Regular-season NBA action returns from the All-Star break on Thursday. Teams have as few as 26 games left to secure a playoff seed or lottery position over the next weeks. With the championship field as open as any season in recent memory, here are eight storylines to watch down the stretch.
Milwaukee’s pursuit of history
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a heavy favorite to win his second straight MVP honor at age 25 and join the pantheon of consecutive Most Valuable Player winners: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Only Kareem and LeBron have done so before turning 26.
Kareem was also the force behind the best team in Bucks history. He led Milwaukee to 66 wins and the franchise’s only championship during the 1970-71 campaign. With a 46-8 record at the All-Star break, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are on pace to surpass their predecessors’ regular-season success. Their current .852 winning percentage is on the edge of a 70-win pace, which would put them in a club only occupied by Curry’s 73-win Golden State Warriors and Jordan’s 72-win Chicago Bulls.
The odds of winning a title soar at 65 wins. Fifteen of the 21 teams to have reached that milestone went on to win the title. The 2016 Warriors are the lone exception among teams that won 69 games.
The Bucks have one of the league’s toughest remaining schedules, per Tankathon, and they have a seven-game lead in the loss column on the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. They could take their foot off the pedal down the stretch, but they do not need to. Because they have blown out so many teams, only Antetokounmpo averages more than 30 minutes per game for Milwaukee, and even he sits at 30.9 — his lowest of any season since his rookie year. Those blowouts have produced a 12.1 point differential, a mark achieved by only three teams — the 72-win Bulls, 1971 Bucks and 69-win 1972 Los Angeles Lakers, whose 12.28 point differential stands as a record within striking distance.
The real test for these Bucks comes in the playoffs, where they fell short of their goal as a 60-win No. 1 seed a year ago, losing in six games to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. But it will still be fun to first watch how Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee handle the pressure of chasing history.
The 2-3-4-5-6 race in the East
Without Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors have made themselves a legitimate challenger again, winning 15 straight games before finally losing just before the break. They leapt from fourth place to second, hurdling the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics en route to the next-best position behind Milwaukee.
Boston won 11 of 13 entering the break and lost ground in the standings, and Miami bolstered its roster with the trade for Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at the deadline. Despite Milwaukee’s brilliance, you can envision a Finals path for any of the top four seeds in the East. That field could expand to six if the Philadelphia 76ers solve their chemistry woes and Victor Oladipo returns to All-Star form for the Indiana Pacers. It is the deepest field of threats the East has seen in some time.
With fewer than 30 games left, Toronto (40-15) has built a nice cushion for the No. 2 seed over everyone but Boston (38-16). Both teams will want that spot and the right to host the sub-.500 Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Celtics currently own the tiebreaker, with one head-to-head matchup left for the Raptors to even the season series. Problems could start with the No. 3 seed.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons may be a poor fit as tandem All-Stars, and the rest of Philadelphia’s roster seems less than thrilled with how that impacts their roles, but the Sixers are a nightmare first-round matchup for any team with conference crown aspirations. Their starting five is still remarkably talented, and that matters in the playoffs. Yet, they were the sixth seed as recently as two weeks ago. If they fall behind Indiana again, would Boston or Miami prefer the fourth seed over the third?
That leaves Milwaukee waiting in the second round, and you have to imagine everyone wants to avoid a potential meeting with Giannis until the conference finals. This makes the current 4-5 race between Miami and Philadelphia all the more fascinating. The Sixers are within striking distance of the fourth seed, and given their home (25-2) and road (9-19) splits, they need it. Otherwise, they risk further embarrassment at the hands of Jimmy Butler, their former teammate who orchestrated his way to the Heat after helping to lead the Sixers to within a whisper of last year’s East finals.
The jockeying for playoff positioning should be fascinating. Strength of schedule from easiest to toughest goes in this order: Sixers, Heat, Pacers, Celtics and Raptors. There is a lot of basketball left to play, and there is one path to prioritize: Get the No. 2 seed, host Brooklyn, hope Philadelphia lands fourth or fifth and the winner of the 4-5 series gives Milwaukee a run in the second round.
