The NBA’s All-Star break means a slightly shortened week of regular games. Teams didn’t play on Friday, as that was the night of the Rising Stars Challenge for many of the league’s young players. However, we have enough to determine which teams are trending up and which are trending down.
Let’s check in with the state of the league’s biggest risers and fallers from this week.
NBA Week 16 Hotties
New Orleans Pelicans (23-32, No. 11 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 2-1)
The Pelicans are just fun, aren’t they? A playoff berth seems like a definite long shot right now, but it is not completely unreasonable. New Orleans is now 17-10 in its last 27 games and is 5.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are a solid team, but they have a clearly negative point differential and a reliance on young players with very little experience deep into an NBA season.
Let’s focus on the Pels. New Orleans used three performances of more than 124 points this week to move up to 16th in offensive rating, and that is a spot the team should improve on moving forward in the year. Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Derrick Favors and Josh Hart is such a dynamic core. It is also one that has the talent and on-court fit to be a playoff team.
Can the Pelicans defy all odds to make the postseason? I wouldn’t doubt it.
Washington Wizards (20-33, No. 9 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 2-1)
The Wizards were supposed to be a bottom-three seed in the East, but they just sort of keep hanging on without embracing a true tank. Washington is doing a nice job keeping a youngish roster while still competing and remaining flexible for the roster.
What’s leading the surprisingly respectable season this squad is having? Even though the Wizards have a terrible defense, Bradley Beal is still a definite star, Davis Bertans has been an absolute sniper, Rui Hachimura is a surprisingly consistent rookie scorer and the depth pieces have played hard.
The Wizards’ defense is now coming around with Isaiah Thomas off the roster. The franchise would love to close up that three-game gap with the Orlando Magic for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Utah Jazz (36-18, No. 4 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
What did I like about Utah’s week? The three Jazz wins came against the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. All three squads are easily above .500. Utah entered the week with just a 9-13 record against teams .500 and above.
Overall, the Jazz now have a four-game winning streak going. This comes immediately after a five-game losing streak that saw the team play unusually poor defense. The Jazz perimeter defense is still struggling a bit, but the team’s rebounding was super impressive this week. Center Rudy Gobert led the charge by averaging 16.7 caroms per contest during the three games.
The Jazz have some weaknesses as a team, but the rim protection of Gobert, the offensive creation of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson and the shooting of Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles is a deadly combination of skill sets.
NBA Week 16 Cold List
Miami Heat (35-19, No. 4 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-2)
The Heat have been just kind of staying afloat the past few weeks. Miami is 8-9 in its last 17 games and is looking more like the team I thought it would be heading into the season. Granted, Jimmy Butler and Meyers Leonard have missed some time recently, but the Heat are still not playing to their earlier standards.
The additions of Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala give this team some definite toughness, but I do worry about the Heat’s relative lack of star power in the postseason.
Like the team directly below them in the standings, the Philadelphia 76ers, winning on the road is becoming a major bugaboo for Heat. Miami is just 13-16 on the road this year despite being 22-3 at home.
Los Angeles Clippers (37-18, No. 3 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-3)
My personal NBA Finals pick for this year is not where it wants to be right now. The Clippers went on a four-game road trip right before the All-Star break and emerged from the break with more questions than answers.
In that span, Los Angeles lost by 27 to the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that hadn’t won in a whole month. The Clippers also lost consecutive games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, two teams who are very good but don’t quite have the talent level of a healthy Clippers team.
The team really misses the tenacity of point guard Patrick Beverley, and now a struggling Paul George also has a hamstring injury. The combination of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell is not playing good defense right now, which puts a lot of pressure on superstar Kawhi Leonard to solidify the team as a two-way superstar.
Portland Trail Blazers (25-31, No. 9 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-2)
No one in the Western Conference has been more valuable to his team than Damian Lillard this season. I realize that’s just my personal opinion, but I think it’s pretty reasonable. Dame is averaging 30 points and eight assists per game for a squad with basically no big man or wing depth due to injuries.
Now the Blazers will see what they can do without Lillard, who just injured his groin and is expected to be out for one to two weeks.
Even with Lillard, though, the Blazers lost two very big games right before the All-Star break. Two other teams that are fighting for the West’s No. 8 seed (the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans) both beat Portland and struck a major blow to the Blazers’ playoff hopes. I have absolutely no faith in the Blazers’ 27th-ranked defense or an offense that will now have to feature more of mercurial center Hassan Whiteside.