With the new year here, we now realizing there are three subsets of teams when it comes to NBA contention nowadays.
On one end of the spectrum, we have nine probable lotto teams, located at the bottom of the standings; on the other end, we have 12 virtual playoff locks, located atop the League; in between those haves and have-nots, we have nine middle squads fighting for the remaining four playoff spots (two in the East and two in the West).
Granted, one of the bottom-tier teams (the Nets?) may surprise all and oust a middle contender for a spot (the Pistons?). But all things being equal, we doubt anything like that will happen during this 2017-18 season.
That is why we created the three tiers now.
With that in mind this week, we look ahead and forecast the horizon for each franchise as we head into 2018.
Some are focused on the February 8 trading deadline.
Others are focused on the April 14 playoff start date, while a select few are on a more confident marathon pace that hopefully lands them in the Finals beginning May 31.
GM Travis Schlenk is undoubtedly steering his Hawks into a tank job, which would net him a top four lottery pick, in addition most likely to the Timberwolves’ and Rockets non-lotto first rounders. The Hawks have two expiring contracts (Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova) they may deal at the February 8 trading deadline if it brings them an asset. But do not expect head coach Mike Budenholzer to request replacements for departed All-Stars Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague just yet. They are a year or two from playoff contention.
Now that center and former All-Star candidate Nikola Vucevic is sidelined with a bad hand injury, expect Orlando to tumble down as the Bulls rise up. Perhaps backup Bismack Biyombo can right the ship somewhat and make the Magic a defensive-minded squad in the meantime, but more likely than not, the 12-26 Magic are looking for a worse tumble down the standings.
28. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have gone 9-17 after a 3-8 start, going from bad to subpar, which is somewhat improvement for Sacramento’s standards nowadays. The youngsters have been relegated to the bench, and the results have been better, with George Hill, Temple, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Zach Randolph and Willie Cauley-Stein now starting more oft than not.
The Memphis organization is in major freefall right now—losing 22 of its last 27 games—and facing the same dilemma the Dallas Mavericks now face: What does a perennial playoff contender do when the franchise bottom falls out? Waiting for Mike Conley’s return may soon turn into delaying Conley’s return from a left heel injury, as the rest of the team tries to keep what is every left of the Grit-’n-Grind spirit alive.
26. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have gone 10-4 since Nikola Mirotic’s return, which has Chicago hopeful thinking they can make a playoff run. That is not likely to happen, but the team is excited nonetheless that Zach LaVine returns in January from season-long knee surgery, giving Gar Forman three young prospects (Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis) that the Chicago GM may want to build around in the future. Meanwhile, lotto watchers wonder if Chicago moves up or down these rankings based on recent play.
25. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are seemingly sifting through the trade bait and keepers list as the February 8 trading deadline nears. Nothing probably would make their fanbase happier than to land Paul George premature to the summer free agency signing period. As the season plays out, the Lakers locks to stay look to be prospects Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, while every other free agent, prospect and vet can be dealt for the right deal (as in PG-13). Remember, the Lakers do not have their own first-round pick this year (it goes to the 76ers or Celtics), so if any lottery team is going to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal, it is these L.A. Lakers.
The Mavericks have never tanked on purpose before. And, after spending $41 million on Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews this season, it’s hard to say they are tanking on purpose now. Maybe it is just poor contract decision-making after years of excellence in that field. Regardless, GM Donn Nelson should net himself a top 10 lottery pick and will have to weigh the options if their free agent Nerlens Noel is worth the near junior-max contract the 25-year old-center covets.
23. Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn’s last first-round gift to Boston has since been re-gifted to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas trade. But no matter to the Nets, who cannot get that pick back and must await the 2019 NBA Draft where they finally have all of their own first-rounders once again. As consolation, at least the Nets own the Raptors’ first-round pick for the 2018 draft. That said, look for the Nets to move forward with their current roster, should both the Jeremy Lin and Jahlil Okafor experiments work out whenever both are at 100 percent again.
22. Phoenix Suns
The Suns’ tank job could not be any more obvious after they first unload Eric Bledsoe for a Greg Monroe expiring contract with protected picks, and then dump rookie replacement Mike James only weeks after tearing up his two-way G League contract for a real NBA deal. Go figure. Journeyman Isaiah Canaan is the latest stopgap. If he plays too well, look for Phoenix to dump Canaan too. For now, at least, they seem to prize tanking over winning, especially since they likely will be armed with two first-round picks this June (their own and probably the Heat’s pick too).
You will never see an Erik Spoelstra team tank, but it is worth noting that if the Heat do land pick 1 through 7 in the draft lottery, Miami gets to keep the pick; if not, the first-rounder goes to Phoenix. That said, as last season’s 30-11 finish attests, Miami will fight to the end, no matter how many injuries try to take them down. At the moment, Miami is without starters Justise Winslow and Dion Waiters, along with subs James Johnson, Rodney McGruder and Okaro White.
