With the All-Star break over and the second half of the NBA season slated to commence, we gathered several of our writers to have a roundtable discussion on what they’ll be watching for and what we should expect in the back-end of this years campaign. Our participants for this roundtable are:
- DJ Allen: (@DJAllen23)
- Ralph Cortes: (@_RLoading)
- Felix John-Baptiste: (@TwoSmooth2)
- Randy King: (@RandDizzleKing16)
- B.J. Boyer (@wcboyer24)
1.) What’s the number one thing you’ll be watching for in the second half of the season?
Allen: How the top seeds in the Eastern Conference pan out. The Cleveland Cavaliers are dealing with major injuries, the Celtics are creeping up, the Washington Wizards are making noise, and the Toronto Raptors just made a big splash trading for Serge Ibaka. With so much time left, so much can change in the upper tier of the East. This is something that I’m sure everyone will keep an eye out for.
Cortes: I agree with Allen here. With Toronto’s move to acquire Ibaka, Wizards playing excellent ball, and the Cavaliers not having Kevin Love, the East suddenly becomes more interesting. Given the fact that Cleveland only holds a 2.5 game lead, there could be a new No. 1 in the East come the start of the playoffs.
John-Baptiste: The Western Conference playoff seeds. People have been saying the Warriors have had easy roads to the Finals for the previous two years. There is potential for them to play the Clippers/Grizzlies and the Spurs on the road to the Finals if seeds and series favorites pan out. The Warriors are the most talented team in the West so it would be interesting to see how they play out that gauntlet of a Finals route.
Randy: The debut of Ben Simmons. Most have forgotten about the No. 1 overall pick for the simple reason that Joel Embiid has brought all the excitement that was missing in Philadelphia. Adding Simmons in the mix in the second portion of the season will give the team the ability to see what they can build on for next year. It will be interesting to see if all of the pieces blend together.
Boyer: How D’Angelo Russell fares down the stretch of his sophomore campaign. Russell’s second year in the NBA has been marred by injury, and he’s never been able to string together the consistency that Lakers fans had hoped to see this season. He still has a sizable chunk of time to straighten up what has been a wayward season and accumulate some confidence going into the offseason, so lets see if he’s finally given the opportunity to do so because as of right now he’s playing less minutes per game this season than he did last.
2.) How much does Kevin Love’s injury jeopardize the Cavaliers’ chance of finishing first in the Eastern Conference?
Allen: With those three teams that I mentioned before all looking to rise in the East, I definitely believe their first seed is in jeopardy. They will miss Kevin Love and they’re already missing J.R. Smith. There’s a lot of time left which doesn’t help their standing. However, I don’t think they care about seeding. With LeBron James leading their team, all that matters is that they make it to the playoffs. They need to start resting him which I believe they will do so it’s inevitable that they will begin to lose some games and possibly their first seed.
Cortes: This definitely jeopardizes Cleveland’s No. 1 standing in the East. In addition to not having their All-Star forward, teams like the Celtics, Raptors, and Wizards have all found a way to make noise and become a threat to take Cleveland’s No. 1 spot. They also have to keep in mind that they have to rest LeBron as much as they can for a strong title run if they want any shot at repeating. This may mean having to sit him a couple of games during the regular season. Cleveland probably doesn’t mind losing a couple of games in the regular season, as long as they are fully equipped for the playoffs.
John-Baptiste: Only somewhat. Whenever a team loses an All-Star player, their winning ability decreases. However not every team has LeBron James on their roster. The teams currently “threatening” the first seed are the Celtics, Wizards and Raptors who are each multiple games behind the conference leading Cavaliers. The Cavs would have to essentially lose more games than the other teams win, and I’m not so sure those teams will be able to close the gap. Thanks to the All-Star break, LeBron should have adequate rest to finish the season strong.
