THANK god basketball is back! Three days without any NBA was way too long if you ask me and every squad is now gearing up for the final 25ish game stretch. All 30 franchises will have different goals before the season closes, some aiming to take down the leagues Goliath in Golden State and others racing to the bottom for a Duke freshman (take your pick). Regardless of their aspirations, each NBA team has one important question that needs answering before the 2018-19 regular season draws to a close.
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Q: Can they ‘catch’ the bottom four?
AS it stands right now the Atlanta Hawks have the fifth-best odds of winning the lottery that would likely see them land Zion Williamson. With a 19-39 record, they’re five games ahead of the next closest team in the Chicago Bulls and since the 7th of Jan, ATL has been a much-improved squad, going 8-11. The Hawks do own five picks heading into the draft, but I’m sure they’d love a better chance on landing the first overall pick.
Q: Will Gordon Hayward return to being Gordan Hayward?
THE 2018-19 Boston Celtics haven’t looked anything like the team we saw last year and Gordon Hayward’s play is also a shadow of its former self. In the lead up to February, he was averaging a measly 10.7 points on 41.8% shooting, but the last seven games before the break he converted 57.1% of his attempts and score 14.6 points per contest. If Boston wants to turn things around, they’re going to need more production from Hayward.
Q: Can D’Angelo Russell stay hot?
SINCE Spencer Dinwiddie got injured, D’Angelo Russell is thriving as Brooklyn’s go-to guy, aiding his All-Star push by putting up 26.1 points and 7.8 assists over nine contests. The Nets are one of only six teams in the East who went into the break with a record above .500 and with the third hardest schedule remaining, they’ll need Russell to keep rolling if they want to hold onto a playoff berth.
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Q: Who is Kemba Walker’s sidekick?
CLINGING onto one of the last spots in the East playoff race, the Hornets have relied heavily on Kemba Walker to get them to this spot. Jeremy Lamb (15.5PPG) is the team’s second-leading scorer with the likes of Cody Zeller, Malik Monk and Marvin Williams playing well. There’s a real fear the Walker might leave in the offseason and if the Hornets want to hold onto him they’ll need some SERIOUS help from someone within their roster. Good luck.
Q: Will Otto Porter revive their offense?
BEFORE Otto Porter arrived at the trade deadline the Chicago Bulls were running a miserable offense, scoring the second-fewest points in the NBA at 102.1 a game. Porter’s arrival has not only seen him average 22.5 PPG over four games with the Bulls, but they own the 11th best offensive efficiency in that stretch. It’s a small sample size, but the addition of Porter could help them put up points in a hurry over their final 24 matches.
Q: What role will Kevin Love play?
CLEVELAND will have their sights set on finishing with the best possible chance at the No. 1 pick, aka Zion Williamson. Therefore a healthy All-Star forward in Kevin Love could throw a wrinkle in their plans if he is back to his best. He looked like himself with 16 points and 11 rebounds in limited minutes against Phoenix, but the Cavs might not feature him as much as he would like, in an effort to chalk up those L’s.
Q: Do they risk playing Kristaps Porzingis?
MY guess is no, with the Mavericks a fair way back in the West playoff race now. However, if Porzingis can get his body right and feature in the final 5-7 games it may be nice to see what they have to work with. Regardless, Luka Doncic and his new European running mate seem set for a long reign together in Dallas and there’s no rush to bring Porzingis onto the court this season.
Q: Who’s the odd man out?
THERE’S good news for the 39-18 Denver Nuggets, with the squad finally nearing full health. After losing Gary Harris (24 games), Will Barton (39 games) and Paul Milsap (11 games) for lengthy stints they’ll relish having healthy bodies with a tough slate of games remaining. There won’t be enough minutes to go around for everyone and the growth from Malik Beasley and Monte Morris means they’ll demand minutes too. Oh, and don’t forget about Isaiah Thomas, who made his Nuggets debut before the break. Something’s gotta give.
Q: Should they aim up or down?
WHILE Blake Griffin continues to put forward a career-best year, he is lacking support from the rest of the Pistons roster. Barely clinging on to the final playoff spot in their conference, you have to wonder if Detroit would be better off sliding down the standings and securing a top-10 pick. Their playoff stint will likely be short likely should they match up with the Bucks or Raptors, but either way, the Pistons are where no team really wants to be; stuck in the middle.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Q: How do they fix their defense?