20. Charlotte Hornets
It is just too bad that Nicolas Batum, who was injured early in the season, and Cody Zeller, who is injured now, were never healthy together this season. The Hornets would definitely be better off than a 14-23 start. That said, do not be surprised if this team makes a second-half season run, when it fields a stronger squad of Kemba Walker, Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard and super-subs Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lamb.
Ben Simmons is a fan favorite to be Rookie of the Year and Joel Embiid is a certainty to be picked by the powers-that-be for the All-Star Game. But that does not necessarily mean they will make the playoffs, with tough competition coming from the East for that eighth spot by the Knicks, Heat and Hornets. They will continue to land first-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, since they are in possession of their own first-rounder in addition to the Lakers’ pick if it is No. 1 or in the 6 through 30 range. But if Philly wants to make the 2018 NBA Playoffs, they must do a better job of monitoring injury-prone Embiid’s in-game minutes. By overplaying him 49 minutes in a game against Oklahoma City earlier this month, the 76ers had to sit him out the next three games against the Bulls, Kings and Raptors—three games last week that turned into three losses sans Embiid
As long as the Pelicans are playing .500 ball, Celtics GM Danny Ainge is going to try to pry Anthony Davis’ from GM Dell Demps’ fingers, while the rest of the League makes its best pitch for New Orleans’ other All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who will command a middle-max contract this summer. If New Orleans truly wants to keep both bigs happy, they could use their first-round pick to land a legit 3-and-D veteran (with the emphasis on D).
Since returning to the lineup December 29, power forward Blake Griffin’s Clippers have won all three games, with their star pouring in 80 points on only 50 shots. Though it is too bad Patrick Beverley is out for the season—and fellow starter Danilo Gallinari won’t return until February—it is nice to finally see this team reaching its true regular-season potential with Griffin back where he belongs.
The Pacers have become eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, thanks to the big contributions of Victor Oladipo (23.8 Player Efficiency Rating), Domantas Sabonis (18.6 PER), Darren Collison (17.7 PER), Thaddeus Young (14.7 PER) and rookie Bojan Bogdanovic (12.7 PER). Center Myles Turner, injured for seven games, has been instrumental on offense too (17.5 PER), but he has been most valuable for Indiana on defense as a rim protector.
The Jazz have won only three of 10 games since Rudy Gobert went down with a sprained PCL in his left knee, which makes one wonder how Utah will cope the next few weeks in his absence. One on hand it is good to see Derrick Favors, who has rediscovered his game this season, make the switch over from power forward to center quite naturally. On the other, the Jazz are no longer a top 10 force sans Gobert, who has transformed himself into a top 5 NBA center when healthy. In the meantime, rookie Donovan Mitchell will be leaned upon even moreso as this season’s surprising rook continues to take the league by storm, providing further evidence that the Jazz will not slip into oblivion even if they are playing without All-Star Gordon Hayward (now in Boston) and All-NBA Gobert (now injured).
14. New York Knicks
As much crap as Phil Jackson took as the former general manager of the Knicks, one thing he never did was ruin the team’s future cap situation as past Knicks GMs may have. Granted, the Joakim Noah contract was a bust, but they are only paying $25 million combined to Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter, thanks to Jackson’s drafting in 2015 and new GM Steve Mills’ Kanter-for-Carmelo Anthony acquisition. Noah’s remaining $56 million over three years will not substantially hurt this team until Year 3, when Porzingis likely gets his junior-max contract. So do not be surprised if New York adds a quality starter to its point guard or wing set this January or February. The Knicks can actually afford it and upgrade to a better player to make its first postseason push since 2013.
On one hand, the Trail Blazers are all in for yet another playoff push, as Portland pulls for its fifth straight postseason. That said, do not be surprised if they have to deal center prospect Noah Vonleh for luxury-tax purposes, since his qualifying offer is on the table this summer.
12. Detroit Pistons
Despite the good start, Coach/GM Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons absorbed a tough blow this week when it lost starting point Reggie Jackson for the next month-and-a-half to an ankle injury. Ish Smith, Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard may be able to patchwork the guard positions together by themselves, but can Detroit maintain the 20-15 pace it established through almost half of the NBA season? It will take a similar finish if the Pistons are going to grab one of the East’s final two playoff spots, while competing alongside the Knicks, Heat, 76ers and Hornets for slots 7 and 8.
Though they have had their hiccups, the addition of Eric Bledsoe to Milwaukee and its starting lineup has been a blessing here, with the Bucks going 15-10 after starting the season 4-6—all this while playing without injured power forward Jabari Parker all season too. It would not surprise anyone out East to see this team dramatically pick up the pace after the All-Star break, upon Parker’s return and as Bledsoe grows more acclimated, all while Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the midst of his 2017-18 NBA MVP campaign.
