It’s Valentine’s Week, which means surprise and heartbreak on the horizon. No, not with your loved ones, but with your beloved teams. This weekend marks NBA All-Star Weekend in Brooklyn and the eyes of the basketball world will be in the Big Apple. It also means the home stretch for the playoffs begin Tuesday. With teams having between 28 to 30 regular-season games remaining, it will be a fast-paced, exciting finish to an unpredictable 2014-15 season. Here are some important storylines for the second half of the NBA season to watch for:
Will Youth Be Served?
With an exciting lineup of scorers, the Golden State Warriors entered last year’s postseason 20 games above .500 poised to make a run at a championship. With limited playoff experience, that young Warriors team was sent home early in the first round. Will another year under their belt make the difference?
Compare the two sides of the spectrum: Youth vs. Experience.
First, the veteran teams. The Washington Wizards have an average age of 30 with an average of eight years of experience per player. Both will be the NBA high for a playoff team. Will the veteran leadership of Paul Pierce help guide them deep into the postseason? There’s also the Miami Heat, who, even without LeBron James, have some of the most experienced players on the East Coast with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Then again, there is no team in the world with more playoff experience than the San Antonio Spurs. Even with their average years of NBA experience at seven, they play as if they’ve been teammates since birth.
On the other end of the timeline, teams like Toronto (average age of 25 years) and Golden State (26 years) boast young lineups in age, while Atlanta (average league experience of 4.5 years) and Houston (4.6 years) have players with fewer years on the court than anyone they’ll meet in their bracket. They are young and fast, but will these teams falter early against the veterans who have been here before?
With experience comes pressure moments. Jeff Teague and John Wall have not faced much pressure in their young careers, and although they may be able to beat the likes of Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki up the court, who would you rather give the ball to in the final minute of Game 7?
Who will be the favorite to make the NBA Finals?
For old school basketball fans, opening the newspaper to the NBA standings and seeing the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers at the bottom of their respective conferences might lead to feelings of vertigo.
Times have changed and so have these franchises. It’s no longer the Celtics and Lakers; it’s the Hawks, Warriors, Raptors and Grizzlies. It’s youth, it’s speed and it’s power. Who is the favorite in the playoffs? It really all depends on where the seeding falls out. Both Atlanta and Golden State have been near perfect at home this season, so they get the nod if they get home-court advantage. In the West, though, that top seed might be looking at hosting the Spurs, Thunder or Pelicans in Round 1. Think about that for a second. You have the best record in the West, yet you have to welcome Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant to your building to kick off the series. That’s just how the West rolls right now.
In the East, the Hawks have been running away with the No 1 seed. Seven games ahead of second place Toronto, Al Horford and company are firing on all cylinders. The most impressive stat line, even more than their +6.8 point differential, or their conference-best 97 points against, is their 8-2 record against the West’s elite teams. Those two losses were by a combined eight points. Simply put, the Hawks are not just a great Eastern Conference team, but they’d be atop the Western Conference, too. Other teams to watch in the east, aside from the obvious Raptors, Wizards, Bulls and Cavaliers are… well, that’s it. After the fifth seed, there really aren’t any other teams that could challenge for the crown. The playoffs don’t get exciting until Round 2 in the East.
The favorites in the West, for now, would have to be Golden State and Memphis. The Warriors have consistency, using the fewest number of starting lineups this season, and Memphis is the only team to have wins over both Atlanta and Golden State. The Grizzlies can play with anyone. Both teams have confidence and both can score. Other favorites in the conference could be veteran squads Dallas or San Antonio.
Any Love for Cleveland in the Playoffs?
Things seem to have finally turned around in the first year of this Homecoming Project for King James. With nine wins in 10 games and 13 of 14 overall, LeBron and company have finally put together an impressive run, or so it may seem. In all reality, they have just played well against bad teams. During this win streak, the Cavs have played the second-easiest schedule in basketball with their opponents owning a .425 winning percentage. Let’s see how they do in early March with road games at Houston, Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas and San Antonio.
