Let’s get back to business. We’ve reached the hard-court hump of the NBA season, and as we dance towards what looks to be one of the most exciting playoff races in recent memory, a flood of questions remain unanswered across the league.
Some things haven’t panned out quite like we thought they would during the first half, particularly in the West. Just eight games separate the eighth-seed Clippers from the second-place Nuggets, and as usual, there’s plenty of awards talk to get to as well as the never-ending LeBron-Lakers drama.
Here’s a look at 10 Burning Questions Post All-Star Break:
1. Can LeBron and the Lakers Make the Playoffs?
LeBron James faces an uphill battle as the Lakers prepare to face the Rockets, Bucks, Nuggets and Celtics over the next fortnight.
Never has LeBron’s consecutive playoff streak looked in so much danger. For those keeping track, James has made the postseason 13 straight times and appeared in eight-straight Finals. The Lakers, now sitting 10th in the West at 28-29, have some serious ground to make up if they are to catch the Clippers, who are currently five games ahead of them in the standings.
So what needs to happen for LeBron to steer this ship towards the playoffs?
Since the start of his playoff streak in 2006, this is the first time a LeBron led team has entered the second half of the season with a record below .500. Individually, you couldn’t ask much more from The King – he’s averaging 23.0 points, 36 minutes and 10 rebounds this month. But really, what the Lakers need is some health. You still have to second-guess LeBron’s groin, while Lonzo Ball’s ankle injury might cost him at least another two weeks.
Statistically the Lakers aren’t far off the mark. They rank seventh in field-goal percentage and second in points in the paint, but there’s a couple things they need to tidy up. The Lakers have scored the sixth-fewest points-per-game in the fourth quarter this season, largely thanks to owning the fifth highest turnover percentage.
We’ve doubted LeBron before and regretted it, but none of what’s going on right now in LA screams confidence if the Lakers were to meet the Warriors in the playoffs. Maybe they are best off missing the postseason altogether to avoid becoming cannon fodder.
Lakers NBA Championship Odds:
2. Will the Pelicans Shut Down Anthony Davis?
Amid the All-Star break and the ongoing negotiations with the Lakers was the firing of Pelicans GM Dell Demps. The move comes less than a month after Anthony Davis’ trade demand, but it’s left the team looking vulnerable as they flip-flop towards a Top 10 pick.
The dilemma for New Orleans is this: do they start Davis or sit him? A bruised shoulder right before the All-Star break is of little concern, but there’s every chance a more serious injury – let’s say one of the ACL or achilles variety – scares away any potential trade bidders. It’s a big risk to take, and New Orleans certainly haven’t shy’d away from leaving Davis on the court. He played for 34-minutes against the Grizzlies a fortnight ago, but at the same time, nobody likes seeing him put up meager 14-point numbers.
No matter which way you look at this, it has the potential to burn the Pelicans. Turning down a generous offer comprising of Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram (among others) from the Lakers is one thing, but firing your GM is another. Demps was a former scout for the Knicks, a team considered to be a top contender in the Davis sweepstakes this offseason. That hurts New York’s chances, meanwhile in Boston, Celtics assistant GM Michael Zarren is among the favourites to replace Demps in the near future. Whether or not that sets up a blockbuster trade between a loaded Celtics team and the Pelicans for Davis’ services remains to be seen.
3. Can the Clippers Hang in the Eight?
The Clippers found themselves in a similar position this time last year. By the All-Star break, Los Angeles were 29-26 heading into the second half of the season, only to slump to 13-14 over their remaining 27 games to finish 10th in the West and miss the playoffs.
Again, the Clippers are leaning on a healthy core of young players to get the job done, and there’s no doubt they look more reliable than the Lakers right now. The Clips rank among the Top 10 sides in points-per-game this season, as well as sixth in true-shooting percentage and eighth in points scored in the paint. The only downside is LA’s bench – it leads the league in average minutes this season. No Tobias Harris also has Doc Rivers experimenting with the starting five night by night, hardly an ideal situation when you peak at the Clips’ remaining schedule. Games against the Kings, Lakers, Thunder and Bucks should go a long way to determining if this team is the real deal.
4. Sacramento Kings: Contender or Pretender?
The Kings are 30-27 at home this year as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since since 2005/06.
For the first time since 2005, the Kings find themselves with a winning record post All-Star break. Sacramento flirted with .500 for the entire first half of the season, but by turning the Golden 1 Center into somewhat of a fortress, Sacramento’s winning home record has helped them cling to a 30-27 overall record by the midway point.
The great part about all this is the Kings look set for the future on both sides of the ball. Buddy Hield ranks fourth in three-point percentage, De’Aaron Fox ranks fifth in steals, and most importantly, third-year head coach Dave Joerger has this team buying into the postseason. It’s not hard to see why when you consider the Kings are one of the Top 10 scoring sides both at home and away, but it is worth remembering they’ve lost three-straight games to the Clippers this year – the team that currently occupies the eighth spot in the West.
