Making the case for every fringe playoff team

The NBA season is halfway over, which means it’s time to start evaluating potential playoff teams.

The top four seeds in each conference are virtual locks, due to overall talent and coaching. The fifth-seventh seeds will do some changing around as teams jockey for their playoff seeding. Although, close followers of the NBA probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons or the Trailblazers fell out of the playoff picture after overachieving slightly in the first half of the season.

As with any sport’s playoff, however, the most interesting storylines are the ones involving the teams on the bubble.

With that in mind, let’s look at each conference’s eighth seed and first two teams on the outside looking in.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (21-19, No. 8 seed)

The Pacers have been just fine without Paul George. Victor Oladipo has been playing close to his ceiling, although they’re still overpaying for him. The other piece of the trade that sent George away, Domantas Sabonis, has also been playing nicely. He’s two rebounds shy of averaging a double-double, and will probably end up setting career-high averages in every meaningful category.

While their offense has been clicking, their defense is some of the most below average in the Association. Not awful, just very mediocre. Their offense alone can win the Pacers enough games to keep them in the 8th spot. Lack of defensive consistency will have been their downfall if they fail to make the cut.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-19, first team out)

Philadelphia is one of the most exciting stories in the NBA this season. The “process” seems to have finally come to fruition, and we are finally seeing glimpses of what this long and arduous rebuild has wrought.

Even though the 76ers are a .500 team, don’t be fooled. They’re currently first in the league in rebounds per game, second in assists resulting made field goals, and sixth in points. A rested and re-energized team could ride that kind of momentum to a playoff spot after the All Star break. Plus, their first overall draft pick hasn’t even played five games yet.

NBA Playoffs

Embiid scores on Whiteside. (Photo by: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What will keep them out of the playoffs is their youth and inconsistency in their game to game performances. As the season drags on, the young players might start to slow down, which will only exacerbate their inconsistency issues. Those red flags usually mean a .500 team will stay a .500 team, but playing in a weak conference will definitely help.

New York Knicks (19-21, second team out)

The Knicks are a force to be reckoned with in the paint on both ends of the court. They are ninth in points in the paint and second in points allowed in the paint. Yes, we’re talking about the New York Knicks.

The team is huge, size-wise. Porzingis, O’Quinn, Kanter and Noah are all either over or close to 7-feet. That length pays dividends over a long regular season, but could actually be a problem if they sneak into the playoffs. The East is full of jump shooting teams, which will stretch New York’s strengths too thin to make them truly effective.

Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19, No. 8 seed)

New Orleans might very well be a better team than their record indicates. They’re second in points in the paint thanks to Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. They’re also second in the NBA in assists per game thanks to some great guard play both from starters and off the bench. Not to mention they have the second toughest schedule in the NBA (according to 2016-2017 team records).

Team defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Pelicans. Bottom five in opponents points in the paint per game doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the front court they have. They also give up the third most points in the league per game.

NBA Playoffs

Davis and Cousins during a game against the Spurs. (Photo by: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It’s an especially strange case on New Orleans’ part. The chemistry and coaching is clearly there, as evidenced by the assist totals. But the defense is nowhere near where it should be, in spite of Cousins and Davis. Remember that Alvin Gentry was brought on to be a defensive mastermind, and the roster has only gotten better since he came to town. Maybe look for a coaching shake-up if the Pelicans miss the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers (18-21, first team out)

Doc Rivers’ team is hurting out west. The Clippers have been a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the past six years, but the days of Lob City have finally come to an end. Chris Paul’s departure marked a culture change for the Clips, and the team has not found its stride just yet.

Los Angeles still has a great 3-point game. Beverley, Williams, Rivers and even Griffin can all pull up from distance. They also have great personnel for man-to-man defense. Those two things are golden in NBA playoff basketball. But, yet again, team defense is going to be the main hurdle between them and their playoff streak.

Utah Jazz (16-24, second team out)

The new look Jazz are in a soft rebuild. After losing their number one scorer in Gordon Hayward, the Jazz were almost certainly take on a new identity. But picking up Ricky Rubio and finding a steal in Donovan Mitchell should have stopped the bleeding more than it has.

Their defense is some of the best in the NBA, all around. In fact, the Jazz are top 10 in almost every meaningful defensive category under Quin Snider. Against the trend, the offense is what will probably keep Utah out of the playoffs this year. Although, again, this is a new look team. And offense almost always comes together more quickly than defense. If they can keep up the defensive dominance, they won’t be out of the playoff picture for long.

 

Featured image by ANTHONY GRUPPUSO-USA TODAY

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Timberwovles

How the Timberwolves can carve out a niche in the West

THE PUZZLE

The Timberwolves have an identity crisis.

It’s gotten so noticeable that Kenny Smith didn’t really have an answer for Charles Barkley when he was asked about the team’s direction going forward during the Wolves-Lakers Christmas night game on TNT.

Here’s the kicker, though: They’ve lost their starting point guard since then.  And with Jeff Teague out, the Timberwolves need to find and hone in on their strengths now more than ever.

It’s not a five-alarm fire just yet, as the Wolves would be the No. 4 seed at 22-14 if the playoffs started today. But don’t forget, Minnesota is trying to shake the longest playoff drought in the NBA (2004), and the third-longest active drought in American professional sports (behind the Buffalo Bills at 17 years and the Seattle Mariners at 16 years). When a team has been dealt that particular hand, things like this have to be treated with a certain sense of urgency.