With the box-score inconsistency of Kevin Love and the question looming over whether or not Ray Allen will join the Cavs after the break, LeBron James may need to be vintage ‘Bron to bring a championship, or even an Eastern Conference title, back home. He’s done it before and he will have to do it again. The big question for this team will be whether or not Kyrie Irving can be LBJ’s Dwyane Wade from the past four seasons. Love won’t have the shots, or the opportunities, that Chris Bosh got with him, so it really might come down to Irving and his ability to make clutch shots.
If the Cavs can come out of that rough road schedule next month above water, the Eastern Conference is up for grabs, and no one can jump higher than LeBron James.
What will be the most exciting race for the playoffs?
Every year there is always that one division that has two teams vying for the top seed and it makes for a great final two months of the regular season. This year, however, it won’t just be a division to watch. It will be the entire Western Conference playoff race. With only 2.5 games separating the third and seventh seeds, the playoff picture is likely to change daily.
With Golden State and Memphis sitting atop the leaderboard, and the Rockets, Blazers, Mavericks, Clippers and Spurs all within a few wins of first place, one bad week could drop a team from home court in the first round to visiting the No. 1 seed in the first week of the playoffs. With Oklahoma City outside the postseason picture right now, look for Kevin Durant to have a second-half season for the ages and not only bring the Thunder to the playoffs, but maybe even help them earn home court in the first round.
It’s also important to keep an eye on the injury wire down the stretch. The Dallas Mavericks’ locker room looks like the waiting room at an urgent care with Tyson Chandler (ankle), Monta Ellis (hip) and Rajon Rondo (face) all missing time before the All-Star break. While these injuries don’t seem severe, it’s still worth watching. Blake Griffin won’t suit up for the Clippers for close to a month with an elbow injury, Dwight Howard will be icing up at home for more than a month in Houston and Anthony Davis will be playing with shoulder injuries, hoping it’s not intense enough to slow down a historic season for the Pelicans’ big man.
It’s the Wild West again and it’s anyone’s conference.
Below .500 playoff team?
While the West is heating up at the right time, the East continues to sizzle with irrelevant basketball. Aside from a handful of top teams (Atlanta, Toronto, Washington, Chicago and Cleveland), the rest of the conference is as exciting as the NFC South was this year in football. If the playoffs were to start today, Charlotte and Miami would be the last two seeds in the post season, each seven games below .500. Is it possible that this year the East could have two teams below that mark while the West will be shutting the playoff door on at least two teams above .500? It’s not the most exciting time to be watching the East, unless, of course, they are playing on the road out west.
Can anyone stop James Harden in the race for MVP?
Simple answer: No.
Barring a second half collapse, the Bearded One should coast to his first MVP award, beating out Steph Curry and LeBron James. Averaging 27 points, 5.5 rebounds and just under seven assists while shooting 45 percent, the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year has kept the Rockets rolling at 19 games above .500 through a tough Western Conference schedule. His true value as a leader and scorer will be tested now more that ever with big man Howard on the sidelines for the next month or two with a bad knee. The top scorer in 37 of his team’s 51 contests, Harden is the clear-cut Most Valuable Player in the Association this season.
Playing the lottery
In years past, winning the lottery on that summer night when your Ping-Pong ball comes up first means a franchise-changing player is only a few short months away from your team’s training camp. Cleveland has used separate No. 1 overall picks on LeBron James and Kyrie Irving while New Orleans grabbed Anthony Davis and Washington got John Wall with top picks. For their fans, the previous year of losing game after game was worth it to score a future longtime all-star.
This season, there are a handful of teams vying for that dreaded worst record and coveted top draft pick this summer: New York, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando, Philadelphia, Denver and Minnesota.
Will any of these teams break away from the pack and completely blow up their season to earn the rights for a player such as Duke center Jahill Okafor, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson or Kentucky’s seven-foot big man Karl-Anthony Towns?
While these are serviceable collegiate players, none of them spark the type of excitement necessary for an entire fan base to cheer for their team to keep racking up the losses. It’s not a “Tank for LeBron” or “Loose for Kyrie” draft class. For the first time in a while, the worst record in the NBA may not be the most coveted position.
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