The race for the 8th seed isn't just about the playoffs. It's about hope. Hope for the future of your young core, hope that your aging superstar might have a few good years left, hope that when you see your friends you can talk excitedly about plans to buy playoff tickets instead of listing everything that went wrong your shitstorm of a season.
To some fans and experts, it may seem silly to clamour for the 8th seed only to be systematically dismantled by an inevitable conference finalist. Why not chuck in the season, rack up some L's, and try to get a solid lottery pick? That may be what's best for the long term championship hopes of the team, but how can you deny the fans a chance to get butterflies before a big playoff game? How can you deny them the hope of watching their team go on a 10-2 run in the third quarter of game one, and then turning to a friend with a raised eyebrow that says, "You know, if Steph has a couple of off-games, we might be able to do this thing..."
The 8th seed will probably not win a series. The 8th seed might not even win a game. But the 8th seed will inject a city with fiery exhilaration for a week or two, and that excitement can be enough to carry a fanbase through to the fall, knowing that next season might hold something even more special in store. With that in mind, it's time to take a look at the teams that are battling it out for the final playoff spots in each conference.
RACE FOR 8th IN THE WEST
The race for the 8th seed in the Western Conference is really the race for the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th seed, as the middle of the pack is tightly clustered.
To the Mavericks, making the playoffs this year means they carry on their tradition of continued excellence. The Mavericks haven't finished the season with a record below .500 since 2000, in Dirk's sophomore year. This year, people didn't really expect big things from Dallas, after they whiffed on the DeAndre Jordan sweepstakes and rolled the dice with Wes Matthews post-injury. However, the Cuban/Carlisle combo continues its winning ways, with the team sitting 3 games over .500 as of the all-star break.
A lot of the Mavs' success has to do with the impressive play of Zaza Pachulia, who was picked up on a cheap contract after DeAndre decided to stay in LA. Zaza is averaging a 10 & 10 double-double, and offering some versatility on the defensive end as he can go toe-to-toe with a banger like Dwight Howard just as easily as he can disrupt KAT's finesse game.
Along with the welcome surprise of Zaza's excellence, Mavs fans are also happy to see the not-so-surprising excellence of Dirk. He doesn't move as effortlessly as he used to, and he's one of the main reasons the Mavs are only so-so defensively, but the amount of times that Dirk has hit big shots for the Mavs this season is enough to get any Dallas fan excited.
Get the point?
Another thing going right for the Mavs is that they've largely been able to avoid serious injury trouble. They have missed a smattering of games here and there, but their big pieces have mostly been able to stay on the floor so far. For a roster with Deron Williams (missed 9 games), Wesley Matthews (4 games), an aging Dirk (6 games), and a recovering Chandler Parsons (8 games), avoiding a long-term injury to these key vets has got to be considered a win, even if youngster Jeremy Evans has missed more than his fair share of games. When these players have had to sit out, guys like Barea, Felton, and even Dwight Powell have stepped up to the challenge to keep Dallas' playoff aspirations alive.
The Mavs have a tough stretch as they approach the last part of their season. 15 of their 27 remaining games are against teams .500 or better, including a brutal 9-game stretch where every single team boasts a winning record, including 2 games with the Warriors and one with the Cavs. The Mavericks' fate will likely be decided in this mid-to-late March run, and their ability to keep their key players on the floor will be key.
This team may not have the raw hunger that a youthful team like the Blazers and Jazz have, but they have a ton of experience, and a very gifted coach. That may be enough to catapult them into the playoffs, and to give Dirk another shot at heroism.
For the Utah Jazz, the push for the playoffs is all about taking the next step. They have an exciting young core, and after missing out on the playoffs last year, this year is the supposed to vault them into "you don't want to face them in April" territory. Early in the season, their development was hampered by the loss of Exum, Burks, Gobert, and Favors. The latter two are now back after missing about 20 games, while Exum is out for the season and Burks is expected to return this season after missing almost two months already with no timetable set to return.
That's what's gone wrong for the Jazz. But what has gone right for them is, well, a lot. In the 10 games before the break, the Jazz have the second-best defense in the league while gobbling up rebounds at the second-highest frequency as well. Having your rim protector finally rounding back into form will do that for you. Meanwhile, Rodney Hood has turned into a 3-and-Demon, who is looking like an absolute steal at the 23 spot in the 2014 draft. Hood is shooting over 42% from beyond the arc in 2016, while getting up 6.4 3s per game. Impressive stuff.
