Welcome to The Stat Pad, a weekly roundtable discussion about the storylines surrounding some of the week’s biggest games. Here is the roundtable discussion for Jan. 27 – Feb. 2.
1. The Celtics visit Miami on Tuesday to take on the Heat in a game between two of the top contenders for the East’s 2 seed. Will either team end up in the two spot? And, who is better equipped for a postseason run?
Michael Regan: I don’t think the Heat will finish in the 2 seed. They’ve gone 8-0 in overtime games, padding an almost top-5 record that really doesn’t mesh with their underlying numbers (11th in net rating, 10th in average point differential). They’re still a good team, but I think we see them slip a little as we enter the second half. I could definitely see the Celtics grabbing the 2 seed, especially if they make a trade to acquire a center. I think that, barring a huge Victor Oladipo boost in Indiana or the Sixers finding a different level, it comes down to the Raptors and Celtics. They’re the second and third best teams in the East by net rating (6th and 3rd overall) and average point differential (6th and 4th overall). Given Toronto’s experience and the end, at least temporarily, of the injury issues that they’ve dealt with all year, I would give the edge to the Raptors, but it’s not an edge that I’m all that confident about. Postseason chances are really going to come down to matchups. The Celtics, as they stand, would really struggle if faced with a team that is dominant on the inside. If that doesn’t become a huge matchup issue, then they have the playmakers (Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward) necessary to win a few series. The Heat don’t have such a clear flaw, but I’m not sure that they have the horses to get it done in the playoffs. Guys like Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and Kendrick Nunn have had fantastic seasons, but can they step up and contribute in the playoffs? Can they make a play in the clutch in May? They’ve proved us wrong all year, but it’s going to take a really strong effort to do it again.
Jared Wolff: The race for the two seed in the Eastern Conference will be fun to watch for the rest of the regular season. I think it is really anyone’s game in terms of taking that seed. Toronto is currently ahead of both Boston and Miami, and has shown no signs of slowing down. The trade deadline could be huge, as one deal can catapult one of these teams ahead. I think the Miami Heat will end up as the two seed in the Eastern Conference and is the most equipped to make a playoff run. The team is so deep and well-coached. The emergence of Bam Adebayo gives them a true threat in the paint that Boston lacks. No team in the NBA has a better team true shooting percentage and only one NBA team shoots a better percentage from deep. Only the Milwaukee Bucks have a better home record.
Nabil Chamra: The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat have both been outstanding this year, each outperforming pre-season expectations. The Heat have elevated from a non playoff team to nearly a contender with the addition of Jimmy Butler and the spectacular play of their trio of young guards – Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. The Celtics made up for the losses of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford with the additions of Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter along with what have been career-best years so far from Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Now considering this, I still do not think either team will overtake the Toronto Raptors for the two seed in the East. The Raptors having lost a top 5 player in Kawhi Leonard and without any major additions in the offseason still find themselves as a top team in the East thanks to more major improvement from Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet along with the resurgence of Kyle Lowry. They have superior depth, defense, and coaching (even though all three teams have amazing coaching) that will carry them through the regular season still in the two seed in the East. Now as to which team (Boston or Miami) is better equipped for the postseason, I would say the Miami Heat. This was a close call to make but for me, it came down to one thing, 3-pointers. The Heat are 2nd in the league in 3P% and 1st in the league in Opponent 3P% while the Celtics are just 15th and 13th in those categories respectively. If the Heat can stop the stop and shoot the three just as well as they are right now, I easily could see them in a tight battle with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Noah McCreery: The Celtics are, to my surprise, doing very well so far this season. We are finally seeing Kemba Walker take his game to another level this year, and Jayson Tatum continues to add more to his game since his rookie season— possibly one of the best rookie seasons we have seen in recent history that didn’t end with him becoming ROTY. The Celtics have started to slow down as of late, however, so keep an eye on Boston to see if they continue to slow down as the second half of the season progresses. If Boston wants to make a splash in the playoffs this year, they’ll have to improve their passing. Among title contenders in the East, the Celtics rank last in assists per game (23.5). The Heat are one of the wildest success stories this year in the NBA. Going into the season, many people thought the Heat would be scraping their way into the playoffs (including myself). Explosive rookie seasons from Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn have proved that this will not be the case with Miami this year. In my opinion, Miami seems better equipped to make a playoff run because of the fact that they have a few more offensive threats in comparison to Boston, with seven players averaging double-digit PPG. As the season nears its end, the key to the Heat pulling away from the competition in the East is regaining the defensive spark that they had at the beginning of the season— especially from Jimmy Butler and Kendrick Nunn, who have seen a steady decline in steals per game since the start of the season.
2. The Lakers and Clippers will meet for the third time at some point in the future after Tuesday’s matchup was postponed following the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. How much do the regular season head-to-head matchups (2-0 LAC so far) matter?
