In an NBA marketing campaign, the week-long All-Star break serves as a pure inflection level. Coming two-thirds of the way in which via, it is an intermission earlier than the common season’s ultimate act.
So, because the league gears up for what needs to be a wildly entertaining stretch run, listed below are seven storylines that ought to outline the rest of the 2017-18 marketing campaign.
Cleveland, now not cavalier
Issues could not have gotten off to a extra encouraging begin for the remade Cleveland Cavaliers. After buying and selling half their crew and bringing in 4 new gamers on deadline day, the Cavs promptly dismantled the Boston Celtics and beat the Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder on the street to roll into the break on a four-game successful streak.
The brand new guys slot in in addition to might’ve been anticipated, bolstering Cleveland’s sieve-like protection whereas taking pictures a mixed 51 p.c from the sphere and 47 p.c from three. Maybe much more importantly, the holdovers have been solely rejuvenated. After sulking and dragging his ft via a disastrous January, LeBron James seemed like LeBron James once more – lively, engaged, and joyful. J.R. Smith all of a sudden rediscovered his leap shot, his burst, and his swagger. Even the reanimated corpse of Tristan Thompson seemed vaguely lifelike.
How a lot of that was the product of a post-shakeup honeymoon, and the way a lot was predictive of the remainder of Cleveland’s season? Is the East as soon as once more the Cavs’ to lose? Their defensive personnel is clearly higher, however whether or not they can really be good – and even common – on that finish is one other query. Will they maintain the optimistic vibes and newfound power when Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood aren’t hitting greater than half their Three-point makes an attempt? With all of the momentum they gathered within the previous week, the Cavs could have been one of many few groups that wasn’t completely happy to see the All-Star break arrive. How they appear popping out of it will likely be one of many league’s most fascinating subplots the remainder of the way in which.
The wild, wild Western Convention playoff melee
Simply Four.5 video games separate the No. Three seed from No. 10 within the West, whereas the third-place San Antonio Spurs and ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers are simply two video games aside within the loss column. Seeds 5 via 9 are all tied with 26 losses, and the 10th-place Utah Jazz, now wholesome and ravenous, are respiration down everybody’s necks at 30-28, winners of 11 straight video games.
Of all these groups, the slumping Spurs have essentially the most tough remaining schedule, whereas the red-hot Jazz have the simplest. The eighth-place New Orleans Pelicans are hanging on by a thread with out DeMarcus Cousins, however additionally they have the perfect participant of this bunch in Anthony Davis. The Denver Nuggets have been scuffling on protection, however their offense is rolling and they need to be getting Paul Millsap again quickly. The Portland Path Blazers have arguably the most popular participant within the convention in Damian Lillard. After delivery Blake Griffin out of city, the Los Angeles Clippers opted to not unload their remaining components on the commerce deadline, and have saved grinding out wins behind Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan. The Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves have extra expertise than the groups chasing them, however arguably much less cohesiveness.
All of which is to say, it is inconceivable to foretell the place any of those groups will find yourself, not to mention which two will find yourself on the surface of the playoffs trying in. This is one factor we will say for sure: Watching all of it shake out goes to be insanely enjoyable.
The marginally-less-wild Jap seeding skirmish
The East would not characteristic fairly the logjam the West does, and the Detroit Pistons are the one crew at the moment outdoors the playoff image that may conceivably crash the social gathering. However with simply Three.5 video games separating the fourth-place Washington Wizards from the eighth-place Miami Warmth, there’s loads of room for jockeying and matchup-hunting. And given the clear divide that appears to exist between the highest three and the remainder of the convention, the combat for the fourth and fifth seeds needs to be fierce.
The Philadelphia 76ers are an elite crew when Joel Embiid is on the ground, and if his well being continues allowing him to ramp up his workload, they’ll simply rocket into the highest 4. The Indiana Pacers are 33-19 with Victor Oladipo within the lineup and Zero-6 with out him, which is by some means encouraging and discouraging on the similar time. Does Oladipo have sufficient assist to maintain the Pacers within the Four-5 bracket? Can the Wizards maintain rolling with out John Wall? And in that case, can they stick with it when he returns? Can the Milwaukee Bucks keep their newly dominant protection within the Joe Prunty period? And may Jabari Parker work again as much as starter’s minutes – and impression – by playoff time? Will effort and chemistry be sufficient to assist the starless Warmth maintain off the Griffin-led Pistons?
For playoff-race drama, the West continues to be greatest, however the depth’s elevated within the East.
The Spurs: Who, what, the place, when, how, and Kawhi
With a 35-24 file and a nightmarish closing schedule, the Spurs are most likely going to fall in need of 50 wins for the primary time in 19 years. At this level, they could have to be extra anxious about simply holding onto a playoff spot.
That appears insane, given they sit third within the West and are, y’know, the freaking Spurs. However we have already mentioned how tenuous seeding is within the bunched-up West, and this crew is a far cry from the Spurs groups of years previous. The 2017-18 model is badly banged up, cannot rating, depends nearly completely on position gamers, and misplaced 13 of its final 23 video games going into the break. Gregg Popovich and his workers nonetheless handle to coax starting-caliber performances out of most of these position gamers, however with out Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs arguably have much less pure expertise than any crew within the race. How lengthy can they proceed to depend on a protection anchored by two earthbound bigs, or an offense that revolves round post-ups, or a bench led by a quadragenarian?
