The NBA season is coming down the home stretch, which means it’s the right time to get hot. A well-placed hot streak can turn a borderline playoff team into a title contender as we’ve seen in years past with the 1999 New York Knicks and 1995 Houston Rockets. However, there’s also potential for the opposite to occur when NBA teams fall flat at the wrong time.
This list will examine teams that are limping through the last month of the season. Some, like the Indiana Pacers, may lose playoff berths as a result. Others, such as the New Orleans Pelicans, have their futures on the line and the odds aren’t looking too good. Just as getting hot at the right time can result in title contention, struggling at the wrong time can mangle a team’s outlook for the present and future.
Take the 2015 Los Angeles Clippers as a recent example. With 2:35 to go in the third quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, they were up 89-70 in the game and 3-2 in the series against the Houston Rockets. A matchup with the Golden State Warriors with a potential Finals berth appeared to be theirs for the taking. Then they got cold, and the Rockets got hot. Houston ended up winning the game and the series, ending the Clippers’ chances of winning a title — not just for that team, but likely for the entire Chris Paul Era.
The teams fading down the stretch on this list might end up being less consequential than those, but they could shape the way we think about each team for a long time.
Paul Millsap missed eight games from March 18 to April 1. The Hawks lost six of them, along with the two preceding the power forward’s injury and the lone game they’ve played with him back in the lineup. As a result, Atlanta is barely over .500 and hanging onto a playoff spot by a thread.
With Millsap off the floor, the Hawks have a -5.6 net rating this season with worse numbers across the board. During his absence, Atlanta had a -6.0 net rating, which would rank 28th over a full season. Should he leave in free agency after this season, the Hawks could be forced into full rebuilding mode.
The teardown has already started. Millsap is the lone starting player remaining from the 60-win team of 2014-15. Small forward DeMarrre Carroll, power forward Al Horford, shooting guard Kyle Korver and point guard Jeff Teague are all gone.
Their move for center Dwight Howard hasn’t done much for the team’s overall prospects — just look at where they are in the standings — and building around the likes of point guard Dennis Schroeder and power forward Taurean Prince may be inevitable.
At this time, Atlanta isn’t scaring anyone.
The Pacers are just 3-7 in their last 10 games, having dropped out of the Eastern Conference playoffs after double-overtime loss in Cleveland on Sunday. This was a team that truly faded, and their drop-off happened over two lackluster months. Since February, they’re 12-18 — not mind-numbingly bad but bad enough to potentially lose their precious playoff spot.
The stakes are perhaps higher for Indiana than anyone on this list saving perhaps for New Orleans. As you may know, small forward Paul George will, in all likelihood, exercise a player option after next season and become a free agent. Trade rumors have abounded for George, who has already publicly expressed frustration with the team. George’s first priority is to compete and, hypothetically, Indiana can offer that. He and center Myles Turner could form the nucleus of a title contender in the right situation. Moreover, if George makes an All-NBA team, the Pacers can offer him the super-max, which would likely be enough to drive away other bidders in free agency.
However, the chances of George making an All-NBA team seem to be low, especially given how deep the forward position is right now. If Indiana fails to even make the postseason, it’s tough to see voters going for George over the likes of Paul Millsap or even Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward.
As for contending, Indiana keeps dropping the ball. They hired Nate McMillan as their head coach to play faster, and are now they are playing slower. They decided to go small and shoot threes then made shooting guard Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague building blocks, choosing Teague over fellow point guard George Hill. They decided last year to have George be a small-ball power forward, which failed miserably.
The outlook isn’t good, and if the Pacers don’t right the ship, consequences will be dire.
As recently as March 11, Detroit’s playoff hopes were in good shape. They were at .500 with a record of 33-33 and on March 14, FiveThirtyEight gave them a 68-percent chance to make the playoffs. Since March 11, the Pistons are 2-9 and have more or less played themselves out of the postseason.
There are serious questions surrounding center Andre Drummond. He’s averaging 16.7 points and 16.7 rebounds per 36 — solid numbers — but has an unimpressive +0.9 Box Plus-Minus and hasn’t been the offensive focal point Detroit hoped for.
