The Blazers, Jazz, and Rockets are fighting for just two playoff spots. Who’s going to be the odd man out?
In the past year, the Western Conference has gone from elite and deep as the Pacific to rather top-heavy. Part of the reason may be because the top — the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, and yes I’ll throw the Clippers in there — got so good that the rest of the conference just seems mediocre in comparison. However, some other factors have definitely played a part.
Phoenix and New Orleans got really bad really quickly, Portland lost or booted almost its entire rotation, and Houston got Pat Beverley back, snagged Ty Lawson, and in the process became considerably worse.
The last two teams on that list, Portland and Houston, as well as Utah, are part of a dwindling Western Conference middle class, and all are currently dancing around the eighth playoff seed. This set of teams is crucial to the stability of the NBA, just as the middle class is to the economy: they provide the opportunity to beat a top team on any given day. It’s fun to see the Warriors dread playing a quality middle class team on the road in enemy territory.
But with the top six seeds seemingly locked into place, let’s take a look at these middle teams. Which two of these three squads will nab the last two playoff spots in 2016?
So far, Utah and Portland fit the healthy middle class bill and seem to be the people’s choice. Both are well over .500 in their own buildings, and both bring a bunch of youth and energy. These two Northwest arenas have always sported great crowds, and as long as their respective teams play hard and have a fighting chance in every game, as they do this year, the fans go nuts every night.
Utah is the favorite for the seventh seed for a simple reason: health (queue “the Warriors got lucky” argument). Utah’s three best players are Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. Two of those guys, Gobert and Favors, missed major time in the first half of the season, 20 games for Gobert and 17 for Favors. Perhaps their fourth best player (although Rodney Hood has made quite a case), Alec Burks, has been out since December 26 with a broken leg.
But with Gobert and Favors back, the Jazz sprinted into the All-Star break, winning eight of their last 10. Burks is expected to return soon enough, and he will give them an additional boost. In November, I wrote that I expected Utah to explode after a slow start packed with road games. Of course, Gobert promptly got injured, and Favors and Burks soon followed him to the bench, ruining any hope of an explosion. Now, it looks like Utah is finally going to be healthy, and I expect their big and brutal lineup of Burks, Hayward, Hood, Favors, and Gobert to wreak havoc in the second half of the season. It seems like they grow stronger with every game.
This leaves Portland and Houston, two teams having polar opposite seasons, to duke it out for that final playoff spot.
Last year, Portland started Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicholas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez. This year, they start Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh or Meyers Leonard, and Mason Plumlee. Everyone expected Portland to plummet after they dumped 80% of their starting lineup and grabbed no major free agents. Surprise! They are still trying to win, but they are rebuilding at the same time. GM Neil Olshey grabbed some good young guys in Ed Davis, Vonleh, Plumlee, and some good vets in Gerald Henderson and Aminu, and they now sport a watchable team that could certainly win a few games.
Will this strategy just make Portland mediocre for the foreseeable future? Honestly, it may. Last year, when they traded for Arron Afflalo, they gave up a lottery protected 2016 first rounder to Denver, which means that if they make the playoffs this year and inevitably get destroyed by the Warriors or Spurs, they won’t get their first round pick in this year’s draft. But coach Terry Stotts, Lillard, McCollum, and the rest of this young Blazers squad don’t care at all. They’re playing really hard right now, and they’re clearly starting to gel. The Blazers are trying to build a winning culture, perhaps at odds with what statistically might be the best championship-winning strategy.
Some may argue that tanking yields the best odds for a championship and therefore, should be employed by rebuilding teams. Regardless of one’s opinion, Portland’s rebuilding strategy represents a cultural win for the NBA. The mistake that some people might make is to assume that tanking equals long-term success, while rebuilding as the Blazers are doing, spurs short-term competitiveness, but long-term mediocrity. In reality, tanking assures short-term disaster, but only slightly improves the nonetheless slim odds for long-term success. The Blazers are not throwing in the towel and waiting for luck to come their way — they’re creating their own luck.
