We roll into the All-Star break with the Boston Celtics a mere 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the laughable Eastern Conference. As absurd as it seems for a team that is 11 games under .500 to be thinking about the postseason, that's the position the Celtics find themselves in heading into the season's unofficial second half.
Should Boston be pushing for a playoff spot or allowing themselves to sink in the standings for extra lottery ping pong balls? You can make strong arguments for both sides, but before we get too excited about the idea of making the playoffs, we have to consider what stands in our way. One game back in the loss column doesn't seem like much to overcome, but there are a handful of other teams in the mix for the final playoff spots. Only two games separate the No. 7 seed Miami Heat from the No 12. ranked Indiana Pacers. There are essentially six teams fighting for two playoff spots. Some of them may be better off with a lottery pick instead of a quick first-round exit, but a few of these teams have more incentive to make the playoffs, which may work against Boston's hopes of getting one of those spots.
Miami owes their first-round pick to Philadelphia (via Cleveland), while Brooklyn will be forced to swap picks with Atlanta as part of the ill-fated Joe Johnson trade. Neither team can benefit from being in the lottery. Charlotte and Detroit are struggling without their injured point guards, but Kemba Walker should return next month for the Hornets and D.J. Augustin has been a more than serviceable replacement for Brandon Jennings in Detroit. That leaves Indiana - a team that was in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, but has fallen apart with their best player sidelined. More on them later.
Boston may not have far to go to get to the eighth spot in the East, but there are a number of teams they will need to climb over to get there and most of them have more incentive to reach the playoffs.
These are the teams currently bound for the lottery (as of Wednesday morning), along with some useful information regarding their remaining games, courtesy of ESPN's Playoff Matchups page.
Indiana Pacers: It's been more like treading water for a Pacers team that has gone 6-4 over their past 10 games, but none of the other lottery teams in the East have done any better. What puts them on the rise is the news that Paul George wants to return this season. It's almost unfathomable that he could be ready to play this soon after the gruesome leg injury he suffered in August, but he's making progress and says that he will get back on the court as soon as the doctors clear him. A March return is possible, so with the carrot of their superstar forward dangling in front of them, the Pacers may fight even harder knowing they would have a legitimate shot in the East with George in the lineup.
Utah Jazz: The last 10 games have been a difficult stretch, but the Jazz have managed to come away with a victory in half of them - including wins over the Bucks, Warriors and Pelicans. Gordon Hayward has been lighting it up this month, averaging 25.6 points over the last 5 games, while hitting 54.2% of his shots from beyond the arc.
Orlando Magic: It's looking gloomy in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, with the Magic having lost 8 of their last 10 games. They fired head coach Jacque Vaughn last week and seem without a plan for how to take the next step. Orlando can't protect the rim when Nikola Vucevic shares the floor with Channing Frye, but their offense struggles without proper spacing when Kyle O'Quinn replaces Frye. This roster includes several young assets with upside, but there are questions about how they fit together.
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin is expected to miss at least three weeks following elbow surgery to remove a staph infection. Assuming he misses at least the rest of this month, that would keep him out through a difficult stretch in which the Clippers face the Rockets and Grizzlies twice, plus the Spurs. Doc's team could be in danger of losing their grip on a playoff spot in the brutally competitive West if Griffin misses extended time. Celtics fans will surely be keeping on eye on how the Clippers fare in Griffin's absence, given that Boston owns their first-round pick. We never want to see a player get injured, but the Clippers loss could become our gain.
Philadelphia 76ers: Who says the NBA has a tanking problem? The three worst teams in the league had all won four of their last ten games entering today. Sure, that's not great, but it also doesn't stink of a conspiracy that these teams are trying to lose games. The Sixers problem is that they don't have enough talent, but they are using this lost season to figure out which players on their roster could have long-term value. Robert Covington is one player impressing of late, averaging 18.8 points and 2.6 steals over his last five games. He's also converting nearly 42% of his three-point attempts during that span to raise his season average to just under 39%.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin have all finally returned from injury. Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng are developing into exciting young stars. Things are looking up in Minnesota, even if it's far too late for it to help this season. They may not win a lot of games even with their roster intact, but they should at least make for an exciting League Pass team to watch.
New York Knicks: Unlike the Knicks, who have become rather depressing to watch. Fans are pleading with James Dolan to sell the team and the owner is responding by suggesting they root for the Nets instead. It's gotten ugly in Gotham - to the point where fans can't even get excited about a high lottery pick because they probably expect the team to screw it up.
The projected draft order, as of Wednesday morning (pending lottery results).
|1. New York Knicks|
|2. Minnesota Timberwolves|
|3. Philadelphia 76ers|
|4. Los Angeles Lakers|
|5. Orlando Magic|
|6. Sacramento Kings|
|7. Utah Jazz|
|8. Indiana Pacers|
|9. Denver Nuggets|
|10. Boston Celtics|
|11. Detroit Pistons|
|12. Atlanta Hawks (via Brooklyn Nets)|
|13. Houston Rockets (via New Orleans Pelicans)|
|14. Oklahoma City Thunder|