The NBA All Star Break in Charlotte has come to a close and with it comes the final push for playoff seeding. Teams that brought in new faces during the trade deadline have had almost a full week of practice without any games to incorporate their new additions into their respective gameplans. With just over 20 games left to be played, here is how the playoff picture is looking:
1. Milwaukee Bucks (43-14)
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA and will be fighting Toronto for the 1 seed come playoff time. Luckily for them, MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo is absolutely dominating the NBA this season with season averages of 27.2 PPG on 58.1% shooting from the field, 12.7 RPG, 6 APG, 1.4 SPG, and 1.4 BPG. Head coach Mike Budenholzer has formulated a perfect gameplan to surround the Greek Freak with at least three shooters at all times. Khris Middleton (17.1 PPG on 43.6/37.8 shooting) earned his first All Star appearance this season, Malcolm Brogdon is one of the most efficient shooters in the league on the cusp of joining the 50/40/90 club (50.6/40.8/93.8), and Brook Lopez is now a premier stretch-five shooting 37.2% from deep on over 6 attempts per game. This is a defensive-minded team first that boasts length at every position but with Antetokounmpo leading the charge, the Bucks are geared for a deep playoff run.
2. Toronto Raptors (43-16)
The Raptors are battling with the Bucks for that 1 seed and went all-in trading for Marc Gasol at the deadline. Gasol is an immediate upgrade from Jonas Valunciunas on the defensive end and provides more spacing for Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry to operate. Kawhi is back to being his two-way dominant self averaging 27 PPG and just under 2 steals en route to his 3rd All Star appearance. Lowry’s scoring numbers are down to 14.3 PPG but has reached a career-high in assists at 9.2 per game, which is good for second in the league behind Russell Westbrook’s 11.2. In his second season, Pascal Siakam is growing into his own, averaging 16.1 points and 7 rebounds while taking over the starting power forward role in place of Serge Ibaka. Danny Green rounds out the starting five knocking down over 42% of his shots from deep. The Raptors depth will come in handy during playoff time and will look to make a run at the Finals with LeBron out West.
3. Indiana Pacers (38-20)
The Pacers took a huge hit when their star Victor Oladipo suffered a ruptured quad injury on January 23. I fully expect the Pacers to drop down to the five-seed with the expected rise of the Celtics and 76ers. Indiana must now rely on Myles Turner, Thad Young, Domantas Sabonis, and Bojan Bogdanovic to lead them into the bloodbath that is the Eastern Conference Playoffs. They signed Wesley Matthews after he was bought out by the Knicks, but he will by no means make up for the Oladipo injury.
4. Boston Celtics (37-21)
Boston was everybody’s preseason choice to escape the Eastern Conference and reach the Finals after both of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned from injury and the expected progression of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kyrie has been great all season long and was voted as an All Star starter. Hayward proves that he can still ball occasionally but is incredibly inconsistent for the most part. Jaylen Brown has taken a step back in his development, while Tatum has stagnated in his second season after many expected a larger role for the sophomore after a scorching postseason performance in 2018. The Celtics still have the potential to reach the Finals but it is by no means a guarantee with the 76ers, Bucks, and Raptors all getting stronger at the deadline.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (37-21)
After their trade deadline acquisition of Tobias Harris, the 76ers now possess arguably the second-best starting lineup in the NBA behind the Warriors. Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate averaging 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 blocks. He has cemented himself as the best big man in the NBA and snagged his second consecutive All Star appearance as a starter. Yes, he is even better than Anthony Davis. Ben Simmons has reached his first All Star game in his second NBA season while posting nightly averages of 16.8 points, 9 rebounds, and 7.9 assists. Pair these two with knockdown shooters in JJ Redick and Tobias Harris plus the all-around contributions from Jimmy Butler and the Sixers look like a favorite to win the Eastern Conference Championship. The bench could also see some new faces in the next several weeks with the expected returns of Zhaire Smith and Justin Patton to bolster their playoff rotation.
