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We’re currently smack-dab in the middle of the dog days of the NBA campaign. The buzz of All-Star weekend has long passed, we’re still about three weeks away from the end of the regular season, and almost every person with a pulse and the remotest interest in the process of throwing an orange leather ball through a 10-foot hoop is currently enveloped in the NCAA tournament (ourselves included).
Amongst all this “madness” surrounding the college game in “March”, some people are missing out on some very compelling NBA stories that are reaching a fever pitch as we enter the homestretch of the regular season. If you’re re-emerging from the ashes of your badly-busted bracket and sheepishly crawling back to the NBA, or simply trying to look out of the corner of your eye to see what you’re missing while the Sweet 16 consumes you, you’re in the right place.
Here are three of the most interesting storylines in the NBA as the regular season winds down, and a look at how our metrics project that they’ll shake out.
Who Makes the Playoffs?
Despite the rather large disparity in the level of competition between the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conferences, both sides have very compelling races for the final playoff seeds. Out West, there’s essentially a three-team race for the seventh and eighth seeds between Memphis, Phoenix, and Dallas (with an argument to be made for the possibility of Golden State or Portland slipping out of the picture), while the East has an equally heated (albeit far more mediocre) race going on between Atlanta and New York. You could even mention Cleveland there if you’re in the spirit of the March Madness season and a true fan of Cinderella stories.
Western Conference Playoff Race
Three-and-a-half games between the fifth-place Blazers and the ninth-place Mavericks out West might be small enough to instill fear in the hearts of the Portland and Golden State fan bases that once considered their teams to be a lock for the postseason, but our projections are a little less worried. We give the Blazers and Warriors a 97.9% and 97.0% chance to make the postseason respectively, and playoffstatus.com shows that the two teams are tied for the easiest remaining schedule in the West based on the combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents. Where this race gets really interesting is between the Grizzlies, Suns, and Mavericks.
As of today, all three teams are separated by one game. Their remaining schedules are fairly even, although it should be noted that the Suns will have the toughest go of it with games remaining against the Clippers, Blazers, Thunder, and Spurs. Regardless of how things shake out, the true test will come for all three teams when they face off against each other in a three-game mini-tournament from April 12-16. It's honestly one of the most serendipitous schedules we could hope for in a close playoff race, where all three teams will face the other two battling for those spots in the final week of the regular season and have control of their and their opponent’s fate in the truest sense of the adage.
Eastern Conference Playoff Race
While the Western Conference playoff picture could end up with a 50-win team not making the playoffs (not likely, but entirely possible), the Eastern Conference race could end with a team 10 games under .500 getting in. This race will likely be more about who loses it, considering how hard it would be to consider a playoff team with a sub-.500 record a “winner”. The Hawks are still heavily favored to make it, despite the Knicks winning nine of their last 12. The Knicks, Phil Jackson, a few playoff games in MSG and what could be Carmelo Anthony's last playoff run as a Knickerbocker combine to make the juiciest story, but it just might not be in the cards.
The truth of the matter is, the Knicks have the hardest remaining schedule in the East (again, according to playoffstatus.com) with eight of their remaining nine games against playoff hopefuls with records over .500. The Hawks, on the other hand, get the Sixers, Cavs, Pistons, Celtics, and Bucks once more each. Then there are the Cavs, who are only three and a half games out, but are still without their All-Star Kyrie Irving and are, well, still the Cavs. A 3.1% chance of making it is negligible, but people are still talking about it as a possibility. Silly people.
MVP: KD or LBJ?
I discussed this MVP race at length earlier this season, when the Kevin Durant bandwagon was at its fullest. Since then, the pendulum has swung back and forth a few times, with both KD and LeBron James making very strong cases for the award.
Durant put up a 32-14-10 triple-double. Neat. LeBron scored 61 points in a game. Wow. Durant hasn’t scored under 25 points since January 2nd (when he scored 24). Pardon me? LeBron put up what is arguably the best stat line of the year, when he tallied 43 points on 14 of 19 shooting from the field (including 6 of 8 from downtown), to go with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. Ok, this is getting ridiculous.
The fact of the matter is that we should all just put aside our need to crown the “best” or “most valuable” in this situation and just appreciate the fact that we can all witness these two go head to head in their respective primes (although KD only being 25 might mean he hasn’t reached his yet - let that sink in a second). The problem is, there is an honor given out every year called the Most Valuable Player Award, and one of these guys will win and the other one won’t. Then we can stop arguing about who should win it and instead argue about who should’ve. Fun!
Both megastars are in similar situations. Both play for the team currently in second place in their respective conferences and both are within three games of the top-seeded team. Both have a sidekick that has been sidelined by injury for a big chunk of the season. Both have something big to prove. In LeBron’s case, a fifth MVP award and a third-straight championship would help cement his place among the all-time greats. For KD, it would take him out of the shadows as a second fiddle and show that he is truly the league’s heir apparent.
