The Eastern Conference has three teams in the playoff chase whose finish will be somewhat impacted by the play of their rookies. The Western Conference has five teams in the hunt with rookies playing a prominent role.
The team relying most on rookies is undoubtedly the Atlanta Hawks, who have two rookies in their rotation as they try to hold off the New York Knicks for the final playoff berth in the East.
So far, so good as the Hawks – who lost 14 of 15 games during one stretch to drop from third to eighth – have turned things around with five straight wins, somewhat mullifying the seven games in a row won by the Knicks.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the postseason hopefuls who are relying heavily on rookies as the season enters its final month.
CHARLOTTE (seventh in East): The Bobcats rely heavily on Al Jefferson, the fulcrum of their offense who will get more than a few MVP votes next month. When Big Al needs a blow, Charlotte goes to Cody Zeller, who has overtaken Bismack Biyombo as the first big off the bench and plays some minutes alongside Jefferson as well. He hasn’t missed a game this season.
ATLANTA (eighth in East): The Hawks are trying to snag a playoff spot without All-Star big Al Horford, who was lost for the season in late December. Macedonian rookie Pero Antic has done a capable job filling his portion of a huge void, although he did miss a month with his own injury woes. Atlanta also has moved speedy German guard Dennis Schroder into the backcourt rotation to help replace Lou Williams, who has been a DNP-CD for seven games and counting. Schroder’s numbers this month (4.9 ppg, 2.3 apg, 13.8 mpg) are nothing special, but he is allowing coach Mike Budenholzer to give a bit of rest to starting point guard Jeff Teague, who has to stay fresh if the Hawks are going to hold on to the final berth.
NEW YORK (ninth in East): Guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has been entrenched in the fourth spot in our rankings almost as long as the top three have held their spots. The Knicks have had a disappointing season and still have to make up five games in the loss column. But they wouldn’t even be within striking distance without Hardaway, who has helped gloss over the slumps endured by J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. You can make the argument that after Carmelo Anthony, Hardaway is next on the roster in terms of untouchability.
OKLAHOMA CITY (second in West): The Thunder could still catch the Spurs for the top overall seed but could also slip to third in the West behind the Clippers. Having a say in that is rookie center Steven Adams, who has been starting for the injured Kendrick Perkins and provides virtually the same thing – interior defense, rebounding, lots of fouls and hardly any offense. Over the last couple of games, OKC also has been starting rookie guard Andre Roberson for the injured Thabo Sefolosha to preserve Reggie Jackson’s long-term role as a reserve. In a small sample size, Roberson has had some issues with fouls but hasn’t embarrassed himself. Once the Thunder are healthy again and the playoffs arrive, expect Adams to play some and Roberson not to play at all.
PORTLAND (fifth in West): The Blazers got off to a hot start this season without rookie guard C.J. McCollum, who was supposed to provide a boost from the bench after returning from a broken foot in early January. Some initial success has dissipated, and McCollum has more DNPs (two) than double-digit games (one) over the last 15 contests, increasing the burden on the starters. Expect coach Terry Stotts to use a strict three-guard rotation of Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews and Mo Williams in the postseason.
MEMPHIS (seventh in West): Memphis found its mojo when Marc Gasol returned from his knee injury in mid-January. The Grizzlies kept it despite also losing point guard Mike Conley for seven games in February thanks to Nick Calathes, who averaged 14.7 points and 4.7 assists as a starter and has continued to provide solid playmaking since Conley returned. His minutes may be reduced, but he will definitely play in the postseason should Memphis hold on.
PHOENIX (ninth in West): Center Alex Len has had a rough rookie season, starting it on the sidelines as he recovered from a broken foot and having trouble acclimating to Phoenix’s up-tempo pace when he has gotten on the floor. He still hasn’t scored in double figures this season. But when Miles Plumlee left Friday’s game at Boston after taking a shot to the face early in the fourth quarter, Len came off the bench cold and scored a couple of key buckets that helped Phoenix scratch out a win. The Suns will need more of that to catch Dallas for the West’s final berth.
MINNESOTA (10th in West): Time is running out on the Timberwolves, whose three rookies haven’t played very much this season. But recent injuries to centers Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf have pressed rookie Gorgui Dieng into emergency duty, and the jumping jack has responded with consecutive double-doubles – that’s as many as Kelly Olynyk has this season – and a combined six blocks in a pair of wins.
On to the rankings.