We have arrived…sort of. Welcome to the halfway mark of the NBA season. 41 games. All 30 teams have played between 38 and 43 games, so we’re as close to the midpoint as we’ll get. The All-Star Break is a few weeks away. As always at this time of year teams are dealing with multiple injuries and only three (Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland) have anything resembling a firm grasp of their playoff situation. That leaves 27 teams jockeying for 13 other playoff spots. In reality, more like 20 teams for 13 spots, which is a few more than usual this year.
This stretch of the season (six weeks between New Year’s and the All-Star break) is by far the most grueling. In an ideal NBA-schedule-world (70-game season), these six weeks would include 3 games per week maximum; 18 total). Instead, many teams will play 22 and 23 games in this stretch. Not only is the product on the court worse, injury-risk becomes magnified. Players are usually battling through injuries at this time of year as is. Back-to-backs and 4-games-in-6 days stretches compound things. As the NBA moves fully into a faster-paced, ball-movement-focused game, and as coaches look toward maintaining the health of their stars and restricting playing time to 32-34 minutes per game, the mid-year January stretch becomes a test in endurance, depth and the luck of health.
Making this time of year even more difficult to examine is the parity that exists throughout the NBA. As of January 17th, 10 teams—1/3 of the Association—are within four games of the .500 mark. Seven of those 10 teams are in the East. With few teams in obvious selling position as the trade deadline nears, questions abound. We have one month for teams to figure out how likely they are to make the playoffs (and, in the East, how likely they are to make the top 7 in order to avoid Cleveland in the first round).
It’s time to take a stroll through the Association. We’ll go from the bottom to the top, splitting this into three parts. Here’s the juicy middle, by current win pace.
20. Charlotte Hornets (pace: 37 wins)
Al Jefferson does not deserve this fate. Big Al has played in 14 playoff games in his 12 year career. Seven of those came as a 20 year-old rookie in Boston over a decade ago. Jefferson is one of the last of a dying breed: the low-post pivot big man without the foot-speed to survive in the modern pick-and-roll, pace-and-space era. Jefferson helped lead Charlotte to the playoffs in 2014, and promptly went down with a foot injury. Now, Big Al is recovering from right knee surgery. At age 31, and with too many miles on his old tires, it’s highly unlikely Jefferson will receive much interest in the off-season…which is why I’m secretly hoping the Celtics offer Big Al a one-year deal, hoping he has just enough juice left in the tank to give their bench a jolt of offense. It’s nice to dream of things coming full circle with Big Al. After all, he was the building block which enabled the Celtics to land Garnett in 2007. Meanwhile, Nicolas Batum has exploded in a primary role with Charlotte. As a key supporter in Portland, Batum’s decision making was rarely highlighted. With Jefferson out, Batum has emerged, averaging nearly 16 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 5.5 apg. Sadly, without the defensive wizardry of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (out for year after shoulder surgery) and the post-presence of Jefferson, the Hornets have run out of steam, losing 9 of 10.
19. Utah Jazz (pace: 37 wins)
Record with Rudy Gobert in the starting lineup: 11-8; record without Rudy Gobert in the starting lineup: 7-14. From here on out, record needed to get to 40 wins: 22-20. After losing Dante Exum before the year started and playing stretches without everyone except for swingman Gordon Hayward, the Jazz have been surprisingly resilient. As Brooklyn fans consider the mistakes that led to what is now likely the least optimistic future of the 30 franchises, despite the free agent magnetism of New York City, the emergence of 3rd overall pick Derrick Favors has to cause severe intestinal pain. Favors, much like departed Jazz power forward Paul Millsap, has worked himself into one of the top young bigs in the league. Jazz fans can’t wait to see what Favors and Gobert can do with an actual point guard, once Exum returns next year.
18. New York Knicks (pace: 39 wins)
Kristaps Porzingis is fun to watch. All arms and legs and with nimble feet, he is nearly impossible to box out, which often leads crowd-pleasing put-back slams. Carmelo has turned a new leaf, embracing the role of wise elder. The Knicks are an interesting amalgamation of veterans (Lopez, Afflalo, Lopez) and young fellas (Kristaps, Grant, Gallaway). Still, the Knicks have a relatively tough stretch over the next few weeks, which may dim their playoff hopes slightly as the deadline nears.
17. Washington Wizards (pace: 40 wins)
The Wizards without Bradley Beal (stress reaction in leg) and basically without Nene (one knee, 10-15 minutes per game) are just as volatile as the Pacers. The Wizards attack focuses on racing past defenses in order to beat them and playing small ball around Marcin Gortat. John Wall’s blinding speed is most effectively used that way. The trouble: sustaining that pace and reserving enough energy for defense. John Wall has improved his jumper considerably over the years, and his offensive aggression has taken on new levels of importance without Beal (newly returned, with limited minutes) and Nene, but the lack of balance makes them vulnerable. They don’t have enough energy at ends of games (and not enough Beal and Nene) to play the top-level defense that they have shown over the last two years. Beal is one of the more polished under-25 two-way players in the league, and shown the ability to raise his game in the playoffs. All of this makes his injuries that much more troublesome to the Wizards franchise.
