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NBA playoff push: X-factor for the 5 East teams still in it

Milwaukee Bucks' Greg Monroe (15) drives the ball between Golden State Warriors' JaVale McGee, left, and Stephen Curry during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot

After taking a look at the X-factors in the Western Conference playoff chase, let’s turn to the Eastern Conference. The East standings for the 7 and 8 seeds seem to be changing order every single night. One night the Miami Heat are on the right track and pushing both the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons. Other nights, the Charlotte Hornets look poised to make the run they need to make. All the while, we still have no clue what the Chicago Bulls are up to.

With less than a month left in the season, the spotlight will be on five teams in the East hoping to fulfill their playoff destiny and lock up some postseason revenue. They’ll need a big performance from a special role player each night to complement the stars on their teams, so let’s examine each of these key guys.

Charlotte Hornets (30-39, 3.5 games back): Cody Zeller

Despite not having a traditional rim protecting center, the Charlotte Hornets can still defend. They’re tied for eighth in defensive rating. They rely on being connected on a string defensively, letting the thoughts and teaching of Steve Clifford guide them like a highly coordinated marionette. Charlotte is league average at defending the rim, but they don’t foul and they don’t get beat on the boards. Clifford doesn’t believe in blocks and steals denoting signs of good defense. They’re merely gambles and risks that might work out a few times per game. He’d rather his players be in position.

Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller embody this line of thinking. They don’t swat a bunch of shots. They don’t grab a lot of steals. These guys hedge pick-and-rolls, they close out on shooters, and they recover to get back into sound team positioning. With Zeller’s presence on the floor though, we see the best results. Zeller acts as a net rating whiz for the Hornets. The offense and defense both execute better with him in the game.

 

With Zeller on the court this season, the Hornets’ defense improves by 5.8 points per 100 possessions. The offense is 5.2 points per 100 better when Zeller is in the game. The net rating overall goes from a +7.3 with Zeller to a -3.8 without him. That’s a massive swing due to his presence on the court. With the way he runs the floor, maximizes put-backs, and plays in the pick-and-roll, the offensive jump makes sense. The defense is the key to Charlotte’s success and identity. They’ll need it to close the gap.

Chicago Bulls (33-37, 1 game back): Nikola Mirotic

The Chicago Bulls are one big shrug emoji right now. They made a questionable trade at the deadline to send Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott away. Players are questioning management and coaching. Dwyane Wade is out for the rest of the season with a fracture in his elbow. And yet, they remain in this race because not much involving them this season makes sense. When you think they’re turning a corner, they fall in the gutter. When you think they’re about to wet their pants, you find out they’re prepared for it by wearing adult diapers.

The Bulls are very much in this race while at the same time looking like they’re very much trying to take themselves out of this race. Three-point shooting and the Bulls don’t mix this season. They have the fewest makes in the NBA and the second worst percentage. If they’re going to rally around Jimmy Butler sans Wade, they’ll need a lot of shooting. That’s where Nikola Mirotic reviving his effectiveness is key to their success.

Mirotic can shoot… maybe? He was a bad three-point shooter his first NBA season, bounced back with 39 percent last season, and is really bad at it again. It’s a confusing roller coaster for someone who looks like he has a smooth jumper. But even when he’s not a consistent three-point connector, his presence on the court gives Chicago life. Since the All-Star break, the Bulls are +5.7 with Mirotic and -11.2 without him. The Bulls’ offense drops 16.3 points per 100 possessions when he leaves the floor. He’s only shooting 32.8 percent from deep since the break too.

There is some correlation between Mirotic shooting well from deep and the Bulls winning games. When Chicago wins, Mirotic hits 34.2 percent of his threes. It’s not great and it’s not even really league average. But it’s better than the 26.3 percent he hits in losses.

Miami Heat (34-36, tied with Detroit, out on tiebreaker): James Johnson

Erik Spoelstra had a plan for how he’d eventually utilize James Johnson. He wanted him to be a playmaker for his team. He wanted a few players to be playmakers and make the offense hum like we saw during the days of the Big 3. That’s an optimistic way to view the talent on this team, but the spirit of the ball flying around and finding the holes in the defense was the desire for the Miami Heat coach. Part of that would be putting Johnson in a role as a facilitator and allowing him to choose what’s next in a possession.

Ideally, you’d like him to make some threes too, but he’s never been much of a shooter from distance. So far, Johnson has done exactly what Spoelstra wanted him to do. He’s an incredible all-around defender and throwing him into some quick point forward situations usually yields good scoring opportunities. He averages a career best 3.5 assists per game, and that number has risen to 4.4 per game since the All-Star break. If you want to take a look at the entire James Johnson experience, this is it:

 

The Heat have gotten a lot from unexpected places during this turnaround. But Johnson is exactly the impact player the Heat expected him to be. With him on the bench, the Heat are still quite good since the All-Star break. They’re +4.2 per 100 possessions. But put him on the floor and that net rating rises to +12.8 per 100. The offense is a ridiculous 117.6 since All-Star weekend. With Dion Waiters’ ankle still quite tender, they’ll need the sharing mentality of James Johnson on the court.

Detroit Pistons (34-36, current 8-seed): Andre Drummond

Can you have a $130 million x-factor? Maybe when you make that kind of money, you should only be considered an x-factor. I’m not quite sure how that works with the semantics of it all. It’s been easy to criticize Andre Drummond this season. He’s been terrible. He has actively harmed the Detroit Pistons when he’s on the floor. That’s not supposed to be the case for your franchise player, and it’s worth discussing whether or not he has the worst contract in the NBA. That’s how bad he’s been.

But if the Pistons are going to come through on the floor in this playoff race, it has to involve Drummond. Well, technically it doesn’t have to involve him. They could just try to tread water when he’s on the floor and not drown. Then they swim to shore when he takes a breather on the bench. He’s still a big time net negative. Pistons are -5.4 points with him on the floor. They’re +5.1 with him on the bench. It has been even worse (-6.8 on/+6.9 off) since the All-Star break. This isn’t one of those, “here is the encouraging small sample trending in the right direction” blurbs. Drummond’s presence is getting even worse.

For the Pistons to avoid driving Stan Van Gundy entirely insane the rest of the season, Drummond needs to be the guy he’s paid to be. Otherwise, the Pistons would be foolish not to move him this summer before the stink of his impact wafts to the rest of the league front offices.

Milwaukee Bucks (34-35, current 7-seed by half game): Greg Monroe

Greg Monroe’s first season with the Milwaukee Bucks was a disaster. He wasn’t the force they were paying him to be inside, and his defensive shortcomings were magnified by an oddly ineffective defensive unit. However, this season we’ve seen Monroe find his niche in an altered role. Jason Kidd took Monroe out of the starting lineup, made him a key reserve, and reduced his minutes. In the process, he managed to be a calming presence within the second unit.

Monroe is easily having the best shooting season of his career from 10-23 feet (48.7 percent). That little bit of hesitation his mid-range jumper causes defenders allows him to attack the basket. Monroe didn’t fit well with Jabari Parker on the court, so the absence of Parker really isn’t hurting his minutes. Lineups with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Monroe (sans Parker) are mostly doing quite well this season.

Since the All-Star break, the Bucks are +4.7 per 100 possessions with Monroe and -4.3 without him. Despite Monroe being a bad rim protector, the Bucks don’t struggle defensively with him on the floor. Being able to find that balance in both role and execution has been key for the Bucks and Monroe. If they keep it up, they’ll find themselves locking up a playoff spot in a couple weeks.

All stats via NBA.com.

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