Updated 2015 Win-Loss Projections for Every NBA Team Entering MarchFebruary 28, 2015
Updated 2015 Win-Loss Projections for Every NBA Team Entering March
The stretch run of the NBA season is upon us, with a select group of squads still competing for playoff seeds and higher positioning near the top of each conference's ladder.
At this point in the year, we have a solid handle on the strengths and weaknesses of each team, though injuries and plenty of personnel changes at the trade deadline have thrown everyone for a few loops. But we still have no clue who's going to earn the last few spots in the Eastern Conference, while the West is a jumbled hodgepodge of talent after the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies.
Let's sort it out.
It's worth noting that these record projections will lean on my FATS (factor-adjusted team similarities) system, which you can see explained in full here. Basically, FATS takes the statistical profile of a team this season and compares it to every squad since 1974, finding the top matches and using the final records of those teams to come up with the most accurate projection possible.
Here, I'm looking at the last 20 games for each team when determining the projections, as that's more relevant than what happened back in November and December.
But FATS doesn't have the final say, simply because context has to matter. Key players are returning or falling out of the lineup, and small identity nuances of teams change in constant fashion.
As a result, you'll see each team's current record, current pace, FATS projection and top historical FATS similarity presented, then you'll have a chance to read about that all-important context. But even while weighing situations and lineup changes, we will attempt to stay as objective as possible here.
All teams are ranked on the position at which they are expected to finish in their conference, starting with the East.
Note: Portions of this Intro are adapted from the last edition of our record projections.
15. New York Knicks: 13-69
Current Record: 11-46
Current Pace: 16-66
FATS Projection: 16-66
FATS Similarity: 1988-89 Charlotte Hornets (98.03 percent match)
Without Carmelo Anthony on the court, the New York Knicks have played like a 16-win team throughout the season, and that's only because it's tough for FATS to project anything worse. Not only are their strongest similarity profiles matching them up with some of the worst teams in NBA history, but they're actually worse in most every important factor.
Frankly, this depleted team will have to get lucky to win even two more games throughout the rest of the season, despite their flashes of quality play against the Detroit Pistons on Friday night. Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Samuel Dalembert were expunged from the rotation—and the roster—earlier this season, and now the Knicks are devoid of Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire's services as well.
It's going to get ugly, but that's inevitable when the starting lineup features Tim Hardaway Jr., Langston Galloway, Jason Smith, Lou Amundson and a washed-up version of Jose Calderon.
Do yourself a favor, Knicks fans. Rather than watching this team attempt to prove it doesn't belong in the D-League for the rest of the season, watch a lot of Duke basketball.
You know why.
14. Philadelphia 76ers: 17-65
Current Record: 13-45
Current Pace: 18-64
FATS Projection: 20-62
FATS Similarity: 1978-79 New Jersey Nets (97.34 percent match)
Without Michael Carter-Williams running the show and with Tony Wroten spending the rest of the season on the bench to heal his partially torn ACL, Tim Frazier was the starting point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers. But now he's been released, and this team is going to war with Isaiah Canaan and Ish Smith.
Philadelphia hasn't pretended that it's interesting in making a late push toward respectability this season, and it won't. Instead, the losses should keep piling up as head coach Brett Brown experiments with players, rotations and systems.
To his credit, he's figuring things out on defense. Since the calendar flipped over to 2015, the Sixers have allowed only 105.5 points per 100 possessions, which would rank just inside the top half of the NBA if it were maintained over the course of the season.
But this team is going backward without Carter-Williams at the helm, even if the last 20 games indicate that it's trending in the right direction. After all, that stretch isn't isolated to what's transpired since the Feb. 19 trade deadline.
13. Orlando Magic: 29-53
Current Record: 19-41
Current Pace: 26-56
FATS Projection: 27-55
FATS Similarity: 2004-05 New York Knicks (97.21 percent match)
Since James Borrego took over as the interim head coach of the Orlando Magic, the team has looked significantly better than it did with Jacque Vaughn at the helm. He's been in charge for seven games heading into a Friday night battle with the Atlanta Hawks, and the team won four of them, losing only to the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Miami Heat (in overtime).
Per FATS, the Magic have actually played like a 47-win team during the brief Borrego era, comparing most favorably to the 2005-06 Chicago Bulls. Why? Because the defense has been vastly improved, allowing the young guards to swarm perimeter players and making a point to contest each and every shot lofted up by the opposition.
Orlando has plenty of talented young pieces, and apparently it may have one on the sidelines as well. The interim signal-caller will have to learn how to manage late-game situations with more success if he's going to become the long-term head coach, but he could well get there by the end of the season.