AFTER boasting a top-10 defense during their run to four straight NBA Finals, the Warriors have looked very mediocre in 2018-19. More minutes into DeMarcus Cousins should help them trend upwards again and protect the paint, but if they want to stake their claim as the title favourites, they need to pick it up on the defensive side of the ball. Leaning on their bench more and getting Draymond Green to lift would be a good place to start.
Q: Is ‘Harden hero ball’ really the answer?
HARDEN is on track to record a points total that we usually associate with Michel Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. While that might help him win his second straight MVP award, there are legitimate questions over how far his iso-dominant style of play can propel Houston once the playoffs roll around. Three turnovers and 2-7 shooting in the fourth quarter does raise some questions asking if this is really the answer for the Rockets.
Q: How long can they keep overachieving?
NO offense to the Pacers, but even before Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending injury we expected them to be on the outside of the top-4 in the East. They’re proving us wrong to date, with Indiana still holding down the third seed right now. They’ve taken an expected slip since Oladipo’s departure and it’s unlucky they hold onto their high seeding and with the seventh hardest run home, they could come back to Earth at any moment.
Q: How long can they keep overachieving 2.0?
THE West version of overachievers still holds onto a playoff berth by the skin of their teeth. 2.5 games ahead of the Lakers and just 1.5 games ahead of the Kings, L.A.’s younger sibling has to keep winning games we expected them not to in order to hold onto their spot. Without Tobias Harris in toe now the task just got a lot harder, but Doc Rovers deserves some Coach of the Year votes if he pulls it off.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Q: Will LeBron let the Lakers miss the playoffs?
IF the game against Houston is anything to go by then maybe not. After a very uninspiring stretch of games around the trade deadline, a loss against the Rockets seemed all but assured when they were trailing by as much as 19 late in the third quarter. However, time and time again, LeBron finds a way to will his team to victory, galvanising the Lakers together down the stretch as they completed the comeback. Playoff LeBron has arrived.
Q: Who’s worth keeping around?
JUSTIN Holiday (unrestricted), Joakim Noah (unrestricted) and Delon Wright (restricted) are the only three players on Memphis’ roster not contracted for next season. Technically speaking Jonas Valanciunas ($17.6mil) and C.J. Miles ($8.7mil) have players options for in the offseason, but they aren’t likely to turn them down. With Jaren Jackosn looming as a key pillar in their rebuild, it will be interesting to see who the Grizzlies prioritise playing time for down the stretch.
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Q: Can they protect home court?
OF the top 20 teams in the NBA (10 from each conference) the Miami Heat are the only team with a losing record at home. Now their 15-15 road record is better than most, but if they can’t protect the America Airlines Arena do we really expect them to make a decent playoff push. Erik Spoelstra always finds a way to get the most out of his guys, but they need to lift their game when in Florida. Do it for Dwyane Wade.
Q: What can Nikola Mirotic provide?
MILWAUKEE doubled down at the deadline adding another lethal deep shooter to their rotation as they continue to embrace the deep ball. The Bucks take the second most treys a game behind only Houston with 37.5 three-point shots per game. If Mirotic (a career 36% three-point shooter) can provide the goods he’ll only add another string to their already impressive bow.
Q: Can they mount a playoff push?
SINCE the Jimmy Butler trade somewhat surprisingly the Minnesota Timberwolves have a plus .500 record (23-21). By no means are they squaring in the playoff picture, but with Karl-Anthony Towns averaging 24/12 since Butler’s departed he could help fuel a T-Wolves run. Towns will need some of his teammates to hit their stride, but sitting just behind the Lakers in the standings they aren’t that far out of it.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Q: What will they do with Anthony Davis?
THE million dollar question circulating around the Pelicans right now; what do they do with Anthony Davis? Actually, it’s technically a $2.3 million dollar question, with the Pelicans facing a $100K fine for every one of the 23 remaining games they choose to sit a healthy Davis. It might make sense for NOLA to protect Davis from injury, boosting his worth in trade negotiations, and it seems like AD has already mentally clocked out. Time will tell how this ugly situation is resolved.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Q: Can they hold onto last place?
