Will A Fourth Name Be Added to the MVP Race?
This year’s hunt for the MVP is a near mirror-image of the Harden-Westbrook 2017 race. During that time, Westbrook was keeping the KD-less Thunder afloat by shattering records, while Harden was guiding a star-less Rockets team to a top-seed in the West. This year, Harden has channeled his inner-Westbrook, traversing through lengthy stretches without Chris Paul and Clint Capela to keep Houston in the playoff hunt (and shattering records along the way). Stepping in the 2016 Harden role is Giannis, who has led a nameless/faceless Bucks squad to the top spot in the East.
Finishing third in the 2017 race was Kawhi Leonard — a dominant two-way wing and DPOY candidate. Meet the 2018 equivalent, OKC’s Paul George — a dominant two-way wing who may be the DPOY favorite. Both Leonard and George get knocked because their teams don’t ask them to do as much as other stars. George has Westbrook to lean on for primary playmaking duties, Leonard had Pop’s equal-opportunity offense. That being said, George’s ability to influence the game on both ends is unmatched right now, even by the former Spur.
The three-man race will only get more intense as the season wears on, and the games become increasingly more important. Westbrook all but sealed the 2016 race with a miraculous game-winning shot in Denver during the final home stretch of the regular season. Any single moment could sway voters one way or the other, and completely tip the race to a certain contender.
With all of the great players in the league today, I find it hard to believe none of the other superstars throw their hat into the ring. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are leading candidates, through Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Leonard, or either of Golden State’s stars could make a run of it.
By the way, any idea who finished fourth in MVP voting back in 2017? A guy by the name of LeBron James. James only averaged 26/8/8 on 54 percent shooting en route to precisely zero first-place votes in 2017. He made last year’s race entertaining with Harden, and has plenty left in the tank for a stretch run. More on him in a bit.
Survey Says: Yes; Contenders being Embiid, LeBron, and Stephen Curry
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Will The Pacers Host a First Round Playoff Series?
Oladipo was Mr. Everything for the Pacers — their best scorer, defender, and off-the-bounce creator. His injury completely limits Indiana’s ceiling, and is a huge blow to the franchise as a whole.
Dropping their first four games in Oladipo’s absence looked like a sign of things to come. And then, the Pacers promptly flipped the script, winning six-straight including back-to-back shellacking’s of LA’s two teams by a combined 66 points.
Oladipo was important, but the Pacers have 12 other talented guys on their roster. Nate McMillan always finds a way for his team to compete, and this group is scrappy. With the way Boston has played recently, and the need for Philly to get assimilated to its new parts, the 38-20 Pacers have a chance to compete for a top-4 seed in the East.
Survey Says: No, but they’ll hang around
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Are The Nuggets Finishing First in the West?
Through two-thirds of the season, no team has demolished expectations quite like the Denver Nuggets. After missing the postseason last year, Denver has surged to a 39-18 record — while beating virtually every contender along the way. The Nuggets are young, athletic, and nearly unbeatable at home. They likely stand as the only true threat to Golden State ceding home-court advantage through the playoffs.
Although the Nuggets have plenty of firepower to last through the year, a daunting remaining schedule could ultimately lead to their downfall. While the Nuggets have been impeccable in the Pepsi Center, they’re merely an average team on the road (14-14). The Nuggets have just one road win against a team above .500 since December 3rd. Denver has 13 remaining road tilts, 10 of which will come against teams likely to make the postseason. The Warriors, on the other hand, are one of the best road teams in the league (19-9), and are winners of 16 of their last 18. If the Nuggets wanted a chance at securing the No. 1 seed, they likely needed a bit of a cushion heading into the break. Playing from behind against the Warriors is typically a recipe for failure.
Survey Says: Unlikely
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Who Will Rise From the Depths to Capture the 7- and 8-Seed in the East?
Man, oh, man, the bottom of the East is rough. Five teams — all currently below .500 — will battle the rest of the season for two spots. Charlotte and Detroit currently hold pole position, and boast the two best players among all teams involved in Kemba Walker and Blake Griffin. The Magic have an All-Star of their own in Nikola Vucevic, and rode hot streaks from Jonathan Isaac and Terrence Ross to a five-game winning streak before the break. Washington and Miami have hung around despite major injuries to each team’s starting point guard.
There’s going to be a lot of mediocre basketball played between these teams. The Hornets’ second best player is *checks notes* Jeremy Lamb? The Pistons still employ Reggie Jackson, and somehow managed to get worse at the deadline. The Wizards and Magic cannot be entrusted to get anything done. The Heat aren’t quite sure if they should be tanking or not, though Erik Spoelstra’s brilliance may not allow them to either way.
Charlotte and Detroit will ultimately end up squeaking by, earning the opportunity to get trounced by the Bucks and Raptors.
Survey Says: Hornets/Pistons
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Which Eastern Conference Giant Adjusts the Quickest?
The arms race was in full force during the NBA’s trade deadline. The Eastern Conference’s elite all made major deals that could have a drastic impact on the playoff picture. Milwaukee granted Giannis and Mike Budenholzer a deadeye shooter in Nikola Mirotic. Toronto hopes to unlock a new level of their offense with the slick-passing Marc Gasol. Philly may have made the biggest splash of all, acquiring stud forward Tobias Harris.
The lone top team that stayed put was the Boston Celtics, although the development of Gordon Hayward remains the team’s biggest question mark. If Hayward can return to even 80 percent of the player he was in Utah, it can be viewed as a deadline acquisition for the Celts.
Among the four top teams in the East, the group that most seamlessly assimilates their new teammates will hold a distinct advantage. Playoff seeding will be crucial for the Eastern Conference bracket. None of the contenders can afford to have a bad stretch.
I love the Tobias fit with the 76ers. He’s exactly the type of player they craved — low usage, great shooter, can run pick-and-roll, and defends power forward-types. The Bucks and Raptors could run into some lineup problems. The Mirotic-Giannis-Lopez lineup feels exploitable, and the Raptors will have to sit either Serge Ibaka (having his best season since OKC days) or Pascal Siakam (favorite for Most Improved Player) to find Gasol minutes. I’m not sure what to expect of Hayward moving forward. Paul George proved it may take more than a calendar year to fully recover from such a gruesome injury, meaning Hayward might not start looking like himself until next season.
Survey Says: 76ers/Tobias Harris
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Are the Lakers Making the Playoffs?
The LeBron-led Lakeshow have hit a few bumps along the highway. GM Rob Pelinka spent the trade deadline trying (and failing) to acquire Anthony Davis while erasing all of the previous mistakes made during the current regime. Turns out having good shooting around LeBron is imperative. The Lakers went out and got Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala, two guys who can spread the floor and switch a bit on defense. With only 25 games left, do the Lakers have enough for a postseason push?
Currently three games behind the neighboring Clippers, the Lakers will need to come out of the break strong. Their scheduling over the next month or so appears very favorable. Their next four road games are against New Orleans, Memphis, Phoenix, and Chicago. They get Houston, Milwaukee, Denver, and Boston all at home during that stretch. Lonzo Ball should return at some point in that time-frame. The former No. 2 overall pick will help stabilize the defense and normalize everybody else’s minutes.
I’m never going to count LeBron out in these types of situations. Despite missing 17 games, James is having a remarkable year by most statistical measures, and will be refreshed with the playoffs in sight.
Survey Says: Yes
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