Trending player: Chase Budinger, SF, Houston Rockets
When the Rockets traded Shane Battier to the Memphis Grizzlies, it opened an opportunity for the team's young small forwards. Budinger has stepped forward as Battier's replacement in the starting lineup, averaging 17.6 points in the seven games since the deadline. In part, Budinger has simply benefited from the opportunity to pile up statistics in regular playing time. (His minutes have more than doubled from 18.3 a night to 38.2.) In addition, Budinger has enjoyed timely, hot shooting in the new role.
Period 2P% 3P% TS% Usg
Before deadline .507 .311 .522 .210
Since deadline .542 .400 .612 .181
Budinger was probably due to get hot from beyond the arc. He made 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts as a rookie before slumping from the perimeter during the early part of this season. Budinger's accurate shooting closer to the basket may prove more difficult to maintain. He shot 49.7 percent on twos last season, so his recent performance is far above his established norms.
Part of the change may be explained by Budinger's playing a different style of basketball. His three-point attempts have declined considerably since he moved into the starting lineup, replaced by trips to the free throw line as Budinger apparently looks to get to the basket off the dribble. He's also using less of Houston's plays alongside the starters than he did as a focal point of the second unit while doing less playmaking, and he has been a nonfactor on the glass.
Although the Rockets miss Battier's defense and intangibles, Budinger's ability to score has made Houston's offensive attack more potent. Since the deadline, Houston has averaged 115.9 points per 100 possessions--an offensive rating 7.1 points better than average per 100 possessions when adjusted for the opponents the Rockets have faced in that span. That helped Houston go 5-1 in Budinger's first six games as a starter. Even when the Rockets faltered last week, losing Wednesday to the Phoenix Suns and Saturday to the San Antonio Spurs, offense wasn't to blame. Houston scored 228 points in the two games.
Trending team: Utah Jazz
Unlike the Denver Nuggets, who have played well since their blockbuster trade thanks to strong defense, the Jazz have slipped badly since dealing a star player to the East. Utah has gone 3-6 after trading Deron Williams, and although the Jazz's sinking record was a major reason GM Kevin O'Connor was willing to move Williams, the team has not even been competitive during much of its current four-game East Coast swing. Other than a win at Toronto, Utah has lost its other three games by at least 18 points.
The three losses have shared a common thread: the Jazz getting torched at the defensive end of the floor. Opponents have posted an offensive rating of at least 130 in all three games. The Detroit Pistons also topped the 130 mark in beating Utah on Feb. 26. Before that, the Jazz had surrendered a 130 offensive rating only three times in their first 59 games. Between those games, Utah has been OK defensively, but the off nights have been bad enough that the Jazz are surrendering 117.9 points per 100 possessions post-trade, a mark that would rank the team last in the league.
In particular, Utah has struggled to defend the three-point line. In the past 10 games, opponents are knocking down 48.6 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. That includes an aberrant 2-of-14 shooting night for the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 25, which has been more than offset by teams making at last half their shots from downtown six times and knocking down at least 10 triples five times.
The Jazz's defensive slippage throughout the season has been matched almost perfectly by the team's 3-point defense. During Utah's 15-5 start, the team allowed 30.6 percent shooting from 3-point range and 106.3 points per 100 possessions. From there until the Williams trade, opponents heated up to 39.2 percent beyond the arc and a 112.6 offensive rating as the Jazz went 16-21. Since then, Utah has been entirely defenseless in the process of falling out of the playoff race.
League trend: below-.500 playoff teams
Earlier this year, the Seattle Seahawks were the butt of jokes as the first team to make the NFL playoffs with a losing record over a full season. In the NBA, where 16 of the league's 30 teams make the postseason on an annual basis, a below-.500 playoff team is more likely than not in a given season. So it's no surprise that, unless the Charlotte Bobcats, Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks go on a stunning run to close the regular season, the East's eighth playoff seed will be claimed by a team with fewer than 41 wins.
In fact, all things considered, it's surprising how few playoff teams with losing records the NBA has had in recent years. At least one team with a below-.500 record made the East playoffs from 2006 to 2009 before the four-year streak came to an end this past spring. However, there was a six-season span from 1997-98 through 2002-03 when every playoff team in both conferences was .500 or better. Overall, there have been seven below-.500 playoff teams in the past decade, all of them coming from the East. The last time a West team was able to reach the playoffs with a losing record was 1996-97, when three teams did so.
Whoever claims the eighth and final spot in the East is likely to post the worst record by a playoff team in some time. The Pacers and Bobcats are on pace for 35 wins, which would match the 1995-96 Boston Celtics for the fewest full-season wins by a playoff team since 1988. The 1952-53 Baltimore Bullets made the playoffs with a 16-54 record in an early NBA in which four of the five teams in the East reached the postseason. That's one league record that is unlikely to be threatened any time soon.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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