With the playoffs in sight, the paths of each team in the league have become very very clear. As the clouds part and the direction of each team reveals itself, we can solidify our opinions on each teams trajectory. Whether a team is destined for a chance in the lottery or sighted on the last dance, their direction is heavily goal oriented. Suck as hard as possible or fight to be number one. Don't get me wrong, those two destinations aren't enough to cover each team in the league, some are what I like to call "limbo teams". These are the middling messes who seem lost in the predicament of being perfectly mediocre. For some, their aim is still obscured, but for others, mediocrity is a cliff on the mountain. A lack of draft picks and the injury of a key player can be the spartan kick that launches them into oblivion, while another in the same spot may stumble upon the stairway to heaven by landing a major free agent. Regardless of their fortune, the future depends much on the present and here is where each team sits with the playoffs on the horizon.
Atlanta gets my vote for worst viewing experience in the league, not that losing Bazemore took them from bearable to "how can I gouge my eyes out with bleached spoons" but it doesn't help. The Hawks have been great at sucking this year and it has earned them the bottom spot in the east. They'll undoubtedly end up in the lottery and have a chance at drafting a potential franchise altering talent. Unfortunately it will take more than a top pick to drag them out of the NBA's basement and not a single player on their roster meets that standard. John Collins is fun to watch and may have a relatively long and successful career ahead of him but he just isn't the type of player that makes your rebuild worthy of a catchphrase like "trust the process".
Remember when people talked about Kyrie Irving in the beginning of the year and somehow the words "most valuable player" would find their way into the conversation? I do. Kyrie has been great, true, but the Celtics early win streak was more than enough to have some fans hysterical. It seems Boston has the number two seed all but locked up despite injuries to half of the city. They deserve it. While they surprised us in the opening weeks and looked like the best in the east, this year wasn't always finals or bust. This team has some incredible young players and their future is brighter than most. This is a team who's best is yet to come. Their current injury woes are a big bummer but looking forward, Boston will be just fine.
The Nets have a first round pick. Finally! It's from the Raptors. Shit.
All jokes aside, it looks like Brooklyn finally has some direction. Taking on big ugly contacts in order to bring in young prospects or picks seems like their only option and they finally caught on. They are still terrible but at least they're fun. I wouldn't say the future is bright but at least someone turned on a damn night light for these kids.
Hot Take: Michael Jordan comes out of retirement and the Hornets go 74-8. I honestly can't imagine any better options. More seriously, thinking about the Charlotte Hornets' plans might give me an aneurysm. The fiasco around Kemba being shopped but also "no, we totally wouldn't trade him, we love him but like what are you offering, because we're keeping him, but seriously what did you have in mind?" was a real head scratcher. I'm actually at a loss for words. I don't want to think about them and that says it all. NEXT!
Other than the slight hiccup that was Nikola Mirotic shitting buckets for 2 weeks, the Chicago Bulls have been doing exactly what they should be doing: losing. Nothing bugs me more than deep, dark, disgusting mediocrity and that little win streak risked keeping them there. However, they have corrected course and find themselves just 2 games above the bottom of the barrel. This year we have an especially large group of master tankers and it has provided competition. Those who are trying to suck have to suck bad enough to out-suck eight competing suckers and the resulting log jam provides teams who sucked at sucking earlier in their sucky season to not suck so bad at sucking and catch up the all the other mothersuckers in the league. *sigh*
Unlike a team like Atlanta, Chicago actually does have some interesting young pieces, and a promising core makes being bad a little more tolerable. Lauri Markkanen being the GOAT helps.
As the Cavaliers' free fall through the eastern conference has slowed to a stop it reaffirms my belief that any team in the east, if lead by Lebron James, will eventually end up in the finals. In years past the team around Lebron has struggled much like this one, only those iterations of the kings court were able to right the ship at precisely the right moment and find that dominance was in their will the whole time. This team, however, is younger, less experienced and with the exception of the 2015 squad, more disabled through injury. Since his first tenure with the Cavaliers, Lebron has not had a weaker squad and there is no doubt in my mind that the title will land in the west. The return of Kevin Love came at precisely the right time and the rest of the season looks far less daunting. As for the Cavaliers future beyond this season? It's not looking good.
I love Dirk Nowitzki, I really do. I like watching Dennis Smith Jr. too. Other than that, Dallas' rebuild is at a crawl and landing a top pick is essential if they want to claw their way out of the doldrums of the league. Mark Cuban has not been shy about the Mav's intentions and we may as well call them the Shark Tank because Cuban has them looking like a startup who's in desperate need of some funding. Recent sexual harassment scandal aside, the Mavericks are doing what they need to do, unfortunately it's going to be a long and lonely road.
