NBA 2015 Midseason Roundtable: Best, Worst of First Half; What's to Come

Bleacher Report StaffFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2015

NBA 2015 Midseason Roundtable: Best, Worst of First Half; What's to Come

0 of 11

    USA TODAY Sports

    The 2014-15 NBA season has been filled with surprises (Atlanta Hawks), dominant performances (Golden State Warriors) and questions with few answers (Cleveland Cavaliers). 

    Which players and teams have made the greatest impact through the season's first half? Will the Cavs look back at this season with a smile or a frown? Who looks poised to be playing for the Larry O'Brien trophy in June?

    B/R's team of NBA senior writersHoward Beck, Ric Bucher, Kevin Ding, Ethan Skolnick and Jared Zwerlingweighs in on those questions and a lot more as the 2014-15 season hits its midpoint.   

1. Who Was the First-Half MVP?

1 of 11

    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Beck: Stephen Curry. In a packed MVP field, Curry stands above the rest, as the high-scoring (22.9 points per game), playmaking (8.0 assists per game), incredibly efficient (.627 true shooting percentage) engine of the Golden State Warriors, the hottest team of the first half. Klay Thompson's growth and Draymond Green's emergence have been key, but it's Curry who makes the Warriors elite. My top runner-ups also come from the much more strenuous Western Conference: James Harden, Houston; Marc Gasol, Memphis.

    Bucher: Curry. For the longest time, I've questioned if he's even the best Splash Brother. While Thompson is playing at an All-Star level and may one day prove me prescient, Steph is playing inspired defense, seeing the floor and making plays as well as he ever has, and after a slow shooting start, he is closing in on the coveted and rare 50-40-90 shooting percentage trifecta. He is the Warriors' leader in every way. Best player + leader on the best team in the league = MVP.   

    Ding: Curry. It's a great feeling to be able to endorse a new face on the scene of superstardom on his own merits. Instead of us canvassing rosters for someone after Kevin Durant sat out and LeBron James stepped back, Curry has been emerged as a full-fledged leader whose sweet scoring and timely passing has been supplemented by legit defensive value (two-plus steals per game!) for the best team in the league.

    Skolnick: With last year's top two (Durant, James) felled by injuries and the inconsistent play of their teams, and the most statistically eye-popping player (Anthony Davis) still not in the playoff picture, there's no one clearly separate from the rest. But, for now, it's Curry, over a slew of other point guards (John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard), a pair of Gasols (Marc and Pau), Jimmy Butler, Harden, and Davis, in no particular order. Curry's three-point percentage is down some, but his assists have held steady, and he's been among the league leaders in steals all season, with his greater diversity propelling one of the West powers.

    Zwerling: Harden. For the 27-11 Rockets, he leads the league in scoring (a career-high 26.9 points per game), and capitalizing at the stripe (7.9-of-8.8 attempts, at nearly 90 percent). He's a team player, too, dishing out a career-high 6.6 assists per game, and he's improved his defensive rating to 99.3 after being the subject of constant social media mockery for his lazy defense. The pivotal part? He averaged 29.1 points, 6.1 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals during a stretch from November to December to help his team go 8-3, keeping them competitive in the challenging West without his star sidekick, Dwight Howard.

2. Who Was the Least Valuable Player of the Season's First Half?

2 of 11

    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Beck: Josh Smith. A quick review: Detroit Pistons start the season 5-23. Pistons waive Smith and eat the $27 million left on his contract. Pistons promptly go on seven-game winning streak and win nine of their first 10 sans Smith, with the only loss coming at the hands of the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks. Were there other factors, such as schedule strength and the return of three-point ace Jodie Meeks? Sure. Is Josh Smith the root of all evil? No. Was his ball-dominating, efficiency-killing play a problem? Unquestionably. Are the Pistons better off without him? It's hard to argue otherwise.

    Bucher: Andrew Wiggins. The No. 1 pick has played in all 36 games and only has won five? To me, there's a difference between good and valuable. I know he's young and showing a lot of promise, and the Timberwolves have been hampered by injuries, but Wiggins was touted to be a franchise player, a superstar, and certainly more than his predecessor, Anthony Bennett. A lot more. When? Wiggins is averaging 21.7 points per game in January and the Wolves have gone 0-for-the-month. For all of his numbers, his team is still not winning. Good? Yes. Valuable? That's up for debate.

