Legit or Nah? Playing 'Contender or Pretender' for NBA Playoff Hopefuls

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 19, 2017

Legit or Nah? Playing 'Contender or Pretender' for NBA Playoff Hopefuls

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Here comes a heavy emphasis on the Eastern Conference. 

    The Western playoff picture is already becoming pretty clear. The Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have emerged as unquestioned locks, while the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets have the records and narratives necessary to feel comfortable for the time being.

    That leaves two spots unaccounted for, and the New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz are in prime position to compete for them. 

    But the situation grows more complicated in the Association's other half. Though you can pencil in the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, only two games separate the next seven squads (the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers), all of whom are trying to earn one of the five available postseason berths.

    But of those 10 combined playoff hopefuls, which should feel best? Which are the contenders to play beyond 82 games? 

Detroit Pistons

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Record: 17-13

    Offensive Rating: 104.4 (No. 16)

    Defensive Rating: 104.4 (No. 14)

    Net Rating: minus-0.1 (No. 18)

    Led by a steady swarm of production from vastly improved players, the Detroit Pistons started hotter than anyone could've imagined.

    Tobias Harris became an offensive wrecking ball capable of knocking down three-pointers both off the bounce and in catch-and-shoot scenarios, which opened the door for so many more offensive possibilities. Reggie Jackson looked like a fully healthy point guard, allowing him to drive into the teeth of the defense and re-emerge as a dominant scoring threat. Andre Drummond grew across the board, from his free-throw uptick to his status as a secondary facilitator. 

    But the Icarian opening salvo hasn't carried over into the middle portion of the season. Since a blowout victory over the Phoenix Suns, the Pistons have gone just 3-7 with a minus-6.6 net rating—better than only the marks produced by the Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies. 

    Maybe that's just a cold stretch. But it's particularly troubling that the downward spiral has occurred in conjunction with the team remaining near the top of the three-point leaderboard. Over the same span, Detroit has logged the NBA's No. 6 percentage from deep while taking what's been just barely below the league average number of attempts. 

    The Pistons have instead missed everything else, with Harris cooling off and Jackson no longer looking as if he's performing at 100 percent. They can't put the ball in the basket, which points toward—at the very least—the hot start to the year not being fully indicative of an unabashed leap back into contention. 

    Detroit has already won more games than its underlying metrics would indicate, and that gives it a nice boost in the playoff race. But without personnel changes, the Pistons might continue the fall back to Earth and sink into the lottery portion of the standings. 

    Verdict: Nah

Indiana Pacers

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    Associated Press

    Record: 17-13

    Offensive Rating: 108.1 (No. 6)

    Defensive Rating: 105.7 (No. 17)

    Net Rating: 2.4 (No. 8)

    Victor Oladipo has arrived as a legitimate star. 

    Heading into a marquee showdown with the Boston Celtics, the breakout 2-guard had averaged 24.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 47.8 percent from the field, 43.3 percent from downtown and 78.1 percent from the charity stripe. ESPN.com's real plus/minus gives him a score superior to the marks earned by all but 14 players, and he sits at No. 16 in NBA Math's total points added, which factors in both volume and per-possession efficiency. 

    Oladipo hasn't just played like an All-Star in the Eastern Conference. He should factor into the conversation about backcourt starters, potentially earning a nod alongside Kyrie Irving

    Best of all, no regression is coming. 

    The Oklahoma City Thunder (and the Orlando Magic before them) misused the former Hoosier, asking him to fill an off-ball role and seldom letting him initiate the action. Now he's knocking down off-the-dribble jumpers, setting up his teammates and making the offense hum—Indiana's 109.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor would rank No. 5 in the league-wide hierarchy. 

    Because of Oladipo, the Pacers are quite a bit ahead of the expected rebuilding timetable, and they may even have won the Paul George trade. The top-10 net rating they currently boast could conceivably be viewed as a floor, since they might get even more dangerous as Myles Turner starts clicking offensively and the youngsters such as T.J. Leaf carve out bigger spots in the rotation. 