The tank race to the bottom
The 2020 draft class is considered bleak. As Yahoo Sports draft guru Krysten Peek relays, the dropoff among top prospects occurs somewhere around the fifth pick, and there is no clear-cut No. 1. Her most recent mock draft has James Wiseman, Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball and Deni Avdija as the top four in order. Cole Anthony was in that group coming out of high school and was slotted at No. 5 at the start of the month. None of them is a surefire star the way Zion Williamson was.
So, what does this mean for the tank race over the next two months?
Five teams are vying for the NBA’s worst record, and a sixth — a Detroit Pistons squad without Blake Griffin and now Andre Drummond — could potentially join the mix. The Golden State Warriors (12-43) currently have a 2.5-game lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers (14-40) for the best lottery odds, but both teams could be better than their records down the stretch. Curry is expected to return to the Warriors in early March, and Drummond’s arrival in Cleveland — paired with a potential coaching change — could spur the Cavs to a few more wins than expected before season’s end.
Likewise, the Minnesota Timberwolves (16-37) may be boosted by pairing D’Angelo Russell with good friend Karl-Anthony Towns. Whether any of that will be enough for the Atlanta Hawks (15-41), New York Knicks (17-38) or Pistons (19-38) to fall below the Warriors and Cavs remains to be seen.
Lottery odds flattened last season, when the teams with the three worst records were given an equal chance at both the No. 1 pick (14 percent) and a top-four slot (52.1 percent). Percentages tail off after that. The sixth slot holds only an 8.3 percent shot at the top pick and a 34.8 percent chance at the top four. None of the six teams will want that spot on lottery night. There is also still some incentive to finish dead last, since the team with the worst record can pick no later than fifth.
To what lengths will one-fifth of the league go to ensure itself of a good pick in a bad draft?
Stephen Curry’s return
There is reason to watch the Warriors beyond whether Curry’s comeback from a broken left hand will prevent them from finishing with the NBA’s worst record after five straight Finals appearances.
Curry is one of the league’s most electric players, and the NBA has missed him these past four months. Can he reestablish himself as a force capable of bending defenses and breaking their will with the flick of a wrist? In his absence, Luka Doncic has risen to All-NBA status, Damian Lillard has reached another level, Russell Westbrook has been rejuvenated and Chris Paul has rejoined the conversation about the game’s best generals. Curry must remind the basketball world who he is.
Golden State was well on its way to being bad before Curry’s injury four games into the season, and everything since has been geared to returning to contention in 2020-21. Their own pick will fall in the high lottery this season, and the D’Angelo Russell trade fetched them Andrew Wiggins and another potential elite draft pick in 2021. The Warriors are as flexible as they have been since 2016.
They have some figuring out to do between now and when they can think about turning those top picks into more pieces for the next Golden State super-team. How will Wiggins perform in the space Curry creates? If he has any measure of success, there will be hope for the Warriors that he could be an even better fit on the wing once Klay Thompson returns from injury next season. Can Curry recharge Draymond Green, or is his career in as steep a decline as it seems? Will rookies Eric Paschall and Ky Bowman continue to produce when Curry becomes the primary option again?
The answers to those questions may well determine whether the Warriors want to add top draft picks to the current roster or use them to go star-shopping for some help in their own comeback.
The battle of L.A.
The Lakers entered the All-Star break with a Western Conference-best record of 41-12, five games up on their Los Angeles rival Clippers (with the Denver Nuggets standing between them in second at 38-17). The two L.A. teams remain heavy favorites to emerge from the West, but in recent weeks both teams have shown signs of weakness — or complacency in the season’s winter months — but there is no doubt both teams will try flex their muscle against top opponents entering the playoffs.
The Clippers have won both early marquee battles between the two teams on opening night and Christmas. They have a deeper roster and bolstered it by adding Marcus Morris at the trade deadline and reportedly Reggie Jackson on the buyout market. The Lakers have thus far struck out in their attempts to add shooting and ball-handling depth, but they feature a monstrous lineup led by James and Anthony Davis, a pair of MVP candidates performing at or near peak levels.
