With the dust settled on a fun and relaxing NBA All-Star weekend (unless you’re Fergie), the tide now turns to a race for the post-season, tanking, staying healthy, seeing what the young guys can do, and many other factors depending on the current team’s situation.
To date, it has been one of the better NBA season’s in recent memory to follow, and we have had plenty of performances and storylines to be engaged with.
The first half robbed us and DeMarcus Cousins of a career-year in which he was on a yellow brick road to his first NBA playoffs appearance before what would have no doubt been a lucrative and frenzied free agency for him and his camp.
We have also seen the seasons of Gordon Hayward, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Mike Conley, Kristaps Porzingis, Andre Roberson, and others come to an end in what many cases presented significant changes to that team’s chemistry or in some cases effectively ended any hope of maintaining relevance this season.
We have now realized that even though he is bouncy, Dennis Smith Jr. is not at this point a major miss by the Knicks, and for all of the talk about what a “lock” Ben Simmons was for the Rookie of the Year award, Donovan Mitchell wants a word. The man just went Vince Carter over the weekend and shows a similar flair and offensive potency that a young VC did in gameplay.
That being said, the 2017-2018 NBA story-book is only halfway done, and besides watching Russell Westbrook angrily decapitate defenses on random weeknights, I have 5 other things I will be keying in on as the season heads towards the playoffs.
1. Who are the Cleveland Cavaliers going to be?
We have thoroughly discussed what changes the new infusion of George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson provided in the Cavs as a whole. A less popular result of the blockbuster trade was the change it produced in LeBron James himself. LeBron had also been lacking in energy prior to the 4 game winning streak that The Cavaliers got themselves heading into the break.
I would like to point out the respect I have for the professionalism of everyone involved with the Cavs saying “this is not working let’s break it up for the best of everyone.” This move seems like it gave everyone involved new life with Dwayne Wade headed back to home base and Isaiah Thomas headed off to take as many badly advised jump shots as he wants in LA as he tries to avoid what I have dubbed the “Roy Hibbert” Effect (flashes of brilliance and then the Monstars zap your powers and you instantly disappear from relevance). I am always a fan of people collectively being smart for the greater good.
The big win for the Cleveland front office is the fact that they have jumped right into the middle of the conversation for the LeBron James sweepstakes this upcoming summer. The Cavs have gotten exponentially younger and more athletic and are a great fit to be in solid shape for the future even if King James does not stay. While San Antonio and Houston could make things work with some shuffling, Id argue that this young and motivated Cavs new core will do enough to convince LeBron to stick around.
2. The Rookie of the Year Race
I don’t usually care for yearly awards because they largely represent the ideal combination of numbers and team success that sometimes ignores other factors that people do not value as much.
However, I have taken a large interest in this year’s Rookie of the Year race because I do not believe Ben Simmons should even be in contention for it. It makes no sense to me that you could be a “redshirt rookie” who gains a year of having basketball as a full-time job and still is considered for rookie awards alongside kids who have had to travel and play basketball while studying for exams for the last 8+ years of their lives.
DeMar DeRozan talks about why he thinks Donovan Mitchell is the leader for Rookie of the Year so far. pic.twitter.com/Hf5U2ylbSH
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) February 17, 2018
That being said, Simmons is considered eligible for rookie awards and was widely considered to be the runaway can’t miss winner at the beginning of the season. Watching Donovan Mitchell make this race into a real conversation has been sensational television.
Mitchell was taken 13th out of Louisville in last year’s draft and leads all rookies (and the Utah Jazz) with 19.6 ppg to date. Simmons is still producing at an impressive 16.4 ppg 7.8 reb and 7.3 apg clip and more impressively is doing it without any offensive game outside of 16 feet. Watching these two go toe to toe and also try to push their teams into playoff contention will be tons of fun.
3. The Western Conference Playoff Race
There was a lot of talk about how redundant the Western conference would be due to the might of the Golden State Warriors. The Justice League of the NBA is so dominant when they are rolling that it is difficult to imagine that anyone else could take them down four times in seven tries.
The Houston Rockets present the biggest threat to the Warriors at this time with should-be-MVP James Harden and top 3 all-time point guard Chris Paul leading a deep and accurate offensive roster. They have the shooting and length to compete with Golden State in a series and if they are allowed to remain healthy have a real shot to make things into a seven-gamer.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are not as deep as other teams and lost a key defensive cog in Andre Roberson. However, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George present a huge problem for opposing 5s while they are on the floor in various combinations. If they can continue to build and come together they will be a legitimate darkhorse candidate entering the playoffs. The playoffs are all about stars and I will not count out three on one roster.
4. Paul George
We noted in May of last year that Paul George was reportedly “hell bent” on a Los Angeles homecoming and many viewed the OKC move as more of a rental for the Thunder. With OKC playing better basketball over the course of the season, the Thunder missed out on making a splash at the trade deadline and free agency prior to the all-star break. If they can grab some guys for depth while bringing back PG-13 they can go from a darkhorse playoff candidate to true juggernauts in a league that will see a lot of movement especially if Golden State’s core decides to stick together.
George is having a good offensive season (22 ppg 43% 3pt) for a team that struggled to figure out its hierarchy early on in the season. The Thunder are 5th in the West and are just as good if not a better situation to be in compared to the young unpolished Lakers. It is a rare opportunity to have a teammate like Russell Westbrook at the peak of his physical powers during your NBA career. If the Thunder continue their run do not be surprised to see George decide to stick around.
5. The San Antonio Spurs
I am not sure why I haven’t seen more talk of Kawhi Leonard’s issues with San Antonio. Tie that in with the fact that the star’s future health remains in question along with San Antonio’s future. Kawhi has played in 9 games of San Antonio’s 59 this season and there is still not a defined timetable for his return.
There have been questions about his happiness with management as well which opens up questions of potential trades if it becomes more clear that The Claw is definitely going to be out of San Antonio.
For most of my life the San Antonio Spurs have not only been relevant but amongst the discussion of the league’s elite teams on a yearly basis. Those fortunes could change rather quickly if Leonard is more injured than we thought or if he is intent on leaving.