Eastern Conference Playoff Hopefuls: The Sub-.500s

Posted: 01/12/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

Since I wrote about the Bucks less than a week ago, not much has changed in the Eastern Conference. There’s still just a six game gap between #2 (the Bulls) and #12 (the Wizards) in the conference. And, well, I pledged to pick five teams out of a pot of nine (I’m assuming Chicago, Cleveland, and Toronto will make the playoffs) realistic options to make the playoffs. Today, I’m starting with the three teams on my list who clearly have the worst resumes to this point. All three are sub-.500, and two of the three have negative point differentials (something that can’t be said about any other playoff hopeful in the conference). With that being said, the Knicks, Hornets, and Wizards are all within a few games of the playoffs, and it would be dangerous to count them out with more than half of the season left. Which of the teams has the best chance of crashing the playoff party?

The New York Knicks, at 19-20, went all of 17-65 last year, so if they don’t win a single game from here on out, they’ll have improved from last season. Of course, that’s not going to happen, as New York has been rather mediocre all season. They’ve played all of four games this season with a winning record, but they also haven’t been worse than four games below .500 all season. It’s been a lot of ups and downs for the Knicks, as since dropping to 4-6, they’ve had three 4+ game losing streaks and two 4+ game winning streaks. They’re currently on an upswing, with five wins in their last seven games and a one point loss in San Antonio that pretty much counts as a win in that span (teams they’ve beaten in the past seven: Detroit, Atlanta twice, Miami, Milwaukee. Not bad). A season full of these types of ups and downs might have been enough to sneak into the EC playoffs last year, but in a tougher conference, they’ll need more consistent good results to challenge for a spot. The Knicks, of course, are still led in scoring by Carmelo Anthony, who’s averaging 22 points per game to go along with nearly eight rebounds and four assists. Anthony’s shooting his lowest percentage and scoring his fewest points since his sophomore season (he’s now in year 13), but his 3.8 assists per game are also tied with his career-best. And while this might say more about the Knicks’ guard situation than Melo, the shoot-first small forward is just a tenth of an assist per game off the team high. Those guards I’m speaking of? Well, it certainly isn’t pretty. The Knicks are starting Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo at the point and shooting guard positions respectively, and those two guys (especially Afflalo) are the main reasons the Knicks own a below-average defense despite having defensive stalwarts Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez down low. Wondering how this team has turned it around this year despite having a really mediocre all-around roster? It has to be thanks to once-booed and now-loved #4 pick Porzingis, the 20-year old Latvian menace who seems sure to be a star in the future but is already an above-average player. He’s averaging 14 and 8 with a couple of blocks per game, hits a three per game, and shoots 87% from the line. The efficiency (42%) will come, as will more 20+ point games, but even if the Knicks fall off a bit as I expect, this season will have been a positive one if only because we’ve seen how good the Zinger can be. I’ve already kind of answered the question for the Knicks, but here goes: No, I don’t think they’re going to make the playoffs or come all that close, but in order to do so, they’ll need otherworldly play from Melo and Zinger because, with the exception of those two guys, the team doesn’t have another above-average player.
Verdict: Slim Chance

Without a doubt, the Washington Wizards have been the most disappointing team in the conference this year. Coming off 44 and 46-win seasons, the Wizards were supposed to approach 50 victories this season after some nice under-the-radar offseason moves and with another season of the John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt. Let’s just say it hasn’t really worked out. Wall, the star of the team, has played pretty well and has stayed healthy after having an injury-riddled start to his career. He’s putting up about 20 points and 10 assists per game on 43% shooting, and he’s also a pretty good defender. It’s the rest of the team that’s been the problem. Beal (shockingly) has missed about half the season due to a leg injury (he’ll return soon), but the Wizards are just 7-10 in games with Beal on the court. The ex-Gator is averaging 20 points per game, but he’s an overall below-average offensive and defensive player this year, as his points come on 17 shots per game (he’s shooting a career-high 44% from the field) and he’s racked up just four more assists (55) than turnovers (51) this season. One thing’s for sure: if the Wizards want to have a shot at making the playoffs, they’ll need a healthy and more effective Beal, and they’ll need Beal and Wall to exhibit the chemistry everyone assumes they have. So far this year, in their 17 games together, they’ve been outscored when on the court together. That can’t happen. Aside from Beal, the Wizards have also had some other injuries. Marcin Gortat always looks a bit banged-up and is now nursing a knee injury, which is a big deal because he’s Washington’s only real presence down low with Nene Hilario, another injury-prone big man, going in and out of the lineup and largely looking over the hill this season. A huge difference between this year’s team and last season’s is that this team is moving a lot faster and shooting a lot more threes. They’re up from 16th to fifth in pace and up from 27th to 16th in three point attempts. Is it working? Well, it’s hard to know. The Wizards are almost exactly as good offensively this season as they were last season, which, given all the injuries, could mean that their true play is actually better in this more modern offense or could say exactly what we think it says, which is that it hasn’t had a positive or negative effect on the offense. The team itself is largely unchanged from last season (which is why people had such high expectations this season), but there have been some changes. Paul Pierce, the starting small forward last year, is gone, replaced in the starting lineup by former #3 pick and ex-Georgetown standout Otto Porter, who played just 19 minutes per game and averaged six points per game before having a mini-breakout in the playoffs (33 minutes of largely effective basketball per game), is up over 32 minutes per game, and he’s generally playing pretty well in the team’s new stretch-four role (13/6/2/1.6 steals per game).

