25 Bold Predictions for the Final Month of the 2013-14 NBA Season

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2014

25 Bold Predictions for the Final Month of the 2013-14 NBA Season

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    With less than a month remaining in the 2013-14 NBA regular season, there's still much to be decided.

    Sure, either Kevin Durant or LeBron James will assuredly be named the league's Most Valuable Player in May. And, yes, the San Antonio Spurs appear to be cruising toward the league's best record, thereby locking up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs (and the NBA Finals, if they get that far).

    Beyond that? Playoff seedings and award races are still ripe for the taking.

    Based on that uncertainty, I've concocted 25 bold predictions for the final few weeks of the regular season, presented in no particular order. None of these predictions are the most likely outcome (hence, "bold"), but all remain within the realm of possibility.

    In other words, "KD will win MVP" is not eligible for inclusion here. Neither is "Evan Turner for Most Improved Player."

    Read on to see how the playoff races in both conferences and voting for major awards will shake out, along with a few other surprises scattered throughout.


    All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats, unless otherwise noted, and are current through games played on Wednesday, March 26. All team records and playoff seedings current through games played on Thursday, March 27. 

1. The New York Knicks Will Make the Playoffs

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    The New York Knicks seem to be wasting a golden opportunity to make the playoffs after a miserable start to the 2013-14 season.

    Despite sitting 17 games under .500 at the start of March, New York found itself only three games out of a playoff spot on March 22. The Atlanta Hawks, currently the East's No. 8 seed, proceeded to drop their next two games to Toronto and Phoenix on March 23 and 24, respectively, which opened the door for the Knicks to seize the day.

    What happened? The Knicks fell to the lottery-bound, Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers on March 23, and they then allowed the Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers to score a franchise-high 51 points in the third quarter on March 25 en route to a 31-point blowout loss.

    Now, with only one of its final 10 games against lottery-bound teams, New York appears to be in a world of hurt. Conversely, the Hawks have five games remaining against lottery-bound teams, including one each against the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks (the latter of which comes on the final night of the regular season).

    So, how are the Knicks going to make the playoffs over Atlanta? A Carmelo Anthony-fueled explosion. Right around this time last season, Anthony caught fire, averaging 33.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per night over his final 14 games to lock up the scoring title over Kevin Durant.

    With something far more important at stake this season—namely, a playoff spot—Anthony will rally the Knicks behind him once more to bump the Hawks out of the No. 8 seed.

2. The Portland Trail Blazers Will Miss the Playoffs

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    On March 1, the thought of the Portland Trail Blazers missing the playoffs would have been preposterous. They were 41-18, fresh off a win against the Denver Nuggets, with the third-best record in the Western Conference.

    Since then, to steal a line from Tom Petty, they've been free-falling. The Blazers dropped nine of their next 14 games, putting them only 2.5 games ahead the eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns and three games ahead of the ninth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the West.

    Much of their recent struggles can be attributed to two factors: difficult competition and the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge, who sat out seven games after suffering a back contusion against the San Antonio Spurs on March 12. The Blazers haven't beaten a playoff-bound team since obliterating the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 26.

    As Portland point guard Damian Lillard told NBA.com's Sekou Smith:

    You have to understand it for what it is. When you’re hot, you know you’re playing well but you have to stay focused. And when you hit that bump in the road and you lose some games, and we’re struggling right now, you have to stick with it. We have to keep grinding and keep playing. And that’s where we’re at right now. We had that high moment. We knew some adversity was going to come. And it’s come. We just have to keep playing and stick together.

    Things don't get much easier for Portland from this point forward. Five of its remaining nine games come against playoff teams, and the four non-playoff opponents—the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings—won't be cakewalks either.

    The Blazers have a slightly greater margin of error than the other teams scraping for one of the final seeds in the Western Conference playoff race, but they can't coast to the finish line. Given their struggles over the past month, don't be surprised when they're on the outside looking in when the postseason begins.

3. The Miami Heat Will Be the East's Top Seed

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    The Miami Heat wasted a golden opportunity to deal the Indiana Pacers a psychological blow on Wednesday night. With Indiana only one game up on Miami in the loss column, the Heat could have strolled into Bankers Life Fieldhouse and effectively evened up the race for the Eastern Conference's top overall seed.

    After Dwyane Wade helped get Pacers guard Lance Stephenson ejected with his second technical foul halfway through the fourth quarter, Miami ripped off an 8-0 run to take a four-point lead with three minutes left. The game was there for the taking.

