The first weekend of March Madness is over. You spent the whole weekend watching NCAA games and missed what happened in the NBA. Now that your bracket is busted, you want to get back to the NBA, at least until next weekend. Here’s a quick debrief on what happened while watching college ball and how it affects the rest of the season.
Disclaimer: For this article, I won’t look at the trade rumors and everything else to do with the deadline. I’ll just be focusing on what happened on the court. For trade deadline coverage, check out all the articles on the Sideline Sources NBA page.
LeBron and Lamelo Injuries
In the Los Angeles Lakers game against the Hawks on Saturday, LeBron James sprained his ankle and had to leave. According to The Athletic, the injury is a high right ankle sprain, and James is out indefinitely. This leaves the Lakers without their two stars for the foreseeable future.
The impact of this injury will be determined by how soon LeBron and Anthony Davis can make their returns. The Lakers roster without them will struggle to get wins, mainly due to their lack of offense.
Montrezl Harrell led the team in scoring against the Pelicans on Tuesday with 18 points, Marcus Morris and Kyle Kuzma also chipped in with 16 points each. They have no primary scorer, so their box scores will likely look similar in future games. Against the Pelicans, they didn’t look horrible on offense and lost in a blowout due to a lack of defense. Despite that, this game does not suggest their offense without LeBron and AD will function going forward.
They shot 48.6% from 3 against the Pelicans, well above their season average of 35.4%, a lowly 22nd in the league. It’s safe to assume that level of shooting won’t continue, which will make it very hard to generate offense. More than likely, teams will pack the paint against them and hope they don’t get hot from 3. Unless the team gets hot and stays hot up until Lebron and AD come back, they’re in trouble.
The real question is how this affects their postseason. The western conference is a tight race right now; the Lakers currently sit in the 4th spot, 1.5 games ahead of the Nuggets. The Spurs, currently in the 7th seed, are 4 games behind the Lakers. The most likely scenario is the Lakers end up in the 5th or 6th seed going into the playoffs. This all hinges on when Lebron returns, which feels unknown right now.
Avoiding the play-in tournament is important. That gives the team a little extra rest and keeps them out of a possible upset situation. Rest is particularly important for this team considering Lebron and AD are currently injured. That’s why this team needs to stay above that 7th seed.
It’s not ideal to be the 5th or 6th seed, but it’s monumentally better than being in the play-in tournament. The west is good, and whatever teams end up in the 9th and 10th spots aren’t going to be easy outs. It only takes two games for a lower seed to win the play-in series, so an upset is much more likely than in a regular playoff series.
If they end up in the 5th or 6th seed, it’s still a tough road for them. Three straight series’ without home-court advantage, and likely playing the top two teams in the conference. If LeBron and AD are healthy by then, they would probably still be the favorite in those series, but the road is a lot tougher. The Heat made the finals as a 5 seed last year, but that was in the bubble, where nobody had homecourt advantage. Before that, only Houston (1995) and New York (1999) have made the playoffs as a 5 seed or lower.
We still shouldn’t overreact to this situation. The most likely result at the end of the season is LeBron and AD are healthy, returning the Lakers to favorites in the west. But it shouldn’t be glossed over, LeBron’s injury shakes things up in the west, and the longer he remains out things will only get worse for the Lakers.
LaMelo Ball injured his hand on the same day as LeBron when the Hornets played the Clippers. The injury is a right wrist fracture, and Ball is listed out indefinitely. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, is reporting that Ball is expected to miss the rest of the season.
For the Hornets, losing LaMelo is just as significant as the Lakers losing LeBron. Of course, it doesn’t have the same implications at the top of the conference. But for fans of the NBA and the Hornets, it hurts. LaMelo has put together a great season so far, and he’s been one of the best players on the most fun team in the league. He’s been playing so well that he may already have the ROTY award locked up despite this injury.
The Hornets are the 5th seed in the east right now but are only half a game above the 8th seeded Celtics. The east is an even closer race than the west this year, which means the Hornets must play well to keep their chance at the playoffs. Losing LaMelo hurts their chances but doesn’t eliminate them from the race. They have a strong guard rotation even without him. Terry Rozier, Malik Monk, and Devonte Graham can step up in his absence.
