Despite not being the true halfway point of the NBA season, the All-Star break acts as a functional intermission to a grueling 82 game season. Teams use their week long break to rest key players, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and prepare for the final stretch of the regular season. As the NBA returns on Thursday, let’s look at three storylines that will define the rest of the season.
Can the Raptors stay atop the Eastern Conference?
At the break, the Toronto Raptors are the number one seed in the East with a 41-16 record. They are two games up on the 40-19 Boston Celtics, and have a sizable 6.5-game lead over the retooled Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptors won seven straight heading into All Star weekend, and own the NBA’s best home record at 24-4. They have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, and the third-best defensive rating, making them the only team in the league to appear in the top five of both categories. Finally, they have the second-best net rating in the league, squarely in between the first-place Houston Rockets and the third-place Golden State Warriors. They are the only three teams to have a net rating above 8. The fourth-best net rating is owned by the Celtics, who clock in at 3.7.
By every conceivable metric the Raptors are one of the league’s elite teams and a serious threat to win it all. But, despite all the resounding statistical analysis, there is still the perception that this Raptors team as presently constructed is simply not talented enough to hang with the NBA’s elite. Their two biggest stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, have storied histories of playoff ineptitude and inability to produce when their teams need it most. The Raptors have made the playoffs for four straight years, making the conference finals only once in 2016. Conceivably, with the Cavs’ season in constant flux and the Celtics appearing to hit a wall, the Raptors should be favorites to advance to their first ever NBA finals. If they continue to play as well as they did before the break, there’s no reason why they can’t.
Which team will claim the league’s worst record?
With nine teams owning a winning percentage below .400, the race for the best lottery odds will be one of historic proportions. Never before have so many teams willingly accepted their fate as bad teams and so blatantly tried to obtain as poor a record as possible. There a multitude of factors that explain why this tanking epidemic has reached an all time. One possible reason is the NBA’s decision to revamp the lottery odds for next season, lowering the odds of the three worst teams obtaining the first pick. This incentivizes teams to be as bad as possible now, when the chances of obtaining a top pick are slightly better for the worst teams. Another reason is the quality of the upcoming draft class. By my estimations, the top six of this year’s class is one of the strongest in recent memory, with prospects like Luka Doncic, DeAndre Ayton, and Marvin Bagley possessing franchise altering ability. Teams like the Phoenix Suns or the Atlanta Hawks are searching for the generational type talent needed to win a championship, and picking towards the top of the draft increases their chances of getting one.
As of now, the Suns and the Hawks are tied for the league’s worst record at 18-41. Just behind them lurk the 18-40 Dallas Mavericks, who’s outspoken owner Mark Cuban recently stated that “losing is our best option.” Rounding out the top five are the Orlando Magic and the Sacramento Kings, who are tied for the NBA’s fourth worst record at 18-39. The New York Knicks, who are a little late to the party but made up for lost time by losing eight straight heading into the All-Star break, seem hell bent on sneaking their way in to the top five. These teams, and a handful of other inept franchises will look to remain hapless for the rest of the season in the hopes of obtaining their next franchise player. Thankfully, NBA twitter has already created some incredible hashtags to commemorate a tank job well done, including #LoseForLuka, #WaitinForAyton, and my personal favorite, #SecureTheBagley.
How will the Western Conference standings shake out?
As many expected, the Rockets and the Warriors have solidified themselves at the top of the Western Conference standings, and don’t appear to be leaving any time soon. After that though, there are a group of eight teams fighting for the six remaining playoff spots. Some of those teams, like the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves, will almost certainly make the playoffs and are merely fighting for seeding. Other teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and the scorching hot Utah Jazz are simply trying to get in. After the Spurs and Timberwolves, who currently are in third and fourth place respectively, the playoff picture gets very murky. The Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at five, but are only a mere 2.5 games ahead of the tenth place Jazz. In between them, in order, stand the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and the Clippers. All six of those teams are supremely talented, but have serious limitations that will likely keep them out of title contention. Yet, a surprise conference Finals run for any of these teams is not out of the question.
Whichever teams nab the final two playoff spots will probably face a swift and painless elimination and the hands of the Rockets and Warriors respectively. But, the 3-6 matchup and the 4-5 matchup will likely be closely contested series that will come down to a handful of possessions. Personally, I would be ecstatic to see the playoff series as they currently stand. The three seeded Spurs would play the sixth seeded Nuggets while the fourth seeded Timberwolves would host the fifth seeded Thunder.
Spurs Nuggets would be a fantastic series simply for their contrasting styles. The Nuggets have one of the league’s deeper and more talented rosters, but lack a traditional superstar. Nikola Jokic is one of the best players in the league, but in a playoff series where the opponent is well rested and focusing in on his strengths and weaknesses there are serious concerns about his ability to lead a team. Denver also has a pair of players, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, who complement each other extremely well and form one of the league’s premiere young backcourts. Harris has turned in to one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders, and a knockdown shooter. Murray has made impressive strides in his sophomore season, taking on more lead guard responsibility while not sacrificing his incredible offensive gifts. The Spurs on the other hand continue to be the model of excellence in the NBA. Coach Gregg Popovich once again has constructed a title-contending roster out of spare parts he found at home. The inconsistent health of star Kawhi Leonard should have been a death sentence to this Spurs team, but Pop has continued to churn out victories with players like Dejonte Murray and Bryn Forbes contributing heavy minutes. The Spurs are once again one of the league’s elite defensive units, ranking second in defensive rating, and will only get better when Leonard returns. For now, they slow the game down, limit your possessions, and rely on the reinvigorated Lamarcus Aldridge to lead their offense.
A Timberwolves Thunder series could be a first round matchup for the ages if the stars were to align. Both teams are choked full of elite talents who can take over the game at any time. In OKC, the Thunder seem to have found their groove after some early season troubles. Russell Westbrook continues to wreak havoc on defenses with his ungodly athleticism, but seems less focused this season on averaging a triple double. Paul George has settled in to his role as the team’s de facto number two, playing well off of Westbrook and creating his own shot when necessary. The odd man out on the Thunder is Carmelo Anthony, who has yet to truly find his spot on the team. He is averaging career lows across the board while still contributing little on the defensive end. He is useful in end of clock situations, but beyond that Anthony’s spot would be better filled by someone who didn’t need the ball in their hand to help their team win. The loss of Andre Roberson is a brutal one, but the combination of Terrance Ferguson and Alex Abrines off the bench should be enough come playoff time. The TWolves are in a similar position to the Thunder in that their roster is very top heavy, meaning they have the stars just not the depth. Jimmy Butler has adjusted well to his new life in Minnesota, putting up strong offensive numbers while playing his usual stellar defense. Karl Anthony Towns has continued his evolution on the offensive end of the floor, improving his three point shooting ability thus transforming him into one of the more dominant offensive forces in the game. On the defensive end, he still struggles with coach Tom Thibodeau’s complex defensive strategies and often looks out of place. But, when he puts full effort forth he has the ability to transform a defense. Much of the same can be said about Minnesota’s third star, Andrew Wiggins. One of the league’s best athletes, Wiggins has yet to truly put all of his gifts together. He remains raw, he is still only 22, but has shown flashes of dominance on both ends of the floor. Overall, a Thunder Timberwolves matchup would pit two talented yet flawed teams against each other in what would be an epic first round series.
As the All-Star break comes and goes, playoff basketball appears faint in the distance. For some, it indicates the end of their season as they shift their attention to a handful of ping pong balls. For others, the playoffs signify a second season. A time when dreams become realities and legacies are cemented. Their time is coming, but for now, they must wait.