THE PIECES

Let’s look at the pieces of this puzzle:

First and foremost we have Karl-Anthony Towns. Now, Towns can do everything on the court, including shoot 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip on the season as a 7-footer. He does everything well, and he will be a super-elite player within the next 3-5 years in the NBA, the only problem is, he cannot do everything alone. Towns needs whatever holes he brought with him to the arena on a given night to be stopped up by role-players, which is a small nit to pick, but not out of bounds considering the nature of this exercise.

Andrew Wiggins is wildly athletic, and can slash to the basket as well as anybody in the NBA. But the jump-shooting woes will inevitably start conversations about whether or not he was worth the $150 million price tag. If he is only going to shoot 43.2 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from distance (as this season’s numbers show), then he needs to be collecting more than 3.9 rebounds and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His strength is his quickness, and he needs to be using it to find lanes to the basket with more frequency if he wants to catch defenses off-guard when he does shoot a jump shot.

Jimmy Butler is a premier player in the NBA. His spot-up shooting ability, defensive prowess and on-court presence is something all 30 teams would like to say they have in one package. Alas, Jimmy can only play for one team, and it’s the one coached by his former Bulls skipper, Tom Thibodeau. He has had to serve as more of the defensive anchor on a young team (because he knows Thibodeau’s system), but if the load on that end of the floor can be lifted in the future, watch out, because Jimmy loves to fill it up.

Jeff Teague is another slasher with streaky shooting ability. The difference between he and Wiggins, however, is that Teague is always simultaneously looking for his shot and looking to distribute the ball. 7.3 assists per game this season is not super flashy, but factor in the 13.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, and you have yourself a piece that is going to be sorely missed. All initial reports on his sprained MCL suggest he’ll be sidelined 2-4 weeks, so the question is: Will Tyus Jones mimic Teague’s trademark aggressiveness, or take a back seat to Butler and Towns? Either scenario could help and hurt the Wolves in different ways.

Taj Gibson, another of Thibodeau’s old Bulls, has finally found his stride. Every one of his important statistics are up this year: Points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and he’s been working on his 3-point game as well. An odd story for a 32-year-old defensive-minded power forward, but a welcome presence in the starting five.

Minnesota’s bench plays less minutes than any other bench in the entire league, at only 13 minutes per game. They are 27th in PPG, 26th in APG and dead last in RPG. These numbers sound bad because they are bad, but what they are not is unsalvageable.

Thibodeau is a player’s coach, and has never been shy about putting in the players he think will him the game. The problem is, that this translates into leaning too heavily on his starters, when his bench is full of decent role-players.

Aaron Brooks is a pure shooter who will give you points if you give him minutes and an open spot. Jamaal Crawford is one of the most historic sixth men of all time, and can still bury his shot with a hand in his face. Nemanja Bjelica is your prototypical European big man with decent feet and a better long-range game. Gorgui Dieng is a fine true center with length and mobility to clean up the glass and give the team some putbacks. He also has championship experience from his days at Louisville, which is always something to take into account when determining a player’s value.

THE PICTURE ON THE BOX

Now that we have all of our pieces together in front of us, let’s try and solve the puzzle.

It’s no coincidence that the Wolves have been marred by fourth quarter collapses so far during the season. The latest of these coming at the hands of the Bucks on December 28. Antetokounmpo and his squad erased a 20 point third quarter deficit on their way to a win in Milwaukee.  So, let’s not overthink this one.

Fixing the fourth quarter yips is as simple as getting the starters off the floor. If Thibodeau starts believing in his bench more, instead of making his starters play 35 minutes per game, then they can be rested for the home stretch. A tired KAT is better than no KAT, but a rested KAT beats both of them.  Case closed.

This does not fix the identity crisis, however. Should the Wolves adopt the run-and-gun style of the Houston Rockets? Probably not, they don’t have the shooters that Houston does. Should they thrive on quick offense and turnover defense like the Warriors do?  No, the quickness is lacking and the Warriors feast on opponents who try to play their game.

The team they should emulate is none other than the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs play to their strengths, and shake up lineups constantly to cover up their weaknesses. They ask each player to do the thing at which they are best, and play within the system otherwise. True, NBA fans and non-NBA fans alike have called their style “boring” since 1999, but all their “boring” style has done is win them six conference titles and five championships.

Kawhi Leonard is a terrific talent, and they still have pieces to make a playoff run. But even with the best coach in the NBA, their glory days are behind them. Whether they rebuild or reload is irrelevant to the Wolves, however. The Timberwolves have the pieces now. And now is the time to emulate and tweak the Spurs’ style, and ride it to a potential championship.

Laid out above are the strengths of the key players on the team. Instead of throwing the starters at the wall to see what sticks, Thibodeau should mask the weaknesses by highlighting these strengths. Imagine Teague (when he returns) and Crawford at the guard spots chucking it down to Dieng and Towns when the opposition is playing small.  When they figure that out, throw in Butler, Brooks and Bjelica and pull the rip-cord on the 3-point game. When those stop falling, substitute for Wiggins and let him provide a one-man slashing exhibition.

The point is, Minnesota finally has the talent, the coach, and the superstar to break the drought. That will be good enough for now.  But no team’s goal is to fold in the first or second rounds. That is why the Wolves need to start implementing a system that will pay dividends down the road. Implement it now, and in earnest to see what the shopping list will be before the All-Star break or next summer.

Besides, it’s about time we see some lime green jerseys in the finals.

 

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