NBA Teams Poised to Make a Post-All-Star Game Run
Time is running out for NBA teams that have yet to solidify their intended place in the competitive landscape.
Although the All-Star break serves as the league's unofficial halfway marker, nearly three-quarters of the 2017-18 campaign is actually in the books. Squads with something left to play for have somewhere between 21 and 27 games to get the job done.
The stakes vary in every case. Certain teams are jostling for playoff seeding and home-court advantage. Others are scrapping and clawing to make the postseason at all. A select few are looking to re-affirm their spot in the pantheon of powerhouses.
In each instance, regardless of the goal, now would be a great time for non-tankers to get hot and then stay hot. And after taking into account recent performances, previous changes, upcoming schedules and everything in between, a few teams are positioned more than others to do just that.
Net Rating (Rank): 0.3 (17)
Net Rating Last 10 (Rank): 2.7 (10)
Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 22
Perhaps no team in the NBA—and most certainly from the Eastern Conference—looked forward to the All-Star break less than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That sentiment would have sounded misinformed, if confounding, if disconsolately dumb, a couple weeks ago. The Cavaliers followed up a stretch of 18 wins over 19 games with a 21-game free-fall, through which they went 7-14 while fielding a bottom-two defense and posting a 28th-ranked point differential per 100 possessions. They looked something worse than browbeaten—exhausted, no doubt, but also broken beyond repair.
Even their overtime victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, on Feb. 7, just before the trade deadline left little grounds for optimism. They surrendered 138 points and waged a three-point shootout with one of the league's least-inclined triple-tossing teams, emerging victorious only because LeBron James went full Christian Laettner over Jimmy Butler at the buzzer.
But then the Feb. 8 trade deadline came to pass, and everything changed—almost literally. After the dust settled, the Cavaliers had exchanged Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, their own first-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick (via Miami) and cash for Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.
Roster overhauls seldom include flipping just one of your top-six minutes-getters, yet here Cleveland sits, marching forward with an appreciably different rotation and renewed sense of self.
Attitude shifts are basically all we have to go off in the meantime. Though the Cavaliers will exit the All-Star sabbatical on a four-game win streak, they have played just two tilts with their collection of new faces. But those victories are significant. They came over the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder—a pair of contenders—and showcased how much more athletic, spacey and engaged this group is at both ends.
"It might not have been a bad thing to get some fresh faces in there and guys from situations where they really wanted to win," Kevin Love said, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. "I think first and foremost, seeing those [new] guys in Atlanta, they didn't play, but they got there right after the trade and they just said they want to win. You can tell when somebody says it, you can tell when somebody means it. They really meant it and it felt good to have that there."
These emotional and tactical leanings, however premature, matter. So, too, does the Cavaliers' schedule. They have one of the Association's 10 easiest remaining slates. There may not be enough time for them to take over first or second place in the Eastern Conference, but they have both the means and good fortune to firm up their status as Finals formalities.
Net Rating: 0.3 (16)
Net Rating Last 10: 1.8 (12)
Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 11
Chalk this up to a gut feeling.
The Denver Nuggets don't have a particularly easy schedule for the last quarter of the season. Devin Harris doesn't qualify as a major trade-deadline acquisition. They are an uninspiring 14-19 against teams .500 or better. They're 9-19 on the road, where 13 of their final 24 games will take place. They're 22nd in defensive efficiency—and 28th over their past 10 outings. They're tied in the loss column with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Western Conference's No. 9 seed.
Still, the Nuggets have their bright spots. They're seventh in points scored per 100 possessions on the year and a tick better through their last 10 (fifth). Nikola Jokic remains your least-favorite Twitter troll's favorite player to underrate. Jamal Murray's hot streak hasn't yet met its maker; he's slashing 49.0/45.5/90.0 through his last 20 games.
Wilson Chandler entered the All-Star break showing signs of life after missing two contests at the end of January. Trey Lyles remains very playable, even as his shooting percentages wax and wane.
Above all else, Paul Millsap is ticketed to return from wrist surgery in March. The offense will need reps to incorporate him, just as it did to start the season, but he injects a sorely needed defensive punch.
