Oklahoma City's ability to reincorporate Russell Westbrook into the lineup may well be the biggest wild card of the season's final third.
The NBA's Feb. 20 trade deadline was unusually quiet. But, in their silence, the general managers of the league's 30 franchises spoke volumes. With two months remaining in the regular season, they're prepared to go to battle with the teams they have.
But what, exactly, do they have? Despite the inaction, questions—consequential ones—remain.
Will the Miami Heat coalesce in time for a credible title defense? Can the Indiana Pacers stop them? How will the Oklahoma City Thunder integrate Russell Westbrook into a lineup that harmonized in his absence?
Will the Philadelphia 76ers ever win another basketball game?
Answers are coming. This is the home stretch, where the greats elevate their games, the contenders separate themselves from the pack and the tankers slink ever more shamelessly into ignominy.
To quote Winston Churchill, "The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”
The 2013-14 NBA season is entering a similar period. What follows is our best guess at how it will all play out.
The Bucks might not be as bad as their record, but only because their record is that awful.
Through the season’s first 55 games, the Milwaukee Bucks owned the eighth-worst record in NBA history. This probably overstates the team’s degree of incompetence, if only slightly.
With rookie sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo in tow and Brandon Knight delivering perimeter play that is often professional level, the Bucks aren’t quite one of the worst teams ever.
But while O.J. Mayo should improve on his 11.5 PER, per ESPN, and 40.4 field-goal percentage in the season’s final seven weeks, the Bucks, even with improvement, likely have enough of a head start on the rest of the league’s doormats to hang on to the No. 1 perch in the lottery standings.
Rookie Michael Carter-Williams has been Philadelphia's bright spot. He's shooting 40 percent.
The Philadelphia 76ers were, by some measures, the worst team in the NBA before Feb. 20.
General manager Sam Hinkie’s brazen experiment in purposeful lousiness owned the worst scoring differential in basketball and was coming off a nine-game losing streak, several of the “extreme blowout” variety, before the deadline arrived.
The Sixers then proceeded to trade their two leading scorers, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, for what amounted to a bushel of second-round draft picks and a few warm bodies. Five nights later, they lost to the dreadful Milwaukee Bucks, at home, by 20 points.
“I'll be shocked if the Sixers make it to 18 wins this season,” ESPN’s Chad Ford wrote in his Tuesday Tank Rank column, echoing the prevailing sentiment.
But Philadelphia, while talentless, is an effortful bunch. Coach Brett Brown has his team playing hard, which should be just enough to push the Sixers to a win total that, while meager, will apparently shock at least one pundit.
Despite a standout season from Arron Afflalo, the Magic have struggled in 2013-14.
Arron Afflalo is still a member of the Orlando Magic. This fact alone elevates the team above the rest of the conference’s dregs.
The guard is averaging a career-best 19.4 points, leads the team in win shares, per Basketball-Reference, and has quietly established himself as one of the premier backcourt players in the East.
The Magic are tanking, sure, but with Afflalo around, it’s hard to imagine the team sinking much lower than it already has.
WIth the trade deadline passed, Rajon Rondo isn't going anywhere. Neither are the Boston Celtics.
The Boston Celtics mulled moving Rajon Rondo at the deadline before thinking better of it. The presence of the guard should frustrate the franchise’s tanktastic ambitions in 2013-14, but strengthen its hand in the long-term.
Though still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in January 2013, Rondo is already rounding into form. In a Feb. 24 loss to the Utah Jazz, the 28-year-old scored 18 points to go along with 10 rebounds, his fourth double-double in his last seven games.
Don’t be fooled by the guard’s progress. This is still a bad basketball team and should play accordingly for what’s left of the season. The Celtics reeled off five losses in a row between Feb. 12 and Feb. 24, the final three of which came at the hands of teams that are jockeying for ping pong balls, not playoff positioning.
The Cavaliers made a playoff push by trading for...Spencer Hawes.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a terrible basketball team that, despite the feverish efforts of two separate front offices—general manager Chris Grant was fired on Feb. 6—is exceedingly likely to remain that way.
