They are the unwashed, the unwatchable, the undeserving—and yet, the undeterred.
While the chase for postseason competition in the NBA's Western Conference is fairly well-defined—Phoenix, New Orleans and favorite Oklahoma City likely competing for a single spot—and will certainly produce one worthy qualifier, the Eastern Conference is much more scattered and, by any professional sporting standing, embarrassing. Six teams entered the All-Star break with between 20 and 22 wins and 30 and 33 losses, with the seventh and 12th seeds separated by just two games in the standings.
It appears a certainty that one of the NBA's more unexplainable streaks—the West's eighth seed finishing with a better record than the East's eighth seed—will extend to 16 seasons, and it's also probable that the margin will exceed the past 15 seasons' average of 5.8 games. To secure the eighth seed in the West, the Suns, Pelicans or Thunder may need to win as many as 45 to 47 games whereas 35 to 37 may do it in the East. That disparity will only bolster Commissioner Adam Silver's belief that the conference and seeding system could use a "tweak," albeit one still undetermined.
"There's no perfect solution here," Silver acknowledged during the All-Star break.
Just extremely imperfect teams—Charlotte, Miami, Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit and Indiana.
And just a few questions.
Which two of the six have the best chance of staking their spot in the NBA's postseason tournament?
Which could actually win a series against somebody?
Which does it benefit the most to press forward at full speed even if it means sacrificing assets to upgrade prior to the trade deadline?
Bleacher Report posed that first question to a couple of NBA analysts, both of ESPN, prior to any of the teams making a major move just prior to Thursday's trading deadline but after the Hornets acquired guard Mo Williams and injured Pacers star Paul George revealed that he may try to return by mid-March.
Which East team is most likely to sneak into the postseason if none does much to its roster?
"Charlotte and Detroit," Tim Legler said. "I'd say Miami, but they really haven't impressed me too much this year. And you never know, man. [Dwyane] Wade at any time, misses three, four games in a row. Charlotte, you look at where they were at the start of the year (6-19), their record is very good the last couple of months. Detroit, obviously, was in the same boat (at 5-23). They got red-hot; now they've cooled off a little bit. Brandon [Jennings] went down, but D.J. Augustin is playing great for them anyway. And their front line, they just seem like more of an energized team since they got rid of Josh [Smith]."
Jon Barry agrees on one of the two.
"I like Charlotte," said Barry, who played for eight teams in 14 NBA seasons. "Charlotte, to me, is one of the more disappointing teams. Obviously, they've had some injuries. Lance Stephenson has been up and down. But I still think they're the team that will solidify themselves. After that, obviously the health of Wade. If he's healthy the second half of the season, I assume they get in. Those are my top two teams."
But for each analyst, there's a wild card.
"Well, Indiana is in there too," Barry said. "They would probably be third on my list, with George possibly coming back in March."
"That could change everything," Legler said. "I'm shocked that he's even going to play this year."
So he's against George's early return?
"No, no," Legler said. "I'm always a believer of, you play a guy when he's ready. I'm just shocked he's ready. That was horrific. You get a rod put in your shin bone, I mean, you would automatically think the next season is written off. But they're going to put a guy like that through so much rigorous physical therapy and training and enough practices and get him in live action enough to say, you know, he's ready. You limit his minutes early because you are more likely to get hurt when you are fatigued, so you make sure he works himself back into game shape."
Certainly, it will be tempting to try.
"If he gets a three-week stretch, you are talking about 10 games," Legler said. "You got 10 games, and you go 6-4, 7-3, at that time of the year, with how tight these teams are, that could be the difference. That could be a game-changer."
Enough that Barry, who is also fine with it if the doctors sign off, would put the Pacers as his third choice behind Charlotte and Miami.
"That's a team that might as well get in the playoffs," Barry said. "It's not like they're better off getting in the lottery or anything."
Or are they?
The Pacers, like the Pistons, Hornets and Celtics, still have their own first-round pick in 2015—in fact, Boston not only has its own first-rounders through 2018 but also could have as many as seven others during that period, though the lottery protections could reduce some to future second-rounders. The Celtics, with a potentially richer future than any other team in the NBA, also have the option to swap a 2017 first-rounder with Brooklyn for a small price.
The Heat owe a first-round pick to Philadelphia and will give it up in 2015 so long as it doesn't fall in the top 10. The Nets must swap their first-round pick with the Hawks this season, and with Atlanta currently near the top of the standings, that means Brooklyn will drop near the bottom of the round.
That would seem to suggest that the Nets, of all the teams, would have the most interest in making the playoffs; after all, they'll be bound by the Hawks' record, not their own. There's also the public-shaming factor. This is the franchise that gambled—and lost big—by giving up the pick that became Damian Lillard to add since-departed veteran Gerald Wallace. If the Nets now hand Atlanta a lottery pick, and the Hawks somehow draw the right Ping-Pong ball, they will never hear the end of it.
So you'd think the Nets might as well try to win and get in.
And yet with such an inflated payroll and so little flexibility (no 2016 first-round pick), it might benefit them more to move some of their most expensive and important players—Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and especially signed-through-2017 Deron Williams—while they can to start rebuilding a stockpile of cheap assets. And that could come at the cost of the playoffs.