    Instead, Wade tweaked his hamstring, David West drilled a rare three-pointer and Chris Bosh couldn't cash in on a potential game-winning jumper with no time left on the clock. The Pacers escaped with an 84-83 victory, giving them a three-game lead over Miami with only three weeks left in the regular season.

    The Heat took on a defiant tone after the game, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, with LeBron James repeatedly muttering, "It is what it is." "There's still plenty of games left," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters, per Skolnick, when asked about the playoff picture.

    The squad's remaining schedule certainly helps matters, as it contains two matchups with the Milwaukee Bucks and a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on the final night of the regular season. The Pacers, meanwhile, still must battle San Antonio and Oklahoma City at home, with a road trip to Miami scheduled for April 11, too.

    It won't be easy, and it may require winning out, but the loss to the Pacers will inspire Miami to fight tooth-and-nail for the No. 1 seed in the East. Against Indiana, home-court advantage could be a deciding factor in the seemingly inevitable playoff series between the two squads.

4. The Los Angeles Clippers Will Be the West's No. 2 Seed

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    The Los Angeles Clippers dropped a critical game to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday but bounced back with a 107-103 win over Dallas the next night, putting them two games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 2 seed in the West.

    Despite the setback against New Orleans, expect the Clips to overcome OKC in the final three weeks of the season to lock up home-court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

    The Clippers still have a home tilt remaining against the Thunder on April 9 and currently hold the 2-1 series advantage. Assuming they win that night, they'd hold the tiebreaker over Kevin Durant and co. in the case that both squads finish with identical records.

    Since the All-Star break, the Clippers rank third in the league in offensive rating, (averaging 110.1 points per 100 possessions) and are tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for fourth in the league in defensive rating (allowing only 99.8 points per 100 possessions). That balance will help keep Los Angeles competitive on most nights, even if its stars are struggling.

    After all, it's not every night that All-Star point guard Chris Paul will go 0-of-12 from the field, setting a franchise record for the most field-goal attempts in a game without a make. Based on how the Clippers sounded after their loss to the injury-battered Pelicans, it might serve as a wake-up call. "There are a lot of good lessons for us out of this and hopefully we learned them," coach Doc Rivers told reporters, per Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles.

    Expect the Clips to right the ship, knock off OKC on April 9 and eke out the No. 2 seed in the West by virtue of holding the tiebreaker over the Thunder.

5. The Brooklyn Nets Will Win the Atlantic Division

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    I made this prediction back in January, and I'm sticking with it: The Brooklyn Nets are going to overtake the Toronto Raptors and win the Atlantic Division.

    Originally, I prognosticated that the Nets would end up as the No. 3 seed in the East. Granted, that was before Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah turned into a world-destroyer intent on silencing all doubters.

    Assuming Noah propels Chicago to the No. 3 seed, that leaves the Nets and Raptors battling for the East's fourth seed. The winner of that battle would not only take the division crown, but they would also lock up home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which could prove critical if the series goes all seven games.

    The Nets dropped a critical game to the Charlotte Bobcats in overtime on Wednesday, falling 2.5 games behind the Raptors for the division lead. Making matters worse, Toronto only has three contests remaining against playoff squads—Indiana, Houston and Miami—in its final 11 games.

    Brooklyn, however, doesn't have a much tougher end-of-season schedule, with only two playoff teams left on the docket. And, per Eric Koreen of the National Post, Toronto may start buying point guard Kyle Lowry more rest down the stretch, opening the door for an unforeseen loss or two against a lottery-bound squad.

    Back when the Nets were 10-21 on Jan. 1, the idea of them even making the playoffsmuch less winning the Atlanticseemed laughable. Now, with a playoff spot in the bank, Brooklyn has a golden opportunity to take down the Raptors and lock up home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

6. Phoenix Will Be the West's No. 6 Seed

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    The Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns are locked in an epic three-way battle for the final two Western Conference playoff spots at the moment. As noted by NBA TV's Tas Melas, this race will almost assuredly come down to the final week of the regular season.

    On April 12, Phoenix travels to Dallas for the rubber-match between the two teams this season (they've split the season series, 1-1, to this point). Two nights later, Memphis heads to Phoenix; however, with a 3-0 advantage in the season series, the Grizzlies can no longer lose the tiebreaker, regardless of the outcome of this game.

    On April 16, the final night of the regular season, Dallas will head to Memphis for what could be a win-or-go-home game for both squads. The Mavericks hold the 3-0 edge over the Grizzlies in the season series, so Memphis can't rely on a tiebreaker to save its playoff hopes.

