Five NBA teams knocking on the door of playoff legitimacy

We've seen a healthy amount of teams get off to good starts so far, just as we've seen teams that started hot go to pieces (Pistons). What's funny is how perceptions can shape so much of these evaluations, rather than a big-picture view. The Thunder (who have been dissected enough) are thought of as in disarray despite being two spots out of fifth in the Western Conference, all because they lost three buzzer-beater games. 

The teams over .500 aren't all roses and accolades, though. Now is the time when we see teams that got off to good starts come back down to Earth. For these squads hovering just around .500, it's a good time to examine them and decide if they are legitimately playoff-worthy teams or not. Here's a look at five teams and whether they are knocking on the door of playoff legitimacy. 


Portland Trail Blazers

  • Record: 14-13
  • Pythagorean record: 16-11
  • Offense: 103.5 points per 100 possessions (19th)
  • Defense: 102.5 points per 100 possessions (7th)
  • Net Rating: Plus-1.0 (11th)
  • Strength of Schedule: 26th

The Blazers started off hot and then hit the skids. Their profile, as I wrote about here, was baffling for much of the first six weeks of the season. This team did not have the look of a top-five defensive team, and yet, not only were they there statistically, but the data backed that up. In identical fashion, this team looked like an offensive dynamo, not a pitiful short-gunned squad. 

The defense, sadly, has begun to regress in dramatic fashion, as Jusuf Nurkic's injury has helped to force a slide to 25th in defensive rating across the last ten games. Portland hasn't held a defensive rating below 105 in the past six games, or in eight of the last nine games. Their strength of schedule is going to increase. Things are about to get tougher for Portland, not easier. 

And yet ... there's reason to believe they'll be fine. Damian Lillard is finally starting to heat up, shooting 37 percent from downtown over the last seven games. C.J. McCollum is reliable. Nurkic will have about as many bad nights as good -- that's the trick with Nurkic -- but he's not so essential to their offense that they need him to hold them up. Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting 48 percent on a career-high number of attempts. Even if he regresses, he's still a legit weapon. If they find any way to flip Evan Turner for a true floor-spacer -- you know, someone like Allen Crabbe -- then watch out. 

All in all, honestly, with two legit stars and whatever Nurkic brings, this team will be good enough for a playoff spot. They're not for real in a could-make-a-playoff-run-to-the-conference-finals sense. But they're also not headed for the lottery, either. 

Verdict: Legit ... barely.


New York Knicks

  • Record: 14-13
  • Pythagorean record: 14-13
  • Offense: 105.1 points per 100 possessions (14th)
  • Defense: 105.2 points per 100 possessions (15th)
  • Net Rating: Minus-0.2 (17th)
  • SOS rank: 13th

Hark! A wild Knicks team above .500 appears! Enjoy this moment, they so rarely last. The Knicks are interesting this season, and that alone should be enough to get their fans through April if they can just survive. Their resume, as you see above, is remarkably average. Not only that, but they are 8-5 after losses, just 6-7 after wins. They don't streak, and they don't fade. They just kind of hum along. Here's their game-by-game offensive and defensive ratings:

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They've played a home-heavy slate, but they've played a decent schedule. What's funny is that the Knicks are 10th in point differential in wins, which means when they win, they win big. They're also 25th in net rating in losses, which means when they lose, they get destroyed. 

Kristaps Porzingis has obviously led them and been sensational, but he has started to drift back a little bit. The Knicks go as he goes, and they are 8-2 in games where he scores 30 or more. They are 1-4 in games where he finishes the game and scores 20 points or fewer. There have been surprising contributors, though, like Doug McDermott, Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter, and veteran Jarrett Jack back in the league. Jeff Hornacek deserves credit as well for opening up the floor the way he has since Melo departed. 

Their 1-8 road record brings with it huge concern, but it's also not uncommon. The most encouraging sign for them is their 10-5 record vs. teams under .500. New York's not going to scare anyone in a first-round matchup, but just making it would be a great step forward for the franchise. 

Verdict: Legit.


Denver Nuggets

  • Record: 15-13
  • Pythagorean record: 14-14
  • Offense: 107.6 points per 100 possessions (8th)
  • Defense: 107.6 points per 100 possessions (24th)
  • Net Rating: Minus-0.1 (16th)
  • Strength of Schedule: 24th

Denver was a top defense and a bottom offense the first month of the season ... then it flipped. Much of this has to do with injuries. Paul Millsap's wrist injury was catastrophic for the defense, and losing Nikola Jokic to an ankle injury he only recently recovered from made it all the worse. Denver is a wretched team on the road, and a great team at home, much like the Knicks. The Nuggets are led by their phenomenal young center, just like the Knicks. They have essentially the same net rating. There are a lot of comparisons to be made here. 

There's no telling when Millsap will be back. It could be February, or it may not be until closer to April. When he returns, he'll have to fit back in, on a team he had just started to gel with. There's just so much for Denver to have to manage. 