Between him and Lyles, the Nuggets should hardly, if ever, need to run lineups without at least one switchy big. Head coach Mike Malone will even have the opportunity to experiment with some hyper-versatile frontcourt combos that feature Millsap at the 5 with Chandler or Lyles at the 4. He doesn't have that freedom now; the Chandler-Lyles dyad has hemorrhaged points when playing without another big.
Adding Millsap into the starting lineup alone will be enough of a boon. This year's preferred opening five—Chandler, Jokic, Millsap, Murray and Gary Harris—is still the Nuggets' second-most played unit and has outpaced opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions. And now they'll have a more reliable hub to pilot Jokic-less quintets.
Denver's offensive output continues to plunge without its Serbian structure on the court. The team gets by with starter-heavy combinations complementing a few bench contributors. Millsap makes it easier to prop up that model without over-taxing Harris and Murray while allowing Barton to re-assume his role as the second unit's lifeline. The Nuggets should shine once he's back—scheduling difficulties and all.
Golden State Warriors
Net Rating (Rank): 10.0 (1)
Net Rating Last 10 (Rank): 8.7 (4)
That the Golden State Warriors' first regular-season segment can be painted as a disappointment speaks to the impossibly high standards set before them. They sport the NBA's best offense, as expected. And they own a top-five defense, again as expected.
Except for those few minutes-long spurts in the middle of certain games, though, they don't appear unbeatable.
Indeed, the Warriors' enduring rights as the overwhelming title favorite feels, at this point, a little more obligatory than entirely true. The Houston Rockets, not them, possess the Western Conference's best record. The Warriors are first in three-point accuracy overall, but six of their 10 most-used names are shooting under 30 percent from beyond the arc. They're notching the league's second-highest turnover rate.
Not even their top-five defense retains its usual impressiveness.
No team allows opponents to get out in transition more frequently after missing a shot on offense, according to Cleaning The Glass. The Warriors neither hoist nor botch enough deep balls to use the "too many long rebounds" excuse. They were fifth in this same category last year—and third in fast-break frequency allowed overall, compared to 28th now—when a slightly larger share of their looks came from downtown.
Most of Golden State's warts scream regular-season indifference. Call it deliberate cruise control. Or incidental lethargy. Call it, as head coach Steve Kerr did, "disgusting" disinterest. Call it whatever you want. The Warriors aren't hiding from it. They're also not afraid of it.
"This is the fourth season going after—like realistically going after—that championship trophy," Curry said, per Yahoo Sports' Michael Lee. "Human nature is to lose your edge a little bit. We've got to fight that, but I like where we are right now, to be honest. I like that it hasn't been easy."
Well, the Warriors' life is about to get easier. They'll close the year with the West's least threatening schedule. Ten of their final 24 tilts come versus sub-.500 squads, against which they're 19-4. Five of those other 14 games see them face playoff teams suffering from major absences: the Andre Roberson-less Thunder (twice); DeMarcus Cousins-less New Orleans Pelicans (once); and probably Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs (twice).
Moral of the story: Irrespective of how invested the Warriors are in the regular season, they're about to roll toward its finish line.
Net Rating (Rank): 2.8 (8)
Net Rating Last 10 (Rank): 4.1 (7)
As a general rule, any team that signs Marco Belinelli and his understated Twitter chops midseason must be earmarked for a post-All-Star surge. But it just so happens the Philadelphia 76ers were on a tear before Belinelli photoshopped his head onto Sylvester Stallone's body. (Aside: Now there's a sentence.)
Making a list of teams fielding a better defense than the Sixers since Christmas is futile, because it doesn't exist; they're first in points allowed per 100 possessions. Instead, here's every squad tallying a better net rating during that time: Golden State. Aaand that's it.
Peeps keep trying to make a dilemma out of the Defensive Player of the Year race. Should Rudy Gobert creep into the discussion after missing games? Can enough of a spin job be done to get Kevin Durant some undeserving votes? Is Draymond Green the default pick just because? Will tweeters of interest suddenly pretend to understand how damn valuable Al Horford has been all along?
