As the NBA and its players and coaches settle in for the All-Star break, most teams have played a little more than 50 games to this point, typically a large enough sample size for a team to establish its identity and quality. In the East, the top half-dozen playoff teams seem well-established: the drop-off from Milwaukee at 6 to Miami at 7 is almost eight games. It’s slightly more difficult in the Western Conference, where the top-seven playoff teams seem like locks, considering the defending champion Spurs would be the 7-seed if the postseason began today.
Unless a team goes on a super-tear during the last 30 games (hello, Oklahoma City!), it seems like there are basically three playoff spots remaining up for grabs: two in the East and one in the West.
Several teams are vulturing around these final postseason spots: the Suns are currently clinging to the 8th spot out West, and the Hornets and Heat have tenuous ownerships on the final two playoff spots in the East. Several more teams are on the outside looking in, and among these teams on the fringes of the playoff picture are some of the most intriguing story-lines after the All-Star break. Typically these are the teams either on the come-up or come-down, either not yet ready or already out of time, and those teams are typically the most fun and interesting. This year, however, there is an unusual group trying to claw their way into the playoffs in both conferences, from injury-ridden would-be contenders to in-season, out-of-nowhere upstarts.
While their macro circumstances are all different, each of these teams is earnestly in playoff-chasing mode, making their stakes and their stories among the most interesting for last part of the season.
Oklahoma City Thunder — Out of the four teams in this article, the Thunder are far and away the most threatening bunch. After suffering major injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook right from the onset of the season, the team and its fans knew this season wouldn’t be easy, but as the schedule begins to wane, some are starting to get antsy about OKC’s inability to solidify themselves as a playoff team in the West.
The silver lining for the Thunder, however, is that they’re still getting right, and thanks to some improved play recently, they find themselves only a half-game back of Phoenix for the final playoff spot. “Still getting right” means OKC has yet to welcome back a fully healthy Durant, who is still nursing soreness in the foot he fractured, and will also be awaiting the return of Steven Adams, who’s expected to miss about three weeks with a fractured right hand.
Thankfully, the Thunder have more talent and experience than most teams, and both Westbrook and Durant seem like they’ll be healthy for the long haul. Reggie Jackson seems to have perked up as Dion Waiters has fallen off, and Mitch McGary has given the team a huge boost with the recent absences of big men. There are still a lot of cards for this team to play, and their luck finally seems to be regressing to the mean, which could make them the scary sleeper we’ve been waiting to see all season.
New Orleans Pelicans — The Pellies’ postseason chances can be summed up in three words: Anthony Davis’ health. If the young forward can give this team his usual 35-40 impactful minutes for the last 30 games, they could take the Suns and Thunder down to the wire, which, since they own the tiebreaker, would be huge.
If, however, Davis remains banged up like he has been recently, this team won’t make the postseason. In the Western Conference, every game counts, and this team can’t win enough games without Davis playing, as evidenced in their not-as-close-as-it-looked 93-106 loss to the Pacers on Wednesday night. They’re simply too thin and too Brow-dependent. The latter is understandable, the former is something that will surely be addressed this offseason, as the contracts of both Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans together has proven to be a team-building impediment.
This team is a more traditional fringe contender, where it would be fun to see the Brow do some serious damage and probably scare some folks in the first-round, but the real fun will be in seeing what this team is able to put around him going forward.
Indiana Pacers — The Pacers are more in the Thunder boat than the Pelicans, a “been there, done that” team of veterans whose championship pursuit has been totally derailed by injuries this season, namely the infamous one to their best player, Paul George, at the Team USA training camp in August.
Even after George’s broken leg, Indiana suffered through a host of injuries since training camp, including a strained groin/torn quadricep that kept George Hill out for almost 40 games, David West’s severely sprained ankle that caused him to miss some games, a series of nagging injuries to Roy Hibbert, and a host of other smaller maladies to key players like CJ Miles, Ian Mahinmi, and Rodney Stuckey.
Still, here the Pacers find themselves, still playing great defense, finally at full health, and just two games back of the Heat for the final playoff spot. Both team president Larry Bird and George himself have teased a potential return this season, and considering the boost Hill has given this team, Indiana could be a weirdly intriguing, totally-forgotten sleeper come playoff season.
Detroit Pistons — Finally, the Pistons were the toast of the NBA after their blessed release of Josh Smith, after which they’ve been an entirely different team under coach Stan Van Gundy. Unfortunately the team lost the orchestrator of the bunch, Brandon Jennings, to an Achilles injury a couple weeks back, and while that’s slowed their run a touch, they’re still vying for the playoffs in a real way out East.
DJ Augustin has done an admirable job filling in for Jennings, and this team will surely be looking to snatch a veteran point guard off a scrap heap around next week’s trade deadline. Van Gundy has turned this group into a inconsistent but threatening bunch in the mold of his Orlando teams. His two massive bigs, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, are surrounded by a host of three point shooters, and they like to push the ball, shoot threes, and get the ball inside when the opportunities present themselves. They’re just a league-average team on defense, but Drummond is an improving force on that end, and at the other end, they’ve been borderline top-10 in the league in points per 100 since Smith’s departure according to NBA Stats, so that helps.
Once Smith was gone and Detroit welcomed pieces like Jodie Meeks and Anthony Tolliver into the fold, this team has found its step under Van Gundy and playing with a free-wheeling-ness that bodes well for a postseason chase. It’s also a nice taste of what SVG might be able to do with this team going forward.