Somehow, the San Antonio Spurs still have a shot at the eighth seed in the West, but they need to get past some formidable competition to get there.
No one said making the playoffs was easy, even though that’s how it seemed for the San Antonio Spurs for the last 22 seasons. Even though there were signs of decay last year when they slipped out of the postseason picture in January/February, the Spurs expected to improve from then by adding a few frontcourt players and returning starting point guard Dejounte Murray.
However, playoffs aren’t coming quite as easily as the Spurs hoped they would. With a 3-10 record in their last 10 games including two losses to teams vying for the eighth seed, San Antonio didn’t anticipate the level of competition they’ve faced this year.
The NBA’s talent pool is growing stronger with each passing year as the international appeal of the sport draws new prospects from around the world. Basketball culture is being ingrained in the lives of many young Americans, and the sport has seen substantial growth in the last five years. This led to the expansion of the G-League, implementation of two-way contracts and a more competitive playoff race.
While the Spurs need to avoid beating themselves to get that coveted eighth seed, they also need to consider the competition in their way. There are five teams within five games of that playoff spot and one more just outside the bubble with a chance to fight back into the picture.
San Antonio needs to overcome the performances of some of these exceptional players, but first, they need to make sure they don’t get in their own way.
Next: Honorable Mentions
Honorable Mentions: Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli – San Antonio Spurs
Okay, so I will admit that this selection is a bit out of pocket. For that reason, I’ve got a few other noteworthy omissions for you to consider: Brandon Ingram, DeAndre Ayton, CJ McCollum and Jrue Holiday. Each of these players is vying for a playoff spot with their respective teams and has the wherewithal to make a noticeable impact in that effort.
Now, as for the two selections from the Spurs, well they’re just not good at defense. You see, the objective of a basketball game is to score points while limiting your opponent’s scoring output. Both Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli are talented at putting the ball in the basket, but they’re both such horrific defenders that their scoring doesn’t matter.
Forbes has the worst defensive rating of any player in the active lineup and a -5.6 Net Rating to match. He’s 6-foot-3 playing the shooting guard position without much athletic ability to make up for it, so he gets bullied on defense. This isn’t to say Bryn isn’t the productive NBA player, but the Spurs are statistically better with him off the floor and he has to make some changes as the team’s starter to help San Antonio become a playoff team once more.
As for Belinelli, the 33-year-old has been a shell of himself in the 2019-20 season. His off-balance jumpers still fall from time to time, but he’s posting his worst effective field goal percentage since the 2015-16 season and is shooting a career-low 38.2 percent from the field.
If these players don’t pull it together defensively, then head coach Gregg Popovich may finally issue a change by limiting their roles or shifting around the lineup. Oftentimes, these two will hurt the Spurs more than they help them, and it’s absolutely necessary to ensure that the Spurs aren’t their own undoing in the home stretch of the regular season.
Next: No. 5 - The Suns' Savior
5. Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns
Say what you want about the long and strenuous rebuild of the Phoenix Suns, but they did get something right by picking shooting guard Devin Booker with the 13th pick in the 2015 Draft. He came off the bench at Kentucky and was overshadowed by the Harrison Twins, who’ve since disappeared to the G-League and overseas. In the following years, he’s become an NBA All-Star and one of the most devastating individual scorers in the sport.
Booker is averaging 26 points per game with the best efficiency of his career. His playmaking is vastly improved after being forced to play point guard last season, resulting in 6.4 assists per game. We’re witnessing a truly special player realize his potential with Booker, and because of that, we can’t count the Suns out of the playoff race just yet.
Phoenix did a lot to improve their roster this offseason by adding Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Cameron Johnson. For the first time in his career, Book has a legitimate surrounding cast. It won’t be easy now that his running-mate, forward Kelly Oubre Jr. is done for the year, but Booker’s usage is likely to rise and with it, his scoring output should too.
The Suns are 7.2 points per 100 possessions better when Book is on the floor. He’s up to 38 minutes per game in his last five, a rate I’d expect to continue since head coach and former Spurs staffer Monty Williams knows it’s do-or-die time.
Booker has been outstanding this season, and he desperately wants to be a winner. It’s been a tough process for him since being drafted by the Valley of the Sun, but he’s going to give it his all until the final buzzer of the Suns’ 82nd game.
Next: No. 4 - Ja Rules
4. Ja Morant – Memphis Grizzlies
Just one short year ago at Murray State, point guard phenom Ja Morant began separating himself as an elite NBA prospect. He dominated through March and impressed through the pre-draft process, landing himself with the Memphis Grizzlies as the second overall pick. It didn’t take long for Morant to settle into life as a pro, as he coasts to the 2020 Rookie of the Year award.
Memphis wasn’t projected to come anywhere close to the playoffs, but Morant has something else in mind. His incredible play and innate leadership abilities have put the Grizzlies in position to make the playoffs for the first time since their first-round elimination to the Spurs in 2017.
Morant is averaging 17.7 points per game while generating 17.7 points with his seven assists per game. So essentially, Morant is responsible for 31 percent of the Grizzlies’ points each game. This doesn’t take into account the way his high-octane playstyle forces defenders into adjustments, opening opportunities for his teammates through secondary and tertiary passes.