6. Brooklyn Nets (30-29)
Boy was I wrong about the Brooklyn Nets this season. In my 30 Teams in 30 Days series I bet that the Nets would be a tough team to beat but may not be able to reach 30 wins. Well, they did it before the All Star Break after D’Angelo Russell has made the jump that I wished for him to make so badly prior to the season and made his first All Star game after averaging 20.3 points and 6.6 assists as the leader of the Nets this season. Joining Russell in this turnaround are fellow guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert who are both experiencing breakout seasons when they’re not sidelined with an injury. All three are big guards who are capable defenders, playmakers, and shooters. They’re pretty much everything the Phoenix Suns wanted to be when they had Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, and Goran Dragic. You also can’t forget about Three Point Shooting Contest champion Joe Harris who is knocking down 47.1% from deep on over 5 attempts per game. Jarrett Allen is progressing very nicely as an energetic shot blocker and finisher at the rim. They could end up being a difficult opponent for any team in the East.
7. Charlotte Hornets (27-30)
Kemba Walker can only bring your team so far and right now that is good enough for the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. Now a 3-time All Star, Walker is averaging over 24 points per game and physically carries the Hornets on his back night-in and night-out. This team needs to blow it all up and start it over by getting rid of the horrid contracts of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Their best bet would be to let Kemba walk in free agency and allow Miles Bridges and Malik Monk to step into larger roles. They may be able to steal one game in the playoffs but will ultimately fall short.
8. Detroit Pistons (26-30)
Outside of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the Pistons are an absolute dumpster fire. Blake Griffin would be in the MVP race if the Pistons were more successful as he averages over 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists and earned his 6th All Star appearance. Drummond, meanwhile, is posting 17.4 PPG and 15 RPG. They got worse at the deadline after trading away their best shooter in Reggie Bullock, but somewhat made up for it with the signing of Wayne Ellington. Reggie Jackson should not be making anywhere close to his annual salary of $17 million. The Pistons will be hard-pressed to win a single playoff game if they don’t get overrun by the Heat or Magic come April.
In the Race: Miami Heat (26-30), Orlando Magic (27-32), Washington Wizards (24-34)
1. Golden State Warriors (41-16)
After all the KD-Draymond drama, Steph Curry’s injury, and a bench that seems weaker than we have grown accustomed to, the Warriors are back to being their dominant selves. Steph and Durant average 28.6 and 27.6 points per game, respectively, while Klay Thompson pours in another 21.9 as a third option. To make matters worse for their opponents, DeMarcus Cousins has returned from his Achilles injury, although he is still on a 25-minute restriction. They should still be everybody’s favorites to win the 2019 NBA Finals but they could see more competition than last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
2. Denver Nuggets (39-18)
This is the year that the Nuggets faithful have been waiting for. They have been stockpiling young players in hope to find the ever-elusive franchise cornerstone since the exit of Carmelo Anthony. They found that player in Nikola Jokic, the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, who earned his first All Star appearance this season after posting averages of 20.4 PPG, 10.6 RPG, and 7.7 APG and playing himself into the MVP conversation. Joined by a lead scoring guard in Jamal Murray (18.3 PPG) and a wide array of versatile role players like 3-and-D wing Gary Harris, Swiss army knife Paul Millsap, and the streaky scoring Will Barton, the Nuggets also boast one of the deepest teams in the NBA with nightly contributors in Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Trey Lyle, and Mason Plumlee, while Isaiah Thomas has finally returned from injury. It is not entirely out of the question for the Nuggets to reach the Western Conference Finals, but the core of this team is highly inexperienced and could see their fair share of postseason struggles.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (37-20)
Is it safe to say that this is Paul George’s team yet? The 28-year old forward is playing himself into the MVP conversation behind 28.7 PPG, 8 RPG, and 4.1 APG while locking down opposing wings. Meanwhile former MVP Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double for the third straight season but is posting a slash line of 41.7/24.9/65.6. He repeatedly takes ill-advised shots that are detrimental to his team’s success. The Thunder have a great supporting cast in backup point guard Dennis Schroder, bruising center Steven Adams, the bouncy duo of Terrance Ferguson and 2019 Dunk Contest champion Hamidou Diallo, and former Process Sixers Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel. If the Thunder aren’t careful in the playoffs, Russell Westbrook could shoot them out of a series.
