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What We’re Excited About For The NBA’s Stretch Run

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): With the NBA All-Star break almost behind us, we’re finally entering the home stretch of the regular season. Each team has fewer than 30 games to go on a run or solidify its position. It’s put-up-or-shut-up time in the NBA.

There’s so much to talk about! But before the games start back up again tonight, let’s begin our chat with a quick All-Star question: Was Aaron Gordon robbed in the dunk contest, or nah?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I think it’s debatable. Kind of like the James Harden MVP snub question that comes up almost every year.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Gordon should have won for this off-the-side-of-the backboard, one-handed-catch, windmill dunk alone.

chris.herring:

tchow: They should actually just name that dunk “The Robbery.”

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): At least Gordon can now claim the title of Best Dunker To Never Win A Dunk Contest.

chris.herring: Was he snubbed? Maybe, maybe not. But you can definitively say that his performances should have netted him a dunk contest title somewhere along the line over the years. I feel like our site would probably say he’s performed well enough to have won 1.5 dunk-contest titles so far.

sara.ziegler: But he shouldn’t have won for the Tacko Fall dunk!

*runs away and hides*

neil: But Sara, he’s 7-foot-5!!!!!!!

sara.ziegler: And Gordon jumped over about 7 feet of him. 😒

tchow: Even if you say “hE diDn’T cLeAr hIm,” Gordon still jumped over at least 7 feet, 2 inches, which is still worth a trophy.

neil: This wouldn’t have been an issue if Gordon had been able to use Shaquille O’Neal, his first choice.

sara.ziegler: This is all Shaq’s fault!

Anyway, let’s move on to the basketball that counts.

Even though the trade deadline had passed, there was still a flurry of moves made over the past week. Reggie Jackson is leaving the Pistons for the Clippers, DeMarre Carroll is leaving the Spurs for the Rockets, and Jeff Green is also joining the Rockets after last playing in December for the Jazz. And just before the break, two players left the Hornets for new teams: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist signed with the Mavericks, while Marvin Williams signed with the Bucks.

What do you all make of these?

chris.herring: Kind of the same way I felt during the trade deadline: A couple of them are interesting, but I don’t feel like they change the overall landscape all that much.

neil: I do like getting the chance to remember that some of these players exist before seeing them play meaningful minutes in the playoffs.

chris.herring: I find the Clippers/Lakers stuff to be interesting, as they are playing keepaway from one another, both with Reggie Jackson and before that with Darren Collison, who ultimately decided not to sign anywhere.

tchow: Jackson to the Clippers is interesting to me. The Clippers are also now favored to win the Finals, according to our predictions. I’m not saying that’s because of Jackson. But I’m also not saying it’s not because of Jackson.

sara.ziegler: Jackson boosted the Clippers from a 1677 Elo rating in our model to 1684. Not too shabby.

chris.herring: His fit with the Clippers will be worth watching. The Clips already have so much ball-handling that adding a ball-handler — on top of Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — who doesn’t shoot all that well may not be as helpful as it looks.

Context is everything, though. Jackson’s not a bad player to have coming off the bench. And again: Keeping him from the Lakers, who could really use another table-setter, could be significant.

neil: Yeah, I feel like just about any playoff team could use a scoring guard who can create off the bench, at least.

tchow: All this talk of the Clippers outmaneuvering the Lakers and just being better is gonna make the postseason so interesting. Have to imagine LeBron James is hearing all of this.

sara.ziegler: LeBron hears everything.

neil: I want to see that series to find out!

sara.ziegler: The move I liked was Williams to the Bucks. They always seem to find good, dependable players to complement their Giannis Antetokounmpo-led core.

neil: They are so deep.

chris.herring: I don’t know that the Bucks are invincible just yet. But it just feels like it would take a hell of a performance to take them out prior to the Finals. Sort of like last year, when Fred VanVleet forgot he was Fred VanVleet, and Kawhi made Giannis forget he was Giannis.

tchow: They’re projected for 65 wins right now, according to our model. I would take the over on that.

chris.herring: I am a little concerned about Brook Lopez’s perimeter shooting. But it’s amazing that they’ve performed this well without him shooting well from deep. They’re so well-rounded. They have depth. They’re the best defense in the league. They play well even when Giannis isn’t in the lineup.

neil: They have 12 players who’ve played at least 20 percent of the available minutes this season, and 10 of them have a positive RAPTOR plus/minus rating.

sara.ziegler: That’s incredible.

chris.herring: And it certainly helps that Philly doesn’t look like the threat we all figured they’d be. The Sixers just benched Al Horford, which felt like a huge step.

sara.ziegler: So can anyone catch Milwaukee? The Raptors have been a fun and surprising team all season, despite all of their injuries. Could they take down the Bucks again?

chris.herring: It’s hard to tell! My gut says no, because Kawhi — and him checking Giannis defensively — was such a big part of the series comeback last time. But the Raptors have a few options to try on Giannis. And while Toronto’s record against teams .500 or better suggests they aren’t a threat, we’ve rarely seen the Raps at full strength. Six of their top seven rotation players have missed 10 games or more.

tchow: Their impressive winning streak just ended with a loss to the Nets and a terrible game from OG Anunoby, but I definitely wouldn’t count them out once, or if, their team gets fully healthy.

chris.herring: I wouldn’t rule them all the way out. The Bucks are deep, but Giannis is still central to just about everything they do. If he struggles, Toronto or someone else beating them is seemingly on the table.

neil: I do worry about the Star Power factor for Toronto. They’ve sort of reverted to that pre-Kawhi formula where Kyle Lowry is their best player, or maybe Pascal Siakam. Can either of them be the No. 1 player on a true title contender? Unclear.

sara.ziegler: Can a team like Miami get in there? I found their moves at the deadline so interesting … but I’m not sure if they were enough.

neil: Miami is sort of the opposite of Toronto — great star power in Jimmy Butler, their best player, but a lot of negatively rated RAPTOR players rounding out the rest of the rotation.

