This is the juncture in the seesawing NBA season when champions begin raising their games and pretenders plummet into sinkholes. Disarray isn’t a permanent status. Over the course of an 82-game season, lulls, injuries, suspensions and a lack of focus can derail even the steadiest contenders. However, it’s all relative. An 11-game losing streak is par for the course in San Antonio, but a five-game losing streak for a roster that had a championship blueprint is a cause to sound the storm sirens, batten down the hatches, and prepare for the worst. These squads are spiraling from their previously lofty perches. How they respond will determine the fate of their seasons.
Ja Morant and the Grizzlies are such precocious contenders that sometimes we forget how young they actually are. That youth has reared its ugly head during the Grizz’s wayward streak. Dillon Brooks has been more obsessed with securing an AEW audition than being a competent 3-and-D player this season, Morant won’t stop playing GTA in real life and, as a whole, the team is beginning to rub everyone around the league the wrong way.
Morant bragged last month that the Grizzlies were the NBA’s most hated team. There’s nothing wrong with getting under the skin of opponents, but the lack of awareness from them is startling. We’re witnessing the consequences of that immaturity in Morant’s exile for flashing a Glock on his IG Live in response to reports about his or his crew’s obsession with gunplay. Branden Clarke’s ruptured Achilles tendon will likely keep him out all of next season because it occurred so late in the calendar and there’s no telling if he’ll ever be the same player again.
Memphis’ grip on the second seed in the West is still strong and they’ve played well without Morant in the past, but the vibes are off this season. It feels like a basketball version of the terrible twos except their inner tumult hasn’t affected them in the standings– yet. The Sacramento Kings are creeping up within one game of the second seed in the West.
Los Angeles Clippers
After three years, the Clippers finally have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard healthy. In the month of February, Leonard averaged 27 points on 48 percent shooting from the field and shot 53 percent from distance. They still couldn’t make any headway in the West. As of this moment, the Clippers are a play-in tournament team.
On Sunday night, “the other” L.A. pro basketball franchise completed a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback, halting a five-game losing streak. Russell Westbrook has become a fixture in the starting lineup, but opposing defenses like the Warriors are defending Westbrook on the perimeter like he’s Ben Simmons, retreating into the paint while essentially daring him to shoot. His decision-making in pivotal moments has been erratic. Paul George wanted him there, and Westbrook wanted to be in L.A., but he hasn’t developed a complement of skills that would allow him to thrive off-ball or as an offensive conductor that doesn’t rely on inefficient scoring methods or his violent forays to the rim. The Clippers don’t appear to have continuity or urgency, nor do they have a system that can accessorize Westbrook properly alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
New Orleans Pelicans
It wasn’t that long ago that the Pelicans were an ascendent squad. On Jan. 27, the Pelicans were third in the Western Conference hierarchy. As of today, they’re entombed at ninth. There is still enough time to emerge from the play-in hell, but Zion Williamson’s health is vital. His inability to stay on the court is reminiscent of early Process-era Embiid. One can only hope it works out as well for Williamson as it has for Embiid.
The Pelicans’ long-term success is contingent on Williamson’s availability and since he went down New Orleans has lost 19 of 27 games. Fortunately, they’re only two games behind the sixth seed, but they can’t let that gap expand.
Williamson’s hamstring strain originally had an expected recovery time of three to four weeks. However, New Orleans, Incredible Hulk of a power forward has now been on the mend for two months now, and there’s no indication he’ll be back in action soon, either.
Portland Trail Blazers
You gotta respect Damian Lillard for his captain-on-the-Titanic-grade commitment, but in the Blazers’ last four games since he dropped 71 last week, he has scored 140 points. In that span, the Blazers lost three consecutive games before barely outlasting the Orlando Magic. Lillard’s been the NBA’s leading scorer in 2023 for a squad that dipped to 30-34, tied with the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder for the third-worst record in the Western Conference. The play-in is still within reach, but championship contention was the objective when this season began.
Anfernee Simons recently re-aggravated the ankle sprain he suffered in his return to the lineup, which has left a massive hole in the backcourt for Portland. The Blazers rely so heavily on Dame and Simons’ scoring to keep them afloat that the latter’s absence has put them in a bind. Portland has been a top-five offense all season, but since Simons went down on Feb. 14, they’ve been a middle-of-the-pack offensive unit.
Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić have amplified each other’s worst tendencies. Dončić’s incessant complaining to officials is getting worse and Dallas’ team defense has been one of the flimsiest in The Association since their big acquisition before the trade deadline. They’re still surrendering leads in historic fashion and Irving is about to test the free agent market this summer. At the rate this partnership is sledding downhill, the Mavericks might be back at square one if their two stars don’t get in the lab and figure out more chemistry to offset their horrendous defense.
Dallas should be surrounding Dončić with wing defenders and a big who can defend the paint and pick-and-rolls and instead they’ve leaned into becoming a contemporary analog of the Carmelo-Iverson Denver Nuggets.