March is here and that means we’re in the home stretch of the NBA regular season. The trade deadline threw up some some real curve balls; the All Star game was….a thing that happened. Now, it’s time to prepare for playoff basketball. Lets take a look at some of the more intuiting plot lines of the late season stretch.
Judging the Harden/Simmons trade.
Harden can’t play off the ball. Embiid doesn’t want to roll to the basket.
Yeah….that hasn’t mattered. It’s early, but from the Philadelphia point of view the trade of their uber talented but flawed and enigmatic point guard for Brooklyn’s uber talented but flawed and enigmatic point guard has been an all caps WIN.
James Harden’s elite play making and, obviously, shot making have opened up a whole new world for Joel Embiid, who has quite literally never enjoyed the space that has now works with. The MVP candidate (more on that later) is putting up 32.7 points in the small sample size with Harden as his lead guard. An indicator of the space and play making that Harden provides is the 14.3 free throw attempts (including a preposterous 27 attempts against the moribund Knicks) that Embiid is taking since the trade, as defences are forced to play the Cameroonian one-on-one and as a result are resorting to hacking the big man.
For his part, Harden returned from three weeks on the inactive list to give Philadelphia 27.3 points (on insane 56/50/89 shooting splits), nine boards and 12.7 assists. He’s also exploiting the attention that Embiid draws by getting himself to the charity stripe almost 10 times a game as a Sixer, not far of his best numbers from his Houston pomp.
Just look at the quality of shots that these two generate in the two man game:
For his part, Ben Simmons is yet to suit up on Brooklyn Black, an apparent back injury halting his conditioning work. What’s the bet that he suddenly feels a lot better after the Nets visit Philadelphia on March 10?
So, how does Simmons fit in Brooklyn? Let’s assume Simmons emotional/mental state is somewhere near it’s best given that any significant issues in that regard make the basketball fit a moot point.
Offensively, Simmons should fit seamlessly with the just returned Kevin Durant and Part Time Kyrie, an elite play maker setting up two elite scorers. The Nets are a perimeter focused offensive team, which should open up all sorts of driving lanes for the Australian to exploit. Defensively his versatility will fit well on a team that likes to play without a traditional five man, switching everything. It will be interesting to see if Simmons is the nominal centre in Brooklyn’s starting five once he returns.
Until Simmons suits up it’s impossible to judge this trade. Given Harden’s start as a Sixer, Simmons will need to hit the ground not just running, but in a full sprint.
The East has always had wonderful teams, but when was the last time that the Eastern Conference could genuinely be considered the deeper of the two?
At the beginning of the season, the East was seen as a battle between the Bucks and Nets, with the Sixers a potential wildcard. Well, the Bucks been on a 55 win pace despite a raft on injuries to both the stars and rotation players and are fearsome when healthy; the Sixers – as covered above – have elevated themselves back into genuine title contention; the Nets have suffered from injuries (and Part Time Kyrie’s…ah…circumstances) more severely than perhaps any other team as they sit on the edge of the playoff race. Where the East has gotten incredibly top heavy is through the unexpected ascension of a host of other teams.
The Miami Heat have recovered their Orlando Bubble era moxy to lead the East, despite losing Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler for extended periods, once again proving Erik Spoelstra is by far the best coach in the NBA. The Bulls renaissance behind DeMar DeRozan has been well documented, as has the unexpected success of Cleveland’s Triple Towers. The Celtics are charging up the standings. Even the Raptors have leveraged their switchy, twitchy lineup of interchangeable athletes and an All Star point guard in Fred Vanvleet into an quietly good campaign.
The Heat, Sixers, Bucks and Bulls are all potential finalists whilst absolutely nobody wants to face a full strength Brooklyn. At least one of those teams won’t make the 2nd round of the playoffs – that’s incredible. There is every chance that LaMelo Ball’s Hornets and Trae Young’s Hawks – last season’s conference finalists – will not even make the playoffs.
The East, for the first time in a long time, is a genuine dogfight.
The Death Rattle of LeBron’s Lakers.
At best, these Los Angeles Lakers are going to have to qualify for the playoffs through the play-in as they currently sit 5.5 games behind their cross town rival Clippers for the 8th seed.