    Both Dallas and Phoenix each have four remaining games against sure-fire lottery teams, while Memphis will square off against five lottery squads over its final 11 contests. The Mavericks sit only a half-game behind the Suns and a full game behind Memphis at the moment, so the seventh and eighth seeds are still completely up for grabs.

    What gives Phoenix the advantage over the other two? The best blend of offensive and defensive balance among the three squads.

    Since the All-Star break, Dallas ranks third in offensive rating but 22nd in defensive rating, while Memphis sits fifth in defensive rating and 16th in offensive rating. Phoenix is the only one of the three in the top half of the league in both metrics, ranking eighth in offensive rating and 13th in defensive rating.

    Thanks to Portland's impending collapse, all three squads will end up making the playoffs. Phoenix will finish as the West's No. 6 seed, the Grizzlies will earn the seventh, the Mavericks will sneak in as the eighth and the Blazers will miss the postseason entirely, despite having a better record than all but two of the East's playoff teams.

7. The Philadelphia 76ers Will Not Set a Record for Futility

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    By losing to the Houston Rockets on Thursday night, the Philadelphia 76ers tied the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers' record for the longest losing streak in NBA history (26 games). The Sixers will not surpass Cleveland's streak, however.

    On Saturday, the Detroit Pistons come to Philadelphia, with the Sixers facing the possibility of recording the longest losing streak in the history of the NBA. Since the Pistons have won at least one game since the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics, logic would dictate that they will emerge victorious over the Sixers that evening.

    There's just one thing: Detroit is engaged in its own tanking effort, albeit much less blatant than Philadelphia.

    If the Pistons don't land a top-eight pick in this year's draft, they must ship their first-rounder to Charlotte as part of the ill-advised Ben Gordon for Corey Maggette swap from the summer of 2012. Since Detroit has just a 1.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN.com's Hollinger Playoff Odds, there's little incentive for the squad to make one final desperate push for the postseason.

    Instead, the Pistons will out-tank the Sixers on Saturday night, preventing this year's Philly squad from making ignominious history. It'll basically be the NBA version of South Park's Little League episode.

8. The Anti-Tanking Rhetoric Will Do a 180

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    This season, largely thanks to the Philadelphia 76ers' blatant tankjob, arguing against the idea of a complete roster detonation has become fetch.

    At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, former coach Stan Van Gundy said "what Philadelphia is doing right now is embarrassing." In a column published in early March, Grantland's Bill Simmons said the Sixers are "s------g on games."

    Before long, the consensus will begin to swing on Philly's season-long approach.

    The slogan for this year's Sixers is "Together We Build." As much as a 26-game losing streak might suggest otherwise, that's exactly what general manager Sam Hinkie and coach Brett Brown have been doing.

    They're not simply throwing away the season for the hell of it; they're using it to build the team from the ground up. They're emphasizing optimal player fitness and bringing in untested prospects to evaluate potential role players down the line. After all, who knew Henry Sims could be a legitimate rotation big before this past month?

    Just three years ago at Sloan, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban espoused the value of going all-out to lose as many games as possible, per Timothy Varner of 48MinutesofHell.com. Kevin Pritchard, currently the Indiana Pacers' general manager, introduced the term "the mediocrity treadmill," suggesting that teams are best suited competing for championships or competing for the No. 1 pick.

    And thus, after years of mediocrity, there was "no place better" for the Sixers this year "than rock bottom," writes ESPN.com's Kate Fagan, a former beat writer with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

    It won't take long for others to realize that tanking, while difficult to swallow, can work in the right circumstances. With the 2014 draft class looking like the most loaded class in over a decade, Hinkie simply played the odds to get off the treadmill as quickly as possible.

9. We'll See at Least One More 50-Point Game

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    In the past five NBA seasons, a player has gone off for 50 or more points 16 times. Five of those games have come within the past two months.

    Kevin Durant started the fun this season with a career-high 54 points against Golden State on January 17. Exactly one week later, Carmelo Anthony poured in a career-high 62 against Charlotte, breaking both a New York Knicks franchise record and Kobe Bryant's mark for the most points scored at Madison Square Garden.

    Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross joined the 50-point club one night after Anthony's eruption, lighting up the Los Angeles Clippers for a career-high 51. LeBron James then took matters into his own hands, dropping a career-high 61 points against Charlotte on March 3.