But more importantly than any statistic that could be mentioned, is just how much fun it is to watch these guys play. Coach Quinn has got them working so hard that any team who doesn't come out ready to play will quickly find themselves in a hole. The Stifle Tower protects the back line while the Jazz guards get into you, and if you fall asleep on the defensive end, the Jazz will make you pay.
Coming out of the all-star break, the Jazz will play half of their remaining 30 games against teams over .500. With the way that the Jazz have been rolling lately (8-2 in their last 10), that bodes well as they come down the home stretch, especially when you consider their season record in light of the missed games by Gobert and Favors. If any of the teams battling it out has a chance to rise even higher than the 6th seed, it just might be the Utah Jazz.
For the Portland Trailblazers, taking the 8th seed would be a sign that they are recovering more quickly than expected from 2015's mass-exodus. And right now, making the 8th seed just might be in the cards. A few weeks ago I wrote about how the Blazers have been managing to win ugly and win often of late. Often is an understatement. They have won 12 of their last 15 games thanks in large part to a Herculean effort to crash the offensive glass, while simultaneously being the best in the league at snuffing out fast breaks.
Blazers fans were right to have hope in young combo-guard CJ McCollum, and Terry Stotts' ability to keep one of Lillard and McCollum on the floor at all times has been great for the continuity of the offense. Al-Farouq Aminu was a sneaky-good signing amidst the free agent drama generated by bigger names, and the future is very bright in Portland.
However, the Blazers have a bit of a problem lurking in the shadows as they look to close out the season: 18 of their 28 remaining games are against teams above .500. That's some stiff competition for a young team who wasn't expected to even sniff 40 wins this year. The next ten games will be crucial for Portland, as they play four home games including key matchups against playoff-hopeful Utah and Houston (plus Golden State), before going on a 6-game Eastern Conference road trip where all but one of their opponents are above .500.
If Portland can survive that gauntlet, then they will be in prime shape for the home stretch. However, if they are unable to return from the all star break as hungry as they entered it, then they might be one of the unlucky teams on the outside looking in come late April.
Houston Houston Houston. From the Western Conference Finals, to the 9th seed after getting their coach fired and putting forth the 5th-worst defense in the league. For the Rockets, getting the 8th seed isn't about hope for the future, or holding onto some former glory; it's about pride. If Houston can't make the playoffs, a lot of players and a lot of front office personnel are going to have to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Sitting below .500 at 55 games into the season, and losing 6 out of 8 heading into the all-star break, they're going to have to do that anyway.
At least Houston knows they have a problem. They are still working with an interim head coach, and their level of trade deadline activity indicates they are looking to make improvements. But they have got their work cut out for them as they head into the home stretch.
Of the Rockets' 27 remaining games, just 9 are against teams below .500, and they have 15 games on the road. During a particularly difficult stretch from March 11 to April 6, the Rockets will play 14 games (including 3 back-to-backs), only one of which is against a sub-.500 team. The Rockets' lackadaisical effort early in the season cost them games, and now has got them staring down the barrel of a fate that nobody predicted for them: the lottery.
But it's not all doom and gloom in Houston. In many ways, this team is similar to the one that surprised people in the playoffs last year. They still have one of the most gifted scorers in the game, and they still have a healthy amount of talent surrounding him. It's not like the Rockets can't beat teams over .500, it's just a matter of whether or not they have the chemistry and effort level to get them over a hump they thought they passed long ago.
Maybe the all-star break was just what the Rockets needed to re-focus them on the task at hand. Maybe James Harden will lead by example and show his teammates that with some defensive effort they can turn their season around. If they rip off a couple big wins, maybe Houston will feel like they can make a splash in the playoffs and they'll get their swagger back. Or, maybe they'll fizzle out, play iso ball, and fans will wait to see what Morey has up his sleeve this offseason. "James, are you guys going to make the playoffs?"
