Traditionally, teams have split into two groups during the post-All-Star stretch of the NBA's regular season: those striving to make the playoffs and those going after a lottery pick. Last season's addition of a play-in tournament created a third layer, with some teams on the bubble forced to weigh which direction they should pick.
This season, the play-in pictures in both conferences mirror each other coming out of the break. The teams currently in the Nos. 7-9 seeds—the Minnesota Timberwolves and two Los Angeles teams in the West; the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets and Charlotte Hornets in the East—clearly are (as they should be) trying to make the playoffs. The No. 10 seeds and the teams immediately behind them are where things get interesting.
Blazers-Pelicans Trade Has Widespread Implications
The Portland Trail Blazers currently sit at 10th in the Western Conference, with a two-game lead over the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans, who are tied with a 23-36 record. The Blazers and Pelicans made one of the biggest trades at the deadline, with the principal pieces being CJ McCollum going to New Orleans and Josh Hart going to Portland along with a first-round pick that will only convey if it falls between Nos. 5 and 14 in the upcoming lottery.
The two teams made this deal for opposite reasons. New Orleans wanted to add McCollum's scoring ability and big-time shotmaking to break a four-year playoff drought and add experience around Zion Williamson—if Williamson ever plays. The Blazers finally pulled the plug on the long-running backcourt of McCollum and Damian Lillard, taking advantage of Lillard's recent abdominal surgery and likely absence for the rest of the season to completely reset and get a lottery pick of their own.
You're starting to see the maneuvering this week: Portland reacted to a surprising four-game winning streak heading into the All-Star break by announcing Wednesday that starting center Jusuf Nurkic will miss at least four weeks with left foot plantar fasciitis. If the Blazers want to ensure they'll keep their own draft pick, which they owe to the Chicago Bulls if they somehow avoid the lottery, that's one way to do it.
With a crucial offseason coming up, Portland needs to both keep its own pick and for New Orleans' pick to convey. Every Blazers fan should be rooting for the Sacramento Kings to get the No. 10 seed, while Pelicans president of basketball operations David Griffin may need that spot to keep his own job.
Knicks and Wizards Heading in Opposite Directions
In the East, the New York Knicks are currently clinging to an outside chance at the play-in but trail the 10th-seeded Atlanta Hawks by 3.5 games. The Knicks went into the All-Star break on a steep decline, blowing 20-plus-point leads to Portland and Oklahoma City as part of a three-game slide.
As the league prepares to restart, New York announced Wednesday that veteran point guard Kemba Walker won't play again this season. Walker, who lost his spot in the rotation in November before injuries forced coach Tom Thibodeau to start playing him again in mid-December, is going to "use this time to prepare for next season," according to a statement made by team president Leon Rose.
The Knicks will be in win-now mode as long as Thibodeau is their coach. While last season's playoff berth and Julius Randle's breakout looked like the start of something, both have proven to be flukes. Randle has regressed, and Thibodeau's uncompromising personality and tendencies have been at odds with the need to develop some of the team's young players.
Unlike other teams in their corner of the standings, though, the Knicks don't have draft-driven incentives to pull the plug on this season. They own their own first-round pick, but with a present-focused coach like Thibodeau, drafting another young player who needs minutes to develop may not be a priority. Given Walker's up-and-down play this season, it's not even clear that sitting him—something both parties are characterizing as a mutual decision—would even help a tanking effort.
Sitting between the Hawks at 10 and the Knicks at 12 are the Washington Wizards, who trail Atlanta by one game for the final spot in the play-in. For them, there's absolutely no benefit to getting there.
With Bradley Beal out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery earlier this month, there's no shot that any appearance in the postseason, play-in or otherwise, would result in anything more than a quick exit. With Beal one year from free agency after years of will-they-or-won't-they trade speculation, a better draft pick may make it easier for Wizards ownership to stomach a full teardown.
What to Make of the Kings and Spurs?
Washington is, in many ways, the East Coast analogue to another of the play-in hopefuls, the Sacramento Kings. While the Wizards have had considerably more playoff success in recent years (the Kings haven't been to the postseason since 2006), both franchises are perpetually caught between trying to compete while not being good enough and trying to rebuild while not being bad enough.
The Kings made it clear they want their playoff dry spell to come to an end now when they made a deadline-week trade that sent promising young guard Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana for two-time All-Star center Domantas Sabonis. The long-term wisdom of trading away Haliburton will likely be debated for years, but the fact is, they made the trade for right now, so they might as well go for it ("it" being a playoff appearance and likely first-round exit).
Sacramento has 3.5 games to make up to catch Portland, but that should be doable since the Blazers are focused squarely on next season. Additionally, the Kings are 1.5 games back of both the Pelicans and Spurs, who they will also have to surpass if they're going to sneak into the play-in.
San Antonio's best path forward is the toughest to figure out of the entire group.
The Spurs have quality players, including first-time All-Star Dejounte Murray and center Jakob Poeltl, who was highly coveted by other teams before the deadline. They're in the category of teams between the playoffs and the lottery that will be a tough out for anyone who plays them, but an out nonetheless. As good as he is, you're only going to get so far with Murray as your best player.
A better draft pick comes with a chance to draft the true franchise cornerstone the Spurs have been missing since Kawhi Leonard forced a trade in 2018. San Antonio's own lottery spot won't be that high, but it has a good chance at also getting first-rounders from Boston and Toronto in the draft, so it'll have options when it comes to moving up. However, don't expect Gregg Popovich to pack it in early, even if there may be wisdom to doing that.
The benefits of a perfunctory playoff appearance or a better pick vary wildly from team to team. Some teams need the pick to accelerate their rebuild. Others may value the playoff experience for their young players. Or if you're the Kings, you might just want to be back in the mix for the first time in nearly two decades.
One of the unforeseen benefits of the play-in format has been the creation of a class of teams between the ones that are obviously tanking (Oklahoma City, Houston, Detroit, Orlando) and the ones that will be looked at as disappointments if they're in the lottery. The teams that were previously in no man's land now have something to play for—if they want to.