The stretch run is upon us, and a familiar cast of NBA teams will likely dominate the conversation over the final seven weeks of the regular season. But that doesn’t mean those are the only story lines worth watching.
The top teams will certainly get plenty of love. Can the Milwaukee Bucks maintain the top spot in the Eastern Conference? Will the Golden State Warriors hold off the Denver Nuggets for the No. 1 seed in the West? How will the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers integrate their big trade deadline acquisitions?
Teams that aren’t at the top of the standings but surrounded by drama will get a lot of attention, too. Will LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers miss the playoffs? How many more games will Anthony Davis play for the New Orleans Pelicans? And just how bad will the New York Knicks be?
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We’re not here to tackle those sort of questions right now. Instead, let’s dive into five teams that aren’t getting a ton of attention but are still worth your time over the remainder of the regular season.
The race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs will be fierce, and a young, hungry Kings team figures to be in the thick of it. De’Aaron Fox has emerged as one of the best young point guards in the league and Buddy Hield as one of the best outside shooters. They have size and versatility on the perimeter and capable young bigs inside.
Sacramento made moves at the trade deadline in an effort to end the league’s longest playoff drought. The Kings lacks veteran experience but won’t back down from anyone as they pursue their first playoff berth since 2006. And without a first-round pick in this year’s draft, there’s no incentive to tank down the stretch. Plus, it would be poetic if they kept their one-time nemesis Lakers out of the postseason.
Perhaps not quite as under-the-radar as others, the Pacers were essentially written off by everyone outside Indiana after Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury. The expected free-fall hasn’t happened, though, and the Pacers still occupy third place in the Eastern Conference.
Bojan Bogdanovic has increased his scoring since Oladipo went down, and Myles Turner anchors a defense with the second-best rating in the league. The Pacers are still a lock to make the playoffs and likely no worse than the fifth seed. But do they have enough to stay where they are and crack the Milwaukee-Toronto-Boston-Philadelphia quartet that everyone has penciled in as the top four seeds?
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One of the biggest surprises of the season, the Nets appear to be the safest bet to make the playoffs among teams in the lower half of the East chase. The Nets are still relatively young, but they’ve been consistent this season. A playoff appearance would be a huge boost for a franchise that was in salary-cap hell just a few years ago.
D’Angelo Russell matured into an All-Star this season. Caris LeVert is back after an early-season foot injury that looked like it could cost him the rest of the year. Spencer Dinwiddie is expected to return from a thumb injury later this month or in early March. The rebuild in Brooklyn should take a big step forward this spring.
As has been the case the past several years, the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race is a bit of a mess. The final two spots will be filled from a group of five teams, all of whom are currently under .500. The Heat enter the stretch run tied with the Pistons for eighth, but they’re also just 2½ games behind the sixth-place Nets.
Miami lacks a true No. 1 option but has a better collection of talent than other teams in the mix like Charlotte, Orlando or Washington. Goran Dragic is on the verge of returning to the floor after December knee surgery, which should buoy Miami’s late-season push for the playoffs. And the postseason will be much more fun if retiring Dwyane Wade’s #OneLastDance includes one final playoff appearance.
The Mavericks find themselves in a tough spot. They don’t have a guaranteed first-round pick in this year’s draft. Their selection transfers to the Hawks if it falls outside the top five, which presents a dilemma: Tank to improve their lottery odds and hope for a top-five pick, or try to push for the playoffs and start conveying the many first-rounders they owe?
It will be interesting to see the direction Dallas takes in the final seven weeks. Another high draft pick to pair with rookie sensation Luka Doncic and recently-acquired Kristaps Porzingis may be the smarter long-term strategy. But Doncic’s stellar play could keep the Mavericks out of the top five selections.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.