7 Second-Half Predictions for 2014-15 NBA Season
The NBA All-Star break is not only a respite for teams and fans, it also represents a turning point in the season. It essentially signifies that the formalities are over, and what was a marathon gradually turns into a sprint to the finish.
Here we are, with about two months remaining in the 2014-15 regular season. We have seen our fair share of surprises, great stories and letdowns. We have witnessed some truly amazing individual performances. This campaign has been, to say the least, remarkably entertaining and implausibly unpredictable.
But now we have reached the stage where all of that auxiliary fluff is basically rendered immaterial. What matters now is which ballclubs are going to take that next step over the final days leading up to the playoffs. As the saying goes, the cream rises to the top, so it's time to see whose dreams are legitimate and weed out the pretenders.
It should be an action-packed conclusion, so channel your inner Terrell Owens and getcha popcorn ready. It's time to make some predictions.
The Atlanta Hawks Will Finish with the League's Best Record
As it stands, the 43-11 Atlanta Hawks own the second-best record in the NBA behind the 42-9 Golden State Warriors, but when the season ends April 15, I don't believe the standings will reflect that. This has nothing to do with which is the better team and everything to do with conference strength.
Atlanta plays 17 of its 28 remaining games against the East, and of its 11 contests versus Western Conference opponents, only six will involve teams currently in the playoffs.
By contrast, just 12 of the Warriors' 31 remaining games will match them up against East squads. Of their 19 dates with fellow West clubs, 12 of them will be against teams currently in the postseason. That is certainly not an enviable task.
Let's also keep in mind the fact that Golden State coach Steve Kerr has already stated he plans on periodically resting his defensive anchor, Andrew Bogut, and versatile reserve, Andre Iguodala, much like Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does with his stars, per Diamond Leung of the Contra Costa Times.
"Whether it's Pop or anybody else, to me, it's common sense," Kerr said of limiting his players' minutes. "And when you get into a long stretch, and you're fortunate enough to be able to mix and manage, then you just do it. It makes sense in the long run."
When you take that into account along with schedule difficulty, it makes too much sense to predict Atlanta will finish with the better record. Is there anyone outside of the greater Atlanta area who felt we would be having this discussion this season? Actually, let me rephrase that: Is there anyone at all who thought so?
The Indiana Pacers Will Make the Playoffs
It seems absurd to imagine that a 21-33 team has a shot of making the playoffs, but such is life in the Eastern Conference in 2014-15.
The Indiana Pacers have managed (and I use that term loosely) to hang in the postseason hunt despite losing Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to a horrific broken leg over the summer. They have done so with a familiar formula: defense and rebounding.
While the Pacers defense isn't as elite as it has been in past years, it is still 11th in efficiency and ranks seventh in rebounding. That has been good enough to keep the Pacers afloat in the lackluster East, and on top of that, they recently received some good news regarding George.
"I want to [play this season]," George said, via Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk. "March 1st was the date I wanted to be able to full on practice without limitations or restrictions, and from there see where things go. But mid-March is ideally where I want to be able to make a comeback and play my first game."
Now, obviously, there are no guarantees, but let's assume George does come back for the final month of the regular season. Right now, Indiana sits three games back in the loss column of the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat for the seventh and eighth seeds, respectively. With both the Hornets and Heat dealing with injuries of their own, you have to like the Pacers' chances of sneaking into the dance.
Roy Hibbert has bounced back fairly well after a disastrous second half of 2013-14, David West has been his normal, consistent self, and George Hill has quietly had a very productive year, posting a true shooting percentage of 57.8, an effective field-goal percentage of 54 and .206 win shares per 48 minutes.
Outside of the Hornets and Heat, the Pacers' competition includes ballclubs like the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons. I'll roll the dice on Indiana there.
So Will the Oklahoma City Thunder
The 2014-15 campaign has been a struggle to say the least for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They have been ravaged by injuries, with Kevin Durant missing 27 games and Russell Westbrook sitting out 14 contests. They have also dealt with inconsistency, even when their two stars have been healthy. But despite all of that, the Thunder find themselves tied in the loss column with the Phoenix Suns for eighth place in the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City is 18-9 when Durant and Westbrook play, posting some impressive wins (Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies) and also registering some tough losses (home versus the New Orleans Pelicans, losing by 21 to the Sacramento Kings).
