The NBA season has entered the stretch run and while one constant remains unchanged—Golden State is still a prohibitive favorite to win its third straight title—there are plenty of other storylines to keep an eye on. Here are the top five on The Crossover’s list.
Already, the buyout market has had an impact—the Rockets dug into the bargain bin for a rejuvenated Kenneth Faried and Austin Rivers, two players who helped keep Houston afloat during an injury ravaged stretch—and a handful more could tilt the playoff scales. Wesley Matthews signed on to fill the gaping hole Victor Oladipo left in Indiana and Portland won a bidding war for Enes Kanter, who adds some punch to a second unit that ranks in the bottom half of the NBA in points scored?
Who’s left? The big man market figures to be strong. Marcin Gortat is a big body with 86 playoff appearances on his resume. Greg Monroe was a sought after commodity being bought out last February, but his limited production in Toronto (11.1 minutes per game) makes him less desirable. The Bulls have been resistant to buying out Robin Lopez, who is the kind of big physical presence Golden State would love.
The biggest name out there: Carmelo Anthony. Will someone take a chance on ‘Melo? The Lakers are mentioned often, but all has been quiet on that front lately. Miami makes sense—the Heat love reclamation projects, and believe they can extract more from players than any team in the league. But a healthy, active Anthony was cast aside by Oklahoma City and Houston in the span of a few months. Is it reasonable to believe that Anthony, an analog scorer in an increasingly digital NBA world—can offer a team anything after playing just ten games this season? It’s very possible we have seen the last of Anthony in the NBA.
Who wins the battle for Eastern Conference seeding?
One game separates Indiana, Boston and Philadelphia. One game separates Milwaukee and Toronto. The No. 3 seed could mean a first round matchup with Brooklyn; a 4-5 seed could be a brutal first round matchup followed by a battle with the No. 1 seed. Toronto is a conference-best 24-5 at home; the Bucks are an NBA-best 20-9 on the road, but for a team that has not won a playoff series since 2001, home court throughout the conference playoffs could prove useful.
Get the point? The 3-5 street fight is the most interesting. First—how is Indiana holding on? The Pacers had zero representation in Charlotte during All-Star weekend; Oladipo was named as a reserve, but withdrew due to injury. Indy lost four straight in the aftermath of Oladipo’s season-ending leg injury, but rallied to win six out of seven right after, against mainly lottery teams. The Pacers cushy schedule will continue into early March, giving Indiana a chance to keep the Celtics and Sixers at bay. But can they do it until mid-April?
And Boston? No one has a clue what to expect from the Celtics. They have a top-five defense, but have surrendered four 40-plus point quarters since late December. They have a deep well of scorers but the ball can get sticky at times. There’s a chance the Celtics can click (a surging Gordon Hayward could help facilitate that) and Boston will roll into the conference finals. Or Boston’s chemistry issues could cause further friction and they could get rolled in the first round.
Let’s not forget the stakes in the East playoffs, either. An early ouster by Boston could impact Kyrie Irving’s decision on re-signing there this summer. A second round loss by Philadelphia could make ownership think twice in making the kind of investment needed to keep the Sixers together. And Toronto may need a deep playoff run to retain Kawhi Leonard. Franchise futures could be at stake.
Who gets the No. 8 seed?
There’s little doubt who the NBA wants to grab the No. 8 seed in the West; a Warriors-Lakers first round series would add unprecedented spice to a matchup routinely relegated to NBATV. Can LA grab it? Betting against LeBron James has routinely proven foolish. But it’s been a predictably inconsistent season for the Lakers. They followed up a stunning comeback win in Boston with back-to-back losses to the Sixers and (gulp) Hawks. LA comes out of the break with a pair of games against the Pelicans and a trip to Memphis among its first four. Those games will be telling.
What about the Clippers? This season has been one of Doc Rivers finest coaching jobs, as he has blended together a revamped roster loaded with role players and pushed it into playoff contention. But the decision to ship out leading scorer Tobias Harris—a smart one, given the return (two first round picks) and the likelihood the Clippers wouldn’t meet Harris’s salary demands this summer—makes it hard to see them holding on. Besides, the Clips are incentivized to land in the lottery—if they don’t, LA’s first round pick conveys to Boston.
That leaves … Sacramento? First, let’s pump the brakes on the Kings as a feel-good story. Sacramento has not made the playoffs since 2006 and has had 79 lottery picks since then. They should have been a playoff contender long before this. That said, Dave Joerger has done a nice job with this young, hyperactive bunch, pushing the tempo (the Kings, 30th in pace last season, are top five in this one) and have one of the NBA’s best young backcourts in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. They added Harrison Barnes at the deadline, who was immediately thrust into a 36-minute per game role. The Kings should be the team that grabs that last playoff spot.
How good is Denver?
Who saw the Nuggets coming? Denver built on its near miss of last year’s postseason to piece together an improbable rise to the top of the conference standings. The Nuggets were white-hot in January (12-4) and are off to the best start in franchise history. It’s easy to look at Denver’s collection of anonymous role players (Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig) and be skeptical of its ability to keep up with the more star laden teams at the top of the conference. But the Nuggets go seven-deep with players who are averaging double-figures and nine-deep with guys averaging at least six points per game, a list that doesn’t include the recently returned Isaiah Thomas. This team is built to win.
What’s Denver’s ceiling? Can they climb past Golden State for the top seed in the West? The Nuggets have split a pair of games with he Warriors already, with two remaining. A recent winless three game Eastern Conference road trip raised some alarms—and exposed some weaknesses in Denver’s three-point defense—but the Nuggets rallied to best Miami and Sacramento before the All-Star break. Can Denver’s unheralded stars keep it up? Morris, Beasley, Craig and Juancho Hernangomez have already surpassed their career highs in minutes. The Nuggets are an NBA-best 25-4 in Denver, an edge that could be the Nuggets only shot at upsetting the Warriors in a potential conference final.
How does the AD saga end?
If the last two weeks are any indication, the next two months could be awful for Anthony Davis and the Pelicans. Davis says he wants to play, while the Pelicans—justifiably, given how significant a Davis trade is for the future of the franchise—would prefer he take an extended vacation. The compromise has been Davis playing a reduced role, sitting out meaningful fourth quarter minutes and being booed lustily by the home crowd.
The NBA, understandably, is reluctant to set a new precedent for sitting stars. The league has gone to great lengths in recent years to ensure that fans get what they pay for and national television audiences get the best product. Still, the idea that it’s good for the game to see Davis trotted out there for 25 or so meaningless minutes on a team going nowhere in a situation the league would like to go away for a while is just wrong. Davis coming up with a nagging injury—plantar fascia sounds right, or perhaps the shoulder injury Davis reportedly dealt with over All-Star weekend—and sidelining himself is best for all involved.