NBA Story Lines to Follow Until the Playoffs

With two months and somewhere between 30-25 games left to play for the teams, there’s plenty to look forward to in what’s left of the NBA season, including the MVP battle between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the whole Los Angeles Lakers saga with time running against them, who emerges from the East to challenge the Miami Heat and more.

MVP Race – LeBron James vs Kevin Durant

Right now, that’s the race. It should have been the race all season, but Carmelo Anthony made some noise earlier on before the Knicks stopped being automatic from three and Kobe Bryant made some sort of push, but the Lakers are too bad, and Kobe is partially the reason for it. There are also those who love to mention Tony Parker and Chris Paul, but big numbers, which means scoring a lot of points, come into effect. No one is putting up big numbers as like James and Durant.

It might fall down to the games between the Heat and the Thunder. Unfortunately for Durant, despite scoring more points in both games, he was on the losing side, with James putting on the more dominant all-around performance both times. He’s still the better defender and the better all-around player, leading  the NBA in PER, above Durant who is at second. Durant needs a huge finish to this season to prove he’s better, and that the Oklahoma City Thunder are a better team than the Miami Heat.

Who rises from the East to challenge the Miami Heat?

The consensus choice for Eastern Conference champions are the Miami Heat. Despite losing at home to the Bulls. Despite losing twice, by 20 points, to the New York Knicks. Despite the Indiana Pacers already beating them twice. It seems only natural that the team with the best record in the East (4 game advantage over the Knicks) will be the one to conquer the conference, before we start mentioning LeBron James and what he did last year. Problems with the regular season matchup haven’t troubled the Heat in the previous two seasons from making the finals.

But who joins them? Right now, the Indiana Pacers have to be the best bet. The Knicks rely too much on shooting from the outside, and when things don’t fall from them, they struggle putting up points besides Carmelo Anthony, who isn’t exactly using efficency as his guiding light to put his impressive scoring numbers. The Pacers have the best shooting defense in the NBA, an emerging star and go-to-guy in Paul George and Danny Granger returning from injury.

The rest? The Chicago Bulls are similar in their “ugly” basketball to the Pacers, just not as good. Without Derrick Rose, the go-to-guy they need to be more consistent isn’t going to emerge, and defense, defense alone, won’t pull them through, unless Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer become better players all of a sudden.

Western Race – Thunder, Clippers, Spurs. Forgetting anyone?

1 San Antonio 42 12 .778 22-2 20-10 11-2 22-8 104.2 95.8 +8.4 Won 3 9-1
2 Oklahoma City 39 14 .736 2 ½ 23-4 16-10 5-3 27-7 106.0 97.3 +8.8 Lost 2 6-4
3 LA Clippers 39 17 .696 4 21-5 18-12 8-4 26-9 100.4 93.7 +6.8 Won 4 6-4

The Clippers have lost some ground lately, but with Chris Paul and possibly the best bench in the NBA, who can argue about their title credentials? There are some whispers of problems with DeAndre Jordan and Vinny Del Negro, and the Clippers need a big man who can clog the paint (which Jordan hasn’t been doing well lately), but they have the best defense among the three teams, but the “easiest” to stop offense.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have changed from last year, but not by much. Serge Ibaka is a better offensive player than he was before, Kevin Durant has improved his all-around game while taking another step forward as the best offensive weapon in the NBA and Russell Westbrook has matured, most of the time even showing it. But their great defense relies on the focus and will of Westbrook and Harden to give it their all on D; Westbrook can still ruin an entire game on his own when he feels like it, and it doesn’t seem that his diva-attitude is changing anytime soon.

And then there are the Spurs, getting hot regardless of injuries and who’s playing. When February and March come along, expect a lot of wins. Tony Parker is playing the best basketball of his career and as usual, they have the only offense that you can actually learn something from in the NBA. Will it be enough?

No matter how good their record is, there’s always the feeling that in a best-of-7 series, when things slow down a bit and there are no chances to rest players, the Spurs just aren’t going to have enough to beat the Thunder. That’s where Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter come in. If the two can become more than just sidekicks but be actual stars for more than a few minutes, than the Spurs can actually feel confident about making the Finals for the first time since 2007

The Lakers and That Last 8th Spot in the West

It’s impossible to count out the Lakers from the race for the final playoff spot, at least it’s harder to do than throwing the Blazers out of the conversation. Despite the rookie of the year Damian Lillard, the lack of a bench is going to be too much to overcome. Nicolas Batum isn’t consistent enough, while LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard aren’t that good.

The Houston Rockets are a one-man team, but everyone is suddenly so much better when Harden is doing his thing. Harden is third in the NBA on EWA (Estimated wins added), just above Kobe Bryant. The good thing working for Harden? He doesn’t have teammates that hate him, and there’s no question anymore as to how their offense should be run, not to mention a whole of a lot less pressure.

For the Lakers? Fighting windmills for something they might never reach is a tad of a stretch when you try to describe their situation, but lets try to simplify things. NBA players have co-existed and succeeded without liking each other, but the Lakers rely heavily on what Dwight Howard can bring to the table. He’s playing with a clipped wing, which is mostly harming them on defense. Even if Bryant keeps on feeding him the ball and Howard is happy with his offensive role, the fact that he can’t be a presence on D while the rest of the players around him can barely add to the crumbling perimeter defense doesn’t bode well for the Lakers.