With the Suns struggling (3-7 over their last 10) and the Pelicans having to manage injuries to their two best players (Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday) on and off throughout the season, you have to like OKC's chances now that it is healthy.
After all, this is a Thunder team that went 59-23 last season and has won five of its last six games, including blowout victories over the Los Angeles Clippers (sans Blake Griffin) and Grizzlies.
Of course, the trade deadline is also quickly approaching, and Oklahoma City could always make a move to improve its ballclub. Per Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders, OKC general manager Sam Presti has serious interest in Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez, a player who would certainly make the Thunder a more formidable team offensively.
Oklahoma City may not be the same squad we remember from the past several years, but do not bet against this team making the playoffs. When you consider its competition and the fact that its stars are on the floor and playing at a high level, you would be better off putting your money on the Thunder rather than the inexperienced Suns or Pelicans.
The Chicago Bulls Will Win the Central Division
It has been a topsy-turvy season for the Chicago Bulls, as the ballclub has been forced to endure injuries, inconsistent play and a reportedly strained relationship between head coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
However, the Bulls still find themselves atop the Central Division standings and headed into the All-Star break winners of four straight games, including a 113-98 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The current winning streak is vital for Chicago, as it had lost three straight contests prior. One of those losses was an unexpected 123-118 double-overtime defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
One of the primary culprits of the Bulls' up-and-down campaign has been a strangely mediocre defense. Normally a stalwart on that end of the floor, Chicago ranks just 13th in defensive efficiency and 12th in points allowed.
Much of that is probably due to Joakim Noah's balky knee, but the Bulls have been noticeably more lethargic on the defensive end this year. However, Chicago has shown signs of turning things around, as it is allowing just 88.3 points per game during its winning streak.
Given the team's collective experience and talent level, the Bulls still have to be considered favorites in the Central Division, despite the Cavaliers' recent improvement. Pau Gasol has recorded 14 consecutive double-doubles, Derrick Rose looks like he suddenly has an extra spring in his step, and Jimmy Butler continues to dazzle with the giant leap he has taken.
Chicago, which has been criticized by its own players for a lack of effort at certain points, has definitely picked things up lately, and Thibodeau has pointed out sacrifice is key. Per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Who says it’s the best talent? You play the games, and that’s what you find out. You find out who you are and who’s willing to pay the price and who’s willing to work and who’s willing to do the job for the team. Who’s willing to sacrifice?
And by the end, it’s the team that’s willing to make the commitment. So we’ll see.
Right now, the Bulls are up two games on Cleveland in the loss column. Expect them to maintain that lead throughout the remainder of the season.
The Houston Rockets Will Fall in the Standings
The Houston Rockets have been somewhat of a surprise this season.
Expected by many to take a step back after losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin over the summer, the Rockets own a 36-17 record at the All-Star break and are currently tied for third in the Western Conference.
Don't expect that to last too much longer.
No, Howard has not been the same player we have come to know over the years, but he is averaging 16.3 points and 11 rebounds per game while making Houston nearly five points better per 100 possessions defensively when he is on the floor.
So, regardless of his decline, Howard is still an integral member of the Rockets and is unquestionably the team's second-best player behind James Harden. Houston does have a bit more depth than last season with Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, so it is certainly more equipped to handle this situation, but Howard is essentially irreplaceable.
Without Howard, the Rockets will have an awfully difficult time holding off the Dallas Mavericks and the Spurs in the Southwest Division, and the Portland Trail Blazers are also a threat to bypass them in the standings.
Harden is good enough to keep Houston afloat in Howard's absence, but that won't be enough to hold the No. 3 spot. Keeping itself in the top five will be difficult enough, and the fact that it trudged into the All-Star break by going 3-3 over its last six games is evidence of that. Those three losses were all by double figures, including a 114-101 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Pistons.
The Cleveland Cavaliers Will Make an Early Playoff Exit
Things are bright in Cleveland right now.