Don't expect the Magic to continue looking like a 47-win squad for the rest of the season, as that would see them finish the year with a 32-50 record. But they should at least come fairly close, outdoing both their current pace and the projections that are based on the last 20 games.
12. Boston Celtics: 32-50
Current Record: 23-33
Current Pace: 34-48
FATS Projection: 35-47
FATS Similarity: 1999-00 Toronto Raptors (99.12 percent match)
It's been a mixed bag since Isaiah Thomas joined the Boston Celtics just before the trade deadline. In his first three games, he averaged a strong 20.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists while knocking down plenty of threes and helping space the court, but he's been unable to finish shots from inside the arc with any sort of consistency.
Ultimately, though, he's added a positive presence. Including the time before he arrived in Beantown, the Celtics were being outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions without Thomas. With him, they're topping the opposition by a whopping 18.6.
Normally, this would result in the team making a strong playoff push, especially in the weak Eastern Conference. So, you might be wondering, why are they actually forecast to do worse than the context-free projections?
The loss of Jared Sullinger is going to hurt rather significantly. There's no feasible replacement for the young big, especially while Kelly Olynyk is battling ankle problems, and now Sullinger is set to miss the rest of the year with a left metatarsal stress fracture.
When the schedule gets tougher than it's been during the infancy of Thomas' time in Boston, reality will check in.
11. Brooklyn Nets: 35-47
Current Record: 23-33
Current Pace: 34-48
FATS Projection: 32-50
FATS Similarity: 1979-80 San Diego Clippers (98.6 percent match)
Though the Brooklyn Nets have struggled in recent weeks, the arrival of Thaddeus Young should help them right the ship enough that they have an outside shot of only handing a non-lottery pick over to the Atlanta Hawks this offseason, not one of the top 14 selections.
In his first three games with Brooklyn, Young made an immediate difference. He averaged 14 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.3 blocks while shooting 58.1 percent of the field and dropping in two of his three attempts from beyond the arc. His defense has lagged well behind where it should be, but that will take some time as he learns Lionel Hollins' system.
But the team as a whole still hasn't looked too impressive. Sure, it won two of the first three games it played after the trade deadline, but the victories came on the road against the reeling Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers. The loss, also away from the Barclays Center, came to a version of the New Orleans Pelicans that didn't boast Anthony Davis.
Brooklyn should improve. But by enough to sneak into the playoffs when the Eastern Conference largely improved during trade season? Not likely.
10. Miami Heat: 36-46
Current Record: 25-32
Current Pace: 36-46
FATS Projection: 38-44
FATS Similarity: 2010-11 Indiana Pacers (99 percent match)
Trying to predict the rest of the season for the Miami Heat is basically an exercise in futility.
It was tough enough to figure out how high they'd rise after the late addition of Goran Dragic, as he's one of the most dangerous guards in the game when fully healthy and playing in the right system. A lineup comprised of him, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside was sure to be a deadly one, so long as all five of the players were simultaneously at full strength.
But that's never going to happen in 2014-15.
Bosh is out for the rest of the year as he recovers from blood clots found in his lungs, and that's a devastating blow for the Heat. Adding Dragic is going to give them a boost, but it won't be enough to cancel out the loss of the team's most impactful player, especially with Josh McRoberts also out for the year.
Since the Dragic acquisition, Miami has beaten the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic (in an overtime period that saved it from what should've been a loss) while losing to the New Orleans Pelicans. During that four-game stretch, the Heat have played like a 49-win team, per FATS. Maintaining that level of performance would see them finish with 40 victories on the season.
But read through that list of teams they've played after the deadline one more time, keeping in mind that the Pelicans were playing without a dark-horse MVP candidate while the Heat had both Wade and Whiteside in the lineup. As always, context matters, as both those factors are going to change at some point.
9. Indiana Pacers: 37-45
Current Record: 24-34
Current Pace: 34-48
FATS Projection: 34-48
FATS Similarity: 1977-78 Boston Celtics (98.72 percent match)
If we look only at their last dozen games, which have included some impressive victories against title-contending squads (some not at full strength), FATS shows that the Indiana Pacers are playing like a 52-win team, which would put them on pace to finish the season with a 39-43 record.
Just when we thought we knew what this team was...
Still looking at that same 12-game stretch, the Pacers, who have traditionally been a defense-first team, have actually been better on the offensive end. With a 109.7 offensive rating and a 106.5 defensive rating, they'd fit in at No. 6 and No. 18, respectively, in the league-wide standings.
George Hill has keyed the large-scale offensive improvement, though it's worth noting that the team has benefited from a pretty easy schedule. Sure, they've beaten the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but no other win has come over a squad projected to finish with a record better than .500.
