There were just too many games in too few nights. It was bad for fans, but especially difficult for coaches and players, who had to play and travel too often, with too little time for rest or preparation. Cramming what amounted to two or three extra games per team into each month was a money-based decision — an inevitable grab that both sides in the labor dispute agreed to, minimizing the financial impact of the lockout on each.
A regular season in which it felt like there were 10 games every night ends Thursday, with 26 teams in action and a whopping 10 games tipping at 8 p.m. ET. Remarkably, only two of the 13 games – Miami-Washington and Portland-Utah — are irrelevant in terms of both playoff and lottery implications. The Jazz are locked into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference and a first-round matchup with the Spurs. The Heat can tie the Thunder at 47-19 with a victory against the Wizards, but Oklahoma City already owns the tiebreaker for home-court advantage in a potential NBA Finals matchup because of a better record against teams from the opposite conference.
Here’s a rundown of what remains at stake:
• The No. 7 and No 8 spots in the Eastern Conference
The Knicks and Sixers are tied at 35-30. But New York has a giant edge in the “race” for No. 7 because it owns the tiebreaker and plays the hapless Bobcats in Charlotte. Choosing between potential series against top-seeded Chicago and No. 2 Miami is like picking between Kate Hudson movies, but given Philadelphia’s 1-11 record against Miami since the Heat added LeBron James, the Sixers are going to be more than happy to rest their key players again against the Pistons and slide into the No. 8 spot.
(Remember all the way back to a week or so ago, when Wednesday’s Philadelphia-Milwaukee game looked like it might decide the No. 8 seed between the two?)
That said, Carmelo Anthony indicated after Wednesday’s victory against the Clippers that he and Tyson Chandler may sit out Thursday, raising the possibility that the Sixers’ and Knicks’ bench units will decide the first-round pairings — just as Steve Novak’s last-minute deflection was key to the win over the Clippers and may rank as one of the biggest plays of the season for Memphis (see below). Yay, late-season NBA!
• Home-court advantage in the No. 4- No. 5 series between the Clippers and Grizzlies in the West
The Clippers chose health over seeding Wednesday in holding out Chris Paul (groin strain) in their season finale against the Knicks. That is a perfectly reasonable decision. If the Clippers (40-26) end up No. 5, having to board a second cross-country flight in three days on Friday, they will kick themselves not for the outcome in New York, but for close losses in the last week to Phoenix and the Hawks — defeats in which Los Angeles’ allegedly resurgent defense regressed.
Memphis (40-25) needs only to beat visiting Orlando to clinch the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in perhaps the most-anticipated first-round series of the postseason. (If the Grizzlies lose, the Clippers open at home.) The Magic are set as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, and given the health woes affecting about half the roster — including Glen Davis, who sprained his ankle Wednesday — they figure to be cautious here. The Grizzlies should win this game. Memphis guard Tony Allen told me that Zach Randolph may play heavy minutes after practicing without a knee brace Wednesday.
• Home-court advantage in the No. 4- No. 5 series between the Hawks and Celtics in the East
This is simple: Atlanta (39-26), one game up on Boston (38-27), gets home-court advantage with a win or a Celtics loss. The Celtics begin the playoffs at home only if they beat the Bucks in Boston and the Mavericks — who still have something at stake — win in Atlanta. Boston clearly doesn’t care about the home-court edge, and it’s hard to blame the Celtics given their age and some injuries to key players. The Celtics will likely hold out all or most of their key guys against Milwaukee. They still might win, though, as the Bucks sat four starters against the Sixers on Wednesday. Yay, late-season NBA!
• Dallas vs. Denver for the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds in the West
This is the difference between a first-round date against the second-seeded Thunder and the third-seeded Lakers. Denver (37-28), with a one-game lead over Dallas (26-29), controls its own destiny. The Mavs have long owned the tiebreaker over Denver, but they’ll need to win in Atlanta and have Denver lose to the Timberwolves (1-10 in their last 11 games) in Minnesota to draw the Lakers in the first round.
The Lakers are a scary bunch, with three stars and an offense that has reached another gear since the Ramon Sessions trade. But L.A.’s defense has slipped some down the stretch, those three superstars are carrying huge minutes loads into the playoffs (with Kobe Bryant’s mitigated a bit because a shin injury kept him out for seven games this month) and the Lakers, of course, are missing their most versatile wing defender in Metta World Peace, who is serving a seven-game suspension for elbowing James Harden. The Thunder finished just 7-7 in their last 14 games, but with Harden cleared to return from a concussion, they are a notch above the Lakers.
The Lakers will miss World Peace against either opponent, but they might feel his absence more against Denver. The Nuggets will push the pace in high altitude and run out a lot of smaller lineups against which World Peace could have theoretically played power forward for small stretches. I’d bet good money that the Thunder brain trust, for its part, would much prefer a first-round matchup with the Nuggets than a conference-finals rematch against the disciplined, patient Mavericks.
