Give And Go: Playoff bubble watch
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: assessing the playoff bubbles in both conferences. In the East, the Celtics entered Tuesday’s play trailing the Bucks by 1½ games while holding a three-game lead over the Sixers for the No. 8 seed. The Pistons and Raptors loom as longshots. In the West, three teams — the Jazz, Rockets and Trail Blazers — are separated by 1½ games as they fight for the final two playoff spots. The Lakers are 3½ games out of eighth.
1. Which current top-eight team is most vulnerable to miss the playoffs?
Ben Golliver: The Celtics would seem to be a popular choice, given the injury-riddled week they just completed. The losses of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo and rookie big man Jared Sullinger were brutal and they conjure up an even more horrifying question: What if someone else goes down? But picking the Celtics to drop requires a push from the Sixers, Pistons or Raptors, and none of those three looks to be a particularly appetizing upset favorite. It’s hard to put any faith in Andrew Bynum as the Sixers’ savior; the Pistons just sold off Tayshaun Prince and would do well to dump more salaries if possible; and the Raptors boast one of the league’s most porous defenses, which isn’t particularly helpful when trying to make up 7½ games over the final 10 weeks of the season. I’ll take my chances with the Celtics in the East, even if they wind up staggering to the finish line.
That leaves either Houston or Utah in the West. Perhaps I’m allowing recent performance to dictate this answer, but the Jazz seem to be on shakier ground than the Rockets, and not just because of their ugly home blowout loss to Houston last week. They expended more effort than they should have putting away the Blazers at home on Friday; they played a dreadfully flat game on Saturday in a loss in Portland; and then they barely escaped the Kings at home in overtime on Monday, even though Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins was ejected at halftime. Yes, the Jazz went 2-1 in those three games, but nothing about the performances screamed “playoff team.” The offense has been choppy, which isn’t all that surprising with Mo Williams and Gordon Hayward injured, and the defense is solidly below average (23rd in points allowed per possession).
There’s also the possibility that one or both of Utah’s two best (and most dependable) players are dealt before the Feb. 21 trade deadline. Take away either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap and this team’s current identity is changed for good. Given this group’s limited upside in the playoffs, punting for the future would seem to be an attractive option, even if it would make for a tough few months in the short term.
Rob Mahoney: That’s the thing about the Celtics: Injuries (and a road-heavy schedule over the final two months of the season) make their standing precarious, but the competition for their postseason spot just isn’t anything like what we’re seeing out West. Even with Dallas and Minnesota fading out of contention, that still leaves the 10th-place Lakers within 4½ games of the seventh-place Jazz. The four teams competing for those final two West spots are closer in both ability and record than any of the teams that can challenge Boston, even with Rondo and Sullinger out for the year.
And as Ben noted, that brings us to a toss-up between the Jazz and Rockets, with Utah being slightly more vulnerable. The makeshift point guard rotation of Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson and Randy Foye just hasn’t been all that kind to the Jazz, and the familiar defensive struggles that come with relying on Jefferson have proved costly. Plus, for a team that’s so focused on its big men, you’d think that the Jazz would be a better rebounding team, but Utah ranks 23rd in defensive-rebounding rate.
So to recap: The Jazz are slow on the back line, don’t complete defensive possessions and still foul far too often. They’re nowhere near the worst defensive team in the league, but their work on that end is suspect enough — even relative to the Rockets, who are shaky defensively in their own way — that it could wind up costing the Jazz a postseason berth. This could be a very different conversation if not for Williams’ hand injury, but as it stands I don’t trust Utah’s offense enough to pencil the Jazz into the playoffs just yet.
2. Which team on track to finish in the lottery is most likely to rally and make the playoffs?
Ben Golliver: The Lakers are seen by John Hollinger’s playoff odds and Basketball-Reference’s forecast as the favorite. Both projections give the Lakers at least a 29 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Hollinger’s model has the Trail Blazers at 25 percent and the 76ers at 22.9 percent, while Basketball-Reference puts those two teams at 18.6 percent and 15.8 percent, respectively.
Why do the computers like the Lakers? For one, their strength of schedule (based on opponent winning percentage) ranks No. 4 in the league, while the Blazers and Jazz have played the two weakest schedules in the West (Portland ranks No. 20 and Utah ranks No. 26). In addition, the Lakers possess a positive average point differential (plus-1.50) despite their losing record, while Portland (minus-1.7) and Utah (minus-0.8), both above .500, do not. That combination suggests the Lakers can expect an easier ride down the stretch and that they could benefit if the three teams’ performances in tight games get closer to evening out.
