The NBA has officially hit the home stretch of its season with All-Star Weekend coming to a close. The three days of prescribed fun have finished and now teams are gearing up to make the final push toward the postseason. The playoff picture in both conferences is far from clear, with singular wins and losses separating seeds one through eight in the East and the West. This article will address the biggest things to focus on in both conferences as we march towards the NBA Playoffs.
Starting in the Eastern Conference, as of right now, it is a two team race for the No. 1 seed. The Milwaukee Bucks are in pole position with a 43-14 record, the best in the NBA. They’ve dominated the entire Conference off of the strength of an MVP candidate and a perfect second option. Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a full-fledged front runner for the MVP award, averaging career highs in points (27.2), rebounds (12.7) and assists (6.0) as of Feb. 20. His usage rate is the highest it has ever been, which in turn has increased his value to new heights. His defensive win shares and total wins shares have him pacing for a career high in both categories, 4.3 and 10.6, respectively.
Giannis dominates exclusively around the rim, which provides him with the perfect foil in the form of fellow forward Khris Middleton, who is becoming a star in his own right. Middleton has flawlessly filled into the secondary role, providing high levels of productivity without taking away production from Giannis. As he shoots more from outside the arc (6.0 attempts per game), he attracts more attention from the defense, which allows every other player to succeed when he’s on the court. The Bucks’ offensive rating jumps up to 114.2 with Middleton on the court, as opposed to the 106.0 rating when he’s on the bench. It could be argued that Middleton’s presence is almost as important as Giannis’, in terms of the impact that his shooting has on spacing and stretching out the defensive. Their chemistry is the most important factor in Milwaukee’s battle to keep the No. 1 seed in the Conference.
The team closest to the Bucks is the Toronto Raptors, who only trail in the losses column by two games. The undisputed leader of the offense is forward Kawhi Leonard, who is having a stellar bounceback season. He’s pacing for career highs in scoring (27.0 points per game) and rebounds (7.7 per game). His player efficiency rating is around his career numbers (26.1), and he has successfully meshed into an offense that has adjusted to his play style.
While Kawhi has been the team’s MVP, the Raptors wouldn’t be in the position they are now without the contributions of forward Pascal Siakam, who has expanded his game to fit whatever the needs of Raptors are. He’s graduated from just an integral role player to a player with a ceiling much higher than it was thought to be. In the last 10 games before the All-Star break, he put up 21.2 points per game and shot 40 percent from behind the arc, while putting up 3.6 attempts per game. His usage has been extremely high the past five games (27.2), but this has not hurt his efficiency, as he has a true shooting percentage of 59.2 percent. Siakam’s efficiency and usage recently have him around the NBA’s top players, which has been important because the Raptors have been without Leonard and All-Star guard Kyle Lowry due to injury. Once they come back to full strength, it will be interesting to see how much each player will be able to contribute on the offensive side of the ball.
In the Western Conference, there is only one question that I want to focus on, because it is really the only storyline that truly matters. Will the Los Angeles Lakers make the playoffs? It seems impossible to imagine a postseason without LeBron James, who has been to an astounding eight straight NBA Finals.
But the chances of the Lakers making the playoffs are dwindling very quickly. Right before the All-Star break, they dropped a game to one of the worst teams in the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks. The loss pushed them back to the 10th seed in the West, three games behind the eight seed Los Angeles Clippers and two games behind the ninth seed Sacramento Kings. The failure to secure New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis seems to feed into the pessimism surrounding the Lakers, but they were able to secure pieces that address one of their biggest areas of concern: three-point shooting.
They acquired forward Reggie Bullock from the Detroits Pistons and forward/center Mike Muscala from the Clippers. Upon their arrival, the two have become the best shooters on the squad, as Bullock shoots 38.8 percent from three on 6.7 percents per game, and Muscala is shooting 34.2 percent from three on 4.3 attempts per game. Their presence on the offensive end will be welcomed as the Lakers are 16th in three-point attempts per game (30.5) and 26th in three-point percentage (33.9). The combination of a prototypical 3-and-D player and a decent stretch big will help to space the floor around LeBron, who has been surrounded by inconsistent or unwilling shooters. The teams that have success with LeBron are built to complement his ability to distribute and find the open man outside the arc. With better tools now, the focus should be on the spread pick-and-roll offense that LeBron used to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers to the finals four seasons in a row.
Coach Luke Walton will have to figure out how to integrate the two into the lineup. It’s been a struggle for him to adjust his rotations on the fly, seemingly pressing all of the wrong buttons when it is time to make a change. This, contrasted with the job that former Cavs coach Ty Lue did with adjusting roles and managing the egos while doing it, has not been a skill that Walton has acquired. If he cannot, it’s hard to think of a reason to keep him around.
While every loss makes the Lakers’ prospects seem bleaker, it is important to note that they are within four games of the sixth seed Jazz. The log jam that is the Western Conference could prove to be beneficial for Los Angeles, which has to realize that every game counts. Hopefully, they also remember that they have LeBron James, who is able to do amazing things when surrounded by the right tools. There is no reason for LeBron to be scared of the majority of the West teams. There is still time for them to right the ship and unlock their full potential.