At this point in the regular season, even the most hardened NBA super-nerds start to glance at social media for an Instagram post of scorecards or highlight package, rather than blitz through full games on League Pass throughout the night and into the early morning (with a cheeky watch at work when the boss isn’t looking).
The season is long, but to help you avoid lethargy as we enter the dog days of the NBA, there are some big unresolved issues that you should pay close attention to.
The playoffs are around the corner, but battles are yet to be won, seeding is still up for grabs, and legacies can still be polished. So we asked our collective expert scribes to assemble the most burning questions that will he answered by the time the regular season is done.
1 – Has Oklahoma lost their Thunder?
by Thomas Lamming
With just a few games to play in the regular season, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and co are stuck in the midst of a serious playoff seeding battle.
The Thunder currently sit fifth in the Western Conference standings with a 42-28 record, however, there may be cause for concern, with the team’s drop in defensive efficiency over a recent 15-game stretch.
During that period, the Thunder have gone 6-9, dropping from the fourth ranked defensive team in the league (105.6) to the 11th (108.3). That will worry Head Coach Billy Donovan as the battle for seeding goes down to the wire.
OKC is just two games behind the third-seeded Houston Rockets while sitting two games ahead of the current eighth-seed LA Clippers. With everything to play for, one important aspect could make all the difference: strength of schedule.
Heading into the final stretch, Oklahoma has the fifth toughest remaining schedule in the league. Still to face the Toronto Raptors twice, they will also see the Denver Nuggets and the Houston Rockets before finishing the regular season with a visit from the Milwaukee Bucks on 11 April.
With the rest of the teams in the hunt, holding significantly easier schedules, Oklahoma City is going to need Russ and PG at their superstar-level best as the regular season draws to an absorbing close.
2 – Can Giannis take over LeBron’s mantle?
by Nick Whitfield
Eight straight finals appearances for the King – we’ve heard it enough times. Using his physical dominance, genius-level understanding of the game and a combined package of scoring, playmaking and unmatched passive aggression on social media, it felt as certain as death and taxes that LeBron’s team would be in the Finals each season.
While his game is not a carbon copy, Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the midst of an MVP run that combines many of the same attributes that James demonstrated at the beginning of that eight year run. What’s really scary is how brutally efficient the Greek Freak has become around the basket.
Surrounded in spacing and shooting (the same formula that worked for LeBron), Giannis is pretty much unguardable in the open floor or in the post. He is scoring in a bigger volume and with greater efficiency around the rim than any other player in the league. He has essentially become Shaq 2.0 for 2019, with the speed and skills of a guard.
Giannis says Ben Simmons is “a baby. a f**king baby.” pic.twitter.com/bjVAAulZnv
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) March 17, 2019
If you were to be hyper critical of the Buck, his shooting is the obvious area of improvement – but it was never a mainstay of James’ game either. Perhaps Antetokounmpo’s most fascinating feature is his fierce competitiveness.
With the Bucks sitting atop the Eastern Conference this is a big season for Milwaukee. But it might also be the start of something bigger.
3 – Can the Charlotte Hornets push for the playoffs?
By Tom Crawford
The race for the final playoff seed in the East is between three teams: Orlando, Miami and Charlotte.
Currently sitting outside the top eight, the Hornets still have to face the Celtics, Raptors, Spurs, Lakers and Warriors in their final 12 games – with seven of those on the road.
Three-time All-Star Kemba Walker is leading the charge, averaging 25 points and 6 assists. The Hornets also have the help of veteran and four-time NBA champion Tony Parker, as well as young exciting prospects such as Malik Monk, Miles Bridges and Dwayne Bacon.
As a promising youthful team full of talent, the Hornets have everything it takes to make the playoffs. If they stay together, they could be title contenders in the future. The question is, can they do what it takes to make that final push for the playoffs this season?
Dwyane Wade and the Heat will be determined to make it a memorable final season for the future Hall of Famer, while the Magic will be hoping to achieve their first playoff berth since their first round exit in 2012. Only time will tell, but it’s certainly going to be a tough month for Michael Jordan’s franchise.
4 – How important is home seeding in the playoffs for the Nuggets?
By Jamie Powell
One of the more exciting storylines this season has been the rise of the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are currently sat on 46-22, equalling their win total of last season, with 14 games left to play. Denver has bypassed at least a whole year worth of development this season and have put themselves in an unexpected position, at second seed.
Realistically, the only expectation for Denver this year was to reach the playoffs at all costs, something they missed out on by one game last year. The reality, however, has far exceeded the expectation.
While the hard work in the regular season is behind the Nuggets, who have one eye focused on the playoffs at this point, the final stretch is still crucial. If Denver can hold on to the second seed, despite the threat of Rockets blazing towards it, the Nuggets will have home court advantage for first and second round of the playoffs. Denver currently has one of the best home-win records in the NBA this season, and this could be a vital weapon in their arsenal for the playoffs.
5 – Is this make or break for the Celtics?
by Archie Corbett
Obviously Boston has underperformed in terms of pre-season expectations, with many tipping the Celtics for top seed in a seemingly wide open Eastern Conference (I include myself in this optimistic bunch).
Unfortunately for Head Coach Brad Stevens and his team, things haven’t gone to plan and the Celtics sit in the lower half of the playoffs spots and looking shaky at best. However, despite this turmoil, they can still pull themselves together in the post-season and make a push for the Finals, as they showed last year when they were largely without their talisman Kyrie Irving.
Stevens has proven in the past that his coaching is suited to the pace of playoff basketball. But if Boston can’t get it together in the post-season, there has to be doubts Stevens’ position and also for potential free agent targets and current young players on the roster, who could find themselves caught up in trade talks come the re-opening of the trade window. Whatever happens, Boston will be an interesting place to be over the next few months for sure.