It seems like a simple question with a clear answer: Is it better for a fringe playoff contender to qualify for the NBA playoffs or miss out and go into the draft lottery instead?
Competitively and from a fan’s point of view, that answer would be, “Heck, yeah, you want to make the playoffs. That’s what we play for.”
But is it really that simple?
The truth of it is that the correct answer to the question of whether it’s better to go to the playoffs or into the lottery could be a more complicated “yes.”
It depends on the franchise’s situation.
Let’s take a look at this year’s playoff races, limiting the discussion to teams that are currently within five games—up or down–of the eighth and final playoff spot in each conference to determine the right answer.
Eastern Conference: Atlanta Hawks (20-13, third in East, 3½ games ahead of eighth place)
The Atlanta Hawks are a bit of a surprise as a contender as many thought the Hawks would take a step back after trading Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets over the summer.
But Josh Smith has emerged as a legitimate threat at the No. 3 and has been more consistent this season than ever before.
His numbers are actually down from a year ago, but Smith has been a more complete player in 2012-13. He leads the team with 16.9 points a game, gets 8.4 rebounds a night and has emerged as legitimate threat from long distance. His 36.5 percent mark from 3-point range is a career high and it also opens up things for the rest of the offense when opponents have to respect his shooting from the perimeter.
A conundrum for Smith is his free-throw shooting, which has fallen to a career-worst 54 percent this year.
Atlanta could be a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference this season and, as such, would be much better served by going for a playoff spot.
Eastern Conference: Indiana Pacers (21-14, fourth in East, 3½ games ahead of eighth place)
The Indiana Pacers have survived without perennial All-Star Danny Granger because young Paul George has made the leap this year.
George has taken on a leadership role in his third year with the Pacers and the 22-year-old is also making up for Granger’s lost production on the offensive end.
George is tied with David West for the team scoring lead at 16.7 points per game and is averaging 7.4 rebounds for the best rebounding club in the league.
The Pacers pushed the Miami Heat, at least for awhile, in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, taking two of the first three games before the Heat closed them out.
Granger is eyeing a February return—just in time to help the Pacers make a run down the stretch for a top-four seed in the East.
Eastern Conference: Chicago Bulls (19-13, fifth in East, 3 games ahead of eighth place)
The Chicago Bulls have been doing more than just treading water awaiting Derrick Rose’s return. Kirk Hinrich has been serviceable as a facilitator in his return to the Bulls this season, leading the team with 5.5 assists a game, while Luol Deng leads five Bulls in double figures at 17.4 points per game.
Joakim Noah continues to be a double-double machine and is averaging an impressive 4.4 assists a night out of the pivot. Noah even recorded his second career triple-double last month in a win over the Boston Celtics.
A concern for Chicago is the amount of minutes Deng and Noah are accumulating. Deng is playing 40.3 minutes a game and Noah is clocking 38.9 and their roles in the rotation won’t change with Rose’s return from the knee injury that knocked him out in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
But Chicago has the talent to be a player in the East, particularly once Rose is back to full speed.
Eastern Conference: Brooklyn Nets (20-15, sixth in East, 2½ games ahead of eighth place)
The Brooklyn Nets appear to have righted the ship since the firing of coach Avery Johnson. Brooklyn has won six of seven games under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, who has freed up Deron Williams to do more of the things he is comfortable with. Williams has responded by playing some of his best basketball since becoming a Net over the last seven games.
Williams is averaging 17.4 points, 6.4 assists and—more impressively—shooting 45.1 percent from the floor and 45.2 percent from 3-point range since the coaching change.
That compares to his season totals of 16.7 points, 7.7 assists, 40.8 percent shooting and 32.2 percent from distance.
The Nets brought in Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks and re-signed Gerald Wallace with the hope of making the leap from lottery fixture to playoff team. In their first year in their new home in Brooklyn, a playoff berth—for however long it might last—would be more beneficial to the franchise than another trip to Secaucus, N.J., this spring to watch ping-pong balls.
Eastern Conference: Milwaukee Bucks (17-16, seventh in East, ½ game ahead of eighth place)
The Milwaukee Bucks are an odd collection of parts that never seemed to mesh well with the style of now-former coach Scott Skiles.
Guards Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are the primary weapons but it’s tough to go very far with a pair of shoot-first point-guard types as the nucleus. Ellis is averaging 19.2 points and 5.5 assists a game while Jennings is at 18.1 and 5.9, respectively.
Larry Sanders is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player with his eight points, 8.3 rebounds and league-leading 3.16 blocks per game.
But general manager John Hammond is only signed through the end of this season and it might be a case where Milwaukee is better off getting into the lottery to further facilitate the process of—once again—blowing the thing up and starting over.
Eastern Conference: Boston Celtics (17-17, eighth in East)
The Boston Celtics have been contenders for the NBA title since 2008. But as is the case with anything in life, all good things must end and the era of Celtic contention has pretty much ended.
