Believe it or not, the NBA regular season is already 60 percent complete. As the teams get a must-needed week off for the All-Star break, we have a large enough sample size — more than 50 games — to draw conclusions about which teams will be contending for a championship in June. The Bucks, Lakers and Clippers are the title favorites, but seven other teams can reasonably talk themselves into being “one lucky bounce away” from playing in the Finals.
Let’s take a closer look at each of those 10 contenders, posing one major question for each.
Milwaukee Bucks (46-8)
Who besides Khris Middleton will step up in the playoffs when opponents sell out to stop Giannis?
As dominant as the Bucks have been this season, they face the same looming question as they faced heading into last year’s playoffs as the top seed. Whether it’s the 76ers with Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Ben Simmons, or the Raptors with Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, or some other Eastern Conference foe, someone will figure a way to wall off and slow Giannis Antetokounmpo.
When that happens, will Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez hit big shots like they have all regular season? Will George Hill continue to hit half his three-pointers? Will Wesley Matthews, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo keep playing effective two-way ball?
Giannis has improved his passing, so all signs would seem to point to yes. But as we saw last spring versus the Raptors, that’s by no means a guarantee in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers (41-12)
Can they find a second-unit playmaker in the buyout market?
The Lakers’ struggles with LeBron on the bench have been well documented — they’re a plus-11.3 per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and a minus-0.7 when he’s on the bench. While LeBron will play more minutes per game in the playoffs (he’s playing a career-low 34.9 minutes per game this season), the team will still need a guard it can count on to run the second unit because that answer is absolutely not Rajon Rondo. (The team is 6.1 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the bench.) Alex Caruso is a nice defensive player, but he doesn’t manufacture points or get his teammates good shots. Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma can both score, but neither initiates the offense.
I can’t believe I’m actually writing this: The Lakers must sign free agent Dion Waiters or, if he is bought out, Reggie Jackson of the Pistons. Say what you will about Waiters, but the guy can hit from deep (37 percent from three since 2016). He’s more of a ball-handler, but his game is reminiscent of a younger J.R. Smith in that he can get hot and single-handedly win games … or lose them. Luckily, the Lakers only need him to play 15 minutes a game. Likewise, if Jackson could channel his inner sixth man like he did earlier in his career in Oklahoma City, he’d have a chance to play big minutes as well.
Toronto Raptors (40-15)
Can they be a title contender without a true closer?
The Raptors are 15-1 in their past 16 games. In addition to Pascal Siakam’s leap (23.5 PPG), everyone from Fred VanVleet (18.0 PPG, 6.8 APG) to Kyle Lowry (19.6 PPG, 7.6 APG) to Serge Ibaka (16.1 PPG, 8.0 RPG) to Norman Powell (15.3 PPG) is playing with a level of confidence typically only reserved for the NBA’s elite. They’re also defending at an extremely high level (second-best defensive rating).
Ah, but the playoffs are a different game, and the Raptors know that all too well having seen the difference a playoff go-to guy like Kawhi Leonard makes over a regular-season go-to guy like DeMar DeRozan.
Is Siakam ready to be that guy at the end of playoff games? I’m not convinced given his struggles in the mid-range. (He shoots under 37 percent on shots between three feet and the three-point line.) But that is often the best shot a team can manufacture in end-of-game possessions and one of the reasons Kawhi was so deadly last spring.
If Siakam isn’t ready for that role just yet, can Toronto overcome that simply by having five versatile, high-IQ players on the court at the end of games? We shall see.
Boston Celtics (38-16)
If Tristan Thompson doesn’t get bought out, what is their crunch-time lineup?
As the question implies, if Boston somehow coaxes Tristan Thompson and the Cavaliers to orchestrate a buyout, the Celtics will have one of the best closing lineups in basketball with Thompson, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Heyward, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. If not Thompson, do they replicate the Rockets’ small ball and insert Marcus Smart into their lineup? That lineup would have a brutal time trying to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and the Bucks as well as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the 76ers.
Do they go with Enes Kanter and hope that his rebounding and offensive prowess around the basket make up for his porous defense? That feels like Kemba and Kanter get pick-and-rolled to death every possession. Probably the best lineup would simply be to roll with their current starting lineup, which inserts Daniel Theis — that lineup is a plus-10.2 per 100 possessions.
Los Angeles Clippers (37-18)
Do they have enough size against Denver, Lakers?
