Tuesday March 10th, 2015

It's time to start obsessing over the playoff picture now that the 2014-15 NBA season has officially entered the fourth quarter.

Let’s start with what we know, now that all 30 teams have played at least 60 games: Atlanta will cruise to the East’s No. 1 seed, Golden State looks poised to take the top spot in the West, and 11 other teams (Memphis, Houston, Portland, Clippers, Dallas, San Antonio, Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago, Washington and Milwaukee) will join them in the playoffs barring a crazy collapse, leaving three unclaimed postseason berths. 

Atlanta Hawks: Doing their fair share

Past that, it’s all murkiness. In the West, the No. 3 through No. 7 seeds teams are separated by just 3.5 games, suggesting that at least three of the four first-round series will remain up for grabs for some time. The fourth series is no lock, either, as the Thunder and Pelicans are still neck and neck for the No. 8 spot. In the East, there’s a heated three-team race for the No. 2 seed and a five-team race for the final two spots. Clearly, it’s far too early to lock in any of the first-round matchups.

As the league prepares to kick down the home stretch, here’s a look at who is surging, and who is swooning, since Jan. 1. Note that Jan. 1 is used here because it splits the season (roughly) into two 30-game samples.

Surging: Cavaliers

It goes without saying that no other serious contender has generated as much positive midseason momentum as Cleveland. The reasons are obvious: Timofey Mozgov was a round peg that fit a round hole, J.R. Smith has been found money, Dion Waiters was addition by subtraction and, most importantly, LeBron James is back to playing like a serious MVP candidate.

Their starting lineup data is good enough to scare the bejeezus out of everyone, Warriors and Hawks included. The Kyrie Irving, Smith, James, Kevin Love and Mozgov five-man group has posted a +25.5 net rating (118.6 on offense, 93.1 on defense), which is as impressive as it gets. This group has a little bit of everything: balance, role definition, quality shooting, multiple initiators, rim protection, length on the perimeter and experience. The biggest question mark surrounding a major midseason shakeup is usually whether the chemistry will come together in time, but it’s impossible to stumble into that level of extended domination.

• MORE NBA: Russell Westbrook simply cannot be stopped

Overall, Cleveland’s net rating since Jan. 1 is 5.1 points better than its net rating before Jan. 1, which is good for the fourth-highest jump in the league. When you look at the biggest risers, though, the top of the list is mostly populated by mediocre teams that have simply pulled themselves up out of the doldrums. The Cavaliers stand alone as the only team that has really managed to go from good to great within the 2014-15 season.

Biggest Net Rating Gains:Pre-Jan. 1 to Post-Jan. 1

The following chart might help visualize how unique Cleveland’s season has been among its fellow contenders. Here’s a look at the 10 teams with the best records as of Mar. 9. Of these 10 teams, Cleveland has easily improved the most since Jan. 1. If not for the Hawks, who have been red-hot since beginning a 19-game winning streak in late December, the Cavaliers would be in their own stratosphere when it comes to positive recent momentum.

This turnaround, assuming it is sustained through the end of the season, should make James—or David Griffin, if you insist—the leading candidate for Executive of the Year. Cleveland went from being "toast" to "toast of the town" in two trades flat. Whether he's willing to admit it or not, James once again finds himself facing "Championship or Bust" expectations.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images Sport


Swooning: Raptors

If the post-Jan. 1 performance continued through the balance of the season, Atlanta and Cleveland would be expected to enter the playoffs as the clear-cut top two teams in the East. The gains made by those two teams since Jan. 1 have coincided with the rest of the East’s second-tier teams taking major steps back from a net rating standpoint.

Although this regression isn’t particularly shocking given that Washington, Chicago and Toronto all started strong, injury factors deepen the concern. The Wizards’ offense has cooled due in part to Bradley Beal’s absence, while the Bulls have taken a step backwards on both sides of the ball as injuries to Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and others have mounted, placing greater strain on the other members of the rotation.

• MORE NBA: Raptors plummet in latest NBA Power Rankings

The NBA's biggest "fall off a cliff" team is the Raptors, though, and it’s not close. Toronto’s -9 net rating change since Jan. 1 is the worst in the league by a wide margin.

Biggest Net Rating Declines: Pre-Jan. 1 to Post-Jan. 1

Toronto suddenly has problems everywhere it looks. Propped up by an exceptional offense earlier in the season, the Raptors have fallen on harder times since their attack has come back to Earth. Toronto’s offensive rating has crashed from 111.7 before Jan. 1 to 103.7 after Jan. 1, and that -8 point dip is the second-greatest fall in the NBA.  

