76ers center Joel Embiid has not played since late February because of a sprained left shoulder. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluating title chances of three Eastern Conference dark horses

By March, the trade deadline dust settles and the true NBA title contenders emerge. Yet as clubs such as the 2011 Mavericks have shown us, a championship contender doesn’t always announce itself in the regular season. Dallas was a third seed and relative afterthought behind dominant Lakers and Spurs teams the season it won it all.

Let's examine three second-tier playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference and their chances to win the NBA title.


Heat guard Andre Iguodala Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Heat | 41-23 | Point Differential: +3.5

As the February trade deadline approached, it was clear Miami was going all-in on a title. The Heat acquired veteran Andre Iguodala, the former Warriors star, from Memphis along with Jae Crowder, a versatile, veteran wing on an expiring contract, and forward Solomon Hill. In one deal, Miami’s roster was remade around All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

But instead of elevating into the contender tier, the Heat has struggled. In the 14  games since Miami's makeover, the Heat is 7-7 and outscoring teams by only 1.6 points per game. It's a short span to judge a team incorporating three new players into its rotation at mid-season, but that mark is nowhere near what a dark-horse title contender would post.

With the additions of Iguodala and Crowder, Miami should have a lineup full of players who could track Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo or Boston’s Jayson Tatum around the court and swap assignments without creating weak links. So far, Miami's only net gain is a minuscule boost to its offense, from 112.3 points per 100 possessions to 112.5 points per 100. Meanwhile, the defense has become worse -- going from 109 points per 100 possessions to 110.9 in the past month.

The counterpoint to the argument over their underwhelming regular- season numbers would be the team’s increased star power. The conventional wisdom suggests that stars, not depth, win games in the postseason. That’s why the rapid ascension of Adebayo should be exciting for Heat fans. But the 22-year-old big man is virtually untested in the playoffs.  Heading into this postseason, he has just 77 minutes' postseason experience.

Butler is a bit more tested and has a reputation -- and rugged, unconventional game -- to earn the rep of a player designed for the postseason. Yet Butler’s playoff persona doesn’t match up to his numbers. Over his career, Butler’s postseason results are more solid than spectacular: 55 games, 17.3 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Given Butler's two-way effort, those are darn good numbers. But even in his high points with the Bulls in 2014-15 and 2016-17, he averaged 22.9 and 22.7 points per game in the postseason. Those aren’t exactly the world-beating numbers of a player capable of carrying his team to a Finals. Also keep in mind that Butler has never advanced past the second round.

So despite all the excitement on the surface, a deeper dive shows the Heat to be what it was before its big deadline day move: a good but not great team.

Dark-horse potential: Low


Pacers guard Victor Oladipo  Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Pacers | Record: 39-25 | Point Differential: +2.0

Since the turn of the century, the Pacers have been one of the NBA’s most consistent franchises. In the 2000s, Indiana has won fewer than 35 games once (32 in 2009-10) and more than 56 once (61 in 2003-04). This season, the team is on pace to win 50 games and, if it can surge past the Heat, possibly host a first-round playoff series.

More often than not, a normal 50-win team with a less-than-flattering +2.0 point differential seems like a frisky second-round match-up at best. But Indiana isn’t a normal team. The Pacers have gotten themselves in this position while balancing a couple tricky subplots: the absence of star guard Victor Oladipo for much of the season while he recovered from an injury and a starting lineup featuring two promising, young centers.

Oladipo’s form since returning in late January has hardly been promising. He looks rusty, and on top of that, a back injury cost him another week. The Pacers have won their past two games since Oladipo’s most recent return to the lineup -- at the Bulls and Mavericks -- but his uneven production continued.

Against Chicago, Oladipo was an efficient 5-for-10 from the field for 16 points. The next game at Dallas, he scored 16 points but on 18 shots. Those performances are typical variances for high-usage players over the course of two games. But the great unknown is whether Oladipo will have the rust knocked off when the playoffs start in mid-April. 

Less of an unknown is Indy’s front-court pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. The numbers clearly show they aren't a great fit together. In the 1,039 minutes the big men have been paired, the Pacers have only outscored opponents by 1.4 points per 48 minutes. Turner has helped matters slightly with his improved commitment to the three-point line -- he’s attempting 4.2 shots from deep per game this season, up from 2.6 last season. 

Sabonis operates as the team's creative hub, using his passing skills to dictate Pacer possessions. The big man’s 5.0 assists per game are just behind Malcom Brogdon’s 7.1 -- not too shabby considering Brogdon is the team’s starting point guard. Turner’s value lies more on the other end of the floor, where his 2.1 blocks per game leads the team.

In the regular season, the Pacers are committed to playing two of their highest-paid players. In the playoffs, however, there’s more wiggle room in toggling the two players minutes depending on the postseason opponent. That could unlock a different Pacer team than what we’ve seen in the regular season. If Indiana can justify losing Turner’s defensive presence, lineups featuring Sabonis sans Turner fare much better -- +5.7 points per 48 minutes -- than the duo are together.

Dark-horse potential: Low, with a chance to heat up quickly


 76ers forward Ben Simmons Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

76ers | 38-26 | Point differential: +2.0

Star forward Ben Simmons hasn’t played since February 22 because of a back injury.  Joel Embiid, the team’s other luminary talent, has been out since February 26 with a sprained left shoulder and has played in only 43 games this season. The bench is a mishmash of journeymen, vets and unheralded youngsters. It’s hard to make a case for the Sixers to get out of the first round, much less make a Finals.

If there’s an argument to be made for Philadelphia’s title chances, it centers, quite literally, on 7-footer Embiid. When the 76ers' big man is on the floor, opponents struggle to score. In his 1,302 minutes, Philly has allowed just 101.1 points per 100 possessions. If that mark held up over the course of an entire season, it would be even better than Milwaukee’s league-leading mark of 101.5 points per 100.

Now the credit shouldn’t necessarily go all to Embiid. Simmons is a versatile defensive destroyer whose perimeter versatility helps immensely. But Philly’s defense actually improves slightly when he’s off the floor. That doesn’t necessarily reflect anything negative about Simmons -- raw on/off data is obviously contextual. It more likely shows that despite an NBA that trends smaller, a gigantic figure patrolling the paint still can have an outsized impact on defensive performance.

So if you were going to draw a line as to how this immensely flawed Philly team can cause havoc in the postseason, it probably starts with Embiid’s health. In the playoffs, Philadelphia's only hope may be winning close, low-scoring games with him in the lineup.  

Dark-horse potential: Very Low

Brett Koremenos is a writer, trainer and strength coach who has worked and written about athletes from high school to the professional level for over a decade.


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