Give And Go: Stretch-run storylines
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: Five intriguing storylines as the regular season hits the home stretch. (All stats and records are through Feb. 27.)
1. Which title contender has the most to be concerned about with seven weeks remaining in the regular season?
Mahoney: If we're talking about the four teams most often regarded as title contenders -- Indiana, Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City -- I'll take the Spurs. There isn't overwhelming reason for concern. Injuries have kept San Antonio on its heels all season, and many of the team's limitations and flaws can be directly addressed by having a healthy roster. But there's still something of a burden of proof here, in that the Spurs have made the least convincing case for contention among that quartet.
I still expect them to be in great shape come playoff time, particularly if Manu Ginobili can assume his pre-injury form. He's already made decent headway in that regard after just four games back from a hamstring injury. An effective Ginobili, an in-rhythm Kawhi Leonard and a healthy Tony Parker are all very necessary components of San Antonio's playoff rotation, and ones that haven't yet coincided to the point of assuaging doubt. It could just be a matter of time before San Antonio rolls off another few convincing victories while working toward a full-strength lineup, but there are just enough inconsistencies and unknowns to put the Spurs on the shakiest ground of that top four.
Golliver: As I wrote last week, Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio can all consider themselves lucky and relatively worry-free thanks to a quiet trade deadline. A lack of race-altering moves lensured that the NBA's fab four remain in the driver's seat.
If we're talking strictly about recent adversity, Oklahoma City is the only one of the four with real worries. The reintroduction of point guard Russell Westbrook, the loss of center Kendrick Perkins to injury and the team's first three-game losing streak of the season might be enough to raise the blood pressure slightly in the Sooner State. Big picture, though, I still see the Thunder as the Western Conference favorites. They handled Westbrook's injury absences without a hitch, and that's enough to make me confident that they will power through this choppiness by the time the playoffs roll around.
With the Heat, Pacers, Thunder and Spurs all operating on relatively stable ground, I default to San Antonio -- whose list of injuries this season is two-and-a-half miles long -- as the contender most likely to be eliminated before the conference finals. Unless the Rockets get scorching hot at the right time, though, I'm not sure which team will have enough to pull off the upset in a seven-game series.
2. Which trade deadline move or buyout addition will have the biggest impact on the playoff race?
Golliver: The initial temptation is to go with the Pacers' addition of Turner, the only move of note by a top-four team. I resist that temptation, though, because the Heat's recent stomp on the accelerator seriously dampens the glean from the Pacers' deadline investment.
The Miami team that we've seen go 9-1 over its last 10 games, and especially the squad that routed Oklahoma City last week, has all the makings of a group that will be able to pass Indiana for the No. 1 seed by the end of the season. The Heat have already cut their deficit to just one game in the loss column, and Dwyane Wade's play in February (21 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 60.9 percent shooting) has made them look close to unbeatable on multiple occasions. It's way to early to crown the Heat, who were my preseason pick to win their third straight title, but I just don't see the Turner-for-Danny Granger swap as an balance-tilting maneuver for Indiana. A worthwhile upgrade, yes; a knockout blow, no.
With no other teams really worth discussing in the East, the attention shifts to the West, where the Warriors (who acquired point guard Steve Blake), Rockets (swingman Jordan Hamilton) and Clippers (power forward Glen Davis and small forward Granger) all made additions during the trade and buyout seasons. Golden State and Houston did well to address key rotation holes, but I'll go with the Clippers' two buyout additions. They will replace forward Antawn Jamison and center Byron Mullens, who were shipped out at the deadline.
The Clippers acquired all four players with the same goal in mind: filling out a nonexistent frontcourt rotation behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Although Davis, Granger, Jamison and Mullens have all posted below-average Player Efficiency Ratings, the two newcomers are the two best players from the bunch. The 37-year-old Jamison has been a liability on defense for some time, and he was shooting just 31.5 percent overall and a pitiful 19.5 percent from three-point range this season. It's just about time for him to call it a career. Meanwhile, Granger, 30, is also years removed from being a versatile, inside/outside offensive force, but at least his shooting numbers are slightly less atrocious. The difference between the two players, sadly, isn't all that substantial, but I'd take Granger without a second thought.