Russell Westbrook’s expensive acquisition has flopped spectacularly. Anthony Davis is oft-injured and has generally underwhelmed when he has played. LeBron James has been wonderful – dominating on occasion – but it’s looking increasingly likely that his patience is wearing thin.
Despite their big names the Lakers are, frankly, an average basketball team. Whilst their current predicament is shocking to some, it can be argued that it’s not altogether unsurprising. The Lakers are relying on the likes of Malik Monk, Austin Reaves and the ghost of Carmelo Anthony for genuine contributions. This is surely the last gasp of this group.
That said….does anybody really want to take on LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs?
The Lakers have looked better with LeBron lining up as the small ball centre (on defense, at least – Westbrook acts as the centre on offense) as they try to stretch the floor and do just enough to hang in on defense. With practically no rim protection, it remains to be seen if that defense can hold, but they certainly had to try something.
Teams should be able to handle the Lakers if they make the playoffs, but LeBron is special Does he have another monster run left in his ageing legs?
Coming from the clouds
Seen as genuine contenders within their conferences at the outset of the season, the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets have had – for very different reasons – trying campaigns. Now, as the regular season winds down, both clubs are quietly putting themselves in a position to succeed.
In Boston, a new coach and some significant surgery to the supporting cast saw the Celtics crawl out of the starting gates. Their defense was, at best, lackadaisical and offensively they looked disjointed as both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown struggled. Ime Udoka looked almost powerless to stop the malaise.
Since late January, however, something has clicked. Boston have gelled on defense, riding a league best defensive rating in February to 13 wins in their last 14 contests. The trade deadline acquisitions of Derrick White and old favourite Daniel Theis have fitted seamlessly, as well. White, in particular, has acted as the offensive conduit that has been sorely missing since Gordon Hayward and his papier-mâché legs skipped town. He provides more shooting that Marcus Smart without sacrificing too much defense and surpassed Al Horford as the C’s best passer the moment he joined the team.
Boston are currently 5th with a bullet in the East with a very real chance of earning home court advantage in the first round.
Hopes were Mile High (sorry) in Denver at the start of the season, despite electric guard Jamal Murray sitting out as he recovered from major knee surgery. Michael Porter Jr was newly minted and ready to break out, Aaron Gordon had a full pre-season to acclimatise to his teammates, the rotation was deep and talented and, of course, the reigning MVP was ready for his encore.
Unfortunately, Porter Jr started the season in a major funk before being shut down after just nine games with a recurrence of the scary back injury that saw him miss his entire rookie campaign.
With both Murray and Porter out of action, Nikola Jokic was forced to carry all of the load. The Serbian has been immense, able to keep his team afloat and in the race for the top four in the West.
With both now expected to be back before the end of the regular season, Denver suddenly look a most dangerous dark horse. They have the 8th easiest remaining schedule according to Tankathon with only The Mavericks and Grizzlies (6th and 7th respectively) having easier runs home amongst the Western playoff teams.
A fully fit Nuggets squad can take down anybody in the NBA. If Murray and Porter can find their feet quickly, the West has another contender.
The MVP race
When this writer was a child, the MVP went to Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. As a teen it was Michael Jordan or whoever popped their head up to alleviate Jordan induced voter fatigue. Over the past decade we’ve had seven individual winners of the Maurice Podoloff trophy, but aside from Westbook’s controversial triumph in 2017, the winner has always seemed a foregone conclusion.
It’s that sort of monotony that makes this year’s MVP race so much fun.
Let’s tip our hat to the early season form of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, to the clutch heroics of DeRozan and to the irresistible ball of flame that is Ja Morant. They’ve all had excellent seasons, but this is a race in three: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
All three men present remarkably similar cases. All of them hit the scoreboard, all are elite rebounders, Embiid’s improvement as a passer sees all three of them act as threatening play makers (Jokic is, to be fair, is on another level) and all three are excellent defenders, with the Nuggets big man a step below the other two in that regard.
This is one of the tightest MVP races in years, with all three deserving of the award. A quick aside, isn’t it great to see a) three international players competing for the title of worlds best player, and b) three big men ruling the league in the supposed era of the little man.
So, who wins? This writer thinks Jokic should win by a hair over Embiid, though the narrative will win out and the Cameroonian will take him his first MVP.
This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.