With no games this week due to the NBA’s All Star festivities, there will of course be no changes in our usual Power Rankings. Instead, lets take a look at the priorities for NBA teams through the stretch run.
We're eight weeks from the end of the regular season and every team will have an emphasis. For the lucky ones that will likely revolve around play-off preparation, or a fortunate bounce of the ping pong balls for those on the outside looking in.
Toronto Raptors (40-15 record)
Toronto have, believe it or not, a better record than they did at this stage last season. That’s testament to Masai Ujiri’s remarkable ability to find talent, and Nick Nurse’s undoubted skill in moulding that talent to the team ethos.
Considering the off season departures, and the myriad injuries they’ve suffered this season, seeing the Raptors sit in 2nd in the East at this stage of the season is incredible. They’re doing just about everything right. They just need a little injury luck to get them primed for the post season.
Boston Celtics (38-16)
Boston’s overall focus is on securing home court for the 1st round of the playoffs. They have a healthy lead on Miami and Philadelphia, but given the Heat’s deadline acquisitions and the Sixers….umm….personality, who knows if those two can make a run at Boston’s current 3rd seed.
The C’s are deep and talented, but could certainly do with a big man that can fit their switching scheme on defense. If Tristan Thompson does eventually get bought out, the fit here is just too perfect. He and Daniel Theis would form an effective, if underrated centre rotation.
Philadelphia 76ers (34-21)
For the remainder of the regular season, just as much as the playoffs themselves, the narrative of Brett Brown’s coaching career will be front and centre. Seen as nothing more than a culture setter/sacrificial lamb upon his hiring in 2013, Brown has endured despite near constant – and often unfair - scepticism of his suitability for the position.
His players, on the whole, adore him. It’s his tactical acumen that gets questioned. To that end, how Brown smooths the offensive edges on the troublesome Embiid/Simmons partnership will make or break him. His moving of Al Horford to the 6th man role in favour of sharp shooting Furkan Korkmaz is a bold strategy.
Brooklyn Nets (25-28)
Kyrie Irving is reportedly out for the season, so the remainder of the Nets campaign really serves only one purpose – can we rename the Ewing Theory in Kyrie’s ‘honour’?
The Nets are a mortal lock to make the play-offs in the shallow East. If they manage to win a round without Irving, perhaps an update of the fabled Bill Simmons hypothesis is on the cards?
With Kevin Durant out, this season was never the real focus for Brooklyn, so in the grand scheme of things, Irving’s injury doesn’t really do much to change the Nets outlook. It does give them more time to develop Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert, and to perhaps put Spencer Dinwiddie in the shop window.
New York Knicks (17-38)
The Knicks need to find a buyer for the team. But, onto more realistic goals….
New York have a mass of young talents; finding out who is worth building around and who needs to go should be the main focus for the rest of the season.
Is Julius Randle a building block or an empty stats guy? Does Mitchell Robinson turn out closer to Marcus Camby, or JaVale McGee? Can Frankie Smokes play even average NBA offense? Can Kevin Knox play average NBA anything? Is Damyean Dotson a future NBA 6th man, or a future NBL All Star?
Although, perhaps sorting out the front office and coaching positions before altering the roster should be a priority.
Milwaukee Bucks (46-8 record)
The Bucks are – quite clearly – on the right track. A league leading 46 wins (5 games ahead of the rest of the league) testifies to that. The Bucks have an historic point differential of +11.5 at the moment – the gap between them and the 2nd place Lakers is roughly the same as the Lakers and the 10th place Heat. It’s allowing them to rest their players more than any other contending club. For the regular season at least, Milwaukee just needs to stay the course.
The challenge starts come playoff time, where the Bucks will look to banish the memories of last years flame out to Toronto.
Indiana Pacers (32-23)
The Pacers were shockingly good to start the season, despite integrating Malcolm Brogdon amongst others, and missing franchise cornerstone Victor Oladipo. Their available pieces simply fit together seamlessly, allowing the team to far outperform the sum of their parts.
Since Oladipo’s return in late January, Indy have looked more than a touch off kilter, enduring a 6 game losing streak, and only winning two of the 7 games in which Dipo has played. Sure, a part of that is reintegrating a high usage player that has an understandably massive amount of rust after 12 months out of the game. But the team just have not looked to be the same free flowing beast they were early in the campaign.
How coach Nate McMillan proceeds from here will be interesting.
As Oladipo gets his bearing, does McMillan cede the offense to his star man again? Or does he ask Dipo to alter his game to fit in to the successful system the team employed when he was sidelined?
Finding the answer to that conundrum will go a long way to determining the Pacers success this season.