    Ding: Lance Stephenson. Josh Smith is getting most of the "credit" in this area these days, but Stephenson can't be topped with his combination of individual and team failure after a lot of offseason hype. His one-on-one tendencies have had a poisonous effect on a team that made the playoffs last season by playing together and relying on a less talented Chris Douglas-Roberts, as they lost 10 consecutive games almost out of the gate this season and showed no fourth-quarter mettle whatsoever. Stephenson's 38.6 percent field-goal shooting, trade speculation and now his pelvis injury have been an epic drain.

    Skolnick: While it's tempting to give this to Smith because of Pistons' success following his subtraction, Stephenson blows him out of the water since Charlotte actually looked like a decent team prior to his arrival. The Hornets' prized free agent acquisition shot 38.6 percent in his first 25 games, only six of which Charlotte won, and he was a disappointing minus-7.9 per 100 possessions. Then he left the lineup with an injury, and Charlotte won four straight.

    Zwerling: Stephenson. After signing a three-year, $27 million contract with the Hornets over the summer, he told me he was "very hyped" for the chance to be an All-Star back home in New York City this season, and that he didn't "want to have any problems" like in Indiana. While those problems haven't been a fight with a teammate or blowing in an opponent's ear, he found them on the court, shooting 38.6 percent after nearly 50 percent in 2013-14. And the Hornets went 6-19before he suffered a pelvic injuryprompting the team, who made the playoffs last season, to reportedly explore trade options, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein.

3. What Has Been the Biggest Surprise So Far?

3 of 11

    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Beck: The Rockets. Everything about them, but especially their record (27-11) and their defensive prowess (No. 2 in defensive efficiency). Remember, the Rockets were universally mocked last summer after losing key pieces Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin while failing to land Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Some pundits (ahem) predicted they'd fall to seventh or eighth in the West. But their signing of Trevor Ariza has proved brilliant, and the Rockets have refashioned themselves as a defense-first teamand a legitimate title contender.

    Bucher: The Warriors getting off to a franchise-best start under Steve Kerr. The Bucks are a surprise in a good way and the Hornets in a bad way but they're in the East, where nothing is all that shocking. Not only are the Dubs winning, they have been dominant, reflected by their double-digit point differential.

    Ding: Atlanta Hawks. You knew some no-name team in the Eastern Conference was going to have a better record than expected, but not too many were climbing on the bandwagon of a team with fledgling fan support, racial controversy from general manager Danny Ferry and top player Al Horford coming off pectoral surgery. But just about everyone on this roster of unheralded guys is doing consistently excellent stuff, which is a credit to head coach Mike Budenholzer and yet another testament to Gregg Popovich's Spurs management tree.

    Skolnick: Atlanta Hawks? No. Shouldn't be. They were third in the East before Horford's season-ending injury in 2013-14, and Budenholzer had put a system in place. New York Knicks? We should have seen that disaster coming, too. But did you expect the Portland Trail Blazers to follow up on last season's playoff performance by significantly improving their defense with virtually the same group of players, jumping from 16th to third? Someone has to fall in the West for Oklahoma City to make the playoffs, but the Blazers have guarded well enough to make sure it won't be them.

    Zwerling: The Knicks. No one—and I mean no onethought they would be worse than the Sixers this season. And yet, here we are. One of the last words in owner James Dolan's vocabulary has been "rebuilding." That's now what's happening, as the once-dictator, who used to be heavily involved in personnel decisions and had a win-now mentality, has conceded to Phil Jackson. The team president unloaded J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland, and then waived all three new acquisitions in the trade. Now the Knicks are a complete tank job, banking on this summer to reload.

4. At Season's End, Will the Cavs Look Back at It as a Success or Failure?

4 of 11

    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Beck: Failure. I'll be the first to say (and I have, since the summer) that it's unreasonable to expect a slapped-together team of stars, with a thin supporting cast and a rookie coach, to contend for a title in Year 1. Unreasonable, but it's what fans, commentators and odds-makers expected anyway. So if the Cavs fall in the second round, which seems entirely possible, this season will be viewed as a failure. That's the burden and the consequence of having LeBron James on the roster. Anything short of winning a title will always be a disappointment.

