Give And Go: Playoff prospects for Knicks, Pacers, Lakers and more
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: gauging the postseason prospects of five teams as the regular season heads towards the finish line. (All stats and records are through Tuesday.)
1. Buy or sell: The Knicks are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
Ben Golliver: Buy, barely. Answering this one takes you back to middle school, when you might meekly raise your hand and ask, “Teacher, do we really need to answer this question if the Heat never lose again?” Miami’s double-overtime win over the last-place Kings on Tuesday featured more back-and-forth late-game fireworks than were probably necessary, but a combined 79 points, 23 assists, 16 rebounds and 33-for-51 shooting (64.7 percent) from LeBron James and Dwayne Wade is a pretty good reminder that the East is the Heat’s to lose. That the explosion came in Miami’s 12th straight victory and that the Heat are now 25-3 at home, better than anyone except San Antonio, only reinforces the fruitlessness of this question. (Miami leads Indiana by six games and New York by seven games in the East.)
The race for the No. 2 seed represents an interesting dichotomy. In one corner, there’s New York, which ranks third in points scored per possession and 15th in points allowed per possession. In the other, there’s Indiana, which boasts the league’s best defense, a massive chip on its shoulder and a No. 19 offense that has been improving for a team on a 10-2 run. So which is it: the Knicks and their offense or the Pacers and their defense?
The point differentials and net ratings for the two teams (both unadjusted and adjusted for strength of schedule) are virtually identical and, importantly, meaningfully better than everyone besides Miami in the East, carving the conference into three distinct tiers: 1) Miami 2) Indiana and New York and 3) everyone else. If pressed to choose, I’ll stick with the Knicks, if only because I think the heights of their early-season play reached just a touch higher than the Pacers’ impressive recent work. I’m also not totally convinced that Indiana will be successful in dictating tempo against Miami for a large enough portion of a playoff series to give its offense a chance to keep up.
Rob Mahoney: Sell. New York has suffered a long, hard regression to the mean, and now has to sort out an offense that’s “only” quite good with a defense that’s unfortunately mediocre. The Knicks have the potential to improve defensively, given how well they derailed opponents last season, though it seems that the very same players responsible for New York’s offensive dynamism are also the cause of the defensive downfall.
Between Raymond Felton (who’s much slower laterally than he was in his Charlotte days), Jason Kidd (who’s slow because he’s almost 40), Steve Novak (who’s slow because he’s always been slow) and J.R. Smith (who isn’t slow but is, well, J.R. Smith), New York fields a wide variety of heavily used players who can’t reliably guard their assigned marks. Each of those players is a frequent candidate to get blown by, and as good as center Tyson Chandler is at covering up mistakes, he can only account for so many breakdowns.
This doesn’t mean that coach Mike Woodson still can’t find ways to tighten the screws — I just doubt very much that it’ll make enough of a difference to get the Knicks where they need to go.
2. Buy or sell: The Pacers are title contenders.
Rob Mahoney: Buy. There are a number of places where you could draw the contending line in the East, but I opt to include the Heat, Pacers and no one else. The inclusion of Indiana seems a bit of a formality at this point, as the conference crown is very much Miami’s to lose. But for the sake of rewarding high-level teams with the appropriate classification, it’s only fair that Indiana is anointed as a fellow contender.
The Pacers’ offense is surging right now, but it ultimately seems a bit unsteady. Without taking anything away from Indiana’s excellent run, I do wonder how this group might score against playoff scrutiny. The opposing coaching staff will likely study up on the best ways to marginalize Paul George, counter David West and shift the offense toward the still-struggling Roy Hibbert. That’s all easier said than done, but realistic in that the Pacers will likely have to contend with a few quality teams before even getting a crack at the Heat.
Indiana’s league-best defense will lead the way in that effort, and it’s on that side of the ball that I find the Pacers’ performance to be more trustworthy. All of the big-minute players are tried and true within coach Frank Vogel’s system and in the team’s most frequently used lineups, and together those elements form a rotation without any glaring limitations or frequent lapses. Their collective execution makes them a tough defense to crack, and thus the Pacers figure to vie in any series by way of their ultra-reliable positioning alone.
