The Key Questions Of The NBA Stretch Run

The playoff picture is rounding into form, but there is still a lot we don't know

With the trade deadline passed, a mostly successful All-Star Weekend in the books, and a full two-thirds of the regular season played, the NBA’s sprint to the playoffs is now upon us. The sample size is large enough, and the standings have stratified to a sufficient degree to provide relative clarity on everyone’s 2019-20 destiny. Even so, a number of important questions remain unanswered as the two-month stretch run commences on Thursday. Let’s break them down, starting with the most crucial battle for playoff positioning in the league.

Who will grab the East’s all-important 2-seed? At 46-8, Milwaukee is running away with the Eastern Conference for the second straight year, and even resting Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t likely to derail them. [The Bucks are 5-1 with a +12.8 point differential this season in games the presumptive MVP doesn’t play.] With the top spot essentially locked in, the race for the second seed becomes critical for several reasons. First, the East has a crystal clear top six, and any one of those squads can realistically win a playoff series. Thus, nabbing the 2-seed basically guarantees a trip to the Conference Semifinals by virtue of avoiding all those teams in Round One, instead garnering a favorable matchup with the 7-seed (likely either Brooklyn or Orlando). Second, the 2-seed (and 3-seed as well) remains on the opposite side of the bracket from the dominant Bucks until the Conference Finals, allowing for more of a chance they slip up against another team or sustain injuries which could weaken them. Lastly, if chalk abounds and the second- and third-seeded teams meet up in Round Two, the home court advantage in that series could be vitally important.

With apologies to Miami, Philly, and Indiana, unless the standings warp considerably over the next few weeks, this race comes down to the defending champion Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics. At 40-15, the Raptors have been one of the league’s most compelling stories, mounting a spirited title defense in spite of losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency. Toronto won fifteen straight games before dropping their final tilt going into the All-Star Break, and they currently sit a game-and-a-half clear of the Celtics in the 2-spot. The lack of an individually brilliant creator like Kawhi could come back to bite them in the postseason, but in the regular season at least, their on-a-string defense, high-IQ rotation, and overall chemistry has been more than enough to make up for Leonard’s production and keep them on a pace ahead of last year’s 58-win campaign. The Raptors have the league’s second-ranked defense — behind the Bucks of course, who are straight-up lapping the field — which is a testament to the integrity of head coach Nick Nurse’s scheme, because Toronto has had a ton of guys miss time with injuries. [All-Stars Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam have missed 12 and 11 games, respectively, while Fred VanVleet has missed nine, Marc Gasol nineteen, Serge Ibaka eleven, and Norm Powell seventeen.]

Much like last season’s title team, the roster is ultra-deep with competent rotation players. President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri continues to spin straw into gold, unearthing contributors like Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, while other franchises yearn to find just one such guy. After winning Most Improved Player last season, Siakam has taken another massive leap, becoming a legitimate star and borderline top-10 player in the league (23.5/ 7.5/ 3.5 on 46/36/80 shooting splits in 35.0 minutes per game, along with elite, versatile defense).

As with Boston and Milwaukee, Toronto has faced one of the league’s easiest slates thus far, but the schedule tightens up over the final stretch. The Raps and Celtics play each other only once more (March 20th in Toronto; Boston currently leads the season series 2-1), but they still have to face the Bucks three more times, two of which come in a home-and-home at the beginning of April. Beyond Milwaukee, there are road games to go against Denver, Utah, Philly, Memphis, Houston, and Miami, so holding off the Celtics is by no means going to be a cakewalk. But the Raptors are beginning to finally get healthy — Gasol and Powell should be back relatively soon — and even if the top-tier talent isn’t what it once was, it would be unwise to doubt the culture, infrastructure, and heart of the defending champs.

While currently sitting in third in the East, the Celtics sport the profile of an inner-circle contender. They are a top-five outfit at both ends of the floor (3rd and 5th in Offensive and Defensive Rating, respectively), and head coach Brad Stevens deploys the most complete collection of guards and wings in the league. Having so many skilled players on the floor has resulted in an offensive ecosystem flourishing with crisp ball and player movement, and they genuinely seem to enjoy playing with each other. [Swapping out Kyrie Irving for alleged saint Kemba Walker will tend to have that effect.] The proof of concept is certainly there after their thrilling, 141-133 double-OT win over the Clippers on Thursday night, going toe-to-toe with one of the league’s biggest presumed threats to the throne. Jayson Tatum showed a glimpse of his (and the team’s) ceiling in that game, torching L.A. for 39 points and flat-out punking Kawhi Leonard in a mano-a-mano shootout down the stretch.

