We are now two months into the season, folks! Things are starting to happen. Trades are popping off, lines are starting to be drawn in the sand and the playoff race is officially open in both conferences. Let’s take a look at what we’ve seen over the past month.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
When I last wrote this column, it seemed like there were a lot of surprise “already dead in the water” teams. The Wizards, defending Real Deal champs, had started 2-13. The Clippers had started 3-12. The Bulls were in last place in their division and the Spurs rebuild looked like a failure to launch. But they’re all back in action and steadily climbing back to legitimate respectability, so let’s take a look at their playoff chances.
CLIPPERS: One had to wonder a bit why this team got off to a bad start. Playing against Golden State, Phoenix and Sacramento didn’t help, but even pessimists couldn’t have predicted such a bad start from LA. Everyone was just playing like garbage, and to this day there are no players getting 30 or more a game aside from CP3 and Blake, who just suffered a potentially lingering injury. Korver is in a horrible slump, CJ Miles is waaay too inconsistent and everyone else on this roster is truly a fringe NBA player (aside from Courtney Lee I guess, but he’s not exactly a stud). PLAYOFF ODDS: Still not great. Both LA teams are firmly the bottom two in the division, and given that the Southwest could have as many as four teams in the playoffs this year, I still think their chances are virtually zero, despite the recent surge.
WASHINGTON: This one was a tough one to comprehend, but the poor start also looks like a schedule thing. Washington was getting beat up on by the likes of Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami for most of October and November, despite getting decent performances from its stars. Now, the team is over .500 and looks to be in a firm upward trajectory. They’ve definitely got their work cut out for them, though, as they’re still last in an always-tough Southeast division. PLAYOFF ODDS: I’ll actually go out on a limb and say they’re decent. Orlando and Miami both seem due for regression, and the Southeast was totally muddled last year, too, right until the end, when Washington managed to grab the third and final playoff spot from this division. Never say die.
CHICAGO: The Bulls’ poor start is easy to reason out: all of their players were just looking like crap to begin the year. That deep bench that I was raving about in the preseason remains nowhere to be seen. But at least the big players – Wiggins, Whiteside, Rubio, Harris – have come to life and Chicago has been surging ever since, climbing from last place to a comfortable third and just four games out of the division lead. PLAYOFF ODDS: Nearly a lock. To be honest, I still think the Bulls will win this division in the end. The Bucks and Pistons will start to fade away when we get more out-of-division games and the Cavs (excuse me- the Fighting Zazas) remain a ticking time bomb (although Dray has been awesome).
Honorable mentions to go Memphis, which started 0-6 but now trails Houston for the lead in Real Deal’s most difficult division by just 3 games. (This is an honorable mention because we all knew the Grizzlies wouldn’t be bottom feeders for long.) Also to Detroit – not because they started off badly, but actually for the opposite reason. I definitely didn’t expect to see the Pistons hovering around .500 this late into the season, but there you have it. Shout out to Jon Leuer for low-key being one of the best signings of the offseason at less than $1 million; did anyone really expect 10 and 6 out of him this year? Shouts also to Ish Smith putting up those Philly numbers at minimum salary. Nobody’s played the waiver wire better in the two seasons of this league than Detroit.
TRENDING UP, TRENDING DOWN
UP: All of the teams I mentioned coming back from the dead.
UP: San Antonio. The Spurs were somehow able to wrangle Andre Drummond – the 2nd highest-scoring player in the league and a $3-million-a-year-, still-only-22-year-old offensive-rebound-gobbling-double-double-half-man-half-machine-half-monster away from the Pistons for the newly-acquired Jahlil Okafor some picks they didn’t need anyway. This trade, in my mind, vaults them over the Grizzlies and can realistically challenge Houston for the division title. This is a very, very scary team, especially come playoff time. Before this deal, the Spurs were hovering around the bottom three playoff seeds and potentially missing out on them altogether. Now they have Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond and Karl Towns. How did we let this happen?
UP: Charlotte. The Hornets somehow have the second-best record in the entire league and are getting awesome contributions from everybody (though they’re paying through the nose for much of it). It’s impressive enough that they’re going to make it through an entire season paying $64 million to Bogut, Bazemore, Capela, Jarnell Stokes and Nick Johnson, but for them to actually be competing with the league’s top teams is a feat so incomprehensible to me that I really have nothing else to say about it.
DOWN: The New Orleans Pelicans are, disappointingly, calling it a season again. I still think the Pelicans have more than enough going for them to compete for a playoff spot, but hey, you can’t fault a guy for going after Eric Bledsoe. New Orleans continues to be set up brilliantly for the future with young assets like AD, Kyrie, Embiid, MKG, Mirotic and five first round picks over the next three years (including that juicy OKC pick, and OKC may actually go the entire season without winning a single game). Now that the Pelicans have taken themselves out of the postseason, the only question left about them is whether or not Aldridge stays in town.
DOWN: The Lakers. What happened? The team that once featured KD and Dirk and had lofty playoff hopes is now down a superstar, struggling with the rest of its player and firmly cemented in last place in the Pacific. Lopez, Green, Vasquez, Leonard, Parker, Belinelli…those were all guys that were expected to give at least 25-30 points a game, and they’re all mightily sucking. Shame for LA that everything just failed to come together this year, especially now that KD looks healthy again.
DOWN: Detroit. For every action, there is a reaction, and my reaction was sheer amazement that Detroit would give up their franchise cornerstone. They did get a nice chunk of change for him; Okafor looks really nice already as a rookie on the worst Philly team ever. Jury’s out on the two draft picks in a weak class. But the trade just cements that Detroit, which looked for a while like they were hanging in there, is not a playoff team this year.
SCHEDULE BELLYACHING TIME
Same as last month, there are some teams getting screwed and some getting boosted by scheduling. A fact of life? Only you can decide (I mean this literally).
The Sacramento Kings have been stellar so far. They’ve scored the 4th highest total points, but are 8th in the overall standings and trail Golden State and Arizona in the division.
San Antonio is just outside the top 10 in points scored at 11th, but they’re 15th in overall standings thanks in part to being in the Southwest.
The Bucks, who continue to be relevant in a weak Central Division, have only scored the 16th most points but are in 10th in the standings. Boo!
By virtue of points scored, Charlotte has scored the 6th most but are somehow 2nd overall in the standings! Boo!
This one is super confusing. Houston, last year’s almost-champion and the reigning king of the Southwest, is in 4th place in the overall standings…despite only scoring the 13th most points! BOO!