As it turns out, Kyle “Hashtag NBA Ballot” Lowry wasn’t quite equipped to single-handedly drive the NBA’s top attack for 82 games. Even though he’s had a rough go since the All-Star break, requiring some rest time, Lowry is hardly to blame. DeMar DeRozan has been consistently dreadful (40 percent shooting, 22 percent three-point shooting) since returning from a groin injury, coach Dwane Casey has juggled his lineups in search of consistency on the wings and Toronto’s lack of top-shelf talent has finally come back to bite it.

Sustaining its franchise-record pace from early on was clearly asking too much, but Toronto fans that started penciling in a deep playoff run during those boom times would do well to cool their jets. As it stands, “above-average offense plus below-average defense” looks like a losing formula against both Atlanta and Cleveland, making it difficult to envision Toronto making it further than the second round. Perhaps a division title and a first-round win is enough for a franchise that’s advanced just once in its history, but so much more seemed possible in December. And, unless Lowry gets fully back on track, the Raptors could easily find themselves going one-and-done like last year.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Surging (Offense): Rockets

The NBA’s three most improved offenses since Jan. 1 belong to teams that were totally unwatchable earlier this year: Detroit, Indiana and Philadelphia. The Pistons climbed back from rock bottom once they parted with Josh Smith, SI.com’s Rob Mahoney recently explained the Pacers’ surge and the Sixers’ improvement isn’t real improvement, as they still rank dead last in offensive efficiency since Jan. 1 (they’re definitely still terrible, they’re just meaningfully less terrible than before).  Houston stands as the most intriguing of the biggest gainers on offense, in large part because that progress has happened with Dwight Howard sidelined since late January.

Biggest Offensive Rating Gains: Pre-Jan. 1 to Post-Jan. 1

At the start of the year, the Rockets were keeping pace near the top of the West thanks to an elite defense and a surprisingly pedestrian offense, given the presence of both Howard and James Harden. That story has flipped a bit recently: the offense has made real gains since Jan. 1, while the defense has predictably fallen off a bit without Howard.

The good news: Houston has the NBA’s sixth-best offense since Jan. 1, in large part because Harden has taken his game to new heights, ranking No. 1 in offensive win shares, No. 2 in scoring, and boosting Houston’s offensive rating from 92.4 points when he’s off the court to 107.1 points when he’s on (a jump of nearly 15 points!). With Harden, Houston’s offense is about as good as Cleveland’s (top-five) on the season. Without him, Houston’s offense is barely better than Philadelphia’s (dead last by a mile). When people say that Harden is an offense unto himself, they aren’t really exaggerating.

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This ascension has been remarkable to behold: Harden has gone head-to-head with James on national television, he’s hit so many big shots late in games that his “cooking” hand gesture got annoying and played out in record time, and he’s gotten to the rare point where defenses know he’s getting the ball on crucial possessions and they still can’t do much to throw him off his game.   

One of the most intriguing questions heading into the postseason is how well Houston can reincorporate Howard into their offensive approach. As it stands, “free reign” probably undersells Harden’s level of control over the Rockets attack. How much will that change when Howard is back and how seamlessly can those two superstars coexist? Can they function at a higher level as a duo than they managed during their first-round exit against the Blazers last year? Finding that balance will be the key for the Rockets to advance in the playoffs for just the second time since 1997.

Glenn James/Getty Images

Swooning (Offense): Mavericks

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban surely knew he was trading offense for defense when he acquired Rajon Rondo from Boston back in December. Sticking a flawed point guard into a well-oiled machine was a clear risk, but it was a calculated one given the state of the Mavericks’ defense. At the time, Dallas was lighting the world on fire when it had the ball and sieving on the other end, and it faced the prospect of bringing Jameer Nelson into a first-round playoff series matchup against someone like Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker or Mike Conley.

The trade has more or less produced the intended outcome: The Mavericks’ defensive rating has improved, moving Dallas from below-average (before Jan. 1) to above-average (after Jan. 1). Unfortunately, the opposite effect on the Mavericks’ offense has been substantially greater: Dallas’s attack fell from No. 1 before Jan. 1 to No. 13 after Jan. 1. The -9.8 net rating drop is the largest in the league, greater than even the Raptors’ fall mentioned above.  

Biggest Offensive Rating Declines: Pre-Jan. 1 to Post-Jan. 1

Dallas downgraded from bazooka to squirt gun and, since Jan. 1, ranks seventh among the eight teams currently in the West’s playoff picture, topping only Memphis. Of course, the Mavericks’ defense isn’t comparable to the Grizzlies. Rondo is the obvious scapegoat given how this has played out, but he shouldn’t take the full force of the blame even if he set himself up for serious heat with his recent confrontation with coach Rick Carlisle.