When I first started brainstorming about this article, there was no mention of the Memphis Grizzlies. Then Gasol got hurt, but I figured the Grizz had enough talent to fill the void for the time being, and they'd be able to keep themselves confortably in playoff position. Then they traded Courtney Lee for assets with minimal immediate impact. Then they traded Jeff Green. Now, here we are, in the Memphis Grizzlies section.
The Grizzlies seem to be headed for a big roster overhaul, ditching a few of their more valuable assets, and with Mike Conley in a contract year. What happens with the rest of this year remains to be seen. Will Lance Stephenson get meaningful minutes and be able to perform? Will Conley ball out as he looks for a big contract? Will Randolph start dropping 25/15 games like he's 27 years old again?
With a 5-game buffer, and only two plus-.500 opponents in the next 2+ weeks, the Grizzlies will probably be able to hold on to their spot. But there's no doubt that they're going to miss the presence of Courtney Lee and Jeff Green down the stretch of the season. If a hungry young team like the Blazers catches fire, they could easily snatch the Grizzlies' playoff hopes away.
SACRAMENTO KINGS, DENVER NUGGETS, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
These three teams may have already missed their chance. They're all sitting 4.5-6.5 games out of the playoffs, with the 6-8 seeds playing some fine ball right now, and the 9th place Rockets always a danger to figure something out and turn it on. In order to steal that precious playoff spot, one of these teams is going to have to go on a monster run to close out the season. But any of the Kings, Nuggets, and Pelicans stealing the 8th seed would be considered a huge win after their tough starts. It would show incredible resilience from teams that have been undermanned and/or undercoached, and would no doubt lead to bouts of mass hysteria in the playoff-bound team's market.
The Kings have resigned themselves to keep George Karl until the end of the season. They've lost 8 of their last 10, and are playing horrendous defense from both a technical and effort perspective. That being said, they have DeMarcus Cousins who is an absolute game-changer, and Rondo who knows how to facilitate an offense. If the Kings can string a couple wins together, and Rondo and Cousins get a whiff of that 8th seed, there's no telling what could happen.
The Kings have about an even split of .500-plus/sub-.500 games, as well as home/road games remaining. That's not quite a recipe for a "monster run," but if the Kings can surprise a couple of the better teams they face, and not lay any eggs against the bad ones, they've got a shot. However, consistency hasn't been a strong point of the Kings so far this season, and Kings fans know not to get their hopes up too high about this team. Hopefully Vlade follows through on hiring a GM, and the Kings can get on the right track (again) this offseason. In the meantime, Kings fans can just watch this on a loop:
The Denver Nuggets have looked a little frisky lately, playing .500 ball over their last 20 games. They've had some nice wins against the Raptors, Pistons, and Warriors in that timeframe. If you sleep on this team, they will hurt you. Sitting in the bottom third of the league defensively, the Nuggets have certainly got areas to improve, but they've got guys who play hard, and who know how to put points on the board. Gallo has looked very nice in 2016, averaging 22 points on 36% 3pt shooting. Not laser-accuracy, but Nuggets fans have to be happy to see that he's getting there after his 2014 knee injury.
Of the Nuggets' 28 remaining games, 16 are against .500 or better teams It will be an uphill battle for a team that probably can't afford to lose more than about 10 more games if they want to make the playoffs. Interestingly, of the Nuggets' last 9 games, 5 are against teams who will be jockeying with them for playoff position. Unfortunately, the other 4 are against the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, and Grizzlies. If the Nuggets approach late March with an outside of making it, their fate just might be in their own hands. Don't expect big things, but with some nice young pieces, Nuggets fans have a lot to look forward to.
The Pelicans were last year's 8th seed, and hoped to follow it up with a higher finish this season. But the injury gods had other ideas. They got off to a very slow start (1-11) due to a myriad of injuries, and have never been able to string together enough wins to get them closer to .500. Now, 13 games below .500, the Pelicans will need to keep bodies on the court and shore up their defense if they want to get back to the playoffs. With a balanced schedule remaining, it will be tough for them to turn things around mid-season, especially since Anthony Davis has missed a disappointing number of games this year with back and shoulder troubles.
Maybe they can pull it off, but ultimately, escaping this season with minimal (further) injuries and then re-evaluating the roster seems like the Pelicans' best route. They made it to the postseason last year, so the playoff berth wouldn't be quite as tantrically-satisfying as it would be for Sacramento or next year's TWolves (or, most likely, next year's Sacramento).
