There are currently nine NBA teams hovering around .500 and in or tied for the playoffs/play-in tourney. If that seems like an abnormally high number, that’s because it is, and the Mavs barely missed out on this list because they’re technically four games above .500.
With the postseason format expanded to 10 teams, we’re naturally going to get more mediocre teams in “contention,” but if we’re just going by postseason, the number of teams within three games of .500 or worse that made the postseason over the past four seasons are: five, three, three, and zero.
I’m pretty positive COVID has something to do with a bevy of unimpressive teams vying to get smashed in the first round, but even when healthy the Nuggets, Clippers, Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, and Wizards have all looked like frozen pizzas. Sure, they’re good when hot, but the rest of the time, they’re OK to bad. (I’m looking at you, DiGiorno, fix that sauce. It’s fucking gross.)
Having so many blah NBA squads, in turn, makes the good teams look better. The top fours seeds in each conference have a win percentage over .600, with only the Bucks (26-17) less than 10 games over .500. This is basically a long way of asking are the top eight teams that much better than the rest of the league?
The Memphis Grizzlies, winners of 10 straight, appear to be. They’re 6-3 against the other top seven teams in the NBA, including two wins against the Warriors, and have beaten every one of those seven teams — except for Chicago, who they haven’t played yet. Since the start of December, they’re 18-4. Only the Bulls, the No. 1 seed in the East, have a better record since that mark (13-3), but they’ve played six less games due to ’Rona cancellations.
Obviously, the star in Memphis has been Ja Morant. I don’t need to say a ton, because you’re on the internet, a place he has owned the past few weeks.
However, two other young players have contributed mightily. We saw bits and pieces of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s potential before injuries set him back a couple years, but he’s back to his old self on the defensive end, protecting the rim (two blocks per game) and staying active (one steal per game). Though he’s still finding his range — only 31 percent from deep — he’s remained enough of a threat to space the floor, which is especially useful when you share the front court with Steven Adams.
Adams isn’t the other young player I was talking about, but the move they made to bring him in (five shots per game), and get rid of Jonas Valančiūnas (12 shots per game) opened up an opportunity for Desmond Bane, who found all seven of those available attempts, doubling his shots per game from seven last year to 14 this year, while shooting more or less the same. He’s scoring 17 ppg, and is pretty consistent doing it for a second-year guy. He’s only topped 30 points once, and only scored less than 10 six times. For some context, fellow second-year player Anthony Edwards (22 ppg this year) had a five-game stretch earlier this season where he scored 48, 9, 21, 9, and 26.
The rest of the roster is a mix of capable veterans (Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones) and talented young guys (De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke) who know their role and play it accordingly. Brooks is out three-to-five weeks with a sprained ankle after missing time prior to that due to protocols, but as long as he returns and they stay healthy, including Morant who already had a stint on the IR, the Grizz look suited to make noise in the postseason.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Warriors and Suns jockeyed for position to play Utah in second round, either, because the blueprint to beat the Jazz is well documented. There are ways to beat young teams — be more consistent, execute better late in the game, basically lessons gained with experience — but we’ve seen crazy-talented young teams overachieve before, and I wouldn’t want to mess around with Memphis.
Messing around is exactly how I’d describe a majority of the NBA right now. I know I pointed to the top four seeds in each conference as being vastly superior to everyone else, but even the Nets, Heat, and Bucks have fallen prey to lackadaisical play.
Forgive me, I just rewatched The Town, but the Grizzlies have joined the Suns, Warriors, Bulls, and Jazz as part of the not fucking around crew.