    Verdict: Legit

Miami Heat

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    Record: 15-14

    Offensive Rating: 102.3 (No. 24)

    Defensive Rating: 104.0 (No. 11) 

    Net Rating: minus-1.7 (No. 20)

    Wayne Ellington shouldn't be the Miami Heat's most successful offensive figure. He's a great shooter (currently connecting on his 6.2 deep tries per game at a 42.8 percent clip), but it's almost inexcusable that such a limited shooter can have the team's top score in NBA Math's offensive points added.

    On the flip side, Hassan Whiteside is ostensibly the most talented player in South Beach. But the Heat can't figure out how to use him, since he doesn't have the range necessary to excel in a drive-and-kick system and can easily be exposed by intelligent defenses capable of forcing him into passing situations. 

    The Heat's offensive rating dips by a whopping 7.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, which is a drastic enough downswing that it more than negates corresponding defensive gains. They similarly haven't had much offensive success with Bam Adebayo playing, and the third-biggest scoring fall comes when Dion Waiters is recording minutes. 

    That's another big concern after the organization committed so much money to the 2-guard over the offseason. Perhaps he's still feeling the ill effects of ankle trouble, but that excuse can only fly so far when he's been such a detrimental presence in just about all facets of the game. 

    James Johnson has been fine. Kelly Olynyk, too. But the overall set of moves upon which the Miami front office embarked this summer hasn't allowed head coach Erik Spoelstra to re-capture last season's second-half magic, and the 15-14 record to start the campaign is already more than you should expect from a team with a minus-1.7 net rating. 

    The win-loss marks might only get worse if the Heat don't make significant changes. And with this roster composition, those feel unlikely. 

    Verdict: Nah

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Record: 15-13

    Offensive Rating: 107.3 (No. 9)

    Defensive Rating: 106.6 (No. 19)

    Net Rating: 0.7 (No. 13)

    "BREAKING: The [Milwaukee] Bucks are now guaranteed to make the playoffs this year," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote after the titular team completed a trade for Eric Bledsoe. 

    He's right. 

    The Bucks are still trying to break out of the middle-class morass in the Eastern Conference, but that's expected. They're working Bledsoe into the schemes, attempting to deviate from their ill-conceived idea to trap every imaginable pick-and-roll and waiting for Khris Middleton to rediscover the full extent of his old form. And they have time to do so, because they've at least remained above .500 during the first third of the season. 

    Best of all, Bledsoe is already justifying their blockbuster move. 

    The point guard is averaging 17.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists while slashing 43.5/30.0/72.3 since his trade away from the Phoenix Suns. Those percentages are bound to climb a bit higher, and that should happen while he continues to assert himself as a game-changing backcourt defender who can thrive in both on- and off-ball settings. 

    Eighteen games into his Bucks tenure, Bledose has helped push up Milwaukee's net rating by 12.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Oh, and the team is topping opponents by 10 points over the same average stretch when he and Giannis Antetokounmpo are on the court together, per PBPStats.com

    Milwaukee has talent surrounding the two leading stars, especially with Jabari Parker getting closer to a return. But those two alone would be enough to make them feel legitimate as distinct playoff threats. 

    Verdict: Legit

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Record: 15-15

    Offensive Rating: 107.8 (No. 7)

    Defensive Rating: 107.8 (No. 26) 

    Net Rating: 0.1 (No. 16)

    For the New Orleans Pelicans, the best news of all is simple: They're better with both Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins on the floor, which lessens any incentive they might have to trade away the latter before he's able to hit the open market this summer. 

    When both bigs are playing, per PBPStats.com, the Pelicans have a net rating of 3.46. That diminishes to minus-2.9 when only one is on the floor—more specifically, 7.79 with just Davis and minus-9.58 with just Cousins. 

    And that's where things get more concerning. 

    The Pelicans function as an above-average squad when their two most notable players are logging run, and that's indeed better than when only one is (or neither). But they're still even better when just Davis plays, and they don't have the supporting cast necessary to rise higher up the Western Conference standings in any situation. 

    Thus far, they're the definition of mediocre. 

    On the surface level, that's fine. Mediocre is better than bad.

