Now that we have closed the book on the month of February, we now are witnessing two-thirds of the NBA march up the mountain of playoff contention, while the lower third of the League tanks downward toward the valley of the lottery-minded.
With that in mind, we decided to spotlight the “new looks” on all 30 teams as they fine-tune for the top or tank for the bottom.
30. Phoenix Suns
Wings Devin Booker, T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson still make up the heart—and future—of the Suns’ starting lineup, just as they did on opening night in October. Only now, newest acquisition Elfrid Payton has replaced the departed Eric Bledsoe as Phoenix’s likely starting point guard of the future (if they can re-sign him this summer), having started the last eight games in a row, while Payton has averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists as a Sun. Meanwhile, Alex Len has seemingly replaced opening night center Tyson Chandler in Phoenix’s season-ending lineups, with Len consistently starting at center while Chandler continually misses games with a neck injury.
Thankfully, All-Rookie candidate John Collins has finally been inserted into Atlanta’s starting lineup with the power forward getting three consecutive starts, averaging 9 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks in 29 minutes per game. His 16.07 SUPERGLOOO per-48 minute average is especially impressive for a 20 year old, ranking up there with Jamal Murray, O.G. Anunoby and Brandon Ingram for minutes-heavy peers from the Birth Class of 1997.
28. Sacramento Kings
With expensive George Hill being shipped off to Cleveland, young De’Aaron Fox is getting trial-by-error experience as starting point guard, with the 20-year-old King being thrown into the February fires, where he registered 10 starts, averaging 30 minutes per game, 9 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, a 2:1 assists-to-turnovers ratio, with a subpar .483 true shooting percentage. If February is any indication, Fox will be playing alongside fellow rookies Justin Jackson and Rising Stars Challenge MVP Bogdan Bogdanovic, along with bigs Zach Randolph and Willie Cauley-Stein for the stretch run. In 135 minutes together thus far, the quintet has a -6.7 net rating (103.2 offensive efficiency and 109.9 defensive efficiency).
The Magic may have lost their starting point guard—replacing Elfrid Payton with D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack in the meanwhile. But at least Orlando has its hero back in the lineup, with centerpiece Nikola Vucevic back and looking strong. In three recent starts, Vucevic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 29 minutes per game, while Bismack Biyombo has resumed his position on the bench, after an uneventful time replacing Vooch.
The Grizzlies did not grant Tyreke Evans his wish of a late-season trade, which means he will have to waste the last quarter of his NBA season playing for a tanking team. No matter. At least Memphis gives him a platform to garner good stats, which is what the wing has done since the All-Star break, averaging 17 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists in 29 minutes per game during the recent four contests.
Dirk Nowitzki disagrees with owner Mark Cuban’s opinion that tanking is the way to go. Who knows how fellow power forward Dwight Powell feels about it, but he is using the opportunity for more playing time to produce, averaging 28 minutes, 14 points on .662 true shooting percentage, to go with 8 rebounds per game. It is not exactly Nowitzki-like numbers, but these stats—accumulated in nine games and six starts—show Dallas has a capable power forward replacement for their living legend whenever the time comes (Powell also has a stellar 24.1 SUPERGLOOO per-48 minute average on the season).
24. Chicago Bulls
Since Zach LaVine’s return off the injured list, the new Chicago Bull has been co-starring with fellow youngster Bobby Portis, who has been coming off the bench and filling in where rookie Lauri Markkanen is falling off after hitting the rookie wall (he was 6-for-34 on 3s in February). LaVine is averaging 22 points in 32 minutes per game in his eight games back, while also knocking down 19 of his 44 three-point attempts (43.2 percent). Portis, meanwhile, is averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds in only 25 minutes per game.
23. New York Knicks
The Knicks have three youngsters who think they are all starting NBA point guards and all three phenoms will get plenty of Madison Square Garden time to show all what they can do. It starts with ex-Nugget Emmanuel Mudiay who is starting now, averaging 12 points and 5 rebounds in 25 minutes per game as a 21-year-old Knick. Then picks up with 25-year-old Trey Burke, who is averaging 14 points and 4 assists in 19 minutes per game during February. And don’t forget Knick-of-the-future Frank Ntilikina, who averages 6 points in 20 minutes per game as a 19-year-old defensive stalwart last month.
22. Brooklyn Nets
Nets GM Sean Marks, without many first-round picks these past few seasons, took a smart gamble on acquiring other team’s lottery cast-offs, namely D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor, the Nos. 2 and 3 picks from the 2015 NBA Draft. It has not gone well for either as of yet, though both are getting opportunities. Both are struggling mightily with their On and On-Off plus-minus numbers, but are still showing signs of efficiency thus far, with the 22-year-old combo guard posting a 15.1 Player Efficiency Rating in 25 minutes per game during his 28 contests as a Net; the 22-year-old Okafor has a 14.5 PER while averaging 13 minutes per game during his 22 contests as a Net.