Some updated stats for your perusal:
For my money, it’s still Durant. The biggest arguments that people make for James’ case are his shooting efficiency and elite defense. Those gaps don’t seem so big when you consider how close the two are in true shooting percentage (LeBron only gets the slight .650 to .643 edge because free throws matter) and defensive win shares (in which KD surprisingly has the 4.1 to 3.1 edge).
The PERs are relatively close, but our very own nERD metric shows a much bigger disparity between the two. Kevin Durant’s current nERD of 29.2 is the second highest in our 15 years of data, trailing only LeBron’s 30.1 in 2009 (an MVP season). The 9.1-point difference between Durant and LeBron (20.1) this year is the biggest disparity from our records. The next highest was the 7.4 points that separated Dirk Nowitzki (22.7) and LeBron (15.3) in 2007 (a year in which Dirk won the MVP).
Both make great MVP candidates, so regardless of which horse you have in the race, following the story over these last few weeks is a must. Can either of them pull their respective teams into the first seed? Will one or both of them put together another monster stretch over these last few games and sway the “what have you done for me lately” voters? Will either of them sit to rest up for the playoffs and how will that affect the voters’ perception of their amazing campaigns? They don’t face each other any more this season, but you can bet there will be a lot of eyes on both of them and this race as the season plays out.
Will Philly Win Another Game This Season?
While it’s perfectly normal for people to be focusing on stories about playoff berths and MVP races at this time of the year, one of the more interesting stories that has emerged from this particular season over most in recent memory is the race for ping pong balls.
Call it “tanking” or sugarcoat it with words like “rebuilding” and “reloading” all you want. No matter what you call it, there are a great number of teams in the league this year that stand to gain more from losing than they do from winning. This process is no more obvious than it is in the City of Brotherly Love.
We all knew what was coming when the Philadelphia 76ers blew up their already awful team at the trade deadline, we saw how bad they could be when they went all of February without a win, and now we’re at the point where it looks like they might not escape March with one either. They are on a record-tying 26-game losing streak and could set the NBA mark if they lose their 27th-straight against the Pistons on Saturday.
The even scarier question, if that record is set with a loss this weekend, is whether or not this Sixers team will even manage to get another win this season. Their current nERD is a ridiculously low 14.9, which would normally project them to be on pace for a 12-70 finish. The only problem is that they already have 15 wins. That’s right, they’re playing so poorly that they’re projected to win fewer games than they’ve already won. If it were possible to lose wins they have already accumulated, they would. They’re so bad, they’ve effectively broken math.
They have two of their remaining 10 games against non-playoff teams, and I’m convinced their resolve to tank is much stronger than that of upcoming opponents the Pistons or the Celtics. They could very well end the season on a 36-game losing streak and with a record of 15-67.
To give you an idea of just how bad this tanking epidemic is elsewhere in the league, even if the Sixers lost all of their remaining games, they wouldn’t even be guaranteed to have the NBA’s worst record.
Even after the Sixers having lost 26-straight games, that dishonor currently belongs to the Milwaukee Bucks at 14-58, who are certainly no lock to win anymore either. The way the careers of Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, and O.J. Mayo all seemed to self-destruct at the same time is almost funny in its ridiculousness and Larry Drew’s screwy rotations have done no favors for the development of the young, up-and-coming guys behind them.
The future of some of these teams is obviously quite bright (the Magic seem well-constructed for the future), but it’s hard not to be intrigued by this race to the bottom. It’s especially pertinent during March Madness, when you can’t help but think that these teams represent likely destinations for the Parkers, Embiids, and Wigginses of the world. In a sick way, this anti-race will be almost as compelling to follow as the playoff and MVP ones, as they’ll have such a big impact on the future of the league.
Beyond these big stories, there are a lot of side ones to follow as well. Who will grab the one seeds? Can the Heat leap over the reeling Pacers out East and can the Thunder overcome the formidable Spurs in the West? Who will win Rookie of the Year? What was once Michael Carter-Williams’ to lose might now be a three-man race between him, Victor Oladipo, and Trey Burke.
Should the Defensive Player of the Year be based on early season domination (Roy Hibbert) or be about what the prevalent story is now (Joakim Noah)? Most divisions are well in hand, but could Brooklyn make a play to overtake Toronto (2.5 games ahead), and would it ultimately matter? Will the Spurs lose another game this season (they've won 16 straight), or will they win out and claim the title of the Anti-Sixers?
All of these questions and more are set to be answered as March Madness winds down and the NBA’s annual April Insanity begins (that was the best I could do, as a clever alliteration featuring April and a word describing mayhem is hard to find). Enjoy the ride!