On the court, the Lakers and Clippers will meet once more during the regular season on March 8. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clips will be looking to go 3-0 in the series, but the Lakers will be desperate to shift the narrative their way before the two teams maybe meet again in the playoffs.
The final West playoff spot
The Memphis Grizzlies seized control of the eighth seed in the Western Conference, winning eight of 10 to enter the break with a 28-26 record. The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs trail the Grizz by five games in the loss column, no small obstacle in a 28-game sprint to the finish.
Memphis also traded a pair of rotational contributors (Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill) at the deadline, leaving the door open just enough for playoff mainstays Portland and San Antonio to sneak in. If the Spurs fail to make it, they will snap their streak of consecutive playoff appearances at 22, tied with the Sixers from 1950-71. Damian Lillard’s Blazers are on a six-season streak.
The New Orleans Pelicans (23-32) have a mountain to climb, but they also just added one of the few players you could ask to scale it. They are an underachieving team, but Zion Williamson has put up Shaquille O’Neal-like numbers in his 10 games back from knee surgery. The Pelicans are 5-5 since Williamson’s debut, but they have been competitive in all of them, and a lift on his minutes restriction (he is averaging 27.4 right now) may well tilt the balance in New Orleans’ favor.
New Orleans has the NBA’s easiest remaining schedule, per Tankathon, another feather in their cap. Memphis? Well, they have the hardest. (Portland and San Antonio are also on the easier side.)
Zion Williamson’s ascent
Watch Williamson for all of five minutes, and you can see he will be a superstar. That we may already be considering him one capable of carrying a team to the playoffs is a testament to his talent at age 19. This kid is special, and you should take every opportunity to watch him as much as possible for the rest of the season, so you can tell everyone you were there from the beginning.
Memphis point guard Ja Morant has been the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year ever since Williamson suffered the knee injury. Morant is averaging 17.6 points (on 49/36/78 shooting splits), 7.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 29.9 minutes per game. He has only missed six of his team’s 54 games this season, while Williamson missed his team’s first 44. Another mountain to climb.
But what if Williamson does lead New Orleans on a tear that unseats Memphis from the eighth seed? If over the second half of the season he ends up anywhere near his current per-36-minute averages — 29 points (on 58/36/65 splits), 10 rebounds and three assists — he will at least enter the conversation. Rookie of the Year or not, Zion is bound for greatness. Get in on the ground level.
The Houston Rockets experiment
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s decision to trade Clint Capela for Robert Covington signaled a full embrace of small ball in Houston. P.J. Tucker, the bruising 6-foot-5 stretch forward, has started every game since at center with mixed results. They beat the behemoth Lakers and lost to the Phoenix Suns by 36. They lost to the Utah Jazz by a single point and beat the Celtics handily.
Two more moves over the break furthered their all-in approach to versatility. The Rockets signed Jeff Green to a 10-day contract and will reportedly add the recently bought-out DeMarre Carroll. They have a stockpile of floor-spacing wings to surround James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook will perhaps benefit most from Capela’s departure. With the paint completely unclogged, he has averaged 38.7 points (on 57.1 percent shooting), 8.0 rebound and 4.7 assists in three games since the trade. If he and Harden average anywhere near 65 points between them, Houston would have to be absolutely atrocious on defense to negate the numbers the offense could generate.
That feels optimistic. The Rockets will be almost entirely reliant on their ability to make 3-pointers. They have averaged 44 attempts in the four games since the deal, and that could creep north of 50 by season’s end. It is what will make them so vulnerable in a seven-game series.
In the regular season, though, it will be interesting to see the small-ball trend to its natural end, for better or worse. The Rockets might be entertaining again, if only to find out if math trumps what we have long believed about the importance of rim protection and rebounding. (Houston ranked 19th in rebound rate and 28th in defensive field-goal percentage inside of six feet before the Capela trade.)
Potential playoff opponents will spend the stretch run trying to figure out how best to exploit Houston’s lack of size. The Rockets trail Utah by two games for the fourth and final home playoff seed in the West, with the head-to-head tiebreaker on Saturday night. Strap in. It should be fun.
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