The NBA is reaching the annual point in its season that has everyone asking: “Can we just start the playoffs already?”
It’s clear, a longing for more meaningful basketball is a sentiment that is not only prevalent amongst the fans, but also the players. The Eastern Conference’s second-best team got blown out last week by a team who is actively trying to lose games, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Golden State Warriors lost at home to the Phoenix Suns, a team riddled with so much dysfunction that some wonder if they should be relegated to the G-League. These head-scratching results make it clear that teams who have secured a playoff spot are just going through the motions.
So as the season winds to a close, this is also a point where we can look back at the previous 70 games to assess what really happened along the way.
Remember when the Los Angeles Lakers blew out the Warriors on Christmas Day and looked like a formidable contender in the Western Conference. Or when the Boston Celtics entered the season as a serious contender to win the NBA Title but now struggle to remain among the “upper-echelon” of NBA teams.
Let’s take a look at the top 5 most surprising (good and bad) developments of this season.
1. Dysfunction in LA
The dysfunction around the Los Angeles Lakers has been well-documented but over the last few weeks, it has been especially striking to see LeBron James share the floor with guys who are barely hanging on in the league.
LeBron typically goes through stretches in the regular season in which he is disconnected from the rest of his team, but this year has clearly taken a mental toll on The King.
It’s clear LeBron wasn’t expecting Alex Caruso, Jonathan Williams, and Mo Wagner to play extended minutes on the Lakers during his sixteenth season.
Recently, it has been very strange to watch James avoid contact at the rim, lack interest on offense, and generally not really give a shit. It won’t be long now before we all hear a “1-2-3- Cancun!” chant from these Lakers.
2. D’Angelo Russell is on the come up
Do you remember when D’Angelo Russell couldn’t escape the Nick Young-Iggy Azalea drama and it looked like the former No. 2 draft pick’s NBA career wasn’t going to last much longer?
Perceptions in the NBA can change very quickly. Russell, who was selected to the All-Star Game this year, has finally found his game this year and looks like the cornerstone of the Brooklyn Nets.
Though Russell still struggles to get to the free-throw line, he has been able to use his bevy of off-balance shots and high-arching jump shot to boost his scoring average to 20 points per game.
Russell’s late-game heroics will make the Nets an extremely tough out in the playoffs.
3. Who are these 76ers?
The Philadelphia 76ers have enough talent to make a deep run in the playoffs and potentially challenge the Golden State Warriors in The Finals.
But since they traded for Tobias Harris, the team has faced a litany of injuries and they have yet to establish an identity. Who are these 76ers? Are they a team that wants to push the ball in transition to find easy baskets or do they want to use Joel Embiid’s post game to slow the game down?
If they are able to find a way to blend these two styles effectively before the season ends, the 76ers might just be the team lifting the Eastern Conference championship trophy in May.
4. Can Paul George carry OKC on his back
Paul George is now the best play on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
George has lifted his game to new heights this season and is leading his team on both ends on a nightly basis. After improving his jump shot significantly, George has been able to add more moves off the bounce this year that allow him to blow by defenders and finish at the rim.
And, it’s easy to forget about his contributions on the other end of the floor- PG3 has arguably been the best perimeter defender in the league this season. The Thunder will need a herculean effort from George if they are going to advance past the Houston Rockets or the Warriors, but his 28-8-4 stat line shows he might just be up to the task.
5. The Milwaukee Bucks are looking good
The Milwaukee Bucks struggled mightily against an under-manned Boston Celtics team in the first round of the playoffs last year and didn’t make any high-profile moves this offseason.
But continued progression from Giannis and the additions of Brooke Lopez and Mike Budenholzer have vaulted the Bucks to the top of the East.
They’ve ditched Jason Kidd’s blitzing schemes on pick-and-roll defense and on the other end they complimented the Greek Freak with length and shooting. Brooke Lopez has completely transformed his game this year and it is paying dividends.
From Jimmy Butler’s tirade in Minnesota to Kyrie Irving’s constant comments in the media, this has been an extremely entertaining season. But, as we head into the playoffs are looking down the barrel of another Warriors title.