February is a pivotal time of the NBA season both on and off the court. Front offices must decide whether to be buyers, sellers or stick with what they have, and playoff pretenders begin what is their decisive fall in the standings.
Entering the month, notable injuries are affecting a few rosters. One franchise is awaiting the return of a marquee player, but a couple of others are trying to survive without a key contributor.
The trade deadline will arrive in early February, and those moves — plus a couple of recent deals — will shape the outlook for the remainder of the season.
Gain: Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City is one of the hottest teams in the league, and — despite playing at the Golden State Warriors twice in the month — the upcoming schedule is favorable. The Thunder’s other four road games are against teams with a winning percentage no better than .400. OKC is 19-7 at home on the year, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the only opponent holding a record .550 or better. The Thunder should continue putting pressure on the Minnesota Timberwolves for the No. 4 seed in the West.
Lose: Washington Wizards
The Wizards are currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference but could be missing All-Star guard John Wall for two months. If they waste their margin for error in the coming weeks, it’ll set up a dangerous March. After opening February with a victory over the Toronto Raptors, Washington now hits the road for six of its next seven games. The Wiz will also meet the Boston Celtics and Warriors. If Washington can stay afloat, it might just survive without Wall and set up a chance to clinch a playoff berth in April.
Gain: Detroit Pistons
As a result of the Blake Griffin trade, there is real excitement around Detroit basketball again. The franchise has only reached the postseason once in the last eight years, and the 2015-16 squad bowed out in the first round. The Pistons sit in ninth place in the East, and moving into the top eight prior to Reggie Jackson returning from injury would be a great accomplishment. If Detroit can beat the teams it’s supposed to beat and snag a couple of wins against mid-tier playoff teams — the Portland Trail Blazers and Bucks, for example — the postseason will become a real possibility.
Lose: Utah Jazz
Utah is four games removed from the No. 8 seed in the West, and February might create an even larger gap. Of the 11 contests in the month, five are opposite the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs or Trail Blazers. Since the Jazz are already just 7-7 against sub-.500 teams, it’s not wise to expect they’ll perfectly atone for any losses against lesser competition, either. Utah really needs to put together a hot stretch, because making up a handful of games over the final six weeks is a daunting task.
Gain: Charlotte Hornets
If the front office decides to trade All-Star guard Kemba Walker, Charlotte immediately becomes a “most to lose” candidate. The franchise would be headed toward high odds in the draft lottery. Should the Hornets hold onto Walker, though, February is suddenly passable for a team unlikely to make the playoffs but still within shouting distance. The month’s 12 games are evenly split between current non- and postseason teams, so a quick surge would keep Charlotte in the conversation entering March. But going 4-8 would effectively eliminate the Hornets.
Lose: New York Knicks
In late December, New York had surprised the NBA world and climbed to a 17-14 record. Between then and now, however, the Knicks have only mustered a 6-15 mark. Continuing that slide would be bad enough, but seven of their 10 outings in February are opposite teams ranked higher in the East. Losing those matchups would be doubly problematic for New York. The three-game gap between the Knicks and the No. 8 seed could soon quickly become both wider and insurmountable.
Gain: Milwaukee Bucks
Wall’s injury also provides a potential boost, but the Bucks are finally going to have Jabari Parker on the court. He tore an ACL for the second time in his brief NBA career last season but is expected to return early in the month. Milwaukee has never seen Parker alongside the MVP version of Giannis Antetokounmpo, let alone acquired guard Eric Bledsoe. Six of the Bucks’ 11 games are against non-playoff teams, and they also plays the Wall-less Wizards. Milwaukee could trim the separation between third and its current No. 7 spot in the East.
Lose: Chicago Bulls
Perhaps this could be framed as a good thing for Chicago, which recently shipped Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans. The power forward seemed like the only player holding together a shaky offense, so the Bulls could be headed toward the worst record in the NBA. Just 3.5 games separate Chicago from the cellar. While none of the players are actively cheering for a high draft pick, fans can at least use favorable lottery odds as a glimmer of light at the end of a frustrating tunnel in 2017-18.
Gain: New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans opens the month with Oklahoma City and ends it against the Spurs. Otherwise, the Pelicans have a navigable stretch as they adjust to playing without All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, whose season has ended because of an Achilles injury. The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns are all on the slate, and every matchup against a current top-eight team in either conference is opposite a squad listed fourth or below. With a winning record in February, New Orleans can prepare itself for a tricky closing stretch.
Lose: Cleveland Cavaliers
Yes, the recent troubles have dropped Cleveland to six games behind the Celtics, and home-court advantage will be challenging to attain. Yet the larger problem is how four teams are within striking distance of the Cavs. Plus, All-Star forward Kevin Love will be sidelined for 6-8 weeks while recovering from a broken left hand. Cleveland has a relatively tough slate that includes Houston, Minnesota, Boston, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, so it’s a real possibility LeBron James and Co. fall another seed in the East.
Gain: Denver Nuggets
Without question, the schedule is brutal. Nevertheless, Denver has a tremendous opportunity to gain a little security in the Western Conference. Versatile forward Paul Millsap — who has been sidelined since mid-November — will return soon. Plus, the eighth-place Nuggets might also see the Pelicans, Los Angeles Clippers and Jazz start sliding in February. Denver takes on Houston, Golden State or San Antonio a total of five times, but stealing a game or two combined with Millsap’s return could provide a much-needed jolt to a playoff-caliber team.
Lose: Los Angeles Clippers
Beyond the possibility of losing more games without Griffin, the Clippers might not be done dealing. According to a recent report, the team is still pursuing trades that involve young players and draft picks in exchange for either DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams. If the front office decides to embrace a rebuild, it’ll happen quickly because the trade deadline is Feb. 8. Shipping Jordan or Williams to another location means Los Angeles will lose a bunch of games down the stretch, but it’s a short-term struggle the franchise might be willing to endure.