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6 NBA teams lurking for a playoff run, and how it can happen

The NBA trade deadline is well past us now and buyout season is wrapping up. The All-Star break is also over. Teams are all returning to the court at the end of this week, with as fresh of legs as they’ve had since the fall.

This is commonly called the second half of the season, and that’s not technically wrong if you count the two months of playoffs. But for the regular season, this is the stretch run sprint of 21-25 games. It’s really a quarter-season, or so, to firm up playoff seeding, make a run at the top-6 and the assured playoff spots, or to try to get into the Play-In Tournament.

At this point, we’ve got about 12-15 teams that seem like playoff or Play-In locks. Another 11-14 teams are in the mix to still make the postseason. Really, only the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs are lottery locks. Everyone else still has something to play for during this final push.

However, a few teams are lurking more than others. They aren’t locks, but it feels like they are ready to make a run if a few things go right down the stretch. In no particular order, here’s who we’ve got our eyes on over the next two months:

Minnesota Timberwolves

Despite a very uneven season, the Wolves are sitting just above .500 at 31-30. They’ve more or less weathered the storm without Karl-Anthony Towns over the last three months. A late-December six-game losing streak is the only terrible section of the schedule where Minnesota struggled.

Some might be surprised to find out that the Timberwolves have stayed afloat behind a pretty good defense. Minnesota ranks No. 12 in the NBA in Defensive Rating, led by an as-good-as-ever Rudy Gobert. The offense isn’t very good, but they play fast (fourth-best pace in the league) and they get just enough points on the board.

And Towns should be back … eventually. Latest reports are that the Wolves are hoping to have Towns for the final 10-15 games of the regular season. With Mike Conley in the fold as a pass-first, second, and third organizer, there should be enough touches to keep Towns involved and in the flow on offense.

If Towns can come back as a dominant second-banana to Anthony Edwards, Minnesota might still make some noise in the playoffs. They’ve got good functional depth and can defend. Matchups will matter a lot, as a team that plays five-out still stress Towns-Gobert lineups. But if the Timberwolves draw a team where they can play both big men, they’ll be a tough out in the postseason.

Washington Wizards

We’re going to ask you to squint a little bit and to go on a journey with us here, ok? When the Wizards have had their main guys healthy this season, they’ve been a pretty good team.

Done laughing? Good! Let’s dive in!

When Washington has had Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma and Monte Morris on the floor together, they are +9.4 in per 100 possessions net rating. As a comparison point, the league-best Boston Celtics are only +2 per 100 possessions with their four-man lineup of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford on the floor.

The challenge for the Wizards? The Beal-Porzingis-Kuzma-Morris quartet has appeared in only 25 of 58 games together. Yes, we’re playing some small sample size theater here, but this group is good when together. Outside of fouling too much, they’re better than their opponents in almost every other phase of the game.

Washington is 28-30. They’re closer to being out of the Play-In Tournament than they are to making the top-6 and snagging the final assured playoff spot. But there’s something there with this group. Especially if we expand that top group with Deni Avdija in that fifth spot. That group is a whopping +12.9 per 100 possessions. That’s not nothing.

Orlando Magic

The Magic probably aren’t making any kind of playoff run. The Play-In Tournament is probably out of reach too, but only just barely. That’s what starting 5-20 will do to you.

But since that 5-20 start, Orlando is an impressive 19-15. The Magic have played really hard all season, but after getting healthy, they’ve started to play pretty well too.

You probably know, or at least you should, that Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are pretty good. But did you know that they combine to shoot 11.8 free throws per game? As a rookie, Banchero sits No. 10 in the league with 7.6 free throw attempts per game. That’s pretty wild for a first-year player that isn’t a dominant inside presence. It’s helped prop up what’s been an inconsistent jumper for the eventual Rookie of the Year.

Overall, the Magic have been winning games around the margins. They’re a good rebounding team, they don’t foul very often (considering their youth), and they get to the line a lot themselves.

As the kids figure things out post-All-Star break, more wins should come for Orlando. They’ve got a relatively easy schedule over the final couple of months. It probably won’t be enough to make up a four-game deficit for the Play-In Tournament, but as the Boston Celtics learned this season, don’t overlook this scrappy, young bunch.

New Orleans Pelicans

More than any of the other lurkers, this one is about health. For about a five-minute period, the Pelicans looked like contenders. Then they went on a 10-game losing streak to close January and even making it to the postseason became a question again.

