Basketball fans needed this break from the National Basketball Association. Starting from the day Anthony Davis made it public that he wanted out; trades, rumors, conflict, and tampering flooded the league till the culmination of the All-Star weekend. The past 24 hours gave us a chance to voice our informed opinions on Zion Williamson and whether or not collegiate athletics has the best interest of its players at heart. With the league starting stretch, the next few weeks will be at its most intense as teams jockey for playoff or lottery positions. All of this comes with a few plotlines to keep in mind that will determine the fate of this season.
Who replaces LeBron as the King in the East?
It might be safe to say the Golden State Warriors' most significant threat comes outside the Western Conference.
The Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, and 76ers all have superstars will appear on most people's MVP ballot. The Conference-Semi and Conference-Finals are likely to produce some of the most feisty basketball on in recent memory.
The Pacers would have also been in the mix had Victor Oladipo not succumbed to a season-ending knee injury. Despite that, they are a game ahead of Boston as the third seed. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Pacers are a lock to make the postseason though they chances of progressing beyond the first round are incredibly slim.
The next seven weeks will be a dog fight as the teams atop the East jostle for seeding. The Bucks stand as the number one seed and are projected to be the top seed in the East. That being the said, the Raptors have the best chance to face the Warriors in June. The Bucks only lost once against the Raptors and won the season series 3-1. Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia all have a much easier remainder of the season in comparison to their northern counterpart. Both Boston and the 76ers are tied for 6.5 games behind the Bucks with the Pacers and Raptors in their way. Both teams have chemistry issues that they are looking with resolve, Brett Brown is looking to share the ball among four All-Star calibre players, and Brad Stevens is attempting to mend the fences between the different factions on his squad.
The 76ers face the Miami Heat with the Celtics taking the challenge to the Bucks to kick-start with the anchor leg of this season. The Celtics will face the other two Eastern contenders, and the Bucks have two games left against the 76ers. All of these could be a precursor to the Conference Finals.
Each of these five games will be analysed to the nth degree in an attempt to separate the pretenders from the next king of the East.
Is LeBron really going to miss the playoffs?
This is not hyperbolic. It is an unfortunate and unbelievable reality that could be upon us by mid-April.
His decisions to leave Cleveland a second time was absolute and his destination anything but a surprise. After this season roster was assembled, it became clear that his streak of consecutive Finals was coming to an end this season. But his streak of making the playoff is in real jeopardy.
Tony Parker is the only active player to have made more consecutive postseasons than James. The Hornets - where Parker is coming off the bench - is currently sitting on a playoff spot and has a higher chance of making the postseason than the Purple and Gold.
The LA franchise are a game behind 0.500 with the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers ahead of them (who are actively trying to end their season early). They are three games behind their ugly step-sister for the 8th seed with one of the hardest remaining schedules. The Kings have the 10th easiest remaining schedule while the Clippers have the 8th easiest, according to Tankathon.
Only eleven of their remaining twenty-five games come against teams not currently sitting on a playoff spot. Their last four games do come at home - against the Warriors, Clippers, Utah, and the Trailblazers. If they aren't at the 8th seed before this run, they playoff hopes would be all but over.
Nobody could have predicted that LeBron would have missed seventeen straight games with groin injury. But the combination of upstart young players and battle-tested veterans should have been enough for them to beat the Knicks, Cavs, and Hawks. Those three games are the difference between them and the Clippers. It might be the 3 defining games between them and the playoffs.
Who’s the MVP?
James Harden had already bagged the last seasons MVP halfway through the season. He is in the running this season but his chances are a lot slimmer with Giannis well ahead of him and Paul George right at his heels.
He is on a historic run. Anytime a player is compared to Wilt Chamberlain you know he is on an other-worldly tear. It has been 31 games since he last scored less than 30 points. Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon have all missed vast stretches of the season. His running mate for a better part of the last six weeks has been Austin Rivers. This should all be enough for Harden to win back-to-back regular season MVPs.
Enter the Greek Freak.
Decades from now when this season is being meticulously evaluated, historians might look back to mark 2019 as the changing of the guard from LeBron James to Giannis Antetokounmpo. While Khris Middleton did make the All-Star team this season, the Bucks are still Giannis and the rest of the guys on the roster. He is the Bucks systems on both ends of the floor and is posting Kareem Abdul-Jabbaresque numbers. Winning matters to the folks voting at the end of the regular season. That combined with the narrative that Mike Budenholzer has unlocked the best of the Greek Freak is reason enough for why is the clear favourite.
Let's not forget Paul George. Nobody could have predicted that he could have become the player we are currently seeing, especially after he suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in sports. Only once has he finished in the top-10 in MVP voting. This season, he has a solid chance of winning 2nd. While Harden has made significant defensive improvements and Giannis is unstoppable on both ends of the floor; neither are like Paul George. When facing the Raptors or the Rockets, it is Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe defending their respective best players. Paul George always takes on the assignment of guarding the other teams best player and excels in that role. How often can a player say that he is among the favourites to win the MVP and Defensive Player Awards in the same season?
Forget those three, there are plenty of other MVP calibre superstars who are jockeying to even make the ballot. LeBron James might not even finish in the top-10, adding to the number of his personal streaks that have the potential to be broken this season.
The fervour of these story lines and more will surge to unprecedented heights for the next two months. It has only been three days. but we have seriously missed the NBA.