Luol Deng hasn’t helped much and Spencer Hawes, whom Cleveland acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers, won’t either. The problem starts at the top.
The stats are clear, if not unequivocal, on this point: Kyrie Irving is a superstar in name only. In his rookie season in 2011-12, the Duke product posted .125 win shares per 48 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. In 2012-13, Irving’s number was .125. So far this year he’s improved all the way to .126.
The Cavs are saddled with a superstar who isn’t one, Spencer Hawes as the biggest deadline acquisition and, according to PlayoffStatus.com, the toughest remaining schedule in the conference. This isn’t a recipe for a playoff push.
Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks have struggled mightily in 2013-14.
The New York Knicks have been an unmitigated disaster in 2013-14—a train wreck any analyst with more than a passing familiarity with offseason acquisition Andrea Bargnani’s body of work could have seen coming.
But, and there’s always a but, the ‘Bockers haven’t been quite as bad as they look, and so could be in store for some (slight) improvement in the season’s final trimester.
According to BoxscoreGeeks.com, a site that uses wins produced to analyze the league, the Knicks have been the second-unluckiest team in the NBA so far this season, notching 6.2 fewer victories than their underlying stats suggest they should have.
The temptation is to predict their luck will even out. Of course, these are the Knicks, so they’ll probably go 33-49 and miss the playoffs.
Detroit's oversized lineups have had difficulty generating points.
Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith have proved wholly incapable of playing together through the season’s first four months, and that won’t change over the next two.
Despite the best efforts of general manager Joe Dumars to offload Smith’s onerous deal, the power forward is still a Detroit Piston and will continue to soak up 35 minutes of uneven playing time each night out.
A playoff berth is possible next year if the Pistons can work out a way to move Smoove, or, save that, bid Monroe adieu, and build a credible, and credibly spaced, offense around Drummond.
This is a team that is considerably less than the sum of its parts, which is maybe the nicest thing you could say about it.
Al Jefferson has been a bright spot for the Bobcats. Charlotte is poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The Charlotte Bobcats are a mediocrity, which represents tremendous improvement from where the franchise has been for the last several seasons. Al Jefferson, the team’s big-ticket offseason acquisition, has made good on the deal the ‘Cats gave him, averaging 20.5 points and 10.4 rebounds so far on the season, which would be his highest totals since 2008-09 if they hold up.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, even in a weak Eastern Conference, the Bobcats are a long-shot to move up much more in the standings.
Head coach Steve Clifford and a feisty defense should keep Charlotte competitive and produce its first playoff berth since 2010, which will almost certainly be immediately followed by a quick playoff exit. Oh well. Progress is progress.
Another season in the hazy middle for the Atlanta Hawks.
The Atlanta Hawks are again in the middle of the pack, a perch in the standings the organization has held for ages. The cast of characters is different this season, but the result will be, for all intents and purposes, the same.
Perfectly average on both ends of the floor—Atlanta is 14th in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 15th in defense—Paul Millsap and company are effectively a playoff lock, but lack the firepower to move up much from the No. 8 seed they held as of Feb. 25.
A ho-hum record and an early playoff exit. Welcome to Atlanta.
The Nets have one story to feel good about in 2013-14.
But while the superb play of Shaun Livingston, some nifty playmaking by Pierce and the feel-good addition of Jason Collins—the NBA’s first openly gay player—have things looking up in Brooklyn, the Nets’ 16-7 record since the calendar turned to January likely overstates the $180 million dollar squad's degree of improvement.
With Brook Lopez on the shelf, the Nets should muddle their way to something like a .500 record over the regular season’s final seven weeks.
Chicago, even sans its superstar Derrick Rose, has played hard for coach Tom Thibodeau.
The Chicago Bulls don’t have Derrick Rose. What the franchise does have is a fiery veteran leader in Joakim Noah, a productive young spark plug in Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau, one of the NBA’s finest coaches.
And they play defense like their pants are on fire.