    KD posted the fifth 50-point game of the season against the Raptors on March 21, likely all but sealing up the Most Valuable Player award in the process. If you missed one of these electric scoring performances, though, don't fret; we'll see at least one more before the regular season finishes on April 16.

    After all, it was only last year that Anthony dropped 50 on Miami on April 2. Two years ago, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love lit up Oklahoma City for 51 on March 23.

    Miami still has two cracks at the Milwaukee Bucks remaining, while OKC has two tilts against Sacramento left on the docket. Throw in the Knicks' March 31 matchup with the Utah Jazz, and one of the James-Anthony-Durant triumvirate are highly likely to erupt once more before the end of the regular season.

10. The 2014 Draft-Class Hype Will Kick Back Up

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    If you're to believe Danny Ainge and Jerry West, the 2014 NBA draft class lacks "game-changers" and "is a poor one."

    In a livestreamed video on the official Boston Celtics website, Ainge, the team's President of Basketball Operations, said, via CSNNE.com:

    There aren't any game changers in the draft. There are a lot of nice players and players that we'll be excited to work into the development, but they're not going to come in and turn our team around in one year or two years. But hopefully we'll be able to get a couple of players this year that will be rotation players in the NBA for years to come.

    Earlier this year, Jerry West, who currently serves as an Executive Board member with the Golden State Warriors, told ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Rusillo that this year's draft class is a "poor one," via Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv:

    At one time you could get a branded name, these kids are not branded today. They’re not branded.

    And by that I mean kids who have played in school for three or four years and comes out and people know who he is. He’s tutored, he’s more mature, more experienced. Those kinds of players come in and make an impact right away. But if you look at some of these kids, it takes about three years for them to get going. 

    Therein lies the rub. Yes, in all likelihood, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and, to a lesser extent, Jabari Parker will struggle to turn a losing franchise's fortunes around overnight. That doesn't necessarily mean this draft class is a bust, however.

    As Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin writes, "The real question for this draft is how good are these players going to be in three to five years? That's what teams are drafting them for, not their rookie season."

    Who cares if Wiggins, Parker and Embiid aren't going to be All-Stars as rookies? At least oneif not all three of themwill be an All-Star one day. Because of that, expect the hype for the 2014 draft class to pick back up in the weeks leading up to the draft, despite dismal NCAA tournament performances from Wiggins and Parker.

11. Detroit Will Finish with the NBA's Sixth-Worst Record

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    Deplore tanking? Avoid watching the Detroit Pistons over the next three weeks, at all costs.

    The Pistons, as previously mentioned, owe their first-round draft pick to the Charlotte Bobcats if it falls outside of the top eight. At the moment, Detroit has the league's eighth-worst recordahead of only Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, Utah, Boston, Sacramento and the Los Angeles Lakers.

    With the New York Knicks openly gunning for the playoffs, Detroit's only real risk from above is the Cleveland Cavaliers. If Kyrie Irving sits out the rest of the season, Cleveland could plummet down the standings and earnestly threaten the Pistons' hold on the eighth-worst record.

    Even if Detroit does finish the season with the eighth-worst record, the night of the lottery could produce an unwelcome surprise. If a team with a better record than the Pistons ends up winning the lottery, all of the other lottery teams would fall one spot.

    That's why Detroit won't settle for holding the course. Outright tanking is the only logical option if the Pistons definitively plan on keeping their first-rounder this year.

    With games remaining against Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, Atlanta and Cleveland, it won't be easy for Detroit to outright tank. Don't be surprised if some suspicious injuries spring up in the Motor City this April.

12. Stephen Curry Will Break His Own Three-Point Record

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    Last season, Stephen Curry made NBA history by hitting 272 three-point shots, breaking Ray Allen's old record (269) in the final game of the season.

    This year, he's going to do one better.

    With only 11 games remaining on the Warriors' schedule, Curry has drained 219 three-point shots, leaving him 54 shy of beating his own record. He's averaging 3.22 threes per game this year, so, he'd fall roughly 18 threes short of the record if he continues at his season-long pace.

    Don't be surprised if he starts gunning with reckless abandon over these final three weeks, though. Last season, after averaging 3.3 made three-pointers on 7.3 attempts per game through his first 67 games, he averaged 4.4 made threes on 10.1 attempts over his final 11 games, draining 48 in total.

    Three of Curry's next six games come against teams that rank in the bottom 10 in opponents' three-point shooting percentage. Furthermore, four of the Warriors' final five contests will be against squads with no hope of making the playoffs, increasing the odds that their effort will be less than optimal on those nights.

