocks in that span.
As for Harkless, he's scored in double figures in each of his last four games and 10 of his last 11. Most recently, Harkless posted a career-high 28 points in what turned out to be a competitive loss to the Houston Rockets.
Those two may not have a long-term future together in Orlando, but general manager Rob Hennigan has to like what he's seen from them, nonetheless.
Record: 22-51 (.301)
Offensive Efficiency: 101.1 (21st)
Defensive Efficiency: 107.1 (27th)
Kyrie Irving was back for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then he was gone. And the results each time were about the same.
Irving exploded for 31 points and six assists in 29 minutes during his first game back from a shoulder injury. The result? A 112-92 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.
Kyrie was back on the bench the next day, watching as the Atlanta Hawks outlasted his Cavs, 102-94.
How is it that the Kyrie-less Cavs posted a more competitive outcome against a superior squad? Only Cleveland knows the reason...or, maybe, Cleveland is the reason.
Whatever that means.
Record: 23-51 (.311)
Offensive Efficiency: 97.8 (30th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.3 (22nd)
Slowly but surely, the Phoenix Suns are adjusting to this "tanking" business. They held Goran Dragic out of a couple games to let him rest and have been particularly cautious in their treatment of Marcin Gortat's sprained foot.
As well they should be. The Suns aren't exactly playing for anything more than NBA draft lottery odds at the moment. Those odds have improved significantly since early March, during which time Phoenix has dropped 12 of 14 games.
Record: 25-50 (.333)
Offensive Efficiency: 100.3 (23rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.9 (24th)
Somehow, someway, the Detroit Pistons managed to put the devastation of Andre Drummond's air-balled free throws against the Chicago Bulls behind them and pull out a win over the Toronto Raptors by way of a 33-19 fourth quarter.
Jose Calderon described the win as "one of the better moments in my career, for sure," which goes to show you:
A) How uneventful his career has been so far, and
B) How strong his disdain for his long-time former club may or may not be.
But when you're the Pistons, I s'pose you'd best take your victories—real, moral or otherwise—wherever you can find them.
Record: 26-48 (.351)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.1 (14th)
Defensive Efficiency: 107.4 (28th)
After a week of out-of-their-league wins over the Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets, the New Orleans Hornets were bound to come crashing down to Earth.
And so they did, predictably enough, during consecutive blowout losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat.
But it was fun while it lasted, wasn't it? In any case, the soon-to-be-Pelicans did well to bounce back with a 20-point win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to overshadow Kyrie Irving in his spectacular return from a shoulder injury.
Just don't expect many more W's for the Hornets from here. They finish up the 2012-13 season with six of eight games on the road, where they've thus far gone 10-25.
Record: 27-47 (.365)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.1 (15th)
Defensive Efficiency: 108.4 (29th)
The Sacramento Kings couldn't quite overcome the Los Angeles Lakers on the night Kobe Bryant passed Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list, even though Steve Nash played all of two minutes before leaving with a hamstring injury.
But even a five-point loss to their turn-of-the-century rivals can't sully how much better the Kings had been playing. Had Sacramento beaten L.A., the team would've laid claim to its first winning month since November of 2010.
Instead, the Kings wound up with a 7-8 record in March—a subpar mark on the whole, but one for which hope just might spring eternal.
Record: 27-47 (.365)
Offensive Efficiency: 102.9 (16th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.4 (23rd)
Silver linings are all a team like the Toronto Raptors can hope for in the midst of yet another cloudy season.
The latest entrant: the uptick in play from Jonas Valanciunas. The lanky Lithuanian has averaged 15 points (on 68.8 percent shooting), 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks over his last nine games, during each of which he's exceeded single digits as a scorer.
It certainly helps the rookie's case that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has decided to ease up a bit on the reins. Valanciunas is finally playing upwards of 30 minutes a night and has done plenty with those minutes to earn the trust of his teammates and coaches going forward.