The first-time All-Star has been cooking in February, averaging 28.3/ 7.3/ 3.4 on 48/47/71 shooting splits in seven games this month. A team with that version of Tatum as its best player is a much different animal from one reliant on Walker to be the offensive alpha dog. If Tatum keeps scorching the nets over the next 28 games, the C’s may be too potent for Toronto to hold them off. [One subplot to watch for: if the Cavaliers should finally decide to buy out Tristan Thompson — there are legitimate reasons for and against it, to be clear — Boston would be a very likely suitor for his services. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter have been better-than-serviceable for Boston this year, but adding another proven big who can bang with the Embiids and Sabonises and Lopezes of the world and also defend perimeter players in a pinch would make this roster basically matchup-proof.]

Will the old heads or the young bucks take the 8-seed in the West? While perhaps not as consequential as the battle for positioning discussed above, the race for the final playoff spot in the West will be fascinating nonetheless. Whichever of the four teams (sorry, Phoenix and Sacramento, but I don’t see it) comes out on top is likely to get ritualistically slaughtered by the West-leading Lakers, but the implications for their respective franchises could be far-reaching. The eighth spot is currently occupied by the surprising Memphis Grizzlies, who have surged to a 15-5 record since the calendar flipped to 2020 to take a commanding four-game lead over Portland in the 9-hole. The Grizz leaned further into their youth movement at the trade deadline, sending out vets Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill for what amounted to an injured Justise Winslow and Gorgui Dieng’s crap contract. [Quick aside: Dieng is in his seventh pro season but is somehow already 30 years old. I don’t know why, but I find that alarming.]

A twenty-game sample is enough to suspect something real is happening in Memphis — and there can be no doubt rookie Ja Morant is headed for superstardom — but we’re about to find out for sure. Memphis has enjoyed the easiest schedule in the West to this point in the year (11th-easiest overall; damn is the bottom of the Eastern Conference terrible AGAIN), but that’s set to change with a quickness. Per, Memphis has the most difficult remaining schedule in the league by a significant margin, headlined by two tilts against their possible first-round opponent, the Lakers. They have five more games against the competition for no. 8 (Portland, San Antonio, and New Orleans), including a home-and-home against the Pelicans in late March which is shaping up to be must-watch television. Each of these head-to-head matchups within this cohort become vital because they effectively count as “double wins,” while also determining potential tiebreakers.

Winslow could turn out to be a valuable contributor if he can get and stay healthy, but the risk in their deadline strategy is that too much leadership and experience left the building, creating a vacuum which cannot be filled as the slate gets more treacherous. Based solely on the cushion they’ve built up, the Grizz remain the prohibitive favorite to capture the spot, but it may be a bumpier ride than what they’ve experienced over the last six weeks or so. No matter what, this season represents an unqualified success for a franchise which is WAY ahead of schedule in its rebuild, so it’s really all house money at this point. [As an added bonus, the top-6 protected first-round pick they owe to Boston — thanks, Jeff Green! — long considered one of the most valuable draft assets out there, will now convey to the Celtics as a disappointing mid-round pick in what is widely considered a weak draft. Everything’s coming up Grindhouse!]

It’s hard to count out Portland so long as they have the virtuosic performance of Damian Lillard, but, umm…do they? Dame left the Blazer’s final game before the break with a groin injury, and he is due to be re-examined later this week to determine the extent. [Dame was forced to miss the All-Star Game with the injury, though he was still able to put on a perfectly acceptable rap performance extolling the virtues of his large bank account.] Lillard has been the alpha and omega for this injury-ravaged Portland squad, and a significant stretch of missed games by him would be the death blow for its playoff chances. With or without Dame, this team isn’t going anywhere special this season anyway, so seizing the opportunity to shut it down and regroup for another run next year (when Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Rodney Hood, et al should presumably be healthy again) may not be the worst thing in the world. [Yes, I know Dame doesn’t see it that way.]