    It's going to take a Herculean shooting performance for Curry to break the record he set last season. Luckily for the Davidson product, the New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz still await, ready to facilitate the quest for 273.

13. The Milwaukee Bucks Will Out-Tank the Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Milwaukee Bucks made a costly error on Thursday in their quest to land the best lottery odds by beating the Los Angeles Lakers, 108-105, at home. By doing so, they allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to pick up a game on them in the tank race.

    Despite that unconscionable mental lapse, it ultimately won't prove costly to Milwaukee. The Bucks will manage to continue out-tanking a team on a 26-game losing streak through the final three weeks of the regular season.

    Milwaukee faces a murderer's row of opponents in the next two weeks, with two matchups against Miami, a date with the Indiana Pacers and a road tilt against the Chicago Bulls on the docket. The only reprieve in that span is a trip to Detroit on March 31 and a home game against the Toronto Raptors on April 5.

    The Sixers, on the other hand, will play three non-playoff squads in their next five games: Detroit on Saturday, Atlanta on March 31 and Boston on April 4. Philadelphia then ends the season with five of its final six games against likely playoff teams.

    Even if the Sixers pull even with Milwaukee heading the final night of the regular season, the Bucks have one major advantage in that last game: the Sixers will almost assuredly be facing the Miami Heat's B-team, while Milwaukee draws the competitive-on-occasion Atlanta Hawks.

    It won't be easy, but the Bucks will finish one game behind the blatantly tanking Sixers, assuring a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick. For what it's worth, the team with the best odds hasn't landed the top selection since 2004, however.

14. Charlotte Will Not Go Quietly into the Night

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    Unlike the 3-6 and 4-5 matchups in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, hardly anyone is expecting the 1-8 and 2-7 matchups to be competitive.

    Don't tell that to the Charlotte Bobcats, who have the potential to at least make life temporarily miserable for the East's No. 2 seed.

    Assuming the Miami Heat end up with the East's top record, that leaves Charlotte squaring off with the Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the playoffs. The Pacers won the season series against Charlotte, 2-1, but the Bobcats blew out Indiana, 109-87, earlier in March.

    "I'm not accepting that we're a team that guys look at on the schedule anymore and say, 'OK, we have the Bobcats (so) we can take the night off," Bobcats center Al Jefferson told reporters that night.

    Since beating the Pacers, Jefferson has averaged a whopping 23.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, helping the Bobcats go 7-4 over the past three weeks. Besides a head-scratching loss to the Atlanta Hawks at home, Charlotte's other three losses during that span have all come at the hands of playoff squads.

    Realistically, Indiana will almost assuredly prevail over the Bobcats in a seven-game series in which they have home-court advantage. If anyone's expecting the Pacers (or Heat, for that matter) to waltz right over Charlotte, though, they have another thing coming.

15. The NBPA Will Hire a New Executive Director

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    The National Basketball Players Association has been in disarray for the past year. In February 2013, NBA players unanimously ousted Billy Hunter, the NBPA's previous executive director, after a damning review uncovered troubling issues regarding Hunter's tenure.

    Thirteen months later, the union remains without a new executive director. Until the union hires one, NBA commissioner Adam Silver can't negotiate any collective-bargaining issues, which could have the two sides careening toward a potential lockout after the 2016-17 season, as noted by Sean Deveney of Sporting News.

    Per CBS Sports' Ken Berger, the union reportedly narrowed its choice of candidates down to two in February: David White, the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio, and litigation attorney Michele Roberts.

    According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, however, the search process could soon be derailed:

    Roughly two dozen players and agents are intent on getting the NBA players union to push back the selection of its next executive director until July, sources said, out of concern about how the field of candidates were winnowed to the current two finalists.

    Jeff Schwartz, a prominent NBA agent, penned an editorial for ESPN.com in mid-March about the search process, saying he was "deeply troubled" with the NBPA's "opaque methods in choosing the next union leader." Chris Paul, the union's president, fired back in his own ESPN.com editorial the next day, ensuring that the process "will continue to be open, transparent, painstaking and professional."

    There's little time to delay, as Deveney suggests. And thus, recognizing the ticking lockout clock hanging above their heads, the union members will vote upon a new executive director in the next few weeks.

16. Kevin Love Trade Rumors Will Pick Up Steam

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    In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, rumors about Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love began to fly.

    At the end of January, ESPN.com's Chris Broussard reported (subscription required) "most executives believe Love is destined for the Lakers when he becomes a free agent in 2015." One general manager went as far as to call Love's move to L.A. a "100 percent certainty."