The Pacers can be dangerous, especially if Paul George makes an early return and plays in 2014-15, but they're still just barely going to be on the outside of the playoff picture, if only due to a head-to-head tiebreaker.
8. Detroit Pistons: 37-45
Current Record: 23-35
Current Pace: 33-49
FATS Projection: 35-47
FATS Similarity: 2013-14 Minnesota Timberwolves (97.72 percent match)
Can Reggie Jackson play the part of savior in the Motor City?
Absolutely, as he'll provide the offensive punch the team has so desperately needed since Brandon Jennings was lost for the year with a ruptured Achilles. Granted, this is a small sample, but he's averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists for the Detroit Pistons in his first two games with the team, both of which have been fairly impressive outings.
The first was a victory over the Washington Wizards, while the second was a loss to the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers. But even in defeat, the Pistons looked like an improved team until the Cavs pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Detroit was already on the rise before acquiring this particular guard from the Oklahoma City Thunder, thanks to their frontcourt's exceptional performance. Now, the squad is significantly more well-rounded and should continue to move up into a playoff position.
The Pistons may not be all the way up to No. 8 right now, but they've improved quite a bit in recent weeks and don't have a particularly large gap to make up as the season starts winding down.
7. Charlotte Hornets: 38-44
Current Record: 23-33
Current Pace: 34-48
FATS Projection: 37-45
FATS Similarity: 1981-82 Washington Bullets (94.01 percent match)
Kemba Walker won't be out too much longer—the six-week timetable began at the end of January—but the Charlotte Hornets have found a feasible stopgap in Mo Williams. The former Minnesota guard didn't take long to get rolling in his new digs, debuting on Feb. 21 with a cool 24 points and 12 assists in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Through three games, he's averaged 21 points and 6.7 dimes, shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc. Those are solid numbers, and the Hornets honestly don't even need that much from the point guard position.
After all, defense is the name of the game on the honeycombed floor of Time Warner Cable Arena.
In 2015, the former Bobcats have allowed just 98.4 points per 100 possessions. Even during their last 10 games, in which they've gone just 4-6 against a brutal slate of opponents, the defensive rating has only climbed to 100.8.
For perspective, the Golden State Warriors' 101 defensive rating currently leads the league.
So long as the Hornets get something out of Williams until Walker returns, they'll be just fine riding on the coattails of this point-preventing unit. After all, it's one of the best one-way units the NBA has to offer right now, even if Charlotte is still unlikely to get up to a .500 record this season.
6. Washington Wizards: 44-38
Current Record: 33-26
Current Pace: 46-36
FATS Projection: 45-37
FATS Similarity: 1997-98 Portland Trail Blazers (98.04 percent match)
The Washington Wizards are plummeting down the Eastern Conference standings, losing 11 of their last 13 games.
Fortunately, they should be able to get off the schneid when Bradley Beal eventually returns to the lineup from his latest stress fracture. The Wizards have outscored their opponents by 4.3 points per 100 possessions when the 2-guard has been on the court this season, and they've been outscored by 2.5 when he doesn't play.
That's actually the least impressive on/off combination of any D.C. starter, but it's still important nonetheless. The Wizards simply haven't had anybody who strikes fear into the hearts of defenses like Beal does, even if the shooting guard is having a fairly disappointing season when healthy.
But there are still fundamental issues that won't be solved when Beal returns. The rest of the lineup doesn't space out defenses enough, and Randy Wittman's offense is awfully stagnant when John Wall isn't rolling as an individual wrecking ball.
Again, the sans-Beal caveat applies here, but FATS indicates the Wizards have played like a 25-win team over their last dozen outings. More has to change than the return of a certain third-year player if this squad is truly going to reassert itself as a contender.
5. Milwaukee Bucks: 46-36
Current Record: 32-26
Current Pace: 45-37
FATS Projection: 48-34
FATS Similarity: 1999-00 Phoenix Suns (97.69 percent match)
The Milwaukee Bucks have been rather underrated all year, but they still chose to take a step back in the present with the hope of taking a larger one forward in the future. Brandon Knight was having an All-Star season (even if he was snubbed from the Eastern roster), and replacing him at the point with the jumper-less Michael Carter-Williams is inevitably going to hurt both the spacing and overall offensive production of this up-and-coming squad.
Milwaukee was remarkably good on defense during Carter-Williams' first 18 minutes, but the 102.9 offensive rating produced was—as expected—a bit lower than the marks posted when he's been off the roster (or on the bench during that initial game in Brewtown). Sample-size warnings apply there, of course.
