West juggernauts loom, while East plots thicken: What we’re watching for the NBA’s stretch run
There has been little reason to take the Los Angeles Lakers seriously as a contending team this season. The Lakers sit 13th in the Western Conference, meaning they have to leapfrog at least three teams to get into the play-in tournament.
But when LeBron James was asked whether his Lakers can be dangerous if they reach the postseason, he didn’t hesitate.
“I’ve always been confident in any club that I’ve been on once we got into the playoffs that we can compete with anyone, and I feel no different now,” James said during All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City. “With the roster, the way we’re shaped up right now, if we can finish off this regular season on the right foot, then we can compete versus anyone in the Western Conference, if not the whole league.”
It would be fair to dismiss James’ comments as the typical confidence of any athlete in his position. But as the second-half schedule kicks off Thursday with nine games, the NBA is as wide open as it has been in at least a generation.
It sets up a stretch drive that could play out in myriad ways.
Across the past 27 seasons — the period during which NBA.com has advanced stats available for teams — at least three teams have finished the regular season with a net rating of at least 5.0 in each of the previous 26.
This season? There are just two: the Boston Celtics (6.2) and Cleveland Cavaliers (5.8). There are none in the Western Conference; there hasn’t been a single season with fewer than two over the past 26 seasons.
Couple that with the possibility that the defending champion Golden State Warriors (29-29) and the James- and Anthony Davis-led Lakers (27-32) could emerge from the play-in tournament to face the top two seeds in the first round, and the West has never felt more unpredictable.
“If [the Warriors] get into a playoff series, we know what Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson] and Draymond [Green] and Andrew Wiggins are capable of doing. [And] right around the trade deadline, I wake up and I see Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have come to the Western Conference,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said during All-Star Weekend.
The Eastern Conference, for its part, is likely to see the Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks jockeying for the No. 1 seed for the rest of the season. The deadline blockbuster of Durant to the Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, has sent ripples throughout the middle of the East race.
“I think this playoffs is going to be the craziest playoff in a long time,” Malone said. “I think there’s going to be upsets. I think there’s going to be literally a lot of teams that you could say make a strong case that they could win the NBA championship this year.”
The West, where danger lurks everywhere
Malone’s Nuggets (41-18) certainly hope to be one of those teams in the championship hunt. The past two seasons, Denver has entered the playoffs without a meaningful chance to make a deep playoff run, especially after Jamal Murray tore his ACL in April 2021 and missed 18 months.
But Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are healthy. Nikola Jokic, who is trying to become the first center to average a triple-double for the season and join Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook as the only players to do so, is the clear front-runner to win a third straight MVP. Denver, meanwhile, is considered more than a 96% favorite to secure the top seed in the West, according to ESPN Basketball Power Index.
“We know what we’re doing,” Jokic said during All-Star Weekend. “We believe in the basketball system that we have built over the years, so it works.
“It’s still working. Nothing can affect us from outside. We are thinking about ourselves and just how to get better.”
There are similar pressures elsewhere throughout the West.
And then there are the Dallas Mavericks (31-29), who tried to fix their mistake from last summer, when it allowed Jalen Brunson to get away in free agency, by sending Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith and a first-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets to pair Luka Doncic with Irving — creating arguably the league’s most explosive 1-2 scoring punch.
“I feel very strongly about our ambitions to winning a championship,” Irving said during All-Star Weekend. “I’m grateful that I’m in the Western Conference now because they said it’s the best conference. It’s loaded with guys, loaded with talent. …
“Of course, the Eastern Conference is competitive — I would have loved to stay there, too — but being in the Western Conference is the challenge I needed.”
The East, where clear contenders have emerged
While Irving might believe the West presents more of a challenge, the data shows Boston (42-17) has been the league’s best team virtually all season. The Celtics are the only team with a top-5 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency, thanks to star power at the top in wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, combined with a rotation that goes 10-plus deep with versatile options for newly promoted head coach Joe Mazzulla.
Only a half-game back of Boston, however, are the Bucks (41-17), who have barely had their full complement of players available this season — a reality that will linger a bit longer as Giannis Antetokounmpo deals with a right wrist injury. Milwaukee pushed Boston to the brink in the East semifinals last year, and that was without the injured Khris Middleton.
At full strength, Milwaukee’s core four — Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez — can go toe-to-toe with any group in the league. But the Bucks also have the potential free agencies of Middleton and Lopez hanging over them, and Holiday can be a free agent in 2024.
“Obviously, every year, it’s probably like four teams [that can win],” Antetokounmpo said during All-Star Weekend. “This year, it’s probably four to six teams that have a chance to win a championship. I believe we are one of them. But nothing is guaranteed.
“I have never seen anybody that just showed up and they gave you a championship. You have to earn it.
“But it’s definitely open.”
There’s certainly hope for the Philadelphia 76ers (38-19), who have, in Joel Embiid’s opinion, the best team he’s been a part of during his time in Philly. He and James Harden have formed a devastating pick-and-roll combination, Tyrese Maxey has embraced a sixth man role and De’Anthony Melton has slotted perfectly next to Harden in the backcourt.
Will it all be enough to see the 76ers break through in the playoffs after losing in the East semifinals four of the past five years? And, like so many of these teams, there is potential for change this summer: Harden can become an unrestricted free agent, adding an extra layer of stress to Philadelphia’s playoff run.
Brooklyn’s choice to move on from Durant and Irving has also created chaos — and raised the stakes for the middle ground in the East, where four teams — the Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat and the Nets — find themselves jockeying for the fourth through seventh spots in the standings.
The Heat (32-27) signing Kevin Love after he agreed to a buyout with the Cavaliers opens the possibility for an extremely juicy first-round series — if, that is, Miami can get to fifth place.
Ditto for Brunson and second-time All-Star Julius Randle getting up that high and leading the Knicks (33-27) into a playoff series against Donovan Mitchell — the player they were expected to land in a trade, only for Cleveland to make the dramatic blockbuster deal with the Utah Jazz in September.
The Nets (34-24) plan to allow Bridges the opportunity to be their primary perimeter scoring option. He showed flashes of his potential in that role with 45 points in a win against Miami right before the break.
And then there’s Cleveland (38-23), the team that hasn’t made the playoffs without LeBron James since 1997-98 and hasn’t won a playoff series without him in three decades. The idea of just making the playoffs being seen as a success for the Cavaliers has given way to what should be, presuming health, Cleveland being a presumptive favorite to win a round when the playoffs get underway.
“I think at the end of the day we have a group of guys that they put the time and the work in throughout the regular season,” Mitchell said during All-Star Weekend. “That will point to success in the playoffs. And I think, for us, it’s not putting too much pressure on that moment. And I think we have a lot of guys that are really good at that.”
There is plenty of pressure to go around. The trade deadline saw 49 players moved — the most in league history and more than 10% of the league — and all but the Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls made deals.
All of which sets the stage for a six-week sprint to the end of the regular season, with an all but certain whirlwind postseason to follow.
“I think it’s going to be a wild and crazy postseason,” Malone said. “And if you’re an NBA fan, how exciting is that? Because anything can happen.”