The good news for the Spurs is their offense kicked into gear as if by magic on December 23rd when LaMarcus Aldridge discovered you get a whole extra point for shooting the ball from two feet further away. [Was it a Festivus miracle? Was there an airing of grievances with DeMar DeRozan involved? We may never know, but Aldridge, a career 28.3% shooter from deep prior to this year, is shooting 40.1% in ’19-’20 on a healthy number of attempts, and the Spurs are all the way up to 10th in Offensive Rating.] San Antonio would go 9-6 over the ensuing month, their best stretch of the season. Unfortunately, they are 3-8 since and are now sitting at 23-31, five full games back of Memphis. Their defense continues to be a train wreck (25th in Defensive Rating), and for some reason Coach Pop still appears allergic to the idea of trying to stanch the bleeding by deploying All-Defense-caliber guards Dejounte Murray and Derrick White at the same time. [Pop also saw fit to cut current All-Star Bam Adebayo on the second day of Team USA training camp over the summer in favor of such luminaries as Myles Turner and Mason Plumlee. Pop himself has joked about it, but it’s becoming fair to ask whether he actually has some sort of Midas Touch when it comes to personnel, or if most of his mystique amounts to “he got to coach Tim Duncan for nineteen years.”]

The Spurs have made the postseason for 22 consecutive seasons, a streak they clearly do not want to see broken. Memphis’ difficult schedule may provide San Antonio with an opening, but even so, it’s tough to envision a team which can’t muster consistent defensive effort from night to night making up five games with only 28 remaining. And besides, from a fan perspective, why would we want to watch the same-old Spurs get curb stomped by LeBron and AD in Round One when there’s a team with juuuuust a bit more sizzle lurking close behind them?

The most intriguing remaining option is, of course, the New Orleans Pelicans. Much like the Spurs, at 23-32 and 5.5 games back of Memphis, it is a huge hill to climb, but no one is equipped for a vertical ascent quite like Zion Williamson and the Pellies. Since returning from injury, Zion has been exactly as advertised, and then some. In ten games, he’s averaging 22.1/ 7.5/ 2.2 on 58/36/65 shooting in only 27 minutes a game. He has predictably struggled to pick up NBA defense, especially amid the less-than-ideal defensive ecosystem around him. That said, with Zion on the floor, the Pelicans are GOOD, full stop. They are a mammoth +12.9 points per 100 possessions when the rookie phenom is out there, compared to -3.2 per 100 when he sits. New Orleans is 5-5 in games Zion plays, which undersells his impact because some early losses are inevitable as the team reorients its rotation and roles. Also, four of those losses came against Denver, Houston, Milwaukee, and OKC, all of which would be defensible under any circumstances.

The silver lining for New Orleans is they are the bizarro Memphis. Prior to the All-Star Break, the Pels faced the league’s toughest schedule (with a bullet), and now they have by far the NBA’s easiest slate for the remainder of the season. They are at Portland on Friday night, when the Blazers could be without Lillard, so right off the bat New Orleans has the opportunity to begin to flip the standings. There is the aforementioned home-and-home with Memphis in March (though it’s a bit of a disadvantage for the Pels because they also have a home game with Sacramento sandwiched in-between), and then two of their final six games of the year will be in San Antonio, including game no. 82. Could we get a de facto play-in game between the league’s past and its future on the final night of the season? Take it away, KG:

Can the Clippers put it together? The best way I can put it is this: the 2019-20 LA Clippers might be the most disappointing buzz-saw in history. When we strip away the expectations and just take a snapshot of where they are, it’s impressive: 37-18, third in the West, ranked sixth in offense, defense, and point differential. When their best player is on the floor — who just happens to be the reigning Finals and All-Star Game MVP, and is having his best overall season — the Clips have a net rating of +10.8 points per 100 possessions, a massive number. They are succeeding despite Kawhi and Paul George playing only a combined 76 games out of a possible 110, a testament to their depth of talent. Within the last two weeks, the front office added both Marcus Morris, Sr. and (reportedly) Reggie Jackson to an already-deep group, giving them proven playoff performers to fill virtually every meaningful minute of court time going forward. What is there not to like about this team’s chances?