The Cavaliers have won 14 of their last 16 games, LeBron James is looking better, and the trades that brought Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to town have clearly sparked the team. However, this does not mean Cleveland is suddenly a title contender, as issues remain.
First of all, the Cavs rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, and while Mozgov and Shumpert have made the Cavaliers slightly better on that end of the floor, they haven't moved the needle too much. As a matter of fact, since Cleveland acquired Mozgov on Jan. 7, it ranks 20th.
Second, Kevin Love is still having a heck of a time integrating himself into the offense. The big man is shooting only 42.9 percent from the floor and is converting on only 34.5 percent of his three-point attempts. It also doesn't help that James seemed to take a subtle shot at Love on Twitter, making a remark that appeared to be directed at a comment Love made back in October about "fitting out" rather than "fitting in."
Depth remains a concern for the Cavaliers, as well.
As it stands, Cleveland would play the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs, a team that is no doubt a worthy adversary. It would then potentially have to deal with the Hawks in the second round.
The Cavs are undoubtedly loaded with talent and have one of the game's more explosive offensive trios with James, Love and Kyrie Irving, but Love still hasn't fully acclimated, and you have to wonder if he ever will. Plus, unless the Cavaliers suddenly become a top-10 defensive club, none of that even matters.
It seems hard to envision this squad beating Atlanta in the postseason, and dealing with a team such as the Wizards or Chicago Bulls in the opening round will be challenging enough.
The future may be bright, but don't expect big things from Cleveland in the 2015 playoffs. The team just isn't ready yet.
The San Antonio Spurs Will Repeat as NBA Champions
The defending champion Spurs had a very strange first half of the season.
They had to deal with injuries up and down the roster, weathered a crazy month of December that featured an inordinate number of back-to-backs against difficult opponents and have almost been forgotten about in the rugged Western Conference.
However, San Antonio has quietly gone 34-19 and is tied in the loss column for the fifth seed. The biggest problem for the Spurs early on was the hand and eye injuries that forced Kawhi Leonard to miss 18 games. In those contests, San Antonio went 9-9. Do the math. That means when Leonard is healthy, the team is 25-10.
The Spurs also rank third in defensive efficiency, so they remain dominant in the most important facet of the game.
While it cannot be proved by any statistical measure, it seems fairly safe to say that San Antonio has been coasting thus far. In addition to all of the injuries the Spurs have had to fight through, head coach Gregg Popovich has rested his players periodically, and San Antonio was only 18-13 through its first 31 contests.
Since then, the Spurs have played better basketball (they have gone 16-6 over their last 22), as they have gotten healthier and have displayed an inkling of urgency. Remember: Popovich was actually worried about his team getting complacent this season.
"I'm worried for one reason. They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied," said Popovich via Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News back in September.
It's perfectly understandable, too. The Spurs were on a mission to reclaim what they thought was rightfully theirs in 2013-14. This season, there just isn't that distinct motivating factor other than winning back-to-back titles for the first time.
All of that being said, I firmly believe that San Antonio is still the best team in the league when healthy, and I also believe the team may have a 10- to 15-game winning streak in it much like last year.
Tim Duncan is playing at an extremely high level, Leonard is healthy, Cory Joseph and Aron Baynes have broken out to add even more depth to an already deep ballclub, and we are now starting to move past the "dog days" of the NBA season and into the home stretch.
While we have seen flashes of their greatness over the first few months, we have not seen the very best of the Spurs yet, and we may not fully see it until the first round of the playoffs rolls around. Let's also keep in mind that San Antonio has stepped its game up against top competition this season.
The Spurs are one of only two teams to beat the Warriors at Oracle Arena, and they did it by 13 points. They also own road wins against the Grizzlies, Clippers and Cavaliers and have beaten every team that is currently in the Western Conference playoffs.
So, we must ask ourselves this question: Is there any team in the league capable of besting San Antonio in a seven-game series?
Until it happens, the Spurs must be deemed the favorites, and the thought here is that they repeat as NBA champions. Too much defense, too much depth, too much experience.