The team is still led by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, aging warriors who get by as much on guile and experience as they do physical skills at this point. Rajon Rondo is one of the most dynamic point guards in the league and leads the NBA with his 11.3 assists per game.
But this is a team that desperately needs to get younger and the best way to do that is to get into the lottery, not by making some sort of valiant last stand as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the playoffs only to end up as the proverbial bug on the windshield that would be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the first round.
Eastern Conference: Philadelphia 76ers (15-21, ninth in East, 3 games out of eighth place)
The Philadelphia 76ers are still young and the process of reinvention has been slowed by the absence of injured Andrew Bynum, expected to become the face of the franchise after being acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers last summer.
But the frontcourt has been a mess without Bynum. Spencer Hawes gives the team a workmanlike 9i.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, but lacks the athleticism to be anything more than a spaceholder who eats up space and minutes. Lavoy Allen has started 26 games and provided 6.5 points and 5.3 rebounds and reclamation project Kwame Brown has been injured as often as not and hasn’t been much of a factor when healthy; you know, sort of like his entire career.
Still, this was a team that put up a heck of a fight against the Miami Heat in the first round two years ago, took the Boston Celtics to seven games in the conference semifinals last spring and could benefit from another foray into playoff basketball.
Western Conference: Memphis Grizzlies (22-10, fourth in West, 4 games ahead of eighth place)
The Memphis Grizzlies can be a confounding bunch sometimes. Some nights, they look like legitimate contenders. Other nights, they lose at home by 10 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Rudy Gay leads the club with 17.8 points a game, but is being openly shopped. Zach Randolph is a double-double machine at 16.8 points and 12 rebounds a night, but has been battling injury. Mike Conley continues to make strides at the point guard position, but is still too much of a shoot-first guy and not enough of a facilitator at times.
All that having been said, it would be a huge disappointment for the Grizzlies—as presently constituted—to not make a run in the spring.
Western Conference: Golden State Warriors (22-11, fifth in West, 3½ games ahead of eighth place)
The Golden State Warriors are the surprise team in the NBA this season and Mark Jackson has gone from punch line to Coach of the Year frontrunner.
The biggest change in Oakland is that the Warriors (gasp!) have some commitment to the defensive end while still maintaining a high-octane offense that ranks ninth in the league in scoring.
Finally healthy, Stephen Curry is scoring 20.1 points a game while dishing out 6.5 assists a night as he continues to evolve into a serviceable, if not natural, NBA point guard. David Lee is David Lee, which means he scored 20 or so every night, gets 10-12 rebounds every game and confounds the experts by excelling when they think he shouldn’t.
The real revelations for Golden State have been young Klay Thompson, who has emerged as a 15.8-point-per-game scorer, and veteran additions Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, who combine for more than 24 points a game off the bench.
Golden State has made the playoffs exactly once since 1994—the magical upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007. That looks like it will change this season and the Warriors have shown they could be a very tough out come spring.
Western Conference: Houston Rockets (21-14, sixth in West, 1½ games ahead of eighth place)
Maybe teaming James Harden and Jeremy Lin will work after all. The Rockets have been a dynamic offensive force, leading the league at 106.8 points a game. As a result, their defensive numbers are terrible. (Houston is 29th in the league, allowing 103.7 points a night.)
Harden has been amazing since coming over from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a late preseason trade. Harden is among the league scoring leaders at 26.6 points a game and also averages 5.4 assists a night. Lin is averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 assists a game as he continues to be wildly inconsistent—all-world one night, D-League-level the next.
But the real breakout players in Houston have been frontcourt players Patrick Patterson and Omer Asik. Patterson is scoring 12.7 points and getting 4.8 rebounds while shooting 51.6 percent from the floor. And the former Kentucky standout has expanded his game to beyond the arc, shooting 36.2 percent from the 3-point line after taking and missing just five 3-pointers in his first two seasons in the league.
Asik, signed over the summer from the Chicago Bulls, is averaging 10.4 points and 11.2 rebounds a game—both career highs. While his numbers should be expected to double given that his playing time has done so—from 14.7 minutes a game last year with the Bulls to 29.7 per game this year, no one saw a double-double coming.
Asik averaged 3.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last year, so that 10.4-11.2 combination is not just unexpected … it’s hugely unexpected.
Houston may not have the defensive stuff to hang around long in the playoffs, but it would be a big boost for the re-invented, re-ignited Rockets to see what they could do in the postseason.
Western Conference: Portland Trail Blazers (19-15, seventh in West, tied for eighth place)
Who are these guys and what in the world are they doing four games over .500?
The Portland Trail Blazers are getting outscored by nearly two points a night. They don’t rebound well. They don’t share the ball well. They’re near the bottom of the league defensively.
And yet, here they are … four games above .500 and threatening for a playoff spot. Terry Stotts has to be thrown into the early discussion for Coach of the Year for what he’s done coaxing 19 wins out of this bunch so far.
LaMarcus Aldridge has been his solid self, averaging 20.6 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. Center J.J. Hickson has been a revelation with his 12.5 points and 11 boards a game. Rookie Damian Lillard, from noted basketball factory Weber State, is a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, scoring 18.2 points and averaging 6.5 assists a game, even as he turns the ball over at a rate one would expect from a rookie point guard.
And that is where it ends. The Trail Blazers’ starters lead the league in minutes because their bench is awful, dreadful, Cream of Wheat thin, however you want to put it.
How bad is the bench? The immortal Meyers Leonard—hardly a household name in his own household—averages 4.7 points a game.
It’s not likely Portland can sustain a .559 winning clip. Then again, it wasn’t likely they would ever be at a .559 clip. Still, the Trail Blazers might benefit from another year in the lottery if for no other reason than to acquire some actual contributing depth.
Western Conference: Denver Nuggets (20-16, eighth in West, tied for eighth place)
The streaky Denver Nuggets are hanging around in the playoff race, but have been the victim of expectations that—in retrospect—might have been a bit lofty.
Did I mention streaky? The Nuggets have winning streaks this season of four, four and three games to go with three three-game losing skid.
Simply put, Disney World’s Expedition Everest might be jealous of the ups and downs the Nuggets have displayed in 2012-13.
The Nuggets are a balanced bunch without a true superstar—despite the many attempts by the Philadelphia 76ers to convince us that Andre Iguodala was one. Danilo Gallinari and his fauxhawk lead the team at 16.2 points per game, but Iguodala, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Corey Brewer and JaVale McGee all average double figures.
Denver’s strength is its depth. Its weakness might be not having a go-to guy in crunch time, something that is essential come playoff time. But missing the playoffs would be a huge step backwards for the Nuggets, almost as big a step back, in fact, as those God-awful yellow alternates they’ve been sporting this year.
Western Conference: Minnesota Timberwolves (16-15, ninth in West, 1½ games out of eighth place)
The Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled with health all year. Just as Ricky Rubio rounds back into form as he comes back from knee surgery, Kevin Love went down again with a broken hand—the second time he’s injured the hand already this year.
Coach Rick Adelman deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Timberwolves in the hunt despite all of the time Love (13 games and counting) and Rubio (25 games) have missed.
Nikola Pekovic has been a revelation in the middle, averaging 16.2 points and 8.7 rebounds in his first season as a full-time starter. Andrei Kirilenko has been his old self defensively after playing in Russia last year. Luke Ridnour has kept the point warm while Rubio rehabs and rookie Alexey Shved has been solid as a swing guard.
The good news for Minnesota is that with Ridnour and J.J. Barea, they have backcourt value to give if they need frontcourt help before the trade deadline. The bad news is it might not matter if the Timberwolves can’t keep Love on the court.
But Minnesota hasn’t been to the postseason since the Kevin Garnett era, not since reaching the conference finals in 2004. It would be a big letdown for the Wolves if they were back in the lottery for the ninth straight spring.
Western Conference: Utah Jazz (18-18, 10th in West, 2 games out of eighth place)
It’s fitting that the Utah Jazz are a .500 team as of this writing; no team in the NBA exemplifies average quite the way the Jazz do.
Utah is 11th in scoring, 13th in rebounding and 19th in defense—the epitome of middle-of-the-road.
Al Jefferson is the team’s leader with 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Given that Jefferson’s career has been marked by being the best player on non-contending teams, maybe it’s not such a good thing that he is their biggest contributor.
In his first eight years, Jefferson has been to the playoffs just twice—as a spare part for the Boston Celtics as a rookie and as the centerpiece for the Jazz in 2011. In any case, the next time Jefferson sees the second round of the playoffs, it will be the first.
But that’s just it—Utah is good, dependable, decent … and ultimately better off in the lottery.
Western Conference: Los Angeles Lakers (15-19, 11th in West, 4 games out of eighth place)
And then there’s the Los Angeles Lakers.
Coach Mike Brown was fired after five games and four losses. Replacement Mike D’Antoni hasn’t fared much better.
Adding injury to insult, Howard is out with a torn labrum, Gasol has concussion problems and backup big man Jordan Hill hurt his hip. It’s so bad that Robert Sacre went from the D-League to starting at center for the Lakers in their loss at Houston Tuesday night.
The great tradition of Laker big men … Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal, Gasol … and Sacre? No wonder Laker fans are so bleu this season.
The fans might go indiscriminantly insane if the Lakers were to miss the postseason, but for the long-term health of the franchise, a lottery pick might not be the worst thing.
Of course, aging stars such as Bryant—who wants another ring to catch Michael Jordan’s total of six—and Nash, who just wants one ring before he hangs up the kicks, would probably argue vehemently against that notion.
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