This NBA regular season has been filled with many highlights and great moments. However, now, the regular season is almost over which means the playoffs are almost here. This 2018-2019 NBA regular season has been filled with many headlines. For one, the MVP race has been one of the more contested and tight races we have had in years for a few seasons. You could make cases for three players to be this year’s MVP: Houston Rockets guard James Harden, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George. All of these players are having career years, and all of them bring a different skill set to the game.
It’s also important to remember the Eastern Conference is up for grabs. Because of the headlining move earlier this season of Lebron James being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers within Western Conference has left the East’s top 5 teams with the exception of the Indiana Pacers all having a plausible case of representing the Eastern Conference in the finals. These four teams, however, all have their respective weaknesses. Lastly, the bottom of the NBA is in a race of its own: which team can take the most to try and receive the best odds to get the first pick in the 2019 draft. Duke forward Zion Williamson is seen as the next big thing in the NBA, and teams are losing on purpose at an astounding rate to try to draft him. Without further ado, I will talk about what I think is interesting and important to follow for the remainder of the regular season.
Can the Boston Celtics solve their chemistry issues?
The Boston Celtics have been a strange team during the regular season. They have shown flashes of brilliance in wins against the higher seeded Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, while they have also had some really bad losses to the lower seeded Los Angeles Clippers (they had just traded Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley) and many other teams. In other words, Boston has had a really inconsistent season. I think most of it comes down to chemistry issues and players having reduced roles with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics have been better when they have inserted Marcus Morris, who is having a great season, as well as Marcus Smart who is one of the more tenacious defenders in the NBA. Gordon Hayward is the x-factor of this team. He has started to show flashes of his Utah Jazz days, and if he can rediscover the way he played at Utah, the Celtics are extremely dangerous because they are as talented and deep as any team in the Eastern Conference.
The 3-way Race for the MVP
Most people see the MVP race as a two-man race. However, I think it is a three-player race. Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and James Harden is the three players in this race. I think all three players are opposed to one another. Giannis is putting up career numbers averaging 27.4 ppg, 12.6 rpg, and 6.0 apg, while leading his team to the best record in the Eastern Conference. I love what the Milwaukee Bucks have done to help Giannis because they have essentially built their team in a way that allows Giannis to flourish. They have surrounded Giannis with shooters so he is able to drive and pass or score when necessary. If a team double teams Giannis, he finds the open man, who is usually a shooter. If the Bucks finish in the top 2 of the Eastern Conference, he has a great chance of winning this MVP award. Meanwhile, Houston Rockets guard James Harden is having one of the best scoring seasons in NBA history. His increase in scoring has been crucial and necessary for the Rockets because of all the injuries they have had to deal with this season. Clint Capela, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon have all missed considerable time this year due to the injuries, which put almost all of the burden on Harden to carry the Rockets. He is averaging an astounding 36.4 points per game this season and averaged 43 points a game in the month of January, which is absolutely ludicrous. The Rockets are currently 47-27, and I think the Rockets need to finish in the top 3 or 4 of the Western Conference in order for Harden to win the MVP. Lastly, Paul George is having the best year of his career for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are 43-30, currently ranked sixth in the West, and I think they are one of the few teams in the West that compete with the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series in the playoffs. Back to George, he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA right now and is a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, while also averaging 28.2 ppg this season. The Thunder have needed his scoring especially given Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook’s uncanny shooting struggles this season. For many NBA fans, seeing Paul George have a career year is a feel-good story given many people thought he wasn’t the same player for a few years after his gruesome leg injury playing for Team USA. It is really nice to see him thriving in Oklahoma City.
Will anyone in the Eastern Conference make themselves the clear favorite to win the East?
Cases can be made for the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Toronto Raptors to win the Eastern Conference. This will make for an exciting postseason after the first round. However, all of these teams have flaws or weaknesses that can be exploited.
Starting with the 76ers, their roster is one of the best in the East after they traded for forward Tobias Harris. With the addition of Harris, the Sixers have a starting lineup of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. On paper, this lineup is scary, however, I worry that the chemistry may not work out with this group. Jimmy Butler is a guy who wants to shoot the ball a lot and be the main scorer on a team. However, with the addition of Harris, I fear he will be unhappy with the number of shots he’s taking a game. In addition, point guard Ben Simmons needs the ball in his hands, and center Joel Embiid needs the ball in his hands as well to post up at the basket. I think Harris is the one guy who will be ok taking a backseat in terms of scoring. The chemistry, along with the lack of three point shooting on this team may cost the Sixers (I didn’t like the Sixers trading Landry Shamet, even if it meant acquiring Harris).
