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The Stretch Run to the Playoffs by Ben Galli

There’s approximately one month remaining in the NBA season.  Most teams have about 15-20 games left.  What was once billed as an inevitable showdown of last year’s Finals participants has had doubt cast upon it via injuries and roster changes.  The odds still favor a rematch between Golden State and Cleveland but both teams are in real danger of losing their number 1 seed for the playoffs.

Here’s a look at the standings, the moves made by contenders, and what it all might mean in Springtime for America.

Standings through 3/12/2017.  My pre-season prediction for each team in parentheses because my ego knows no bounds.

Eastern Conference

                              Team                           Record                Games Back                Win %                Last 10

 

               1. Cleveland Cavaliers (1)           43-22                          -                             .662                      4-6

               2. Washington Bullets (10)        41-24                          2                             .631                       7-3

               3. Boston Celtics (3)                  42-25                         2                             .627                      5-5

               4. Toronto Raptors (2)               38-28                         5.5                          .576                      6-4

               5. Atlanta Hawks (12)                 37-29                         6.5                          .561                       5-5

               6. Indiana Pacers (5)                  34-32                         9.5                          .515                       5-5

               7. Detroit Pistons (4)                  33-33                         10.5                        .500                      7-3

               8. Milwaukee Bucks (9)              32-33                         11                            .492                       7-3

               9. Miami Heat (7)                        32-35                         12                           .478                       7-3

               10. Chicago Bulls (11)                  31-35                         12.5                         .470                      4-6

               11. Charlotte Hornets (6)             29-37                        14.5                        .439                       5-5

               12. New York Knicks (8)              27-41                         18                           .388                       3-7

               13. Philadelphia Process (13)      24-42                        19.5                        .364                       3-7

               14. Orlando Magic (14)               24-43                        20                          .358                        3-7

               15. Brooklyn Nets (15)                12-53                         31                           .185                         3-7

Looks like the 1 seed is a horse race between Cleveland, Boston, and the surprising Wizards née Bullets barring some unforeseen shenanigans from Toronto.  I was wrong about Washington and also the Hawks this year.  Didn’t respect Scott Brook’s ability to overcome the reported chemistry issues on this team and continued to underestimate Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer even as I considered him one of the best in the league.  

And it would be unforgivable to not mention John Wall as a true MVP candidate and the main reason Washington is challenging for the top spot in the East, something no one would have predicted even early this season.  He’s averaging 23 points per game to go with 10.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds.  

As far as the other end of the playoff race, the Bulls are still hanging out seemingly with no idea about what they want to do this season and the Heat are challenging the Pistons and Bucks for the final playoff spots.  

Western Conference

Team Record Games Back Win % Last 1

                              Team                           Record                Games Back                Win %                Last 10

               1. Golden State Warriors (1)       52-14                          -                             .788                     5-5

               2. San Antonio Spurs (2)           51-14                           .5                            .785                     9-1

               3. Houston Rockets (10)            46-21                          6.5                          .687                     6-4

               4. Utah Jazz (9)                         41-25                          11                             .621                      7-3

               5. L.A. Clippers (3)                    40-26                         12                             .606                    5-5

               6. OKC Thunder (4)                   37-29                         15                             .561                      6-4

               7. Memphis Grizzlies (6)            36-30                        16                             .545                     3-7

               8. Denver Nuggets (14)             31-35                         21                             .470                     6-4

               9. Portland Blazers (5)              29-36                        22.5                         .446                     6-4

               10. Dallas Mavericks (8)            28-37                         23.5                         .431                      6-4

               11. Minnesota T-Wolves (7)       27-38                         24.5                         .415                      6-4

               12. New Orleans Pellies (11)      26-40                         26                            .394                    4-6

               13. Sacramento Kings (12)        25-41                          27                            .379                     1-9

               14. Phoenix Suns (15)                22-45                        30.5                         .328                     4-6

               15. L.A. Lakers (13)                    20-46                        32                            .306                     1-9

To no one’s surprise, Golden State and San Antonio are the top 2 in the West.  To most everyone’s surprise, Houston is number 3.  James Harden probably has the strongest case for MVP because of the Rockets' success in a loaded West and the talent level surrounding him.  Averaging 29 points, 11 assists, and nearly 8 rebounds a game doesn’t exactly hurt either.