    Two days before the trade deadline, CBS Sports' Ken Berger reported that the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks were "trying to assemble trade offers" for Love, but "thus far the Timberwolves have given no indication" they'd consider moving him by the deadline. As we discovered one month later, they ultimately didn't.

    Still, the clock is ticking on Love's future with the T-Wolves, as he has the ability to opt out of his contract following the 2014-15 season. Back in December 2012, he told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski "two years from now, if I haven't been to the playoffs—or it's been one playoff berth—well, it's going to be tough to say, 'Oh well, I'm going to stay here and continue to rebuild.' "

    In other words, the Timberwolves seemingly have little to no chance of retaining him past next season. That's why Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding believes the Lakers could swing a trade for Love on draft night, using whomever they draft in the lottery as trade bait.

    Expect the Love trade rumors to pick up again now that the T-Wolves are all but officially eliminated from playoff contention, marking the sixth straight year that the former UCLA product will watch the postseason from afar.

17. Andre Iguodala Will Finish Third in Defensive Player of the Year Voting

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    Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert and Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah are virtually guaranteed to finish first and second, in some order, in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Both have anchored the league's two most-ferocious defenses, with Noah gaining serious steam on Hibbert in recent weeks.

    Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka is likely the front-runner to finish third overall in the DPOY race, as he ranks second in the league with 2.6 blocks per game. However, based on his individual and team defensive impact, Golden State Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala will get the nod over Ibaka.

    Iggy has held shooting guards to a player efficiency rating of 11.3, small forwards to a PER of 12.5 and power forwards to a PER of 13.3, per 82games.com. All three marks are below the league average of 15. Ibaka, meanwhile, is limiting opposing power forwards to a PER of 14.6, per 82games.com—still below the league average, but not nearly as stingy as Iguodala.

    Team-based defensive statistics truly give the Warriors swingman the edge, though.

    With Iguodala on the court, Golden State opponents average only 98.4 points per 100 possessions; with him on the bench, opponents are scoring 106.1 per 100 possessions. Oklahoma City opponents, meanwhile, actually score more points with Ibaka on the court (103.9 points per 100 possessions) compared to when he's on the bench (101.7 points per 100 possessions).

    Ibaka's impressive blocks-per-game figure gives him the advantage in the DPOY race on the surface, but once voters dig a little deeper, they'll see that Iguodala holds the clear edge over the OKC big man.

18. DeAndre Jordan Will Finish Second in Most Improved Player Voting

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    Barring a catastrophic upset, New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis will be taking home the Most Improved Player hardware this spring.

    In only his second NBA season, Davis is averaging 21.7 points and 10.5 rebounds along with a league-high 2.9 blocks per game. He ranks fourth in the league in player efficiency rating (27.0) and ninth in win shares (10.3), despite only having turned 21 earlier this month.

    Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson and Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic would be the two most likely MIP candidates if it weren't for Davis, but Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan will end up taking home second place in the voting.

    Jordan ranks 11th in the league in win shares (10.0) and third in defensive win shares (5.3), sandwiched between the two Defensive Player of the Year front-runners, Joakim Noah (5.6) and Roy Hibbert (4.8). He also leads the league in total defensive rebounds (700), total rebounds (988), rebounds per game (13.7) and field-goal percentage (.666).

    Before the season started, Clippers coach Doc Rivers put Jordan in the same category as Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, saying they constituted the squad's "big three," per ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi. At the time, that characterization raised more than a few eyebrows.

    Now, with only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, Rivers doesn't sound so crazy. Jordan has clearly emerged as one of the league's best defensive big men and, despite his continued shortcomings at the free-throw line (he's shooting 44.8 percent for the year), he'll garner the second-most MIP votes this spring.

19. Giannis Antetokounmpo Will Finish Third in Rookie of the Year Voting

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    Despite their teams' respective dismal records, Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams and Orlando Magic combo guard Victor Oladipo are a lock to finish first and second in the Rookie of the Year race, in some order.

    MCW burst onto the scene with 22 points, 12 assists, nine steals and seven rebounds against the defending-champion Miami Heat in his season debut, and he is averaging 16.7 points, 6.2 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. Oladipo, meanwhile, is averaging 14.0 points, 4.3 boards, 4.2 dimes and 1.6 steals per game.

    Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke had the inside track on the third-place finish for most of the season, with New York Knicks shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. looming as a dark-horse candidate. However, Milwaukee Bucks do-it-all forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to edge both out for third place in the ROY voting.