Let's not overcomplicate this debate: voting for Horford is totally acceptable. Otherwise, any and all love should go to Joel Embiid. He has been spectacular at the less glamorous end. Screw the post-Christmas stinginess. Philly is third on the overall defensive ladder and allows even fewer points per 100 possessions when he's jumping center.
Embiid, incidentally, is both the primary case for and against the Sixers' stretch-run blitz. They pummel opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays, a net rating that would lead the league. When he sits, that differential plummets to minus-5.2—a mark worse than that from the Brooklyn Nets.
Treading water without him remains a problem. Ben Simmons' Rookie of the Year case cedes glitz and glam to Donovan Mitchell when you look at his performance independent of Embiid. The Sixers could really use another healthy and able shot-creator—someone like, oh, I don't know, the first overall pick in last June's draft or whatever.
And yet, this issue no longer profiles as the Sixers' undoing. They're a net plus when Simmons plays without Embiid over their past 20 games, a not-insubstantial sample. He looks somewhat comfortable running the offense on his own, but more importantly, he's anchored some effective non-Embiid defensive lineups over this span. (Another aside: Don't let negative Neds and Nancies lead you to believe the Sixers hide Simmons on D. They do not.)
Inconsistent and inexperienced bench play will stick with Philly all year. Belinelli helps neutralize one of the league's two worst-shooting second units, but he doesn't completely remedy its dead-last offense. Head coach Brett Brown still has to hedge his bets with starter-heavy arrangements, so don't expect the Sixers to deeply improve upon their bench's 29th-ranked usage.
Pit this relative shallowness—along with persisting turnover woes—against a tougher schedule, and Philly might not be primed for end-of-the-year noise-making. But no other team has an easier road in front of them.
Seventeen of the Sixers' final 27 contests come against under-.500 foes, including 10 matchups with the East's bottom-five teams. And with only one game in the loss column separating them from the fourth-place Washington Wizards, don't be surprised if they make an 11th-hour push for home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason.
Net Rating (Rank): 2.0 (10)
Net Rating Last 10 (Rank): 15.8 (1)
Remaining Strength of Schedule Rank: 20
Meet the only team in the NBA that probably hated the All-Star break's timing more than the Cavaliers.
The Utah Jazz haven't lost a game since Blake Griffin was still a member of the Clippers. They'll come out of their mid-February vacation sitting on the West's No. 10 seed yet projected as playoff locks—and deservedly so.
Typical protocol demands we consume small-sample success with a mason jar (or 20) of salt. The Jazz were nine games below .500 before going supernova, their season ostensibly finished. And they don't have a comfortable margin for error.
Neither the Clippers nor the Pelicans nor the Portland Trail Blazers seem prepared to roll over. The slightest misstep—a losing streak, key injury, another Ricky Rubio shooting slump—could seal their lottery fate.
At the same time, most signs point to the Jazz's recent dominance being closer to a harbinger of normal, if only because it coincides with Rudy Gobert's return. They notch a league-best defensive rating when he's in the lineup, and the Gobert-Derrick Favors-Joe Ingles-Donovan Mitchell quartet has been statistical money for most of the year. Why wouldn't the Jazz thrive with their best player at full strength?
General regression is inevitable. Rubio is tied with Ingles for the team's best three-point clip (54.2 percent) during the Jazz's 11-game win streak. Favors and Gobert have gone from a shaky pairing to an indomitable duo. Royce O'Neale is playing like Rodney Hood's role model. Jae Crowder is hitting three-pointers and defending like he means it again.
Everything cannot hold. Fortunately for the Jazz, it doesn't need to. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote prior to their Feb. 14 victory over the Phoenix Suns:
"Utah has the easiest remaining schedule among all those teams based on current opponent winning percentage. Fifteen of their remaining 25 games are at home. They have the head-to-head tiebreaker edge over New Orleans, Portland and the Clippers going into their final matchups against all three. (They have already split four games against Denver.) The nerds at 538 give Utah a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs, best among this five-team crew."
Also of note to the most devout skeptics: The Jazz's last three wins have come without Rubio, and Rookie of the Year hopeful Mitchell is shooting 36.5 percent overall and under 33 percent from deep over his past six cameos. So while their fireball stretch won't last forever, the Jazz are not, by any means, streaking on the back of untenable perfection.