Randy: It puts them in panic mode in terms of keeping that No. 1 seed. With teams like the Celtics and Wizards staying healthy and hitting their respective strides at the right time, this injury could not have not been more untimely. Granted they did catch a break with the All-Star weekend, but they limped to the halfway mark. Not having J.R. Smith out there also creates another hurdle that the Cavaliers have to leap, and one that the teams below them might take advantage of. In terms of chemistry and how Love missing time affects that, it is unknown, but one could assume it might take him a little while before we see him and the Cavaliers at full health, and by that time it is possible that they have dropped to the No. 2 seed.
Boyer: Kevin Love’s injury jeopardizes the Cavaliers’ chances of nabbing the No. 1 overall seed to some degree, but I still think they still reign supreme at the conclusion of the regular season. Washington is still reliant on an inconsistent bench, the Raptors were faltering before the break but hope their fortunes are due for a change thanks to the acquisition of Serge Ibaka, and I just don’t see Boston winning enough games to supplant the Cavs. I also think LeBron hears the chatter about his minutes and is eager to prove to everyone that he can handle this workload. The great ones always find some source to extract motivation from.
3.) Who will make the biggest push for MVP down the stretch of the year?
Allen: Russell Westbrook is going to make the biggest push like he has all season. I don’t envision that these triple-doubles will stop anytime soon and he may end up doing something that hasn’t been done in years. With the numbers that he’s putting up in addition to leading a team that would be at the bottom of the league without him to the 7th seed, I believe he smells the MVP nearby and he’s going to go for it.
Cortes: Russell Westbrook. It seems like he’s the MVP candidate with the most to prove despite averaging a triple-double. Westbrook will look forward to strengthening his case for MVP by finishing out the regular season averaging a triple-double, something only one other person in the history of the NBA has done.
John-Baptiste: James Harden. His scoring and assist pace should remain the same, and with as little energy as he exerts, rest won’t be an issue. He will finish with a far better record than Russell Westbrook finishes with OKC, and will have to lock up the 3rd seed to avoid a second round matchup with the Warriors. This should be easy money.
Randy: Isaiah Thomas. His clutch performances and ability to takeover the game in the fourth quarter make him a strong candidate. He’s managed to creep in to the top-two in scoring only trailing Russell Westbrook, and f he can keep his strong campaign and get the Celtics that No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, we may see the first Celtic to win an MVP since Larry Bird back in ’85-’86.
Boyer: James Harden. After losing all of just nine games in October-December the Rockets have tallied the same number of defeats in the months of January and February. Harden leads the league in minutes played, so the All-Star break afforded him an excellent opportunity to recalibrate and get Houston back to playing their brand of ball again. A lot of eyes will be centered on Russell Westbrook, but the odds begin to mount higher against him as the Thunder have stepped down a few rungs on the Western Conference playoff ladder.
4.) Which two teams grab the 8th seeds in the Western and Eastern Conferences?
Allen: My two 8th seeds are the Detroit Pistons and the Denver Nuggets. I don’t see anything changing from where they are right now. No one in the Western Conference really poses a threat to make a push for the 8th seed in my eyes. In the East, I feel like the Miami Heat are too inconsistent for me to rely on them to make a push and the injury to Jabari Parker severely hurts the Bucks’ chances of getting that 8th spot.
Cortes: The current 8th seeds for each conference will eventually hold on to their spots (Denver and Detroit). Denver has been playing good basketball recently, blowing out the Warriors with their young star Nikola Jokic looking like a potential All-Star down the road. As for Detroit, there aren’t any other legitimate competitors for the 8th seed. Milwaukee suddenly becomes weaker without Jabari and Charlotte has been reeling.
John-Baptiste: For the East I REALLY want to say the Knicks. I think they can have just enough of a second half surge to secure the final spot. However, I’ll go with the Charlotte Hornets. They’ve been pretty consistent throughout the year and I think Kemba can catapult them into stealing 8th place. With the loss of Jabari Parker I don’t think the Bucks can generate enough offense to get it done. Out West I’m going with the Blazers. Between Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum they should be able to place the team on their backs for the final stretch. The Nuggets have played well recently, but I don’t think they can keep up the pace down the stretch.
