There Isn’t a team name in the association that matches better than the Indiana Pacers. Their games are more akin to an Indy 500 race than an actual basketball game: all gas, no breaks. Their offense is firing on all cylinders, ranking number one in points, pace, assists, field goal percentage, and offensive rating. Led by burgeoning superstar Tyreese Haliburton, this Pacers team is on pace to be the highest-scoring offense in NBA history. The offense is juxtaposed by their lackluster defense, ranking dead last in opponent points per game and second worst in opponent field goal percentage, while being 3rd from the bottom in defensive rating. The blistering offense has carried them to the 6th seed, but Indiana will have to tighten up their defense if they want to make a real playoff run in the east. A remedy can be to start playing rookie Jaurice Walker. A defensive stud at Houston, Walker would bolster the defense in the frontcourt and even be a versatile small-ball five. But with Rick Carlisle’s notorious lack of trust in rookies, the Pacers may need to find help elsewhere.
What more can be said about the Bulls? The players don’t want this, the fans definitely don’t want this, but they insist on squeezing this core out until there’s nothing left. After Lonzo went down, this team has had no aspirations besides being a play-in team at best. At least last year they were propped up by a great defense, but now that that’s slipping too, the wheels are really starting to fall off. Now at the 13th seed, Chicago needs to blow it up and extract the value that their big three has left. The problem is that they’re on large contracts and have specialized skill sets that don’t fit on most teams, especially contenders. The Bulls can either blow it up by trading their stars for far less than they’re worth, or stick down this path of agonizing mediocrity. It’s not an enviable position to be in to say the least.
Magic’s In The Air
After a decade stuck in no man's land the Magic decided to embark on a full rebuild by trading Vucevic in 2021, and it’s finally starting to pay its dividends. Most youthful teams filled with lottery picks show flashy offensive upside but leave a lot to be desired on the defensive end. This couldn’t be further from the truth for Orlando as their feisty young defense is ranked 3rd in defensive rating while also being 4th in steals and 12th in blocks. An important wrinkle to this team’s jump has been Jalen Suggs. After struggling his first two years, he’s found his niche as a lockdown ball hawk and is a key piece to the Magic’s defensive identity. They have even more young talent in the ranks as lottery picks Anthony Black and Jett Howard are yet to hit the real rotation.
Race to the Bottom
If you look up just about any team statistic and sort from worst to best, there’s a good chance you’ll find the Wizards or Pistons in the bottom five. The former can be excused as this is their first year truly bottoming out, but for the ladder, this is a concerning place to be in. The Pistons are in year five of their rebuild and don’t look to be making any strides. Even after acquiring high-positioned lottery picks, it looks like they're going backward, having a 28.7 winning percentage from 2020-2022 and a 15.4 winning percentage ever since. It’s not like they’ve been drafting busts either; Cunningham, Ivey, Duren, and Ausar Thompson are an incredible homegrown core that some teams would kill to have just one of. But there hasn’t been a spec of cohesion all season and the pieces just aren’t fitting together. It would be one thing if there was an obvious sore that stuck out and could be swiftly dealt with, but this is an executive failure at all levels. You can blame the Owner or the GM or the Coach, but something has to give if this core is to come out the other side successfully.
We Are All Witnesses
Last year it looked like Lebron was finally showing signs of being human. A foot injury kept him out for most of March and it lingered into the playoffs. His three-point shooting tanked to 26% and he recorded his second-lowest scoring average in the playoffs for his career. It was also the first time he shot under 50% from the field in two consecutive postseasons since 2008, 15 years ago. At last James was showing cracks in his armor and at least a small amount of regression was expected for his mind-boggling 21st season. Now a quarter way into 2024, at almost 39 years old Lebron is having one of the most efficient seasons he’s ever had. There are players in the league that weren’t even born when he was drafted and he’s still in the midst of one of his best seasons. The efficiency can be attributed to his off-ball movement as his percentage of shots that are assisted is the most he’s ever had. He’s also almost completely cut out the long 2s, opting mostly for hyper-efficient drives or threes. The third best percentage within three feet of the rim doesn’t hurt either.
If You Have Two Quarterbacks, You Actually Have None
This old Madden saying rings true for the Spurs’ point guard experiment. There have been shimmers of playmaking potential at the 1 for Jeremy Sochan but it’s overshadowed by off-target passes, turnovers, and missing players (Wembanyama) wide open in the paint. Capped off by a -9 on/off rating, Sochan has not been the ideal point guard for the Spurs. On the flip side is the other PG Tre Jones who has done a much better job running the offense. He has one of the best assist ratios in the league and blows Sochan’s on/off rating out of the water at +16.3. Much like his brother in Washington, Jones isn't a star point guard or frankly even an exciting one, but he plays the position to a tee and sets guys up where they need to be. To call a spade a spade, San Antonio won’t win many games with either player. What truly matters is their synergy with Victor Wembanyama. The Spurs will have to choose between Sochan’s long term playmaking development and Jones’s short-term impact of setting up Victor for easy looks in his important rookie season.
25% through the season and the 1st and 2nd seed in the west are the small markets of Oklahoma City and Minnesota, both anchored by defensive stalwarts at center. Many wrote off the Timberwolves after the enormous price of the Rudy Gobert trade resulted in a barely over .500 season and a first-round exit in 2023. However, Gobert has had a resurgent season and is right back in contention for Defensive Player of the Year. He and all-defensive caliber teammate Jaden McDaniels have piloted this team to the best defensive rating in the league. When they faced the aforementioned Thunder in late November, Gobert single-handedly shut off the paint in the 4th quarter as the Wolves claimed sole possession of the one seed. For OKC, they were expected to be done with their rebuild and get into the mix of the lower-seeded playoff teams, but the second youngest team in the league still had a long way to go. However, much like last year, they’ve skyrocketed past their projections and are the only team in the league that’s top five in both offensive and defensive rating. That offensive success is due in large part to their outside shooting as seven players are shooting above 40% from three. Chet Holmgren’s return from injury has completely overridden their timeline as OKC is on track to avoid the play-in entirely because of his stellar rookie season.