KNICKS fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for in recent times. They did manage to snap a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak just before the All-Star break, but at 11-47 there isn’t a lot to smile about. That could all change this off-season, with a potential No. 1 pick changing the outlook for the entire city. They could use the pick in a trade for Anthony Davis, but who wouldn’t want to see Zion Williamson potentially play with Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant?
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Q: Have they solved their 3-point shooting woes?
BEFORE we hit 2019 no NBA team was worse at shooting the three-point shot, with OKC languishing at 32.2%. Since the turn of the calendar, they’ve been unconscious knocking down 40% of their attempts, good for the second-best mark in the league, largely thanks to Terrence Ferguson, Raymond Felton (lol) and MVP/DPOY candidate Paul George. This level of sharpshooting might not be attainable, but it might be enough to make some serious noise come playoff time.
Q: Can they bring the playoff drought to an end?
ONLY the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns have a longer playoff drought than the Orlando Magic, who haven’t tasted the postseason since Dwight Howard was around. With a weak bottom half of the playoff race out East, there’s every chance Orlando can catapult into contention buoyed by their new All-Star Nikola Vucevic and a cruisy upcoming fixture. Do you believe in Magic?
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Q: Can the Phantastic 5 get it right before the playoffs?
ON paper it’s fair to make the case for Philadelphia as the most talented team in their conference. However, with Jimmy Butler only appearing in 37 games to date and Tobias Harris playing even fewer (five to be exact), the Sixers are in a race against the clock to find a winning rotation. I like the bench additions they made over the trade period, but their playoff aspirations will be dictated by the play (and health 🤞) of their stars.
Q: Who are their starting wings?
T.J. Warren is expected back soon, Devin Booker is healthy and they acquired Kelly Oubre earlier this year. Throw their last two top-10 picks Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges into the mix and the Suns officially have a logjam on the wing. All five players demand minutes and while winning isn’t the priority this year, Igor Kokoskov will want to determine rather quickly which dudes he wants to feature for the Suns.
Q: Can they win on the road?
WE are about to find what the Trailblazers are made of. Currently sitting fourth out West, last night marked their first match in a seven-game stint away from the Moda Center. Why does that matter you ask? Well before their triumph over the Nets, Portland was a lacklustre 10-15 away from home. If they’re serious about contending rather than just making up the numbers it’s go time for the Blazers.
Q: Will they catch the Clippers (playoffs)?
I was encouraged by what I saw in Golden State from the Kings int heir first game since the break. These two sides always play in high scoring, up and down games though and for Sacramento to break through for their first playoff berth since ’06 they’ll need to do more than ‘hang around’ against the likes of Golden State. They’ve feasted on sub .500 clubs (21-5) and could have their fate decided in their next three contests (OKC, Minnesota & Milwaukee).
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Q: Can DeMar DeRozan get going again?
DEROZAN has never been a known three-point shooter during his NBA days, but early on as a Spur, he was taking a decent amount of treys. He may have only had seven makes, but it translated to an aggressive style of play that saw DeRozan average 22.9 PPG. Since the start of the New Year, he has taken just ONE three-pointer (no it didn’t go in) as his scoring average has declined by five points. They need the aggressive DeRozan to show up so they aren’t in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Q: How do they integrate Marc Gasol into the system?
STARTER, bench player, a bit of both? We aren’t 100% sure how Toronto plans to utilise Marc Gasol just yet, but if the early returns are any indication, the more he plays, the better. Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka have worked fantastically in tandem through this much of the season, but you have to wonder if Nick Nurse will experiment with Gasol in the starting lineup. Having Gasol torch second units in 20-25 minute stints is an exciting prospect though.
Q: Can they win close games?
EVERY single team in the NBA has won two games that have been decided by three points or less. Except for the Utah Jazz. 0-4 in such games the Jazz need to find a way to close out tight contests if they plan on holding onto their projected playoff spot. I expected them to add a second scorer of sorts before the deadline, but they might need Donovan Mitchell to bail them out again, much like he did last season.
Q: Will Bobby Portis stay hot?
I’M still a Bobby Portis fan and I’m not surprised to see him excelling now he has the opportunity to do so. He’s no All-Star, but playing a career-high 29.5 minutes a night has seen Portis average 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds a game for over his brief four-game Wizards career. More games like that will have fans dreaming of a ‘Big-3’ featuring Portis, Bradley Beal and the overpaid John Wall in 2019-20. Ok, too much.
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