Record: 27-46 (.370)
Offensive Efficiency: 100.0 (25th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.0 (15th)
The Minnesota Timberwolves refuse to go gently into that not-so-good night of the stretch run. They've won four of their last seven games, including wholly surprising (if not downright shocking) victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Boston Celtics in two of their three most recent contests.
Nikola Pekovic, for one, can smell the end of the campaign coming. Over his last seven games, Pek has put up 18.9 points and 9.9 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field.
As well he should. He'll be a restricted free agent come July—and figures to cash in quite handsomely.
Record: 28-46 (.378)
Offensive Efficiency: 97.8 (29th)
Defensive Efficiency: 100.1 (7th)
Finishing as the No. 9 team in the Eastern Conference isn't exactly an accomplishment worthy of epic poetry, though for the Washington Wizards, it'd be yet another sign that they're moving in the right direction.
The Wizards have narrowed the gap between themselves and the ninth-place Philadelphia 76ers to fewer than three games by way of drastically improved play with John Wall back in the lineup. They'll play six of their final eight games against playoff-bound opponents, though that could work in Washington's favor, given the propensity for such teams to sit their stars late in the season.
In any case, the Wizards are well positioned to use these last two weeks to build up more momentum for a return to the postseason in 2014.
Record: 30-43 (.411)
Offensive Efficiency: 99.5 (26th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.9 (14th)
Just don't expect the Philadelphia 76ers to relinquish that ninth spot quietly or easily. They've ripped off three wins in a row and own a record of 7-4 in games dating back to March 11.
Of course, those last three wins—over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Cavs and the 'Cats—aren't exactly resume-makers. But for the Sixers, who've struggled through a lost season in the wake of Andrew Bynum's absence, a win's a win.
And a three-game streak is even better, irrespective of the quality of the opposition.
Record: 33-41 (.446)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.6 (12th)
Defensive Efficiency: 106.4 (25th)
The Portland Trail Blazers appear to be easing their way into "tank" mode. They've allowed LaMarcus Aldridge ample time to rest his injured ankle while redistributing his minutes among the rookie trio of Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver.
Not surprisingly, Aldridge's absence has resulted in an extension of the Blazers' losing streak to five straight games—all against playoff-bound opponents.
It would hardly be a shock if that slide continued all the way through the end of the season. Rip City will finish up 2012-13 with eight games against teams currently battling for playoff positioning of some sort in the Western Conference.
Record: 36-38 (.486)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.4 (13th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.2 (20th)
One loss does not a season decide, though the Dallas Mavericks' 20-point defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers may well spell doom for their faint playoff hopes. The result dropped Dallas 2.5 games behind the Utah Jazz and the Lakers in the race for the West's eighth and final playoff spot.
The Mavs' stretch run might be a tricky one to navigate. On the one hand, they'll play five games against lottery-bound teams, including two dates against the Hornets in their final three. On the other hand, New Orleans and Sacramento have been playing solid ball of late, and tilts against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets (twice) will do plenty to test the Mavericks' postseason mettle.
My best guess? Big D misses the playoffs for the first time since 2000, despite Dirk Nowitzki's best efforts.
Record: 36-37 (.493)
Offensive Efficiency: 101.3 (20th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.5 (12th)
The Milwaukee Bucks will have some big decisions to make this summer regarding their future as a franchise. Much of the focus figures to be fixed upon what to do about Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the backcourt.
Regardless of what the front office decides to do on the perimeter, it seems that Larry Sanders' place in the paint is relatively safe. Sanders has looked more like a competent threat on both ends of the floor of late. Over his last five games, the big fella out of VCU has contributed 17.4 points per game on 59.7 percent shooting to go along with his usual haul of rebounds (11.4) and blocks (1.0).
