With the All-Star game out of the way, the NBA is heading down the stretch of the regular season. Most teams have around 26 games left in their season. Here are just a few storylines that will be worth keeping an eye on.
The West Playoff Race
In the Western Conference, teams five through ten are separated by just two and a half games. As it stands now Oklahoma City is 5th, Denver at 6th, Portland is 7th, and New Orleans is hanging in at 8th despite the injury to DeMarcus Cousin. On the outside the Clippers are 9th and Utah who is RED-HOT after winning 11 straight games is at 10th. As the games get rolling some separation will probably occur but the race for the 8th seed can really come down to the wire.
|Teams||Games left||Tough Games||Road Games||Back-to-Backs|
|Los Angeles Clippers||25||19||13||6|
Tough games mean playoff teams or teams fighting for a playoff spot. * The Nuggets have a long 7-game road trip left ** Due to a game being postponed, the Pelicans will have three games in three days to make up for it.
The Clippers have one of the toughest schedules with 19 tough games, 13 road games, and 6 back-to-back. The Jazz has one of the easier schedules with 23 games left, 15 tough games, 12 road trips, and only 2 back-to-backs. The real question for the Jazz is going to be whether they can keep playing at the level they were playing at before the all-star break.
The Thunder was rolling until Andre Roberson got hurt. Now they need to figure out how they are going to defend, prior to the injury the Thunder were a top-five defensive rating team and since the injury their defensive rating is 19th. Roberson and Paul George were building great defensive chemistry, now they have a big hole on that end.
The Nuggets are in a pretty good position with the expectation that Paul Millsap will be back relatively soon to help in the playoff push. If the Nuggets can work him into the rotation quickly he would be better than any buyout candidate that other teams can bring in.
The Blazers are coming off a big win against the Warriors and need to keep that momentum since their first game back will be against the Jazz in Utah. They have eight games left against everyone they are competing with for a playoff spot, these games matter since series record is a tiebreaker and whoever holds that edge has a serious leg up on their competition.
The Pelicans are holding on by a thread, they looked playoff bound until Cousins’ injury ended his season. They have the lowest point differential between the six fighting for the last four spots with a plus 0.2 differential. The load on Anthony Davis’ shoulders got much heavier and he’ll have to be near superhuman to get the Pelicans in the playoffs.
This playoff race is going down to the wire and can lead to some great basketball games down the stretch.
The Boston Celtics Offense
The Celtics offense has struggled this season offensively, part of that is due to losing their second best player minutes into their first game of the season. At the current moment, they are 21st in offensive rating down from 8th last season. On top of that, the last time a team made it to the finals that weren’t in the top ten was in 2010 when both the Los Angeles Lakers and Celtics were 11th and 13th in offensive rating and that was just before the offensive boom that has hit the NBA now.
This may not be the best metric as to why they are struggling offensively but they are not moving the ball as freely as they were last season. Last season when their offense was 8th in the NBA they were third in passes made averaging 324.6, this year they are 15th in passes made at 302.2. The obvious sign is that with a great 1-on-1 player like Kyrie Irving passing is expected to go down as well as the aforementioned Gordon Hayward injury. That said, good passing teams keep defenses moving and put pressure on their rotations.
Boston is the top defensive team in the NBA and it can carry them far in the playoffs but if they want to make the finals they’ll have to break a six-year trend of both finalists being in the top ten in offensive rating.
The New Cavs
The Cavs detonated their locker room and rest of this season will be about can they build up enough chemistry to take on the Eastern Conference and make it to the Finals yet again. The other underlying storyline here is whether this will be enough to entice LeBron James to re-sign with them in the offseason.
Keep an eye on the return of Kevin Love, much like Millsap; he is basically their buyout piece. The play of Larry Nance may make him expendable by the end of the season and could make him a nice trade chip at the draft if he has a good playoff run.
Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons
Unlike last year, the Rookie of the Year race is actually a good one this year. Simmons and Mitchell have been great all season and both deserve the award, check out the recent Jump Ball Friday Film for the breakdown.
Tanking is terrible for the NBA but it is not going anywhere, even with the changes to the draft lottery that will go into place next season. This makes this season the last year it matters to be the absolute worst team in the NBA.
There is one team that makes the tank race is really interesting, the Brooklyn Nets. They don’t have a reason to lose; their pick is going to the Cavs no matter where it lands. As of now, they have the fourth worst record in the NBA and just a game away from the worst record overall.
Depending on how the lottery pans out, it can lead to a similar situation to when the Pistons won the championship in 2004 and had the third pick in the draft. The Cavs could potentially make it to the finals and have a chance at a top-five pick.
To a lesser extent, the Lakers pick can also change things in the East. If it lands anywhere between 2-5 it goes to Boston, if it doesn’t it will head to Philadelphia. The Lakers currently have the 10th worst record and it unlikely they will land in the bottom five. However, it will give either the Celtics or the Sixers a chance to add another lottery pick to a team that should be heading to the playoffs. The tankathon games (games when both teams really want to lose) will be tough to watch but in a funny way could be highly entertaining like the recent Bulls-Magic game.
There will be a ton of interesting storylines as the NBA enters the last phase of its regular season. A tight playoff race, a contender trying to get their offense going, another one trying to build enough chemistry before the playoffs, an exciting rookie of the year race, and the impacts of the draft lottery are just a few of the fun stories to watch and what makes this league so great.