Predictions for NBA's Top Superstars and Teams the Rest of the Way

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2020

Predictions for NBA's Top Superstars and Teams the Rest of the Way

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The NBA All-Star break happens closer to two-thirds of the way through the season than halfway. As difficult as it may be to believe, we're closing in on the playoffs.

    Standings in both the Eastern and Western Conferences are coming into focus (or, at the very least, most of the chaff has been separated from the postseason wheat).

    Contenders for individual awards—MVP, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player—have emerged.

    Predicting the outcomes of any of the above is far from scientific, but that won't prevent us from trying. How will some important playoff races shake out? Who will secure end-of-the-year awards? Those answers, as well as a few other miscellaneous predictions, are found below.

Bucks Hit 70

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    The league-best Milwaukee Bucks are on pace for 69.9 wins. But since the league isn't in the habit of handing out nine-tenths of a win, let's just predict they get to 70.

    The road to that number will have potholes. The Bucks' remaining strength of schedule is the fifth-hardest in the East. Projection systems at Basketball Reference and FiveThirtyEight have them headed to 67 and 65 wins, respectively. They can only afford four more losses if they're going to get to 70. And, at some point, playoff health might come at the expense of a couple of regular-season wins.

    But Milwaukee has been pacing itself all season. Giannis Antetokounmpo's team-leading 30.9 minutes per game rank 71st in the NBA. No other Buck is averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Only four are above 25.

    And yet, Milwaukee is within striking distance of the biggest single-season point differential in league history. Its net points per 100 possessions when Giannis is off the floor (plus-7.1) trails only the Boston Celtics and, well, the Bucks, when plugged into the overall leaderboard.

    As far as historically great teams go—and Milwaukee is a historically great team—this has to be one of the more underrated.

    Even if the Bucks let up on the gas a bit more than they already have, 24-4 the rest of the way is more than in play.

4 Players Join the 300-Threes Club

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Before this season, there were only four campaigns in which an individual player made at least 300 three-pointers: three from Stephen Curry and one from James Harden.

    At the All-Star break, Harden (363), Damian Lillard (314) and Buddy Hield (314) are all on pace to join this exclusive club, assuming they don't miss any more games. Duncan Robinson and Devonte' Graham (287 each) are just off the pace.

    The number of 300-three seasons in NBA history is about to double. Of course, that means Robinson or Graham will have to have decent boosts in volume, efficiency or both the rest of the way. This prediction is calling for just one to do that. Assuming health, Harden, Lillard and Hield feel like safe bets.

    Add this to the long list of ways to illustrate the NBA's recent three-point explosion.

LeBron James Passes Wilt

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    LeBron James has 56 triple-doubles since his 30th birthday. The only players with more in their 30s are Wilt Chamberlain (61) and Jason Kidd (58). He'll pass both by the end of the 2019-20 campaign.

    LeBron's career-high total for triple-doubles in a season is the 18 he registered in 2017-18. He went for a triple-double every 4.6 games. In 2019-20, he has that down to 4.3. At that pace, he'll have 19 for the season and 63 in his 30s by the time the playoffs start.

    How on earth does a 35-year-old player with nearly 60,000 regular- and postseason minutes increase his triple-double output and put up a career-high 10.8 assists per game?

    Anthony Davis helps. Those two make up the NBA's most prolific assist combo. But we probably moved past logical explanations for LeBron's production a long time ago. He's been absurd for his entire career, but he was supposed to slow down at some point.

    Instead, he's found another level as a passer.

    "It's the greatest part of basketball, to be able to see the ball move from side to side, to be able to attract the defense and get your teammates an open shot," LeBron told USA Today's Mark Medina of his lifelong affinity for passing. "I just knew that was the right way to play."

    LeBron has always been a Michael Jordan/Magic Johnson hybrid. More of the latter in the twilight of his career could set him apart from the former in all-timer debates.

76ers Miss Out on Home-Court Advantage

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    On October 6, less than a month before the start of the 2019-20 season, FiveThirtyEight's projection system had the Philadelphia 76ers pegged for a league-leading 58 wins.

    After a 5-0 start, the 76ers' season has taken a roller-coaster ride, as evidenced by their rolling team rating over at NBA Math.

    They sit at a solid 34-21, on pace for 51 wins. That's not bad, but it has them behind four teams in the Eastern Conference and a game-and-a-half out of home-court advantage in the first round.

    For a team many forecast as title contenders, a fifth-place regular-season finish would be a disappointment, but that's likely where Philly will end up.

    Basketball Reference's Playoff Probabilities Report gives the Sixers a 20.6 percent chance at fourth, a 60.6 percent chance at fifth and a 13.4 percent chance at sixth. They have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the conference, but the fourth-place Miami Heat have the third-easiest. And even though the Heat entered the season with significantly less fanfare, fewer questions emerge from Miami's roster.

    Tobias Harris, a 4 who's spent much of this season masquerading as a 3, signed a monster five-year, $180 million contract last summer. He's been a just-above-average player, according to both box plus/minus and FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR rating.

    Al Horford, a 33-year-old center who's spent much of this season masquerading as a forward, signed on for four years and $109 million. The team is minus-0.9 points per 100 possessions (48th percentile) and scoring at a dreadful clip when he shares the floor with Joel Embiid.