21. Los Angeles Lakers
It is good to know the Lakers didn’t go through a total collapse when point guard Lonzo Ball missed most of the month of February, save two games. Indeed, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope regained his game, while youngsters Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle showed all why the Lakers have been so high on them from the start. The three collectively became the Lakers top playmakers in Ball’s absence. In February, Pope averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in 32 minutes per game; Ingram averaged 19 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists in 34 minutes per game; Randle averaged 19 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists in 32 minutes per game.
20. Charlotte Hornets
One cannot say Kemba Walker did not showcase his skills properly during the month of February, when he reportedly was on the trading block when the month started. Walker finished the month averaging 26 points and 6 assists in 35 minutes per game on a spectacular .619 true shooting percentage. Why some team did not break out a blockbuster deal to land the bargain $12 million player, I will never know.
Josh Richardson has been quite the sidekick lately to Miami’s dynamic duo of Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. In the month of February, he has been their equal, lighting up last month with 15 points on .586 true shooting percentage in 33 minutes per game during the last 10 contests.
With Blake Griffin gone, we are getting an idea of what head coach Doc Rivers’ new-look Clipper lineups look like, with three-guard sets dominating the background. Sure, forwards Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari and center DeAndre Jordan are averaging 35, 34 and 32 minutes together, with Montrezl Harrell filling in here and there for 16 minutes per game. But with guards filling out the stat sheet for the most part everywhere else, the Clippers have essentially become a wing-heavy team.
At different points this season, Detroit thought they it would be relying on a backcourt featuring Reggie Jackson and Avery Bradley. But Pistons GM/coach Stan Van Gundy has discovered his team can survive just fine—especially on an Andre Drummond/Blake Griffin frontline—when he has Ish Smith and Reggie Bullock in the backcourt. Last month, while averaging 30 minutes per game, Smith posted 14 points and 5 assists per game, while Bullock averaged 14 points—making 52 percent of his 2s, 41 percent of his 3s and 80 percent of his free throws—while playing 33 minutes per game.
Just when wing Royce O’Neale was about to become the NBA’s most obscure sixth man, the Jazz acquired role-player extraordinaire Jae Crowder to fill a 29-minute-per-game gap in the Jazz floor plan. Nonetheless, count O’Neale as the League’s most obscure seventh man, who last month averaged 27 minutes, 8 points and 5 rebounds in 27 minutes per game, while making 51 percent of his 2s, 44 percent of his 3s and 91 percent of his free throws. Know the name now?
15. New Orleans Pelicans
DeMarcus Cousins may be gone and Anthony Davis may be gunning for MVP, but don’t lose track of Jrue Holiday, who is having an All-Star caliber season himself in trying to earn these Pelicans a high West seed. While teaming with fellow point guard Rajon Rondo and some other random guard (E’Twaun Moore or Ian Clark) or wing (Darius Miller)—not to mention acquisition Nikola Mirotic—Holiday is paling some of his best basketball to date. He is averaging 19 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists in 37 minutes per game in 2017-18, and has elevated those stats in February to 21 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists in 36 minutes per game. Mix that with a season-long 17.3 PER, +4.0 On rating and +13.7 On-Off rating, and, well, you see why we are so high on Davis’ quarterback.
The Pacers are missing point guard Darren Collison, out for nearly a month after having his left knee scoped. In his stead has been struggling backup Cory Joseph, who averaged 9 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in 30 minutes per game during eight contests last month, starting in the six games that Collison missed. With CoJo struggling with his 3s (5 for 19), 2s (22 for 46) and 1s (10 for 17), Collison (.609 true shooting percentage) cannot return soon enough for a team that thought it had a good chance at an East top 4 seed a month ago.
The man named Sato, a.k.a. Tomas Satoransky, has been the NBA’s greatest revelation this season, keeping the Wizards among the East elite even after All-Star point guard went down. Nobody expected the small forward to become a stellar point guard in Wall’s absence, but now Wizards fans are experience what Euros have enjoyed about Sato’s overall game for years. In February alone, the man with a ball-free 13-percent usage rate on the season showed how he likes to let the ball fly, averaging 12 points, 3 rebounds and 6 assists in 29 minutes per game, while making 14 of 23 three-pointers (61 percent) and 15 of 15 free throws for an incredible .814 true shooting percentage. Couple him with fellow ball-sharer Tim Frazier the only Wizard lower than Sato in usage rate, and you see how both point guards show all how careful playmakers (Satoransky, 60 assists to 15 turnovers in February; Frazier, 32 to 8) can dominate their craft when given opportunity.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota has three of the better 16-minutes-per-game players in the League in Nemanja Bjelica, Thus Jones and Gorgui Dieng. So while no one ever wants to see an All-Star like Jimmy Butler go down with a serious injury, at least it is good to know Coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has a capable replacement in his do-everything forward.
11. Denver Nuggets
With Paul Millsap working his way back into the mix—he played 23 minutes off the bench Wednesday—it will be interesting to see where he fits in on the Nuggets nucleus lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler and Nikola Jokic. With Chandler or Barton heading to the bench, Denver has the best quintet they’ve had in years, at least since the 2012-13 Nuggets that won 57 games (Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and Andre Miller as their sixth man).
