Injuries are really taking their toll on the NBA season at the moment, with multiple stars set to miss the final stretch and possibly even the start of the playoffs.
News came out this past week that the Golden State Warriors are likely to be without Stephen Curry for the first round of the playoffs after the two-time MVP suffered a sprained MCL, while Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving is expected to miss three-to-six weeks after having a “minimally invasive procedure” done to alleviate pain in his knee.
1. Houston Rockets
Record: 57-14 | Last week: 1
Another week, another flawless record for the NBA’s best team this season, who notched a franchise record 59th victory on Saturday.
2. Toronto Raptors
Record: 55-20 | Last week: 2
It wasn’t the best week for the East leaders as they went 2-2, but they wrapped it with a strong finish from their bench to beat Denver.
3. Golden State Warriors
Record: 54-20 | Last week: 3
After dropping three of their last four, they’re in danger of not winning 60 games for the first time since 2014.
4. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 46-28 | Last week: 4
5. Boston Celtics
Record: 51-23 | Last week: 6
They’ve won four straight despite being decimated by injuries, giving them a chance at the top seed with two games left against Toronto.
6. Utah Jazz
Record: 42-32 | Last week: 7
Utah keep surging and could easily improve on their current standing of seventh in the West by the time the season ends.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 43-30 | Last week: 10
Their seven-game winning streak is even sweeter because rookie Markelle Fultz is back in the fold and looking like a contributor.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 44-30 | Last week: 8
9. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 44-31 | Last week: 5
Carmelo Anthony botched the ending in the loss to Portland, but his issues haven’t been limited to just occasional miscues this season.
10. Indiana Pacers
Record: 44-31 | Last week: 11
Winners in four of the last five, the Pacers are hanging tight in the race for the third seed in the East.
11. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 43-32 | Last week: 9
Losses to Houston and Portland are no reason to get down on the Pelicans, who keep getting stellar efforts from Anthony Davis.
12. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 43-32 | Last week: 13
LaMarcus Aldridge had been firing on all cylinders, but bad injury luck struck the Spurs again as he suffered a knee contusion.
13. Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 40-34 | Last week: 18
They are not fading from the playoff picture without a fight as three wins in their last four have kept them in the hunt.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 42-33 | Last week: 14
When you’re in the precarious position of sitting eighth in the West, you can’t afford to be dropping home games to lowly Memphis.
15. Washington Wizards
Record: 41-33 | Last week: 12
As it’s been proven, Washington are not, in fact, better without John Wall and could use their point guard back in the lineup.
16. Miami Heat
Record: 40-35 | Last week: 15
The victory over the Cavaliers showed what they’re capable of when locked in – although it could have said just as much about Miami nightlife.
17. Denver Nuggets
Record: 40-35 | Last week: 16
The schedule hasn’t been easy, but it will be a real disappointment for the franchise if they miss the playoffs again.
18. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 39-35 | Last week: 17
They’re running out of time to figure out how to play with each other as they’re currently slated for the eighth seed.
19. Detroit Pistons
Record: 34-40 | Last week: 20
This is how big of a hole Detroit dug themselves in: they’ve won four of the past and are still five games out of a playoff spot.
20. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 34-41 | Last week: 21
21. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 32-41 | Last week: 19
They’ve hit a rough patch and it doesn’t help that Isaiah Thomas will now undergo hip surgery to end his season.
22. Sacramento Kings
Record: 24-51 | Last week: 22
Off the court, the organisation deserves some credit for how it has handled the protests at their games.
23. New York Knicks
Record: 27-48 | Last week: 25
Things haven’t gone as planned this season, but they might have found a hidden gem in Trey Burke, who had 42 points in the loss to Charlotte.
24. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 23-51 | Last week: 27
The defeat to Utah gave them their first 50-loss campaign since 1998, ending an impressive run of not bottoming out.
25. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 23-51 | Last week: 24
Even in their losses of late, Brooklyn have played their opponents tough and made them earn their victories.
26. Chicago Bulls
Record: 24-50 | Last week: 23
They’ve dropped six straight, which is exactly what you want when you’re a team near the bottom of the standings hoping to improve your lottery odds.
27. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 21-53 | Last week: 26
Atlanta are throwing out some real no-namers at the moment and the results have been predictable.
28. Orlando Magic
Record: 22-51 | Last week: 28
They’re in the midst of a favourable stretch in the schedule which will see them play seven straight lottery teams.
29. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 20-54 | Last week: 29
Constantly losing is one thing, but to be embarrassed by 61 points against Charlotte was a true low point.
30. Phoenix Suns
Record: 19-56 | Last week: 30
Isaiah Thomas has had to deal with a lot over the past year and his path back to superstardom doesn’t look like it’s getting any easier.
The former All-Star has left the Los Angeles Lakers to get treatment options for his sore hip, with pain still remaining from the injury that ruled him out of last year’s playoffs and kept him sidelined for much of this season.
Thomas, who rehabbed back from a right femoral-acetabular impingement with labral tear, apparently isn’t back to full strength yet, even after sitting out more than seven months.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were unwilling to wait for the 29-year-old to get back to full health, shipping him to the Lakers at the trade deadline after having him on the floor for just 15 games.
