The NBA playoffs are upon us, with 16 teams competing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But what about the other guys? What about the teams we wish were in the playoffs? We may know, in our heads, that they didn't do enough to get into the postseason, but that doesn't change how we feel in our hearts. We'd like to see these teams competing in Bill Simmons's Entertaining as Hell Tournament, but until that day, we'll just have to write longingly about why we wish they had made it to the promised land.
Portland Trail Blazers
Sean Fennessey: This isn't exactly a song for the Blazers because the Blazers were hard to watch this year. Nic Batum was long and lean and aggressively French, J.J. Hickson played like an exploding can of soda, and Weber State's Damian Lillard was a revelation to those who enjoy tiny-man dunks but don't much care for consistency. (He is only the Rookie of the Year because Anthony Davis hasn't totally figured out how to play basketball yet. He will.) I won't miss those Blazers and I certainly won't miss their bench, mostly because their bench doesn't exist beyond the many terrified faces of Meyers Leonard.
On Sunday, Bradley Beal played in only his fourth game since March 3, and his first since March 20, after being sidelined with ankle issues. His return and continued chemistry with John Wall — playing like he really, really wants that max contract — were basically the only reasons to watch one of those sad late-season games between lottery teams when Toronto visited Washington on Sunday. Beal did not disappoint, racking up 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including a blistering 6-of-9 from 3-point range, with a good chunk of those 3’s coming when Wall ran a high pick-and-roll and kicked to Beal on the weak-side corner.
That's basically what Washington envisioned when they snagged Beal with the no. 3 pick in last year’s draft. But Wall began the season injured, and Beal had to carry too much, too soon as a key cog of what was then the league’s worst offense by a considerable margin. When the calendar flipped to 2013, Beal was shooting under 40 percent overall and a hair below 30 percent from 3-point range; critics were ready to dub him the latest Washington draft bust.
But he's been on fire since Wall’s return. He’s shooting 48 percent overall, and 50.8 percent percent from 3, when he’s on the floor with Washington’s franchise point guard, and a much higher share of his attempts in those Wall minutes come from the tastiest spots — the corners and the restricted area, per NBA.com.
After his rousing return, Beal sat down (or stood up, actually) for an extended one-on-one with Grantland.
The NBA is funny this way: We still don’t know all that much about John Wall, but from now until the end of October, the Wizards will already have to wrestle with the idea of giving Wall an extension as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Wall missed a chunk of his rookie season with knee and foot issues. His second season was the lockout-shortened mess in which he dealt with lingering knee pain, and he missed the first 33 games of this season after doctors discovered the early signs of a stress fracture in his left knee.
But the clock on Wall’s rookie contract hasn’t stopped ticking. And as a no. 1 overall pick, Wall may well demand both a maximum extension and the extra fifth year Washington can tack on if it names Wall its “designated player.” Washington can choose only one such player among its current roster, and given what Bradley Beal has shown in the past six weeks, it will at least have to kick around the idea of saving the honor for him. Minnesota’s desire to keep the “designated player” tag in reserve for Ricky Rubio influenced its negotiations with Kevin Love and played a role in Love insisting on an opt-out after just three seasons on his new deal.
The Wizards are 15-13 since Wall returned, and they’ve been better on both ends with him on the floor. He has meshed nicely with Beal and Nene, and the Wiz have maintained a top-10 defense all season. Wall is on pace to shatter his career-best assist rate, and though he’s still a below-average shooter even from the midrange, his accuracy on those shots — which he’s taking more than ever — is beginning to creep within sniffing distance of the league average.
But he’s still shooting just 41 percent with five 3-pointers combined over the past two seasons and has a borderline-alarming turnover rate. The Wizards, dead last in points per possession, are indeed scoring more efficiently with Wall, but their scoring mark with him on the floor would still rank only 25th overall.
In other words: This is a strange, unproven player entering a very important phase of his career and financial life. During Washington’s visit to Brooklyn on Friday, Wall sat down with Grantland for a one-on-one about his game, his team, and his future.
There are a number of incredible stories currently populating the sports pages here in the nation's capital. Obviously and quite appropriately, the heroics of His Holiness the Black Jesus Robert Griffin III predominate. Not only does he seem to win an award or set a new Redskins or NFL rookie record every game he plays, but, in the unlikeliest of unlikely turns, he also has this town dreaming about the possibility of playoffs. The Redskins host the Giants next Monday night, which will also mark the first relevant football game played in D.C. in December in almost seven years (to be truthful, it feels like 70).
It’s never too early in an NBA season to judge a player or team’s performance — just ask Mike Brown. The season has just begun, but important trends are already emerging. Some are familiar; some are brand-new. In terms of scoring, as of Friday, NBA players had made 11,039 out of their 24,940 shots (44.2 percent), which is slightly down from last season’s 44.8 percent, which was slightly down from the 2010-11 season mark of 45.8 percent. Looking at scoring across the league on a team-by-team basis, some interesting things start to emerge. One of them is the disparity between two teams in the NBA’s Southeast division: Miami and Washington. It's been a tale of two cities. In one, we see unmatched offensive firepower. In the other, it’s a tale of woe.
In their eight years of existence, the Charlotte Bobcats have drafted three players from UNC, one from Duke, and one from Boston College, a school that plays up to seven games a year in the state of North Carolina. They have drafted one player from Texas, a Naismith runner-up from Gonzaga, and two UConn greats. Outside of trading for Alexis Ajinca’s draft rights in 2008, the Bobcats have found nearly every undersized or questionably athletic college star in the country. Some, like Jared Dudley, turn out to be valuable players on other teams. Others, like Sean May, quickly confirm that college post moves sometimes don’t translate to the NBA. The Bobcats haven’t fully developed a player since their inception in 2004. They handcuffed Raymond Felton, they didn’t tell the managers of all Charlotte-area Waffle Houses to stop serving May, they turned Gerald Henderson into the worst version of Kobe Bryant in the history of versions of Kobe Bryant.
Evaluating wing players is difficult because there are many types: shooting specialists, athletic freaks, defensive specialists, slashers, and more. Very often, teams choose a player based on need as opposed to sheer talent. That said, here are my top prospects.