Since our last look at the standings, the Boston Celtics have won three of their last four games to move up the list of lottery bound teams. They went from having the league's 5th worst record to being tied for the 8th worst - which keeps them in contention for a top-10 pick, but also gives them slim odds of getting one of the coveted top-3 spots.
While our recent string of success may have some fans excited that this team can exceed our expectations, the wins that the Celtics have piled up in the past week may be a bit of a mirage. Boston beat a Utah Jazz team (after nearly blowing a huge lead) that they are competing with for lottery positioning. They also beat Portland and Denver teams that were missing their best players, which makes them fortunate to have caught them at the right time.
Boston now sits only two games back of the final playoff spot in the East, so a seat in the postseason is hardly out of reach. Giving the young players on this roster a taste of some playoff action could be good for their development, but you get the feeling that if they do make the playoffs it will only be because they stumbled into it. Which begs the question - are the Celtics really rising or is everyone else around them falling?
These are the teams currently bound for the lottery, along with some useful information regarding their remaining games, courtesy of ESPN's Playoff Matchups page.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis has developed into one of the game's brightest young stars - leading the league in PER (31.91) and blocks (2.88), while ranking third in scoring at 24.5 points per game. The only thing holding him back from being in the MVP conversation is that he's yet to lead his team to the postseason, but a four game winning streak has the Pelicans a mere 1.5 games back of the 8th seed in the West. New Orleans has feasted on some of the worst teams in the league during this stretch, but also claimed a win over Dallas. This is potentially good news for the Celtics, as it drops the Mavericks down to 6th in the West. If Dallas were to somehow fall out of the playoffs then Boston would obtain their 1st-round draft pick from the Rajon Rondo trade (as long as it's not top-3). Most likely we will have to wait until next year for that pick, but keep an eye on how the Mavs fare in the brutal Western Conference. New Orleans may be one rising team capable of catching them and they have all the incentive in the world to make the postseason, considering they owe their draft pick to the Houston Rockets.
Charlotte Hornets: Michael Jordan's team just jumped out of the lottery with a half game edge over the Brooklyn Nets for the 8th spot in the East. They've won eight of their last ten games, including three of four since Al Jefferson returned to the lineup following a nine game absence. Unfortunately this isn't one of the years that Boston owns Brooklyn's draft pick, so the Hornets knocking them into the lottery doesn't do us much good. At least the Atlanta Hawks can swap picks with Brooklyn this year, so if the Nets miss the playoffs they won't be getting a lottery pick to help them improve for the upcoming years that we do get their first-round pick. Charlotte also has lost Kemba Walker indefinitely to a torn meniscus, so they may not be rising much longer.
Detroit Pistons: At this time last week we were praising the Pistons for surging toward the playoffs as a new-look unit in a post-Josh Smith world. Their outlook appears a lot less optimistic with the news that point guard Brandon Jennings is lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles. Jennings had been one of the primary forces behind Detroit's resurgence, averaging 20.9 points and 7.2 assists this month. His production won't easily be replaced unless they are able to make a move to acquire a point guard before the trade deadline, which puts the Pistons in danger of slipping behind Boston in the standings.
Denver Nuggets: Currently mired in a league-high seven game losing streak, the Nuggets are now tied in the loss column with Boston. The win the Celtics pulled out in Denver last week while Ty Lawson was out of the lineup could loom large in terms of lottery positioning if Boston does miss out on the playoffs.
New York Knicks: After finally halting a demoralizing 16-game losing streak, the Knicks ripped off three straight wins. Granted they all came against teams that also reside in the lottery, but at least they now have a legitimate chance of cracking double-digit wins before the All-Star break. A week ago, was anyone comfortable predicting they would win more than 10 games all season? The Knicks picked up Langston Galloway earlier this month and he impressed enough on a pair of 10-day contracts to earn himself a new deal for the remainder of the season. The rookie free agent point guard is averaging 12.1 points and 3.0 assists in his 8 games with the team.
Philadelphia 76ers: They've played only slightly worse than the Knicks over the past 10 games, but it's enough to drop them into a tie for the worst record in the East and second worst overall. That's just fine with them, as the Sixers expected to tank from the start in hopes of a brighter future. Nerlens Noel should become a big part of that future and is starting to blossom into a defensive force. He's the only player in the league currently averaging at least 1.5 blocks and steals per game.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The basement of the league now belongs to Minnesota, but only by half a game and they are starting to get healthier. Nikola Pekovic has returned and Kevin Martin is on the verge of making his way back, after each had been sidelined since mid-November with wrist injuries. The news on Ricky Rubio isn't as encouraging, as he suffered a setback while rehabbing a high ankle sprain and remains out indefinitely. As they get closer to full strength the Wolves may move up a few spots, but they've already dug themselves too big of a hole for Boston to pass them in lottery positioning.
The current projected draft order (pending lottery results).
|1. Minnesota Timberwolves|
|2. Philadelphia 76ers|
|3. New York Knicks|
|4. Los Angeles Lakers|
|5. Orlando Magic|
|6. Indiana Pacers|
|7. Utah Jazz|
|8. Boston Celtics|
|9. Sacramento Kings|
|10. Detroit Pistons|
|11. Denver Nuggets|
|12. Atlanta Hawks (via Brooklyn Nets)|
|13. Oklahoma City Thunder|
|14. Houston Rockets (via New Orleans Pelicans)|