But it’s the new Old West and it’s gonna go down between 2 legendary gunslingers.  Kawhi Leonard has the Spurs just a half game back of the Warriors and winners of 10 of their last 11.  But Golden State has struggled without their new sheriff in town, Kevin Durant who has no set timetable for his return

The Warriors have limped like KD to 5-5 in their last 10 games.  Something they haven’t done since 1997, oh wait a minute, I mean last year’s playoffs.  Dorks.

The low key surprise of the year may be the Denver Nuggets currently holding onto the 8th spot.  Don’t let me fool you.  Although I did pick them to finish next to last in my season preview, I also said this about them:  This ranking could be too low for this year's Nuggets who have a good coach in Mike Malone.  Point guard Emmanuel Mudiay could make a jump in his second year and promising center Nikola Jokic led Serbia to the Olympic silver medal this summer.

Kinda prescient if you ask me.  Who would have thought that a team you admittedly may have ranked too low, would actually do better?  And that concludes today’s lesson on how to spin past mistakes to make poo glitter like gold.  #Glitterpoo.

A Change is Gonna Come

Now to look at the major moves made by contenders to shore up for their title run.  A mix of trades and player releases allowed certain teams to add some weapons for the playoffs.  

Houston added more firepower in Lou Williams, giving up their 1st round draft pick to do so.  Good pickup for them and the theory goes like this:  Houston can take Golden State if they attempt a lot of 3’s, hit a higher than average percentage of them, and have James Harden carry them to a win a game or two on the road.  Not very likely but made more possible by the addition of Lou Williams who excels in scoring and can take pressure off of Harden.  He’s averaging 18 points per game while playing just 24 minutes per game and shooting 38% from three this year.

Washington made two moves of note, the latter being the more intriguing and unexpected.  They added a nice scoring guard in Bojan Bogdanovic in a trade with Brooklyn but it was the other New York team that inadvertently strengthened the Wizards’ bench.  The Knicks, cunningly rivaling the Browns for most historic franchise that is always 1 moment away from disappointing all of their fans forever yet again, released Brandon Jennings who signed soon after with Washington.  Jennings is unpredictable but capable of running the offense and catching fire.  He could be a wild card come playoff time.

Toronto fired the first shot in the East when they traded Terrence Jones for Serge Ibaka.  It will take some time to see how effectively Ibaka integrates himself into the Raptors system but he instantly makes them a better defensive team and can stretch the court.  It remains to be seen if he makes a big enough difference for Toronto to truly challenge Cleveland’s position on the throne.

Cleveland didn’t trade for anyone but did sign a couple players who had been released by their teams so they could sign with contenders.  The addition of Deron Williams gives the Cavs a wily, veteran backup point guard who can still do many things well.  It’s a well known fact that the Cavs have never won a championship without having a native of Australia on their roster.  Proving themselves strong adherents to the Paul Hogan Corollary, they signed center Andrew Bogut a week after the trade deadline.

But tragedy struck soon after.  Just 58 seconds into his first game as a Cavalier, Bogut broke his leg.  The Cavs did not waste much time moving on.  A week later, they have reportedly waived Bogut and signed former Bucks standout Larry Sanders.  If Sanders is 3/4th’s of the player he was in his Milwaukee heyday, he’ll be a much greater addition than Bogut was.  Big $ of the North Coast Posse agrees, having this to say:

However, that’s a big if.  Although Sanders departure from the NBA 2 years ago was unceremonious and mired in different struggles and suspensions, he was an up and coming, athletic rim protector.  The rumors are that he’s out of shape but worst case scenario, he’s a big body that can give 6 fouls in the playoffs and spell for Tristan Thompson.  The ceiling? I mean the roof?  Sanders recaptures his passion for basketball and has spent the last couple years growing up.  He becomes a solid defensive anchor for a 2nd unit off the bench to help improve Cleveland’s 22nd ranked defensive rating.

And for those worried about the lack of Australian depth on the roster, keep in mind that Kyrie Irving was born in Australia although he grew up in New Jersey.  Not sure if there are any two places that are more alike and different at the same time.

As far as who gets the Number 1 seeds for the playoffs this year, the Cavs have battled injuries all season.  That’s why their lead is only 2 games in the East.  They also have the best player in the game and I don’t see LeBron letting them drop below 1.  The West is more interesting however because of the Durant injury throwing the Warriors more off their game than many suspected.  San Antonio is just a half game back but they just lost LaMarcus Aldridge who is out indefinitely with heart issues.  I still think the Warriors will get back on track in time and eke out the best record over the Spurs.  But a freefall is nothing the Warriors haven’t experienced before.