Sink or Swim: Outlook After the All-Star Break

The All-Star break is kind of like that point in the semester where you sit there and say to yourself, “Okay, my grade sucks right now, but I still have X-amount-of-assignments and Y-number-of-weeks to get it up to a B.” For many teams, this is the last time they can really make adjustments to better position themselves in the post-season, and in some cases, make the post-season at all.

With that said, here are some extra credit homework assignments for teams with a little work to do in the final third or so of the season.

Philadelphia 76ers: Work out the Kinks

It’s not a difficult observation to see that the Sixers, for all of their raw talent, need to gel a little bit before attempting a post-season run. So what does this look like for Philly?

For starters, they need to figure out their lineups mid-way through games. Of course, all of the starters would be out in the beginning and sometimes ends of games, but figuring out how to balance scoring and defense in the middle of games would do wonders for Philly in terms of their ability to maintain a lead down the stretch (an area they struggle with, even against significantly worse teams). This was usually a by-product of their depth issues, but the trade deadline mitigated that in a big way, although it’s still a problem. But now that you have more functional pieces, it’s time for Brett Brown to put them together. He’s already gone offense/defense in crunch time with JJ Redick and guys like John Simmons or James Ennis, guys with a little more pep in their step.

One key aspect of Philly’s transformation throughout the season has been the slight increase in their usage of the pick and roll, despite using it significantly less than most teams even now. If Brown can find lineups to make pick and roll work, then he can throw a lot of different looks at the defense by integrating pick and roll into the fold of already lethal plays such as Embiid-Redick dribble handoffs, and Simmons drive and kick in transition.

While it is important for Philly to get a top 4 seed, it’s more important that they have all of this figured out come playoff time, and even so, they’re only a game or so back from the 3-seed and are currently tied in record with Boston at 4.

Los Angeles Lakers: Make the Playoffs

I mean, you all knew this was coming, right? This is moreso homework for Magic, Pelinka, and Luke Walton than it is for the roster itself, but still. If you sign the best player in the world in free agency, sacrifice nothing to make it happen, and miss the playoffs with him for the first time since his prime started? After all of the noise they made after that signing, in the most profitable market in the league? That sounds like a recipe to get any or all 3 of those guys out of a job.

LeBron’s groin injury couldn’t have been foreseen, but at the same time, the man is 34. He shouldn’t need to play 82 games for you to scrape the playoff bubble, and even then, probably get swept in the first by Golden State. His absence was certainly longer than originally expected, but if there was some semblance of competence in the personnel and coaching, they wouldn’t be so reliant upon Lonzo Ball of all people staying healthy. More importantly, the trade deadline was a PR disaster for the this team, as they completely alienated their entire team in full public view while getting played like a fiddle by a now-jobless Dell Demps. The point is, this team needs something to feel good about, and fast, or else this whole experiment could get really, really ugly.

Houston Rockets: Conserve James Harden

For the Houston Rockets with James Harden playing as he is right now, there is not a single team that they cannot beat on any given night. With that said, Houston has got to be more reserved with the minutes and offensive load Harden is bearing. What’s more important, a second MVP for Harden, or making it past the first round?

Doing this for as long as he has thus far, Harden’s level of play is not sustainable long term. If it was, he’d be the best offensive player of all time and would have more than one MVP by this point. One thing is for sure, however: Harden has a troubling history of disappearing at important moments in the playoffs. Mike D’Antoni himself has stated that he believes this to be a product of how cumbersome the regular season is for Harden, and this has been one for the record books. What truly did the Rockets in last year, when they were 2 quarters away from essentially winning a title, was Chris Paul getting hurt mid-series. You truly never know when Paul, in his 30s, may just need a game or two to recover. With that said, the Rockets are comfortably deep enough into the playoff race to have some wiggle room, and against many teams, Harden probably doesn’t need to go Super Saiyan for them to win games.