This team will remain a fringe contender in the Eastern Conference, thanks to a stellar defense and the rising production of a number of young pieces. But unless the newly acquired point guard suddenly develops the ability to rise and fire from the perimeter without doing damage to the rim and backboard, the Bucks will move in the wrong direction, if only by a slight margin.
Still, they're playoff locks and have the ability to rise as high as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Strange as it may seem for a team that won just 15 games last year, there's still an outside shot at a 50-win season.
4. Chicago Bulls: 48-34
Current Record: 37-22
Current Pace: 51-31
FATS Projection: 50-32
FATS Similarity: 1987-88 Dallas Mavericks (98.25 percent match)
Losing Derrick Rose for four to six weeks, as reported by ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg, isn't really a death knell for the Chicago Bulls. Having him out of the lineup hurts the team psychologically and in terms of depth, as it forces lesser players into bigger roles, but the team hasn't really been all that much better when he's on the court.
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Again, while Rose's absence will still hurt, it won't be as bad as the initial reaction seemed to indicate. It's terrible that such an entertaining player has to go through rehab once more, but the Bulls should be able to survive his absence with some concerted efforts from the rest of the point guards.
And, of course, Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah will have to continue rolling. Tony Snell can do some heavy lifting as well if he maintains his improved level of play.
But regardless, don't make the mistake of writing off the Bulls just yet. Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding actually argues that this injury could actually strengthen Chicago's playoff chances.
"Playing without the point guard now can be a blessing—for them to dig deeper for the tenacity they've found in years past while he has nursed those knees," he claims. And Rose isn't going to be gone forever, even if his injury history is rather lengthy at this point.
3. Toronto Raptors: 51-31
Current Record: 37-21
Current Pace: 52-30
FATS Projection: 50-32
FATS Similarity: 1997-98 Detroit Pistons (98.72 percent match)
The Toronto Raptors backcourt isn't too high on itself right now, per Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun:
Asked to describe his game at the moment, [Kyle] Lowry had a quick response: 'Me? I’m trash,' Lowry told reporters. 'I'm trying to figure it out right now, to be honest with you. I don't know (how to fix it), that's why I’m in here, working hard and trying to figure out what to do to get myself back on track.'
[DeMar] DeRozan did not duck away from that assessment of the status of his own game.
'Right next to the trash can (that Lowry's) is. Both trash,' DeRozan told the Sun, matter-of-factly as he signed merchandise following his media scrum.
Both guards are confident players, and better days are surely coming. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Raptors right now, especially given their atrocious defense (108.2 defensive rating during their last 14 games) and the struggles of the all-important backcourt.
But this is a talented squad that should right the ship before too long.
The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, and both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have already done that.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: 55-27
Current Record: 37-23
Current Pace: 51-31
FATS Projection: 54-28
FATS Similarity: 2009-10 Phoenix Suns (96.79 percent match)
After LeBron James thoroughly dismantled the Golden State Warriors defense on Thursday night en route to a big win over the team with the NBA's best record, it's not entirely inconceivable to think this newly formed group of stars and complementary pieces has become the title favorite. The Cleveland Cavaliers are flat-out rolling, and they're currently playing better basketball than anyone else in the Association.
Nevertheless, they trail the Atlanta Hawks by such a large margin that they won't be able to catch them. At best, the Cavs can finish with a 59-23 record, and matching that would require only 13 more wins from the presumed No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But they're still playing better.
Since Jan. 15, Cleveland has won 18 of its 21 games, losing only to the Indiana Pacers (twice) and Chicago Bulls. Led by massive improvements on the defensive end from Kyrie Irving, an edition of Kevin Love that is much more involved in the offense and an MVP version of James, the Cavs have posted offensive and defensive ratings of 116.4 and 103.2, respectively.
Were those numbers maintained all season, the former would beat the league-best Los Angeles Clippers by 3.4 points per 100 possessions, which is nearly as large as the gap between LAC and the No. 6 Hawks. The latter would leave Cleveland just inside the top 10—still a remarkable improvement after a slow defensive start to the season.
These aren't the Cavs we were supposed to see during their first year together. It was supposed to take a lot more time for everything to click. Nonetheless, the savvy midseason acquisitions made by general manager David Griffin have boosted this franchise up to the top of the NBA totem pole, even if the record may not indicate such a lofty standing.
1. Atlanta Hawks: 63-19
Current Record: 46-12
Current Pace: 65-17
FATS Projection: 63-19
FATS Similarity: 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs (97.6 percent match)
The Atlanta Hawks haven't been completely invulnerable lately, even losing to the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors in a seven-game stretch before rebounding with convincing wins over the Milwaukee Bucks (on the road) and the Dallas Mavericks.
Kyle Korver's shot has been a bit awry. The rebounding woes are biting Atlanta, and Pero Antic continues to fail in his pursuit to space out the defense.
