San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs have somehow caught up to the Golden State Warriors. They sit a ½ game back, trailing by a single win. That’s astonishing considering the talent disparity between the two teams. The Warriors have four of the top 20 players in the NBA, and two of the top 10. The Spurs have one, Kawhi Leonard, with LaMarcus Aldridge somewhere in the fringes of the top 30. Depth is important, but seriously? How do the Spurs do it? Well, Kawhi is having an MVP caliber season, scoring over 26 points at a highly efficient rate while remaining the best perimeter defender (and the best defensive player period) in the NBA. His octopus-like arms are the key reason the Spurs are the top defensive team in the NBA, even after the retirement of stalwart Tim Duncan. Coach Popovich has weaned career-seasons out of Patty Mills and Dwayne Dedmon, inspired David Lee and Pau Gasol to care about defense again, and even received rotation production from two rookies in Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans. In other words, he is what we all already knew—the finest coach in the NBA. While I remain skeptical of the Spurs’ ability to turn up to another level in the playoffs against elite opponents, this has been a remarkable season for a team that refuses to quit. Duncan is gone, Diaw left, and Manu and Tony Parker are not what they used to be. It just doesn’t matter. What is dead may never die.
Khris Middleton: Middleton’s injury at the start of the season was supposed to doom the Bucks to a ticket to the lottery. Instead, his resurgence has ignited their playoff push. Middleton is putting up the best per-minutes stats of his career, especially in rebounds and assists. He’s a terrific scorer, able to pour in a relatively high number of buckets on excellent efficiency. At the same time, he’s increased his ability to do other things, turning into a secondary playmaker for Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is even more valuable on a Bucks team that lacks a starting level point guard. To top it all off, Khris is a just-below-top-tier defensive player, capable of guarding anyone and everyone from point guards to small forwards. Basically, he’s an awesome all-around player, and a perfect complement to Giannis. Without Jabari Parker, the Bucks are too thin to go far in the playoffs, but they are a dangerous opponent, and Middleton’s strong play almost ensures that they will make the postseason.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizz are 3-7 in their last 10 games, and have been one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA since the All Star Break. Small sample size? Sure. Still worrying? You bet. The issue with the Grizzlies is that their problems go beyond statistics and numbers—you can tell just by watching them why they are struggling. Chandler Parsons, their max signing this summer, has been awful this season, and never looked healthy. Now he’s out indefinitely with another knee injury, and it’s quite possible he won’t return this season. That leaves a wing rotation of a 35 year old Tony Allen, a 40 year old Vince Carter, and journeymen James Ennis and Troy Daniels. None of those guys is a starter on a playoff team at this point in their careers, not even close. Honestly, they aren’t even great as the 3rd wings off the bench. It’s a bad, bad situation for Memphis. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are great, and the rest of the big man rotation is terrific as well. But you just can’t do much in the NBA with two whole positions being that below par. I’m not scared of the Grizzlies, and I’m not sure many NBA teams are either.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are a disaster. They have not one, not two, not three, but FOUR incompetent point guards, all of whom get shuttled around by lame duck coach Fred Hoiberg. Jerian Grant might be the best point guard on the Bulls’ roster. Jerian Grant! Cam Payne, who they traded two of their best assets for, has been absolutely awful. Dwyane Wade still has his moments, but he can’t bring it every night, and his defense has shifted from opportunistic to downright atrocious. Taj Gibson’s departure has left Robin Lopez as the only consistently competent player alongside Jimmy Butler, and, correspondingly, the Bulls have fallen apart. Hoiberg is ignored by the veterans on the team, and that might even help them win more, as he has proven a complete failure as an NBA head coach. On the other hand, the front office has let him down, failing to put players around who could fit his (or any) system. They need to tank to try to accumulate some young talent, and instead are still trying (hopelessly) to make the playoffs. The Bulls are in a place of their own as a franchise, and it isn’t a good one.
New Orleans Pelicans: The Pels have won their last two games, but losing six of eight right after the All Star Break (and the DeMarcus Cousins trade) all but sunk their chances to make the playoffs. They currently sit five games out of the 8th seed, and would need to pass four teams to claim that last playoff spot. That’s a tall, tall order for a team that hasn’t played well at all under its new iteration, especially considering the teams ahead of them are all hotter and playing better basketball recently. Most importantly, the Cousins-Anthony Davis pairing has been a disaster. In the 179 minutes that the two stars have shared the court, the Pelicans have a -4.6 Net Rating, and suffer a truly anemic offense. The floor is crowded with the two of them on it, and Cousins simply hasn’t developed off-ball skills to complement the superior Davis. Ideally, the two of them would bring back the days of yore in the NBA, bruising players in the paint and dominating the glass. The reality is that together, they clog up the spacing on offense, preventing anyone from getting open looks. Maybe with more time together Davis and Cousins can hash out a working offense with the two of them as vital pieces, but can the Pelicans take that risk? Don’t be too shocked if they trade him (or at least try to) this summer. Davis is younger, better, and less of a headache, and if the Pelicans don’t think Cousins can work alongside him, Boogie will be shipped out for spare parts.