Still, at the age of 24, Sanders has a ways to go before he's fully matured as a player. For one, he'd do well to get his head in order during the offseason, for his own sake as well as that of his team. Sanders on-court exuberance has made him one of the seven most foul-prone players in the NBA and has "helped" him to carve out a spot all his own with his 14 technical fouls and five ejections.
Which is to say, the kid's got some serious talent, but he needs to learn how to stay on the floor if he's ever going to maximize it.
Record: 38-36 (.514)
Offensive Efficiency: 100.7 (22nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 100.1 (6th)
There's only so much a team can do when its "Big Three" is as banged up as that of the Boston Celtics. Kevin Garnett's been out nearly two weeks with a bum ankle, Paul Pierce has been battling through plenty of wear and tear of his own and Rajon Rondo been out on account of a torn ACL since late January.
And Ray Allen plays for the Miami Heat, so there's that.
The injuries have occasioned more prominent roles for Jeff Green, Jason Terry and Brandon Bass (among others), which, as one might expect, has been anything but a boon to the Celtics' once-stout defense. Boston has surrendered at least 100 points in each of its last three games and six of its last seven dating back to March 22.
Luckily, the C's have all but secured a spot in the postseason, though any further slippage could mean the difference between a first-round series against the Indiana Pacers and one opposite the Miami Heat.
Which is a massive difference, indeed.
Record: 39-36 (.520)
Offensive Efficiency: 105.5 (8th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.6 (17th)
The Los Angeles Lakers needed a big win in the worst way against the Dallas Mavericks. They'd lost four of their previous six games to fall back behind the Utah Jazz in the race for the eighth seed in the West. What's more, emergent injuries to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace seemed to all but doom L.A.'s dimming playoff hopes.
Then, with the latter of those two sidelined, the Lakers came out and played one of their best games of the year in a 101-81 win over the Mavs. Kobe tallied a triple-double while ostensibly playing the point, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard posted big double-doubles up front, and Earl Clark chipped in one of his own off the bench to spearhead the effort.
It was one of the few times all season that the Lakers played with postseason intensity and managed to stave off a big rally from a decent opponent. They'll need to play like this (if not better) from here on out if they're to survive a schedule that features five games against Western Conference playoff teams and sneak past the Jazz into the No. 8 spot.
Record: 39-36 (.520)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.9 (11th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.5 (21st)
Apparently, the Utah Jazz aren't all that concerned about Enes Kanter's dislocated left shoulder—in the immediate term, anyway. They've ripped off four wins since then, including the 103-88 decision over the Suns during which Kanter's shoulder popped loose.
The Jazz have won five in a row overall, on the heels of a four-game skid, to move themselves back into a position from which they can control their own playoff destiny. So long as Derrick Favors continues to step up his game in Kanter's absence (14.7 points, 8.7 rebounds in his last three games), Utah may well do just that.
Before they prepare for another first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Record: 40-33 (.548)
Offensive Efficiency: 100.1 (24th)
Defensive Efficiency: 100.0 (5th)
It only figures that the exhausted Chicago Bulls would follow up their landmark win over the streaking Miami Heat by nearly losing three games in a row to the Mavs, the Pistons and the Wizards.
As it stands, the fact that the Bulls had to fend off Detroit in the fourth quarter to avoid such a skid doesn't speak well of the team's likely fate come playoff time. Neither does the latest injury to Taj Gibson's left knee, which Gibson blamed on trying to "rush back and ... help your team win."
Which, I'd imagine, is the sort of effort that some folks in the Windy City would've liked to have seen from Derrick Rose this season.
Record: 41-33 (.554)
Offensive Efficiency: 106.9 (7th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.7 (18th)
The Houston Rockets may, indeed, have a problem if James Harden's foot injury proves more problematic than the team's recent caution would suggest. Harden has missed the Rockets' last two games, though they've managed to pull out victories on both occasions.
Houston needs The Beard healthy for what figures to be a first-round battle against his old Oklahoma City Thunder 'mates. But the Rockets can't exactly rest on the laurels, either. They're just 2.5 games up on the Jazz and the Lakers at present, with five road games left on the docket.