Toronto, currently 2nd in the East, have one of the best young rosters in the NBA. There are a couple of questions I have about the Raptors. One, I think the play of point guard Kyle Lowry is still really important for the Raptors. I don’t think they need to rely on him as much as in years past because of their strong bench, but at the very least he needs to be a threat when he is on the floor. He’s only shooting 33% from the three point line this year, which is a problem because that is one of the better parts of his offensive game. If he is not shooting the ball well, this will allow teams to sag off of him, basically not allowing Lowry to penetrate the paint and pass. My other question is about the Raptors bench, and whether they can take the next step forward in their development. I think a lot of this rests on forward Pascal Siakam, who in my opinion is the Most Improved Player of this season. His drive and kick ability have been off the charts this season. However, the Raptors bench will have to be able to score more with Stars Lowry and Kawhi Leonard off the floor. The one positive theme I really like about Toronto this year is that they have a closer in Kawhi Leonard. Can the Raptors get over the hump now that Lebron is out of the Eastern Conference? We will see.
I will say it again, I love how the Milwaukee Bucks have constructed their team. It’s really simple, they have surrounded Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters to spread the floor. This allows Giannis to drive and score or kick out when he beats his man. Giannis, also known as the Greek Freak, is almost impossible to guard when the opponent is not sagging off of him. However, Giannis still isn’t a confident shooter yet. I think Giannis will have to show he can somewhat keep the defense honest with his mid-range jump shot. If Giannis isn’t able to drive and penetrate the paint, this means his teammates, all of whom are prolific shooters, won’t be as open as they usually are. I like the addition of forward Nikola Mirotic from the New Orleans Pelicans because he is another good shooter but he can also create his own offense in the post. I do have questions about Milwaukee’s defense in the playoffs. This is because the playoffs are about finding the guy on the other team to attack time and time again. I am not sure if Mirotic and center Brook Lopez can be on the floor together because this will give teams two guys to attack defensively. If I were Milwaukee, I would stagger Mirotic’s and Lopez’s minutes, because I don’t think they can survive defensively with those two players on the floor.
Lastly, the Boston Celtics, who I talked about earlier, have had chemistry issues all year. Last season, when the Celtics made the Eastern Conference finals without stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, it allowed the young guys on the team to play more minutes. These players flourished when they had more minutes and the ability to express themselves on offense. However, with the return of Hayward and Irving, some of these young players have had a hard time adjusting to their new roles. Talent wise, the Celtics are right there at the top of the Eastern Conference. Another question with the Celtics of play Gordon Hayward, who has looked like a shell of himself for many parts of this season. However, he has played well a couple of games recently, giving Celtics fans some hope. If Hayward can return to even 85% of what he was previously with the Utah Jazz, that will increase the Celtics chance of making the finals by a lot. I think for him it is more of a mental block than anything. In the game versus the Philadelphia 76ers right before the All-Star break, Hayward showed he is more than capable of being the player he was pre-injury. The Celtics are good enough defensively and I think star forward Jayson Tatum can thrive as the third scoring option if Hayward is back to his old self.
The Tanking Race for Zion Williamson
The bottom half of the NBA has been absolutely atrocious this year. The Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, and New York Knicks since the beginning of the season have been brutal to watch and are all having abysmal seasons. Part of that is because they want to have the #1 pick in next seasons NBA draft.
Zion Williamson, who plays at Duke College, is seen as the next generational talent in the NBA. Whoever has the #1 pick will most likely draft Williamson. The NBA lottery for the draft is a little bit different than in years past. Starting this year, the teams with the three worst records all have the same chance of having the #1 pick. This interestingly makes it crucial to have one of the worst three records. One of the Bulls, Cavs, Suns, and Knicks teams will be left out of this group. I don’t have any idea who will be left out because it is hard to predict which team will lose the most. I do think the Knicks and Cavs will be in the bottom three, so that leaves the Bulls and Suns. Good Luck losing as many games as possible!
The Seeding in the Western Conference
The playoff positioning for the Western Conference is very intriguing. There is a little bit more clarity in terms of where the top 4 teams will be seeded. Most likely, the Denver Nuggets and the Golden State Warriors will have the one or two seed (Golden State is a ½ game up in the standings); Houston or Portland will have the three or four seed (Houston holds the 3 seed with a two-game lead over Portland). However, if Portland loses a couple of games they can easily get sucked into the battle for the 5-8 seeds. Currently, one game separates the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and the eighth-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The other two teams involved in this battle are the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz. Playoff positioning is so important in the Western Conference because teams want to be on the opposite side of the bracket to last years champion Golden State. However, the race for the #1 seed in the West is close between Denver and Golden State, so it is not even a guarantee that Golden State will have the #1 seed at the end of the regular season. Outside of the Golden State series, I think we can potentially have some very good playoff first-round matchups. I think if Portland plays Utah in the first round, that will be a great series that goes all seven games. I really want the Houston Rockets and LA Clippers to play in the 1st round because of all the bad blood between those teams.
I don’t have a clue who is going to win the Eastern Conference or the MVP award, and that has made this regular season so memorable. My NBA finals prediction is Warriors vs. Raptors!