That explosiveness that Morant brings to the table is infectious. Traditionally known for slowing down the game with a “grit-and-grind” mentality, the Grizzlies now rank seventh in pace after finishing dead-last in 2019. This is a direct result of Morant running the show and forcing his teammates to keep up with him in the process.
Already in his young career, Morant is proving himself to be the type of player that uplifts his teammates just by playing his game and leading by example. He’s a floor general, a spectacular athlete and one of the most skilled young players in the sport.
Next: No. 3 - Sacramento has found its King
3. De’Aaron Fox – Sacramento Kings
Few players combine the explosiveness, passing vision and basketball IQ of third-year point guard De’Aaron Fox from the Sacramento Kings. The 22-year-old was picked fifth in the 2017 NBA Draft by a franchise desperately searching for an answer to their pleas for help. Since then, the Kings have slowly but surely begun clawing their way back into the playoff conversation despite continually placing roadblocks in their own way.
The front office in Sacramento has been… questionable, at best, but they’ve drafted some talented players in recent years and Fox has been a grand slam for them. Elusive and shifty with the ball in his hands, Fox generates offense for his teammates with ease as shown by his 36.1 percent assist percentage.
I mentioned that Morant makes his teammates better, but a lot of that has to do with forcing them to adapt to his game. Fox is the inverse in that he takes into account each of his teammates’ skill sets and puts them in the best possible scenario to succeed. Since his array of finishing moves, including acrobatic layups, floaters or dunks, is so extensive, Fox draws attention to the rack and kicks out in a Russell Westbrook-esque fashion.
Sacramento has sneakily won five of its last six games. including wins against the LA Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies. The Kings overtook the Spurs for 11th and are now 3.5 games back from the eighth seed. With Fox turning up the heat and playing efficiently, Sacramento should be looked at as a genuine playoff contender down the final stretch of the season.
Fox is up to 23 points per game on 50 percent shooting since the All-Star break and if the trend continues, he could be the guiding force in ending the Kings’ 13-season playoff drought.
Next: No. 2 - Now the joy of New Orleans is in Zion
2. Zion Williamson – New Orleans Pelicans
This probably isn’t even a necessary page, since anyone and everyone knows that consensus No. 1 pick Zion Williamson is an otherwordly basketball talent at just 19 years old. The savior of the New Orleans Pelicans returned after missing most of his rookie campaign with a knee injury and has been the NBA’s newest golden boy, as predicted.
Through 15 games of his career, Zion is averaging 24.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game on 59.3 percent shooting from the field and 41.7 percent shooting from deep. He’s stronger than just about any player in the league and would likely beat anyone in a vertical leap challenge, but that’s not the real reason why Zion is so special.
It’s one thing to be a physical specimen, but it’s another to have his level of basketball IQ at such a young age. He’s a great passer, especially for his position, but not at the expense of his shot selection or turnover rate. The Pelicans are 13.9 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor, and he averages at 2.67 dunks per game. He’s an energizer, an equalizer and one of the most influential rookies this game has ever seen through this small sample size.
New Orleans has the easiest remaining strength of schedule and a talented roster to surround their star. He has two legitimate point guards to rely on in Lonzo Ball and the aforementioned Holiday, as well as a reliable playmaker to find him near the rim with Ingram. The team is designed to function through and around him, resulting in a winning record in games he’s played in.
The Pelicans are knocking at the door of the eighth seed, and Zion will do everything in his power to secure it. Even so, there’s one man even more determined than him to make the postseason.
Next: No. 1 - Put your Dollas on Dame
1. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: The Portland Trail Blazers are not nearly as good as they were last year. Losing center Jusef Nurkic to injury was devastating and reshaped the expectations of this team. Reaching the Western Conference Finals last year was not indicative of how they’d adapt to a new squad in 2020.
Injuries haven’t let up in Portland with wing Rodney Hood suffering a season-ending injury, big man Zach Collins missing all but three games this year and even the durable sidekick McCollum missed games here and there. However, franchise star Damian Lillard is set to return and his Blazers are still far from eliminated.
This is the best season of Dame’s career, according to Box Plus/Minus and Player Efficiency Rating (PER). He’s putting up 29.5 points, 7.9 assists 4.4 boards and a steal per game on the highest effective field goal percentage (55.6) of his career. The only other point guard to post a season with that scoring average and efficiency is Stephen Curry in his 2015-16 MVP campaign.
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Lillard has 25 games with at least 30 points and seven games with at least 40. His averages increased to 32.9 points and 8.5 assists per game since the start of 2020. He has accumulated 17 double-doubles, set his career-high in points with 61 and hit 11 threes in that game.
So yeah, that guy is pretty good. It would be an absolute shame for Lillard to be this incredible for an entire season and not have the chance to showcase his talent in the postseason.
Dame is set to return to the lineup on Wednesday against the Washington Wizards. As long as he’s healthy and ready to compete physically, he’s going to be terrifying to match up against for the rest of the season.
Anyone who has a meeting left with the Blazers should cower in fear. He’s the scariest player left vying for the eighth seed in the 2020 playoffs, so it’s a good thing the Spurs don’t need to face him again.