Teams still capable of jumping out of the lottery pool and onto the playoff ladder did not end with the Los Angeles Lakers losing LeBron James to injury for the next couple of weeks.
There are still a couple of other NBA squads with proud veterans and win-now mentalities that are currently on the outside of the playoff picture who are not only capable of securing one of the four coveted play-in spots in their conference but flourishing in that do-or-die scenario and reaching the actual postseason. Not to mention delivering a robust payoff if they do.
I’m not guaranteeing that either of these teams is going to be in playoffs. But if I had to bet on one team from each conference currently not in the picture making their way into it, these are the two I’m putting some money on.
Let’s dive in.
RELATED: Damian Lillard on future with Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers +45000 to win NBA title at FOX Bet
Damian Lillard put his team and the rest of the league on notice that he has no intention of missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year with his 71-point performance in his first game since the All-Star break.
After all the years Lillard has defied preseason expectations for the Blazers and willed them to winning records (six out of nine, not counting last year when he only played 29 games), I’m not going to bet against him getting them over .500 again, which should be enough to move up from their current spot, 11th, into at least the play-in tournament.
And in a one-and-done scenario, experience in facing elimination situations is priceless. If the Blazers make it into the play-in tournament, they will most likely have to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz or New Orleans Pelicans to advance. I like their chances, led by Lillard (61 playoff games), Jerami Grant (35) and Jusuf Nurkic (16).
I get a little uneasy when a team tries to improve and be economical at the trade deadline, which is what the Blazers did by moving out Gary Payton II and Josh Hart for, essentially, Matisse Thybulle and Cam Reddish, but in this case, I can make a case it has potential to make them better in the short and long term.
Thybulle is a better defender for Portland by the mere fact he is available to play, which Payton hasn’t been — and still isn’t — for his new/old team, the Golden State Warriors. While Hart’s basketball IQ will be sorely missed, he was having a subpar year for the Blazers, and if there’s an area in Portland that has depth, it’s in the wing department.
Chicago Bulls +45000 to win NBA title at FOX Bet
The Bulls limped into the All-Star break lugging a six-game losing streak. DeMar DeRozan missed half of those losses but is now back and rolling. The biggest reason to believe they can move past the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors or Atlanta Hawks is that they are far and away the best defensive team among the four — fifth overall, while the Raptors are next best in that group at 16th. Their net rating is also tied with the Raptors for best among the four.
At this point in the season, though, the psyche and motivation of teams are critical. Which team expected to be in the playoffs when the season started? Which team’s season would be considered a disappointment if it failed to make them? The Bulls check both boxes.
The play-in games also have, by and large, been decided on the last possession. As noted, the Bulls are best equipped to get a stop if that’s what is required to advance. And given the choice between DeRozan, Bradley Beal, Pascal Siakam and Trae Young to get a basket with playoff hopes on the line, DeRozan has far and away demonstrated this season that he should be the first choice. Zach LaVine isn’t too shabby, either.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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