Similarly, while it may seem that the Heat would have the most interest in missing the playoffs since that would give them a chance to keep their selection, that also may not be so. Start with Pat Riley's pride, which will take a hit after promising Heat fans that his team would remain competitive in the wake of LeBron James' departure. Recognize that the Heat would need to give up the pick eventually (it's also top-10 protected in 2016 and then completely unprotected in 2017).
And then consider that even missing the playoffs this season may not guarantee keeping the 2015 first-rounder since the Heat would need to finish with no better than the 21st-best record in the NBA. As poorly as they've played, they're currently 18th. And even 21st may not be sufficiently sorry since, if the Ping-Pong balls don't go their way, their slot could get bumped out of the lottery by a team with a better record.
No wonder Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the only two players selected to the East All-Star team from any of the six squads fighting for one of the East's final two playoff spots, have both spoken of the need to finish strong.
Wade, who has missed 17 games this season but is returning Friday against the New York Knicks, told Bleacher Report that while this challenge isn't at the top of those in his career, "it's probably one of the biggest ones in a long time. I mean, '08-'09, '09-'10 wasn't like it. So this would be one of the biggest ones in a long time, from the standpoint of being on this side of it. Chasing. Instead of just trying to hold on. Or trying to get one more spot up. We're trying to get in there. So it's a little different. But you want to go through your career and have different stories to tell, different seasons to remember, for whatever the reasons are. If they're all the same, you get bored quick."
And Bosh called the race "something to live for, something to play for. To be able to control our own destiny despite all that other stuff that's happened, I think that's a good thing. Moving forward, we just have to keep that in mind, that we are in a good position. We can't get down on ourselves. A lot of people don't make the playoffs, so just having a chance to make it is good."
But would they, or any of the teams fighting for the final two spots, have a chance to win a first-round series?
"No," Barry said.
None? Not even against the right matchup?
"Um...," Barry said, thinking. "No."
Legler differs here.
And he picks a team that he doesn't think will make the playoffs.
"The only team of that entire group that could potentially even challenge one of the top two teams and make it an interesting series would be Miami," Legler said. "Just because of experience. They won't back down. They won't be afraid of that moment."
As for the others, he thinks it would come down to the matchup, with Toronto or Washington potential marks for an underdog.
"If you get Atlanta or Chicago or Cleveland against Charlotte, it's a five-game series," Legler said. "Against Indiana, it's a five-game series. Same with Brooklyn. All of those teams except Miami. You go, 'Wow, that's interesting.' Because by the time they get there, it's almost a sigh of relief, like, 'We got in. And now we know how to do this. Prepare for one team for a two-week stretch. We can do that.'"
Certainly, that would be the thinking in the West, at least for two of the teams. The Thunder would definitely be dangerous as the eighth seed even to a squad as solid as Golden State. And the Pelicans' Anthony Davis isn't someone any opponent wants to see. So while Phoenix is in a state of flux—especially after Goran Dragic's trade demand—it makes sense for both Oklahoma City (with its increasingly tight window as the Kevin Durant clock ticks down) and New Orleans (with a first-round pick due to Houston if it falls between four and 19) to do what's necessary to get in and see how far they can go.
But in the East, the question about how far each should go to upgrade before the deadline is not easy to answer.
Each needs to proceed with some caution just to avoid repeating Milwaukee's mistake prior to the 2013 trade deadline. The Bucks traded promising forward Tobias Harris in a package for pending free agent J.J. Redick in an attempt to secure the eighth spot. They accomplished that, only to get swept by James and the Heat in the first round with Redick contributing little and then recouped only a second-round pick for Redick the following July.
So every transaction is a cost-benefit calculation.
And these six teams are in very different positions as they make those assessments.
Among the six, Brooklyn, by far, has the most money committed for next season, more than twice as much as Boston, which has the least even with the aforementioned Gerald Wallace (at $10 million) taking up more than a third of its salary-cap space. That's what could make Danny Ainge dangerous over the next day or so; the Celtics not only have some serviceable pieces (such as Brandon Bass) still on hand but could send one of their draft choices for a proven player with an extended contract and still retain plenty of future flexibility, both in terms of picks and space. Plus, they have enough selections that making the playoffs and falling out of the lottery wouldn't set them back much.
The Pistons are the only one of the six teams whose coach (Stan Van Gundy) also oversees personnel, which tends to be a formula for more short-term thinking. Plus, Van Gundy—with a fairly lean payroll for next season after using the stretch provision on Josh Smith—could add talent to make a push and try to convince upcoming free agent Greg Monroe that Detroit is still the place to be.
The Pacers may not need much help if George comes back but might need to be careful whom they add, as they operate under the assumption that Roy Hibbert and David West will opt in next season and push the payroll over $63 million.
The Hornets and Heat both are in great position for the free-agent frenzy of 2016; the Hornets have only Kemba Walker ($12 million) currently committed for 2016-17; the Heat have only two major deals on their books for that long ($29.5 million combined for Bosh and Josh McRoberts). That raises the question of whether either would take a long-term contract back now—though Riley has said he would do so for the right player, and Charlotte's position as a lukewarm free-agent destination means it would probably take talent whenever it can.
All of this should make for a compelling chase—for players, for assets, for seeding.
If, at times, quite a clumsy and comedic one.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @EthanJSkolnick.