Two months down and with the All-Star game right around the corner, the NBA season is in full swing and the league is really starting to take shape.
The NBA is still battling COVID, with the amount postponed games now totalling 34. For those teams with multiple postponed games it means some, like the Wizards, will be playing 38 games post-All-Star break, plus another six to cover postponements – a ridiculous total of 44 games in around 60 days.
Is this a sustainable approach to ensure no severe injuries are sustained down the stretch before the playoffs begin?
The cream of the crop
One could make the case that the cream of the NBA is the Utah Jazz, sitting a ridiculous four games clear of any other team in the league (22-3 in their last 25).
They play a free-flowing, pass-happy, shoot three-happy type of game and are anchored on the defensive end by Rudy Gobert inside, allowing Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley and others to pester the perimeter.
With Jordan Clarkson running away with sixth man of the year, the Jazz are a real threat to win the West and who knows, maybe make the conference finals for the first time since 2007.
I don’t rate them as huge title contenders, but with the number one seed, other title contenders all having small holes and a little luck, the Jazz could really do it.
But will the All-Star break slow momentum and bring them crashing back to Earth?
With the Jazz being the NBA’s best, who’s next?
There would appear to be at least six contenders: Lakers, Clippers, 76ers, Nets, Bucks and Suns, all of whom have more than 20 wins and less than 15 losses. I’m going to straight up toss the Suns, Clippers and Bucks out of this conversation.
These three all have huge holes that cannot be overcome. The Suns have too little depth and Deandre Ayton isn’t quite ready to be a third star, the Clippers are too iso heavy and need a point guard, and the Bucks and Mike Budenholzer are going to have to prove it come playoff time.
That leaves the Lakers, 76ers and Nets that all have the potential and the players to win it all. The Lakers need no explanation – defending champs and best current player. The Nets are the same level as the Lakers, with Kevin Durant coming back, Kyrie Irving and James Harden locked in, Brooklyn are my odds-on favourite to win the East.
Over the past two weeks or so, the Brooklyn defence has ranked around league average (good enough) and they are staggering 10-1 against teams above 0.500. The biggest threat to the Nets would appear to be the 76ers.
They have everything that you need to win and with Joel Embiid the frontrunner for MVP, Philly can make a deep, deep run. Let’s not forget that they were only a Kawhi Leonard four-bounce buzzer-beater from making the Conference Finals a mere two seasons ago.
Underachievers of the year
This is as easy as it gets: the Celtics and the Mavs!
Luka Doncic for MVP? I didn’t buy into the hype – the Mavs just don’t have the team to support him, and until Luka is just an average defender, the Mavs will continue to be sub-par.
The trade buzz surrounding Kristaps Porzingis is real and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him moved before the trade deadline, possibly for John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks.
Oh the Celtics and their frugal, frugal Danny Ainge! Are they ever not in the sweepstakes for the big free agents? Do they ever land said free agent? The price for super stardom is always just too high.
The signing of Kemba Walker and letting Gordon Hayward walk appear to both be mistakes – Walker can’t stay healthy nor play well and Hayward has been on the periphery of All-Star conversations.
With the way they are playing and distinct lack of interior presence and bench help, I see no playoff run this year from the men in green.
New year, same argument, “How can he not be an All-Star?!”
Same answer, also: “Who do you take off?”
In the East, the All-Stars were nearly all guaranteed at the time of voting, for both the starters and reserves. However, since the announcement there is some controversy.
No Heat, no Raptors, two Celtics? At first glance, no problem, but with the recent improvement of Toronto and Miami, it was hard to imagine they didn’t get a sniff, whilst the spiralling Celtics got both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
If it was me voting, Bam Adebayo relaces Tatum. I know Tatum had COVID and missed time, but it has been Brown’s team this season and he deserves that nod. I can live with no Jimmy Butler; he simply hasn’t played enough games.
The real disrespect comes with the inclusion of Nikola Vucevic (the Magic are awful) and Domantas Sabonis as an injury reserve. The Pacers man started hot and he is their best player, but the nod should’ve gone to Adebayo. Hell, throw Khris Middleton a bone here.
Out West, things were a little spicier. A ridiculous tiebreaker handed Luka Doncic a start ahead of the much more deserving Damian Lillard (Lillard and the Blazers are a much better team). The injured and not-deserving Anthony Davis was handed a token reserve spot.
He has not, repeat, has not been an All-Star this year! His numbers are down, and he’s been out with injury.
Wasn’t this the year LeBron handed him the LA keys and he really stood up?
The rest of the West team I love. Chris Paul getting the call up over Devin Booker is deserved. For years, we told Booker to win more, he didn’t.
Paul arrives and instantly they’re a top-four team in the loaded West! Respect for the Point God!
This is not to say Booker isn’t deserving, he would’ve been my choice over AD. He’s played more, played better, and contributes more to winning this year than Davis (look at the numbers, Dennis Schroeder has been more impactful for the Lakers).
Around the league
Expect to see plenty of action in and around the trade deadline! It’s clear Andre Drummond is going to be moved. My pick is he ends up in Boston, they finally pull the trigger and overpay for the wrong kind of big man.
I expect trade buzz to be strongly swirling around Porzingis and a few of those teams out West who need a boost (I’m looking at you, Denver – throw Michael Porter Jr out there and see who bites).
Watch out for those Heat and Raptors! After slow starts by both Eastern Conference contenders, they are back at 0.500 and playing their style of ball. I’m not saying they’ll upset and win the East, but the Sixers, Nets and Bucks can’t rest on their laurels.
How far can Phoenix go? CP3 has changed this team and the franchise’s hopes, but does it all come crumbling down in the playoffs?
Christian Wood is the MVP! Since going down, Houston can’t buy a win and have lost 11 on the trot. It is most valuable player – not best – right?
The All-Star dunk contest, three-point shootout and skills competition (most definitely) will be underwhelming, trying to jam it all in on the one day. Trailblazers take home all three crowns, lock it in!
Bold, and potentially utterly hopeless headlines
•Take this segment away, I was wrong on all fronts! Except maybe about the Knicks, ironically.
•The Celtics continue to crumble and fall further into the play-in tournament mash of teams.
•Embiid keeps rolling and draining Harden-like step-backs to win MVP (it’s not bold, but it’ll happen).
•The Wizards get it together late, Russell Westbrook finds his shot, Rui Hachimura finds his defence and they make the playoffs!
•Toronto or Miami (I’m hedging) roll to the fourth seed and make the ECFs.
•The Nuggets make a big splash before the deadline and trade away MPJ for some real defence.
•The Knicks win a playoff series.