Point guard Reggie Jackson, benefactor of an $80 million contract in the summer of 2015, has almost completely fallen off. His PER is below league average, plus he has just a 46.8 effective field goal percentage and Detroit has been nearly 10 points better per 100 possessions with him off the floor.
In short, Detroit’s core is on the verge of imploding. The Pistons have put their entire future into Jackson and Drummond, and barring a miracle, they won’t even make the playoffs this season in a terrible Eastern Conference. The last few weeks have been the crux of the disaster. They’ve dropped games to Brooklyn, Chicago, Orlando and New York. Consecutively. At this point, it is clearly time to reevaluate things.
Memphis started off March with a five-game skid, including a loss to the lowly Nets. It seemed it righted the ship after a strong week, then the Grizzlies dropped four in a row, taking them down to the No. 7 seed. Since March 1, the Grizzlies have a -4.7 net rating compared to +0.4 on the season.
This drop-off has come almost entirely on defense. In fact, their offense has been better since March. In the 61 games before March, Memphis gave up 103.1 points per 100 possessions. Since then, it’s 109.9, which would rank 29th if it were over the full season. With a team that doesn’t exactly qualify as spry, it should be incredibly alarming that the Grizzlies’ defensive rating has gotten worse as the season has gone along.
The difference between the six and seven seed is massive in the Western Conference. It’s more or less the difference between whether a team like Memphis can compete in the first round. If things stay the way they are, the Grizzlies will draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. That’s a matchup in which they have virtually no chance (though it will be fun to see the Memphis center Marc Gasol and his brother, Spurs forward Pau Gasol match up in the postseason for the first time).
Had Memphis avoided their March slide and stayed in the No. 6 seed, there would be some hope to compete against the Houston Rockets, though they would still be underdogs.
The Nuggets had been in the driver’s seat for the eight seed in the Western Conference, but they simply haven’t kept up with the Portland Trail Blazers over the past month. While the Blazers went on a 13-3 tear in March, Denver languished at 8-7, squandering its lead, along with the tiebreaker in a 122-113 loss in Portland.
The team’s trade of center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland for center Mason Plumlee (with some other chips involved) is at the root cause of this. Nurkic is absolutely crushing it since moving to Portland, averaging 18.7 points and 12.8 rebounds, while Plumlee is at 13.6 points and 9.9 rebounds in Denver. The Nuggets have also struggled as a team with Plumlee on the court with a -5.9 net rating.
Denver isn’t playing badly. Center Nikola Jokic is still dominating the league, and an 8-7 month isn’t all too bad for a team that’s under .500. However, they are in the midst of a playoff race, which requires them to outplay Portland, even when Portland plays incredibly well. That simply hasn’t happened, and it will likely cost the Nuggets a playoff berth, along with the relevance that has eluded them in recent years.
New Orleans Pelicans
Maybe the Pelicans don’t entirely fit the description of a team that’s fading, but they’re certainly a team which has completely failed to live up to expectations.
After trading for power forward DeMarcus Cousins on February 19, the Pelicans are just 10-10. This is not good enough to even sniff the playoffs. They were supposed to be a shoo-in for the playoffs. Some even thought they could challenge Golden State or San Antonio in the first round. Cousins and center Anthony Davis were supposed to be the new twin towers.
Per NBA.com, the Pelicans have just a +2.9 net rating with Cousins and Davis on the floor together. With that combination, New Orleans has scored a mere 100.5 points per 100 possessions, a number equal to the Philadelphia 76ers, who rank dead last in the category. Since the trade when Davis has been on the court without Cousins, New Orleans scores 106.4 per 100 possessions, per NBA Wowy. That does not make the trade look good, even when you take into account the astoundingly low price the Pelicans paid for Cousins.
New Orleans has another year to make it work before Cousins becomes a free agent. But if it continues on its current trajectory, the outlook is grim.
General manager Dell Demps has been on the hot seat before, and one has to imagine he’ll be on it again. The same goes for head coach Alvin Gentry. Davis himself only has three years left on his contract after next season. How long until we start hearing trade rumors, or worse, trade demands? If the Pels don’t figure it out, it could be sooner than you think.