Now that All-Star Weekend has passed and every team has just under 30 games remaining on the schedule, it is a good time to look at what teams could still be on the bubble for making the playoffs while most other teams have either already been determined to be in or out.
The Brooklyn Nets currently the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 25-28. They are just two games ahead of the Magic in the eighth seed and five games ahead of the Wizards who sit in ninth. This is a team that had high expectations after having signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this past season although Durant was pre-determined to not make an impact on this season due to a torn Achilles that he suffered in the NBA Finals last season. Kyrie Irving has also had a history of injuries that once again has been an issue this year. He has played just 20 games this season due to a shoulder injury earlier in the year that caused him to miss 26 games. He returned to play nine games but this past week has experienced more issues with his shoulder and the Nets stated that he will require shoulder surgery that will cause him to miss the remainder of the season.
The good news for the Nets is that they have played better overall in games that Kyrie Irving did not play in. In the 20 games that Irving has appeared in, the Nets have an 8-12 record and in games that Irving has sat out of, the Nets are 17-16. The Nets have gotten their most help this year off of the breakout season from shooting guard, Spencer Dinwiddie. He has recorded career-highs with 21 points per game, 6.6 assists per game, and 3.5 rebounds per game. Although Dinwiddie has been great for the Nets this season, without their two best players, it will be tough for the Nets to maintain a playoff team down the stretch. If the team does make a run into the playoffs, they would likely play either the Raptors or Celtics in the first round as they sit six games behind the Pacers for the sixth seed.
The Orlando Magic hold the final ticket into the playoffs while sitting seven games under .500 at 24-31. They remain three games ahead of the Wizards who are the next team behind them and are aiming to make the playoffs for consecutive seasons. The Magic are a young team overall with just one player over the age of 30 (D.J. Augustin) and find their main issue to be a lack of experience having made just their first playoff appearance since 2013 last year. A major loss for this team was Jonathan Isaac getting injured and having to miss the remainder of the year. He had been one of the league’s premier defensive players averaging 1.6 steals per game and was leading the league with 2.4 blocks per game. Without Isaac, the Magic remains a very good defensive team allowing a league-low 105.4 points per game.
The major issue for the Magic this year has been on the offensive side of the court without any players scoring over 20 points per game and also scoring a league-low 103.9 points per game. The team’s leading scorer and top performer this year has been center Nikola Vucevic who is having a slightly down year compared to last year but is still averaging 19 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game. Aaron Gordon is also having a worse season this year than previously averaging almost two fewer points and one less assist per game. The Magic are going to need to find help from their other more experienced players like Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin. The Magic are very capable on defense but need to find more ways to score the ball to remain a playoff contender down the stretch.
The Washington Wizards are the first team out of the playoffs with a 20-33 record leaving them just three games behind the Magic for the final spot in the playoffs. The Wizards missed the playoffs last year for just the second time in the past six years and also experienced an injury problem dating back to last year when point guard and former first-overall pick, John Wall, suffered an Achilles injury that has sidelined him all year. The Wizards are a very good offensive team scoring the second-most points in the Eastern Conference at 115.6 points per game only behind the Bucks who lead all of the NBA with 119.6 points per game. This being said, they do not have any good defensive players which have caused them to lead the league in points allowed at 119.8 points per game.
Bradley Beal has been the clear best player on the team despite being snubbed from the all-star game. The two-time all-star is scoring 29.1 points per game, which is a career-high and fifth-highest point total in the league, while also averaging a career-high 6.2 assists per game. After Beal, the depth lacks heavily. They have gotten a breakout performance by Davis Bertans who is primarily a three-point shooter averaging 15 points per game with 3.5 three-pointers made per game. The Wizards have the opposite issue of the team sitting in front of them as they need to find more ways to make stops on defense as opposed to scoring more points. Their ability to pass the Magic for the final playoff spot will likely be determined by whether offense or defense wins more games down the stretch.
The Grizzlies have had a much improved year as they have possession of the eighth seed in the playoffs coming out of the all-star break. They hold a 28-26 record and sit four games ahead of the Trail Blazers. Heading into the all-star break, the team has been playing some of its best basketball of the year having won eight of their last ten games and fifteen of their last nineteen games. The Grizzlies are a middle of the pack team on both offense and defense scoring 113 points per game but allowing 114.4 points per game.
This is a young and relatively inexperienced team with the second overall pick in this past draft, Ja Morant, playing the largest role in the Grizzlies success this season. Morant is on pace to win rookie of the year as he averages 17.6 points per game, 7.1 assists per game, and 3.5 rebounds per game. Other players have had some up and down seasons like second-year center, Jaren Jackson has significantly upped his game scoring 17.1 points per game while ninth-year center, Jonas Valanciunas has dropped his scoring by five points per game but still grabbing over ten rebounds per game. Morant has been the clear leader through the first half of this season and not only has his numbers proven that he has the potential to be a star in the league in the future but a trip to the playoffs in his first season would solidify his rookie of the year nomination. If the Grizzlies keep winning as they did going into the break, they should find themselves in the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Portland Trail Blazers
After a year where the Trail Blazers made it to the Western Conference Finals, they have had a disappointing season with a 25-31 record sitting four games behind the Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the playoffs. With the slow start to the season, the Blazers went out and signed Carmelo Anthony after just 14 games into the season. However, the Trail Blazers’ main issue is on the defensive side of the ball which means Anthony only contributes so much as a primarily offensive player. The Blazers allow the third-most points per game in the Western Conference at 115.3 points per game while scoring 113.4 points per game.
The biggest help that the Trail Blazers have gotten as of late has been from point-guard, Damian Lillard. He has gone on an incredible run as of late carrying him to career-highs with the fourth-ranked 29.5 points per game, sixth-ranked 7.9 assists per game, and an above career-average 4.4 rebounds per game. Since mid-January, Lillard has averaged 36.1 points per game, 8.8 assists per game, and 4.8 rebounds per game while leading the league in offensive win shares at 8.7. Lillard is quickly becoming an MVP candidate and over this stretch, the Blazers are 9-7 which is at least a sign that the season is beginning to trend up. However, it will take more than slightly above .500 to keep up with the red-hot Grizzlies.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have yet to miss the playoffs since Gregg Popovich became the head coach in 1997 but currently sit five games out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 23-31 record. It would almost feel strange to have a postseason without the Spurs as they have only missed the playoffs five times in its franchise.
Four-time all-star, DeMar DeRozan has been the team’s best player this year averaging 23 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game, and 5.2 assists per game. Some players are just not the same as they used to be like LaMarcus Aldridge for example who has gotten older (now 34) and is having his second-consecutive considerably down year after an all-star season. He went from averaging 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game down to 19.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. For the Spurs to try to avoid missing the playoffs, they will need players like Aldridge to step up his game to push the team to the next level.
New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans are currently sitting 5.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 23-31 record. This is a team that has had some struggles this season but is finally healthy and built to be capable of winning. This is mostly attributed to the long-awaited arrival of the 2019 number one overall pick, Zion Williamson. Williamson played his first ten games of the season before the break and 22.1 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game as the Pelicans went 5-5 over this stretch.
The Pelicans had a very active off-season as they traded center Anthony Davis to the Lakers in return for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks as well as signing J.J. Reddick to a two-year contract. Ingram has made the biggest impact of any of these players having been named an all-star for the first time averaging career-highs with 24.9 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game, and 4.2 assists per game. The Pelicans are a very young team overall that will be able to build primarily for the future but also has enough talent that it could make a run at the playoffs this year while sitting nearly six games out of the final spot.