But Brandon Ingram is back. Maybe Zion Williamson will be back too, but New Orleans has learned how to play without him over the last two years. Josh Richardson gave them one more guy who can do stuff with the ball and hit jumpers. Even without Williamson, the Pels’ depth is top-tier in the league.

Having Ingram, and to a lesser extent adding Richardson, should help bring more balance to a roster that had become overly reliant on scoring inside. In an NBA where everyone is launching threes, the Pels sometimes look positively 90s-like, as they force the ball inside for layups or, gasp, take mid-rangers.

Ingram isn’t a high-volume three-point shooter, but he’s a very good three-pointer shooter. That should help open up the offense a bit more beyond C.J. McCollum pull-ups and Trey Murphy III spot-up jumpers. New Orleans should be looking to up their current 30.3 three-points attempts per game (29th in the NBA) to somewhere around 35 attempts per game (which would rank in the top-10) in the league. The Pelicans have the shooters to do it, and having creators like Ingram and Richardson only helps.

Last thing…the Pelicans have one of the softest schedules in the league to close the season. There are a ton of winnable games there. That’s super helpful in a tightly-packed Western Conference.

A little more shooting and better health, and this group can get back to the pushing-for-homecourt-advantage team they were before that late-January swoon. And that’s with or without Zion Williamson…but hopefully with him!

Indiana Pacers

This one is really simple: with Tyrese Haliburton, the Pacers were 25-25 and in the 6-8 range in the Eastern Conference. Without Haliburton in late-January, Indiana was 1-9 and stunk like old chicken two days from trash day.

With Haliburton on the court, the Pacers high-octane offense hums at a 116.2 offensive rating. That’s a top-10 offense. When Haliburton sits, Indiana falls off to an offensive rating 110.3. That mark would rank only above offensively-inept Charlotte and Houston.

If Haliburton stays healthy, and the Pacers get back to pushing the ball (they’ve fallen off a bit in pace over the last couple of months), Indiana can make a Play-In run. The five-out lineups featuring four guards around Myles Turner are just weird enough to give a team fits in the pseudo-single-elimination style of the Play-In Tournament. Kind of like one of those quirky mid majors who pulls off an upset in the NCAA Tournament in March.

Some things to watch for: On offense, the Pacers need the threes to fall and they need to take care of the ball. They take a lot of threes, but honestly should take even more. Lean all the way in and let if fly. Also, part of Rick Carlisle’s putting the brakes on the run-and-gun show was driven by a turnover rate that was pushing near the bottom of the league. Having Haliburton back should help with that, but everyone needs to prove to the coach that they should get back to running more.

On defense, Indiana has to figure out a way to rebound with the small lineups on the floor, and they have to cut back on their fouling. They bleed points by giving up the most free throws per game in the NBA, when you adjust for pace.

Los Angeles Lakers

You didn’t think you were getting out of here without a mention of the Lakers, did you? Of course not! But it’s for a good reason: their roster finally makes sense.

After nearly 60 games of sometimes LeBron James and sometimes Anthony Davis surrounded by a bunch of guys under 6’6, the Lakers have roster balance. That’s what their trade season moves brought them. The big question: Was it too late?

Yes, Los Angeles is only 3.5 games out of the sixth seed, otherwise known as the final assured playoff spot. That’s really not too bad!

The problem? Los Angeles is in 13th place in the Western Conference and there are six teams between them and that sixth seed.

To get to even a .500 record, and potentially in the mix for a top-6 seed, the Lakers will have to finish 14-9. That’s a .609 winning percentage. That’s a rate the Lakers have won at exactly once in the past 11 years: their title-winning season in the bubble in 2020.

That’s quite the uphill battle. But making the Play-In Tournament isn’t nearly as daunting. The Lakers only need to pass three teams to get there and the three teams in front of them aren’t exactly a murder’s row. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz could pivot towards development after making deadline deals that lean in that direction. That leaves just the Portland Trail Blazers, who have been wildly inconsistent all season.

We really can’t draw a whole lot from the Lakers’ season-long stats, as they aren’t anything resembling the team they are now. They’ll presumably continue to draw a lot of free throws, while giving up barely any. Thanks, all-time leading scorer in NBA history! They’ll also probably continue to play pretty fast, as the deadline added some players who like to get up and down the floor.

Because it’s James and Davis leading a roster that now resembles an actual basketball team, Los Angeles is pretty dangerous. In the pseudo-single-elimination style of the Play-In Tournament, those two are enough to win a game or two almost by themselves. Then, if you’re Denver or Memphis, your reward for a wonderful regular season becomes a two-week, seven-game battle against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a potentially sneaky-good playoff roster.

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