    But the situation is a bit more troubling when working against a clock and waiting for Darius Miller to regress into the player he'd been before this breakout offensive campaign. It's more concerning still when mediocre likely misses out on the playoffs in this competitive half of the NBA. 

    Even though the Pelicans have fought their way through plenty of injuries during the opening portion of 2017-18, their path to substantial and untapped upside isn't clear. 

    Verdict: Nah

New York Knicks

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    Record: 16-13

    Offensive Rating: 105.8 (No. 10)

    Defensive Rating: 105.2 (No. 15) 

    Net Rating: 0.6 (No. 14)

    When was the last time the New York Knicks had this many talented pieces who were simultaneously playing high-quality basketball? 

    The top-half placements in both offensive and defensive rating are impressive, serving as strong indicators that the Knicks can win games on either end of the floor. When they're not scoring, they're able to buckle down defensively, and the reverse also holds true. But the roster's widespread contributions offer a stronger hint at prolonged success. 

    Kristaps Porzingis is the obvious standout, as he's made a massive leap into a full-fledged No. 1 scorer this season. Without Carmelo Anthony taking away touches, he's proved he can throw up nearly 30 points per night in efficient fashion, torturing defenders with a bevy of moves from all over the half-court set. His affinity for rim protection doesn't hurt, either. 

    But the Knicks aren't a one-man show. Far from it, in fact. 

    Kyle O'Quinn has been a steady force off the bench, excelling both defensively and whenever he's asked to make close-range shots. Courtney Lee has been a two-way stud, shutting down opposing wings and knocking down his 3.6 threes per game at a 44.8 percent clip. Tim Hardaway Jr. (when healthy) and Doug McDermott are steady supplies of offense. Enes Kanter looks tremendously improved on both ends. Frank Ntilikina's active hands have made him a defensive pest. 

    This roster is so much deeper than the last few iterations that have suited up for home games in Madison Square Garden. And as a result, the Knicks aren't sinking down the standings anytime soon—barring any setbacks in Porzingis' rehabilitation for a minor left knee injury. 

    Verdict: Legit

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Record: 14-15

    Offensive Rating: 102.2 (No. 25)

    Defensive Rating: 101.4 (No. 3)

    Net Rating: 0.8 (No. 12)

    Don't be fooled by the Oklahoma City Thunder's middling record, which is a product of inexplicably poor crunch-time production, a stagnant offense and an inability to capitalize when things do go well. According to Pythagorean Wins, which look solely at margin of victory and strength of schedule, they've underachieved enough that they have two more losses than the underlying metrics would indicate. 

    And if anything, OKC has been better than that. 

    Cleaning the Glass uses numbers that "exclude garbage time and possessions at the end of quarters that are highly likely to end up in a heave," and they show the Thunder have earned a 2.0 net rating. Twenty-one teams have had superior offenses, while just the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors have been stingier on the stopping end. 

    Eventually, the Thunder's luck will return.

    The news grows better still, because these hints of upcoming natural progress don't even include positive shooting regression from the primary stars.

    Carmelo Anthony isn't close to the player he once was, but he's not going to slash 40.4/34.6/76.0 all season and will see his value skyrocket if he accepts more of a catch-and-shoot role. Russell Westbrook won't keep knocking down only 38.8 percent of his field-goal attempts. Paul George is too good to make just 40.9 percent of his shots from the field, especially while he lights up scoreboards from beyond the arc. 

    The best is yet to come, and the Thunder are already far better than their record would indicate—regardless of what any preexisting narratives may have you believing. 

    Verdict: Legit

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Record: 14-14

    Offensive Rating: 104.2 (No. 17)

    Defensive Rating: 104.2 (No. 13) 

    Net Rating: 0.0 (No. 17)

    The Philadelphia 76ers are far ahead of schedule just by playing league-average basketball. 

    Though it often seems like half the roster is still breaking into the league (and that's not including Markelle Fultz, who could provide a second-half jolt once he gets fully healthy and gains his confidence), they're already competent on the offensive end and verging on deadly defensively.