The Davis-for-Mullens upgrade is more clear cut. "Big Baby" might be immature, but he has plenty of playoff experience, he's a more productive rebounder, he's a more disciplined defender, he possesses a beefier body, he can theoretically defend multiple positions and he can do more offensively than simply miss jumpers. Whereas Jamison (248 minutes this season) and Mullens (198 minutes) weren't staples off the bench for coach Doc Rivers, I expect Davis to evolve into that type of role. Acquiring a third big man who can play -- and who is not named Ryan Hollins -- should pay dividends for the Clippers over the next few months.
Mahoney: I agree that Davis is an important acquisition. The difference between Hollins and Davis is really significant. Having a third big man who can make defensive rotations reliably and offer a wider range of offensive skills is no small thing, particularly when Davis brings the same energy level as Hollins. He should do well in tandem with either Griffin or Jordan. That flexibility is crucial because the Clippers lack useful big men beyond those three.
For the sake of variety, though, I'd also like to put in a word for Blake, the type of backup point guard the Warriors have been chasing all season. Golden State seemed to settle by rolling the dice on Jordan Crawford in a trade with Boston, but Blake is far more stable as an offensive caretaker and a terrific foil for Crawford. By having Blake around, the Warriors can take better advantage of Crawford's hot streaks while tempering his cooler ones, a perfect arrangement for a player so haphazard.
Also, it's worth noting that despite its reputation, the Warriors' offense has been remarkably average this season. Golden State is widely regarded as a run-and-gun, high-scoring offense, but only some of that characterization is true. The Warriors do rank near the top of the league in pace and three-point attempts per game, and are very much reliant on the quickness and shooting ability of Stephen Curry. But Golden State's offensive creation beyond Curry has been so shaky this season as to rate as mediocre, albeit with the potential for surges when all clicks into place.
That might not be as much of an issue were Andre Iguodala healthy (a hamstring injury is still clearly limiting his movement and explosion off the bounce), but in their current form the Warriors can make use of anyone can shoulder some of Curry's overwhelming responsibility. Blake, though not exactly a dominant ball handler, is perfect for that complementary role.
Mahoney: I waffle a bit here, to be honest. The Warriors are too good a defensive team and too explosive an offensive team to fall out of the top eight, and I trust the Mavs to ride their offense to postseason security. But my pick between the Suns and Grizzlies seemingly changes by the day, with both teams plenty worthy of making the playoff cut.
At the moment, I lean toward Phoenix as the playoff team. The Suns have weathered Eric Bledsoe's absence even better than expected and could see him return for the stretch run. Memphis has done well to play itself into what is essentially a coin flip, though, after digging an early-season hole with weirdly ineffective defense. Both teams are awfully good, play comparable schedules the rest of the way and will be there in the end.
It all comes down to the little things: Their final head-to-head matchup on April 14, Memphis' tiebreaker (should the two wind up with the same record), the specifics in terms of when and how Bledsoe returns to the lineup. There is no hard-and-fast case as to why one is distinctly better than the other, but at this very moment I still think the winds blow ever so slightly in Phoenix's favor.
Golliver: The Suns have been as fun to watch as any team this season. Not many franchises can match their development potential over the next three-to-five years, either, given their clean salary books and bunches of extra picks. That said, their youth and Bledsoe's extended absence have made them the obvious pick as the West's odd man out.
I like the Grizzlies' chances of passing Phoenix and making the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. Since reigning Defensive Player of Year Marc Gasol returned on Jan. 14, Memphis has the No. 1 defensive efficiency in the league. Better than the Pacers, who are in the conversation for one of the greatest defenses of all time. Better than the Bulls, who have been phenomenal. Better than absolutely everybody. As long as Gasol and point guard Mike Conley remain healthy down the stretch, there's not much more that needs to be said. That level of elite defense will lift the Grizzlies into the postseason.