But these Hawks are still quite dangerous. Their wings are by no means clipped, even if they've fallen back to earth from the Icarian levels of the NBA stratosphere they reached in January.
At this point in the season, there's no reason to sway from the FATS projections. The makeup of this team hasn't changed all year, whether due to trades or major injuries, and the Hawks have always been due for a bit of regression after the 19-game streak that led to a perfect month at the beginning of January.
The Hawks could possibly get to 63 wins. And for a franchise that hasn't won a championship since Bob Pettit steered it past Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in 1958, this would be the best record of all time. Never before has a Hawks squad won more than 57 games in a single season, and this year's group only has to go 11-13 to match that mark.
15. Los Angeles Lakers: 23-59
Current Record: 16-41
Current Pace: 23-59
FATS Projection: 24-58
FATS Similarity: 1998-99 New Jersey Nets (97.83 percent match)
The Los Angeles Lakers only have two goals for the rest of the 2014-15 campaign.
They need to keep losing games so they can earn the best draft pick possible, though it's not as if the players and coaching staff will ever operate at less than 100 percent. They also need to evaluate their young talents and see if they can unearth any gems.
The good news here is that they're doing both, though Jordan Clarkson's recent performances are making it a bit harder for them to finish at the very bottom of the Western Conference. Since moving into the starting lineup for a Jan. 23 contest against the San Antonio Spurs, he's averaged 13.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 43.2 percent from the field.
But even with an improved Clarkson, the Lakers are entirely overmatched against most teams. With Wayne Ellington, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly and Carlos Boozer joining him on the court for the opening tip, they just don't have enough firepower or defensive ability to hang with the opposition unless they're completely overlooked.
It may be easy to get excited about back-to-back-to-back victories during such a down season, but let's not overlook that they came in overtime against the Boston Celtics, by three points over the Utah Jazz and against a Milwaukee Bucks squad still figuring out how to use Michael Carter-Williams.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves: 23-59
Current Record: 13-44
Current Pace: 19-63
FATS Projection: 21-61
FATS Similarity: 2011-12 Cleveland Cavaliers (97.85 percent match)
The Minnesota Timberwolves are not going to be pushovers during the rest of the season.
They're only on pace to win 19 games, but the FATS projection using data from their last 20 outings pushes that number up by another two. Subjectively, I'm tacking on two more victories because they've been even better lately, buoyed by the addition of Kevin Garnett, the returns of the veterans (Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic) and the improvement of Andrew Wiggins.
Sleep on the Wolves at your own peril, NBA elites. They may look like a scheduled victory, but they're going to make you work for that tick in the win column now, especially when compared to how they fared at the beginning of the season.
It's too much to expect a sudden coalescing of the talent resulting in a lengthy stretch of unbeaten play, but the Wolves should pick off a few unsuspecting opponents throughout the rest of the season.
Next year is when the fun truly begins for this young team.
13. Denver Nuggets: 25-57
Current Record: 20-38
Current Pace: 28-54
FATS Projection: 27-55
FATS Similarity: 1981-82 Cleveland Cavaliers (96.92 percent match)
The Denver Nuggets are basically the exact opposite of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but they came into Friday night with a seven-win cushion that won't fully allow the up-and-coming Western squad to catch them by the end of the year.
After trading away Arron Afflalo, Alonzo Gee and JaVale McGee at the trade deadline, the Nuggets are taking a step in the wrong direction. And they've already been free-falling as of late, playing a brand of basketball that's completely devoid of both passion and identity.
Over their last 20 games heading into a putrid Friday night showing against the Utah Jazz, they'd won only twice, and the victories came against the Dallas Mavericks (at the end of a win streak before the trouble began), New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers. During that stretch, they've been outscored by a jaw-dropping 10.7 points per 100 possessions.
To put that in perspective, the Philadelphia 76ers are being outdone by 11.1 points over the same stretch, and the New York Knicks are at 9.2.
12. Sacramento Kings: 29-53
Current Record: 20-36
Current Pace: 29-53
FATS Projection: 28-54
FATS Similarity: 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder (97.4 percent match)
The George Karl era hasn't gone entirely smoothly thus far.
Though the Sacramento Kings were 2-1 under the new head coach heading into an unsuccessful Friday night showdown with the San Antonio Spurs, including a stunning victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, the team's most important player doesn't seem to have his head screwed on all the way. DeMarcus Cousins has struggled with his shooting efficiency and turnovers, and he's developed an apparent distaste for chairs.
This team is talented. It's had trouble lately, but that's largely due to the poor fit Tyrone Corbin displayed with the players on the roster. Karl is a much better coach who can squeeze significantly more production out of those under his supervision, and that will naturally result in more wins.