Beyond that, they’ll go as far as their occasionally spotty offense takes them. Indiana’s reserves bring very real reasons for concern, but the full integration of Danny Granger could give this team an extra gear that we haven’t yet seen.
Ben Golliver: Sell. I see only three true championship contenders that don’t require caveats or “ifs” to explain their title chances this year: Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The Clippers would be a close fourth. That’s not a very shocking assessment, I understand. I would have Indiana and New York in the next tier, positioned as the “two teams with the best chances to advance out of the East should an injury strike at an inopportune moment for Miami.”
The Pacers nearly capitalized on those very conditions last year — when Chris Bosh missed time and Dwyane Wade was playing through an ailing knee — and this season’s version is better, thanks to the All-Star development of George and an extra year of playing together that has allowed the group’s defensive identity and slower style to fully coalesce. Though I don’t foresee any scenario in which a full-strength Heat team fails to win the East, the Pacers are well-positioned as an alternate in case of disaster. That counts for a lot during a postseason in which Miami’s key players can be expected to log huge minutes, even if the Heat make quick work of their first-round opponent.
3. Buy or sell: The Grizzlies are title contenders.
Ben Golliver: Sell. I’m not sure why I’m supposed to believe the Grizzlies are contenders if their ownership wasn’t willing to fork over the money to give their roster a shot. Note: That doesn’t mean I’m killing Memphis for trading Rudy Gay. On the contrary, I liked the move in the big picture, and the initial grumblings about the financially motivated move have died down a bit now that Memphis has gone 8-2 in February (albeit against a favorable schedule).
The Grizzlies look poised to finish fourth or fifth in the West, meaning they will need to get through two of the conference’s top three teams: the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. Memphis’ defense is excellent — tops in the West — but not good enough to reel off eight wins against that collection of offensive talent. I wouldn’t bet against the Grizzlies in the first round if they secure home-court advantage in the Grind House, and you could talk me into the possibility of a run to the conference finals if the matchups fell right and Memphis were to draw San Antonio in the second round. Anything past that is dream land for a team whose offense is third worst in the West. Much like what the Pacers face against Miami’s league-leading offense in the East, I don’t see Memphis being able to keep up with Oklahoma City’s fireworks or succeeding in dictating the pace against the Thunder or Clippers, especially on the road.
Rob Mahoney: Buy. The Grizzlies may have only an outside shot at a title, but they’re close enough for us to consider their championship prospects with some seriousness. It all comes down to that vaunted grit-and-grind defense. Much was made about Gay’s departure, but the Grizzlies’ team defense — a system in which Gay is an inessential part — was and is the vehicle for their success. Thanks to the first-rate coverage of Marc Gasol and Tony Allen (among others), Memphis is one of the few teams in the league that can bring any game to a halt. The Grizzlies detonate so many play actions and short-circuit so many sets that every possession goes up for grabs, leaving the entire game as something of a free-for-all. It’s in that contest that Memphis’ sputtering offense becomes viable.
The Grizzlies aren’t likely to win on the strength of their offense against many teams, but their defensive work is so emphatic and comes from a place of such commitment that sometimes a mediocre point total is all that’s needed to beat a shackled opponent. I still wouldn’t bank on the Grizzlies to defeat any the top three teams in the West, but another supernatural stretch from Zach Randolph (much like what he did in the 2011 postseason) could go a long way in helping Memphis buck the odds.
4. Buy or sell: The Warriors will spring a first-round upset.
Rob Mahoney: Sell. The Warriors are entertaining, though their recent defensive regression has made many of their games too entertaining. It was miraculous that the Warriors succeeded so much defensively without Andrew Bogut in the lineup, and perhaps it was foolish to think that success might last. It certainly seems so in retrospect. Despite having the same lineup and rotation as before, coach Mark Jackson’s club has reverted to miserable defensive form, allowing more points per possession than all but five teams over the last 20 games. Given that, it’s not exactly a surprise that Golden State’s record and standing have taken a corresponding dip.