    Bucher: Unmitigated success. LeBron came home, they acquired one of the best power forwards in the game and they'll be in the playoffs unless something catastrophic happens. I know expectations were a lot higher than that, but considering where Cleveland has been, how can being relevant again be anything other than a success?

    Ding: Failure. If you're a championship favorite and don't win the championship, it's a disaster. If you aren't even any good, it's a humiliating disaster. There are a lot of similarities so far between these Cavaliers and the anointed 2012-13 Lakers of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. It takes time for a team to grow together, especially without a proven great coach and good health—and Kevin Love's inability to grow as a team guy has been reminiscent of Howard's failure with the Lakers.

    Skolnick: They will likely look back on it as a success, provided they get bounced no earlier than the second round, which currently seems the most likely outcome. They will rationalize the early exit by referencing the newness of their roster at the start of the season, followed by the significant roster revamp in January. That doesn't mean, however, that the public needs to view it that way. And if Love leaves, after Anthony Wiggins wins Rookie of the Year, it will look much, much worse.

    Zwerling: A failure. LeBron, Love, Kyrie Irving and Co. struggled before James shut it down for several weeks with knee soreness, and I'm not convinced that Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are the missing pieces the Cavaliers needed earlier in the season. While several league insiders have questioned the Cavaliers' effort defensively, they still lack size, an identity, chemistry and widespread playoff experience. It's also not reassuring that James recently said, "I haven't felt great all year." They will be tested by the Bulls, Hawks, Raptors and Wizards—four deep and seasoned teams that can bring the heat on both ends of the court.

5. Who's Had a More Interesting Comeback, Kobe Bryant or Derrick Rose?

5 of 11

    Bart Young/Getty Images

    Beck: Kobe, by far. Kobe has always inspired a mix of love and hate, and his comeback has given us Peak Kobe Polarization. He's been spectacular: 30-point games! A 44-point game! A triple-double! Passed Michael Jordan! He's been ghastly: 1-of-14! Ten turnovers! A .375 field-goal percentage! But he has never failed to be interesting, single-handedly justifying the networks' devotion to the Lakers as a staple of their national broadcasts. The Lakers are terrible, and Kobe often is too, but they're must-see TV despite it all. That Kobe is now reeling himself in and becoming the facilitator we'd hoped he would be just makes him that much more compelling.

    Bucher: Kobe. Leading the league in scoring at the start of the season and then reinventing himself on the fly into more of a distributor is far more interesting than figuring out whether the Bulls are being ultra-cautious or Rose really isn't physically prepared to play more than he has. Kobe has made us forget that he had an Achilles tear, one of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can have, even in this era of modern sports medicine.

    Ding: Bryant. For good and bad, Bryant has been reality TV, as usual. He casts a shadow over all other things Lakers, whereas the Bulls have almost moved on from Rose toward a bigger team greatness. Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler have made Rose's life pretty easy, and Rose has been able to execute his plan to go slow and never empty his tank. Brace yourself in the playoffs, however, for Rose to find some shows he's ready to steal.

    Skolnick: While it's been frustrating to watch Rose at times, as he's been in and out of the lineup and is posting assist and shooting percentage numbers not all that different from those of Norris Cole, it's been fascinating to observe Bryant, and not just during the latter's must-hear post-game interviews. Bryant, trying to cheat Father Time and find meaning in a lost cause, while playing with a clownish cast of characters, has been great theatereven if the Lakers' play is no longer worthy of the big stage.

    Zwerling: Kobe. Every game he plays, every media scrum he's in, every teammate interaction he has—it's been nothing but captivating and authentic. Bryant has been unfiltered all season. In many ways, it's as if Bryant, who's opened up more later in his career, has become the spokesperson of the league—from discussing concerns about some reporters ("They want to write for content's sake or click-through sake") to how AAU basketball needs to be fixed ("It doesn't teach our kids how to play the game at all"). Passing Jordan on the all-time scoring list added to his intrigue this season.