The Bulls, even with Rose wilting and Luol Deng wallowing in Cleveland, have allowed opponents only 97.8 points per 100 possessions, the second-best mark in the NBA.
But what happens on the other end of the floor is what will continue to slow Chicago. The Bulls score only 98.0 points per 100 possessions, third-worst in the NBA to the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, who are only nominally professional basketball teams at this juncture.
John Wall and the Wizards have come of age this season.
John Wall has finally established himself as a superstar for the Washington Wizards. And on Feb. 20, Washington acquired, in Andre Miller, a backup who can capably spell him.
This should shore up a major weakness for the team. The backup point guard position had been a black hole for Washington. According to Kevin Pelton of ESPN (subscription required), before the deadline, the Wizards were being outscored by 11.7 points per 100 possessions when Wall was on the bench.
With that issue addressed, the Wizards will be a marginally stronger team down the stretch, and one that’s aided by the easiest remaining schedule in the conference, per PlayoffStatus.com. It should be enough to get them home-court advantage in Round 1.
Kyle Lowry and the Raptors have the inside track on a No. 3 seed.
The NBA’s lone Canadian franchise made no major moves at the deadline, an Austin Daye-Nando de Colo swap with the San Antonio Spurs notwithstanding. That’s a good thing.
The Toronto Raptors, galvanized by the extraordinary play of veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, have ripped off a 22-11 record since Dec. 18, staking a claim as the conference’s third best team.
The Raptors have cobbled together offensive and defensive units that rank in the top 10 in efficiency and, according to PlayoffStatus.com, have the second easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. The stage is set for a strong close to the regular season for Toronto.
Paul George, driving the Pacers to one of the top records in basketball.
The Indiana Pacers, to the surprise of no one, haven’t cooled much since a scalding start.
Carried by the No. 1 defense in the NBA by measure of points allowed and efficiency, emerging superstar Lance Stephenson and emerged superstar Paul George, Indiana has held the best record in the conference for the entirety of 2013-14. But it might not last.
While the Pacers were praised in some circles for their acquisition of former-No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner at the Feb. 20 deadline, insinuating the erstwhile Philadelphia 76er into the lineup could knock the team a game or two off its current pace.
Turner is a poor three-point shooter, a clumsy defender with questionable instincts and he grades out poorly by measure of most advanced metrics. To wit: He’s posting .021 win shares per 48 minutes on the season, per Basketball-Reference, the lowest mark of his undistinguished career.
LeBron and the Heat are raising their level of play as the season winds down.
Just when it become fashionable to harangue the Miami Heat for the franchise’s issues—the aging roster, the lack of defense, the waning effectiveness of Dwyane Wade—the twice-defending champions flipped the switch.
Since the calendar turned to February, the Heat have done what they always do this time of year: hammer the rest of the Association into submission.
The Heat have won five straight, eight of nine, and, as of Feb. 25, had climbed to within 1.5 games of the Indiana Pacers in the race for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. With everything clicking in Miami, and a spare roster spot that will be used to add yet another contributor, the bet is that LeBron James and company catch and pass their rival. Not bad for a team that’s been accused of coasting.
With Kobe Bryant on the shelf, the Lakers are foundering.
The facts are bleak for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Through Feb. 25, the team had lost 13 of 16.
Wesley Johnson starts, Kent Bazemore is playing significant minutes and Jodie Meeks and Nick Young are the Lakers’ second- and third-leading scorers.
The Lakers will win a few more games because, well, somebody has to, but don’t expect much else.
A boost in playing time for Jeremy Evans has coincided with improved play in Utah.
Jeremy Evens doesn’t always play, but when he does, he prefers to dominate.
The heretofore scantly used forward has been very good for the Utah Jazz down the stretch, helping the franchise bounce back from a 1-14 start to post a record that’s merely terrible. That’s growth.
Evans, in a career-high 19.2 minutes per game, is posting 1.60 win shares per 48 minutes on the season, per Basketball-Reference. Stew on this: This figure is 60 percent above the league average but, if it holds up, would be the lowest mark Evans has notched in his four NBA seasons.
