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10 NBA stretch-run storylines to watch: Races for MVP and West’s No. 1 seed, Warriors resurgence, more

We’re out of the All-Star break and well past the halfway point of the NBA season. This is the NBA’s stretch run, and there is a lot to be on the lookout for as the calendar nears March. Below are 10 storylines to keep a close eye on over the remainder of the regular season. 

1. Doc and the Bucks

Milwaukee is 5-7 under Doc Rivers, who has already tapped into the excuse book and has also been called out on it by his former player JJ Redick. Rivers isn’t getting any sympathy, and he doesn’t have much, if any, margin for error in this gig. He was brought in to win it all. Plain and simple. 

Can Damian Lillard, who has, by his standards, struggled this season, get his shot going at the right time? Can Milwaukee’s defense be good enough with two turnstiles on the perimeter in Lillard and Malik Beasley? More importantly, can Rivers engineer a top-flight offense? The Bucks are performing at a bottom-10 level since his hiring. There are a lot of questions in Milwaukee, and Doc was hired to find the answers. 

2. Can the Warriors crack the top six?

It looks doable on paper, with the Warriors only three back in the loss column of No. 5 Phoenix and No. 6 New Orleans entering play on Monday. But they would have to jump four teams to get there (entering play on Monday those four teams would be the Lakers, Mavericks, Pelicans and Suns). 

Golden State has won nine of its last 12 and has a relatively friendly schedule the rest of the way, including three games versus Dallas and one more against New Orleans, which will decide the tiebreaker between the two. 

Steve Kerr seems to be slowly piecing the puzzle together. Jonathan Kuminga is a lineup staple, finally, and Klay Thompson is now coming off the bench. Chris Paul eventually coming back could further solidify the second unit or throw a wrench on the good vibes. Hopefully it’s not the latter, because with Draymond Green back, the Warriors, for the first time all season, look ready to run. 

For Golden State, the priority should be securing at least the No. 8 seed, which would give them two shots at securing a playoff spot via a Play-In Tournament win (at No. 9 or 10, you have to win two Play-In Tournament games). But getting into the top six and avoiding the Play-In Tournament entirely isn’t out of the question. 

3. A two-man MVP race

With Joel Embiid ineligible (he won’t meet the minimum 65 games played), Nikola Jokic is the betting favorite, but this thing feels wide open between him and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If the Thunder claim the West’s No. 1 seed (they’re tied with Minnesota entering play on Monday), I believe SGA will, deservedly, win the award. 

It will be interesting if OKC finishes ahead of Denver but doesn’t secure the top seed. At that point, Giannis Antetokounmpo and/or Luka Doncic still have room to make a stretch-run push. Both are having outrageous seasons, but to me, Giannis is battling the narrative of the underperforming Bucks (even though he has that team on his back). 

Doncic is the dark horse. If the Mavs secure a top-five seed and Doncic wins the scoring title, which he’s a virtual lock to do, and neither the Thunder nor Nuggets secure the top seed, Luka could potentially make it a tough decision on voters, particularly if he goes scorched earth down the stretch. 

But for now it’s a two-man race between Jokic and Gilgeous-Alexander, and a really tight one at that. 

4. Wembanyama a lock for ROY?

Victor Wembanyama is already the first player in history to record 150 blocks, 150 assists and 75 made 3-pointers in a single season. Chet Holmgren, meanwhile, is the first player in history to make 100-plus 3s while also blocking 150-plus shots as a rookie. It’s not even March yet. 

It’s safe to say we’ve never had a Rookie of the Year race like this, and while Wembanyama — who leads the league in blocks and has gone into another offensive stratosphere over the last 25 games since San Antonio went to a one-big starting lineup and ended its Jeremy Sochan point guard experiment — is the clear betting favorite and will almost certainly win the award, Holmgren should not be considered totally finished. 

Like SGA in the MVP race, if the Thunder win the West and Holmgren, who is averaging better than 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocks on almost 50% 3-point shooting in February, continues to play at this level, we’re at least going to need to have a real discussion if we care at all about winning. For as much credit as the likes of SGA and Jalen Williams deserve for OKC becoming this good this fast, Holmgren is a core reason why this is happening. 

5. LeBron nearing 40K career points

Already the all-time scoring leader, LeBron is 74 points away from 40K for his career after putting up 28 in the Lakers’ loss to the Suns on Sunday. It will almost certainly happen within the next couple weeks, and probably sooner than that. Below is a look at L.A.’s next five games. 

6. Who wins the West?

It’s a four-team race in the Western Conference between Minnesota, OKC, Denver and the Clippers. The latter two presumably care less about seeding than the Wolves and Thunder, both of whom are trying to establish themselves as real contenders every night they step on the floor. 

