Mid-March NBA Whirlwind, Part Two: Mediocre But Persistent

Mid-to-late March. When many hoops fans prime themselves for the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, the NBA enters the final stretch. Teams gear up for the playoffs, shift into “must-win” mode to better their seeding and capture home-court, or enter the cauldron that is the race for the bottom of the playoff ladder. Then their are the other dozen teams, which won’t be entering the first round of the second season. These teams wind it down over the final three weeks of the season.

Breaking the Association up into four tiers, like Drake, I started from the bottom. That was the bottom eight.

Let’s move up to the third tier, those mediocre, but persistent teams, arm’s length from being stable or genuinely hopeful enough to realize a playoff berth, and not low enough in the standings to focus on the lottery and the draft entirely.

As we enter mid-March, what is already determined and what is left to be determined? These are the teams falling into this year’s mediocre range. Whether injuries, youth, or bad roster construction, these teams are in that murky middle.

24. New Orleans Pelicans (30–41)

We’ll start with the New Orleans Pelicans, who were mentioned in the bottom tier. In the eight days since that writing, they’ve run off 5 of 6, vaulting from the lottery depths to playoff sniffing-status. Sadly, the initial post-DeMarcus trade results (losing 4 of first 5) dropped them far enough that they now sit 4 games behind 8th-seeded Denver in the loss column. The silver lining: New Orleans plays the Nuggets three (three!) more times over the final 11 games. For League Pass folks, those three games: Sun 3/26, Tue 4/4 and Fri 4/7. A brutal three-game road trip (Houston, Denver, Utah) will likely signal an end to their flickering hopes this year. If they manage to survive it with two wins, those April games will be fun. Last game on the schedule: @ Portland, who will benefit from the Pelicans-Nuggets three-game clash.

Still, both Alvin Gentry and the handful of Pelicans fans have to be pleased to see some galvanizing home wins before the season ends.

Here’s a question I haven’t heard asked: Would New Orleans have a better home court advantage if Katrina hadn’t gentrified half of the city? My guess is yes, although the sport doesn’t have a deep history in Louisiana. Too damn humid to play it outside.

23. New York Kazoos (27–43)

The team formerly known as the Knickerbockers are a mess. The Dolan-Oakley saga is indicative of the greater mess. Phil should have traded himself to Minnesota for Rubio at the deadline. Thibs probably would’ve rejected that deal. Derrick Rose was once so much fun to watch slashing through the paint. Now that his athleticism has been reduced, his less-than-reliable outside shot makes him a tough fit in the modern NBA. Kristaps is a “build-around-me” young force, but the architects need replacing.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves (28–42)

If not for 5 four-game losing streaks, the Timberwolves would be playoff-ready! Karl-Anthony Towns has been invincible over the last month. Wolves fans have to be encouraged by his all-around dominance. The wins will come…but how many and how soon? It’s hard to know what to expect from quarter-to-quarter, much less game-to-game, or to predict next year’s performance.

What is certain is that Karl Anthony-Towns needs more shooting and more defenders surrounding him. The same could be said for Porzingis and Anthony Davis. Young, versatile 7-footers with ridiculous ceilings. Towns seems the most likely to achieve greatness, which compelled Tom Thibodeau to start over in Minneapolis. Of all the young teams, the Wolves climbing up to the 45–50 win plateau would be fun to see. They would have won that many by hanging onto 1/2 of their first-half leads this year. Better 48-minute pacing, more mental toughness, one more veteran 3-and-D wing in place of Zach LaVine, and a whole season of Nemanja Bjelica next to Towns will help.

LaVine has incredible agility, and the Wolves hoped his slender frame would translate into Tayshaun Prince-style defensive versatility, but he comes and goes on D, and he’s been a tough fit next to two great young scorers, Towns and Wiggins. According to basketball-reference, Bjelica (BYELL-eet-sah) has a nickname that you should remember: “Professor Big Shots.” After a brutal January stretch, Bjelica got hot in February and early March, seeing wide-open looks as a stretch four next to Towns and Wiggins, with Rubio’s court vision providing the perfect looks. Bjelica’s on-off numbers show the Wolves defense solidifying when he’s been on the court. He’ll be off the court for the rest of the year after suffering a foot injury last week.

Biggest question for Minnesota: Will they offer LaVine and their likely late-lottery pick to move up in the draft? If so, they will likely target the best wing shooter available, and get closer to 50 wins soon.