Alas, they aren’t all like Evans. All the same, Utah should continue to progress as the season concludes and, with lottery luck, enter 2014-15 as a fringe playoff pick.
Rudy Gay has been reborn since coming to Sacramento.
The Sacramento Kings saw something the rest of the world didn’t in Rudy Gay, who’s flourished since arriving from Toronto.
This ability to identify potential where others don’t augers well for the organization's future. The present, however, is another story.
Once you get past Gay, incipient star DeMarcus Cousins and (the other) Isaiah Thomas, the cupboard is pretty bare in Sacramento. Too bare, anyhow, to expect the team to make much noise in the final weeks of 2013-14.
Anthony Davis has elevated his game this season. The Pelicans, meanwhile, have not.
Anthony Davis is putting the finishing touches on a sophomore season that puts him, if not in the same stratosphere as the league’s superstars, in pretty rarefied air.
And even he won’t be enough to help the New Orleans Pelicans the rest of the way.
The Pelicans, losers of five in a row and seven of eight entering Tuesday, face a stiff schedule down the stretch. Their remaining opponents have a winning percentage of 54, per PlayoffStatus.com.
With a playoff miss all but assured, that 2014 first-round pick the organization traded for Jrue Holiday sure would come in handy about now, huh?
Ty Lawson and the Nuggets are about to be laid out by a brutal closing schedule.
These are dark days in Denver. They’re about to get darker.
The Denver Nuggets, losers of eight of nine, face a bear of schedule from here on out. The foundering franchise will play two games each against the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks, plus make additional trips to Miami and Oklahoma City.
According to PlayoffStatus.com, it’s the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. According to all available evidence, the Nuggets aren’t ready for it.
Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies have struggled to get a handle on what's been a tumultuous season.
The Memphis Grizzlies got off to an uneven start in 2013-14, then saw a season that held great promise go totally off the rails when center and centerpiece Marc Gasol went down.
The team has since recovered. Memphis held a 15-19 record after a 110-108 overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 7, but has since returned to form, winning over 75 percent of its games in the interim.
The record is somewhat misleading, however. Through Feb. 25, the Grizzlies had posted an average point differential of plus-0.3. In the Eastern Conference, that’s plenty for a playoff contender. In the rugged West? Not so much.
Kevin Love, and to a lesser extent the Timberwolves, are analytic darlings, but all those numbers have yet to translate to wins.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been the unluckiest team in basketball this season.
The Wolves’ scoring differential of plus-4.0 is the ninth best in the NBA so far, but all those points have merely resulted in a .500 record and a blizzard of speculation about the future of Kevin Love. According to BoxscoreGeeks.com, as of Feb. 24, the team had won eight fewer games than its underlying statistics suggest it should have.
Love and the Wolves don’t figure to improve much down the stretch—they were inactive at the deadline, but they don’t have to be.
If the team’s luck evens out, it should play more like the 50-win group the numbers say it is.
The overachieving Suns are everyone's second-favorite team, but they may have sold themselves sort with a conservative approach to the trade deadline.
The upstart Phoenix Suns passed on opportunities to add to their exciting young core at the deadline, choosing first-round picks over marginally improved chances of a playoff run.
It was a decision Phoenix is unlikely to regret, say, five seasons from now. But for the next seven weeks, as the Western Conference playoff race tightens and a Suns team that’s played over its head struggles to tread water, the front office might wish a veteran like Paul Gasol was on the roster.
The Suns sneak into the playoffs. But just barely.
Dirk and the Mavericks have had a renaissance season.
The Dallas Mavericks are a reasonably deep basketball team that’s simultaneously fragile. A glance at a few Wikipedia pages clears up this seeming contradiction. These guys are ancient.
Vince Carter is 37. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are looking at their 36th birthdays. Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon are a relatively spry 32.
Each has been integral to the Mavericks’ success, but it’s precarious to have the fortunes of a franchise contingent on such old (read: injury-prone) players.