Randy: Starting out West I am going to go with Denver. In the East I think that the Pistons manage to hang on to their current position.
I say Denver due to the emergence of young talent and their hunger to get there. With young studs like Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, and sharpshooter Jamal Murray, the energy and excitement they provide on a consistant basis makes them a logical and sound 8th seed. Throw in instant spark plug Kenneth Faried aka; “The Manimal,” and you have a team that can wear you out on both ends. With Murray showcasing his abilities in the Rising Stars challenge over All-Star Weekend, we got to see a glimpse of just how lethal he is from beyond the arc. A playoff appearance to build on for the following year where these young players will get better is probably the realistic approach that Denver has now, looking to climb up the Western Conference ladder. Helping Denver also is the Kings sending DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans.
The Pistons are a solid No. 8 seed and are more than capable of being better than that. With Andre Drummond and his dominance on the boards, Reggie Jackson and his energy and ability to score the ball, and Tobias Harris as an underrated scorer who gets buckets in a multitude of ways, they’ve got all the tools to be a playoff team and lock up the 8th seed with relative ease.
Boyer: In the West I’m going with the Portland Trail Blazers and in the East I’m going with the Detroit Pistons.
Due to the DeMarcus Cousins trade the New Orleans Pelicans are the new trendy playoff pick and rightfully so, but I have to see how the duo will mesh before I proclaim them as a lock for the postseason. The Pelicans’ wing depth scares me, and I trust the Blazers’ guards continuity over that of the newly minted Davis-Cousins front court. It’s very well within the realm of possibility that New Orleans snags that 8th seed, but I’m in the “let’s see how things unfold” camp before making that assertion confidently.
In my opinion Detroit does just enough to eek out that 8th seed. Charlotte has seemingly plateaued as a team, Miami doesn’t have enough talent to make a playoff-clinching spurt (shoutout to Erik Spolestra for coaching his ass of though,) and Milwaukee was dealt a harsh blow with the Jabari Parker injury. I want to envision the Knicks pulling it together and making a second half surge for my guy Felix, but the fuzziness of that picture makes my head hurt.
5.) The Warriors will finish with ____ wins.
Allen: I’m going with 68 wins. They have two more match-ups against the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets and one game against the Memphis Grizzlies who always play them tough. Plus I’m pretty sure we’re going to start seeing a lot more “DNPs” popping up on their box scores going down the stretch which can jeopardize some wins.
Cortes: Around 65 wins for the Warriors sounds about right. They could probably win more if they wanted to, but they’ll most likely consider resting their stars to prepare them for the playoffs. The Warriors already learned that lesson that hard way so they will definitely sacrifice a couple of meaningless regular season games so that Steph and company are physically ready for the grueling playoffs.
John-Baptiste: 70. In order to do so (at the time of this post), they must finish with a 24-3 record. As long as all the players participate in the remaining games of the season, this feat is extremely feasible. I would only worry that 70 is in jeopardy when it comes to rest. Once they lock up the No. 1 seed, its highly possible that Coach Kerr sits the stars out and gives the bench some run.
Randy: I have to with 69. I do not see them letting go of the reigns near the end of the year. With the way last season ended, they want to dominate from start to finish without showing any signs of letting up. However, they will struggle on the road against the Wizards fresh off the All-Star break, and it would not surprise me if they dropped one or two to lesser opponents like a Milwaukee. Aside from that I believe they still dominate but fall just under a shade under 70 wins and with plenty of cushion between them and the second-place Spurs as well as momentum going into their first round playoff match-up.
Boyer: 67. I’ll never forget last season when the Warriors upended the Celtics in a double-overtime thriller to take their record to 24-0, then played every single one of their starters the following night against the Bucks, where they were issued their first loss of the season. I doubt Golden State will make the same mistakes this time around, so don’t be surprised when they sacrifice a few wins for rest. But here’s the thing: Steve Kerr can say: “Hey KD, you and Klay rest tonight. Steph and Draymond, you go win this one,” and so on and so on. Thats the luxury of having four All-Stars.