21. Dallas Mavericks (30–40)

Seth Curry is a great example of how important shooting is in today’s NBA. The mostly forgotten brother of Steph, Seth doesn’t have the athleticism to play average NBA defense, but he has the shooting ability and the smarts to get by. His skills are amplified when the shooting around him improves. Since December 1st, Seth has played 30 minutes per game, making the most of the vacancy left by Deron Williams, draining 46.2% from deep.

I know, because I made the mistake of dropping him in fantasy in mid-January, when I thought the fun was ending. Good for Seth. I’m a younger brother. That shadow must’ve been brutal at times. Especially with a great-shooting former NBA-playing dad in addition to witnessing Steph’s meteoric NBA rise. But Seth stayed positive, survived the D-League’s ups and downs, and is looking at a serious raise and a landing spot in Dallas.

Nerlens Noel might become a fixture at center for Dallas, but how much are they willing to commit this offseason? Harrison Barnes is signed long-term, and provides a little bit of everything, with solid defense, but he can’t get to the free-throw line enough to lean on in crunch-time. Dallas needs more play-making. And even though I love Dirk, it’s time they figure out what’s next without him.

What comes next is probably several 35–45 win seasons, unless they somehow convince Blake Griffin (oh the irony, after DeAndre basically committed to Dallas two summers ago); Paul Millsap (think he stays in ATL), or perhaps Otto Porter (doubt Washington lets him go).

20. Charlotte Hornets (31–39)

Let’s make this one quick, because its painful.

Record in OT: 0–6.

Record in games decided by three points or less: 0–9.

Record with Cody Zeller: 28–22

Record without Cody Zeller: 3–17

Why is Zeller so important to the Hornets? The Hornets are 12 points per 100 possessions better with Zeller on the court because he’s an active, mobile, athletic seven-footer who sets screens, rotates on defense, and defends the pick-and-roll. Essentially, he does everything well except shoot. And they have/had no depth at center, which is why they traded Roy Hibbert (oh, recall those glorious playoff days against Miami) and Spencer Hawes to Milwaukee for Miles Plumlee (at least he’s partially-mobile).

So basically, Charlotte has been the same 48-win team as last year when Cody Zeller is healthy, and they’ve been worse than the Nets when he’s been injured.

They’ve also been 31–30 except in nail-biters. They’ve walked off the court nine straight times in defeat. For all of Jeremey Lin’s flaws, he was a necessary bench play-maker.

2015–16 Marvin Williams from deep: 40.2%.

2016–17 Marvin Williams from deep: 34.3% (career: 35%)

19. Portland Trail Blazers (32–38)

Mason Plumlee and a future 2nd rounder to Denver. Jusuf Nurkic and a future 1st Rounder (via Memphis) to Portland. A week before the deadline, the two potential playoff hopefuls made the swap. I saw the trade as Blazers GM Neil Olshey acknowledging that this year is less important, saving some money and having an option at center next year (Plumlee will be a free-agent and Portland has little cap flexibility due to some questionable long-term contracts they added last summer (Crabbe, Turner, Ezeli, Meyers Leonard). The trade was curious.

Plumlee fits Coach Terry Stotts system well on the offensive side, with his high-post passing, and his general acumen. Defensively, things weren’t going so well. The Blazers defense was questionable to start the season, with Ezeli’s knee issues turning into a chronic problem. The defense got worse when Al-Farouq Aminu went down with a calf injury. By the time Aminu was back and close to full strength, the Blazers were four games under .500 (13–17).

Portland has been close to .500 since overall, but the trade sparked a serious enthusiasm from Nurkic, whose edge has propelled Portland’s defense and given Lillard and McCollum more substantial screens than they’d seen earlier in the year. As Nurkic has become comfortable with the system, the Blazers have started to match last year’s swagger.

With Nurkic on the court, Portland boasts a sweet offensive rating of 116, and a net rating of +6.2. The pieces are beginning to fit.

Meanwhile Aminu, whose three-point shooting used to be a huge question mark, but lifted to a career best 36% last season, struggled to the tune of 27% through the injury-plagued first few months. Since the All-Star Break, he’s been back up to a more than respectable 38%.

The offense is flowing, and the Blazers have picked up wins against quality opponents lately. Two against OKC, and then road victories at San Antonio, Atlanta, and Miami. Currently one game behind Denver for the 8th seed, Portland finishes up with 9 of their last 12 at home.