(Bonus points to the Heat for having Duncan Robinson on board, one of the great names in the league — shoutout to the 1997-2003 Spurs — and also a pretty good player in his second season!)

chris.herring: Either way, Milwaukee has to be the favorite based on how it’s played this season. The idea that they’re on track to win more than last year after losing Malcolm Brogdon is insane. But whether letting Brogdon go was wise may be revealed in the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: I also keep forgetting about Boston, even though the Celtics are third in the East and have won 11 of their last 13 — including a double-overtime win over the Clippers right before the break.

chris.herring: The East being stronger than we expected at the top is one of the two or three most interesting stories this year, hands down.

If you go back to our preseason chat, we headlined it, “Is The NBA’s Eastern Conference Really Just A Two-Team Race?” And now, most would either see it as a One-Team Race or, if not that, at least a Five-Team Race.

sara.ziegler: Haha — I like that.

So do you see the West as a two-team race, between the Clippers and Lakers? That’s certainly how the narrative is spinning right now.

neil: The Rockets are going to be fascinating in the playoffs.

Not saying they will beat either L.A. team, but it would be interesting to watch.

chris.herring: Lord help them if they have to match up with the Lakers or Nuggets come postseason. (And yes, I say that knowing that they just beat the Lakers in a regular-season game.)

The most interesting thing lately, aside from how small they’re going, is Russell Westbrook’s near complete abandonment of the 3-point shot that we’ve all wanted him to move away from. He’s been super efficient in doing it, and I’m really intrigued to see whether he keeps playing this way into the playoffs.

neil: We’ve never seen a team take the mega-smallball approach to such an extreme level before.

chris.herring: To Sara’s question, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that it’s a two-team race.

tchow: LOL, Chris — I was just about to say, “To answer Sara’s question, yes the West is definitely a two-team race.”

chris.herring: Hahahaha

I wouldn’t debate someone to the ends of the earth to say it’s not, but I could see one of those teams faltering and failing to get to the Western Conference finals.

tchow: OK sure, maybe one of those two teams won’t make the conference finals, but I have a hard time not seeing one of those teams coming out of the West at the end of this.

chris.herring: That’s fair.

tchow: Collectively, our model gives the L.A. teams a 65 percent chance of making the Finals. So they’re definitely favored against the field (if you trust our model).

chris.herring: I still have my eye on Utah and Denver. I wouldn’t put my money on them coming out of the West. But I’m really intrigued by two players: Mike Conley is looking a lot better lately, and Michael Porter Jr. is fitting a bit better in Denver now that he’s settling in.

It had kind of been a nightmare year for Conley for quite a while, and he seemed to be turning the corner before the break. And in eyeballing it, Porter — who isn’t very good defensively yet as a wiry rookie — has been either a neutral or a positive in +/- in 15 of his last 20 games for the Nuggets. He was a positive or a neutral in just five of his first 19 appearances.

It’s felt like Denver has been an impact scorer away from being a serious threat for a while, but I think Porter may eventually be that guy. If not this season, maybe soon. And Denver has the best record in the Western Conference against winning teams, slightly ahead of the Lakers.

neil: Also, speaking of Utah, don’t look now but Rudy Gobert has pulled into a tie for second overall in RAPTOR WAR this season!!

sara.ziegler: Whoa!

neil: (I’m actually shocked by that.)

tchow: Neil, that’s all because he has a ridiculous +7.1 defensive RAPTOR. It’s deceiving. Impressive but deceiving.

neil: Defense wins championships, LOL.

chris.herring: I thought he was gonna win All-Star Game MVP for a hot second. He had 21 and 11 by the end of the third quarter.

sara.ziegler: The world is forever overlooking the Nuggets and Jazz. I do wonder whether this season, with a year of high-pressure playoff experience under both teams’ belts, might be different for both of them.

neil: The Nuggets are also the West’s No. 2 seed right now, ahead of the Clippers. (By one game.)

But the road to the Finals out West still seems like it will go through L.A., no matter what.

sara.ziegler: One more topic before we wrap things up: We saw the second coaching casualty of the season this week, with John Beilein and the Cleveland Cavaliers parting ways. Was anyone surprised by how this went down?

neil: Was anybody NOT surprised that this was how it ended with Beilein? Aside from Brad Stevens (and Billy Donovan, I guess), has a college coach really worked out in the NBA anytime in recent memory?

chris.herring: It’s the Cavs. Without LeBron, seemingly nothing works for them. Which says a lot about them.

tchow: Apparently J.B. Bickerstaff was always part of the plan to succeed Beilein, but they just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. After ping-ponging around the league for a few years, it could be interesting to see what he does with this unusual Cavs squad.

chris.herring: Maybe part of it is on Beilein, too. There was never a great reason to assume he’d be a good fit with this generation of pros. But it is what it is, I suppose.

I look forward to seeing what the Cavs do with all these big men now.

sara.ziegler: I still don’t understand how Andre Drummond landed in Cleveland

chris.herring: Yeah. I’m guessing they’re gonna try and re-sign him in the offseason (which may not come cheap, given how weak the free agent market will be) and let Tristan Thompson walk.

But I don’t know that there’s a clear sense of how to build around Drummond if he’s making a hefty salary on your books. He’s incredibly skilled — but not necessarily in the things that are in vogue in today’s NBA.

tchow: It looks like we’ve touched on most of the interesting playoff teams … and the Cavs. Time to wrap this up?

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: It’s the right thing to do.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

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