6. What Is the Biggest Regret from the 2014 Offseason?

6 of 11

    USA TODAY Sports

    Beck: Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks renewing their vows. This has been a rocky marriage from the start, but their decision to recommit over the summer was understandable. The Knicks needed star power, even with a rebuild coming. Anthony got $124 million to stay— many millions more than any rival could offer. But the Knicks are a disaster, and it's another lost season for the soon-to-be 31-year-old Carmelo, who could have been contending for a title with the Bulls or the Rockets. And though it's nice to have a star to build around, the Knicks might have been better off letting Anthony walk (clearing more cap room in 2015), or using him in a sign-and-trade (to gain picks and young players). Sometimes, divorce is the best option.

    Bucher: Paul George playing with Team USA and getting injured.

    Ding: Carmelo not signing with the Chicago Bulls. But Anthony's narrow vision and New York fancy are marks of who he is, so he took the easy way out and went back to the Knicks. Even Anthony has to be realizing now, though, how great life would've been for him inside the winning climate of Chicago under Tom Thibodeau with talent all around him. Even if Anthony's knee was hurting with the Bulls, it's not totally crazy to think he could've sat out the season and still gotten a ring! Instead, Anthony's image is the same as it ever was, and his future at age 30 is only getting darker.

    Skolnick: Simple: The Miami Heat not seeing LeBron James' departure coming. The question is whether James is starting to regret departing, as he's left a stable organization for one forever in flux? We may not get the answer until years down the road.

    Zwerling: Carmelo should've signed with the Bulls. For one, the basketball world could've enjoyed seeing Anthony and LeBron go head-to-head in the Eastern Conference Finals over the next few seasons. But to play alongside Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, and learn defensive secrets from Thibodeau would've provided Anthony his best chance to win a title. Now he's 30 years old and about to go through a major rebuild in New York. And it's unlikely that top free agents like Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge will leave their current posts this summer. Phil Jackson has his work cut out for him.

7. Who Will Win the East?

7 of 11

    Randy Belice/Getty Images

    Beck: Chicago, without question. My opinion on the East race hasn't changed since the summer. The Bulls have always had the best overall talent, the best chemistry, the best depth and the best coach among the presumed contenders. They are proven as an elite defensive team, which the Cavs are not. They have three elite big men (Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson); the Wizards and Raptors do not. They're battle-tested. The Hawks are not. They have every quality you would want: inside scoring, three-point shooting, guards who can penetrate and create off the dribble. And their core has been together for years. I expect the Cavs to hit their stride sometime in the second half, but even with their recent reinforcements, they will not be able to match the Bulls.

    Bucher: Let's face it; the East is a crapshoot in every way. I'm going with the Bulls because I still believe Derrick Rose will be the force he's shown flashes of being and that, collectively, they have the postseason experience, defense, IQ and mental toughness to excel in the postseason. But every team is vulnerable and matchups in the postseason could be the deciding factor.

    Ding: Chicago. As sharp as GM David Griffin's latest moves to bolster the flawed Cavaliers roster were, it will again take time for the new players to come together. And despite Timofey Mozgov's metrics as a rim protector, if he was ready to be a truly consistent game-changer, he would've been playing a lot more in Denver. The impact of Jimmy Butler's development into one of the game's elite players all of a sudden can't be overstated for Chicago: Wing players who can create shots and guard guys bigger or smaller make such a difference in the playoffs.

    Skolnick: Toronto, Washington and Atlanta have all proved their legitimacy early, and the Raptors and Wizards did so amid some adversity, with DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal and Nene all missing significant time. Cleveland may be dangerous by late spring, if the in-season reboot works, and LeBron James gets back to the top of his game. But the choice now is Chicago, which now no longer needs a dominant Rose, not with Pau playing at his highest level in five years, Butler becoming a two-way star and European import Nikola Mirotic living up to the hype. The Bulls look like they're finally ready to leave the ghost of MJ behind, and get back to the NBA Finals for the first time in 17 years.  

    Zwerling: The Hawks. A season after nearly upsetting the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs as the eighth seed, the Hawksthe Spurs of the Easthave made major strides this season. While the return of starting center Al Horford and the addition of veteran defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha have helped, the key ingredients have been the unique spacing and movement coaching style of Mike Budenholzer, who learned under Gregg Popovich for 18 seasons, and the special chemistry of the team. As DeMarre Carroll told me recently, "I've never been on a team that will pass the ball from a good shot to a great shot. We all know our roles."