    The Greek Freak is averaging 7.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, so he's making nowhere near the day-to-day impact of MCW or Oladipo. However, as Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reports, "most league executives inclined to conduct a re-draft on the class of 2013 wouldn't let him out of the top five."

    "I don't want to be a good player," Antetokounmpo told Wojnarowski. "I want to be a great one."

    The signs of greatness are present in the Greek Freak's game. He's capable of swatting a shot on one end of the court, running a fast break and jamming home a massive dunk, all in one five-second span.

    Given the way he's teased at his potential this year, his paltry per-game averages won't be enough to keep him from finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Once he puts everything together, the rest of the NBA needs to be on high alert.

20. Joakim Noah Will Finish Third in the MVP Race

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    At this point, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are veritable locks to finish first and second in the Most Valuable Player voting in some order. The third spot in the MVP race, however, is much more up for grabs.

    Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin is the front-runner to finish third, per the most recent MVP Ladder from NBA.com's Sekou Smith, but Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah will edge past him over these final few weeks of the season.

    Griffin has been absolutely beasting this year. When Clippers point guard Chris Paul went down with a separated shoulder for 18 games, the former Oklahoma product averaged a preposterous 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.4 steals per night over that span.

    What gives Noah an advantage over Griffin? Defense.

    Griffin averages a whopping 114 points per 100 possessions offensively, but allows opponents to score 103 points per 100 possessions. Noah, on the other hand, averages 111 points per 100 possessions offensively while allowing opponents to only go off for a league-low 96 points per 100 possessions.

    As Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta notes, Noah is in the midst of a Bill Russell-esque season. Without him, the Bulls would be firmly stuck in the lottery instead of battling for home-court advantage in the playoffs. That's ultimately going to help him sneak past Griffin in the MVP race.

21. Taj Gibson Will Win Sixth Man of the Year

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    Depending who you ask, San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili or Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford are likely the two front-runners for this year's Sixth Man of the Year award. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Reggie Jackson may also be in that conversation.

    Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson deserves the nod over all of them.

    As Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley recently noted, six of the past seven Sixth Man of the Year winners have averaged at least 16.8 points per game. If that holds to form this year, Crawford will breeze past the competition and take home the award for the second time in his career.

    However, unlike Crawford, Gibson makes a major impact on defense, too. Bulls opponents are only posting an estimated 100 points per 100 possessions with Gibson on the floor, a full nine points fewer than Crawford can boast.

    Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau recently made Gibson's case to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

    I think that the biggest thing for him is what he has contributed to us winning...The things that he does for us are all team-oriented. He plays great defense, challenges shots, guards everybody, runs the floor hard, sets great screens, does his job, gets deep post position. When the second guy comes, he makes the play. He has gotten comfortable in pick-and-roll situations.

    Five years ago, the idea of a defense-first player taking home the Sixth Man of the Year award would be laughable. Now, in the analytics-infused NBA, it's not so preposterous anymore.

22. Tom Thibodeau Will Win Coach of the Year

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    What Tom Thibodeau has done with the Chicago Bulls this season is nothing short of masterful.

    Chicago entered the year as one of the favorites to knock off the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, as star point guard Derrick Rose returned from a season-long layoff. Rose started the season rusty, but the Bulls gutted out five straight wins in mid-November to jump out to a 6-3 record.

    Two games later, disaster struck, as Rose tore his meniscus against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 22 while making a routine play. The Bulls' 2014 championship hopes went up in smoke due to Rose's body betraying him once more.

    After stumbling to only six more wins through the rest of 2013, Chicago's front office decided to act, sending Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for three future draft picks and Andrew Bynum (who the Bulls would cut the next day). With the squad sitting at 14-18, the trade seemed to signal the start of a rebuilding year.

    Instead, thanks to the collective stubbornness of Thibodeau and Joakim Noah, the Bulls responded by ripping off 26 wins in their next 39 games. They're currently tied with the Toronto Raptors for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, despite being down two of their best players from the start of the season.

    San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a perennial Coach of the Year candidate, but his sustained excellence unfairly takes some luster off yet another 50-win season in the Alamo City. Phoenix Suns rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek deserves credit for far exceeding expectations this season as well, but he hasn't been forced to deal with the same adversity as Thibs.

    Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta made the COY case for Thibodeau back in February, hammering home the same point about overcoming potential landmines. Popovich and Hornacek each have valid cases as well, but Thibs will ultimately win the award for the second time in four seasons.