The addition of Marco Belinelli is exactly what the Philadelphia bench needed, especially with starters J.J. Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric doing the lion’s share of the Sixers’ three-point shooting. In Belinelli, head coach Brett Brown has a familiarity that extends from their 2014 NBA Championship season with the Spurs. That is part of the reason why he has been given a major minutes load (27 minutes per game) in his first six contests as a 76er. He has rewarded Philly with 9-for-24 three-point shooting thus far (38 percent) and 12-for-23 two-point shooting (52 percent).
Who knows what head coach Joe Prunty plans when Jabari Parker—if Jabari Parker—can play more than 20 minutes per game following his comeback from an ACL injury? But if the 22-year-old earns his starting position back, one would imagine Prunty moving ahead with an Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Parker and John Henson quintet, giving the Bucks a lean-and-mean talent-laden team we have not seen the likes of at such a young age in the NBA. Granted, guard Tony Snell would hit the bench with fellow defensive-minded role players as Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova and Tyler Zeller, thus allowing Prunty to stagger his offensive standouts with a deep bench. And if Parker’s first 10 games back are of any indication—he is averaging 11 points an 4 rebounds in 20 minutes per game on a .583 true shooting percentage—Milwaukee may find its true and new identity come playoff time.
Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless have essentially took turns as the Trail Blazers starting small forwards at various times this season, with Turner registering 28 starts to Harkless’ 27. As we enter the stretch run, one would have to think Harkless has the edge on Turner, if for no other reason, he has assumed the starting slot for eight of the last 10 games, and all of the contests during Portland’s current four-game win streak (including six of the last seven). During those 10 games, Harkless averaged 8 points in 25 minutes per game on ,674 true shooting percentage–playing alongside Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic–while Turner is averaging 4 points in 20 minutes per game on .395 true shooting percentage.
Lost in the shuffle of Oklahoma City’s rise to power is Carmelo Anthony’s mellowing of sorts. As the season goes long, Anthony has seen a major drop-off in production, posting 13 point and 6 rebound averages in 31 minutes per game during the last 10 contests, while registering a lowly .442 true shooting percentage.
Of the four Cavs newcomers, power forward Larry Nance and combo guard Jordan Clarkson look most at home, averaging 22 minutes apiece, while George Hill logs the most playing time of the bunch, starting six games at point guard and averaging 29 minutes, while Rodney Hood—still finding himself—logs the second biggest amount of minutes, averaging 26 minutes per game off the Cleveland bench as a wing.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard walked through those doors this week, giving everyone in the Spurs organization hope that he will come back at full strength at the end of March, giving him a couple weeks to get into playoff shape for the stretch run. Thus far this season in 210 minutes, Leonard has averaged a 26.1 PER (compared to 27.6 in 2474 minutes in 2016-17), a +3.8 On rating (compared to +8.5) and +0.8 On-Off rating (compared to +1.6).
4. Boston Celtics
With Marcus Smart missing seven games last month, Terry Rozier more than picked up the slack as the second best player in a Celtics uniform, averaging 15 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 28 minutes per game, while making 46 percent of his three-pointers (28 for 61). He just has been good all season long—in whatever role he plays—averaging 10 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 24 minutes,
Toronto might want to consider selling ticket to practice intrasquad games, because every type of plus-minus number is showing us two of the NBA’s best quintets are the Raptors first-string and second-string units. While Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, O.G. Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas grab the headlines as the best starting squad in the East thus far, the real secret weapon is Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl, whose Player Efficiency Ratings all range from 15 to 18, while their On ratings range from +7.4 to +15.6. Incredible.
2. Golden State Warriors
Seldom-used big JaVale McGee just may have taken over Zaza Pachulia’s starting role at center, but it really makes no difference who plays when, especially considering the Warriors field a strong center no matter which big plays in various six-minute stretches each Golden State half. When reviewing this past month, McGee averaged 10 minutes per game, David West 12 and Pachulia 14, earning the lion’s share of playing time over Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney. Yet on the season, each Warrior has had their own slice of decent playing time, with all having efficient success whenever their name was called (West, 791 minutes, 22.9 PER; Pachulia, 754 minutes, 17.5 PER; Bell, 566 minutes, 19.4 PER; Looney, 521 minutes, 13.3 PER; McGee, 391 minutes, 21.4 PER.
1. Houston Rockets
Rockets reserve forwards Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker saw their minutes increase significantly as Trevor Ariza recovered from a hamstring strain for most of February. During that time, Houston proved to be no worse for the wear as the defensive-minded supersubs both excelled in starting roles, replacing both Ariza and starting stretch power forward Ryan Anderson at times in the starting five. It is no surprise that both glue guys Mbah a Moute and Tucker could handle the 30-plus minutes-per-game workload as the Rockets closed the month of February on a 13-game win streak upon Ariza’s return. Rather, it just further served notice to teams like Golden State that Houston now is the team to beat out West until further notice.