The second half of the 2017-18 NBA season has begun. Now that we’re officially in the stretch run of the season, the storylines are coming hot and heavy as teams either jockey for either playoff or tanking positioning.
There are an absurd amount of storylines this season, and as we approach the climactic legs of the year, we can expect more to develop in the coming weeks and months. For now, though, these are the top storylines to watch as we prepare for the final leg of what has been a very eventful season so far.
Ben Simmons vs Donovan Mitchell?
Two months ago, Ben Simmons was running away in the Rookie of the Year race. Donovan Mitchell was already showing up, but Simmons was still in a league of his own. Fast forward to today and Simmons is still the front-runner for the ROTY award. As for Mitchell? He’s caught up massively. Simmons is still the more versatile player of the two, and he can make an impact on games in a variety of different ways. But Mitchell is showcasing his own superstar potential with scoring bursts we haven’t seen from a rookie since Kevin Durant’s first—and only—season in Seattle. We’re still picking Simmons to win the ROTY award, but we’d be lying if we didn’t think that we’re heading towards the first Co-Rookies of the Year since Elton Brand and Steve Francis shared the award in 2000.
Will we see Markelle Fultz this season?
The likely answer is “probably not,” and that’s only because of reports that Fultz’s shooting form is still MIA. In all the years we’ve been watching and obsessing over the NBA, we’ve never seen a story like this happen. Have you? This is the equivalent of Charles Barkley’s lost golf swing, except that it’s playing out in front of a global audience in the social media era. Neither Fultz nor the Sixers have given a specific answer on what happened to the rookie’s shooting yips. Perhaps we’ll never know what the reason is, but for the sake of Fultz’s career, let’s hope that he finds his form back before it’s too late.
What’s up with Kawhi Leonard?
If it weren’t for Markelle Fultz and the Case of the Missing Shooting Form, this would be the craziest storyline in the NBA right now. Is it possible that there are fractures within the San Antonio Spurs organization? This is the same franchise that was universally regarded as the measuring stick among all franchises. But the mystery behind Leonard’s continued absence—he’s been cleared by Spurs team doctors—has put a cloud over the league’s role model franchise. There’s obviously more to this story than what the Spurs are letting on, but the fact that we’re even talking about it says a lot about the perceived dysfunction in that organization.
The Western Conference Royal Rumble
The Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets are running away with the first and second seeds, but the race for seeds three to eight—actually, make that three to ten—is going to be one of the most compelling storylines of the second half of the season. The San Antonio Spurs remain vulnerable without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup. The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Oklahoma City Thunder look like legit contenders on some nights and discombobulated fringe teams on others. The Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, and the New Orleans Pelicans are all “Jekyll and Hyde” teams. The Los Angeles Clippers remain in the hunt for reasons that are still unclear, and the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the NBA with an 11-game winning streak intact. It tells you about the unpredictability of the Western Conference playoff race when the hottest of all the teams also happens to be the 10th seed.
Who’s coming out of the East?
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ trade binge turned the whole Eastern Conference upside its head. Now it’s looking like a legitimate three-team race involving the Cavs, the Boston Celtics, and the Toronto Raptors. We’re still hesitant to identify the Raptors as a legitimate contender because of their past playoff failures, but of the three teams, they arguably have the deepest roster. The Celtics can’t be counted out, either, but their recent form is disconcerting. They can still give the Cavs a serious run for their money, but of the three, it’s still hard to go against LeBron James and a rejuvenated Cavs team that became younger, faster, and more athletic.
It probably doesn’t get said enough because of the ineptitude involved with these teams, but the opposite end of the standings provide an equally dramatic race to get the most ping pong balls in the lottery. With the 2018 Draft set to become the last draft that will be held under the existing format, bottom-feeding teams are still incentivized to tank their way to scoring the biggest odds to land the number one pick. This season’s race is shaping up to be a doozy as no less than eight teams—yep, eight teams!—are separated by a measly 2.5 games from getting the worst record in the NBA. Cavs fans are also on high alert because that Brooklyn Nets pick that appeared to be a middle lottery pick as recently as a month ago is now a game away from having the best odds in the lottery!
If you’ve resigned yourselves to another Golden State Warriors title run, Tankapalooza 2018 is where the excitement’s at!
Will Lonzo Ball bounce back?
It’s hard to imagine a 19-year old averaging 10-7-7 and say that he’s had an uneven rookie season so far. But that’s the prizm from which Lonzo Ball currently resides. The 2nd overall pick is posting numbers that show his potential to be an all-world, all-around player. But he’s also shooting abhorrently from the field, the three point line, and the free throw line. There’s no more perplexing stat line in the league than what the Lakers rookie has. As bad as he is at shooting the ball, he’s proven that he has all the tools—vision, versatility, and IQ—we thought he had when he entered the league. Now that he’s returned after a prolonged spell on the injured list, all eyes will be on Lonzo and how he’s going to close out his rookie season. We’re not fans of his dad, but that’s not stopping us from rooting on the son to live up to his hype. He’s got the tools to be a special player in the league for years to come. If he could just fix that shot of his...
The buyout market
Technically, the buyout market’s already started. Joe Johnson is now with the Houston Rockets. Jameer Nelson is now with the Detroit Pistons. Greg Monroe is now with the Boston Celtics. All those moves have already happened, but it really won’t be until March 1 when the buyout market officially kicks into high gear. What’s so important about March 1? It’s the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. From where the league is right now, a number of players have been touted as being on the market when this day arrives. Joakim Noah, Arron Afflalo, Wesley Matthews, Shabazz Muhammad, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter are a few of the names that are being thrown around as likely candidates to receive buyouts.
There have even been rumors that the Toronto Raptors are looking to sign Carter if he does get bought out by the Kings. The team has refuted those rumors, but wouldn’t it be cool if Air Canada returned to the team that he put on the NBA map? Of all the minor storylines in the league, that’s the one we’re most excited of seeing.
Consider this: if those Miami Vice jerseys of Dwyane Wade sold out in record time when he went back to Miami, how fast do you think Raptors jerseys of Carter will sell out?
We’ll keep this short and simple. No more injuries, please?