After a brief hiatus, the NBA returns to regular season action Thursday night. The 82-game schedule is around 2/3 over with some teams playing as a few as 26 games before the regular season officially ends on April 15. The postseason picture is becoming clearer, but a number of questions remain. As the home stretch of the season nears, here are five teams to watch particularly closely over the next eight weeks.
Houston Rockets (34-20)
It’s more than likely you didn’t need prompting to watch the Rockets during their final 28 games of the regular season. Year in and year out around this time of the season they continue to be among the league’s most interesting teams. Now, in Mike D’Antoni’s fourth year as head coach, the team is in what feels like it’s fourth different configuration. Following a trade just days before the deadline that shipped Clint Capela to the Hawks, Houston has made the decision to close the 2019-20 year playing lineups mainly consisting of players between 6’3’’-6’8’’. No center, just guards and wings playing up a position, maybe two. Thus far, since Capela initially missed the Rockets’ Jan. 31 game with an injury, the Rockets are 5-2 in recent center-less games, with one of those losses coming by a just single point at the hands of the Utah Jazz. Over that seven-game stretch they have outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possession, good enough for No. 7 in the league, and maybe even more impressively been the league’s No. 15 defense. But that’s admittedly a small sample and they were No. 4 in offense before the deal for what it’s worth.
But D’Antoni’s contract situation is also looming over the franchise’s future. D’Antoni’s camp and the Rockets broke off contract extension talks last offseason leaving the team’s head coach to be a free agent this summer. At seemingly every one of D’Antoni’s prior head coaching stops, the endings have been abrupt—see, a surprise departure from the Lakers, a sudden midseason resignation from the Knicks, a relatively tense exit from the Suns and even a blindsiding firing from the Nuggets in the late 1990s. Still, he’s one of the sport’s great innovators.
The Rockets are just 3.5 games back of the No. 2 seed in the conference and do have the seventh-easiest remaining schedule for the rest of the regular season. Maybe their latest small-ball experiment will work. Or maybe it’ll come crashing down. It’s safe a bet whichever way it ends up, a GQ spread will result from it all.
Philadelphia 76ers (34-21)
Like the Rockets, the 76ers are currently still very much a work in progress and the results might cost head coach Brett Brown his job. Brown is now in his seventh season in Philadelphia. After winning just 75 games combined during the “Process” years, the team has won 51 and 52 games respectively in each of the past two seasons. In 2017-18, they largely over-performed during the home stretch of the regular season before falling abruptly in the Eastern Conference seminfinals. Last season, with a roster that evolved multiple times throughout the year, they won 52 games, but again fell in the second round of the playoffs, albeit on one of the great shots in postseason history. But for the first time since the days of constant losing, the Sixers have a below average offense, ranking just 20 in offensive rating. They’ve shown flashes of their potential, but four different times this season they’ve lost three games in a row. Plus, most recently Brown has experimented with bringing Al Horford off the bench.
It’s not Brown’s fault that newcomers Horford, Josh Richardson and the rest of the 76ers’ parts haven’t fit together perfectly. But he has the tough task of making it mesh together. If they don’t live up to the hype during the home stretch and into the playoffs, it’s likely he’ll be the fall-guy. Still, the Sixers have the second-easiest schedule left in the regular season. Maybe games against the Warriors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves and two against the Hawks will alleviate all their problems.
Portland Trail Blazers (25-31)
Portland’s made six consecutive postseason appearances, having missed the playoffs only once in Terry Stotts’ seven years with the club. But they’re in major danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13. Coming out of the All-Star break they are just 27th in defensive rating and 11th in offensive rating. Injuries, specifically to members of their frontcourt, have plagued the roster. And only three times this season, has the team won three or more games consecutively, an indication of their frequent struggles to string extended win-streaks together.
A more immediate concern, however, is the possible absence of Damian Lillard. Lillard suffered a right groin strain in the final minutes of his team’s Feb. 12 loss to the Grizzlies. The injury forced Lillard to remove himself from the All-Star Game and Three-Point Shootout and put his current status into question. Stotts said Tuesday on a local Portland radio show that “it could be a week, it could be a month. Who knows?” Portland fans hope it’s the former.
Lillard had been on a tear of late, playing some of the best basketball of his career and the team’s offense relies heavily on pick-and-rolls with the Weber State product. Maybe CJ McCollum will break out in his stead. Or maybe Portland will continue to struggle. They are just four games behind Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West. They play the Grizzlies twice, both at home, and have the sixth-easiest remaining schedule. A late-season push is very much in play. So too is a major regression following the team’s conference finals appearance last season.
Indiana Pacers (32-23)
Since 2010, the Pacers have missed the playoffs just once, on a tiebreaker for the eight seed, in a year in which Paul George played only six games. More recently, in each of the last four seasons, they have lost in the first round. But as The Ringer’s Rob Mahoney pointed out, they did so after turning over star players and contributors in a manner that is “not a treadmill,” but a “feat of engineering.” Now, with only three rotation players in common from last year’s postseason team, the Pacers are again looking to begin anew, after the All-Star break.
Victor Oladipo returned on Jan. 29, but the return has been less than seamless, with the team going just 2-5 in games that he’s appeared in and just 1-1 in games he’s started. A recent six-game slide moved Indiana from the 54-win pace they had throughout most of the season to 48-wins—a total that they’ve had each of the last two years. Over the past two seasons, the Pacers have won nearly 90% of games in which Oladipo has taken 15 shots or fewer and thus far he’s struggled to find his rhythm with Malcolm Brodgon.
Oladipo’s minutes restriction has been lifted coming out of the All-Star break and the team’s final 27 games of the regular season will go a long way in determining if this year’s Indiana team can snap their first-round exit streak.
San Antonio Spurs (23-31)
Is this the year the Spurs finally miss the playoffs? For 22 straight years, San Antonio has made the postseason, but coming out of the All-Star weekend five games behind the No. 8 seed, it appears increasingly likely that this season, more than ever before, the Spurs might be resting at the end of April. The run began in Gregg Popovich’s first full season coaching the franchise in 1997-98. Since then, they’ve made ten Western Conference Finals, six NBA finals and won the title five times. But San Antonio’s on the verge of seeing that two-plus decade streak end.
This year’s Spurs led by DeMar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge haven’t fully clicked the way some expected, and an early-season eight-game losing streak set this year’s group back. Coming out of All-Star weekend, they do have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule. A favorable stretch of games between March 26 and April 7 in which they play Minnesota once and both Golden State and Sacramento twice is certainly juicy, but they finish the regular season with Houston twice, Philadelphia, Indiana and New Orleans, all teams that will presumably be making a playoff push or competing for seeding in mid-April. The end of eras are seemingly always abrupt. Over the next eight weeks, we might be witnessing the end of a streak that has spanned four United States presidents.