How many more? That's a tougher question, because it's always difficult to figure out how quickly a team will jell, especially when such fragile personalities are thrown into the mix. Chances are, the improvement will be a fairly insignificant one during the rest of the season.
But next year is a different story.
11. Utah Jazz: 34-48
Current Record: 22-35
Current Pace: 32-50
FATS Projection: 34-48
FATS Similarity: 2002-03 New Orleans Hornets (98.47 percent match)
The Utah Jazz were always a talented bunch, but now it appears as though they're putting the right pieces into the proper slots. Rudy Gobert, for example, was a per-minute revelation at the beginning of the season, and now he's getting starters minutes after Utah shipped Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the deadline.
In fact, Gobert has still been the best rim-protecting big in the league.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, only three players are going up against at least five shot attempts per game at the rim and holding their opponents to less than 42 percent shooting. Andrew Bogut has suffocated everyone to the tune of 40.6 percent shooting, while Serge Ibaka is at 40.8 percent. But players are only shooting 38.1 percent at the hoop when Gobert is around, making him No. 1 by a margin as wide as his wingspan.
It's discoveries like this that are so important for the Jazz. Not only are they helping Salt Lake City experience a few more wins before the end of the season, but they're making the future much clearer.
And it seems awfully bright right now, even if Utah is all but guaranteed to be below .500 for the fourth time in five seasons.
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 42-40
Current Record: 31-27
Current Pace: 44-38
FATS Projection: 44-38
FATS Similarity: 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers (97.62 percent match)
Everything depends on Anthony Davis' health, and that's not looking so good as he sits out with a sprained shoulder that has now been injured multiple times.
Per FATS, the New Orleans Pelicans play as if they're a 24-win team when the league's best big man is on the bench or out with an injury. The best historical comparison stems from the 2010-11 Minnesota Timberwolves, who rode Kevin Love to a 17-win season.
But when he's on the floor, the Pelicans suddenly morph into a 48-win squad. This time, the top comparison is a 2005-06 Los Angeles Lakers unit that went to the playoffs before losing in the first round. It could be better, sure, but that's a significant upgrade from a bottom-feeding team with a number of wins so low that it can barely see R-rated movies without a parent in attendance.
In an easier conference, NOLA would be a playoff team. If the bayou magically kept players healthy, the same would be true. But without Davis and Jrue Holiday, the ship is quickly sinking on any dreams of a postseason run in 2014-15.
9. Phoenix Suns: 43-39
Current Record: 31-28
Current Pace: 43-39
FATS Projection: 43-39
FATS Similarity: 2000-01 Minnesota Timberwolves
Following a dramatic overtime win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Phoenix Suns are still alive in the race for a Western Conference playoff spot. They're on pace to win 43 games, and that's exactly where their last 20 games indicate they'll finish.
But the issue here is their diminishing upside.
With Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas both on the roster, there was a solid chance they could bust out of a slump and reel off a ton of wins, putting themselves back in the driver's seat. Now that Brandon Knight is running the show, there won't be much of a drop-off, but it's less likely the upside is realized. Chemistry has to be built, and there's significantly less depth in the backcourt.
Knight and Eric Bledsoe—who has sneakily been the team's best player all season and should benefit from increased responsibility—are a dynamic duo that can well carry the Suns to victories. In fact, the newly acquired point guard's outside shot might make him a better fit next to Bledsoe than Dragic ever was.
But still, Phoenix is playing more for the future than the present. Or at least, so it seems.
8. San Antonio Spurs: 46-36
Current Record: 35-23
Current Pace: 49-33
FATS Projection: 46-36
FATS Similarity: 1980-81 Washington Bullets (98.33 percent match)
Every year, it's the same old song and dance.
The San Antonio Spurs underachieve at some point during the season before turning on the jets and embarrassing anyone who dared doubt their superiority and unending excellence. It's happened over and over again. Time is a flat circle.
But this year feels different.
The Spurs aren't just old on paper; they actually look old on the basketball court. There's no motivation for a redemption story like there was last season. While Tim Duncan has continued to be, well, Tim Duncan, the rest of the squad has struggled to come together in recent weeks, and Tony Parker's decline is particularly concerning.
Since his January debut, the French point guard has averaged only 11.6 points and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 40.8 percent from the field, thanks primarily to a stunning lack of ability from the mid-range zones he normally owns. In the last three losses, he's actually posting just 3.0 points and 4.7 dimes per contest, shooting a vomit-inducing 14.3 percent from the field.
The head of the snake has been cut off, and the Spurs are reeling. Over their last 20 games, they've actually played like a sub-.500 squad, per FATS, and there's no telling when the turnaround will begin.