De’Aaron Fox Most Improved Player of the Year:
5. Can Steve Clifford Work Some Magic on Markelle Fultz?
The Magic acquired former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz earlier this month from the Sixers in exchange for Jonathon Simmons and a pair of draft picks. Fultz, who has missed close to 40 games with a shoulder injury, could potentially go down as the most infamous draft bust in the history of the game.
That isn’t to say Fultz can’t turn things around, though. Magic coach Steve Clifford was the man solely responsible for turning Kemba Walker’s career around in Charlotte before departing for Orlando last year. It’s hard to believe Walker, who just this week made his third-straight All-Star appearance, finished 2015 shooting 34% from the field with an average of 17.3 points.
Walker was also a first round pick that flashed brilliance in college. Fultz has the makeup to bounce-back in similar fashion, if he wants to, that is. So much of this is a mental thing, and while we wait patiently to see if Clifford can instill some confidence in the 20-year-old, the Magic are quietly sitting 10th in the East having won seven of their last 10-games.
Magic To Win the Southeast Division:
6. Can the Nuggets Win On The Road?
The Nuggets have lost three of their last five road games.
Take one look at the standings and tell me we aren’t destined for a Nuggets-Warriors Western Conference Finals series. It sounds fun in theory, but don’t expect another seven-game showdown like we saw between Golden State and Houston if the Nuggets can’t work out how to win on the road.
At the Pepsi Center, Denver are almost unbeatable. Through 29 home games the Nuggets have lost just four, but their 14-14 record on the road leaves a lot to be desired. At home the Nuggets are a Top 10 scoring side, averaging 116.1 points-per-game. On the road, however, the difference is startling- Denver ranks 20th in scoring averaging close to 10-points less.
This month alone the Nuggets have lost to teams like the Sixers, Nets and Pistons on the road, while January’s nine-point loss to the lowly Suns in Phoenix tells you all you need to know. Denver are one of the best first quarter sides in the league and also one of the worst fourth quarter sides when it comes to scoring. This needs fixing before you back them to win anything big this year.
Nuggets NBA Championship Odds:
7. At What Point Do the Heat Pull the Pin?
Sooner or later the Heat might face a tough decision: are they all-in on the playoffs, or should they tank?
Miami find themselves sitting ninth with a 26-30 record in the East, but they present as one of the more difficult teams to get a handle on this season. The Heat are one of four teams with a better record on the road than at home, and despite a glaring lack of offense, Miami somehow find themselves with the sixth-best defensive rating in the league. To dig a little deeper, Miami have allowed the third fewest opponent points and field-goals this season, making them an interesting watch in the second half.
The Heat own wins over the Blazers, Spurs, Nets, Jazz, Clippers, Rockets and Celtics this season, leaving plenty of value for Miami to win the division over the equally questionable 27-30 Charlotte Hornets.
Heat To Win the Southeast Division:
8. Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About D’Angelo Russell?
D’Angelo Russell is among the favourites for this year’s Most Improved Player of the Year Award.
Russell played just 12 minutes for Team Giannis during the All-Star Game. It was another example of how forgotten the Nets point-guard is as he finds himself in the midst of a career year. Number wise Russell immediately jumps out: he’s averaging a career-high 20.3 points a game, shooting 43% from the field and averaging close to three 3-pointers a night. So why no love?
It’s a classic case of a star playing for a small market team. Brooklyn finds themselves on the cusp of a playoff appearance at 30-29, but as for Russell, he’s quietly been one of the best shooters in the league. So far this year Russell has 10-games of five or more three-pointers, while his pick ‘n’ roll game has been phenomenal. His lovely float shot makes him a strong chance for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award as he continues to take strides each and every season.
D’Angelo Russell Most Improved Player of the Year:
9. Will the Bulls Win 30 Games?
The Bulls took a gigantic step forward in their rebuild prior to the All-Star Game. Trading for Otto Porter doesn’t cancel out Chicago winning just 14 of their 58 games, but if the Bulls can win 30 (three more than they won a season ago), could you call 2019 a success?
Despite Chicago’s miserable record, they’ve been in their fair share of tight games. The Bulls entered the All-Star break on the heels of a feel-good 122-110 win over the Grizzlies, a game that saw Porter put up a season-high 37-points. It’s a small sample size, but all of a sudden optimism is high in Chicago. A dangerous pairing of Porter and Lauri Markkanen at forward could see the Bulls widen the gap between themselves and the Cavs in the East.
10. Rose vs. Williams: Who’s the NBA’s Best Sixth Man?
The market has swung heavily in favour of Derrick Rose for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. Two-time winner Lou Williams is also a chance, so it’s worth reviewing the stats to determine who’s been the most valuable man off the bench.
Rose is averaging close to 29 minutes this year with the Wolves, good for 18.2 points-per-game. He’s shooting a career-high 47% from the field and averaging 4.8 assists, similar numbers to Williams, who accomplished a little more in less time on the floor.
Lou has always played a crucial part off the bench wherever he’s played, but to see him on pace for almost identical numbers to his career-high 2017 season is crazy. Williams is averaging close to 20 points a game and 5.3 assists, also shooting 44% from mid-range. Better yet, the Clippers are averaging exactly 9.5 points more with Williams on the court this season, showing just how valuable he is to the team.
NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award: