NBA at the Quarter Pole - Part II
As we continue our assessment of the league as the season enters the December holidays, let’s take a look at the team that could be this year’s Portland.
The Trail Blazers have started the year on a 17-5 spurt and are sitting third in the West, which sounds pretty good until you consider the three teams currently right behind them: the Clippers, the Rockets and the Spurs.
These are teams we know are for real and will be dancing around or right below 60 wins when all is said and done. Do the Blazers have that in them?
I don’t see it.
I love Aldridge and Lillard, but in a continually crowded West, it’s so hard to see daylight. The huge imbalance of power between the West and East is a big reason it’s hard to trust a team like this. For the first half of the season, the two conference's teams play one another much more often than the second half. But the Blazers are sitting fourth in the defensive rating from Basketball-Reference, which I mentioned in the first part of this article. So maybe they’re for real, but if I’m betting, I’m saying they finish around 50 wins and end up grabbing the 6-, 7- or 8-seed.
Sticking in the Western Conference, let’s briefly review the most obvious team to have a turnaround from this point in the season: Oklahoma City.
The Thunder had been missing their two megastars, but now they've returned with a vengeance. OKC ended up going 4-12 without Durant and Westbrook, which was ahead of my predicted 5-15 pace. Since Westbrook returned -- and Durant shortly after -- the Thunder are 5-1 and only three games out from the 8-seed; Phoenix is 12-11.
I think it’s safe to say they’ll be making the playoffs. The only question is how high can they go? It’ll be challenging for OKC to hit the next tier because Dallas is currently in the 7-spot at 17-7, which is 7½ games ahead of the Thunder.
I'm still extremely interested in seeing how the Western Conference teams at the top decide to finish the season. Are we going to see teams tanking or desperately trying to win in order to get out of a terrifying first-round matchup with the Thunder? The Spurs won’t. They have no reason to fear the Thunder. But if you’re Houston, Golden State, or the Clippers? You can’t tell me they aren’t going to at least think about it.
Moving over to the Eastern Conference, the Bucks are a quick one to pick out, sitting at the 6-seed with an 11-12 record, but I’d think twice about that. Brandon Knight has looked impressive early on, scoring about 17 points a game with 5.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds to boot. The Greek Freak has shown flashes of incredible play as a 6-11 dude who plays shooting guard.
More than anything else, though, the Eastern Conference teams below them are just stunningly unimpressive. I honestly think the East playoffs might be already set. Boston, Indiana, or Charlotte might get it together, but the Celtics can’t play post-D at all, Indiana can’t score, and Charlotte …well …they have Lance Stephenson.
And if you think Orlando, New York, Detroit, or Philly are turning things around … then you must be part of Jack's target market.
Orlando is a possibility I suppose, to wind up passing Brooklyn or Milwaukee, but I would be surprised.