Should the Rockets sputter without Harden, their season-ending matchup against the Lakers in L.A. could shape up as a crucial one for the postseason fates of both participants.
Record: 42-33 (.560)
Offensive Efficiency: 102.7 (17th)
Defensive Efficiency: 101.5 (10th)
It's pretty amazing how little Joe Johnson's departure has meant to the Atlanta Hawks. Last season, they finished as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, albeit on a technicality that awarded the fourth spot to the Celtics for winning the Atlantic Division.
At present, the Hawks find themselves right back in fifth place, just a game back of another Atlantic Division team, the Brooklyn Nets, for the final home-court seed.
Which leaves me to wonder which other teams might benefit from sloughing off aging All-Stars for scraps.
(I may or may not be looking at you, Lakers.)
Record: 42-32 (.568)
Offensive Efficiency: 104.0 (10th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.5 (13th)
The Golden State Warriors have a "decision" to make as to whom they'd "prefer" to face in the first round of the playoffs. Depending on how the chips may fall, the Warriors could be pitted against any one of the top five teams in the Western Conference, though that has less to do with their own room for movement and more with that of the squads above them.
Here's how Golden State has fared against each so far this season:
|Record||Average Margin||Biggest Margin|
Apparently, then, the Dubs would be best suited to a matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, though a series against Blake Griffin and Chris Paul would be filled with no shortage of its own pitfalls.
And with the way the Clips have been playing of late (more on that later), there's an all-too-strong chance that they won't be Golden State's first playoff opponent since the days of the "We Believe" Warriors.
Record: 42-31 (.575)
Offensive Efficiency: 104.5 (9th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.9 (19th)
Let's play a round of "Good News, Bad News" with the Brooklyn Nets, shall we?
Good news: They're on track for a top-four seed in the East, just a year after finishing in the depths of lottery territory.
Bad news: Their lead on the Hawks in the race for that No. 4 seed has shrunk to one game.
Good news: Brooklyn's remaining schedule is rather favorable from here on out. The Nets play six of their final nine games against tank-happy teams.
Bad news: Joe Johnson's already missed the Nets' last four games with a heel injury and may well sit out more before the season is through.
But, good news: The Nets are headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Record: 48-27 (.640)
Offensive Efficiency: 102.0 (18th)
Defensive Efficiency: 95.7 (1st)
The Indiana Pacers appear to be hitting their stride once again—at the perfect time, no less. They've won five games in a row and eight of their last nine, including a rare four-game sweep of a Western Conference road swing that included impressive performances against the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Better yet, Roy Hibbert is starting to play like a guy who just got paid upwards of $58 million over four years...which he did this past summer. He's hit double digits in each of his last seven games, during which time he's averaged 19.4 rebounds, 10.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while hitting 54 percent of his shots from the field.
Indy may still be a full two or three steps behind the Miami Heat come playoff time, but at least the Pacers look like they might be able to give the defending champs another run for their money.
Record: 47-26 (.644)
Offensive Efficiency: 108.2 (3rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.1 (16th)
Indy might've just about wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference by now if not for the New York Knicks.
The Knicks have ripped off nine wins in a row, thanks in no small part to the scoring exploits of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. Anthony's career-high-tying 50-point explosion against the Miami Heat was particularly impressive, even though LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were both out of commission at the time.
More importantly, Tyson Chandler is back in the mix for the Knicks. His presence as a rebounder, defender and pick-and-roll finisher will be crucial to New York's cause if the Knicks are to make a legitimate push into the NBA's Final Four.
Record: 49-26 (.653)
Offensive Efficiency: 107.0 (6th)
Defensive Efficiency: 101.0 (9th)
The range of reasons for the Los Angeles Clippers' recent "collapse" is about as wide as the chasm that would appear to stand between themselves and a spot in the Western Conference Finals.
