Mid-march. When many hoops fans prime themselves for the NCAA tournament, the NBA enters the short stretch between games 60–70, as teams gear up for the final weeks of the season. Playoff seeding comes into the conversation. Regular season games take on an extra level of intensity.
As we enter mid-March, what is already determined and what is left to be determined?
We’ll start at the bottom.
Here are the NBA’s assuredly lottery-bound clubs, from 30th, up to 24th.
30. Brooklyn Nets (11–53)
The Brooklyn Nets are forced to swap this lottery pick (46% chance of being top 2, 64% chance of top 3), with Boston, who will slot somewhere in the 24–26 range. This season was as an unmitigated disaster, along with Jeremy Lin’s hamstring situation. There is no silver lining here, just a bunch of squiggly lines that have no definition.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (20–45)
The Lakers, you may know, owe Philadelphia a conditional lottery pick. This May, that pick is top-3 protected. The Lakers have done their best to stay near the bottom, losing 8 of their last 10, having traded Lou Williams and playing their young fellas at crunch time. The Suns have played well enough lately to pass the Lakers, but the Suns smartly dropped Thursday’s head-to-head match-up to Los Angeles, which tightened the race to within a game. Julius Randle has shown serious play-making skills, with six or more assists in 3 of their last 5 games. Randle’s post ASB play: 12 pts, 12 reb, 5 ast in 31 min has been impressive, while Brandon Ingram is still so raw and thin (6'9" 190 lbs), he’s nowhere near ready from prime sizzle. Like every rookie, he needs to show better range in Year Two.
28. Phoenix Suns (21–44)
Here’s a surprising team stat: the Suns are 8–5 in games decided by 3 points or less. If only they’d gone 5–8, they’d have that top 5 pick guaranteed. The team with the second best odds can’t slip farther than fifth. Brandon Knight’s contract has become one of the biggest albatrosses in the NBA. Tyson Chandler’s isn’t far behind. It’s incredible how quickly careers can change. Knight is guaranteed a hefty salary through June, 2020, while Chandler’s runs out the year before. With the exception of Chandler, the Suns are young. Booker, Warren, Chriss, and Len all have real upside, with Booker’s range the most tantalizing and Chriss’ athleticism creating stirs among the Phoenix faithful. Still, What do you do with players who don’t fit into your future plans, but are too expensive to trade? Neither Chandler or Knight have played since the trade deadline, which makes sense, but must make for a bizarre locker room experience. Two of your highest paid players paid to watch the young fellas figure things out. What a mess GM Ryan McDonough has made for himself. Think he regrets the Isaiah Thomas to Boston deal?
27. Philadelphia 76ers (23–41)
Philly fans have genuine reasons to be proud of their Sixers this year. Joel Embiid is such a dominant force, the Sixers have a positive scoring differential when he’s been on the court, despite their negative 6.1 differential on the season overall. Now the news is that Embiid will need surgery for a meniscus tear in his knee. Patience is once again required for Sixers fans. Ben Simmons will not play this year. On the other hand, the Sixers are assured to finish in the bottom five and will land one more top lottery pick. Those years will end soon, once Embiid, Simmons, Saric, Covington and their future pick this June learn to play together. In addition to their own pick (likely to be 5th or 6th), the Sixers have too many first round picks to mention, even if the Lakers end up keeping theirs this year. The Phuture (I had to) is looking good, if their health luck turns around even slightly. Thanks, Sam
26. Orlando Magic (24–42)
Orlando received an injection of shooting by acquiring guard Terrence Ross from Toronto at the deadline. They also received a 1st rounder that’s full of too many conditions to enumerate. Now if only they had a point guard who could shoot. For all of Elfrid Payton’s many qualities, the fact that he runs the offense without any range on his jumper limits the team’s flow. Orlando will be looking to add an impact shooter in the draft. Aaron Gordon’s potential is slowly running out. If his range extended to the corner, the offense would open up as well.
25. New Orleans Pelicans (25–40)
I hope this works out. I really do. It would be good for everyone. For the city of New Orleans. For DeMarcus himself. For Anthony Davis. Everyone except Western Conference teams that lack big men. The Pelicans need this next month to go well, for “Fire and Ice” (not a fan of that moniker) to play well together, and then they can worry about adding a legitimate shooter to play alongside Davis and Cousins. Jrue Holliday will be a free-agent in June. Big decisions on the horizon. Can they find a shooter in free-agency? Their pick will head to Sacramento.
24. Sacramento Kings (25–40)
Speaking of which…the Kings finally have a fresh start as well. The NBA world was shocked at how little Sacramento received from the Pelicans in return for one of the most talented big men in the game. The trade may become a bit less ridiculous if the pick can end up in the top 5. New Orleans’ recent slide has upped those odds. Sacramento is now the 25–and-under club. Will free-agency be kinder to the Kings without Cousins’ volatility? Will Sacramento’s front office get it together? Among this bottom tier, only Brooklyn faces more future questions. Buddy Hield will not become Steph Curry. That seems certain.