8. Who Will Win the West?

8 of 11

    USA TODAY Sports

    Beck: Honestly, I could make a case for eight teams. The West is that good. (I'm assuming the Thunder as the eighth team, in place of the Suns.) Call me a prisoner of the moment, but I'm now fascinated by Dallas. The Mavericks had the most dynamic offense in the NBA, by a lot, before acquiring Rajon Rondo and his dazzling passing skills. Their offense remains lethal, but it's the Mavs' defensewhich ranked near the bottom 10 pre-Rondothat has benefited most. Dallas has posted a top-10 defensive rating since Rondo's arrival. With Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons sharing the scoring load with Dirk Nowitzki, and Rondo and Tyson Chandler anchoring the defense, this group looks potent and built for the long haul.

    Bucher: The Spurs. I can't help but feel as if they're banking whatever energy they have left for the postseason, knowing their objective is to go to a third straight Finals. Getting into the postseason is really all that matters to them because that's all they need. The Warriors are legit and they have as much motivation to knock off the Spurs as anyone, but I'm a little worried they're like the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets squad that rolled through the regular season to a third seedand then were shocked when the game slowed down and they had to play a string of games decided by a handful of points or less. The Warriors upset that same Nuggets squad in the first round that year.

    Ding: Golden State. I'm sticking with my preseason NBA Finals matchup: Bulls and Warriors. Steve Kerr has given the Warriors that hard-to-find synergy—freedom but accountability—and it's hard to envision how that will be lost. Andrew Bogut's health will be key, for sure. Bogut helps keep so much together at both ends of the floor for the Warriors, and his defense in the slower halfcourt playoff games will be vital. But the Warriors can win in many different ways, and they have many different players who can rise up for big games or key plays at opportune times.

    Skolnick: All of them? You can make a case for eight teams, including one, Oklahoma City, that's not currently in the playoffs. Much of this will come down to matchups. But each team has at least one potentially fatal flaw. Until Bogut proves he can stay healthy through an entire postseason for Golden State, and Memphis shows it can shoot well enough when it matters, and Dallas shows consistent grit on the defensive end, I'll stick with the champs, battered as they've been. San Antonio, for now.

    Zwerling: The Warriors. Starting power forward David Lee goes down, not a problem. Starting center Bogut then goes down, same thing. Not only do the Warriors have depth, but they also have the best backcourt in the league in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and their young role players, especially Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, have vastly improved. Now, Lee, Bogut, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are all coming off the bench. It almost doesn't seem fair. The Warriors have plenty of talent, size and experience to beat anyone in the West. The big question is: Can Kerr survive his first playoffs coaching?

9. Which Player or Coach Deserves the Most Sympathy?

9 of 11

    USA TODAY Sports

    Beck: Michael Malone, who rightfully should still be coaching the Sacramento Kings. His firing in December remains baffling and tough to justify. The Kings were off to their best start in years, and were getting MVP-type production from DeMarcus Cousins, who had been a problem child in his first four seasons. Malone was the first coach to reach Cousins, and a key influence in the revival of Rudy Gay. Cousins missed 10 games with viral meningitis, sending the Kings into a tailspin and giving ownership a pretext to fire him. Sure, Malone is now at home earning a healthy salary, but he undoubtedly would rather be drawing up plays for Cousins.

    Bucher: Brett Brown. He knew what the plan was when he accepted the job, but there's no way he could've anticipated how routinely awful it would be. Brown cut his NBA teeth in the Spurs' organization, which is all about playing fundamentally sound basketball every minute of the day. I'm guessing he can remember all the quality minutes of basketball the Sixers have played, because even with three wins in their last four games, there haven't been many this season.

    Ding: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City. Although I still give Oklahoma City a shot at coming all the way back from its rocky start and being there at the end, things are starting to feel stale. Durant's injury should've opened the door for Russell Westbrook to grow, but instead Westbrook got hurt, too. And amid all that opportunity, Serge Ibaka has often disappeared and become just another jump-shooting big man. Durant is a winner who hasn't won because the system and pieces and timing haven't quite worked around him, and he's going to be faced with the tough decision in 2016 free agency of disappointing a place for which he has come to care deeply.

    Skolnick: Derek Fisher. If only Steve Kerr had saved him the trouble. 

