A surprisingly entertaining all-star weekend has come and gone and it’s time for NBA franchises to buckle down.
The final stretch of the season is under way, and there is a lot going on. Teams are stocking up for a shot at taking down the Warriors, rookies are leading their teams on winning streaks, and LeBron is, well, LeBron.
A lot of things are uncertain when it comes to the NBA season, but some are not. Here are some predictions that you can take to the bank regarding the rest of the 2017-2018 NBA season.
THE BEARD REIGNS SUPREME
James Harden’s 2017-2018 season has been out of this world. The 28-year-old went into the all-star break averaging 31.3 points, 9.0 assists, and 5.1 rebounds and led the Houston Rockets to a league-best 44-13 record.
Harden was a finalist for the Most Valuable Player Award last season, but the title was ultimately awarded to his former teammate Russell Westbrook. Harden also finished second in the all-star race in 2014-2015.
But unlike Westbrook, the Rockets addition of another all-star hasn’t decreased Harden’s impact on the team.
The Rockets and Warriors are leaps and bounds ahead of the 13 other teams in the Western Conference. Both are projected by FiveThirtyEight to finish 62-20. No other team in the West is projected more than 48 wins.
The team has also won 10 straight and are 2-1 against the Warriors.
There are only a few players that can even be in the conversation for the MVP: James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. Harden’s resume bests all of these other competitors.
Antetokounmpo is a player that will be in MVP conversations for years to come, but this is not his year. The Greek Freak sits at 27.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, and almost five assists on a Bucks team that is sixth in the East. Antetokounmpo is second in the MVP rankings in my humble opinion, but the gap between first and second is sizable.
LeBron is continuing to defy the laws of time by averaging 26.6 points, 8.9 assists, and 8.1 rebounds in his 15th season. However, King James’ Cavs are the third-best team in the East, and despite what people say, team rankings do have an impact on an individual’s award.
As for Curry and Durant, it’s difficult to measure their contribution to the team’s success when there are four all-stars in the starting lineup.
Barring injury or a shortage of beard gel, Harden is in line to become the first Rocket to win the MVP since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-1994.
DINOSAURS AND DUBS
Remember all the great things I said about the Rockets just now. Disregard that when it comes to the NBA Finals because the Golden State Warriors are a lock to come out of the Western Conference.
Not just a favorite, a LOCK.
Houston has potential to make the conference finals and a good chance of stealing a game or two, but to say the Rockets can beat the Warriors four times in two weeks is laughable.
Golden State went 16-1 in the playoffs last year and came back this year even better. The big four of Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are playing some of the best team basketball of their careers while the second unit of Nick Young, Omri Casspi, David West, and Andre Iguodala have picked up the slack during the absence of the starters.
The Dubs lead the league in offensive efficiency, shooting percentage, and assists and are top-10 in rebounding, defensive efficiency, and pace.
Team basketball is a theme in the East as well, with the Raptors on a seven game win streak and two games ahead of the Celtics.
The Toronto Raptors have been a constant in the East for years now, but they haven’t been able to reach the top of the mountain. Now, FiveThirtyEight gives Toronto a league-high 51 percent chance to make the finals and a 21 percent chance to win the whole thing.
Even with the Cavs’ new acquisitions, the Raptor bench is the deepest in the conference. Dwane Casey’s squad isn’t filled with layers of superstars, but what they do have is chemistry.
How far can that get you? Ask Gregg Popovich.
The Celtics have been trending downward and the Cavs are nearly seven games behind Toronto. This, combined with the reliable play of DeMar DeRozan, makes Toronto a near guarantee to make a deep run as the top-seed in the East.
TANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
Like it or not, tanking has become a staple of the NBA.
It’s the time of the year that teams have to decide between making a playoff push and looking to the future. Teams like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago are obvious candidates of, “trusting the process,” but a few others are stuck in basketball purgatory.
Charlotte, Detroit, New Orleans, and Utah are a few teams that need to decide if it really is worth it to push for a playoff spot only to get crushed in the first round.
For some teams, the playoff route is the only way to go.
The Charlotte Hornets have been on the cusp of breaking out year after year and the addition of Dwight Howard was supposed to be the catalyst that put them over the edge.
Even at 25-33, the playoffs are still a possibility for the Hornets. Michael Jordan’s team is five games behind the current eight seed Miami. Tanking really isn’t an option for the Hornets at this point, so a playoff push is a no-brainer.
If Charlotte fails to once again finish in the top half of the conference, it may be time for MJ to look at starting over.
The opposite is the case for New Orleans. Even as the current eight seed in the West, a deep playoff run isn’t possible without Boogie Cousins. Cousins’ Achilles injury put him on the shelf for the rest of the season just when NOLA was playing some of its best ball of the season.
The Pelicans are just a game ahead of the Clippers and Jazz so that makes the tanking decision easier. Utah has won a league-best 11 straight behind rookie of the year favorite Donovan Mitchell and the Clippers’ Lou Williams is scoring like there is no tomorrow.
The true issue with New Orleans is depth, so a quality lottery pick would be great leverage for the Pelicans to bring more role players into the Big Easy for the 2018-2019 season.
So when DeMarcus Cousins comes back, the squad can finally make the run it has been destined for since the franchise’s inception.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith