FPC NBA Roundtable: Playoff Push Edition

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Via NBA.com
Via NBA.com

As the All-Star break passes, teams gear up to make a final playoff push, or to sit on the couch at home. Today, the FPC NBA staff discusses which teams are in, which teams are out, and more.

Let’s Meet the Participants:

Ben Pfeifer: Head NBA Editor, Colts’ Managing Editor, AFC South Managing Editor

Brandon Ray: NBA Writer, Bills’ Managing Editor

Eduardo Monk Jr.: NBA Writer, Bears’ Writer

Michael Wesner: NBA Writer

Chris Simmons: NBA Writer, Raiders’ Writer

Question One: Which Eastern Conference sleeper team will make the biggest impact in the playoffs?

Ben Pfeifer:

The Indiana Pacers are in a point that nobody expected them to be in after the polarizing Paul George trade this offseason. Victor Oladipo went from a promising role player to a young star out of nowhere. The Pacers also have Myles Turner, who is 21, the same age as rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell. This team also poses a solid bench and group of role players. If the Pacers can avoid the likes of Cleveland and Toronto, they could sneak their way into the Eastern Conference Finals

Brandon Ray:

The Indiana Pacers are a bigger threat than what most of us have expected. After trading Paul George, they are actually playing their best basketball. Currently, at number five in the Eastern Conference, they can easily go farther than expected in the playoffs.

Eduardo Monk Jr.:

Even though they are only in the seventh seed, the 76ers really have a lot going behind them as of right now. They have rocketed to an 8-2 record over the past ten games thanks to Ben Simmons’ 16.5 point, 7.9 assists, 7.4 rebound, 2.2 steals per game brilliance. Despite a rocky start to the year, the Sixers have steadied themselves enough to be considered a dangerous team come playoff time.

While they won’t be able to conquer the Celtics, Raptors, or even Cavaliers just yet, they are more than capable to give any team in the East a run for their money. If they can pull off rising to middle seed and see a team like the Bucks or Pacers in the first round, Philadelphia could end up seeing second round basketball for the first time since 2012.

Michael Wesner:

I genuinely think that the 76ers will have an unexpected impact on the playoffs. They qualify as a “sleeper” team because we have yet to see them in the postseason, whereas we’ve already seen what the top four playoff teams can do. They’ve shown that, if given the time to properly prepare, they can beat Boston, Toronto, and Washington. If they match up with one of these teams, I’m excited to see what they could do in the first round if they play up to their potential. Although I’m not exactly confident that they could win a seven-game series, I don’t see this team being swept. For a young team aiming for their first playoff appearance, I expect some exciting games.

Chris Simmons:

It’s hard to say what constitutes a sleeper in the Eastern Conference. With the 9th seeded team only 3.5 games out of the final slot it seems like this tightly bunched group is poised to beat up on each other down the stretch. However, the best bet to make some noise is probably the 76ers. Even though I think Embiid in many ways is a question mark, and Ben Simmons’ shooting woes will be exposed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to drag an unsuspecting team out to deep water. The question for them will be can they get their win total high enough to avoid the top three teams?

Question Two: Which Eastern Conference team currently in the playoffs will miss out?

Ben Pfeifer:

As much as I believe in Erik Spoelstra’s abilities to lead a team, I don’t believe in the Heat as a whole. They haven’t been playing great basketball as of late, and the Pistons are knocking on the eighth seed door. Don’t forget about Charlotte, who is quietly making a run at the eighth seed. If Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond can figure out how to better coincide, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Brandon Ray:

I think the Miami Heat is the team that misses out on the playoffs. A tough physical team, but I don’t see them making that extra push to clinch a spot. Teams like Detroit and Charlotte can easily catch them for the number eight spot.

Eduardo Monk Jr.:

Going 2-8 in the last ten contests is a great way to drop out of the playoff race and that’s the exact situation for the Miami Heat. After Dion Waiters went down, the Heat have struggled mightily on offense, currently 28th in the league in that category. Whether or not the tides overtake them lies with the Pistons and the longer Detroit stumbles, the more unlikely the Heat look to fall out of the playoff circle. Once Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond put things together (if they can, that is), Miami will find themselves tumbling off from the playoffs.

Michael Wesner:

I don’t think the Heat will make the playoffs. I see Detroit taking the eighth seed by the end of the season. The Griffin-Drummond frontcourt could go on a late-season tear, and they would only be aided by injured guard Reggie Jackson’s return. I believe Miami is overachieving right now, as they have recently slipped in the standings. If they continue to fall, that will give an easy opening for Detroit to slip in as the eighth or seventh seed.

Chris Simmons:

The no fun answer is that the eight teams currently in position will likely all finish in the playoffs in some to be determined the order. These are probably the eight best teams in the conference in terms of personnel and coaching. The easy pick would be the Miami Heat who have been sagging for a couple of weeks predating the all-star break. However, I suspect Erik Spoelstra will be enough to keep them afloat above the still very average Detroit Pistons.

Question Three: The Pelicans are on a tear after Anthony Davis’s incredible week and his incredible month. Will the Pels make the playoffs, and if they do, could they escape the first round?

Ben Pfeifer:

I can’t see the Pelicans’ absurd hot streak continuing for much longer, but they undoubtedly will make the playoffs. They are only 1.5 games in the playoffs and could slip out at any moment. If the Pelicans can maintain the fifth or sixth seed, I could see them beating a team like San Antonio or Minnesota. However, I see teams like the Nuggets and Thunder leapfrogging them, giving them an almost automatic exit against the Rockets or Warriors.

Brandon Ray:

I see the Pelicans either at number five or number six in the Western Conference going into the playoffs. If they play their type of basketball game and allow Anthony Davis to keep doing what he’s doing, we could see the Pelicans go farther than the first round.

Eduardo Monk Jr.:

The second DeMarcus Cousins went down for the year, the Pelicans seemed to kaput. But New Orleans’ savior came in the form of Anthony Davis’s utterly unreal February. We’re talking 35.9 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals, 2.4 blocks degrees of unreal here. So long as he continues these levels of numbers, the Pelicans will be contenders. Whether or not he will come back down to Earth is an article for another day, but if he can keep this or even a little less going, look out for the Pelicans in the first round.

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Michael Wesner:

If there’s one thing Anthony Davis has proved, it’s that he can carry a team to wins by himself. Right now, the Pelicans are in great position for him to carry them straight into the playoffs. He’s putting up historically great numbers and seems absolutely determined to force the Pelicans into the higher standings, even without DeMarcus Cousins. If the Pelicans can gain home-court advantage in the first round, I see Davis having more 40 point, 15 rebound games to push his team into the semi-finals.

Chris Simmons:

My initial reaction to this question was “of course they’re going to make the playoffs,” and then I check the standings. If Anthony Davis continues this torrid pace then there is no way that they miss the playoffs. Yet if the seeding held, and they got a first round match-up with the San Antonio Spurs then I would have to count against them. It would be a tough draw to have the first two playoff looks for Davis come against the surging Golden State Warriors and the resilient as ever San Antonio Spurs.

Question Four: With the injury to Jimmy Butler, do the Timberwolves have a chance to win games in the playoffs?

Ben Pfeifer:

The Jimmy Butler injury was absolutely devastating. There is a high chance that Butler will either not be fully healthy or not available for the playoffs. In that case, I don’t see Minnesota making it out of the first round. Their offense has taken major strides, and Karl Anthony Towns is a legitimate star. Andrew Wiggins hasn’t developed into the star he was supposed to be and is atrocious on defense. The Timberwolves simply do not have the defense or experience to contend with other teams.

Brandon Ray:

Whether Jimmy Butler is back or not, the Timberwolves have way too much talent to not win games in the playoffs. Even if they lose in the first round but it’s in Game 7, I don’t see them going out without a fight.

Eduardo Monk Jr.:

The West has been a complete bloodbath all season long. There is merely a five-game buffer in between the third seed and the ninth seed. To be perfectly honest, if the Timberwolves stumble for long enough, even at this point in the season, they will miss the playoffs entirely. Now, this is not to say the Timberwolves are in trouble, but without Jimmy Butler, there cannot be high expectations on them even at a high seed.

Butler owns the highest net rating on the team (+7.8) and the Timberwolves are at their worst without him (-7.3). This puts ungodly amounts of pressure on Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. While Towns has been spectacular in his first All-Star season, Wiggins is the real x-factor on this team.

With one of the worst net ratings in the league, on par with Pat Connaughton and Ish Smith, and a pedestrian 15.6 points per game, Wiggins needing to be the offensive focal point turns the Butler injury into a much scarier endeavor. Especially considering how close the West has been, he will need to step up massively if Butler wants a playoff team to return to.

Michael Wesner:

Jimmy Butler was the de facto defensive leader on an offensively minded Timberwolves. The only way they can get past the first round is if we see a revival (or evolution) of last year’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Last season he averaged 25.1 points per game, nearly five points more than he’s averaged this year. If he can keep that scoring output up, while maintaining his unbelievable efficiency (41% from three), the Timberwolves have a real shot at winning some games in the playoffs on pure offense alone.

Chris Simmons:

All teams have a chance to get it done in the playoffs (which is why I don’t care much for reform) but losing Jimmy Butler hurts the Timberwolves in a way they probably should have anticipated. Jimmy Butler is a very durable player but his coach, Tom Thibodeau, is notorious for running his players into the ground with his substitution patterns and emphasis on regular season wins. Without Butler, the ‘Wolves would be hard pressed to take down a plucky Portland Trailblazers team with a Damien Lillard sized chip on its shoulder.

Question Five: Will the Rockets be able to dethrone the Warriors, and reach their first NBA finals since 1995?

Ben Pfeifer:

Simply, no. The Rockets are in the midst of an unreal hot streak and are playing excellent basketball. James Harden is having an MVP season, leading their unstoppable offense. The Warriors haven’t been the 73-9 team they used to be as of late, but they are still the Warriors. The Rockets’ offense is masterful, but so is the Warriors’ ability to stifle teams defensively. The Rockets will struggle defensively with the Warriors’ firepower on offense. Houston is great, but I will not doubt the Warriors until they give me a reason to doubt them.

Brandon Ray:

With the addition of Chris Paul, the Rockets, led by James Harden have been the best team in basketball. With that said, playoff basketball is a different tempo and an overall different game. If the Rockets disappear again, much like last year, the Warriors will once again be in the NBA Finals.
Eduardo Monk Jr.:
The Rockets have been sensational all season and the Warriors have been slightly less impressive. However, the playoffs are a completely new world and the Warriors are more coasting right now than going all-out. Rest assured, come playoff time, we will see the team that broke basketball last season simply because the Warriors will hold nothing back.

Michael Wesner:

The Rockets have the best chance of beating Warriors of any team that has faced them since they added Kevin Durant. Their defense has improved since last year, and Chris Paul has turned them from a pretty great team to an elite contender. They have the best offensive rating of all time. Yes, of all time. Their rating of 116 tops both last year’s Golden State Warriors and the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers. To complement that, they need to focus all their energy on polishing their defense and scoring efficiency. If they do so, the Capela-Harden-Paul trio could make a serious impact and defeat the Warriors in a seven-game series.

Chris Simmons:

In a word: No. The Warriors are currently the gold standard of basketball, even if they have looked outright bored with the regular season. On balance, the Houston Rockets certainly have the best chance and, ignoring past playoff failures, have the best roster to attack the dubs weaknesses. However, when Golden State decides to care their already lethal offense elevates to Xenomorph acid-for-blood levels and their defense can absolutely grind any attack down. Until they lose players or coaches, this will be the Warriors’ league.

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