The Nuggets are just 5 games back of the third place Portland Trail Blazers but in my mind have under-performed this season. Its true, Paul Millsap has missed significant time but my expectations were a bit higher. Their lack of a clear number one point guard to start the season was easily glossed over by the Jokic hype (which is well deserved) and I saw the Nuggets looking far more dominant than they have. They continue to lose winnable games and just don't have that steadiness that leads to consistent performances. That steadiness will come with time as Jamal Murray improves and Jokic becomes even more of a focal point on offense. Some off season moves to shore up their defence would be very welcomed, but in the west it will take a miracle to make Denver a true playoff threat.
I heard a reporter wonder if Blake Griffin was the new Carmelo Anthony and it gave me goosebumps. I wrote earlier that the Pistons would find their way into the playoffs after the Blake trade and I can see now that I was one a hype train and the ink was still fresh on my newly stamped ticket. At some point the train stopped so abruptly that I was thrown into the ditch and now I'm soaking wet, wishing that Andre Drummond wore a different jersey. Detroit is the epitome of that gross mediocrity I was talking about.
Golden State Warriors
It's hard to gauge what people think about the Warriors at this point in the season. I'm taking the approach that I've taken with the Cavaliers the last two years. The basketball we're seeing them play now is a far cry from what we'll witness come playoff time. The absence of Curry makes their first round match up worth thinking about but don't think too long. I don't exactly expect sweep after sweep in the playoffs but that's because I think they'll play better teams early on, teams who may be able to scrap out a win against a team who will still have lingering injuries beyond the chef. They're still the Warriors, they're just the "wake me up when breakfast is ready" Warriors at this point.
The Rockets are having the best season of any team in the league. The "there's only one ball" concern died hard and fast as it became clear that Chris Paul and James Harden would flourish as one of the best back courts in the league. Past playoff failures plague Harden and the Rockets while people question their ability to threaten the Warriors when it really matters. What we know is that Chris Paul wasn't a apart of those past teams and Houston is playing much better defense these days. We'll see how D'Antoni manages his star's minutes down the stretch as the complete collapse of James Harden in last years playoffs could be attributed to his massive workload in his failed bid for MVP. A rested Rockets core could mean we see some fresh faces in finals.
After absolutely blowing it up with a huge Paul George trade this summer, the Pacers have become masters of the tank and have initiated a massive rebui... Oh Shit, Indiana is fifth in the east? Damn, who saw this coming? Indiana's season has been a giant surprise and a joy to watch. Victor Oladipo woke up and decided to become an all star. Myles Turner and Domontis Sabonis have been great in the front court and somehow this team is pulling together win after win. As much of a Cinderella story as this is, it unfortunately ends with the Pacers being roughly where they started. Far from contending and even farther from building through the draft, wins feel good in the moment but this Indiana team is caught, once again, in a cycle of mediocrity.
Los Angeles Clippers
It seems that the Chris Paul trade began a complete reshuffling of the decks in Los Angeles. Lob City was almost entirely dismantled as Blake Griffin was shipped to Detroit and the Clippers added a handful of new players. This new crew has been competent, too competent. Looking up and down the roster we see a team that in no way comes close to winning a playoff series yet is nearly good enough to get to the dance. We see a team with no identity. Lob City was an excellent example of a team developing a culture and a style that was both fun and successful. This new iteration, however, lacks any definable theme. While the allure of L.A. is an advantage, I feel the Clippers need to shake off the stink of the stale playoff performances of the past and do a true reshuffling. Maybe even shuffle themselves all the way north to Seattle.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers seem to be the lone case for excusable mediocrity. As of late L.A. has been playing some great basketball and winning against some great teams but when you refer to the standings you'll find that they sit and will continue to sit in eleventh place in the west. Unlike other teams who could benefit from joining the lottery ranks, the Lakers do not own their pick. With no incentive to tank they are doing their best with what they have. This season has been defined as a proving ground for their young core and an exhibition of sorts when it comes to this summer's free agency. After a rough start to the season the playoffs have fallen out of reach but the Lakers have shown the ability to compete down the stretch and after they've suffered through the rough seasons of recent past, they'll take any success they can. This summer could entirely reshape this roster and rewrite their narrative.
Yeesh, they better nail this draft. Trading Conley and Gasol to focus on youth and future success would be advisable but leave it to the stubborn Grizzlies to be passably good for years to come.