This time, the issues look like real ones, not just temporary maladies for Gregg Popovich to cure with his coaching magic.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder: 48-34
Current Record: 32-27
Current Pace: 44-38
FATS Projection: 49-33
FATS Similarity: 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers (97.79 percent match)
Remember when the Oklahoma City Thunder weren't going to make the playoffs?
Russell Westbrook took care of that. While Kevin Durant's foot forced him to go under the knife once more, the dynamic point guard has put on an absolute show. No rim has been safe, and he's been a bona fide wrecking ball capable of throwing up four triple-doubles in a single month. In fact, he was averaging 30.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 10.2 assists in February before recording his third consecutive trip-dub on Friday night.
Now, the Thunder are primed to succeed and became one of the most dangerous lesser seeds the NBA playoffs have ever seen.
Not only is Westbrook capable of submitting a strong MVP resume by single-handedly carrying the squad for the entire remaining portion of the regular season, but Durant will eventually return. Plus, the additions of Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler will all help in varying ways, as will a healthy Steven Adams.
The Thunder were struggling to establish chemistry on either end of the court during the opening salvo of the season, and that was true even when the stars were back. But at this point, they're looking as if they'll be rather deadly at full strength.
Look out, top seeds of the Association's tougher half. This is a team to avoid.
6. Dallas Mavericks: 53-29
Current Record: 39-21
Current Pace: 53-29
FATS Projection: 53-29
FATS Similarity: 1979-80 Milwaukee Bucks (98.79 percent match)
It's starting to look more and more doubtful that the Dallas Mavericks will figure out how to best incorporate Rajon Rondo into their lineup. And that's a shame, because this team was such an offensive juggernaut before it got star-happy and acquired him from the Boston Celtics.
Without the pass-first point guard on the court, the Mavericks are scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions and allowing 106.2. When he plays, those respective numbers change to 105 and 101.6. Even the extreme defensive improvement hasn't been enough to cancel out the stagnation of the point-scoring unit.
This season hinges on whether that changes.
And after the flare-up with Rick Carlisle that led to a one-game suspension, things don't appear to be particularly positive. There's still plenty of time left for the Mavericks to figure out how to use a ball-dominant point guard who can't shoot, but that's a tough task for a team already set in its offensive ways.
Fortunately for Dallas, there's still a lot of raw talent on this roster, and that usually manages to win games at a high rate, even if it's not adding up to more than the sum of the parts.
5. Portland Trail Blazers: 54-28
Current Record: 38-19
Current Pace: 55-27
FATS Projection: 49-33
FATS Similarity: 1988-89 Dallas Mavericks (98.83 percent match)
The Portland Trail Blazers have struggled lately, but many of their losses have come against high-quality opponents. Though they've lost 11 of their last 19 games, eight of those dropped contests came at the hands of teams projected to make the playoffs in this article, so that's nothing to be ashamed about.
Plus, the roster is getting stronger after the addition of Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee, both of whom Rip City traded for right before the Feb. 19 deadline. Afflalo in particular should help shore up a lackluster bench that has struggled to hold onto the leads earned by the starters, even if it's been marginally better than last year's second unit.
But the true key isn't Afflalo.
It's still Damian Lillard, as the dynamic All-Star point guard has been mired in a bit of a slump as of late. Heading into a Friday night contest with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he'd been held below 20 points in each of his last four outings, and he's only averaging 20 and six on sub-40 percent shooting over his past 20.
With Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge serving as the two leaders of the Blazers and thriving in those roles, this team is capable of earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. But if there's not substantial improvement in the near future, Portland will be in danger of falling down to No. 7.
Remember that FATS projection doesn't mean the Blazers have been playing like a 49-win team over their last 20 games. It means that using the projections from the last 20 contests and the current record, they're going to finish the season with 49 wins. The current level of performance is actually much worse.
4. Houston Rockets: 54-28
Current Record: 40-18
Current Pace: 57-25
FATS Projection: 53-29
FATS Similarity: 2013-14 Phoenix Suns (99.02 percent match)
As James Harden continues marching toward a possible MVP, the Houston Rockets won't stop winning games. They've dropped their fair share of contests over their past 20 outings, but with the exception of a Jan. 14 contest in the Amway Center, they've only lost to squads currently projected to make the playoffs.
Harden is obviously the headliner for the Rockets, as the bearded shooting guard has been sensational in his role as the alpha dog. But it wouldn't be fair to overlook the contributions of the many frontcourt players who have stepped up in Dwight Howard's absence.
Terrence Jones has improved since returning to the lineup, and he's even moved back into the starting five. Donatas Motiejunas has been a pleasant surprise at the 4, and Josh Smith has hit a surprising number of three-point attempts for the Morey-ball Rockets.