4. Portland Trail Blazers (34-23)
The Blazers remained quiet at the deadline, only bringing in wing Rodney Hood from the Cavaliers in exchange for Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin. Portland is still reliant on their version of the Splash Brothers, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, which isn’t a bad recipe for success. They average 26.3 and 21 PPG, respectively, and have once again led the Blazers to a top seed in the Western Conference so far. Jusuf Nurkic is turning into a force on both ends of the floor and rounds out Portland’s Big Three nicely. Can they escape the first round this year? As of now, they would be hosting the Houston Rockets, but we’ll find out in April.
5. Houston Rockets (33-24)
Houston has struggled mightily with injuries this season as Clint Capela has missed 15 games and Chris Paul has missed 23 games. Nevertheless, James Harden is doing things on the offensive end that we have not seen since Wilt Chamberlain. The Beard has scored over 30 points for 31 consecutive games, tied for the second-longest streak in NBA history with Wilt the Stilt. He still needs 34 such games to tie Wilt’s record of 65 straight games. Right now, Harden is the MVP for the 2018-19 NBA season as he averages 36.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG, and 7.7 APG in the midst of Houston’s injuries. Once CP3 and Capela are healthy, the Rockets will be even more dangerous, especially if Kenneth Faried can continue to be productive.
6. Utah Jazz (32-25)
I have the Jazz losing first round no matter who they play. Do people still believe Donovan Mitchell is better than Ben Simmons? If you are one of these people, you seriously need to get your eyes checked. Don’t get me wrong, Mitchell is very talented, but he is an inefficient gunner (shooting 41.8% from the field, 32.2% from three) who has the potential to shoot his team out of a game. As of now, he is Utah’s sole source for offense. May I also remind everyone that Rudy Gobert is the best player on the Jazz? He is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate who averages over 15 points and 12 rebounds per game. They have shooters and 3-and-D role players off the bench, but as the playoff picture stands right now, I do not see the Jazz taking more than one game from the Thunder.
7. San Antonio Spurs (33-26)
In their first year since moving on from Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich and his Spurs remain in the Western Conference playoff picture behind 21 points per game from both Demar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. It is easy to imagine this team being even better with a healthy Dejounte Murray. Outside of Aldridge and Derozan, the Spurs employ a numerous amount of perimeter snipers in Rudy Gay (43.5%), Bryn Forbes (41.9%), Patty Mills (40.8%), Marco Belinelli (38.5%), Davis Bertans (47.6%), and Derrick White (35.6%). That team three-point percentage is good for first in the NBA. I could easily see them upsetting the Nuggets in the first round based on today’s playoff picture.
8. Los Angeles Clippers (32-27)
After a very promising start to their season, the Clippers have taken a huge step back and recognized that by shipping out Tobias Harris at the deadline for promising rookie shooter Landry Shamet. Looking into their future, a starting backcourt of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet could prove to be deadly. They were also able to flip Mike Muscala, who was also part of the return for Harris, and acquire a young center with tons of potential in Ivica Zubac from the Lakers. They also still have two of their top three scorers in Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari to try and build a magical playoff run. It is still very possible for them to get overrun by one or both of the Lakers and Kings now that LeBron James has returned to the Lakers’ lineup and the young Kings have brought in a proven scorer in Harrison Barnes to join De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield in an attempt to reach the postseason for the first time since 2006.
In the Hunt: Sacramento Kings (30-27), Los Angeles Lakers (28-29)
Photos Courtesy of:
Via Media TV
USA Today (Giannis)
Clutch Points (Kawhi and Gasol)
Indy Star (Oladipo)
Philly Influencer (76ers)
Fox News (Kemba)
Sports Illustrated (Pistons)
Clutch Points (Warriors)
Hoops Hype (Jokic)
NY Post (PG13 and Westbrook)
Sporting News (Lillard and McCollum)
Sporting News (Harden)
NBA.com (Rudy Gobert)
Express News (Spurs)
The Athletic (Clippers)
University of South Carolina ’21