Miami is nearly a lock to land in the playoffs and after falling short despite last years huge season ending push it has to feel good. Miami is a sneaky good team who will pose a threat to any first round match up. If the playoffs started today they would give Boston a real challenge and the potential for an upset is enough to make this team interesting. While their future seems grey, their present is at least tolerable and their organization is second only to San Antonio when it comes to stability and culture. Plus they have Dion Waiters...
Ah yes the Milwaukee Giannis's, what a team. I almost treat the Greek Freak as a Lebron Lite in that any team with him on the roster will be able to dominate periods of any game, granted those periods are fewer and Giannis is less... dominant. The Bucks have a talented lineup that has failed to live up to expectations. While not being the team many expected, I still think of them as a team that can beat who we view as far superior squads. Bucks/Raptors? I can't promise you the Raptors take it. As for the future in Milwaukee, Giannis is a fiery sun that brightens the way.
It turns out Andrew "Third Option" Wiggins doesn't like being the third option. Oh that isn't a real nickname that he has? It should be. The dude just got a max deal to complain about getting the ball more that Karl Anthony f**king Towns. Wolves fans should be glad that owner Glen Taylor looked him in the eyes and shook hands or whatever bullshit that was because now they KNOW that Wiggins will say whatever the hell he needs to to secure enough money to no give a f**k what people think. Wow, sorry. I love the T-Wolves, not Wiggins' contract. In case that wasn't clear.
New Orleans Pelicans
I'm sure it's been pointed out before but Anthony Davis' eyebrow looks like those birds I used to draw as a kid that were essentially lower case m's. So, like a Pelican. Alright, now that that's out of the way lets talk New Orleans basketball. It looks to me as if Davis will lead this team to the playoffs and lose in the first round, that's decent considering the loss of Solomon Hill. Boogie Cousins could have helped too. Sadly, team owner Tom Benson passed away last week and their hopes for success are overshadowed by the sadness felt by those around the organization and the uncertainty they face. I'm officially rooting for them to both resign Boogie and add a solid hand at guard so that we can reset this season and watch my baby DeMarcus in the playoffs.
New York Knicks
After Kristaps went down the Knicks disappeared. Luckily they will very likely have a top ten pick and be able to add to their young roster. Missing a good portion of one of his formative seasons is a huge setback but hopefully he can return to form and usher in a new era in New York. Frank Ntilikina has shown promise and at some point Enes Kanter became the king of the big apple, that's about all I've taken away from what has been another dismal season from the inhabitants of Madison Square Garden. See you at the draft, New York.
Oklahoma City Thunder
"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." -God on Sam Presti acquiring Carmelo Anthony. Or Jurrasic Park, I can't remember.
The Thunder have been streaky at best but it is often said that it's all about how you're playing heading into the playoffs and if that is any indication, OKC might be onto something. The Thunder have enough talent and grit to give any team a challenge but what we all want most is a match up with Golden State right? The two teams have played some fun games over the stretch of the season and a series would be an absolute treat. Beyond the playoffs it's easy to guess where the Thunder will end up. I see Paul George leaving and Carmelo opting in to the remainder of his contract, which is a worse case scenario. However I could be wrong and things could go well in Oklahoma. No, I'm pretty sure I'm right. Sorry Russ!
Hey there Orlando fan (if you exist), close your eyes. I'd like to transport you to a time, just earlier this year, where your Magic were shooting the lights out from long range and looking as if they'd finally made the leap to being a competent team. Those were good times. Doesn't remembering it feel good? Now open your eyes, you're back in the real world. The Orlando Magic are a disaster. An early pick is coming your way which is great but your front office hasn't exactly drafted well, bummer, I know. Things look bleak in Orlando and a complete reset might be the only thing that can conjure a cure. It's time to pull the plug and rebuild this rebuild all over again.
Hell yeah, something is going more than right in Philly! It's official, Sam Hinkie is lord. The 76ers are my number one appointment viewing in these upcoming playoffs. No matter the match up, no matter the seeding, this young Philly squad is a joy to watch and have the potential to topple teams like Toronto or Boston. Ben Simmons is the rookie of the year, Joel Embiid is the best true center in the league and Markelle Fultz is... back? This team can ball and with the addition of one 2nd tier star in free agency the Philadelphia 76ers can become an eastern conference powerhouse for years to come.