Weirdly, kind of a lot. Again, it’s hard to argue with the numbers, but actually watching them play often paints a very different picture. The ’18-’19 team, which won 48 games despite having significantly less talent in what was considered a transition year, exhibited a joy and connectedness on the court which is notably lacking on this far better team. Perhaps the team is simply taking on the character of its best player, and the aloof, mechanical competence of Kawhi can’t help but trickle down to everyone else. The double-OT thriller against Boston on Thursday was a microcosm of the can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it unease I feel about this team. As I mentioned earlier, Boston’s offense throughout the game looked sharp and free-flowing. By contrast, L.A.’s sets often appeared clunky, ill-conceived, and prone to devolving into an isolation up against the shot clock. Both are clearly elite teams, but Boston was able to just run its stuff, while the Clippers had to keep themselves in the game with blunt force talent (and a ton of miraculous shot-making by Lou Williams, who finished with 35 points). Hell, maybe I’m looking at this wrong. Maybe it bodes well for them that when things break down in the crucible of the playoffs, they can just run simple actions and still get buckets. In the end, the team with the best player usually wins, after all.

But something about the chemistry of this team feels slightly off, and I’m not sure adding two more guys to the mix, neither of whom carries an exactly sterling reputation as a teammate from previous stops, is the answer. As I discussed last week, Morris has value as a big-bodied forward who can defend multiple spots and space the floor. His highest and best use could come as a small-ball center, should L.A. match up with Houston’s crazy science experiment in the postseason. That said, he is another ball-stopper on a team rife with them, and he needs to have a VERY clear understanding of his place in the team’s hierarchy so he doesn’t start hijacking late-game possessions from Kawhi, PG, and Sweet Lou in critical situations.

I’m torn about the purported Reggie Jackson signing as well. The upside of the acquisition (as with Morris, to an extent) is that having him on your roster keeps him OFF of the Lakers, where he would likely be a far more valuable piece. If the Clips are in fact engaged in this sort of intra-arena sabotage, I am 100% here for it. As a practical matter, I would much rather have a healthy Pat Beverley ravenously munching up point guard minutes over Jackson, who provides very little of use on this particular roster. Even so, Reggie sitting on the bench waving a towel has value, considering otherwise he might be actively damaging them as the exact rotation cog their chief rivals needed. It’s crazy this sort of gamesmanship is a part of our basketball culture in 2020 — especially considering franchises like the Knicks can’t find good players at all, period — but here we are.

Am I picking nits? Of course. But with the margins between the tippy-top contenders this small, the stop-and-start, stilted chemistry of this roster could trip them up when the stakes are raised. No matter how much talent you possess, continuity matters in basketball. The Clippers have thus far developed precious little of it, and time is running out to do so.

Can anyone challenge Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP? In a word, no. I’ve tried a dozen different ways to craft a case with any alternative argument I can think of: are we fundamentally misapprehending what makes a player valuable? Are his statistics misleading? Are the other Bucks actually too good? Will the voters try to be contrarian? Any way you slice it, there is no escaping the gravity of Giannis. He’s by far the best player on by far the best team. He’s a killer on both ends of the court. And by whatever standard you want to use, he’s better than he was last season, when he, you know, also won MVP. Barring a catastrophic injury, he’s the lock of all locks. Vegas agrees: Giannis is currently an overwhelming favorite at -450 at Bovada to win MVP. The next best odds are Luka Doncic (?) at +650, with LeBron, Harden, and AD coming in behind the Dallas wunderkind. [Basketball-Reference’s MVP Tracker also gives Giannis roughly a 58% chance of taking home the award, which even feels a tad conservative.]

Runaway victories could be a theme of the major awards this season. Besides Giannis, short of Zion playing like an MVP himself for the next two months, Ja Morant is a near-lock for Rookie of the Year. Toronto’s Nick Nurse should comfortably win Coach of the Year, though I suppose there is a reasonable case for Taylor Jenkins of Memphis or Erik Spoelstra of Miami. Sixth Man of the Year should be a two-man race between Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder. Defensive Player of the Year will come down to Giannis, two-time reigning winner Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Davis. [I see you, Bam, but it probably isn’t your time yet.] As I’ve discussed previously, Most Improved Player is the most wide-open race, with Devonte’ Graham, Brandon Ingram, Luka Doncic, Bam Adebayo, Pascal Siakam, Domantas Sabonis, and a few others in the mix. There could also be some goofiness on the All-NBA teams, depending on whether or not the league classifies Anthony Davis as a center. [They should, in case you’re wondering.] Otherwise, there likely won’t be much intrigue or surprise surrounding the end-of-season awards.