• The Bobcats’ date with history
If the Bobcats (7-58) lose to the Knicks, they will finish with the worst single-season winning percentage in NBA history, along with a 23-game losing streak. Their failure this season has resulted in a passionate discussion about tanking. The more rational branch of that discussion has focused on a lottery system that rewards bad teams with top draft picks and asks the fair question of whether a different draft system might change the way teams behave. The hysterical branch of that discussion has taken the Bobcats out of their specific context, placed them in thin air and used them as an example for all that is wrong in the NBA.
Context matters, of course. It is indisputable that by the summer of 2010, Charlotte had done three damaging things:
• Drafted horribly, highlighted by the selections of Adam Morrison (No. 3 pick in 2006) and Alexis Ajinca (No. 20 pick in 2008).
• Traded Tyson Chandler to Dallas for Erick Dampier’s nonguaranteed contract, Eduardo Najera and Matt Carroll in July 2010.
• Allowed Raymond Felton to leave as a free agent that same month.
The bad picks are a matter of luck and management ineptitude, and Felton’s departure cleared playing time for point guard D.J. Augustin, the ninth pick in 2008. The Chandler deal was a disaster on its face, but the criticism at the time focused on the salary implications, not Chandler’s skill as a player. Chandler’s 2009-10 season in Charlotte was probably the worst season of his career, and he logged just 60 minutes in a first-round playoff loss that season. When the Bobcats dealt him, we roared because they had managed to take on more long-term salary in what was supposed to be a salary dump, not because Chandler was some defensive god whose departure would doom Charlotte to the basement.
The tanking discussion, though, has really focused on what the Bobcats have done since. And my challenge to those who have criticized Charlotte’s management has long been to present an alternative path for the Bobcats over the last 20 months or so. They traded Gerald Wallace, their best player, to Portland for two first-round picks (the first of those picks was 19th in 2011 and the second is top-12-protected from 2013-2015 and unprotected in 2016). That’s not a terrible return for a complementary player approaching 30, even one on a contract that probably undervalues him. They probably could have done better, given what Portland received for Wallace in dealing him to the Nets last month (a top-three-protected pick in this year’s draft), but Charlotte’s return is at least somewhere in the reasonable continuum of possibilities. They dealt Stephen Jackson for a roughly equivalent player, Corey Maggette, on a nearly identical contract and the right to move up in last year’s draft, in which they selected Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo.
The Bobcats are hardly the first team to realize that their ceiling was “reach .500 and get slaughtered in the first round,” and to then tear down by dealing veterans for draft picks, developing young players and clearing the books. Their decisions also stem from financial realities unique to their market and ownership. It is possible to imagine that an unweighted lottery system, in which each team would have an equal chance of landing the top pick, might have incentivized the Bobcats to keep their .500 team and hope to catch lightning in a bottle. It’s also possible such a system would bring unintended consequences, and it would not change the fact that acquiring a top-10 superstar is the best — and damn near only — path to winning an NBA title.
Besides the Chandler deal, Charlotte’s biggest personnel sin since the start of 2010 might be a move it made in an effort to get better immediately at the expense of its future: dealing a first-round pick to Chicago for Tyrus Thomas in February 2010. How’d that work out?
And too much of the Bobcats’ discussion has ignored the injuries and personnel issues that have turned them from a run-of-the-mill awful team into a historically bad one. Boris Diaw, perhaps their best player, showed up embarrassingly out of shape and immediately alienated coach Paul Silas. Ditto for DeSagana Diop. Thomas, Augustin and Gerald Henderson all missed stretches early in the season with injuries, and Maggette will end up playing in only half of Charlotte’s games.
With better injury luck and more personal responsibility from Diaw, Charlotte would just be a bad team rather than a misunderstood symbol of incompetence and tanking.
• Lottery odds
Speaking of tanking: A bunch of games have major lottery implications. Here are the eight worst records entering Thursday:
Golden State 23-42
New Jersey 22-43
New Orleans 21-44
The Warriors are the stars of the show. They get to to keep their first-round pick only if it is in the top seven of the lottery; otherwise, it goes to Utah. As you can see, the Warriors now have the eighth-worst record. If they finish in that slot, they’d have only a 10 percent chance of landing within the top seven and a 72 percent chance of landing at No. 8. Luckily for them, the Nets play the Raptors, meaning one of those teams will finish tied with the Warriors — assuming the Warriors find a way to lose to the Spurs. In that case, Golden State and the New Jersey/Toronto winner would go into a random drawing for the No. 7 and No. 8 spots in the lottery. The difference is monumental: Entering the lottery at No. 7 would give the Warriors a 75 percent chance of earning either the No. 7 pick or one of the top three — and thus of keeping their pick.
The other drama comes in the cluster of teams at 21 wins, all of whom are in action. As Tom Ziller illustrates in this handy chart, dropping from No. 3 to No. 6 (possible, because finishing at 22 wins would mean tying the Nets/Raptors loser and going into another random drawing) and everywhere in between shifts the odds hugely for each draft slot. The Cavs played Kyrie Irving only 10 minutes Wednesday, and he reportedly won’t play Thursday against the Bulls. The Hornets (who visit Houston) have been playing to win down the stretch, and the Kings (who play host to the Lakers) are only 2-10 in April.