The NBA All-Star game will begin this Sunday, and then the second stretch of the NBA season will begin. With about 25-30 games left, it is time to fully decide which teams will be going into the playoffs and what their expectations will be when it begins.
Some teams have managed to surprise, like Dallas or Memphis. Other teams have managed to quell doubters such as Toronto or the Lakers. But other teams are looking at this stretch with nothing short of trepidation and dread. These teams have one foot over the abyss, and a bad stretch could put either their short or long-term hopes in serious jeopardy.
So which teams have the biggest cause for concern right now? Here are four of the most precarious teams.
From one perspective, putting the Blazers on this list seems ridiculous. Yes, they are missing everyone and have been missing everyone the entire season. Often, injuries are like dominos. A player gets injured, which forces the teams to put additional burdens on the good players they have left, which increases the risk of additional injuries, and so on. But when they get back, the Blazers will be back and ready to do…what, precisely?
Because that is the problem with this team. Maybe they will turn around. Maybe they will make the playoffs even though FiveThirtyEight only gives them a 37% chance of doing so. But then what? They will get flattened by either the West’s top teams, and then be stuck with a roster which does not look like it will be getting better and is filled with young talent. This is not to suggest that Portland should overreact and think about trading Lillard, but big changes are likely going to be needed after another early playoff exit.
I will say that it is hypocritical for NBA fans to complain about how all teams play the same way today and then mock the one team which is aiming for something completely new and innovative. But in the highly limited sample size, the new “Pocket Rockets” with their small lineup have not been that much different from the team earlier in the season. They have had some good wins against the Lakers and Celtics marred by a disastrous showdown against Phoenix, yet another example of this team’s inability to get it done against bad teams.
But the more fundamental problem is that the Rockets mortgaged their future heavily to trade Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook yet find themselves at a similar level compared to last year. The team snaked under the luxury tax again which raises more doubts about owner Tilman Fertitta’s willingness to pay for a good team. Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the recent changes have seemed to place a smaller offensive burden on James Harden, who has been slowing down a bit as he passes 30.
The Rockets and the Blazers have concerns about their ability to contend over the short and long term, but the Minnesota Timberwolves would love to be in their position. Trading Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell was a good move, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this team has won one games since January 9. Karl-Anthony Towns will miss multiple games with a wrist injury, and the Wolves offense looks like it has little idea of what it is doing under coach Ryan Saunders.
Phoenix and Sacramento are other teams which entered the season with playoff hopes but have been disappointed. But Minnesota has been substantially worse than those two and has the fear of Towns’s free agency to cause more reason for panic. They have until 2024 until he hits free agency, but that means they need to rebuild quickly.
Figuring the exact reasons for Philadelphia’s problems is as easy as removing a tree. Is it because Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid cannot coexist? Is it because Al Horford has been struck by Father Time sooner than expected? Is it because Brett Brown actually is not that good of a coach?
The good news is that the 76ers remain a solid defensive team, with the fifth best defensive rating in the league. But they have the 20th-ranked offense in a league which prioritizes offensive domination more than ever. And the team has struggled badly on the road, losing bad games against Indiana and Dallas among other teams.
And like the Blazers and Rockets, there are real questions about where the team can improve from here. Maybe Ben Simmons or Embiid will take the leap from mere All-Star to the true MVP-caliber players analysts have hoped they would become. But if Philadelphia gets bounced in the first round as looks like could happen, the talks of trading one of them will become louder than ever.