Similarly, but on the other side of the ball, Dallas has hit its stride in recent months, posting the second-best offensive efficiency since Jan. 1. Even though the Mavericks are essentially a one-way team (they rank 22nd in points allowed per possession), it's hard to envision a squad with such a potent attack slipping into the lottery, unless one of their principles is unexpectedly lost to injury. I say that even with the knowledge that Dallas has the toughest remaining schedule among these four teams, as judged by opponent winning percentage (per PlayoffStatus.com).
Golden State has underwhelmed relative to preseason expectations. But its defense is the best among West teams for the season, even though key stopper Andre Iguodala has missed 12 games and center Andrew Bogut has sat out eight. The Warriors have the best point differential among the four teams we're discussing here and they have played dominant basketball at times with their starting five healthy. Given those factors, a late-season collapse would be surprising.
4. Which team in the East -- besides each other -- should the Pacers and Heat be most worried about meeting in a playoff series?
Golliver: I don't see an East team capable of inspiring true worry for the Pacers or Heat. Of course, that's not really a "going out on the limb" take, given their double-digit lead over the rest of the conference. If I'm Indiana, the team I would least like to draw in the conference semifinals would be Chicago, as a matchup between the league's top-two defenses would surely be bloody and tense. The Pacers' superior offense (Indiana is No. 19 in offensive efficiency, while Chicago is No. 28), their depth advantage and the presence of the fierce Paul George/Lance Stephenson perimeter combination should be enough to overcome the Bulls, but a war of attrition is not what you want before battling the Heat in a hypothetical conference finals tilt.
The Heat, though, have eliminated Chicago twice during the Big Three era and I think they would get it done again in four or five games this season. The firepower disparity is just too vast. If there's one team that might give the Heat a harder time than expected it would be the Wizards, assuming Nene is back from his knee injury in time.
Though Washington's young backcourt studs -- John Wall and Bradley Beal -- have no playoff experience, they are the type of dynamic talents with breakout potential. In an ideal world, they could mimic the electrifying and somewhat unexpected play of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for the Warriors last year. Couple that with the interior combination of Nene and Marcin Gortat, which presents mismatches against Miami's less imposing frontcourt options, and I could see Washington stealing a game or two if the defending champs weren't locked in.
Of course, getting a shot at the Heat will almost certainly require the Wizards to win a playoff series, something the franchise hasn't done since 2005. I could definitely see Tom Thibodeau's Bulls finding a way to chew up the Wizards, much like they eliminated the Nets last season, spoiling a potential Miami-Washington matchup.
Mahoney: The Bulls, without a doubt. Kudos to Toronto for playing good, balanced basketball since the Rudy Gay trade, but Chicago is just on another level in terms of being a menace to top teams. Because of the Bulls' dogged effort and elite defense, nothing comes easy against them. They wear opponents down and limit their top scoring options. They pound the offensive glass to bail out their initial execution. They maintain an incredible balance of applying pressure in just the right places without fouling, which would be crucial in any such matchup.
That said, I agree with Ben that Miami would overwhelm Chicago, with the matchup playing out like last postseason's series. There would be a few close games, and maybe even a Bulls victory. But without pressure-release guards like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, I don't trust the often-stalled Chicago offense to score enough. It's also much harder to match up with the Heat without Luol Deng, as even 48 minutes of Jimmy Butler can't totally keep LeBron James and Dwyane Wade under wraps.
Indiana is a different story. The Pacers dominated early this season with a historically great defense and a much-improved offense, but the latter has steadily drifted downward. Since Jan. 1, Indiana has ranked 24th in offensive efficiency to Chicago's 26th, a difference of 0.9 points per 100 possessions. That's not some insurmountable margin, particularly when the Bulls have come on strong defensively to play as the Pacers' solid second.