With that said, my advice to Houston is to do some load management with Harden. If he’s still got the juice come May, this team could easily make another Western Conference Finals run, if he is capable of elevating his level of play to even part of what we’ve seen out of him this year.

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James Harden’s Play Puts Him Right Back In The MVP Conversation

Since the turn of the millennium, 3 players have recorded back-to-back MVP seasons, in Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Steph Curry (LeBron did it twice). As the reigning MVP, the honeymoon for James Harden is over, and the expectations for him entering this season went up after the Rockets’ historic (and not in a good way) season finale in the WCF.

The Rockets’ disappointing end to their all-time-great year was compounded by their rocky start to the current season by going 1-5 in their first 6 games. They lost as many games in their first 6 this year as they did their first 31 in the previous season. At the time, it was safe to say they weren’t going to win 60+ games this year, and they still almost certainly will not. But the Rockets have turned themselves back into a playoff team with their recent run, and Harden is the man responsible.

James Harden, in the last 2 weeks, has averaged 40.43 (!) points per game in 6 wins and 1 loss in that time frame. A win Monday night against the Grizzlies would cap off two 5-game win streaks in the month of December, despite Chris Paul’s absence for much of their recent schedule. If this team is able to put forth a record earning a top 4 seed in the West, after the start that they had, would certainly put Harden in the MVP conversation.

My only concern with all of this is Harden’s history of disappearance in the post-season. In the past 2 weeks, James Harden is averaging nearly 39 minutes per game, among the absolute highest in the leage. Chris Paul has yet to return from his hamstring injury, and who’s to say he doesn’t have another short-term absence for injury after he returns?

If this Rockets team is to accomplish what they would need to in order for Harden to be in the MVP conversation, what would be the point? He could be completely out of juice come playoff time, and they wouldn’t be able to earn full home field advantage last year, unforeseen circumstances aside. So what really is the use of earning a top 4 seed if it means Harden has so little left to give? You never know with Chris Paul. Harden might be running the show come April, anyway.

Harden’s play took a close game to near-garbage time against the Celtics.

There is also a question surrounding even the short-term sustainability of the type of play Harden has exhibited recently. Harden is nearly a lock for 35+ a night at the moment, but without CP3, is this team winning games without production from the bench? If Gerald Green didn’t go 3/7 from 3, and Austin Rivers didn’t score 10 points off the bench in short minutes, do the Rockets beat the Celtics? Harden does about as much on a night-to-night basis as any man could, but if Harden drops only 37 instead of 41, or if Eric Gordon doesn’t drop 21, do they lose to the Pelicans?

Speaking of Gordon, he will undergo an MRI on his right knee as I write this, meaning one of the most pivotal role players for Houston might take a leave of absence. Harden could put up 45 points every single night, but will that be enough against their upcoming schedule of Memphis, Golden State, Portland, Denver, and Milwaukee? As good as the Beard is playing, it makes you wonder whether or not the minutes load is justified by the potential return on investment.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe on 39 minutes Harden leads the Rockets past all 5 of those teams, but what will that really accomplish for their playoff aspirations?

All of these questions aside, one has to believe that there are still moves to be made by Houston before the trade deadline, or perhaps free-agent signings off of waivers. This team needs contingency plans in the event that anything happens to Chris Paul, limiting his ability to balance Harden’s minutes. But in the meantime, the Houston Rockets can let their diamond shine and step up his MVP contention.

Christmas Game Reactions: Lakers, Sixers, and More

The NBA Christmas Day games were as interesting as the league could possibly have hoped. The prime-time games, especially, were more close than I think most would have expected. Bucks/Knicks was exactly as much of a non-factor as I figured it would be, which was why it got the bad slot. It was close, for like, a quarter? Which doesn’t mean much. Regardless, the good games were good.

Lakers/Warriors, and a King’s Exit

Beginning with the Lakers/Warriors game, the Lakers got off to a quicker start than I think was probably warranted. They led at the end of every quarter, and the Lakers’ role players showed up, with 6 players not named LeBron James in double-digits for points on the night. Notably, Lance Stephenson did so in only 11 minutes of play.