When Beal and Gortat get back, this team will have a fighter’s chance at making a run if and only if they stay with the small-ball lineup they set out to go with this season. The lineup of Wall, Beal, Porter, Jared Dudley (a free-agent signing who is a tremendous three point shooter), and Gortat has posted a +11 in about 100 minutes this season, a +/- that is much better than the team’s -2.6. That lineup provides the best spacing and scoring ability this team is going to find, and I think it should be fairly effective. Another thing that looks positive for Washington, by the way? The fact that they’re only two games under .500 despite being riddled with injuries and playing the toughest schedule in basketball to this point. More good news: the Wizards have seven (7!) games against the Sixers (4), Lakers (1), and Nets (2) going forward, which means that they’ll basically be able to win about 15% of their remaining games just by showing up. Give them six wins in those seven and they’re 23-20 with a rather manageable schedule going forward (they’ve already played the majority of their games against the quartet of the Spurs, Warriors, Cavs, and Thunder). So can they make the playoffs? Sure they can! They just need to stay relatively close to the eight seed and get healthy.
Verdict: 50-50

The Charlotte Hornets have gone from being the NBA’s biggest feel-good story to a train-wreck in the last month. On December 11th, they beat the Grizzlies by 24 to move to 14-8, their fourth consecutive impressive victory. On January 10th, they fell to the lowly Nuggets by three points, their seventh consecutive loss. Since the win against the Grizzlies, after which they held a +5.1 point differential for the season, the Hornets are 3-12 with a -6.1 point differential. They’re scoring five points fewer per game (103 to 98) and allowing six more (98 to 104). They’re shooting 41% from the field in their last 15 games, down from 45% before that. Meanwhile, opponents have 39% from three in the past 15 games after being held to 34% in their first 22 games. So is this just a slump, or is it something more? Which version of the Hornets are we going to see going forward? Well, injuries may well have played a factor over the past month. Nicolas Batum, arguably the team’s best player and engine (I believe that the team’s improvement this year can be largely attributed to the addition of Batum), missed five games, Hornets losses by an average of 12.4 points. Meanwhile, I know Al Jefferson was seeing reduced time in a more fast-paced offense, but Jefferson is still a good offensive player who was seeing 25 minutes per game before he got injured. Jefferson has missed 18 of the team’s 20 games since the calendar turned to December and will be out another month, but he’ll be back for the stretch run, which is a good thing, as the Hornets are 12-7 in games that he’s played in. As for the team’s other players, Kemba Walker is who he is — an exciting, inefficient point guard who puts up nearly 20 points per game. Walker’s a good player, a guy who can definitely be the point guard on a successful offensive team, but he isn’t able to efficiently carry the team when nobody else steps up on a day-to-day basis. The Hornets actually have some other solid options, as guys like Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, and rookie Frank Kaminsky have shown signs of being quality role players on a good team (Lin and Lamb, by the way, were two other offseason acquisitions. Spencer Hawes has been bad, but for the most part the Hornets had a very good offseason). Another key thing to consider when looking at the Hornets’ future is the fact that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who underwent surgery in October to repair a torn labrum, looks to be well ahead of his six-month recovery timetable and could return within the next month. Given that MKG would replace P.J. Hairston, easily Charlotte’s worst starter, in the lineup and given that the Hornets have been struggling defensively, getting the former #2 overall pick back would be huge. Kidd-Gilchrist has 191 career starts in three seasons, and he’s a great defender who was showing signs of becoming a good all-around player before being injured. So yeah, getting him back would be huge. That’s still a question mark, though, and the Hornets need to start winning again now. Hairston’s really a starter in name only, but he needs to play less because he’s been very ineffective. I think that, unless Jefferson and MKG return fully from injury relatively soon, this team is a piece away from being a likely playoff team. Walker and Batum are good starters, and I would be in favor of moving Lamb into the starting lineup in place of Hairston. But I’m not totally sold on Williams, Zeller, or Kaminsky, and I think this team is just a little too light on above-average players, unless, of course, Big Al and MKG come back strong.
Verdict: They can make it, but they’ll need help via injury luck or trade(s)

Ranking of these three teams by playoff chances:
Wizards
Hornets
Knicks

Remember, I need to pick five out of nine teams, and these are just the first three. Two more posts are coming, and then I’ll make my guess at how the conference will play out.

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