Only one month left until the NBA All-Star Game, and the usual suspects are atop their respective conferences. Golden State continues to lick pink frosting off their fingers while storming over opponents to a 33-8 record, good enough for first place in the tough Western Conference. The revamped Boston Celtics reign over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors in the top-heavy East, while a storm is a-brewin’ in Philadelphia. The Rockets have been giving the Warriors a run for their money, but injuries have held them back from closing the gap.
The teams on top won’t shock anybody, but towards the middle of the conferences are a few surprises. With the addition of Paul Millsap and the stellar play of Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets are in playoff position in the West. The Pistons and Pacers are just hanging on in the East above a young and powerful 76ers squad. Obviously, there is quite a bit of basketball to be played before the Playoffs, but which teams “on the bubble” will make the Playoffs this year?
Despite the Jazz being the NBA equivalent of Jim Carrey at the pickup game in The Cable Guy, one has to remember that he smashed the backboard after jumping off another guy’s back. Nobody really wants them there, but they can make an impact. With rumors of a Nikola Mirotic trade, the Jazz could be a strong team going into the second half of the season.
This trade is certainly an effort to stay relevant in the tough Western Conference, but also to bring in a reliable scoring presence to pair with outstanding rookie Donovan Mitchell. It perfectly meets the need for a scoring small forward and fits into the Jazz’s apparently insatiable appetite for European players. As long as Mirotic doesn’t get punched again, he could help the Jazz to the playoffs in a tough conference.
The Sixers are hard to pass on right now. They’re basically in the same position Oklahoma City was in a few weeks ago, trying to build cohesion between superstars. The only difference is they are superstars in embryo growing together, making the future terrifying for opponents.
While Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid continue to impress, the team awaits the return of rookie point guard Markelle Fultz, who has missed all but four games due to injury. He has returned to 5-on-5 scrimmages recently but won’t be rushed back into action. The team is currently working with a surprisingly efficient Jerryd Bayless, and picturing Fultz’s skillset with the tools already in place has to make fans giddy. If Fultz can make it back for the second half of the season, Philly could be playing in the Playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans
With everyone wanting to trade for Anthony Davis, the Pelicans are certainly looking to win to give him reason to stay. New Orleans boasts perhaps the strongest frontcourt in the League with Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Both bigs are averaging a double-double, and are both averaging exactly 25.8 PPG. The Pelicans are 2nd in the NBA in assists per game, led by a Rajon Rondo who appears to care about things.
The Pelicans are currently 8th in the West, meaning if the season ended right now they’d be in the Playoffs. With the motivation to win and keep their franchise player, they could pull it off.
If there was an award for “Surprise Team of the Year”, it’d go to the Pacers this year. Their talent was no secret, but their success has been surprising. They aren’t leading their own division or conference by any means, and are only two games above .500, but the efficiency of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, together with the talented Myles Turner, has kept the Pacers relevant.
With their main competition for a playoff spot being the Pistons, Knicks, and Sixers, there is certainly work to do, but the surprise of the season could pull through and play in the summertime.