My prediction: Minnesota end up as the No. 1 seed, but the Thunder are the more dangerous playoff team because of the half-court creation of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Minnesota is lights out defensively with its kennel of perimeter dogs and Rudy Gobert protecting the rim, but I question the offense in tight settings. There is no such concern with OKC. 

If it does shake out with Minnesota and OKC as the top two and the Clippers and Denver at 3-4 in some order, that means L.A. and the Nuggets would be on opposite sides of the bracket and thus be set up for what would be an incredible conference finals. 

7. How serious are Knicks, Cavs? 

Are the Knicks a matchup nobody wants to see in the first couple rounds or a legitimate threat to challenge for a spot in the Finals? I’ll tell you this: Bojan Bogdanovic, who had five 3s in his Knicks debut, and Donte DiVincenzo on opposite sides is a lot of space for Jalen Brunson to operate. 

OG Anunoby is a premier playoff defender. Isaiah Hartenstein protects the rim and rebounds like a madman, and there’s still an outside chance that Mitchell Robinson makes it back for the playoffs. 

Toughness. Shooting. Rim protection. A creation wizard in Brunson. A one-on-one bully in Julius Randle. A top-10 offense and defense. The marks of at least a fringe contender are all there. Might the Knicks be even better than that? 

As for the Cavs, who boast the league’s fourth-best point differential as the East’s No. 2 seed, it’s the offensive boom that has given them the look of at least a fringe contender. We know they can defend, but without Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, both of whom required surgery, for a long stretch, they started gunning 3s and moving the ball like they were the Warriors. 

The Cavs are a league-best 24-7 since Dec. 16. During that stretch, they have made 14.5 3-pointers per game, the third-best mark in the league, and they’ve had an eight-game win streak and a separate nine-game win streak. Donovan Mitchell is having the best season of his career. If the Cavs aren’t contenders now, it’s hard to imagine they ever will be with this roster iteration. 

8. Sixers without Embiid

Philadelphia is 4-7 since Embiid went down against the Warriors on Jan. 30. There’s no guarantee Embiid comes back this season, but Daryl Morey trading for Buddy Hield, who becomes a free agent this summer, was a clear sign that they’re going for it right now. 

The question is: How far will the Sixers fall between now and whenever Embiid (hopefully) gets back? After falling to the Bucks on Sunday, they’re only one game up on the No. 7 Heat and two up on the No. 8 Magic. If Philly were to fall below No. 8 it would be an all-time collapse, but even having to win a Play-In Tournament game just to give Embiid a chance in the playoffs (in a potential first-round matchup with Boston, no less) would be a major disappointment considering how great things started for them this season. 

9. Can Lakers, Clippers stay healthy?

The Clippers are pretty safely in the top six and the Lakers probably aren’t climbing out of Play-In Tournament status. For both L.A. teams, it’s just about staying healthy until the postseason. For the Lakers, especially, if LeBron James or Anthony Davis goes down, they don’t have any shot. But if those two are healthy come April, it becomes a very daunting task to out the Lakers in a seven-game series. 

Fort the Clippers, there’s a bit more leeway with three superstars, but we need to see what this team can do at full strength. That’s why Harden was brought in, and he has been outstanding. Kawhi Leonard has been MVP-level great, even if he has no chance of winning the award, and Paul George is … well … Paul George. The Clippers are absolutely loaded with shooting and individual creation, two major postseason boons. 

Just get to the postseason healthy. The seed, for both L.A. teams, is a distant second on the priority list. 

10. Phoenix’s math problem

The only current playoff team that makes fewer 3-pointers per game than the Suns is Denver, which clearly has its championship formula in place. Even with two of the best midrange shooters in the world in Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, it’s tough to make twos add up to more than threes over a playoff series. 

That’s why Frank Vogel wants them shooting more from deep. The Suns have taken at least 40 triples this season six times, and they are 5-1 in those games — including their win over the Lakers on Sunday in which they went 17-of-40 from beyond the arc. 

The Suns are at their best when they are driving into the paint and kicking and not relying so much on the stand-still creation and contested-shotmaking of Booker and Durant. That’s where Bradley Beal comes in. He’s the kind of creator who can touch the paint on his own or against closeouts created by the attention Booker and Durant demand, and things can continue to flow from there. Or he can obviously spot up for Booker and Durant to find. 

Beal is shooting 43% from 3 for February, and the Suns have a outscored opponents by opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions with a rocket-booster offensive rating with the Big 3 on the court this season, per Cleaning the Glass. Taking and making more 3s would make things easier, but as long as these three guys are on the court together in the postseason, with Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neale and Eric Gordon all being legit marksmen as well, Phoenix is going to be tough in the playoffs. 

That said, they have to get to the playoffs first. That sounds crazy to say, but Phoenix is tied in the loss column with the No. 7 Pelicans and No. 8 Mavericks entering play on Monday. The Play-In Tournament is not the playoffs. It’s an opportunity to make the playoffs. Phoenix does not want to find itself in a potential one-and-done situation. 

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