Will any dark horse contenders emerge? For most of the season, the consensus has been — and continues to be, if Vegas odds are any indication — there are three true, inner-circle contenders for the NBA title (the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers) and a jumble of also-rans below them. Do any of the long shots (Houston, Denver, Philly, Utah, Boston, Toronto, or Miami) have a chance to break clear of the pack over the next two months and cement their status among the top tier? We already discussed Boston and Toronto, and the Celtics seem like the most likely candidate to make another leap. The Sixers are the best-equipped talent-wise, but their complete inability to establish any sort of consistency or win road games makes it difficult to imagine the switch we’ve all been waiting for is about to be flipped. [Philly could be an intriguing buy-low team in the playoffs. They would likely have to get past Milwaukee in Round Two, but their size and defensive potential may be a better stylistic fit for a seven-game format than the regular season. I’m not entirely buying the thing I’m trying to talk myself into, however. We have an awful lot of evidence this just isn’t a particularly great team.]

Denver remains one elite scorer away, and while it’s reasonable to think he’ll one day get there, Michael Porter, Jr. isn’t ready for prime time yet. I love Miami’s super-weird roster, but a team with Jimmy Butler as its best player doesn’t have quite enough juice, and I’m not ready to trust a number of their rotation guys in the hothouse of the playoffs until I see it. Utah is interesting. They typically play well in the back half of the season — watch, all the “look out for the Jazz!” columns are coming any day now — and they’re finally starting to figure out how to integrate Mike Conley into Quin Snyder’s system (20/5/5 over his last four games before the break). The pieces fit together, and if Snyder can get by consolidating his rotation down to seven guys in the postseason, their stinky bench becomes much less of an issue. For Utah to truly make the good-to-great jump, though, they’ll need Donovan Mitchell to channel 2006 Dwyane Wade, and I haven’t seen anything to suggest such a leap is forthcoming, at least not yet. It’s one thing to be a player away; it’s quite another to be a complete team and have it still not be enough.

Last and — if we’re judging purely by physical stature — least, there’s Houston. Since the Robert Covington trade which rendered them the shortest team in modern NBA history, the Rockets have split four games. They buried the Lakers under a barrage of threes and the Celtics under a barrage of free throws, and it’s safe to say they’ll continue to push these high-variance strategies to their logical conclusions until it either wins them a championship or breaks them. [The other side of the coin was on display in a 127-91 shellacking at the hands of Phoenix, with Houston going 11-of-48 from deep.] The Harden/Westbrook pairing has begun to bear fruit, with Russ especially coming to life since the start of 2020 (33.1/ 8.1/ 7.1 in 15 games). Westbrook has eschewed his tendency to launch abominable three-point attempts (he is literally the worst high-volume 3PT shooter in NBA history), and has instead leveraged all the additional space created by removing a non-shooting big from the paint to essentially become a 6-foot-3 Giannis, attacking a spread-out defense off the dribble at every conceivable opportunity.

The offensive math undoubtedly works, and if the threes are falling on a given night, the opponent may as well pack it up and go home. The question is if they will fall often enough over a four-round playoff run, and even if so, whether or not they can hold up enough on defense and the boards for it to matter. The Rockets weren’t a particularly stout defensive team even with Clint Capela (15th in Defensive Rating), and now it is going to be nigh impossible for them to do much with the kind of size and strength the elite Western teams can bring to bear. [That is, so long as teams stop getting baited into trying to post up James Harden. Seriously, we’ve been over this. Fucking stop it.] Houston is the league’s ultimate wild card, which seems to be just how GM Daryl Morey likes it. I don’t think a team can win sixteen games against elite competition with such a boom-or-bust strategy, but given all the stomach-churning ways the Rockets have failed to get over the hump in the last five years, there’s no real downside in trying.

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