We’re a few games past the midway point of the NBA season, and with All-Star Weekend rapidly approaching, teams have—for the most part—established who they are going to be for the rest of the season. Of course, while it may be obvious who are the contenders and who are the tankers, there are still some lingering threads that could have a big impact during the playoff push. Here are seven burning questions to keep your eye on for the rest of the season.
Will Carmelo Anthony Get Traded?
Trade deadlines of years past were a little more exciting than 2017. Teams could make moves for role players who had the potential to lift a squad from one tier to the next, covering up a significant hole that might be the difference between a deep playoff run or a first-round exit. It’s a little different now, with the Warriors and Cavs’ Kung Fu grip on their respective conferences scaring teams from making any splashes. After all, it’s kind of hard to move the needle after a 73-win team adds arguably the second-best player in the world in the off-season.
If there’s any one player capable of making waves, however, it’s Carmelo Anthony. Melo has been heavily involved in trade rumors amid the Knicks’ struggles, and while he may not be the No. 1 option he once was, Anthony could be devastating as a secondary scorer on a contender. The teams that pop up in Melo discussions—the Cavaliers and Clippers—could both take a significant step by acquiring Anthony. He would lighten the load on LeBron’s shoulders in Cleveland, or he would give L.A. a much-needed shot creator on the wing. Pulling off a trade for Melo will be difficult for either of these teams—a third team would almost certainly have to get involved—but with the top heavy nature of this season, short of acquiring a star like Anthony, I don’t see how anyone gets closer to the Warriors.
Will The East’s Best Start Playing Defense?
If you want a good reason to predict a Warriors blowout in the Finals, look no further than the defensive rating of the East’s top three teams. The Cavaliers, Raptors and Celtics are in the top-eight of the league when it comes to net rating, but each of them leave a lot to be desired on the defensive end. Cleveland, Toronto and Boston are ranked 15th, 17th and 21st, respectively, in defense. While their offenses are great, it’s hard to imagine the Cavs, Raps or C’s outscoring the Warriors in a seven-game series, and that problem will be compounded if they can’t get stops.
The lack of defense is especially troubling for the Celtics, who were No. 5 in defensive efficiency last season. The Cavs were 10th in defense last year, and there’s at least a small possibility their slip this season can be blamed on a post-championship malaise. But if none of these defenses tighten up, they can forget about winning a title.
Who Will Win MVP?
James Harden seems to have a lock on the award right now, especially with Russell Westbrook’s efficiency taking a hit as opposing teams continue to load up on the Thunder guard. Kevin Durant can make a run for the award, but the biggest sleeper is Kawhi Leonard. In addition to his typical stellar defense, Leonard has been a menace on the offensive end this season, particularly over the last month. If the Spurs keep a close enough pace with Golden State, Leonard deserves much more attention than he’s gotten so far this season. Speaking of the Spurs…
Are The Spurs (Gulp) For Real?
Thanks to a heinously stingy defense, the Spurs actually finished with a better net rating than the 73-win Warriors last season. But San Antonio’s 2016 campaign still ended in the second round of the playoffs, with the Thunder (then with Durant) overwhelming the Spurs with their athleticism. Golden State never truly seemed to worry about San Antonio last season, and again it’s a little unclear if the Spurs can carry their regular season greatness through the playoffs. The Spurs are currently the second-best outfit in the league, and they are the only team besides Golden State to have a top-four offense and defense.
Kawhi’s offensive improvement gives San Antonio a better chance this season than last, but right now I’m not sure which team I’d pick in a Rockets-Spurs second-round series. (And playing extremely well in the regular season only to get bounced before the conference finals is the exact reason for which the Clippers a) could be on their last legs and b) often get mercilessly roasted.) San Antonio has big road wins over the Cavs and Warriors so far this season, giving the Spurs all the trappings of a title contender, but it’s tough to tell if they’re better overall team from last year.
What Happened To The Milwaukee Bucks?
This one is probably our fault. Not long after an SI cover story on Giannis Atentokounmpo, the Bucks started a long free fall. Milwaukee has lost 10 of its last 13 games, and in the process went from looking like the fourth-best team in the East to dropping out of the playoff picture (for now.) The Bucks are 10th in offensive efficiency, but they can still be contained in the halfcourt, thanks in large part to a lack of spacing. And while Jabari Parker is having a career year offensively, he’s ranked second-to-last in defensive real plus-minus among power forwards. Parker’s recent benching for disclosing a team meeting to the media also raised some eyebrows about Milwaukee’s locker room chemistry. The Bucks are still young and fun, and it’s too easy to forget this team is missing Khris Middleton, who could have made a big difference for Milwaukee this season. But the recent slide should at the very least temper expectations for what the Bucks can do in 2017.
Will Portland Make A Playoff Push?
The Trail Blazers entered Monday in ninth place in the West, trailing the Nuggets for the final playoff spot in the conference. Finishing eighth in the West is as good as missing the playoffs, because all that awaits you in the postseason is a slaughter at the hands of the Warriors. Portland has been atrocious defensively, and there is no reason to believe this team will make any noise come late April. So, will Portland realize this and initiate a small tank? Portland can’t all of a sudden jettison their players to really steer into the lottery, but maybe Terry Stotts should leave that defense untouched, because at this point, the Blazers would be better off trying to add a top talent in a loaded draft as opposed to serving as chum for the Warriors.
A playoff push could further convince Portland’s front office that a championship core is potentially in place. That’s what happened last season, and it resulted in a head-scratching off-season that saw PDX dispensing money like a broken ATM. A trip to the lottery should force the Blazers to re-think the formula, particularly if the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt can ever work together. Whatever the case, this has been an alarming season for the team with the second-highest payroll in the NBA.
What Happened To Those Millsap Trade Rumors?
Let’s end where we started—on trade rumors! Millsap is another guy who could make an impact if he’s moved this season, particularly in Toronto, where the Raptors need to decide if they are happy winning a playoff series or two, or if they actually want to make a push for the Finals. It’s possible Millsap is truly unavailable, in which case, what are you thinking Atlanta? Why move Kyle Korver if you’re serious about the playoffs? Why keep Millsap if he can walk away this off-season? The Hawks, largely by virtue of everyone else’s incompetence, are fourth in the East. But their success is a little bit of fool’s gold, and holding on to Millsap could end up being a regrettable long-term decision.
BONUS QUESTION: Will Someone Sign Mario Chalmers?
In the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden averaged 12.4 points, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Mario Chalmers averaged 10.4 points, 4.0 assists and a series-high 1.8 steals per game. Chalmers also shot better than Harden from three and the field. What I’m saying is there is a perennial MVP candidate who is currently unsigned.
ACTUAL BONUS QUESTION: Will Russ And KD Make Up At All-Star Weekend?
I really, really hope not. And if Steve Kerr has a sense of humor/cares about the rest of us, he’ll play a lineup of Westbrook with the Warriors’ four All-Stars and see what happens.