Instead of addressing a major need at the deadline, the Clippers acquired the best player they could find, Marcus Morris. It will give them yet another big wing defender to throw at LeBron in the playoffs. Now they need to find a buyout or free-agent big man with a little more athleticism than their current center, Ivica Zubac. Zubac won’t be on the court much in the playoffs, so as things stand, Montrezl Harrell (6-foot-7) will have a huge burden of trying to keep the likes of Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard from physical overpowering them. Keep an eye out on Bismack Biyombo or, if he isn’t bought out, maybe someone like Joakim Noah.
Denver Nuggets (38-17)
Who is their third guy in big playoff games?
Last spring, the Nuggets’ playoff successes and failures where pretty much tied to Jamal Murray. When Murray scored 18 or more, Denver was 7-2. When Murray scored fewer than 18, Denver was 0-5. Murray’s stats this season are almost identical to his numbers last season, so how do the Nuggets avoid having their fate directly correlated to 22-year-old’s performance?
Nikola Jokic can’t play much better than he played in last season’s playoffs (25.1 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 8.4 APG). Thus, the Nuggets will need a third banana to step up big in the postseason. With Paul Millsap’s age (35) catching up to him and Gary Harris having a major regression offensively (30 percent from three), it’ll come down to either Will Barton (15.1 PPG) or Michael Porter Jr. (20.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per-36 minutes) to have a playoff breakout for Denver to win the West.
Miami Heat (35-19)
Did the Iguodala trade move the needle enough?
At 35-19, the Heat are in the thick of things for the No. 2 or 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their acquisition of Andre Iguodala at the deadline sent a signal throughout the NBA that they believe they can compete for a title this season. Adding Iguodala’s defense, playmaking ability and championship pedigree to a team led by All-Stars Jimmy Butler (20.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 6.1 APG) and Bam Adebayo (15.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 4.9 APG) makes them a conference finals contender, but did they make a mistake by not doing what was necessary to advance the Danilo Gallinari trade past the finish line? My guess is yes. However, if Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson and the Heat’s rookies (Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn) can perform well deep into the postseason, they’ll at least have a puncher’s chance in any playoff series.
Utah Jazz (36-18)
Is Jordan Clarkson really going to carry their bench in the postseason?
Quin Snyder has me typing a sentence I never imagined possible: Jordan Clarkson is playing winning basketball. Not only is he providing a much-needed spark off the bench (16.2 PPG on 49-39-75 shooting splits since joining the Jazz), Clarkson’s arrival has coincided with Utah’s best stretch of basketball of the season (18-6 in 24 games). As real as this seems right now, I still can’t erase the images of Clarkson playing with the focus and urgency of a summer pickup game during NBA Finals games in 2018. Their backup plan should be to consider bringing Mike Conley off the bench, especially if his struggles continue.
Houston Rockets (34-20)
Can super-small ball work for multiple seven-game series?
By trading Clint Capela in a deal that scored them 6-foot-9 Robert Covington, the Rockets effectively decided to go full tilt on small ball, becoming the first team to purposely play the majority of their games without a traditional big man. The advanced analytics show that they’re a more effective team without a traditional big (three of their four most effective lineups don’t include a traditional big), but the big risk here is the limited sample size — they have no idea whether their unique strategy will remain effective over a seven-game series with opponents able to devote their full attention to scouting the Rockets. They’ll be able to win any individual game if they get hot from three, but it’s the games where their shots aren’t falling that they’ll have to pull out to make it deep in the playoffs.
Philadelphia 76ers (34-21)
Can they improve their play on the road?
The Sixers need the All-Star break more than any team in the league. They’re 3-4 in their past seven games, and all four of those losses were on the road and by double digits. They seem to have chemistry problems and often tune out head coach Brett Brown. Joel Embiid is playing poorly, and other teams are preparing for him or Ben Simmons to be made available this summer.
All of this drama could, of course, be eradicated with some strong post-All-Star play. Yet for the Sixers to have a respectable second half of the season, they’ll need to improve upon their putrid 9-19 road record — that’s the same road record as the Knicks. One way to improve that road record: Space the court better. The team acquired Alec Burks (37 percent from three) and Glenn Robinson III (40 percent from three) at the deadline, and Furkan Korkmaz (39 percent from three) has been shooting the lights out lately — perhaps that’ll start to help the team perform to its potential.
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