10 NBA stretch-run questions: Can LeBron James win his fifth MVP? Can the 76ers get their road act together?
Also, can the Bucks win 70 games? Can Zion Williamson realistically threaten to win ROY?
Through the All-Star break and well over halfway into the season, Thursday night marked the official start to the NBA's stretch run. Playoff spots and seeds will begin sorting out. Awards have to be settled. In a few cases, jobs are likely on the line.
Can LeBron catch Giannis for MVP?
If the Bucks don't slow down and wind up threatening 70 wins, it's going to be tough for LeBron to win MVP over Giannis, who is outpacing, or virtually equal to, LeBron in every traditional statistical category other than assists. If his team wins 70, forget about it.
But the Lakers are in position to win 60-plus games themselves, in a much deeper conference, and a couple key advanced stats favor LeBron, who ranks No. 1 in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus by a significant margin. Also, the Lakers are 13.8 points worse per 100 possessions when LeBron sits, while Milwaukee only falls by 8.6 points per 100 when Giannis sits.
If LeBron is able to run down Giannis, it'll be his fifth MVP award, which would tie him with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell for the second-most ever, one behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six.
Can the Sixers get their road act together?
Philly -- without Ben Simmons -- scrambled to beat the Nets -- without Kyrie Irving -- in their first game back from the All-Star break, improving their home record to a league-best 26-2. Unfortunately, they're 9-19 on the road, the same mark as the Knicks. All told, it's been a disappointing season to date for the Sixers, who have a flawed roster to start with and can be pretty moody and inconsistent with their effort on top of it.
But they are supremely talented. They boast the fourth-best defense in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. The offense is just 19th overall, but that's not necessarily indicative of its potential. When they find their groove, getting out in transition, striking a balance between Joel Embiid in the post and giving Simmons open driving lanes, they can be an elite group in stretches.
Brett Brown is constantly having to tinker to make a bunch of square pegs fit into round roles. His latest move was shifting Al Horford to the bench. Horford has had a rough go in his first season with Philly. But all these guys have playoff experience. They have matchup advantages, somewhere, over every team in the league. They can get this right, or at least a lot closer to right than they have gotten so far.
The question is: Will they? If they don't, there's a good chance Brett Brown is going to end up out of a job, and GM Elton Brand might not be 100-percent safe, either. If it were to get really embarrassing down the stretch and end up in a first-round loss, you are going to start hearing some serious trade rumors around either Simmons or Embiid.
Will Houston's small-ball experiment hold up?
By effectively flipping Clint Capela for Robert Covington, the Rockets have committed to an extreme version of small-ball featuring 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker as their starting center. It has opened the lane for Russell Westbrook, who has cut his 3-point attempts in half to once again become a virtually unstoppable force going to the basket. Putting four shooters around James Harden makes double-teaming him a riskier proposition.
In Covington's first game with the Rockets, they beat the Lakers, who would seemingly be Houston's most problematic matchup with all their size. They scrambled on Anthony Davis, switched everything on the perimeter, gang rebounded, and Westbrook was unstoppable with 41 points.
One game is different than a seven-game series. Playing at such a size deficit is exhausting; there's a reason the Warriors didn't just start their death lineup with 6-foot-6 Draymond Green at center. Playing those lineups in stretches is more sustainable. But Houston doesn't have a choice, and so far it hasn't been a problem.
The Rockets are 3-1 since the trade in games Westbrook has played. In addition to the Lakers, they beat the Celtics and would've beaten the Jazz if not for a 30-foot, fallaway contested 3-pointer at the buzzer by Bojan Bogdanovic. Whatever matchup problems the Rockets face go both ways for the team playing big against them. It's tempting to buy completely into the experiment based on the evidence we've seen so far. But the evidence is limited. We'll all be watching closely over the final seven weeks to see if the Rockets can rise up the standings and secure their place as a legitimate contender.
Will the Bucks win 70 games?
With the fourth-most difficult remaining schedule in the league and absolutely no incentive to win 70 games other than, you know, winning 70 games, our SportsLine data scientist, Stephen Oh, projects the Bucks to fall short of the historical mark and finish with 65 wins.
To this point, the Bucks' average margin of victory has been 12.25 points, per basketball-reference, which is the top mark in history. Their 11.7 net rating is more than a full point higher than the 73-win Warriors of 2015-16. Milwaukee has been a historic team, though beating up on the dreadful bottom half of the Eastern Conference -- which includes the Cavs, Hawks, Knicks, Pistons, Bulls, Hornets and Wizards -- has surely inflated that number.
Entering play on Friday, the Bucks have a seven-game lead over Toronto for the East's No. 1 seed. They won't need to win 70 to secure that spot, but they might have to keep winning for a while if Toronto stays red hot. After that, it becomes a matter of pride and flat out wanting your name in the history books. The Warriors went for it in 2015-16. The 72-win Bulls went for it 1995-96. But those teams were chasing the actual all-time record.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, would literally have to win every single game the rest of the way to get to 74 wins. That's not happening. Being the third team in history to crack 70 wins is super cool, but it's not a record. Will they really sell out for it?
Can Zion Williamson win Rookie of the Year?
Can he? Technically, yes. Will he? I would bet my house against it. Ja Morant has been sensational and Zion missed the first three months of the season. Zion has been historic since his electric debut in late January -- the only player in the last 30 years to score at least 20 points in seven of his first nine career games -- but he'd have to make even more history to win the award.
The fewest games a Rookie of the Year has ever played in a non-strike-shortened season is Brandon Roy's 57 in 2006-07. Heck, Kyrie Irving, Patrick Ewing and Vince Carter all played in at least 50 games even in strike years. If Zion played every game the rest of the way, he would only total 37 for the season.
