After a memorable All-Star Weekend, the NBA gets back to the grind in what’s been an exciting and historic season so far. As NBA action resumes today, contenders start buckling down to work for playoff positions while some like the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs are chasing something bigger.
The cellar-dwellers will also continue waging a different battle: the war for pingpong balls in the next draft lottery. Make no mistake, all these battles will be intense. So sit back, grab a cold one, and stay tuned for answers to the hottest questions that will dominate the second half of the 2016 NBA season.
When will the Sixers have Ish Smith "swim with the fishes"?
The Philadelphia 76ers are the league’s worst team—again. No surprise there as general manager Sam Hinkie has long been known as the godfather of tanking, err, rebuilding the franchise. They started the season with a 1-30 card, solidifying their bid to be one of the players in the 2016-17 Draft. That seemed like a sound plan at first, but things changed when no-nonsense exec Jerry Colangelo took over as chairman of basketball operations.
His first order of business: trading for point guard Ish Smith. Since Smith came on board, the Sixers have finally resembled an NBA team, compiling a 7-15 record before the All Star break, which included close losses to contenders like Golden State, Cleveland, and Chicago. The team’s been playing better, particularly their young frontline of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, since Smith ran the show in Philly.
Smith has also averaged 15.9 points, 8.1 assists, and 1.5 steals for the Sixers. The question now is, until when can Hinkie resist the urge of putting down Smith so he can go "Bombing for Ben Simmons," the projected top pick of the next draft?
Who’ll be ROY: KAT or the Latvian Unicorn?
Experts early in the season declared Minnesota Timberwolves newbie and top pick Karl-Anthony Towns as the sure-bet to cop the Rookie of the Year award. Heading into the second half of the tourney, his promising batchmates (Denver's Emmanuel Mudiay, Indiana's Myles Turner, Phoenix's Devin Booker, to name a few), have proven to be capable of posing a serious challenge with steadily improving play. The most impressive of the lot, though, is New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis—the fourth pick in last year's draft who was once considered by many Knicks diehards as a poor choice. He's since endeared himself to the New York faithful, with some already anointing him the Knick's future cornerstone. He currently averages 13.7 ppg, 7.7 boards, and 1.9 swats a contest.
Towns has lived up to the hype, of course, and then some, dropping 17.1 points, grabbing 10.1 rebounds, and swatting 1.8 shots per game for the Wolves. Only these two young guys have been named NBA rookies of the month so far this season.
KAT’s leading the pack for the Rookie of the Year award, but the Latvian, whom OKC star Kevin Durant described as a unicorn, has the rest of the season to catch up.
Who will scrap tooth and nail to sneak into the West playoffs and get the Warriors in the first round as "reward"?
The Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz are currently ranked seventh and eighth respectively in the Western Conference, with Houston Rockets just a half game behind at ninth place. Will the Rockets—last year's Western Conference finalist—rediscover the fire that fueled their solid showing in 2015 just in time to meet the formidable Golden State Warriors in the first round of 2016 Playoffs? Not really an awesome reward to look forward to when you think about it. But first they've got to overachieve and get their act together now.
Meanwhile, the Blazers and Jazz are young athletic squads who can run with the Warriors, but each team has weaknesses that the Dubs can exploit (a thin frontcourt for Portland, a thin backcourt for Utah). Look out for some special kind tanking to happen here among contenders ranked fifth to eighth just to avoid a first round meeting with the defending champs. A matchup against the Spurs or Thunder, presently the second- and third-ranked teams respectively in the always loaded Western Conference, however, isn't exactly what we'd call a less punishing option.
How will the messy playoff puzzle in the East be solved?
*Standings as of February 19, 2016
East is the new West. Meaning: The Eastern Conference has been good, real good this season much like the transformation of sewed-up mouth Deadpool circa 2009 to Merc with a Mouth Deadpool this year.
To illustrate: Only six of the East’s 15 teams have losing records, one less than the West’s total. And 11 teams are in the mix for the six playoff spots behind leaders Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, separated by only 9.5 games. One long winning- or losing-streak, or a major injury from the respective squads can drastically alter the East’s playoff race. And with possible trades looming, it only gets more muddled up.
Who can stop the King from marching to the Finals for the sixth straight time?
Call LeBron James what you want, but his determination to win is undeniable. With Cleveland again looming as the overwhelming favorite in the East, James is looking to head to the grand stage for the sixth straight time.
Unless another Eastern contender has something to say about that. But who? The Raptors can surely try, as they’ve entered the break on a high note after winning 14 of their last 16 games. Their All-Star backcourt can give the Cavs trouble, but they seem to be overmatched in the wings and the bench. The Celtics are lacking one more star to take the pressure off Isaiah Thomas, while the Bulls have been ravaged by injuries.
Will it be back-to-back MVPs for Steph Curry?
Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and LeBron. Only those 10 men in NBA history have won back-to-back MVPs. Curry looks to be a lock to join them. The Warriors point guard is already at 245 3-pointers made, 41 triples short of the record he set last year with over 30 games to go. He’s averaging close to five treys a game, meaning he only needs less than 10 games to set a new high.
Plus, the man’s the league leader in a lot of statistical categories. Count ‘em: Points per game, threes per game, player efficiency rating (on pace for the highest PER in NBA history at that), true shooting percentage, win shares, box plus/minus, value over replacement player.
In non-NBA geek words, he’s clearly the best player in the NBA right now. The real MVP race starts at the second spot between Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron. Unless those three go supernova, the MVP crown is without a doubt owned by Curry.
How do you feel about a Spurs-Thunder West semis match-up?
The Spurs are only 3.5 games back from the top seed in the West behind the Warriors. OKC sits at the third spot, nine games from Golden State. Can they catch up with the Warriors and steal homecourt advantage for the rest of the playoffs? Possibly.
But the closest chaser, the Spurs, have to do so without Manu Ginobili (out four to six weeks) while playing eight of their next 10 on the road. It’s a tall task, so the most likely scenario: Only one of these two top title contenders will be playing in late May. Sad, but when it happens, expect an epic showdown.
Where will you be on April 14?
That’s the date (Manila time) when Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour ends, unless you believe the West’s worst team can pull off a miracle and sneak into the playoffs.
The Lakers face Utah in what’s possibly the last game of Kobe. Prepare the pulutan, file your leave, chill the beers. You wouldn’t want your bros see you bawling when the Black Mamba waves his final goodbye
Can the Golden State Warriors reach 73 wins?
It’s no secret that the Warriors, who’ve set the NBA record for the best start for a season at 48-4 before the All-Star break, are chasing the '95-'96 Bulls' 72-win season. And by ESPN’s estimates, they have a 36-percent chance of reaching 73 wins. (If you’re wondering, their chances of matching the Bulls is at 55-percent.) Plus, they have a home-friendly schedule the rest of the way, with 17 games at Oracle Arena where they are currently undefeated.
The catch: The Warriors have seven games left against the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers (a.k.a., the West’s second, third, and fourth top teams behind the Dubs, respectively). They also have the seventh hardest schedule after the All-Star break, where their remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of 52.3-percent. Their last two battles against San Antonio are also scheduled in their final four games before the playoffs. This will be an ending worth watching.