    Joel Embiid can frequently play like he's the sport's best center, particularly when he's engaged on the interior and actively deterring opponents from entering his domain. Ben Simmons is a transition wrecking ball whose length wreaks havoc on the other end. Even with Donovan Mitchell scoring like an alpha dog and Jayson Tatum doing everything well for the Boston Celtics, he's been such a game-changing force that he remains the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. 

    That two-man core alone pushes the Sixers into the realm of legitimacy. Per PBPStats.com, Philadelphia has posted a 9.68 net rating with both youngsters on the floor, and that's saying nothing of JJ Redick, Robert Covington and a host of solid veteran talents. 

    What if Trevor Booker makes an impact after the Sixers landed him in exchange for Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas? What if Jerryd Bayless remembers he's supposed to be a quality offensive piece? What if Fultz proves worthy of the No. 1 pick after the rough start to his professional career? 

    Playing to a neutral net rating feels like the floor for the NBA's eighth-youngest team. And we might not be able to measure how high the ceiling can rise. 

    Verdict: Legit

Utah Jazz

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Record: 14-16

    Offensive Rating: 105.4 (No. 12)

    Defensive Rating: 102.4 (No. 7)

    Net Rating: 3.1 (No. 7)

    Only one question ever mattered for the Utah Jazz.

    They were always going to be fine on the defensive end, even after losing Gordon Hayward. Rudy Gobert might not have any Defensive Player of the Year trophies to his name, but he's been one of the league's most impactful stoppers for quite some time and remained surrounded by plenty of preventing talent. 

    That's still true, and the Jazz have also benefitted immensely from the play of Ekpe Udoh when Gobert is either out of the lineup or catching his breath on the pine. The 30-year-old has returned to the NBA eager to prove himself, and he's done exactly that. Not only is Utah allowing a meager 98.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (2.8 fewer than with Gobert on!), but he also ranks No. 5 in NBA Math's defensive points saved and trails only 21 players in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus. 

    But back to the heretofore hidden question: Who was going to be this team's No. 1 scorer? 

    Against all odds, the Jazz have found an answer. 

    Seven different players—Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Gobert, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio—are averaging double figures. None have topped the 18.1 points per game Mitchell has produced during his rookie season, and those numbers are coming while he shoots 42.6 percent from the field and 37.0 percent from downtown. 

    The young guard got off to a horrid start at the beginning of his NBA career, but he's quickly gained comfort. He looks the part of a lead scorer now, capable of probing a defense in a variety of sets and putting up points against tight defenses focused on stopping him at all costs. 

    Utah is already better than its record would indicate, and Mitchell gives it hope it won't be a one-way power. 

    Verdict: Legit

Washington Wizards

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Record: 16-14

    Offensive Rating: 105.3 (No. 13)

    Defensive Rating: 103.4 (No. 10)

    Net Rating: 1.9 (No. 9)

    Come back in a few months, and it'll likely seem laughable that the Washington Wizards are even in this conversation. They have to be by virtue of their record, but that's only for the time being. They're the most obvious "legit" team among these 10. 

    Lest we forget, John Wall remains the Wizards' best player. Bradley Beal might have the best chance at an All-Star nod (due both to health and playing at the 2, which remains the far weaker backcourt position), while Otto Porter Jr. has frequently looked like the most impactful contributor. They'll likely fall back into the shadow of the speedy point guard when he's playing at full tilt.

    He's getting there now, though he's already missed 11 games this early into the 2017-18 proceedings. 

    Should Wall regain his All-Star form, the Wizards will keep ascending the Eastern Conference standings. Even without playing his best basketball, he's teamed up with the other two aforementioned players to post an 11.44 net rating when all share the floor, per PBPStats.com. 

    Throw in drastic improvement from Tomas Satoransky, who received far more touches when Wall was out of the lineup. Factor in the strides made by Mike Scott and Kelly Oubre Jr. Think about the inevitable improvement from Markieff Morris, who can't have declined this much, this quickly. 

    The Wizards are going to be just fine. And even if the record might not reflect as much, they're playing like a top-10 squad according to the underlying metrics.

    Verdict: Legit

                    

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball ReferenceNBA.comNBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games on December 18.