Michael Regan: They do matter; it’s just not clear how much. The Clippers have handled the Lakers twice now, with LeBron unable to be the difference down the stretch. The biggest, clearest difference between the two in their games has been the fourth quarter. In the season opener, the Clippers won the fourth 27-17. They won the game by 10. On Christmas, the Clippers won the fourth 25-20. They won the game by 5. Kawhi and the Clippers have, so far, gotten the best of LeBron and the Lakers in the clutch. That would, to me, seem like something that would factor into a potential postseason matchup. You never want to count out LeBron in the playoffs, but the Clippers have handled him so far this season. I’m not going to take the time to delve deep into past stats on regular season matchups for this one, but I will point out that the Rockets went 3-1 against the Warriors last regular season while the Bucks went 3-1 against the Raptors. I’m not sure if there can be any connection drawn between those situations, but it would, at minimum, suggest that the Lakers losing the regular season series wouldn’t be a knockout punch.
Jared Wolff:The regular season matchups between the Clippers and Lakers don’t mean much to me. A playoff series between these two teams would be a toss-up and be epic. LeBron becomes a different animal in the playoffs. So does Kawhi. A lot can happen between now and the playoffs. A key piece for one of these teams could easily be lost to injury. The trade deadline could significantly improve the depth of one team.
Nabil Chamra: I do not believe they matter as much as people think, but of course they still matter to a certain degree. The Los Angeles Clippers are only 3.5 games back of the Los Angeles Lakers who are in the 1 seed right now, so going 3-1 or even 4-0 and sweeping the regular-season series would be immense for their chances of getting the 2 or even 1 seed.
Noah McCreery: With the tragic and sudden passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others Sunday morning, the Lakers vs. Clippers game will be postponed out of respect for the Lakers organization, which is faced with a deep sense of loss. Kobe Bryant was not only an outstanding basketball player, but a truly remarkable man, a wonderful father, and a tremendous role model with a work ethic matched by no one. My deepest thoughts, prayers, and condolences go out to family, friends and anyone who finds themselves grieving as a result of this tragic accident. At only 41, Kobe achieved more in his life than most people can even dream of doing. Kobe once famously had this to say about overcoming adversity: “Everything negative—pressure, challenges—is all an opportunity for me to rise.” We should all follow his lead and rise to face adversity in our lives as a chance to become better versions of ourselves and to better those around us. Thank you Kobe, for inspiring so many people on this planet to work hard and follow their dreams. You will be greatly missed.
3. Victor Oladipo is set to return during Wednesday’s home game against the Bulls. How high is Indiana’s ceiling with Oladipo healthy?
Michael Regan: I have no idea what to expect from Oladipo and the Pacers. His teammates have done an admirable job of sticking with the rest of the pack in the race for the 2 seed, but they could still use a boost, as they rank 12th in both net rating and average point differential. Does Oladipo take them to 10th? 8th? 4th? Higher? I really don’t know, especially given that Oladipo has yet to play with Malcolm Brogdon or TJ Warren. I’m pretty confident that this isn’t a championship team even with Oladipo given that they weren’t exactly knocking on that door last year, but I couldn’t tell you where they fall between the top two and where they are now. It’s going to be really intriguing to see how it plays out.
Jared Wolff: I truly think the addition of Victor Oladipo puts the Pacers on the level of any team in the Eastern Conference not named the Milwaukee Bucks. Victor Oladipo is a terrific player. Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon have played at All-Star level this season. TJ Warren, Jeremy Lamb, and Myles Turner are great complementary pieces. This team has a 30-17 record without its best player. Watch out for Indiana.
Nabil Chamra: The Indiana Pacers, without Oladipo to this point, find themselves only 2.5 games back from the Raptors in the 2 seed, so getting back Oladipo would be tremendous for them. With Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis having career years already, the addition of another great scorer in Oladipo could potentially turn them into an East contender. The Pacers are 73-38 with Oladipo and 78-55 without him (in the regular season), a major difference when it comes to how close seeding is in the Eastern Conference. Assuming Oladipo eventually returns to the great form he has played in the last two years, I could easily see the Pacers land a top 4 seed in the East come playoff time.
Noah McCreery: The Pacers have done surprisingly well this season without their star player. His return, combined with the fact that the East currently has five teams within 2.5 wins of each other, means that the Pacers could find themselves entering the playoffs as a 2 seed. T.J. Warren, who has continued to prove that he is an efficient scorer this season (#33 in eFG% at 55.4%), and Domantas Sabonis, who is continuing to show steady improvement this year, have kept the Pacers more than relevant in the playoff conversation. Like the Heat, they have seven players averaging more than 10 PPG, so it definitely couldn’t hurt Indiana to add another prominent scoring option into that mix— not to mention Oladipo’s defensive prowess. Oladipo coming back from injury is so crucial to the Pacers that come mid-May, don’t be surprised if you see Malcolm Brogdon facing his former team in the Eastern Conference Finals.
