17. Brooklyn Nets (21-23)
The drop-off from the East’s top five to teams trying to secure the last three playoff stops is as steep as pessimists feared. Not that the Nets intend to apologize after the barren half-decade they endured in the wake of their disastrous 2014 trade with Boston. While the Knicks tank their way to a shot at Zion Williamson, New Yorkers may get postseason games after all, thanks to success stories like Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen.
18. New Orleans Pelicans (20-23)
It is a misnomer to say Anthony Davis has no help; Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle are all accomplished players. The Pelicans’ problems have been health (most notably injuries for Mirotic and the point guard Elfrid Payton) and difficulties in playing Davis, Mirotic and Randle together even when they are all available. New Orleans, as a result, is facing the biggest possible issue: Scenarios that force them to trade The Brow grow more plausible by the day.
19. Washington Wizards (18-25)
Indiana has crashed the East’s upper crust to give the conference its own Fab Five, but we were not exaggerating the drop-off to the chasing pack. Look no further than the nation’s capital for proof, with the Wizards still firmly in the playoff chase despite losing John Wall to season-ending heel surgery. Recent wins over Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Milwaukee should tell you that the Wiz are not heeding some fans’ calls to tank.
20. Dallas Mavericks (20-22)
Luka Doncic has a real shot to become the first rookie to achieve All-Star status since Blake Griffin in 2011, which already makes this a more successful season in Dallas than many forecast. But the huge disparity between the Mavericks’ play at home (16-4) and on the road (4-18), Dirk Nowitzki’s health woes in what they hoped would be a heartwarming final season and J.J. Barea’s season-ending Achilles tear, have combined to snuff out some of the joy.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves (21-22) As regular readers know, Glen Taylor’s passive ownership style is a frequent source of consternation for the Committee. But give Taylor this: Firing Tom Thibodeau when he did to replace him with the 32-year-old Ryan Saunders, bizarre as the timing seemed, meant eating an estimated $20 million left on Thibodeau’s contract. If only Taylor was that decisive back in June or July when the Wolves really needed to start dealing with Butler’s discontent.
22. Charlotte Hornets (19-23)
The Michael Jordan-owned Hornets have All-Star Weekend hosting duties in a month to assure the franchise and city a measure of prominence this season. But what they, especially Jordan, really want is a playoff berth that is by no means certain given the limited scoring punch Charlotte can field beyond its do-everything guard Kemba Walker. It also does not help that the Hornets have already racked up a league-high eight costly losses in one-possession games.
23. Detroit Pistons (18-23)
Since it hit my radar during an early season visit to Motown, it has been one of my favorite stats of the season: Blake Griffin leads the league in touches per game at 93.3. Nikola Jokic and Harden are the only others in 90s, but the number doubles as an illustration of the Pistons’ shortcomings as much as it spotlights Griffin’s special ability as a power player to handle the ball like a guard. He is clearly compensating for multiple holes in the roster.