    And, of course, there are the questions about Embiid and Ben Simmons. How well do those two fit together? Will Philadelphia eventually have to choose between the two?

    To the Sixers' credit, Horford finally came off the bench in their final game before the All-Star break. That should help with the congestion. Philly's plus-9.4 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) when Embiid is on the floor without Horford. Perhaps the acquisitions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III will help too.

    Even still, after nearly two-thirds of the season has gone by, the teams ahead of the Sixers—Milwaukee, the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics and Miami—have inspired much more confidence for regular-season success.

Grizzlies Edge Pelicans for 8th

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    In the East, the Washington Wizards may have an outside shot to crash the party, but the eight playoff teams seem close to set. It'll likely be the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat, 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic. There's just some jockeying for position left.

    In the West, there's a battle for eighth place. FiveThirtyEight's playoff projections give the New Orleans Pelicans a 46 percent chance to get in and the Portland Trail Blazers a 37 percent chance. The San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns are all hanging by a thread. And the team that's in eighth, the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, is sitting at 12 percent.

    The math's skepticism makes sense. The Grizzlies are young. The average age of Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, Kyle Anderson, De'Anthony Melton and Dillon Brooks is 23. Their remaining strength of schedule is the toughest in the West, while Portland and New Orleans have the two easiest.

    But the prediction here is that Memphis hangs on. The Grizzlies have given themselves a four-game cushion over the Blazers, a five-game cushion over the Spurs and a 5.5-game cushion over the Pelicans.

    Morant's average game score in 2020 (15.3) is better than what he posted in 2019 (13.2), suggesting he may have already broken through the rookie wall.

    Vince Carter, Tim Duncan, Joel Embiid, Arvydas Sabonis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Chris Webber are the only rookies in NBA history who matched or exceeded Clarke's averages for points (19.8), assists (2.3) and blocks (1.3) per 75 possessions. Sort that same list by relative true shooting percentage and Clarke leads by a wide margin.

    Jackson is a thoroughly modern big, making 2.5 threes per game and shooting 39.7 percent from deep. Brooks is in good company among those who match his volume and efficiency from three. Melton has been a plus/minus superstar all season.

    And the veteran leading this bunch, Valanciunas, may have quietly become one of the game's more underrated bigs. Sort every qualified player by the average of their ranks in catch-all metrics from around the internet and JV comes in at No. 29, one spot ahead of Paul George. He's averaging a double-double in just 26 minutes per game. He's at 19.9 points, 14.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 blocks per 75 possessions.

    Put it all together, and it's not hard to think the Grizzlies can hold off two teams that have been decimated by injuries (the Blazers now, and the Pelicans earlier in the season).

Individual Awards

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Think of the following as "who will win," rather than "who should win." As we know, the evidence doesn't always back up the outcome on these awards.

              

    MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

    This one is easy, though.

    With all due respect to Harden, James, Davis, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic (all over 2 percent in Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker), last season's MVP is running away with this.

    His team may threaten 70 wins, and Giannis is averaging 30.0 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals in just 30.9 minutes per game (33.2 points, 14.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per 75 possessions).

              

    Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant

    Zion Williamson has been every bit as dominant as advertised since he returned from a torn meniscus Jan. 22 (22.1 points in 27.4 minutes per game, with a net-rating swing that ranks in the 97th percentile), but if he doesn't miss a single game from here, he'll finish with just 37 appearances.

    Morant is averaging 17.6 points and 7.1 assists per game (numbers matched by only five other rookies in NBA history) while piloting a young team that no one thought would compete for a playoff spot toward eighth place in the loaded West.

           

    Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo

    Davis had the early-season narrative and the Los Angeles Lakers propaganda machine behind him for a while, but his team's defense is dreadful when he's on the floor without LeBron.

    Rudy Gobert is the two-time reigning DPOY and is tops in the league if you sort every player by the average of their ranks in defensive catch-all metrics. But voter fatigue and a team defense that has hovered around 10th place all season might take him out of the running.

    Giannis' versatility and the fact that Milwaukee is allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions could make him the third player in NBA history to win MVP and DPOY in the same campaign. Michael Jordan (1987-88) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94) are the other two.

              

    Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell

    Montrezl Harrell will have some stiff competition from teammate and three-time 6MOY Lou Williams, but the big man should secure the award. His net-rating swing is positive and ranks in the 64th percentile, while Williams' ranks in the 29th percentile.

    But this one is typically about points per game, and Harrell (18.8) is less than one behind Williams (19.5). And the only bench players with more wins over replacement player—Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel—are averaging under 10 points per night.

                    

    Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo

    Good luck picking this one with any degree of confidence. There are strong arguments for Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam (again), Devonte' Graham, Luka Doncic and probably a handful of others.

    It'd be hard to muster much indignation if any of the above won, but Bam Adebayo gets the nod here. The first-time All-Star took significant leaps in points (8.9 to 15.8), rebounds (7.3 to 10.4), steals (0.9 to 1.2) and blocks (0.8 to 1.2) per game.

    His most impressive improvement may have happened in the passing department, though. It's more than the bump in assists (2.2 to 4.9). The better-than-expected Heat run dozens of possessions per game through their big man, unlocking the cutting and spot-up prowess of Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic and the rest of the team.

    Miami's surprising record and Adebayo's varied contributions on both ends of the floor give him as good a chance as anyone to win this award.

                     

    Stats via NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.