MY PICKS TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IN THE WEST:
5. Utah Jazz
6. Memphis Grizzlies
7. Houston Rockets
8. Dallas Mavericks
Missing out: Portland Trailblazers, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets
RACE FOR 8th IN THE EAST
Let's assume that the Pacers and Heat have enough of a combination of star power, solid coaching, and veteran leadership to power them into the playoffs. That leaves two playoff spots below them, and a lot of teams looking to fill them up.
The Bulls sneaking into the playoffs doesn't bring excitement the their fanbase in the same way that some other teams would. At the start of the season, I would have had Chicago in a "Race for the 1 seed" article.
But here we are in mid-February, and the Bulls have gone 5-14 in their last 19 games. They've lost 5 in a row, and up next is one of the hottest teams in the league, Toronto. Butler is out for at least a few more weeks, Noah is done for the season, Mirotic is weeks away, Dunleavy still needs time to work himself back into game shape, Hoiberg doesn't quite seem to have things on track... In short, times are hard.
But there is hope. Despite missing a few games here and there, Rose is doing his best to recapture what he can of his MVP form. Young bucks like McDermott, Moore, and Portis have shown glimpses, even if they can't always put it together on a night-to-night basis. Taj Gibson could turn it on if he can stay healthy. There are glimmers of hope here and there. And once Butler et al are back in the lineup, there is much more than hope; there is possibility. The Bulls are known Raptor-killers, and from the 7th seed or higher, they could make a deep playoff run.
But first, they need to get there. The Bulls play half of their remaining games against sub-.500 teams, which has to be encouraging for them. They also don't face any road trip longer than 3 games, and have an equal number of games at home and on the road. Those are all nice positives to focus on.
The negatives are that in 2016, the Bulls are putting out a bottom-10 defense AND a bottom-10 offense. Losing a two-way star like Butler will do that to you, but he's only missed the last couple weeks and the slide was already well under way by that point. If the Bulls can stem the tide, and play .500 ball until Butler comes back, they are almost a lock to hold on to their playoff spot. But if they continue to spiral, Chicago might be forced to re-evaluate their coaching and roster situation while they're watching from the sidelines in April. Hopefully Butler's back soon and we can get some more of this:
Making the playoffs would be huge for the Hornets, In a season that's seen Jefferson miss a ton of time, it would give them the green light to officially move past him and build around the strong young players they've amassed over the last few years. They're basically at that point already; this would just be the icing on the cake.
Everything seemed to be rounding into form following Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's return, as the Hornets ripped off 5 wins in 7 games. But with MKG now out for the season, it looked like Charlotte would be back to grinding out .500 ball. And then...
Adding Courtney Lee into the mix certainly makes things interesting. Lee has been shooting well over 40% from deep since December 1st, and while he doesn't quite have the same length or athleticism as MKG, Lee is a high quality 3-and-D guy who can give them another 2-way weapon to help Batum & Co. pick teams apart on both sides of the ball.
The road ahead is a little softer than you might expect for the Hornets, with just 12 of their 29 remaining games against teams .500 or better. This should more than make up for a road-heavy schedule that includes a 6-game road trip right out of the gate after the all-star break. Because of this road trip, and the adjustment to Courtney Lee, the Hornets may falter somewhat in the next few games. But look for them to recover nicely, and close out the year strong. The Hornets aren't going to give their playoff spot away. Somebody is going to have to take it.
The last time the Pistons made the playoffs, Stephen Curry was not in the league, and Lebron James was still on the Cavaliers. I mean...whatever. It's been a while. Making the playoffs would be a huge boost for Detroit's success-starved fans, and the Pistons are in a nice position to get there.
Andre Drummond is scoring and rebounding at a tremendous rate. If he could shoot free throws (or depending on how they change the hack-a- rule), he would be a completely unstoppable force. Add to that an elite 3-and-D guy like KCP, a solid starting PG in Jackson, and newly-acquired 3/4 tweener Tobias Harris (and DMo once he's in NBA form again), and this looks like a tough team to even slow down, let alone stop.
