Thursday night marks the return of NBA hoops, with teams entering the homestretch of their season. A few are fighting for their playoff lives, while others will try to avoid a late-season collapse. And for a handful of others, just playing basketball again figures to be a good thing, if only to shift the conversation from off-court turmoil that could bubble over.
With that in mind, we analyzed five of the league’s most interesting storylines as we prepare to dive into season’s second half.
What’s going to happen with the Celtics?
Even after the Raptors got Kawhi Leonard and the Sixers got Jimmy Butler, the Celtics carried great expectations this season. As a club that made it to Game 7 of the conference finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, getting back at least to that stage with both of them healthy seemed like almost a given.
Fast-forward to now, though, and it’s clear that there’s no guarantee they’ll get that far. The Bucks have joined the league’s elite. The Sixers have gone all in. And the Raptors are solid on both ends.
Complicating matters, too, is the fact that Irving, a free-agent-to-be, is no longer willing to commit long-term to the idea of being a Celtic — a situation that has reporters and fans alike parsing his every word in interviews. (Irving’s exit would make it more difficult for the team to entice star big man Anthony Davis into staying in Boston for the long haul if the Celtics rolled the dice and traded for him.)
No, Jaylen Brown hasn’t been as impressive as he was in his second year. And Al Horford, a defensive stalwart in years past, hasn’t been as consistently good on that end this season.
Still, Hayward, whose mental blocks this season had left him struggling to look like himself, has shown positive signs as of late.1 And more importantly, the Celtics — for all their early season struggles — remain in the top 10 in both offense and defense, which generally signifies a true contender.
Whether they can make good on that level of promise is key because of how drastically their roster could change this summer, for better or worse.
Can the Bulls’ rebuild be a blueprint for a team like the Hawks?
It’s been far from a stellar season for the Bulls, who fired their coach early on, then saw players take issue initially with their hard-charging replacement. But the club has shown progress the past couple of weeks since trading for wingman Otto Porter, who looks to be a great fit on both ends with shoot-first players like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.
Some fans didn’t like the move, as Porter’s hefty contract all but took the Bulls out of the running for a max-level free agent this summer. But there’s value in acquiring solid players who can complement your young core. The best evidence of that so far: The Bulls have logged a net rating of 14 — meaning they outscore opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions — in the 110 minutes that Porter, LaVine and Markkanen have shared on the court thus far. Not too shabby for a club that’s been beaten by 8.5 points per 100 plays on the year to this point.
The early Chicago returns could serve as a blueprint for the rebuilding Hawks, who have young, budding talents of their own in John Collins, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter. The youngsters have each had their moments of offensive brilliance,2 but the trio, defensively challenged to put it kindly, has been outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions.
Finding veterans who can consistently defend at a high level to play next to them, and developing those three on D, will go a long way in determining when and whether Atlanta can turn it around.
The MVP race could come down to the wire
Making sense of this year’s MVP race has been a challenge. Just when Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to be the clear leader for the award, given his eye-popping numbers for the team with the best record in the sport, James Harden came bursting through like the Kool-Aid Man, forcing himself into the conversation with a historic scoring streak.
There are a couple of other players, like Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid3 and Oklahoma City’s Paul George, whose outstanding play deserves consideration, too. But this will more than likely end up being a two-man race.
Harden’s offensive domination over the past two months has shifted a narrative that was shaping up to be a runaway for Antetokounmpo. Yet it’s worth watching whether some level of voter fatigue (Harden won the award last year, whereas Antetokounmpo has never been a front-runner before) comes into play. And there are those who dislike Harden’s iso-heavy style, even though he’s had little choice but to rely on that, given the injuries his team has suffered.
So it wouldn’t be surprising if Antetokounmpo eventually gets the nod here, particularly if the Bucks end up finishing in first place.
Can LeBron will the Lakers into the playoffs?
It would be jarring to watch all-time great LeBron James go from making the NBA Finals eight straight years to not even making the playoffs in his first season out West. But it’s more than a mere possibility at this point: FiveThirtyEight’s projection model currently has the Lakers with just a 26 percent probability of reaching the postseason.
We wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if James can get the Lakers over the playoff line. Aside from his own individual greatness, the Lakers are in the process of wrapping up a difficult stretch in their schedule this month, with seven of their nine games as road tilts. Their fortunes figure to improve when the calendar turns to March.
The bigger question is whether it’s ultimately worth it for James to go into overdrive simply to earn a No. 8 seed and a first-round date with the two-time defending champion Warriors.4 As his five-week injury5 earlier in the season illustrated, James isn’t getting any younger. And while it’s nearly certain that he won’t take his foot off the pedal because of where the Lakers are in the standings, there’s an argument to be made that his energy would be better spent next season, once L.A. has another top-flight player to pair with him.
Will Denver emerge as the top challenger to Golden State out West?
Denver has been near the top of the standings all year, while clubs like the Thunder and the Rockets started slow before getting back on track to contend for home-court advantage in the first round.
The Nuggets seemingly deserve the benefit of the doubt in this discussion. Aside from having led the conference standings earlier in the season, they still own the West’s best record against quality competition — even slightly better than the Warriors’ mark against teams .500 or better. Their defense hasn’t been as good as it was to start the season, but they still have enough balance — in both their first and second units — to get the job done. And after Golden State, Denver is basically neck-and-neck with Oklahoma City in net rating in the West.
If anything gives us pause about the Nuggets, it’s their lack of playoff experience. It’s uncommon for a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs to suddenly make a deep run upon getting there, which might explain our model feeling better about a team like Houston, Oklahoma City or even Utah.
But the beauty of all this, of course, is that Denver — after being eliminated in the last game of the regular season in 2018 — will get a chance to set itself apart over these final 25 games.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.