The Lillard and McCollum-led Portland offense has been potent, with the two guards doing the creating and the rest of the guys spacing the floor, rolling hard to the rim, and crashing the heck out of the glass. Lillard is hitting 2.9 threes per game, and his assist average at a career-high 7.3 per game thus far. But that guy has always been a stud on offense. McCollum, on the other hand, is having a monster breakout season, and is currently running away with the Most Improved Player Award. His scoring average has skyrocketed, jumping from 6.8 per game in limited minutes last year to 20.7 per game this year. He is so successful because he has managed to find both volume and efficiency with the pull-up jumper, a rare accomplishment in any arena: he is shooting 46.1% on pull-up jumpers this season, good for eighth in the NBA but makes a whopping 4.1 jumpers per game, well over any of the other efficient shooters (except Curry, who takes 3.8 and also makes 46.1%), and fewer than only Chris Paul (4.5).
These two head a Portland offense that is seventh in the league with 104.4 points per 100 possessions. It’s worth noting that the top six offenses belong to the Warriors, Thunder, Spurs, Cavs, Clippers, and Raptors, who just happen to be the six best teams in the league. Not only does Portland use their possessions efficiently, but they routinely get more possessions than do their opponents because they are beasts on the offensive boards. The Blazers rebound 26.7% of their missed shots, good for third in the NBA.
The facet that holds this team back is defense. They play two diminutive guards: Lillard is a notoriously bad defender, and McCollum is outmatched when put up against opposing two-guards. Consequently, they’ve been porous. However, they’ve played much better, even inspired one might say, defense of late. In the process of winning eight of their last 10 games entering the All-Star break, the Blazers posted a defensive rating of 98.2, second best in the NBA during that stretch. While one can expect them to regress in the second half, they’ve certainly shown some ability to improve.
This talk about dreadful defense finally brings us to the other team in contention, the Houston Rockets. They provide a different narrative. This isn’t to say that they don’t have great fans — it’s just that the “we’ve got a shot every night!” mentality is accompanied with some more bitterness when you’re a reigning conference semi-finalist with largely the same team. Houston fired its coach, Kevin McHale, just 11 games into the season, but the team didn’t really get any better after that. They have been so miserable on defense this season that their rating is only better than that of the Lakers, Suns, Nets, and Pelicans. Eek.
In addition to allowing teams to score so well per possession, the Rockets allow their opponents to rack up a ton of extra possessions, as they rank second-worst in the league in defensive rebounding 72.7%. Essentially, over a quarter of the time an opponent somehow misses a shot against their awful defense, the Rockets just go, “No, here, here, try again, you’ve got this.”
To their credit, the Rockets are still a dangerous offensive squad, with a rating of 104.2, just 0.2 points behind Portland. They get up and down the floor and stay true to the philosophy of their GM Daryl Morey, who preaches analytically-inclined basketball, which in this case means shooting a ton of threes.
Houston is led by MVP runner-up James Harden and the silly, but imposing, Dwight Howard. Thus, in terms of star power, they have Portland beat, and so far, these two stars have had good years, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
Although he is probably the leader of the Rockets paltry effort on defense, with his half reach-ins and general boredom, Harden is having another tremendous year offensively. He’s the best player in the NBA at getting to line with his slithery drives, deceptively strong body, and—let’s face it—masterful flopping ability. Not only does he get there more than anyone else, but he also converts freebies at an 86.9% clip, which allows him to make the most free throws (8.9 per game) in the NBA by a wide margin.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=019bNvGEiP0
Harden is also still putting up points and assists at the level he was last year, 28.0 and 7.0 per game respectively. Sure, his percentages are down a bit, and maybe he isn’t having an MVP-caliber season, but he’s still James Harden.
Howard is also having a solid season. He’s forcing opponents to shoot 1.6% worse inside the paint than they normally do, which isn’t elite, but at least he’s doing his job. Additionally, with the otherwise porous defense of the Rockets, these field goal percentage-against statistics are likely to be deflated a bit, as Howard is often put in tough positions. He is also shooting a career-high 61.2% from the field, including a proficient 63.2% in pick and rolls.
If these two guys continue to play the way they have played, and Houston starts to try on defense, one would have to give them the edge over Portland. They just have too much talent, and its difficult to imagine that they could fall so far in one season without losing any major pieces. On the other hand, it’s not as if Portland has no one. Lillard and McCollum are great players, and they may prove to provide just enough talent that, when mixed with a quality culture, could lead them to the playoffs. The Blazers looks like they win because of their attitude while Houston looks like they win in spite of their attitude. The fight for the eighth seed will probably come down to a razor-thin finish.
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