With the All-Star festivities and trade deadline behind us, NBA teams are beginning to kick things up a notch. Teams vying for a playoff berth are shortening their rotations, while those at the top scour the buyout market. Although the Bucks and Lakers sit atop their respective conferences, multiple teams are vying for the second seed. Many teams in the middle of the pack pose dangerous threats to the top seeds, and home-court advantage could be crucial come playoff time.
In the inaugural season post-Warriors, the field is as wide open as it could be. with dynamic duos flourishing around the league, it’ll be interesting to see who separates themselves from the pack. As always, your guys Justin Kirkland and Felix John-Baptiste are here to distinguish the real from the fake.
1. The Milwaukee Bucks will finish the regular season with 70+ wins.
Kirkland: Big Facts. Each win they get builds a little extra steam towards that 70 win narrative. If the Bucks continue winning for another month or so they are definitely going to go for it. There is no need for Milwaukee to get cute and rest players with a core this young. Six of Miami’s eight losses (Miami, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Denver, and Indiana) remain on their schedule for the rest of the season, but all of the Bucks’ losses have been one-off, an aberration in a historically dominant season that has not seen back to back losses. I think Giannis is special enough to get this team there.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. It’s. nice story, but they would need to go 23-4 for the rest of the season to do so. They currently sit 6.5 games ahead of the Toronto Raptors for the top playoff spot. Once they mathematically lock up the best record in the East or the league for that matter, they’ll start to rest Giannis and Co. They have proven they can win without him this season, but why expend so much energy with the playoffs right around the corner?
2. Acquiring Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks was enough to get the 76ers to the NBA Finals.
Kirkland: Big Facts. This is not an “I think the 76ers are going to the NBA Finals” prediction. However, when the 76ers are at their best they still have enough talent to beat anyone. When they got hot and throttled the Bucks on Christmas day it was behind a franchise record 21 made threes and excellent interior defense. Adding shooters at the deadline was important to optimize their floor spacing which can suffer when Simmons and Embiid share the floor. The 76ers are strange but they are built for the playoffs defensively and can dominate on the glass. That is a formula for winning basketball in the playoffs and they will still be a tough out for anyone.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. The Sixers didn’t address their main problems with that trade. They don’t have an additional creator on the ball, nor do they have a three-point shooting specialist. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid seeming to get in each other’s way on a nightly basis, that doesn’t bode well for playoff basketball. At the end of games the best five should be on the floor, but perhaps Coach Brett Brown stagger their minutes more frequently throughout the course of the game? Is The Process over already?
3. LeBron James averaging a career low in minutes per game is good for the Lakers playoff hopes.
Kirkland: Big Facts. Now that the dust on the trade deadline has settled it is clear that the Los Angeles Clippers will be the most rested team in the NBA playoffs. The Lakers are playing at a high level but are relying heavily on LeBron’s offensive genius night in and night out. Having LeBron and Anthony Davis as fresh as possible should be priority number one for this organization heading down the stretch.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. Prior to last season, James appeared in eight consecutive NBA Finals. That’s more than an entire NBA regular season in playoff games alone. Coupling this year’s minutes per game with last season’s absence from the playoffs should provide the opportunity for the best version of James to appear when the lights are the brightest. Having a healthy All-Star in Anthony Davis should decrease the scoring load even more so by attacking mismatches in the postseason. King James will be ready. Grab the popcorn.
4. The Houston Rockets’ small-ball tactic will take them further than we anticipate.
Kirkland: Big Facts. Micro-ball is not just a phase. Russell Westbrook has been unlocked with the increased space in the lanes around him. Westbrook has eclipsed 20 points in 28 straight games, the longest active streak in the league.
The Rockets will give up points and rebounds inside, but this is not as big of a disadvantage as people would believe. For better or (27 straight missed 3s) worse Houston is obsessed with fine-tuning their system to magnify the strengths of their team. Westbrook and Harden’s talents are now amplified with wide-open lanes and a buffet of shooters to select from when defenses collapse. It is fair to ask what the Rockets will do against opponents who have dominant paint presences, but we have to remember that most defenses will not be able to stop the Rockets in a conventional fashion. Something has to give but it might not be the Rockets.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. I’m a fan of small-ball, and trust it can work in spurts. However, over the course of a 7 game series, size eventually will matter. It’s one thing to have a seven footer who can do nothing but protect the paint. It’s another if your long term plan is to have P.J. Tucker manning the paint.
If the three-pointers are falling, it could be a long night for the opponent. But second chance points and rebouding will be key to overcome that. Daryl Morey is unafraid of going against the grain, and he’s done it again. Only time will tell.
5. Outside of the Bucks, Clippers, and Lakers, the Celtics are the most dangerous team to win it all.
Kirkland: Fake News. The Celtics are in the conversation but let’s show some respect to the 42-15 Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard’s departure has people still skeptical about what this team may accomplish in the postseason. The Raptors are deep and play elite defense under Nick Nurse who is one of the best coaches in the NBA. Pascal Siakam is an All-Star and will continue to grow as things lead up to the playoffs. Siakam is no Kawhi Leonard but he has his own brand of star power that is enough to tilt the scales on both ends of the floor for the defending champs. I like their depth top to bottom a little bit better than Boston’s.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. I think Jayson Tatum has shown real potential to be the best player on the floor in a few matchups. He’s completely taken things to a different level since in February, and at times leaves you wondering if there’s any defender that can stop him.
A quick survey of the other candidates doesn’t bode well with me. The Sixers have aren’t great outside of Philly — the Raptors haven’t been playoff tested without Kawhi — small-ball won’t work long term for the Rockets — the Nuggets haven’t proven themselves in the postseason, and the Jazz are still a player or two away.
That being said, it’ll be an interesting wide open field for the first time in years. Stay tuned!