    Zwerling: Fisher. He wasn't even the first coaching choice for Phil Jacksonit was Kerr, who nearly took the Knicks job. Now, Fisher, who looks to be in good enough shape to keep playing, has to helplessly watch his team get blown out every night—and it's only mid-January. Understandably, it's now a rebuilding situation, but Fisher is a first-year head coach who signed up with the playoffs in mind. He's now having to go from teaching the Triangle to giving youth clinic-like pep talks, like in a recent timeout against the Rockets, saying, "lt's basketball….You can play the game." Oh, boy.

10. What Storyline Tires You?

10 of 11

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Beck: Tanking, and all of the kvetching and moralizing it evokes. As I wrote last year, it's not nearly as prevalent as it's been purported to be, nor as damaging as some shrill commentators insist. At least this season, the hand-wringing has been confined to a single team, the 76ers, the one franchise that has been truly, methodically tanking for the last 18 months. The Knicks now get thrown into the discussion because they dumped a few players, but they were a train wreck before those moves. The Knicks came by their awful record organicallyby investing in the wrong guys. No team other than the 76ers was intentionally designed to fail. My fervent hope is that the 76ers get their top-three pick in June and start spending that cap room this summer, sparing us all from another season of tank talk.

    Bucher: The Cavs and their title chances. They have an NBA neophyte for a head coach, an old bench and a worn-down superstar, and yet everything they do has been gauged by how close or far away it makes them to a championship. They're not championship material. Let's stop talking about them as if they are.

    Ding: J.R. Smith. He has gotten outsized attention for scoring points in New York and having non-basketball issues. He now gets a new platform near LeBron's spotlight after being traded to the Cavaliers. Here comes the speculation of how good Smith could be. Bottom line, Smith is a wasted talent. He has settled for being just good enough instead of working to get better. People are still waiting for him to put the basics together. He's an 11-year NBA veteran. Please.

    Skolnick: Upcoming free agency. It's gotten to the point where we don't enjoy the season anymore. It's all about who might move where next, especially if the big market teams (Knicks, Lakers) are positioning for space. Stop worrying where Marc Gasol's going this summer. Just enjoy what he's doing now.

    Zwerling: That the game has changed with more speed, shooters, stretch 4s and 5s, and scoring point guards. The game started changing years ago. It's not a new storyline any more. We'll just have the pleasure of listening to the old heads, like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, continue to take fun jabs at the evolution.

11. One Bold Prediction for the Second Half of the Season?

11 of 11

    USA TODAY Sports

    Beck: That Fred Carter's claim to fameas a key member of the worst team in NBA historywill be safe for another year. Carter played for the 76ers squad that went 9-73 in the 1972-73 season, the worst mark in the 82-game era. As he told me a few years ago, with a perverse sense of pride, "Immortality only comes in so many different ways." Three current teams have a shot at the record: the Knicks (5-35), the 76ers (7-29) and the Timberwolves (5-31). It's hard to imagine any of them winning much in the second half, particularly the Knicks, who will likely shut down Carmelo Anthony. But the NBA schedule creates many losseswith back-to-backs, brutal cross-country road trips and other odditiesmaking it likely that these woebegone teams will win some games by accident, just by catching opponents at the right/wrong time.

    Bucher: LeBron will spend at least one more extended (two weeks or more) stretch on the injured list.

    Ding: The defending champion San Antonio Spurs will lose in the first round of the playoffs. As much as they're trying to save energy for that time of year and how great these guys can be playing together, the grind of two consecutive NBA Finals runs takes its toll. The Western Conference is so good that whomever the Spurs face in the first round will be solid or even outstanding. Don't even rule out the possibility that Oklahoma City moves into the top eight in the West, and it's San Antonio instead of Phoenix that doesn't even qualify for the playoffs.

    Skolnick: The Detroit Pistons will make the playoffs. This isn't as bold as it was on Dec. 9, when they started 3-19. But it would still go down as one of the greater regular-season comebacks in recent history. Along with the Heat starting 0-7 in 2003-04, and rallying back to 42-40, a fourth seed and the second round. Coach of that team? Stan Van Gundy. It takes some time, but eventually he builds that bleepin' wall.

    Zwerling: That, once again, the Spurs will defy their aging and doubters—there are ones out there every seasonand defend their championship. The key is Tony Parker, who's been unhealthy this season. If he regains his form, the Spurs will be right in the mix among the best come playoff time.

    All statistics and records via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.


X