The Lakers’ offense, ranked No. 7 in efficiency, has been reliably above average this season despite the twists and turns, and the defense, ranked No. 17, has shown marginal (but critical) improvement over the last three weeks. The Lakers have conceded 100 points or more only three times in the last 12 games and lost only one of those three games. Contrast that with the horrendous six-game losing streak to open 2013, in which they conceded an average of 111.8 points. Yes, it’s certainly possible that these numbers are just a reflection of a truly volatile team rather than a veteran group that is finally buckling down. We’ll see.
L.A. clearly has the superstar talent and experience cards to play, too. The biggest concern is that Dwight Howard never gets healthy enough to be the player the Lakers need to him to be down the stretch. That uncertainty makes this proposition anything but a slam dunk. Even so, I’ll still side with the computers.
Rob Mahoney: What’s more: Pau Gasol is showing some signs of life over the last few games, which both bodes well for this stretch without Howard and holds the potential for improvement upon his return. There has been much hand-wringing over whether Gasol and Howard can function as teammates offensively, but the bigger issue has been their complete lack of defensive chemistry. Part of that problem has been Gasol’s borderline disinterest, which at the very least could be diagnosed as a heinous lack of focus. Howard was in tune with the team defense but clearly not executing as he’s theoretically capable, while Gasol appeared to be on another planet entirely.
In addition to his back-to-back 20-and-10 performances, Gasol is demonstrating the kind of improvement in his defensive awareness that could — and should — carry over once the Lakers have Howard in the lineup again. There are no guarantees at this point, but at least Gasol is now meeting an important precondition that could provide for legitimate defensive evolution.
Or the Lakers could stay the Lakers, and Gasol — who told the Los Angeles Times that he may request a trade in the offseason — could continue to sulk and distract. The whole situation is a mess, and though the Lakers have the best draw and the most potential among bubble teams, they have given us every reason to doubt their ability to make this kind of rally.
3. Which bubble team should buy at the trade deadline to improve its chances?
Ben Golliver: Whenever trade deadline talk heats up, the Rockets seem to immediately enter the equation. Last year, they attempted to fortify their front line for a playoff push by acquiring Marcus Camby, only to collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Take ownership’s willingness to spend, general manager Daryl Morey’s eagerness to deal, a not-yet-depleted cache of minor assets (rookie deal players and assembled draft picks) and a fair bit of unused cap space and you’ve got a good recipe for some type of moving and shaking. Whether it’s a minor move to add a rotation piece or a major play such as Josh Smith, the Rockets look to be the clear buyers among the league’s mid-tier teams.
There’s some process of elimination at work, too. The Lakers have a monster payroll and limited flexibility. The young Blazers have preached the virtues of long-term flexibility all season. The Jazz’s biggest decisions are whether to trade Jefferson and Millsap, moves that would be unlikely to make the team better in the short term.
In the East, there’s no point in the Celtics and 76ers — two banged-up teams — buying anything meaningful. The Pistons are already in sell-off mode, and Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo has essentially maxed out his salary-cap credit card.
Rob Mahoney: I’m going to skirt the question a bit and say none of the above. I could definitely see the Rockets toying with dozens of potential trade scenarios leading up to the deadline, but the fact that they’re able to be this young, this good and this flexible tells me that they should stand pat for the moment rather than roll the dice. Many of the most tradable assets on the market are going to be available in a few months anyway, and if Morey really has eyes for a pending free agent such as Josh Smith, then it would make the most sense to hold on to his players and picks while playing with the team’s cap room this summer. Otherwise, most of those same deals will be on the table in a few months when Houston has a better idea of how it wants to utilize its various resources, and without the risk of upsetting this team’s current trajectory or needlessly sacrificing trade chips.
And the rest of the field, as Ben noted, essentially speaks for itself. The two quasi-bubble teams that really interest me from a trade perspective are Minnesota and Dallas, but neither is really competitive enough at present to qualify for this discussion.