They also have one of the easier schedules in the NBA going forward. According to Tankathon, they have the 7th easiest schedule remaining in the league. They will be hard-pressed to stay above the 7th seed and avoid the play-in series. It’s hard to imagine that they will be able to stay ahead of both the Celtics and Heat, despite their respective struggles. But it’s also hard to see them dropping below the 10th seed and out of the play-in.
Even if they can stay in the play-in, it would be considered a win this season for Charlotte. Their eyes are looking to the future, so success this year is a bonus. They’ve been exciting to watch this year and promise to be just that going forward. The loss of LaMelo is unfortunate in the short term, but they should be in no rush to bring him back. LaMelo has a long future ahead of him in this league, and the Hornets should do everything they can to play be a big piece in it.
The Hawks are Good Now
Before losing to the Clippers in their most recent game, the Hawks were on an 8-game win streak. The streak dates back to before the all-star game. In fact, it dates back to coach Nate McMillan’s first game (surely the 10 seeded Pacers are looking on with envy as their former coach leads the Hawks up the standings). This streak has the Hawks as the 4th seed in the east and playing their best basketball all season.
Nate McMillan has got this team clicking, and it feels like the early season chemistry issues are in the rear-view mirror. The Hawks organization has been in a win-now mode all season. It started with acquiring Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Rajon Rondo in the offseason. When the Hawks began underperforming this season, things got tense throughout the organization. This pressure culminated in the firing of head coach Lloyd Pierce. Assistant Nate McMillan stepped in as the interim for the rest of the season.
Since then, the Hawks are 8-1 and look like a new team. They haven’t played any of the elite teams in the league on this streak. Despite that, it feels like they’re on a much better track. This win streak is what the Hawks needed. It allowed them to figure out what works and what doesn’t. They’ve responded to McMillan well, and the win streak has him off to a great start as head coach. It’s also allowed them to build some camaraderie in the locker room, which they lacked early in the season.
John Collins has been on the trading block all season, but a trade feels less likely now. According to Yahoo Sports, the Hawks are now reluctant to move Collins, especially after the recent win streak. Collins also recently stated that he would like to spend his whole career in Atlanta.
“I want to stay. I want to be true to Atlanta for my entire career… it means something to me. I want to be here. I want my future to be here.”John Collins
It looks like Atlanta is going to keep this core together, at least for this year. This recent stretch shows a legitimate playoff team, as most expected coming into this season. Just like the Hornet’s this team’s best years are ahead. That doesn’t mean that this year isn’t important. They have a chance to build on their success and gain valuable playoff experience this year. Whatever the hawks do the rest of the season and into the playoffs will greatly impact their future.
Struggles in Utah
After a hot start to the season, the Jazz has cooled down considerably of late. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games, including a loss to the Wizards. Amazingly they are still first in the west by 2 games, which shows how well they started the season.
So far, this doesn’t seem like much to worry about for Jaz fans. Their playoff seeding hasn’t been affected at all by this stretch. Outside of the loss to the Wizards, they haven’t lost to any terrible teams. The biggest problem for the Jazz over this period has been the defense.
This season they have a 108.7 defensive rating (5th in the league). During the last ten games, it’s dropped to 114.6 (22nd). Another significant stat is their opponent’s field goal %. They’ve held opponents to 45.2% shooting this year, also 5th in the league. Over the last 10 games, they’ve allowed opponents to shoot 48.7%, 24th in the league.
Their defense has dropped off recently and having one of the worst defenses in the league is a great way to lose games. It’s as simple as that for this Jazz team. If they get back to playing good defense, then they should get back to their winning ways.
Many people doubt this Jazz team as real contenders, saying they are just a regular-season team. The next stretch will be a great test for this Jazz team. They have a chance to prove that they are a contender this year.
They’re going through a tough stretch right now, but can they bounce back? If they can, it shows resilience. Overcoming adversity is so important in this league, especially come playoff time. It’s up to this team to prove itself.
If they don’t bounce back, it’s a bad sign for two reasons. The first is more apparent: if they can’t get their defense back to an elite level, they aren’t championship contenders; it’s that simple. This is a good offensive team, but it’s their defense that puts them on a championship level.
Secondly, it’s a sign that they will struggle to overcome adversity when it matters. To win a title, you have to go through a lot. Problems will occur, and you need a group that will come together to overcome those problems, not shy away.
I want to see the Jazz close the rest of the season strong. If they do that, I trust them as championship contenders. If not, well, there are many good teams in the west that want that title.