4. The Jazz visit the Nuggets on Thursday. Utah has been the hottest team in the league over the last twenty games, but where do they stand as a title contender?
Michael Regan: I’m not quite ready to say that the Jazz belong in the top tier with the Bucks and, on most days, the Clippers and Lakers, but Utah has been as impressive as anyone lately. I’ll just copy and paste some words from my latest Power Rankings here – “[Utah has] won eighteen of twenty, with the Bucks (17-3) coming the closest to matching that record over that stretch…Over their last 15 games, the Jazz have an average point differential of +13.9, three points ahead of the second-place Bucks. [Rudy] Gobert is averaging roughly 18 points and 15 boards per game in January, and [Donovan] Mitchell, [Joe] Ingles, [Bojan] Bogdanovic, and [Jordan] Clarkson have helped him spark the league’s best offense, by a significant margin, over the last 15 games.” If the Jazz keep this run going, and get any sort of production from Mike Conley, who returned last week after missing the entirety of the Jazz’s hot streak, they will be punching with anyone when the playoffs come. For now, I’ll put them at 4th, just a step below the teams from Milwaukee and Los Angeles.
Jared Wolff: I love the Utah Jazz. They’re top seven in the NBA in both team offensive rating and team defensive rating. They’re well-coached and very deep. With that being said, I don’t think their a true title contender this year. The Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks are the only teams in the NBA I really think can win a title this year. It is going to be so tough for a team to beat Kawhi/PG or Anthony Davis/LeBron in the Western Conference playoffs. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are a very talented duo, but I’m not all in on the Jazz just yet.
Nabil Chamra: I love the Utah Jazz. They are easily my favorite team besides the Pistons, but being real, they are not title contenders. Recent history has shown that unless you are the 2011 Mavericks with Dirk, you need at least two stars to win an NBA championship. The Jazz were supposed to have that with the acquisition of Mike Conley, but he has massively failed to live up to expectations, to say the least. He is shooting a terrible 37.5% from the field along with a measly 12.7 points per game and he even recently was benched upon his return from injury in favor of Joe Ingles. So, as we saw in the Nuggets last year going to 7 games with the Spurs before succumbing to the Trail Blazers in 7 games in the second round, it is very difficult to win in the postseason with only one star and I do not foresee the Jazz making it past the second round of the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference this year, unfortunately.
Noah McCreery: The Jazz are an interesting team to watch this year— they started off the month of December with some concerns, but since Christmas they have only lost a baffling three games, with ten games being won by double digits. Clearly something is clicking for Utah, but it will be interesting to see how they finish the season in a highly competitive Western Conference, since realistically as many as 6 teams are fighting for the 2 seed (a very similar case as in the East). Utah has the tools to enter the conversation as a title contender this year— if they can sustain this winning energy through the end of the season and into the postseason, Salt Lake City has a legitimate chance to become the City of Champions.
5. The Wizards host the Hornets on Thursday. Struggles from the Magic and Nets have left the playoff door open for teams like the Pistons, Bulls, and Wizards. Does Washington have any shot at the postseason?
Michael Regan: I kind of like the Wizards, but, as I write this, they’re four games out of the playoffs. Their defense is last in the league by a fair margin. A number of their best players have suffered an absurd amount of injuries – 80 missed games from Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans, Thomas Bryant, Moe Wagner (still out), and Rui Hachimura (still out). Their offense is good (11th in the league), but not good enough to make up for their defense. It’s probably not going to happen this year barring a quick return to full health and some luck. Still, I like the Wizards. Beal is great. Hachimura, Bryant, and Wagner have all looked promising when healthy. Bertans is a great piece. Ish Smith, Jordan McRae and others have shined with the additional injury-provided opportunities. John Wall, who is absolutely elite when healthy, should be ready to go next year. It may not happen this year, but the Wizards, assuming a healthy Wall, could be dangerous next year.
Jared Wolff: No, which makes me sad because Bradley Beal is one of my favorite players in the NBA. The team has the worst team defensive rating in the entire league. How does Scott Brooks still have a job?
Nabil Chamra: The Wizards do not have a chance at the postseason. They have the league’s worst defense allowing an atrocious 120.6 points per game. Along with the fact that Dāvis Bertāns, their leading scorer outside of Bradley Beal, could be flipped to a contender at the trade deadline, with no one else to fill that scoring void they are doomed. Already on the outside looking in onto a weak Eastern Conference, I do not see the Wizards coming close to the postseason.
Noah McCreery: The Wizards have consistently missed the playoffs even when Bradley Beal and John Wall were both healthy. With John Wall not set to return until next season, the Wizards unfortunately will not make the postseason this year.