4. Which bubble team should sell at the trade deadline?
Ben Golliver: If we can generously count the 18-31 Pistons as a “bubble team,” then I’ll go with them. I gave them an “A” for their salary dump of Prince and Austin Daye, and I’m ready and willing to hand out more compliments if they find a way to unload any of their overpaid, mediocre veterans. Joe Dumars can enter the Executive of the Year discussion in my book if he manages to deal Charlie Villanueva without taking back additional future salary!
All hyperbole aside, the Pistons need to miss the playoffs to keep their first-round pick this year; otherwise, the Bobcats get it as part of the Corey Maggette-for-Ben Gordon deal. They made the right move in dealing Prince to open more minutes for their younger players and create more financial flexibility for this summer. Any further progress in those directions would be icing on the cake. This team is below average on both offense and defense and wouldn’t stand a chance if they somehow managed to sneak in as the No. 8 seed and faced the Heat in the first round. There’s no incentive to win and plenty of reason to “strategically lose” through concerted player development. Sell, sell, sell, if at all possible.
Rob Mahoney: I’m tempted to pick Boston, simply because I see no reason to keep the Celtics’ current core together. Rondo’s injury might as well have been a death sentence for this Celtics team, and with his ACL rehabilitation and Sullinger’s recovery likely to set this team back well into next season, I see far more value in trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett than I do in keeping them.
That said, Boston doesn’t face an immediate rush to unload pieces at the deadline and may find it easier to deal some of its mid-level contracts this summer. The Jazz, on the other hand, essentially need to make a decision regarding Jefferson and Millsap now if at all possible. A potential playoff spot might be at risk, but that’s nothing compared to the sunk cost of letting either big man walk in July as a free agent. Selling, buying, call it whatever you want — Utah needs to be exploring whatever trade scenarios are available for whichever players it isn’t interested in keeping long term.
5. Which team seeded from No. 6 to No. 8 has the best chance to win a playoff series?
Ben Golliver: Frankly, I don’t like any of their chances. In the West, the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers are all machines, at least when Chris Paul is healthy for Los Angeles. They are well-balanced, veteran-laden and deep, and they are all coming off playoff-series victories last season. The Spurs are virtually the same team as last year, the Thunder have overcome James Harden’s departure and the Clippers have fairly convincingly replaced some of their lost size with added perimeter talent. Health permitting, I’m ready to lock all of them in as first-round winners this year, even in a potentially tough No. 3-vs.-No. 6 series against the Nuggets or Warriors.
In the East, the top five teams — Miami, New York, Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn — look solid, with the potential to get even better in some cases (particularly the Pacers and Bulls) thanks to the looming returns of key players from injury. It goes without saying that nobody flips a switch like the Celtics, but they can’t be reasonably expected to dethrone the Heat. If the Celtics find a way to avoid Miami in the first round, the trio of Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry could possibly be capable of some playoff magic.
The Bucks also warrant mention in this discussion. Milwaukee can get after it on defense and it’s difficult — but not totally impossible — to imagine Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis hitting the right levers on their jump-shooting slot machines to steal a grinding series.
Rob Mahoney: Each of these scenarios would be banking on an unexpected event — such as a critical injury or some inexplicable hot streak — because as it stands, none of the bottom-rung playoff teams stand much of a chance. The top of the West is just too good and the bottom of the East just too uninspiring to seriously entertain the possibility, leaving us to ponder longshot odds and matchup quirks that could eventually turn the tide.
So, given that we’re already suspending our disbelief, why not pick the Lakers? They’re not a very good team, and certainly not good enough to really push the Thunder, Clippers or Spurs. But of all the teams still contending for a playoff spot, the Lakers are the only squad that has a gear unseen. The on-paper estimations of L.A.’s performance weren’t totally off base, and there’s still some possibility that Howard, Gasol and Steve Nash could all find a larger piece of their former selves in time for the postseason, even if the chances of that happening remain incredibly slim.
Nevertheless, that very notion is more promising than whatever the Celtics, Hawks, Pistons, Sixers, Jazz, Rockets or Blazers could offer. You nailed it on the Bucks being perhaps the sole exception, Ben, though I’d add another caveat. Miami or New York would be a nightmare opponent against Milwaukee, but Indiana — a team that the Bucks have beaten twice in three tries this season — could be the kind of foil necessary to foster a hard-fought, competitive series. It would take some finagling for those two teams to even match up in the first place, but their hypothetical series may provide the greatest (and still completely remote) possibility for a first-round upset.