Simply put, the midseason trade wound up costing the Mavericks their identity, in part because Rondo stops the ball and can’t shoot, in part because Dallas sacrificed a proven frontcourt piece in Brandan Wright, and in part because Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis haven’t quite been good enough to carry the group through the bumpy transition period.

The Spurs would be the first team to remind you that the Mavericks pushed them deeper in a series than any team in the league on their way to the 2014 title. That said, Dallas is shaping up to be the softest of the West’s eight playoff teams, assuming Oklahoma City secures the eight seed and gets Kevin Durant back for the first round. To advance in the West, you have to play at an elite level at one end or the other (preferably both), and Dallas’s recent play suggests that is asking too much. Before they can worry about that, the Mavericks must fight the Clippers and the Spurs for seeding down the stretch. It’s easy to envision Dallas settling into seventh.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Surging (Defense): Jazz

Let’s take a momentary break from all the playoff talk to salute Rudy Gobert, the key to the Jazz’s amazing midseason turnaround on defense. Utah’s 8.9 point improvement since Jan. 1 is the best in the league, topping even hard-charging Charlotte, who has gotten back to playing the type of basketball that made Steve Clifford a Coach of the Year candidate in 2014.

Biggest Defensive Rating Gains: Pre-Jan. 1 to Post-Jan. 1

The 7-foot-1 French center was a late first-round pick in the 2013 draft, and he looked like a fairly raw project as recently as last year’s Las Vegas Summer League. But this season? You can keep Hassan Whiteside. Give me Gobert, who is averaging 11.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes and has "Franchise Cornerstone" written all over him.

The Fundamentals: Indy finds its way

Dumping Enes Kanter at the deadline was an easy call for Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey, as Gobert dramatically improves Utah’s defensive rating (from 107.1 when he’s off the court to 100.1 when he’s on the court), while Kanter was a net-negative on that end. Jazz fans forced to endure a multi-year rebuilding program will be glad to know that the developing core is putting up winning numbers: Utah enjoys a +3.5 net rating when Gobert, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward share the floor this season.

Before the season, Utah was a dark horse pick by some to make a run at a playoff spot. That didn’t materialize, but the Jazz’s defense since Jan. 1 ranks sixth in the NBA, which is heartening. Gobert is an absurdly talented rim protector whose game should take another major leap forward in year three. The other members of Utah's core should continue progressing, meaning that it's time to buy stock in these guys now before it becomes the hip thing to do next September.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Swooning (Defense): Blazers

On the surface, Portland looks like a team that has a claim to be in the contender discussion. The Blazers have a top-five record in the league, they possess two All-Stars, they rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball for the season, and they are coming off a playoff series victory.

Look a bit deeper, though, and hesitation is warranted. For the second straight year, Portland raced out to a strong start, only to fall off that pace as the season progressed: a 22-6 start gave way to a humbling 10-10 stretch. Injuries to big men Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland factored into the hiccups, as did a more difficult schedule.

The regression has been very real on the defensive end. Before Jan. 1, Portland ranked third overall in defensive rating. Since Jan. 1, Portland ranks 13th, which is only marginally better than where they finished last season. In terms of the biggest swooners—those teams whose defensive rating has fallen by the most since Jan. 1—Portland ranks third.

Biggest Defensive Rating Declines: Pre-Jan. 1 to Post-Jan. 1

That’s troubling. Remember, the Blazers were waxed by the Spurs in the conference semifinals, and their formula for getting over that type of hump this year was going to be pairing an elite offense with a significantly improved defense.

Blazers prepared for life without Wes Matthews, but title chances shrink

An even bigger cause for concern is the loss of Wesley Matthews, a dependable and hard-nosed perimeter defender who did well to limit Harden in the 2014 playoffs. Matthews was a key piece to Portland’s strategic approach on both sides of the ball, and his loss to a season-ending Achilles injury forces coach Terry Stotts to fill a large playing time void. Plugging in Arron Afflalo to the starting spot is a fairly easy move, but that only passes the buck to a weakened bench unit. C.J. McCollum, Alonzo Gee and Dorell Wright will now likely be called on to play some role in postseason rotations. Portland had hoped to avoid this exact situation when it acquired Afflalo at the deadline.

Unfortunately, it looks like the injury to Matthews will raise the same old questions—depth, defense—that have plagued the Blazers in recent years. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are fully capable of delivering a series victory, but Portland’s recent slippage defensively coupled with the loss of Matthews makes it harder to envision the Blazers taking the next step by reaching their first conference finals since 2000. Blazermaniacs might want to cross their fingers and hope for the Mavericks under the assumption that Dallas’ offensive fall-off will be more crippling than Portland’s recent defensive shortcomings.

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