There's Chauncey Billups' groin, Blake Griffin's calf and Matt Barnes' ankle. There's Eric Bledsoe's return to planet Earth since an injury of his own. There's Chris Paul's tiring after carrying this team on his back for weeks (if not months) on end.
And, of course, there's the usual scapegoatery of Vinny Del Negro.
Whatever the proximate and ultimate causes may be, the fact remains that the Clips have dropped four of their last five. As a result, they're on the verge of relinquishing home-court advantage late in the season for the second year in a row.
Record: 50-24 (.676)
Offensive Efficiency: 101.7 (19th)
Defensive Efficiency: 98.2 (2nd)
Shhhh! Nobody tell the Memphis Grizzlies that they needed a last-second layup to beat a San Antonio Spurs squad that was without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard!
Okay, so maybe they already knew, but still, the Grizz had to be pleased to see Mike Conley hit that contested shot to upend San Antonio. In the absence of Rudy Gay, Conley remains Memphis' best perimeter player by a hefty margin and has stepped up his game to better match that position. His scoring, assist and shooting numbers have all improved since Gay was shipped to Canada.
To be sure, the Grizzlies' universe still revolves around Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. But if this team is going to make a serious run at the Western Conference crown, it'll need Conley to come through as a creator and shot-maker, particularly in the clutch.
Record: 50-24 (.676)
Offensive Efficiency: 107.4 (4th)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.1 (11th)
The Denver Nuggets did well to recover from their back-to-back losses in the wake of their 15-game winning streak with a 22-point blowout of the Brooklyn Nets.
But hanging over that victory was the absence of Ty Lawson. The speedy point guard figures to be out a while with a torn plantar fascia in his foot, which means Andre Miller will be getting the nod for now.
Nothing against Miller, but the 37-year-old veteran doesn't exactly give the Nuggets the best chance to run their opponents out of the building. As such, Lawson's presence on the perimeter and on the break will certainly be missed.
As will his team-leading scoring and assist averages.
Record: 54-20 (.730)
Offensive Efficiency: 110.0 (2nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 99.2 (4th)
A surprising loss to the Timberwolves won't matter much to the Oklahoma City Thunder if they come through with a big win over the San Antonio Spurs on April 4. The Thunder sit just a game back of the Spurs in the race for the No. 1 seed in the West.
Which could mean the difference between a matchup against a vengeful James Harden and the young-gun Rockets or one against the aging, injured Lakers, with whom OKC had its way last spring.
Record: 55-19 (.743)
Offensive Efficiency: 107.0 (5th)
Defensive Efficiency: 99.0 (3rd)
It's tough to tell whether or not the San Antonio Spurs actually care to keep the Thunder from snagging the No. 1 seed in the West.
That is, unless doing so would require that Gregg Popovich go against his long-established tradition of resting his veterans late in the season. Manu Ginobili is on the shelf for a while with a hamstring injury, while Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard are both listed as day-to-day with nicks, cuts and bruises of their own.
Then again, it's not as though San Antonio hasn't succeeded by promoting its reserves before. For instance, Tony Parker, a legitimate MVP candidate, sat out the Spurs' 105-93 win over the Thunder on March 11.
He'll likely be on hand for the two rivals' next meeting on April 4, when San Antonio will put its claim to the top spot in the Western Conference on the line. Whether the Spurs want (or even need) their other stars to take part will be up to Pop.
Record: 58-16 (.784)
Offensive Efficiency: 110.5 (1st)
Defensive Efficiency: 100.7 (8th)
The Miami Heat are officially in cruise control. The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is theirs, and the best record in the NBA figures to be soon, assuming their three-game lead over the Spurs holds up over the next two weeks.
All of which means that buyers of Heat tickets had better beware. If you go to one of Miami's remaining regular-season games, you're just as likely to see LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in street clothes as you are to see them in uniform.
If not more so.