This team can defend, but it has begun to pay the price of its cumulative deficiencies. Opponents have taken notice of how they can torture David Lee in coverage and generally go out of their way to put him in difficult spots. The scouting report is out on the Warriors’ pick-and-roll defense, and opposing ball-handlers have begun to break down that strategy at its most vulnerable points. But above all, Golden State just doesn’t seem as invested in guarding now. Basic on-ball defense, recovery off of screens and communication aren’t as finely tuned as they were previously, which indicates a lack of effort and concentration to go along with the structural flaws.
None of this should prevent Golden State from making the postseason, but it won’t bode well in its efforts to topple one of the top four teams in the West. The Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Grizzlies are all too dependable to be beaten by a solid offense and shaky defense, and yet that’s what we’ve come to know and expect of the Warriors these past two months. This is a question well worth revisiting as the postseason nears, but for the moment Golden State has too many problems on defense to be considered a viable upset candidate.
Ben Golliver: Sell. First things first: Congratulations to the Warriors on what is set to be their second playoff appearance since 1994. Before we go expecting the league’s most pleasant surprise to conquer the world in the postseason, it’s only right to mark their regular-season achievement, which validates a significant commitment of resources from ownership, a series of intelligent moves from management (drafting Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, trading for Jarrett Jack, extending Stephen Curry) and quality, all-in play from their key guys, most notably Lee.
Their last six weeks or so have definitely been bumpy, but their negative point differential for the season suggests that their well-above-.500 record (33-24) hasn’t yet caught up — and likely won’t catch up — to the “true” quality of this team. The Warriors rank No. 8 in the West in point differential, trailing six current playoff teams and the Lakers. It would take something truly special — or a major extenuating circumstance — for such a team to knock off one of the West’s top three seeds. As is, the statistical projections see the Warriors finishing sixth or seventh. Drawing the Clippers instead of the Thunder clearly would be preferable, both for the Warriors and for viewers, who would get to enjoy a budding intrastate rivalry that’s already displayed some bad blood this season.
5. Buy or sell: The Lakers will make the playoffs.
Ben Golliver: Sell. After taking a deep dive into this very topic on Tuesday, I was left to conclude that the projection models — which give the Lakers a roughly 30 percent chance of reaching the playoffs — have it just about right. The biggest issue for the Lakers is that no one above them is obviously faltering. The No. 7 Jazz, who are 3½ games ahead of the Lakers, appear to be the most vulnerable, but they survived a tight playoff race last season and have played fairly steady basketball for several weeks. The No. 8 Rockets, who are three games ahead of Los Angeles, are in good position to hold off Mike D’Antoni’s team because of their favorable schedule. The No. 6 Warriors are 5½ games clear of the Lakers and play 16 of their final 25 games at home. Meanwhile, inconsistency and streaky play, the products of variable effort and execution on the defensive end, have haunted the Lakers all season.
It’s very easy to frame the Lakers’ chase as a false dichotomy: ”They will sneak in or barely miss out.” In reality, it’s just as possible that the Lakers aren’t able to push this chase until the very end: Another injury could stretch their eight-man rotation even further; Dwight Howard could aggravate his ailing shoulder; the team’s defensive lapses could continue to plague it; or the Jazz and Rockets could prove to be too difficult of a moving target for L.A. to run down.
Knowing Kobe Bryant, who has guaranteed a trip to the postseason, the Lakers will make this the No. 1 storyline to watch down the stretch if at all possible. But so many things have been outside of the franchise’s control this season that it wouldn’t be any surprise if the Lakers’ playoff fate is decided for them, too.
Rob Mahoney: Sell. I just don’t trust this Lakers team and see no reason why I should. The Lakers have looked better in certain spots lately, but the biggest problems (team defense, Howard’s health, lack of depth) aren’t going to disappear. This is still a team that relies on Bryant to carry a huge offensive load, and I remain unconvinced that Kobe can score so efficiently as to make up for both the offensive lapses and the defensive letdowns. L.A. is a solid team, but it happens to be in a conference full of solid teams — including those two (Houston and Utah) directly above the Lakers in the standings.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.