It also helps that the Bulls' offense, as bad as it is, won't likely see its flow altered much by matching up against Pacers center Roy Hibbert and Co. The Bulls will inevitably have hiccups against a team with so many skilled one-on-one defenders, but Chicago isn't all that reliant on high pick-and-rolls or deep drives. There's plenty of interior play (via offensive rebounds and post-ups) for Hibbert to influence, but having center Joakim Noah making plays from the perimeter also clears room for other Bulls to work their way into scoring position. It would still be an ugly, low-scoring series, but that's the great equalizer for the Bulls. They can muck up most any game to the point of keeping competitive.
I also like Butler as a reasonable defensive antidote for Paul George, think Taj Gibson can help keep the Pacers' improved bench under wraps and see Kirk Hinrich as a pesky situational cover for Lance Stephenson. There's enough here -- including the way the Pacers' turnover problems might feed the Bulls' offense -- to believe that a potential series would be tight.
5. The 76ers have 15 victories. Their over/under win total before the season was set at 17, the lowest number on the board. With 24 games remaining, are you taking the over or under?
Ben Golliver: Well, well, well, isn't this a deliciously cruel query? The Sixers dumped two starters, swingman Evan Turner and center Spencer Hawes, at the trade deadline last week without acquiring meaningful replacements. They're 0-3 since the fire sale and have lost by an average of 14.3 points in those games. Of course, those were only the three latest defeats in a losing streak that has ballooned to 12 games. Incredibly, Philadelphia has lost those games by a calculator-busting average margin of 19.5 points.
It's also worth noting that, since Nov. 14, Philadelphia has just one win against a team that's currently above .500. Almost half of its remaining games -- 12 of 26 -- will come against teams that entered Friday's play with a winning record, and all of those teams should have plenty more to play for than the Sixers. Really, all 12 of those should be losses. Additionally, Philadelphia has only four games left against teams that have 20 or fewer wins (Orlando, Sacramento and Boston twice) and two of those will be on the road. The easiest way for a tanker to win is to beat another tanker, and they just won't have many opportunities to do that. (Not that the Sixers would necessarily take advantage of those chances; they are coming off back-to-back home losses to the league-worst Bucks and the Magic.)
I see two potential saving graces that could help the Sixers get to 18 wins. First, they play the Knicks twice! Enough said. Second, they get the Heat on the last night of the season, when Miami will very likely be resting all of its key players. Could Miami's second unit still blow out Philadelphia? Absolutely. But a pointless night for the Heat would crack the door quite a bit for the Sixers.
I'll stick with my October prediction that the Sixers would fall short of 17 victories. That prognostication wasn't looking great in early January, when Philadelphia improved to 12-21 by sweeping a four-game road trip, but it certainly looks achievable now. While I wouldn't be surprised if the 76ers won three more games, I also wouldn't be blown away if they lost the rest. Given the tattered remains of their roster, the Sixers' night-to-night fate is determined by the motivation and focus of their opponents. It's worth noting that the 2011-12 Bobcats, probably the best recent comparison to the 2013-14 Sixers in terms of talent (very little) and direction (lottery-ball hoarding), lost their final 23 games to finish 7-59 in the lockout-shortened season.
Rob Mahoney: After entirely too much deliberation, I'll take the under. What gives me pause is that final stretch in April, when Philadelphia will twice face a Boston team with incentive to lose and meet the Heat in the season finale. Things could get weird in any of those games, and if the Sixers can win pull out a single victory in March before settling in for that wonky home stretch, they'd have a few legitimate swings at notching a 17th win.
Even if the Sixers do hit the 17-win mark, though, betting the over seems like an especially long shot. The misery of Philadelphia's roster is unequaled in the NBA. No team is so thoroughly lacking in so many regards, which makes sense given that this group of players was not assembled for the purpose of winning basketball games. There's rebuilding and then there's this: A plan to scrub the roster of any expendable talent, stash as many draft picks as possible and fill minutes with the likes of Mullens and Eric Maynor. The end product is so useless in basketball terms that a 3-21 finish seems like a desperate reach, as would anything other than a dead-last finish in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Every move made was in the best interest of the franchise, though in total they leave Thaddeus Young and Michael Carter-Williams to their own devices in a basketball wasteland. Even three measly wins the rest of the way seems too rich a return.