NBA Second Act Sure to Deliver
The NBA returns to action Thursday and the second act is set up to be just as thrilling as the first. With that in mind, we can take a brief moment and assess some burning questions. Some are award related while others will be about playoff seeding and advancement. And then there are those that pertain to player movement this offseason.
The Bearded Freak
This years MVP is seemingly down to two people in most eyes, with the Houston Rockets James Harden defending his mantle against the Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo. It is not an easy choice, Harden leads the NBA in numerous categories (scoring, minutes per game, box plus/minus and PER to name a few) and mostly increased his counting stats over last year’s MVP-winning effort. Likewise, Giannis has increased his numbers while leading the NBA in defensive rating, defensive win shares, and total win shares. His team also sits atop the East at the moment.
Harden leads the NBA in turnovers and some even consider his high free throw totals a knock. He leads in usage rate due to the rash of injuries the Rockets have sustained. Harden carried the team through stretches this season but even he conceded the team would not keep winning playing exclusively through him. Chris Paul and Eric Gordon are healthy and Clint Capela is set to join them, so it remains to be seen if Harden’s numbers take a hit. The biggest thing working against him, specifically in this conversation, is the Rockets record. If they finish top-three and his numbers stay close, he could repeat.
Antetokounmpo — the Bucks Swi…Greek-army knife – is also seeing a jump in his stats, albeit to a lesser extent. He leads the team in points, assists, and rebounds. He is shooting a lower percentage from three and the stripe this year, but he raised his attempts per game on such shots. His biggest positives, at least for purists are his team’s record and his effort on the defensive end. If they win the East it will be hard not to give the award to the best player on the best team in a conference; a feat the Rockets are unlikely to achieve.
Stats will favor Harden and even Giannis’ lead in win shares is only .1 with the former’s offense nearly countering the defensive edge of the latter. Harden’s detractors will say he has been stat-chasing this year. It is not unfair to keep bringing up the injuries to Houston but Milwaukee just seems to be put together better and, most importantly, around the Greek Freak. That might hurt him in the eyes of some, but again, the best player on the team with (potentially) the best record may be enough to override that.
Playoff Hokey Pokey
The Los Angeles Lakers are in year one of the LeBron show in Hollywood and have dealt with numerous injuries including a groin injury to LBJ. The first has typically been a transitional year when Bron has changed teams in the past, but he does not have many of those left. They have the horses to make the playoffs but will need to get things together because their remaining schedule is the ninth-toughest with games against the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, and two against the Bucks. If they make it and catch the Dubs early in the postseason things could get interesting.
Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo ruptured his quad at the end of January but the team had won six straight before losing to the Bucks before the break. Their remaining schedule is the eighth-toughest and has two more road games than home; notable given their 16-12 record away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They are not a team built around a single player, per se. But he was their best player and that matters down the stretch and in the playoffs. Their remaining slate features the Bucks, Warriors, and two apiece against the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder. All of those could very well be losses.
The Sacramento Kings currently reside in the ninth spot in the West. They made the surprise acquisition of Harrison Barnes and went 6-4 in before the break. They will also face one of the easier schedules the rest of the way. The Los Angeles Clippers (the team currently occupying the eighth-seed) have a slightly easier schedule but the Kings are the more talented group. It has been a long time (13 years) since they have even sniffed the playoffs but this year is a fun story to watch that may get an extended run.
Back East, the Brooklyn Nets are very similar to the Kings. They have been toiling in the doldrums of the league as they recovered from their failed attempt at a super team. They made some shrewd moves and drafted well and now sit sixth in the East. D’Angelo Russell has blossomed and even made his first All-Star appearance as an injury replacement. They are a young team though and that could hurt them down the stretch. They face the third-toughest schedule in the NBA.
Send Me Your Location
Before the break, we had the drama of Anthony Davis trying to fly the coup after the New Orleans Pelicans rebuffed the Lakers offers. The belief was that New Orleans wanted to wait for more potential bidders this summer, namely the Boston Celtics. That decision cost GM Dell Demps his job. While it is understandable after trading for then losing Boogie Cousins, who was brought in to aid in retaining Davis, how does this help with getting close to fair trade value?
Video surfaced from All-Star weekend of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spending a lot of time together. The two are friends and Irving even bristled at the notion that a particular clip constituted any basis for hints at the pair teaming up on the New York Knicks. Irving may not want to entertain the potential team-up, but it will not stop the rumor mill from swirling. Some of it is certainly noise, but both stars have given somewhat vague answers regarding their futures. Again, that is their prerogative. Irving’s response was even Durant-like in its defiance.
Damian Lillard recently reiterated he would rather stay with the Portland Trailblazers without a championship than “sell his self out” for one. That is a noble and refreshing take, especially with the current landscape of the Association. This could be a situation where a team has to ‘save’ Liilard from himself. It is possible he could win a championship in Portland, but his current team’s roster does not stack up well against the rest of the continuing teams. It will be interesting to see what happens with Lillard and backcourt-mate C.J. McCollum.
Raptors fans had to have been thinking things were looking up when it came to keeping their prized trade-acquisition, Kawhi Leonard. That is until he came out with this during this past weekend’s festivities. It highlights a fundamental snag in their plan from the start. He is from California and has been determined to get to L.A. or bust. That may be the Lakers with LeBron, it may be to the Clippers with KD. Whatever the case Leonard is not a fan of snow and Canada won’t be getting rid of winter anytime soon.
Let the Games Resume
No one knows how the second half of the season will unfold. You can bet it will be full of surprises and upsets but please hold the injuries, basketball gods. That way we can focus on if one of the favorites wins MVP, who makes the playoffs and who misses, and where will all the pieces land when the dust settles after free agency this offseason.