Now, Houston just has to get the defense back on track, as it's allowed an uncharacteristic 106.7 points per 100 possessions during those last 20 games. Howard's eventual return will help with that, but so too will a bit more intensity on the less glamorous end of the court.
Nothing comes easy in the Western Conference, and the Rockets are squarely in the midst of a pack of teams fighting to earn a top-three record in the NBA's tougher half.
3. Los Angeles Clippers: 55-27
Current Record: 38-21
Current Pace: 53-29
FATS Projection: 53-29
FATS Similarity: 1998-99 Indiana Pacers (96.57 percent match)
Can we collectively agree to stop selling the Los Angeles Clippers short?
Even without Blake Griffin in the lineup and with so little depth that a puddle would look at them condescendingly, the Clips have continued to win at a high rate and play impressive basketball. Chris Paul has been unbelievably effective, while DeAndre Jordan has been more than up to the challenge of stepping into a more featured role.
As Melissa Rohlin wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the absence of the power forward may end up being a positive, especially with Griffin poised to return before too long: "The silver lining for the Clippers throughout all of this is that the players have had a chance to improve as individuals, without relying on their superstar to bail them out. The last seven games have been a real team effort, without different players shining in the different contests."
Lest we forget, the Clippers still have the top offense in the NBA, scoring 1.7 more points per 100 possessions than the Golden State Warriors. They're still below the league average on the other end, but this is a unit scoring with historic levels of efficiency, due primarily to the sheer brilliance of one Mr. Paul.
Sure, LAC can rub people the wrong way with the constant appeals to the referees and the penchant for exaggerating contact. It's also a stagnant roster with notable flaws in the depth department, and it feels as if everyone has already peaked (even if that's not true).
But the Clippers are still quite dangerous.
2. Memphis Grizzlies: 57-25
Current Record: 41-16
Current Pace: 59-23
FATS Projection: 57-25
FATS Similarity: 1981-82 Atlanta Hawks (97.51 percent match)
The Memphis Grizzlies may have been massacred by the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, but every team is bound to be off its game every once in a while. It's a bit scary that this performance came right after a loss to the Sacramento Kings, but the Grizzlies have still played quite well in recent weeks.
Overall, we're looking at one of the deadliest defenses in the Association, one that's coupled with an above-average offense that will only get better as Jeff Green continues to gain comfort next to all of his new teammates. That's still a work in progress, as he's only logged 20 games with the Grizz.
As ESPN.com's Michael Wallace wrote, this was a team that recently had No. 1 seed aspirations:
Securing the No. 1 playoff seed in the West was thought to be as automatic for the Warriors as an open 3-pointer in transition for the Splash Brothers. But that's no longer a foregone conclusion with the Grizzlies lurking despite closing with the toughest remaining schedule in the league. The combination of Memphis' surge and Steph Curry's nagging ankle injury that has slightly hobbled the Warriors has given the Grizzlies a legitimate shot to shake things up with 27 games left.
Back-to-back losses are going to make that a tougher goal to accomplish, but it's still possible. Defense wins championships, they say, and it sure as hell wins regular-season games too.
1. Golden State Warriors: 63-19
Current Record: 45-11
Current Pace: 66-16
FATS Projection: 62-20
FATS Similarity: 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks (97.44 percent match)
The Golden State Warriors couldn't hang with the Cleveland Cavaliers on a Thursday night that saw LeBron James go into MVP mode, but that's not exactly the end for their hopes of earning the No. 1 record in the NBA, regardless of conference. This squad is still capable of playing outrageously strong basketball on both ends of the court, with the Splash Brothers raining in points and everyone combining to lock down the defense.
That said, the latter portion of that combination may be coming under fire.
"Our defense as a team has slipped the last four or five games," head coach Steve Kerr told reporters after losing to Cleveland, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "We're allowing teams to shoot in the high 40s instead of the low 40s, fouling a lot."
He's not wrong. Whereas the early season defense came across as impervious, the four defensive factors haven't been as kind in the last 20 games:
|Opponent's eFG%||Opponent's TOV%||DRB%||Opponent's FT/FGA|
|Jan. 13 and earlier||0.46||13.7||73.7||0.207|
|Jan. 14 and later||0.484||14.6||74.4||0.232|
Kudos to Kerr for recognizing exactly where his team needs to improve. The Warriors are more than capable of shoring up those weaknesses, especially as they get more comfortable with the rotations used when everyone is healthy.
And even if they don't, they're going to play like the best team in the league most nights.
Note: While records are accurate through Feb. 27's games, all stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into the night's action.