23. Masai Ujiri Will Be Named Executive of the Year

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    Heading into the final few weeks of the season, Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough is rightfully being considered by some, such as SB Nation's Tom Ziller, as the front-runner to win Executive of the Year honors.

    McDonough landed Eric Bledsoe in a three-team trade this past summer, and he then scored Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a first-round pick from Indiana in exchange for Luis Scola. As if that weren't enough, he also sent Marcin Gortat to Washington for a first-round pick and Emeka Okafor's expiring contract.

    The Suns, who many expected to win around 20 games this season, have already doubled that win total with 10 contests still to come. Phoenix's future looks extraordinarily bright, and it's largely due to McDonough's maneuvers.

    There's one executive even more deserving of praise this season, however: Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri.

    Ujiri, the reigning Executive of the Year, has a great shot to repeat the accomplishment based on what he's done during his first year as the Raptors general manager. Less than three months on the job, he managed to ship out Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks in exchange for three future draft picks, including a 2016 first-rounder.

    That pilfering alone would justify his place here, but Ujiri wasn't done there. In December, with the team at 7-12, he sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in a massive seven-player trade that netted John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes.

    Since that trade, the Raptors have ripped off a 33-19 record, putting them third in the Eastern Conference for now. It takes major fortitude for a GM to ship out a perceived star, but Ujiri's recognition of the addition-by-subtraction potential merits his second straight Executive of the Year Award.

24. Steve Nash Will Not Play Another Game This Season

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    Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash played more games this preseason (seven) than he did through the first three months of the regular season (six).

    Recurring nerve irritation in his back has limited the 40-year-old point guard to only 11 appearances this season. After sitting out from mid-November through the end of January, Nash played four of the Lakers' first five games in February before reaggravating his back. He then missed the team's next 15 contests.

    Nash came back again on March 21, scoring five points and notching 11 assists in 19 minutes against the Washington Wizards. Nerve discomfort once again flared up in his back and right hamstring after that game, however, and he has since missed the Lakers' last three games.

    He told reporters, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, that he's aiming for a return "probably next week," saying that his primary motivation is to beat injured point guard Jordan Farmar back to the court. Once Farmar returns, Nash also joked that there won't be any playing time left for him.

    On one hand, rushing back from the injury is only likely to lead to another setback. As Bleacher Report's Will Carroll noted earlier in March, "there's something of a wave pattern to [Nash's] recovery. With each game, Nash's back is knocked down a few levels and it necessitates a lot of work to get him ready for the next game."

    On the other, the threat of the stretch provision looms large over his head. He needs to prove to the Lakers that he's capable of making it through more than a handful of games at a time without re-injuring himself, or they can't plan on having him being more than a spot contributor in the 2014-15 season.

    Since Los Angeles isn't likely to be a major player in free agency this offseason, keeping Nash around is the team's best bet. Thus, Nash will end up shutting himself down for the year and beginning to prepare his body for the rigors of next season.

25. Andrew Bynum Will Play Another Game This Season

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    Stop me if you've heard this one before: Andrew Bynum is indefinitely sidelined because of problems with his knees.

    The oft-injured big man, who missed the entire 2012-13 season due to ongoing knee issues, shocked the NBA world by playing 24 games with Cleveland in the first two months this year. However, since the Cavaliers traded him to Chicago in early January, he has appeared in just two games (both with the Indiana Pacers).

    Pacers coach Frank Vogel told Pro Basketball Talk's Brett Pollakoff that Bynum "aggravated a previous condition and had some swelling" in his right knee during Indiana's March 15 tilt against the Detroit Pistons. "He's going to be out for a little while," Vogel said ominously.

    Bynum had the knee drained on March 17, per Pacers.com reporter Scott Agness, and was "a little concerned because it's the most fluid he's had there since Finals w/ LA vs Boston." On March 21, the Pacers announced on Twitter that Bynum "has continued soreness and swelling in his right knee and will be out indefinitely."

    "This is what we signed up for," Vogel told Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. "We knew he was a great player with some problem-area knees, (who was) going to be in some times and out some times. We're fully aware of that and we'll be excited whenever we have him in uniform."

    The Pacers are wise to take it slow with Bynum. It's especially meaningless to have him return for a late-regular-season game given the risk of him re-injuring himself.

    However, Indianapolis very well may need him if or when its Eastern Conference Finals series with the Miami Heat rolls around. Don't be surprised to see Bynum playing spot minutes in those contests, even if he's not 100 percent.