Denver has played long road trips with long home stands in-between, which isn't great for balance. Its overall opponent strength has been weak, but after the first two weeks of the season, it's cut down on truly bad losses. The Nuggets can blow a lead like in Indiana and not show up like in Dallas, but without two starters, it's hard to really cut them down for it. They have to improve as the schedule does, however. 

Honestly, though? They have one problem, and only one thing that's holding them back. Blaming one player is unfair in almost every instance. The sport is complex and how players play together determines things. It's also mostly the case that even if a player doesn't fit with the starters, he boosts certain bench players, or that if he struggles with the bench, he can at least not sink the starters. 

Unfortunately, Emmanuel Mudiay is an outlier. Every single Denver player has a negative rating with him on the floor, and every one has a positive one with him off. The net rating with Mudiay is bad, and the net rating without him on the floor is good, below:


OFF Rating w/ MudiayDEF Rating w/ MudiayNET Rating w/ MudiayOFF Rating w/o MudiayDEF Rating w/o MudiayNET Rating w/o Mudiay

Gary Harris

105.7

109.8

-4.1

113.7

104

9.7

Will Barton

101.6

112.7

-11.1

113.5

104.7

8.9

Nikola Jokic

97.4

104.9

-7.5

113.6

102.4

11.2

Wilson Chandler

92.5

112.2

-19.8

115.3

103

12.3

Jamal Murray

94.8

127.6

-32.8

114.4

104.4

9.9

Trey Lyles

106.1

114.2

-8.2

109.5

106.4

3.2

Kenneth Faried

96.8

111.5

-14.6

114.4

111.7

2.8

Mason Plumlee

103.2

112.8

-9.7

114.7

103.3

11.4

Juancho Hernangomez

102.9

113.8

-10.9

109.8

104.8

5

Richard Jefferson

84

122

-38

94.9

92.3

2.5

To simplify this: The Nuggets outscore their opponent when every single player is on the court ... as long as Emmanuel Mudiay is not on the floor with them. The Nuggets are outscored by their opponent with every single player on the court ... if Emmanuel Mudiay is on the floor with them. 

There is no other way to say it, Denver has to get another point guard, because right now, the difference between being a playoff team and out is mostly the minutes Mudiay plays. 

Verdict: Not legit, not yet, even factoring injuries.


Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Record: 16-12
  • Pythagorean record: 15-13
  • Offense: 108.4 points per 100 possessions (5th)
  • Defense: 107.7 points per 100 possessions (25th)
  • Net Rating: Plus-0.7 (13th)
  • Strength of Schedule: 15th

Sound the alarms. It's been a long time since a Timberwolves team had things actually go their way. Typically, it's the opposite, a comedy of chaotic errors manipulated by both misfortune and the worst decisions at the worst time. So when things are actually going their way this season, the temptation is just to ride with it. 

However, there's real reason to fade this squad. Minnesota is 11-15-2 against the spread. Now, the spread isn't actually a determinant of team strength typically, but it does give you an idea of expectations. And against a middle-class schedule, they've underperformed against it. Their offense is stellar and their defense is horrific. This is made worse by the eye test. You never watch the Wolves offense and marvel at their execution. They're not routinely finding terrific open shots. 

You watch the Wolves' offense and their weak-side action just goes comatose in pick-and-rolls. There's very little flaring, no off-ball screens, nothing. The Wolves are 16th in effective field goal percentage, and eighth in turnover percentage. They boost up their offense by getting to the line (fourth in free-throw rate) and offensive rebounds (fourth). 

Some of this is sustainable. They have Karl-Anthony Towns who has been brilliant offensively, and Jimmy Butler's a master at getting contact. Jeff Teague has done a great job spacing the floor. But this feels, a least to some degree, like a house of cards, and with no real sign of the defense being salvageable, that portends very poorly down the line. 

Verdict: Probably a playoff team, but not nearly as good as this start indicates


Indiana Pacers

  • Record: 16-12
  • Pythagorean record: 15-13
  • Offense: 108.1 points per 100 possessions (7th)
  • Defense: 105.9 points per 100 possessions (15th)
  • Net Rating: Plus-2.2 (8th)
  • Strength of schedule: 7th

Their defense has come up from the bottom. Their offense has sustained. They share the ball. They have great depth. They've played a tough schedule. They are hanging with good teams (8-9 vs. teams over .500) and beating teams worse than they are (8-3).

All you worry about here is regression. Oladipo falling back to Earth, despite how great he looks and his skills all matching his career profile. The defense backsliding with so many young guys. An injury unraveling things. 

But look, this team has the resume, the signature wins, the metrics, the star performance, the underrated second-best player (Darren Collison who no one is talking about), the veteran finally contributing in a meaningful way (Thaddeus Young) and the good karma after the Paul George trade. 

There will be hard times ahead, and when they hit, how they respond will tell a lot about how their season is going to go. For right now, though?

Verdict: Legit!

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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