While Dallas has exceeded expectations in the season’s first two trimesters, how much longer can it last? Seven weeks might be asking too much, especially when the team faces the toughest remaining schedule of any of the conference’s playoff contenders, according to PlayoffStatus.com.
Steph Curry has continued to rise, but the Warriors have been held back by a teammate whose development has not been as swift.
Stephen Curry has blossomed into a superstar. Andre Iguodala has been as good as advertised. The defense, despite substantial roles for David Lee and Klay Thompson, has been the third-stingiest in the NBA.
But then there’s the matter of Harrison Barnes.
The No. 7 pick in the 2012 draft has played nearly 30 minutes a night for the Golden State Warriors so far in 2013-14 and has given the franchise little return on its investment. The forward is averaging only 10.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists on the season and is shooting 41.1 percent.
For the Warriors to make up much ground, Barnes must improve. At this point, that seems unlikely.
LaMarcus Aldridge garnered MVP buzz while the Blazers raced out to a 22-4 start to the season.
The Portland Trailblazers have cooled lately after a scintillating, and improbable, start to the season.
While some of this isn’t the Blazers’ fault—according to ESPN’s Hollinger Power Rankings, the team has had the toughest schedule in the NBA over the last 25 percent of its games played—they aren’t blameless either.
Defense is, and will continue to be, a problem for the Blazers. The team has allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions so far on the season, good for 22nd in the NBA.
Portland started the season 22-4 and has played roughly .500 ball since. While this has been a fun ride for Portland fans, the team’s true ability level—despite a likable and promising core of Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard—is closer to the former record than the latter.
2013-14 could be Tim Duncan's final season as a pro. If so, the Spurs are giving him every opportunity to go out a champion.
Like a veteran cop flung into an unlikely and life-threatening scenario during his last day on the force, the San Antonio Spurs were supposed to be too damn old for this stuff.
Supposed to be.
The Spurs' well-oiled machine is top-seven in the NBA in offensive and defensive efficiency and could probably challenge for the best record in the conference if Gregg Popovich had any interest whatsoever in regular-season accomplishments.
While deadline acquisition Austin Daye doesn't figure to help much, he won't have to.
While James Harden has struggled, Dwight Howard has played his best basketball in years.
Pardon a cliche: The Houston Rockets are ready for takeoff.
Excuse another: A superman is the reason the franchise is poised to soar.
Since the calendar turned to February, Dwight Howard has been in vintage form. The center has averaged 23.1 points so far this month on 63.3 percent shooting and added, for good measure, 13.4 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.3 steals.
If Howard can continue to produce like that, the Rockets will be a tough out for the remainder of the regular season...and beyond.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have the Clippers poised to make a serious push.
The Los Angeles Clippers, to the extent any sports entity can quietly do anything in this media environment, have quietly put together an excellent four months of basketball.
Chris Paul has been as deadly as ever, leading qualified players in wins produced per 48 minutes through Feb. 25, per BoxscoreGeeks.com. DeAndre Jordan has morphed from a question mark into one of the Association’s top rebounders. Meanwhile, Blake Griffin has developed into a devastating scorer, authoring a streak of 20-point games that, on Feb. 24, reached 17.
The Clippers, led by their own Big Three, are poised for a monster close to the season.
The Thunder found their stride with star Russell Westbrook out of the lineup.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have a problem the other 29 franchises in the Association would gladly assume: what to do with Russell Westbrook?
Kevin Durant and company took the league by storm while the UCLA product was on the shelf with a knee injury, but now that the relentless guard is back in action, it will be tricky to integrate him into a lineup that seemingly found its stride in his absence.
A prediction: They’ll figure it out.
Sure, the Thunder roared to a 22-8 record without Westbrook, through Feb. 25, but they’ve been even better with him, running off a 21-6 mark in games during which the weakened star has played.
The new addition, coupled with the continued brilliance of Durant, makes the Thunder a likely bet to finish with the top record in the conference and the NBA.