Devin Booker is a high volume scorer from Grand Rapids Michigan. He was born on October 30th 1996. Booker was drafted 13th overall in 2015 after playing at the University of Kentucky for one year. Devin Booker is the only thing I like about the Phoenix Suns.
Portland Trail Blazers
Dame D.O.L.L.A. is a machine. Portland is absolutely on fire and it looks as if they will carry this momentum into the post season where each round will prove challenging. The Rockets and Warriors look like the only teams who stand above them, yet Golden State's injury woes and the question of Harden and Chris Paul's past playoff performances makes the Trail Blazers title hopes a little more than just a pipe dream. Continuity may be their most valuable advantage and if this Dame/CJ backcourt brings their A game the Blazers are going to be a force to be reckoned with on their way through the playoffs.
I heard a Laker fan call them the "Excremento Kings" and I nearly died laughing. I don't have a lot of positive to draw from recent years in Sacramento but if De'Aaron Fox develops and the Kings front office begins to hit on a few draft picks (which will inevitably be high) the fortune of the franchise could make a positive turn. You read the part where I mentioned that was in the hands of the Kings front office right? That was the part where (if you're a Sacramento fan) your heart should have sank. For now you have Vince Carter to enjoy, that's kinda neat right?
San Antonio Spurs
This has been the most tumultuous saga in my San Antonio Spurs memory. The often stoic Kawhi Leonard is at the center of the biggest mystery of our generation. What the hell is going on with the Spurs? Kawhi has been out for most of the season and while he has been given the green light to continue basketball activities it remains unclear who exactly is keeping him from returning. Is it him? Is it his doctors? Or are the conspiracies true!? Could Pop and Lebron have a secret back alley hand shake deal that the King will join the spurs if Kawhi is ready to go for next season? No, that's stupid. My best guess is that Leonard is unhappy with his injury, the way it was handled or just San Antonio in general and he is seeking some sort of leverage. Whatever is happening, it is weird and I don't like it. Someone call Nancy Drew.
A week ago I loved the Raptors to challenge the Cavaliers in the eastern conference finals. This week I think they may fall in the second round. Depending how they roll through the final weeks of the season, I'm sure I will feel differently once more. All I know is that when they stick to Dwayne Casey's newly implemented style and their bench plays like the best supporting cast in the league they look like a team who may be finals bound. But when DeMar goes ISO, they look like the Raptors I'm used to. If I had to pick an X-Factor in the coming weeks I think it would be Serge Ibaka. He's been playing poorly as of late but when he's at his best, Toronto is at their best. If they fall short once again we'll be sure to hear the cry's of those calling for the Raps to blow it up, and once again I'll likely side with them.
No Hayward, no problem. The Utah Jazz were viewed in the same light as the Pacers as a team reeling from the departure of a star, both destined for the bottom of the standings. Where the Pacers have Victor Oladipo the Jazz have Donovan Mitchell. No one saw the rookie having such an immediate impact, but the youngster has been outstanding and Utah is headed for the playoffs. Rudy Gobert is the best defender in the league, Joe Ingles is a three point god and Ricky Rubio is the handsomest boy in the world. Ad coach Quinn Snyder to the recipe and you've got some delicious Utah home cookin. The Jazz won't go far this spring but they're bound to make it interesting.
Oh the weird and wonderful Wizards. Their season has been highlighted by dysfunction as certain players expressed frustration around a botched team meeting while others beefed when a Marcin "The Polish Hammer" Gortat tweet hinted that they were better off after the injury of John Wall. Well good news Gorty, Johnny is coming back. Washington has been another perfect model of mediocrity and the return of Wall can't hurt. Having him back in the lineup presents some interesting match ups with other playoff teams and could spice up their first round series. I didn't say it would win them a series, remember that. If the playoffs were to start today they would meet the Cavaliers and get swept in four games. Luckily they have a few games to climb or more likely fall down the standings and hopefully find themselves facing the slumping Celtics. A series in which they may have a chance. The Wizards will be stuck in this cycle of average success, with its current core who have a fantastic floor... if you're a cat or dog, because they're ceiling is low as hell. Maybe that's why they always lay down in the playoffs.
What do you think of your team's outlook? Was I too harsh? They probably deserve it. Was I too optimistic? Probably not. However you feel about your team's future, it is always possible for things to turn on a dime. Players improve, free agents come and go and trades continue to reshape the league. No matter the outcome for your favourite team, you have to admit that it's hard to look away. Who knows, years from now Orlando could be fighting for a third consecutive title or Phoenix could have three all stars in the starting lineup. Not likely but the fact that it's possible makes every moment worth watching.