Speaking of LeBron James, he left the game early with a sort of dumb-luck groin injury, which was very akin to Chris Paul’s hamstring injury recently. Nothing gross, nothing severe, just the wrong motion at the wrong time and he was out to the locker room. The Lakers survived the patented Warriors 3rd Quarter comeback, and blew them out in the remaining time. With that said, LeBron missing any amount of time could set this team off of the track that they had found themselves on. Smooth sailing is a luxury in the Western Conference, and losing LeBron for even a week could spell stormy waters for LA.

The King will undergo an MRI soon, and more information on his condition will be available soon. He has beaten the odds avoiding any sort of major or recurring injury considering the amount of miles he’s taken on in his career, and while the injury didn’t appear to be anything severe, it could put a dent in his ability to play so many minutes for so many games from here on out.

Sixers/Celtics, and an OT Thriller

Pivoting to the Eastern Conference showdown, the Sixers/Celtics game was probably the best one on the docket for Christmas, both in terms of storylines and in terms of quality of the game itself. Embiid exploded against a team that historically has shut him down, but some of the bench players went absolutely cold, preventing the Sixers from properly capitalizing on the gravity that JoJo created.

My one reason for optimism as a Sixers fan (other than this being a close loss in hostile territory and Kyrie putting up the best Celtic performance in more than a decade) is that the Sixers brought themselves back into a game that looked like a shutout. After the first quarter, it looked like this game would go the way of the playoffs and opening night game in which the Sixers make a lot of errors, both forced and unforced, and generally struggle to gain footing. This was not the case, however.

Generally, the Sixers are much better at taking a lead and holding on to it than they are overcoming a deficit, especially against teams at a similar level to them in terms of talent. Usually, when they start cold they need to take risks to get back into it such as unnecessary 3-pointers, Embiid dribbling into double-teams hoping for a foul, and other things that are just unpredictable. However, in the Christmas game, they fought their way back into it in the second half through big defensive plays up and down the roster and fluid scoring. For a team with depth issues, especially against a team that’s among the deepest in the league, I was pleased to see them keep their head on straight and just play.

For a while, the Celtics did what they’re good at, and held the Sixers to arms length, surviving any surges to make the game closer, but eventually the Sixers built a near double-digit lead, despite being down as much a quarter or so earlier. At the risk of reading too much into one game, this was a big time game against a team that they have struggled against in the past, and they almost one even with a historic performance on the other team. They’re too good to feel good about moral victories, but I think from a mentality perspective, the team did the damn thing yesterday.

Rockets/Thunder, and James Harden’s Heroics

The final game I’m going to touch on is Rockets/Thunder, in which the Rockets survived a Chris Paul absence against a defensive powerhouse in OKC. Harden continued to put the ball in the hole at the most elite level the league has seen in a long time with 41 points, and backup PG Austin Rivers had double-digits in his debut. Safe to say Chris Paul would have scored more than 10 points, but for a guy Houston signed just days before, you can’t really complain.

The most important thing, in this game, was not Harden delivering a much needed win against a contender for the Rockets. To me, the most important thing is that Paul George is looking like the best player on this team, even in his role as a second option. Russ is supposed to be the engine of this offense, and Paul George is consistently scoring more, getting more rebounds, and guarding the perimeter at the highest level in the league.

It doesn’t quite matter who the “best” player on the team is, but I think it’s time Russ stops playing as if he’s Jordan. For all of the Thunder’s strengths, offensive selfishness could be their downfall. Everyone on this team is playing selfless around Russ, which during his MVP season was just plain logical. But if Russ can recognize his own shortcomings, especially in shooting 3-balls, he could do more to enable the people who help him out like Paul George, the quiet killer, or Steven Adams, who is possibly the most selfless player in the league with a killer hook-shot.

