The NBA wrapped up it’s All-Star festivities last weekend, and all eyes have shifted to the league’s home stretch. With less than 30 games remaining, teams are looking toward the postseason or the offseason.
About 20 of the league’s 30 teams are either in or aiming for the playoffs. That leaves 10 teams thinking about the draft, free agency and next season.
Over the last several seasons, NBA Finals matchups felt inevitable thanks to the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James. But player movement last offseason largely reshaped the league. Couple that with injuries, and the 2020 NBA Finals are very much up for the taking.
With teams crowding together in the standings and individual players hoping to earn award accolades, here’s a look at five things to watch for the NBA’s second half.
NBA Western Conference Playoff Positioning
The present, the Los Angeles Lakers hold the No. 1 overall seed out West. Their 43-12 record has them 5.5 games ahead of No. 2 Denver. They’ve won five in a row and have more than half of their games in the second half at home.
What that means is, the other Western Conference teams are jockeying for the 2-seed. The Denver Nuggets (38-18) hold a one game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers (37-19). The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz are one game behind them. Two games separate No. 2 and No. 5, and have home court through two round and avoiding the Lakers until the conference finals seems like a valuable prize.
Since January 1st, the Utah Jazz have been the best of the West outside of the Lakers. A solid defense, as well as Mike Conley rounding into form, makes the Jazz interesting down the stretch.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks hold the No. 6 and No. 7 spots comfortably over the 8-seed Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies have surprised the entire league with their play. At 28-28, they hold a 3.5 game lead over both Portland and San Antonio. If the Spurs miss the playoffs, it will be the first time since 1997.
The young Grizz have a difficult road ahead, and the veteran Spurs and talented Blazers will both push for that final playoff spot.
NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Positioning
The Milwaukee Bucks are running away with the East. It took a franchise-record 15 game winning streak from the Toronto Raptors to keep the Bucks from having a 10-game lead heading into the All-Star break. As it is, none of the Eastern teams look poised to challenge for the No. 1 seed.
The Raptors (41-15) hold the 2-seed by two games over the Boston Celtics (39-17). These two teams will push for the No. 2 position to avoid Milwaukee until the conference finals.
From there, the Miami Heat (36-20) hold the 4-seed, but they’ve struggled since January 1st. The Heat are played .500 ball in 2020, and are below .500 on the road.
The Philadelphia 76ers have similar issues on the road. The Sixers are 1.5 games behind Miami and these two seemed destined for a charged first-round playoff series.
Indiana holds the 6-seed at 33-23, but they’ve struggled to incorporate Victor Oladipo after his return from injury. The Pacers hold a 6.5 game lead over No. 7 Brooklyn.
The Nets (26-29) hold a 2.5 game lead over the Orlando Magic. And the Magic have a three-game lead over Washington. The Magic will likely be the sacrificial lamb to Milwaukee in Round One.
Milwaukee’s Quest for 70 Wins
The Bucks are far and away the best team in the Eastern Conference. They’re pushing for the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. The Bucks are also hoping to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo when the MVP becomes a free agent in 2021.
With the NBA’s best record, Milwaukee is the odds-on favorite to win the East and will challenge for the championship. The team is 18-3 in 2020, and their .857 winning percentage has them on-track to win 70 games.
Only two teams have eclipsed the 70-win plateau in NBA history, the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Flirting with the 70-win pace should keep the Bucks engaged down the stretch, but it could raise some questions about rest as the season winds down. When the Warriors broke the all-time single-season record, they didn’t rest their stars ahead of the playoffs. Golden State didn’t win the NBA title that season.
Certainly the Bucks’ first priority is returning to the conference finals and advancing beyond, but it’s also within their grasp to first etch their names into the league history books. Regardless of how the Bucks decide to approach it, it’s going to be something to watch.
Rookie of the Year
Morant has led the Grizzlies to a surprising 28-28 record. Memphis holds the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference and a first-round series with the LA Lakers would be an interesting juxtaposition of present versus future.
Zion Williamson’s return, and his stellar play of late, has made the Rookie of the Year potentially interesting. Williamson is scoring with ease and assaulting the basket. If Morant slips, or misses time with injury, Williamson could steal the award.
The only other player in consideration is Miami’s Kendrick Nunn. The undrafted rookie is averaging 15.5 points and 3.5 assists per game in his 53 games played this season. He’s started most of the year for the Heat, who have been one of the surprises of the NBA this season. Nunn has won every Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month this season, and he’s a lock for the All-Rookie team.
NBA Buyout Market
Shortly after the NBA Trade Deadline passed, the buyout market heated up. Former Charlotte Hornet’s forward Marvin Williams agreed to sign with the Milwaukee Bucks just a day after the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
Another Hornet hit the market when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the Dallas Mavericks. A pair of veteran forwards, Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll, joined the Houston Rockets and should help their small-ball efforts.
Most recently, the Detroit Pistons parted ways with guard Reggie Jackson. The veteran floor general signed with the Los Angeles Clippers to come off the bench.