And herein lies the large, pulsating query mark on the coronary heart of this vexing San Antonio season. Leonard has performed in simply 9 video games. He is now sidelined for the second time as a consequence of a mysterious quad damage, and hasn’t performed in almost six weeks. And since he was shelved in mid-January, we have hardly heard a peep about his progress or his long-term prognosis, and no inkling of when or if he is anticipated to play once more this season. The Spurs will most likely handle to carry onto a playoff spot regardless, as a result of they nonetheless have an honest cushion within the win column and nonetheless have an uncanny skill to wring essentially the most out of their gamers. However they’re stretched awfully skinny, they usually’ll be hard-pressed to maintain successful on the similar fee except or till Leonard returns.
Rockets, Raptors attempt to flip the script
Most individuals nonetheless count on the Cavs and Golden State Warriors to satisfy within the NBA Finals for a fourth straight 12 months, however watch out for the interlopers. The Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors are within the midst of really particular seasons, and lead their respective conferences on the break.
Neither the Warriors nor Cavs have had a lot bother with the Rockets or Raptors within the playoffs in recent times, however these are markedly totally different variations of the 2 – the Rockets as a result of they added Chris Paul, and the Raptors as a result of they’ve skilled exceptional inside development and reinvented themselves stylistically. The Rockets are driving a 10-game successful streak, and the Raptors a seven-gamer. The Rockets have the second-most environment friendly offense in recorded historical past (behind solely this season’s Warriors), whereas the Raptors are the one NBA crew that at the moment ranks prime 4 on either side of the ball. These two even have the perfect level differentials within the league, as they’ve every outscored their opponents by almost 9 factors a sport.
Holding onto these No. 1 seeds goes to be vital for each. With the Cavs trying more and more more likely to end within the prime three, the Raptors would do nicely to keep away from them so long as potential and provides themselves home-court benefit within the occasion of a possible convention finals matchup. For the Rockets, having residence courtroom within the West ultimate could be their solely hope of toppling the dynastic Warriors. The Raptors’ place is much safer – they do not have the Warriors chasing them, whereas the second-place Celtics are two video games again and scuffling, and the Cavaliers crew many really feel is the perfect within the convention sits 6.5 again. The Rockets, in the meantime, have a brutal schedule popping out of the break, with the Warriors lurking only a half-game again. It is going to all construct towards a March 9 assembly between the 2 upstart juggernauts at Air Canada Centre. A potential Finals preview? Dare to dream.
The Warriors, with their fingers on the button
Apart from transient, impressed stretches, the Warriors have not actually seemed just like the Warriors this season. They’re nonetheless only a half-game away from having the NBA’s greatest file – as a result of they’re nonetheless essentially the most proficient crew ever assembled – however there’s been one thing noticeably lacking; the defensive ferocity, the Bay Space-sized chip on their shoulder, the night-in, night-out hearth … these are now not the crew’s hallmarks. These Warriors have seemed nearly bored by their very own excellence – tuning out their coach, coasting into the break with a protection that is been no higher than common for nearly two months, and permitting the hungrier Rockets to surpass them within the standings.
Is any of this more likely to matter? After all not. Many of the points can most likely be chalked as much as the Warriors pacing themselves, with their eyes fastened firmly on a 3rd title in 4 years. “Flipping the change” has lengthy been NBA shorthand for deciding to strive exhausting, however what the Warriors have at their disposal is extra akin to an enormous pink button. They’ve the firepower to ship the remainder of the league up in a mushroom cloud of mud, so is the Rockets’ ascent the kick within the pants they want? After getting a longed-for hiatus, will they arrive roaring out of the gate and ensure they take again the 1-seed? Or will they wait till the playoffs to unleash hell?
Then there’s this: What if their button would not do as a lot harm because it used to? What if the Warriors have really misplaced one thing? What if three straight seasons of 100-plus video games have taken their toll, mentally and bodily? Alas, the dispiriting factor concerning the Warriors is that they’ll most likely get by even with out reaching their prime gear.
It is not a tankathon, it is a tankasprint
Over the season’s ultimate third, the race to the underside guarantees to be nearly as partaking because the race to the highest. With a clearly outlined decrease class that features eight groups separated by two video games within the win column, and with draft-lottery reform set to even out the allocation of ping-pong balls after this 12 months, the ultimate 23-to-25 video games needs to be a enjoyable exhibition of one-downmanship.
What number of alternative ways can these groups discover to lose video games? What number of all-10-day lineups will we see? Who shall be this 12 months’s Eric Bledsoe – i.e. the participant who will get shut down for the season’s ultimate month mainly as a result of he is too good? It is going to assist that groups just like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers – who do not personal their very own draft picks this 12 months – don’t have any incentive to tank. However, from long-moribund groups just like the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic, to once-competent franchises now dealing with lengthy rebuilds just like the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks, almost a 3rd of the NBA has its destiny tied up within the coming lottery.
(Pictures courtesy: Getty Pictures)