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Good, Bad, and Ugly: Battle for Playoff Seeding Rages in the NBA

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With less than 20 games left in the season, and the conference standings closer than ever, every game is of vital importance, whether for determining playoff seeding or lottery balls. Here’s a quick look around the league at the 3⁄4 mark of the season.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Good:

Anthony Davis:

The Pelicans have won nine games in a row despite losing All Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the season, and their success is largely due to MVP level play from Anthony Davis. Sure, guys like Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, and Darius Miller have stepped up (particularly Holiday), but the Pels would be nowhere without their superstar big man. Davis averaged 35 points, 13 rebounds, and over 2 blocks and steals per game in the month of February, numbers that haven’t been approached by anyone since prime Shaquille O’Neal. AD is somehow on pace for similar stats in March (albeit in two games), and his unstoppable play in the 2nd half is what propelled New Orleans to their huge win over the Clippers last night. He’s unguardable on offense when his outside shot is falling: he can blow by slower defenders on the perimeter, post up smaller guys in the post, and hit incredible fadeaway jumpers when the defense actually keeps him from his best spots. The Brow has been the best player in the NBA since Cousins went down, finally fulfilling the promise that he first displayed in his second year in the league, when he showed off skills that could propel him to become the most dominant basketball player in the world. That time appears to have come. While James Harden still has a sizable lead in the MVP race, Davis is closing fast.

Pacers:

I’m not sure anyone predicted that the Pacers would make the playoffs this season. And if they did, they almost certainly had them squeaking in as an 8th seed in a terrible Eastern Conference. Well, it’s heading into mid-March, and the Pacers are 10 games over .500. Obviously, the big story is Victor Oladipo making the leap from a good player to All Star, but there are other very key elements that haven’t been discussed as much. First, they’ve had phenomenal luck with injuries: Only one player in their top eight rotation has missed more than 15 games, and only two have missed more than six. In fact, three of their key players haven’t missed a game at all! Really, the one true loss they’ve suffered was that Glenn Robinson III missed most of the season, and he wasn’t a crucial piece in the first place.

The other big story has been their supporting cast turning in breakout or career seasons. Veterans such as Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison have put forth the finest seasons of their already solid careers this year, with Bojan raining down fire from three, and Collison having an incredible 4:1 assist to turnover ratio. Meanwhile, Domantas Sabonis, who showed a bit of promise in his rookie season in OKC before hitting a massive wall, has turned into a solid starting big man in just one season. These developments have kept the Pacers winning even when Oladipo has a rare off night. The Pacers are one of the best stories in the NBA this season, and Coach Nate McMillan deserves a lot of that credit.

Bad:

Marc Gasol Situation:

The Memphis Grizzlies have had a miserable season. They came into 2017-2018 with playoff hopes, and instead sit last in the entire NBA with a 18-45 record, losers of 14 games in a row. Worse, they haven’t really started their rebuild either. A lot of their untenable situation has to do with Marc Gasol, though not all of it is his fault. He got coach David Fizdale, one of the most well liked and respected young coaches in the NBA, fired at the start of the season. That’s bad, especially since Fizdale seems like a coach that might have been good at player development during a rebuild. Gasol’s play has also fallen off significantly this season: he’s scoring less, his efficiency has plummeted, his turnovers have soared while his assists are down, his defense is not as good, and the list goes on. That’s natural: Gasol is entering his mid-30s, and a drop-off is expected. The Grizzlies still should have traded him. They certainly wouldn’t have received the return they might have a year or two ago, yet holding onto him (and the idea of this Grizzlies’ core as a contender) is foolishness.

The Grizz let two of the flagship Grit and Grind era players (Tony Allen and Zach Randolph) depart this season, making a Gasol trade a logical next step. Getting back a couple prospects or draft picks would have been huge in replenishing the Grizzlies’ store of young talent. That didn’t happen, and now the Grizz are still on the hook for Gasol’s massive contract as he continues to age and decline. They are in a bad situation, perhaps the worst of any team in the NBA, and they’ve handled the Gasol situation horribly.

Rebuilding Teams Not Playing Young Players:

If the Grizzlies have stumbled in actually starting their rebuild, other teams in the NBA don’t seem sure of how to guide theirs forward past the starting stage. The biggest issue is playing useless veterans (who aren’t helping the team win anyway, forgetting the fact that winning games is bad for these teams who need top lottery talent) over young players who might improve and become cornerstones of the fully rebuilt franchise. The Knicks are the worst culprits, continuing to start and play the 32 year old Courtney Lee (who should have been traded anyway) over 30 minutes per game. They drafted a raw point guard, Frank Ntilikina, with the 8th pick in the draft last summer, and he’s barely cracking 20 minutes a game. He just started for the first time in the Knicks’ last game, something that should have happened at least 15-20 games ago. Luke Kornet, a 22 year old big man, has played 58 minutes total all season, and continues to sit behind Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn, and there are a couple other players in similar situations on their roster. That’s just mismanagement.

The Kings are doing a bit better, but they’re still playing Zach Randolph 26 minutes per game on the season, and Vince Carter is a part of their rotation as well. It’s respectful to let such respected veterans get minutes instead of wasting away in some of the last years of their career. There is also merit to the idea of having veterans on the team and in the locker room as mentors and professional presences. Even playing some minutes to provide stability is fine. But every minute that a player in their 30s or 40s (Vince, incredibly, is 41) receives is one that a developing player is missing out on. The NBA in general favors older players who have paid their dues, and the amount of useless players on rosters that are taking up roster spots that should go to younger players with upside is far too high. It is awesome that Vince Carter is still in the NBA—I just wish he were playing meaningful minutes on a team that was headed for the postseason, not the lottery.

Ugly:

Detroit Pistons:

The Pistons snapped off a five-game winning streak after the Blake Griffin trade, and he was the toast of the NBA as a “new player, and more fun and likeable person” in Detroit. How much changes in a month. The Pistons are 0-9 with Blake when not playing teams on the second night of a back to back while they themselves are rested, and their fans’ opinions on Blake have quickly soured. His stats are way down with Detroit, though much of that has to do with the rest of the Pistons’ roster. The Pistons have very little outside shooting, and their complete lack of playmakers outside of Blake, Ish Smith, and Andre Drummond (none of whom truly space the floor) means they go through lulls on offense where nothing much seems to happen. The pieces just don’t fit in Detroit, and the return of Reggie Jackson (if it happens this season) probably won’t do much to fix the issues. If they truly want to see things through with Blake, the roster needs to be remade to fit with him, which means adding lots of shooting and defense. But right now, they are likely destined for the lottery—and therefore a very high chance of losing their pick to the Clippers. Missing the playoffs and losing their 1st round pick would be a devastating blow for the Pistons, yet that exact scenario has over 90% odds of happening at this point. What a disastrous season.