All that being said, the Pistons are in an tight spot. They're only so-so on either end of the floor (18th on offense, 12th on defense), and they suffer from the lowest ast% in the league this season, meaning the ball is sticking more than it should. While turning Jennings and Ilyasova into Tobias Harris might help those first two numbers, Detroit will need to do a little extra work on the offensive side to get the ball moving more.
Coming out of the all-star break, the Pistons will play 15 of their 28 remaining games against .500-plus teams. Looking ahead, there is a very important stretch where they have a whopping 9-game homestand. I had to double check when I first saw it. They then close out the season with a run of games against Eastern Conference opponents including the Cavaliers, Heat (twice), Magic, Bulls, and Wizards. If all of those teams still have playoff hopes/seeding to play for, that will be a gruelling stretch as everyone fights tooth-and-nail to better their postseason odds.
The success of the Pistons' season may hinge on how quickly the Pistons can integrate Toby H into their system. A slow process will have the Pistons on the sidelines in the playoffs, but if they can get things moving quickly, Detroit fans will be more than ready when the Pistons make their much-anticipated return to postseason play.
After last season's regular season and playoff success, and only losing the aged Paul Pierce in the offseason, the Wizards were supposed to be better than this. At the start of the season, most Wizards fans would have considered the 8th seed a disappointment. But now, sitting 3 games out of the playoffs, Washingtonians would be thrilled with the team's recovery from a less than stellar first half of the season.
The Wizards are in a tough spot. Their offense is mediocre, their defense is worse, and their rebounding rate is dead last. It also doesn't bode well that Washington's net rating is better with Beal off the floor. Heading into the deadline, it felt like the Wizards needed to shake things up, and it doesn't get any more shaken up than adding Markieff Morris into the mix. The Wizards are gambling that Morris can leave his, let's say "passionate" ways behind him, and work with Wall & Co. to make a playoff push.
But even if Markieff comes in and totally jives with the team, it's still going to be an uphill battle. In their final 30 games, the Wizards will face 17 teams that are over .500, and do not have a homestand that is longer than 2 games. That means relatively little practice time, and a whole lot of travel. Maybe if fabled "Playoff Wittman" can make an early appearance, it will make enough of a difference to thrust the Wizards into playoff position. The lineup of Gortat, Morris, Porter, Beal, and Wall has the potential to blow games wide open and give Wizards fans premonitions of upsetting the Cavs or Raptors in the first round. But it will take a lot of discipline, a lot of work, and a little luck to get there. They got off on the right foot against Utah last night, and they'll look to keep it rolling with more elite moves like this from Wall:
ORLANDO MAGIC, NEW YORK KNICKS
Early in the season, it looked like both of these teams were going to be duke it out for playoff position. Now it looks like they'll probably miss out altogether. For Knicks fans, making the playoffs would be an absolute thrill. I would fear for the safety of the entire city if Porzingis were to hit a playoff game-winning shot. But as the Knicks round out the season with an interim head coach and a rotation that includes Sasha Vujacic and Jose Calderon, it seems unlikely that they'll be able to make much of a push. Until then, there's always this:
The Orlando Magic went 19-11 in November and December, but have done just 4-16 since. This led to their apparent decision to unload some assets at the deadline for players who will hopefully help them (either personally, or through future trades), to get back in the race next year. While the pieces don't all fit quite yet, the core of this team is exciting, and if they can re-capture some of that early season magic (pause for uproarious laughter...now continue), they might give Orlando fans a bit of a thrill down the stretch. However, that thrill will be dampened by the fact that a full 2/3 of Orlando's remaining games are against teams .500 or above. Orlando fans will have to watch this on a loop until next year:
MY PICKS TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IN THE EAST:
7. Charlotte Hornets
8. Detroit Pistons
Missing out: Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic
Whether sneaking into the playoffs is considered a triumph, a disappointment, or a point of pride, there is no denying that fans of teams heading to the postseason will have a little extra pep in their step. There's just something magical about the big stage, the hope of an upset, and the bubbling energy that sweeps through a city on a playoff run. Maybe drifting into the lottery is the "right" thing to do. After all, making the playoffs is no guarantee of future success. This year's Pelicans and Celtics are examples of how wildly different an 8th seed's fate can be the next season. But regardless of your feelings about the Black Eyed Peas or Pitch Perfect, most fans would love to see their team in the 2016 version of this commercial.