The Race for Eighth: Are the Nets a Playoff Team?
A few days ago, news broke that Charlotte Hornets guard Nicolas Batum would be out six to eight weeks. Now, the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed has become a battle of polite dinner guests: “No, please you take it!” That prompts a nagging yet previously unthinkable question: Are the Nets a playoff team?
When projecting the playoff teams, there are a few teams that seem like locks to make it. Cleveland, Boston, Washington, and Toronto would have to suffer disastrous injuries to miss the playoffs. Four spots down and four still up for grabs.
The lowest win total for a playoff team in the last 15 years was the 2003 Boston Celtics. They won 36 games. The Knicks, Magic, Hawks, Bulls, and Pacers have their eyes on the draft, with the possible exception of the Pacers who have won 30 or more games for 28 (!) consecutive seasons as Mark Titus noted in his Pacers breakdown. While the Pacers may keep their streak alive, none of these teams are making it to 36 wins. That leaves us with the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, and Brooklyn Nets competing for the last four spots.
Seeds Five to Seven
Based on point differential, the Bucks were a sub .500 team and Jabari Parker is out until February. The starting frontcourt of John Henson, Thon Maker, and Giannis Antetokounmpo made 77 threes all year, which is close to how many Steph Curry made last December (63). On top of that, the Bucks will be relying heavily on Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton to space the floor and attack closeouts. Both shot career highs above 40 percent. Expect those numbers to regress.
Coach Kidd’s defense has not worked. As Zach Lowe pointed out in his piece on Monday, opposing offenses are getting the shots they want in the paint and behind the line. They may have been lucky finishing 11th in three point percentage for opponents. If that number climbs, it could keep the Bucks towards the bottom of the playoff standings.
In spite of all the flashing neon signs pointing to regression, the talent is overwhelming in a weak Eastern Conference. If Giannis evolves and hits a new plateau, none of the above will matter as he could single handedly drag them to a playoff spot as Jimmy Butler did just a year ago.
Depending on your feelings, the Heat might seem like they belong as a lock but a lot of their success last season hinged on some statistical anomalies. As mentioned in the Playoff Contenders article, a lot of their players had career years last season.
That said, the players, medical staff, and Coach Erik Spolestra deserve credit for playing as well as they did. In fact, they had an expected record of 44-38 last year and now return Justise Winslow and add Kelly Olynyk. In a conference where they might not need to go .500 to make the playoffs, that will be more than enough.
The 76ers added a lot of pieces to the roster this season and their current over/under is 40.5 in the Westgate sports book. That number will inevitably seem far too high or too low depending on injuries. If Embiid and his big new contract stay healthy, then the 76ers should easily surpass this total. Even if Embiid plays 28 minutes a game, he would only have to make it through 50 games to double his production from a year ago.
Although it is always difficult to trust rookies, Ben Simmons is a different animal. Simmons has a little bit of Blake Griffin in him and feels like a good bet for rookie of the year. If he can be the playmaker many expect, he should dramatically improve a moribund offense from a year ago.
Toss in the extra shooting, a lockdown defender in Robert Covington and the depth that comes from years in the lottery and the Sixers round out the East’s top seven.
The Race for Eight
With the top seven seeds set and the bottom five eliminated, there are three teams left for one spot. The Pistons, Hornets, and Nets will all be in the mix at the end of the season. Who makes it?
The Pistons’ case is simple. Andre Drummond underachieved last season and Reggie Jackson missed time. Those two make the team go. Bring them back and the Pistons are a playoff team.
Not so fast. Drummond has deep-seated issues. He still cannot shoot free throws and struggles to be an impact defender in Coach Stan Van Gundy’s scheme. Meanwhile, Jackson became a persona non grata last year. Teammates openly pined for Ish Smith and his pass-first style. Jackson had chemistry issues in OKC and they have followed him to Detroit. Winning solves everything but if the Pistons struggle, can Jackson and Van Gundy keep the team together?
The Hornets felt like a lock to win over 40 games coming into the season. They added Dwight Howard to a team with the point differential of a 42 win team.
The problem is that the Hornets’ luck has not changed. Batum missing six to eight weeks exacerbates their paper think depth in the backcourt and some people around the league think he could miss even more than that. Meanwhile, Michael Carter-Williams will not be ready for the opener and has not looked like the same player after his long list of injuries. Who is playing point guard when Kemba Walker sits?
Rookie Malik Monk will need to be ready to play from day one because he could start with the Batum injury and may need to fill in as the backup point guard. Rookies tend to struggle defensively and Coach Steve Clifford can be a tough taskmaster. If Monk struggles, the Hornets will be looking to the free agent bargain bin to fill out their backcourt.
The Hornets will need to pray that the rest of their team stays healthy, particularly Walker. If he misses any time this season, he will likely take Charlotte’s playoff hopes with him.
Stop laughing! The Nets did have the worst record last year. and they did trade their best offensive player in Brook Lopez. Nonetheless, the Nets, yes the Nets, will be in the thick of the race for the eighth seed this year.
The Nets have no reason to tank. Unlike the teams above, the Nets are not going to shut players down at the end of the season. In fact, they would secure extra revenue with the playoff games and some of the players would be getting playoff bonuses. With some teams positioning themselves for a draft pick already, the Nets should be able to collect some easy wins, especially towards the end of the season.
Secondly, D’Angelo Russell could be an all-star this season. Russell has plenty to prove and the kid gloves are off in Coach Kenny Atkinson’s system. He will be running spread pick and roll and Russell should benefit from the best spacing in his career. Russell’s playmaking, shooting, and athleticism will dramatically improve an offense that struggled to find any rhythm a season ago.
Defensively, the Nets were 23rd in efficiency. Coach Atkinson is playing smaller lineups that have longer and more athletic defenders than a year ago. When he does play a traditional big man, it will be Timofey Mozgov, Trevor Booker, or Jarrett Allen for the most part. Unlike Brook Lopez, all of them are glass cleaners. Mozgov and Booker have averaged around ten rebounds per 36 minutes over their careers. Allen projects to be an excellent rebounder based on his college numbers (9.4 rebounds per 36 minutes), freakish size, enormous hands, and tantalizing athleticism.
Anyone reading this who watched the Nets last season likely has the same concern: what about the offense? The Nets were putrid offensively last season (28th in offensive efficiency) and that was with Brook Lopez.
The answer is that as good as Lopez was, he is not a creator. Lopez was a great cog in a terrible offensive machine. This year, the operators of the machine should be D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin who have the potential to put their teammates in better positions to score. Coach Atkinson could not run the offense through Lopez but he can do just that with his two point guards.
To wit, Isaiah Whitehead led the team in total assists last year with 192. That ranked him 87th in the NBA. When healthy, Lin and Russell can both be facilitators. Russell finished 46 spots ahead of Whitehead and played less than 29 minutes a game. Lin has surpassed that total in each of his last six seasons. Unlike last year, there will be someone to initiate offense on the floor at all times this season.
The Nets are going to run, space teams out, and surround their guards with as much shooting as possible. The additions of DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe should create space for Russell and Lin to get into the lane. Do not be surprised to see the Nets in the playoff hunt in March and April.
Final Verdict: Pistons nab the eighth seed