I think the best Zion can do is make this an actual conversation, and to do that the Pelicans would have to go on a huge run and get into the playoffs behind an almost supernatural stretch-run from Williamson. Entering Friday, New Orleans is five games back in the loss column of Morant's Grizzlies for the West's No. 8 seed.
Will Boston cement itself as a true contender?
One of three teams with a top-five offense and defense, my contention is the Cetlics, with the third-best net rating in the league, already are legit contenders. A few days ago I ranked them Clippers, Bucks and Lakers.to win the title outside the clear-favorite
If you look at the championship checklist, they fill most boxes. Kemba Walker is a superstar. He's not in the super top-tier with the LeBron James' and Kawhi Leonards of the world, but he's a legit superstar, and the crazy thing is he might not even be Boston's best player. All things considered, that might be Jayson Tatum.
The Celtics, who've won 11 of their last 13 games, are stacked with two of the most important components a playoff team can have: multiple playmakers who can create offense for themselves and others in tight half-court possessions, and multiple versatile defenders who can interchangeably guard across the positional spectrum.
Again, Walker is a star. Jayson Tatum is a star. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward -- who is again back to looking like himself -- are legitimate All-Star talents as third and fourth options. Marcus Smart is, well, Marcus Smart. The Boston bigs -- namely Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter -- are a lot better than people want to give them credit for. Yes, I believe Boston is already a contender. If you're not convinced yet, I believe you will be by the time the playoffs start.
Will Denver end up on the "right" side of the bracket?
If they were in the East, where only one behemoth needs to be slain, I would say the Nuggets would be a legit Finals contender right now. In the West, where there are two behemoths in the Clippers and Lakers, I think the bracket has to break their way. If they have to beat the Clippers and Lakers in consecutive rounds, that's a hard sell.
But Denver is for real, and the bracket could easily end up breaking their way.
Entering Friday, the Clippers and Jazz are tied in the loss column for the No. 4 seed. If the Clips end up fourth, and current seeds hold, that would put the Lakers and Clippers against one another in the second round, while the Nuggets would likely get Utah or Houston, both of which they can beat.
Denver could also catch the Lakers for the top seed and hope the Clippers end up third, setting up a 2-3 behemoth showdown and again leaving Denver to only have to beat one of the Clips or Lakers during a Finals run. This is a huge element of this closing stretch. Last year the Nuggets wound up on the right side of the bracket, avoiding Houston and Golden State until the conference finals. But they couldn't take advantage, losing in seven games to the Blazers in the conference semis.
Can Mike Conley get it going in time for Jazz?
Much like Denver, the Jazz probably need to have the bracket break their way to make a Finals run. But even if that happens, it likely won't matter unless Mike Conley continues his encouraging play and rounds back into the player Utah expected it was getting by the time the playoffs start.
Still shooting under 40 percent overall for the season, Conley has averaged 19 points and five assists on 48-percent shooting, including 36 percent from beyond the arc, over his last four games. Over his last 10 games since returning from a month-long absence, Conley is shooting almost 38 percent from 3-point range.
That's more along the lines of what Utah needs. Forget being the playmaker to "take stress off" Donovan Mitchell. The ball needs to be in Mitchell's hands. What the Jazz need is for Conley to provide supporting firepower and optimal floor spacing. That's what Jazz GM Justin Zanik told me earlier this season was the goal in trading for Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic as a free agent. Scoring and spacing. Plain and simple.
When the Jazz surround Mitchell with three shooters and Rudy Gobert as a world-class screener and roller, they are tough to stop. When they slid Royce O'Neale into the starting lineup during Conley's absence, they took off; the five-man unit of Mitchell, Gobert, Bogdanovic, O'Neale and Joe Ingles has an extraordinary 118.8 offensive rating this season with a net rating of 17.3, which is the best mark in the league for any five-man unit having played at least 300 minutes together, trailing only the Bucks' starting lineup, per NBA.com.
But Conley is going to start. O'Neale is going to come off the bench. The Jazz need all hands on deck to be on top of their games to compete with the elite teams in the West. They have to hit the playoffs at full speed. They could very well end up facing Houston in the first round. Conley is the key. Utah knows what it's going to get from everyone else. Conley finding his form over the stretch-run of the season is the only true factor that can raise their ceiling.
Can Damian Lillard lift Portland into the playoffs?
It's an uphill climb. Entering Friday, the Blazers are four games back in the loss column of the No. 8 Grizzlies, and Lillard recently told reporters he expects to miss the next three or four games with a strained groin. Friday night, the Blazers play the Pelicans, who are also chasing the eight seed.
If Lillard can get the Blazers in, nobody would want to play them in the first round. Lillard is having probably the best season of his career and one of the three or four best seasons in the league. He should be right in the thick of the MVP conversation, but the Blazers, decimated by injuries, have wildly underperformed.
Lillard can only do so much, but there isn't a more exciting player in the league to watch try to carry a team. And we know he can do it. The Blazers are far from out of this thing.
How will Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins mesh?
Curry, first and foremost, will have to rediscover his own rhythm once he returns from his broken hand, which should happen soon, but you can bet the Warriors' brass will keeping close tabs on whatever information they can glean about Wiggins' potential next to the strongest gravitational force in the league in Curry.
It will also be interesting to see if the Warriors start winning some games. They've been more competitive than their 12-win record indicates, and Curry could theoretically push them over the top of some games. Owner Joe Lacob says "tank" is a four-letter word in the organization, but securing the best odds they can to land the No. 1 pick would undoubtedly be the best thing to come out of this season.
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