The point guard averaged 14.7 points on 36.1 per cent shooting overall and 25.3 per cent on 3-pointers during his tenure with Cleveland. He’s been only marginally better through 17 games with Los Angeles, fielding averages of 15.6 points, 38.3 per cent shooting and 32.7 per cent from long range.
With the Lakers out of playoff contention and only a couple weeks left in the season, it makes sense for Thomas to shut it down and restart his recovery.
Unfortunately for Thomas, that would mean having no more opportunities to show he can still be the player he was last season with the Boston Celtics – when he carried the team to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and finished fifth in MVP voting – before hitting free agency in the summer.
It’s unlikely the last couple weeks of the season will influence Thomas’ earning potential anyways. Regardless, the ‘Brinks truck’ days are a thing of the past as the diminutive guard almost surely won’t get anywhere near a max contract from any suitor.
The more likely outcome would be Thomas, who has carried a massive chip on his shoulder ever since entering the league as the last pick of the 2011 draft, betting on himself with a one-year deal that allows him to show he can still perform at an All-Star level. That would be the only path to securing the lucrative contract that he was expecting when he was still in Boston.
Whether or not he can, however, is a different matter.
The hip injury was a long-term concern even before he started feeling soreness again with the Lakers.
With Thomas standing just 5-foot-9, any hit to his athleticism has the potential to severely hinder his game, which is predicated on quickness.
Other stars throughout history have managed to offset losing a step by utilising their skill – however they weren’t as vertically-challenged as Thomas is.
Losing a step for Thomas could be the difference between crossing over a defender and knocking down a pull-up jumper, and having no space to work with.
Plus, with the point guard position as deep as it is across the league, few teams will be dying to sign an aging, short, damaged playmaker this offseason.
It doesn’t necessarily mean Thomas’ career is over, but the mountain he was attempting to scale to get back to where he was just got steeper.
And in the 123-104 win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday, the number one overall pick showed flashes of what made him the consensus top prospect in the last year’s NBA draft, while also looking like someone who hadn’t seen game action in quite a while.
Fultz played just 14 minutes, but found a way to fill up the stat sheet in his brief time on the floor by scoring 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting, dishing eight assists and grabbing four rebounds.
His shooting, which has been under the microscope since he entered the league, got better as the game wore on, while his playmaking and ability to put pressure on the defence was as advertised.
With the 19-year-old coming back from a mysterious shoulder injury that has derailed most of his rookie campaign, it was an encouraging performance, all things considered.
“He showed signs of why he was the first player chosen,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “Obviously, the game is fast, and elite at this stage, and that’s a good team, but the night could not have worked out better.”
The night got off to a somewhat slow start, with Fultz unsurprisingly trying to search out a rhythm.
On his first offensive possession, his downhill attack was blocked off and resulted in a turnover. Nearly a minute later, Fultz got on the board by taking a handoff from Joel Embiid and gliding uncontested to the basket for an easy lay-in.
From there, he appeared to settle in and feel more comfortable, with his passing coming to the fore.
Fultz delivered a sweet behind-the-back pass to Embiid after being trapped coming off a screen, before finding Ersan Ilyasova in transition for a mid-range jumper.
The highly-anticipated moment of Fultz taking a jump shot finally came near the end of the first quarter, when he attempted a pull-up from 11 feet out that found nothing but air, with Denver’s Mason Plumlee possibly getting a piece.
Minutes later, Plumlee then fully blocked Fultz’s second pull-up from 13 feet. The ball found its way back to Fultz on the possession but his strong take to the rim was swatted away.
After being subbed out seconds later, Fultz didn’t return to the game until the back-end of the third quarter.
That’s when he showed off his ability to attack as he first used a crossover at the top of the key and a spin move in the paint to get off a clean floater, which rolled off the rim.
Fultz stayed aggressive on the next possession by slicing to the hoop in transition and this time finishing an unorthodox lay-up off the glass.
He then had the presence of mind to cut into the paint for what would have been an easy lay-up had Paul Millsap not recovered late to force a miss.
On the next possession, Fultz again cut in open space and converted at the basket off Marco Belinelli’s dish.
The fourth quarter, which saw Fultz make good reads on passes and get blocked two more times, was most noteworthy for what he showed with his jumper.
With the 76ers in control, Fultz let loose three pull-ups near the end of the contest – the first he knocked down over Plumlee from 14 feet after a killer crossover; the second he drilled over Plumlee from 20 feet; and the third he missed from the elbow from 17 feet.
“I got even more comfortable,” Fultz said of how he felt as the game went on. “The first time, I was just trying to make sure I did what I could do. The second time, I started to get my groove back more and more.”
Of everything Fultz put on display in his first game back, maybe the most encouraging for Philadelphia was his confidence. He didn’t look timid or hesitant to shoot the ball outside of the paint, which bodes well for where he’s at mentally.
Combine that with what he can do as a slasher and playmaker, and Fultz could be a factor for the 76ers sooner than expected.