16. Orlando Magic (pace: 42 wins)
The Magic are playing defense, thanks in part to Scott Skiles’ preaching the gospel of rotations and physical play. The Magic are young and uber-athletic. The Magic started 19-13, before dropping 6 of their last 7. Two of the six losses came to the Wizards, and the other four came to East teams with better than .500 records. The Magic have improved, but now they have to deal with the reality that the East is filled with decent teams. Orlando’s offense is the problem. They can’t get to the free-throw line (18 FTA per game is last in the league), and they don’t take as many threes (22 per game is 23rd in the league) as they need to. The Magic are hoping Elfrid Payton gradually develops into a decent shooter. In the meantime, Orlando will do its best to claw their way to a playoff berth in the crowded East.
15. Houston Rockets (pace: 43 wins)
After starting 5-10, the Rockets have slowly climbed back to above .500 at 22-20. This year’s Rockets remain a mystery after last year’s surge in April and May, surprising many with an improbable comeback in the West Semis against the Clippers, coming from 3-1 down. Those Rockets were propelled by Harden’s magicianship, and the versatility of everyone from the mercurial Josh Smith to the caffeinated Corey Brewer. Those Rockets finished 6th in defensive rating. This year, the Rockets defense is 21st. The return of point guard Patrick Beverley, after the firing of coach Kevin McHale has coincided with Houston’s upward climb. During a 10-game stretch without Beverley in the starting lineup, the Rockets were 3-7. These Rockets remain enigmatic. The chemistry that they found last spring doesn’t seem likely to return to the point where they have any hope of threatening Golden State or San Antonio.
14. Boston Celtics (pace: 44 wins)
Jae Crowder always seems to save these Celtics in the 4th quarter. Crowder’s play has been instrumental in that stabilizing role (see: West, David and Nene, Nene). Last night, Crowder did it again by tipping out an offensive rebound with Boston up 111-110 and 45 seconds left, and then again with four seconds left on a beautifully executed pin-down pass from Marcus Smart, to put the Celtics over the top 119-117 on a wild finish in Washington. Crowder saved the Celtics almost single-handedly earlier in the season against the Sixers. There have been two or three other games that likely would have swung from wins to close losses were it not for Crowder. He simply rises to the occasion when the Celtics need him the most. Need evidence, Crowder is 7 of 10 from beyond the paint in the 4th quarter with the Celtics down 6 points or less.
Though it’s easy to pick any sample and exaggerate its importance, there was a ragged stretch late in the recent Boston win over Indiana (four Celtics steals in the final two minutes) where the Pacers lack of a stabilizing force to replace their former-anchor/sage David West was so clearly evident. Paul George is running on fumes at the moment, with little help. The Pacers win represented the impact of defensive anchors, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder. The problem with these Celtics is how hard it is to consistently suffocate the NBA’s best and most-balanced offenses.
13. Indiana Pacers (pace: 44 wins)
see above. Also, Paul George needs some help in Indiana, as the leg which he broke 18 months ago has been sore lately. The Pacers have managed to play stifling defense yet again (tied 4th in defensive efficiency at 99.1) by running teams off of the three-point line, and closing off passing lanes. George Hill and Paul George remain a fearsome defensive duo. The attention that Paul has to pay to both ends of the court is going to be the issue as the season wears on. Paul George’s 3-point percentage has slipped by the month: 49% in November, 36% in December, and only 31% so far in January. Not surprisingly, the Pacers have dropped 6 of their last 10. Frank Vogel can’t get to the All-Star Break soon enough.
12. Memphis Grizzlies (pace: 44 wins)
Mike Conley deserves better than this. The Achilles has been plaguing him this year after the facial fracture that took him out in the first round against Golden State in April. Zach Randolph is now coming off the bench, destroying reserve power forwards. Marc Gasol is occasionally able to torch opponents, but seems to have settled into a distributing role. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough shooters to distribute to. As has been the issue in Memphis for years, there isn’t enough space, and there’s rarely much pace. The defensive-minded Grizzlies are now officially grizzled vets. It’d be fun to see Memphis match up with Oklahoma City if only to watch Tony Allen’s playoff defense on Kevin Durant.
11. Detroit Pistons (pace: 45 wins)
Detroit wants to make the playoffs very badly this year. After a rough stretch for the franchise, the Pistons officially have a new identity, crafted by coach and GM Stan Van Gundy. Center Andre Drummond is a rebounding force, who is learning the post-up game. As has been documented, Van Gundy’s success in Orlando with Dwight Howard hinged on three-point shooting surrounding the Goliath in the middle. Shooting guru Dave Hopla has been added to help spur the development of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Reggie Jackson, and rookie Stanley Johnson. The Pistons run a Jackson-Drummond pick and roll nearly every time down the court, which makes them more than a little predictable on offense. The benefit of this strategy is allowing Drummond to roll toward the rim on a huge number of possessions. This has led to the Pistons leading the NBA in offensive rebounding, an endangered species in the NBA. The Pistons and the Celtics are both one excellent shooter away from being a very tough out in the East.