It's All-Star Weekend and most of the NBA is either in New Orleans or settled in on an exotic island somewhere. This is a good opportunity to pause and take a look around as the NBA heads to the home stretch. Stock watch. Let's go.
UP: The East
The Cavs are still the favorites. It's important to be clear about that up front. Stupidly talking ourselves into various half-serious East challengers has become a rich tradition of the LeBron era, and it always ends badly. No matter what the Celtics or Wizards do or what Serge Ibaka does in Toronto, LeBron James still plays in Cleveland, and that's probably all that matters. So there is the disclaimer.
Still... This could get fun. The Celtics and Wizards are hitting on all cylinders, and both could make moves before the trade deadline. The Raptors upgrading to Ibaka took their greatest weakness—the disastrous power forward spot—and made it a strength. Now they can go small with Ibaka and Patrick Patterson, and close games with a lineup that should scare everyone.
Meanwhile, LeBron is playing inhuman minutes at 32 years old, and Kevin Love is out until the playoffs. If Love's not 100% when he returns, all disclaimers still apply, but the Cavs could be more vulnerable than any LeBron team in years.
It's not just that Cleveland could be beaten, though. What's different this year is that we actually have multiple teams talented enough to pose a threat. Usually there's only one team that tricks basketball fans into thinking they have a chance (the Raptors, the Hawks, those Pacers teams). Now there are actually multiple teams that are worth watching, and there's real drama across the top four, and it's not just because of what they may or may not do against Cleveland. Finals run or not, a Celtics-Wizards series could be phenomenal
If it seems like we've lowered the bar to congratulate the East, please, that's not correct. The bar was already low. It's been so low, for so long, that the prospect of multiple entertaining playoff series feels like a miracle. But now we're here.
Everyone who lived through the seven game Raptors-Heat rockfight a year ago, rejoice. We may not have to live that life again.
UP: The Warriors
There's one team in the NBA that's definitely not upset about LeBron's life suddenly becoming more complicated, because you know, the Warriors deserved to have a couple things break their way.
The longer this season goes, the wider the gap seems between Golden State and every other team in the league. If they stay healthy, they're winning in June.
For now, this picture explains everything:
DOWN: The Pacers
Beginning at the end of January, the Pacers won seven straight games, and it looked like they were turning the season around. Granted, most of those wins came against sub-.500 teams, but there were wins against the Rockets and Thunder sprinkled in. It was progress. It was hope. Was it real?
The test was supposed to come through the first two weeks in February, with four games against the Cavs and Wizards, plus home games against the Bucks and Spurs. The Pacers went 0–6, heading into the All-Star Break with last night's double-digit loss to the Wizards.
We're not quite in "Free Paul George" territory yet. On the other hand, Thad Young was hurt Thursday night, and Kevin Seraphin started at power forward. "Free Paul George" territory isn't as far away as you think.
DOWN: James Harden's MVP Campaign
As recently as a month ago, the Rockets were playing so well that Harden winning MVP seemed like a foregone conclusion. His numbers (29 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds) have been outrageous even compared to MVP candidates like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Meanwhile, the Rockets went from a borderline playoff team in October to the third-best team in the West. That gave him the trump card over Westbrook.
But Houston's been playing .500 basketball over the past month or so (9–9), and as the Rockets cool off, it might open the door for everyone else. The Spurs have been better than the Rockets all year, for instance, and Kawhi Leonard is doing almost as much as Harden to carry them. It's not to say Harden is any less deserving than he was a month ago, but as Houston begins to look mortal, this is a debate again. Speaking of which ...
UP: LeBron's MVP Campaign
While the whole world obsessing over LeBron's minutes—he's currently tied with Kyle Lowry in that category, and he's played into June every year since 2010—it may be easy to miss the masterpiece he's putting together this season. The Cavs are in first place in the East, and over the past month, LeBron is putting up 26.4 points, 10.5 assists, and 7.7 rebounds, on 60% shooting. 60%!
What he did against the Wizards a few weeks ago was pure evil, and maybe the most impressive single game of the year.
Now Love is out, and the whole league is buzzing about challengers in the East, and who might steal the top seed. It's not ideal for Cleveland. But what happens if the Cavs stay in first place regardless? How does LeBron not win MVP in that scenario?
UP: Andrew Wiggins
He had 81 points during a back-to-back this week. He's scored at least 20 points 15 straight games, and he's shooting 50% from the field for the past month. He also saw all the buzz that Nikola Jokic has been getting in Denver, hated it, and then went out and committed homicide.
Maple Jordan stock has never been higher.
UP: Bradley Beal, All-Star Martyr
Bradley Beal is having the best year of his career, and he's been playing at an All-Star level for most of the year. When Love's injury was announced, he seemed like the logical replacement. And yet Carmelo Anthony was added to the roster.
It seems like an injustice, and it probably is, but consider the silver lining: While Beal won't play in the All-Star Game, most of the NBA media spent the past few days talking about why he should make it. When he didn't get the nod, the conversation shifted to why he's more deserving than Anthony.
Until the past few days, the only time the entire NBA community had ever debated Bradley Beal was to worry about his bone density or to side-eye his contract. This week, for about 36 hours, he was the People's All-Star. It's progress.
DOWN: The Sixers
The Sixers are still playing well. T.J. McConnell is a living legend, Dario Saric has turned a corner over the past month, and Nerlens Noel has filled in admirably with Joel Embiid sidelined. They took the Celtics to the wire on Wednesday and they're legitimately fun to watch. It's everything else that's a problem.
And finally, on Thursday:
So, wild January hallucinations have given way to a less fantastic February in Philadelphia. Credit to the Sixers, though. It's never boring.
UP: The Heat
I kept waiting for the Heat to come back to earth. They won 13 straight games through the end of January and beginning of February. But they lost to the Sixers and Magic in the past week, and it seemed like reality was setting in. It was inevitable. Then came the Rockets the win on Wednesday, in Houston, in a game where Dion Waiters had 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists, Goran Dragic added 21 points, while Hassan Whiteside had 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks. The other two starters for Miami in that game: Rodney McGruder and Luke Babbitt.
It's the middle of February now. The NBA is about to hit the home stretch. There are dozens of stories to watch and plenty of arguments that will sustain us through the playoffs. But while eyes turn to All-Star Weekend, keep in mind that no one from Miami will be present. And then, remember: the Heat are somehow three games out of the eighth seed. Everyone in the world should be rooting for Waiters, Whiteside, Dragic, McGruder, and Babbitt to steal a playoff spot.