Games to watch:

Tuesday, 3/28, vs. Denver

Wednesday, 4/12, vs. New Orleans (final game)

18. Chicago Bulls (33–38)

Facing certain regular season death, the bi-polar Chicago Bulls won their final two games heading into the All-Star break, the last on a highly questionable foul call against Boston, that resulted in two Jimmy Butler free-throws and a 104–103 victory. Then they won 3 of their next 4 coming out of the break. Yet, momentum doesn’t exist in this manic, haphazard Bulls season. Five straight blowout losses and it seemed Chicago would mercifully put an end to this crazy season, not bothering with the race for 6th/7th/8th in the East. Former All-Star Rajon Rondo had been relegated to bench duty before the calendar flipped to January. Chicago made a mysterious trade at the deadline, acquiring Cameron Payne from OKC for two legit rotation players, Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (he needs to average more than 15 per game to earn the nickname McBuckets, yes, that’s an official rule). Cam Payne has not started his point guard campaign to all that much success.

Since Dwyane Wade’s season-ending fractured elbow was diagnosed, coach Fred Hoiberg has returned to Rajon Rondo. In response, Rondo has had some throwback games, averaging 14.4 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds over the last five.

All of this leads to last night. One of my favorite plays of the year happened last night. Forgive the shaky opening (didn’t bother with a tripod). The play came near the end of the fourth quarter. Toronto coach Dwayne Casey instructed the Raptors to ignore Rondo in the corner, despite the fact he’d actually made 4 from deep on the night. Butler saw the wide-open Rondo, but chose to keep the ball, and ended up scoring on baseline jumper. Rondo, left alone, pretended the cross-court pass came, and shot an imaginary corner three, despite the reality that the pass never arrived. Here you go. Rondo’s (big, mostly empty) stats this week might mean the difference in my fantasy basketball playoff match-up with friend and bitter rival, Eric. Probably shouldn’t have dropped him back in January. Oh well.

17. Denver Nuggets (33–37)

The Nuggets are technically the 16th ranked team, precariously perched at the 8th playoff spot in the West. For the purpose of continuity (New Orleans and Portland mentioned here) we’ll discuss them now.

Nikola Jokic is awesome. I could tell you exactly how many assists he’s averaged, but it wouldn’t do justice to his insane passing ability. The Nuggets run and run and run, in part because Jokic throws passes from all imaginable angles, ahead of panicked defenders. Every Denver teammate must have his hands up at all moments, regardless how far away from the ball, or Jokic, they may be running. Like a game of bombardment, Jokic seems to believe that passing is the way your team wins, rather than scoring points. In a way, he’d be right. First to 200 passes. Go! Jokic happens to have been born on February 19th, so he holds a special place in my heart. Jokic was the 41st pick in the June 2014 draft, and came over from Serbia to debut with the Nuggets a year later.

Coach Mike Malone entered the year with Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, two very different Balkan centers. While Jokic is all offensive firepower, with questionable defensive instincts and not much shot-blocking, Nurkic is a bruising, screen-setting post-presence, at 280 pounds, without much explosion, but with an edgy, physical awareness near the rim.

Both Jokic and and the Bosnian Nurkic are too young to have any memories of the 1990’s, when Kosovo was in the news, as Bosnians were subjected to a horrific genocide enacted by the mostly Serbian military of the former Yugoslavia. Regardless, two young big men with very different styles of play had to figure out how to co-exist on the court. Mike Malone had to figure out who to lean on. After spending the season’s first 25 games in between starting and a bench role, Malone chose Jokic. Good decision.

Nikola Jokic monthly splits:

December: 17.0/8.8/4.9 on 67.5% from field and 38% from deep

January: 23.9/11.1/4.8 on 60.2% from field and 33% from deep

February: 16.3/10.9/6.3 on 52% from field and 48% from deep

March: 19.8/11.6/6.1 on 63% from field but only 3 of 14 from deep.

Damn.

One last nugget for this Nugget: Denver is 30–31 with Jokic healthy this year. In those 30 wins, the team has a blistering 136 offensive rating and he’s averaging 6 assists per game. As a center. Just imagine what he’d do with a high-level shooting guard at the ready? Will Jamal Murray become that player?

Read Lee Jenkins’ profile of Nokic for Sports Illustrated for more.

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Next Up: The playoff tiers, starting with the bottom 8 seeds.

Like this? Share it and stay tuned for The Dusty Jumper, my memoir on a lifelong love of playing, watching, reading and writing about basketball. The paperback version will be available within a month.

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