10. Denver Nuggets
You have to believe the Nuggets are going to stay strong in the playoff hunt, especially after they have gone 10-10 since losing power forward to a wrist injury a month ago. Granted, Millsap will not return to the team until after the All-Star break, but if Denver maintains that 50/50 pace until then, they still have time to make a March-April run that may net Denver the necessary 45-50 wins. That is the youthful optimism that now abounds in Denver when you are now led by a sure-fire All-Star center (22-year-old Nikola Jokic) who is complemented by the best set of young guards in the NBA (23-year-old Gary Harris and 20-year-old Jamal Murray).
Yes, the Wizards are in a playoff hunt, but if they got rid of Jason Smith’s $5.5 million salary—not to mention his $5.5 million player option next season—Washington management could be saving anywhere from $10-$15 million in luxury-tax penalties this season and next. Look for that deal to be attempted since Smith is no longer a second-string big, having been relegated to a third-string, seldom-used center off the bench, having logged only 156 minutes this season thus far.
Ever since the Thunder acquired forwards Paul George and Carmelo Anthony—not to mention fellow forward Jerami Grant—in 2017, Kyle Singler has become expendable, having logged only 32 minutes thus far. If GM Sam Presti can find someone to take Singler’s $4.6 million off their hands, it will save OKC another $14 million in luxury-tax penalties this summer. Factor out Singler’s $5.0 million contract next season and non-guaranteed $5.3 million the following season, and you see how much OKC would love to part with Singler before the deadline.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
Even with GM/Coach Tom Thibodeau in charge of the defense, Minnesota has not been able to figure out how to play D together, ranking 24th in defensive efficiency this season. Perhaps that won’t matter for playoff qualification, however, with the T-Wolves posting a top 5 offense thanks to the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns (23.3 PER) and Jimmy Butler (22.6 PER). They might not play 3-and-D like most modern squads, but KAT and Butler still got that old-school offense where they pretty much can get any two-pointer they want any time they want.
We will have a better idea of Houston’s revised playoff picture next week when James Harden’s Grade 2 left hamstring strain gets re-evaluated. Should he only miss a month, Houston may still retain a top 3 seed out West. If it’s worse than that, we wait and see if Chris Paul can maintain the MVP point guard form that Harden has played with for the last two seasons under Mike D’Antoni.
Toronto’s home-grown, pick-up-the-pace Raptors are just what stellar guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry needed to be renewed in this 2017-18 NBA season. As a result, Toronto is trading blows with Cleveland and Boston as the Eastern Conference’s top team once again. Thanks to summer salary-cap downsizing, luxury-tax penalties will not be an issue for years to come, giving GM Masai Ujiri the flexibility to swing a mid-season deal that other top contenders might not have. Regardless, head coach Dwane Casey will make the most of what he’s got. Shoot, after all, he turned last year’s third-stringers into this season’s second-string supersubs (Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl).
4. San Antonio Spurs
As Kawhi Leonard plays himself back into MVP-candidate shape, Hall of Famers LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol put in their own All-NBA and All-Star bids, respectively, turning back the clocks on their 32- and 37-year-old bodies in the first half of this NBA season. Through it all, Patty Mills, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson picked up valuable minutes in bigger roles in Leonard and Tony Parker’s absence, resulting in elevated bench positions for Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray as well. Add it all up, mix in Hall of Famers Parker and Manu Ginobili with former-NBA-starter-turned-sixth-man Rudy Gay, and you see a team that has more experience and more chemistry than any NBA club out there. The versatility is just mind-boggling when you break down the roster, giving Coach Gregg Popovich more pieces to the puzzle than any other coach out there.
It may tick off LeBron James, but if the Cavaliers could find a taker for Iman Shumpert’s $10 million contract, the savings could result in an additional $31 million in luxury-tax penalties. One would think that would be the smartest of tax cuts out there, especially considering Shump has only logged 271 minutes this season and their All-NBA guard, Isaiah Thomas, is back in the Cleveland fold. It might even be wise for GM Koby Altman to part with a first-round pick on top of Shumpert, if that is what it took to unload the contract and create that savings landfall this summer (not the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder, though). Keep in mind, that outgoing contract is also attached to an $11 million player option that Shumpert may activate this summer for an additional season in Cleveland, resulting in similar luxury-tax penalties next season.
2. Boston Celtics
You know things are going right when Kyrie Irving is being mentioned as an MVP candidate, Al Horford a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Jayson Tatum as a Rookie of the Year candidate and Brad Stevens as a Coach of the Year. That’s what happens when you play like an East champ even after All-Star free-agent recruit Gordon Hayward goes down with a season-long injury. As long as the Celtics keep winning with D (rank first in defensive efficiency), they will have a chance against the LeBrons and Currys of this world.
1. Golden State Warriors
With a logjam at center (Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West and Jordan Bell), look for the Warriors to save money wherever it can and trade Kevon Looney and his $1.5 million contract, which should result in close to a saving of $5 million in penalties this summer. It may not seem like much, but when you are slated to pay $40 million in luxury-tax penalties, every little bit helps.