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15. Brooklyn Nets (15)
The Nets have had roughly the same point differential per 100 possessions regardless of whether Kyrie Irving is on the floor. They’re 8-12 when he plays and 18-17 when he doesn’t. After the mess that was the 2018-19 Boston Celtics, these numbers will add fuel to the “Does Kyrie make your team better?” fire.
With news breaking this week that Irving is set to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, we’ll get another extended look at the Kyrie-less Nets. Early returns are encouraging. Since the All-Star break, they’ve taken the 76ers to overtime in Philadelphia and blown out the Charlotte Hornets.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (11)
Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Grizzlies currently sit in eighth place in the West, but FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 7 percent chance to hang onto that spot. Given their youth and the fact that they have the league’s most difficult remaining schedule, it’s not hard to understand the math’s skepticism.
But this group has already made a habit of exceeding expectations. Memphis’ preseason over/under was set at 25.5, a mark the Grizzlies have already beaten.
13. New Orleans Pelicans (14)
The Pelicans are plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions with Zion Williamson on the floor and minus-1.5 with him off, giving him a 12.4 net rating swing that ranks in the 96th percentile. When Zion shares the floor with Derrick Favors, New Orleans is plus-15.7 points per 100 possessions.
Of course, the sample sizes are small. Zion hasn’t been back for long. But when he’s in the game, the Pelicans absolutely look like a playoff team.
Zion, specifically, has been every bit the athletic nightmare he was projected to be. Defenders bounce off him like he’s some kind of MCU superhero in the paint. On the rare occasions someone is able to impede his progress, he shows touch around the rim that usually takes years for bigs to learn.
With a handful of solid veterans and young stars (Favors, Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, just to name a few) surrounding him, New Orleans looks like a team that could make the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers sweat a bit in a seven-game series.
They still have plenty of ground to make up, but the Pelicans have a 67 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.
12. Miami Heat (10)
Miami has cooled way down since its 31-13 start. The Heat have lost seven of their last 12 and five of their last seven. Recently acquired Andre Iguodala is minus-12 in five games, including a minus-33 dud in 23 minutes against the Hawks.
There’s plenty of time for the Heat to get back on track, though, especially since they have one of the East’s easier remaining schedules. The addition of two switchy defenders in Iguodala and Jae Crowder should help the 13th-ranked defense, too.
11. Philadelphia 76ers (12)
Philadelphia has been a bit of a roller coaster this season. And news that broke Sunday could signal another dip for the Sixers.
“After lower back injury on Saturday, Ben Simmons underwent initial evaluation in Philadelphia today and will undergo further testing tomorrow…” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted. “He will be out for Monday’s game vs. Atlanta.”
Simmons was in the midst of a dominant stretch. Over 19 games from the turn of the calendar to this injury, he averaged 21.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.2 steals, though Philly was actually minus-14 in his minutes.
With Joel Embiid healthy, the 76ers should be able to survive his absence. Over the course of the season, Philadelphia is plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor without Simmons, compared to plus-2.8 when Simmons is on without Embiid.
With the Hawks, Cavs and Knicks next up on the slate, the Sixers might actually be able to make up some ground while Simmons recovers.