The moral of the story is, this team has found something special in the role they’ve developed for Paul George, but it could go south easily if the Thunder don’t play to their strengths, none of which are Russell Wilson taking almost five 3-pointers a game at less than 25%.

The Christmas day games are pretty special, and while I think some teams get in off name and name alone (looking at you, Knicks) the roster of contending teams put teams in a place of high regard by the league, both in terms of strength and entertainment value.

Grading Every Christmas Day NBA Match-Up

‘Tis the season of giving, and the NBA hath given a lineup of games for public view, so perfectly spaced out as to be able to watch various games throughout the day. Some of the games are clear rivalry games that the NBA is trying to push, whereas others are just individual teams from big markets that the league wishes to put on display. With that in mind, I’m going to go game by game and grade the game quality as well as provide a short blurb about the teams. Here we go!

Bucks @ Knicks: D | Not much to be said about this one. The Bucks have been shaky lately, but the Knicks are so widely devoid of any play-making talent that it probably won’t matter. Even if the Knicks pull off a Christmas upset, it probably won’t be pretty. More likely than that is a good old fashioned blowout courtesy of Giannis.

Thunder @ Rockets: B- | At the beginning of the season this match would have probably seemed like a really good one. Both of these teams started out mysteriously cold, and since then the Thunder have fared better. Houston is still struggling against even middling teams, while OKC is defending at a high level and PG is delivering on offense. I imagine this will be a good game nonetheless, but Chris Paul’s hamstring injury decreases the likelihood that this is a close, compelling game.

76ers @ Celtics: B+ | The NBA is, very clearly, exhaustively, trying to push this rivalry. LeBron leaving Cleveland officially signified that the reigns of the East would fall to the next generation, and in addition to the opening game being the same match-up, it’s clear that this is the narrative the NBA wants for the Eastern Conference. That said, it should be one of the most high-energy games all day, and it’s also very likely to be a close and exciting game. I wish it wasn’t at TD Garden again, seeing as the opening night game as well as the Christmas day game will be at home for Boston which kind of tells me that the NBA wants to push this rivalry, but wants to push Celtics exceptionalism harder. Injuries on Boston’s roster, particularly to their big men, blow this game wide open for Philly, especially because Boston hasn’t seen the Jimmy Butler Sixers yet.

Lakers @ Warriors: A- | The Lakers have begun to get a sense as to what lineups work for them, and the Warriors have finally begun to reach some consistency after reintegrating Steph Curry. Strong defensive teams have slowed the Dubs down and forced them on to suboptimal shots, and when the shots don’t fall like against the Jazz, it won’t take much to overcome them. LeBron doesn’t usually flip the switch this early in the year, but on a big stage and in the every-win-matters West, I think we’ll probably bear witness to the King in his true form. This match-up is an indirect finals rematch, too, which is why I imagine it made the cut for the Christmas games.

Trail Blazers @ Jazz: B | This will probably be an interesting game, but there is significantly less story-line as a basis for its inclusion as a Christmas day game. In reality, it’s just a game between two teams who need a win. Donovan Mitchell’s efficiency has been problematic all year, but the Jazz still sport a respectable defense behind star center Rudy Gobert, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for the impact he has when he checks in. Regardless, the Blazers are currently in the playoffs and the Jazz are a good way’s out of it, but there’s still a perfectly logical route for the Jazz to get in; they just need to win and win now. They can’t afford to have bad nights against other fringe teams like Portland, who are perfectly beatable if things go right. I mean, if you’re competing with the Sacramento¬†Kings¬†for a playoff spot, you’re never really out of it. The Jazz are still in a better place moving forward than, say, the Pelicans, but that’s no reason to be content with an L on Tuesday night.

The games this year follow some pretty clear patterns. The legacy teams who sport a geographic rivalry and were renewed by young talent, the one-man-army versus the people who have bested him the past 2 years, and the rest are filled out with identity-seeking playoff contenders looking to make a statement. Except Bucks/Knicks. That game just plain sucks.