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NBA Take Meter: The Stretch Run, Part 1

The takes are coming down the stretch. As most of the league prepares for one final push before the playoffs, we ruminate over the biggest questions still on the board. Part 1 of our survey tackles the Lakers’ playoff odds, the MVP race, and the East’s new hierarchy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just a quarter of the 2018-19 NBA season remains. What’s left to figure out? Our staff dissects the most pressing takes left before the postseason begins. (Part 2 will run Thursday.)

1. The Lakers will miss the playoffs.

A. Tattoo the take on the back of my calf.
B. As here for it as Luka is for Fortnite.
C. Somewhere in the middle, like the Pistons.
D. Barely believable, but enough to publish on The Ringer dot com.
E. As out on this take as Anthony Davis is out on New Orleans.

Dan Devine: (C) I was in the “barely believable” camp when we first raised this question back in October, with one important caveat: “unless this is the year LeBron stops being indestructible.” Thanks to a nasty groin injury, James is now at 18 missed games and counting, and the Lakers are under .500 and three games out of the eighth seed with 25 games to go. If I had to bet one way or the other, I’d lean toward LeBron coming out of the All-Star break refueled for a stretch run that can push the Lakers past the Kings and Clippers into the top eight. I’d just rather put up your paycheck than mine.

Kevin O’Connor: (C) The Lakers are reportedly “privately a little concerned” that LeBron may not be fully recovered from his groin strain and that he may not be able to power the team into the playoffs as a result. That’s a very fair concern: If Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t exempt from injuries derailing his 30s, then neither is LeBron. Still, the only thing stopping the Lakers from making the playoffs over the Kings or Clippers would be LeBron’s absence. If LeBron plays, the Lakers are in.

Justin Verrier: (D) The strong hope is for the Kings to get in, if only to restore karmic balance in the universe. But James has almost as many consecutive playoff appearances (13) as the Kings’ top five players in total minutes this season (Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, Nemanja Bjelica, Bogdan Bogdanovic) have seasons in the NBA combined (15). I think he’ll be fine.

Zach Kram: (B) I believe in math.

Danny Chau: (C) LeBron has to bow to the numbers in front of him at some point, right? The Lakers have one of the 10 most difficult remaining schedules in the league, and nearly half of them are on the road, where they have a .414 win percentage. The King has averaged a triple-double in the five games since returning from his groin injury, but with a young team swept up in a wave of deadline-induced psychological mutilation, a serious playoff push with this squad might be one of the most taxing efforts of James’s career.

Haley O’Shaughnessy: (C) Here are some important rankings for the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings, the three teams closest to the 8-seed in the West: The Clippers are eighth in the West with the 23rd-toughest remaining schedule, the Kings are ninth (one game back) with the 21st-toughest remaining schedule, and the Lakers are 10th (three games back) with the ninth-toughest remaining schedule. The Lakers appears to be at a significant disadvantage, but the playing field levels when considering the playoff experience on each team. Sacramento traded for Harrison Barnes before the deadline, giving them a player who started for a championship team but is no longer a championship-caliber player. Doc Rivers didn’t have a clear closer with Tobias Harris on the roster; now that Harris is gone, the Clippers are even more likely to prematurely flame out. Then there’s the Lakers, who have LeBron James, a man who has made fools of his doubters time and time again. If James could capitalize on any two teams, it’s those with little playoff experience and budding, though not fully grown, stars. That is, if James returns to form—i.e., something other than a pass-first player delegating shots to Kyle Kuzma—after the All-Star break.

Jonathan Tjarks: (D) It all depends on LeBron. He’s going to have to play like he did in Cleveland last season, when he didn’t miss a single game and was a one-man offensive machine. I believe he has it in him. But we’ve still got to see it in Los Angeles.

Paolo Uggetti: (C) That this is a legitimate question 57 games into the Lakers’ season crystallizes what a roller coaster LeBron’s maiden voyage in L.A. has been. Three games separate the Lakers and the Clippers, the current 8-seed, but the latter team traded away its best player. The Kings, meanwhile, are only a game behind and have the 21st-toughest schedule remaining. The Lakers have the ninth-toughest schedule remaining and didn’t get much better at the trade deadline. It’s LeBron-or-bust time.

2. If James Harden averages 37 points per game, he’s the MVP.

A. Tattoo the take on the back of my calf.
B. As here for it as Luka is for Fortnite.
C. Somewhere in the middle, like the Pistons.
D. Barely believable, but enough to publish on The Ringer dot com.
E. As out on this take as Anthony Davis is out on New Orleans.

Houston Rockets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Chau: (A) The Beard will have to average more than 38 points per game in each of the Rockets’ final 25 games to break Michael Jordan’s modern scoring average record of 37.1 points per game, the most since Wilt Chamberlain in the ’60s. At a certain point, history overrides wins in the MVP race; for Harden to get his second consecutive trophy, he’ll have to cross the same threshold his former teammate Russell Westbrook did in 2017. Anything less leaves room for doubt.

Tjarks: (C) As impressive as Harden’s offensive fireworks have been, a new King has risen in the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best all-around player in the NBA outside of Golden State. This is his award to lose. It really doesn’t matter what Harden does if Giannis keeps this up.

Uggetti: (A) If we’re going to give one player an MVP because of counting stats, like we did in 2016-17 with Westbrook, then we certainly should not deny another player a second straight MVP if he scores at a level that hasn’t been seen since Michael Jordan in 1986-87. With Chris Paul back and Clint Capela set to return from injury, Harden’s scoring will undoubtedly drop, but it will be hard to remember this season for something other than his scorching stretch. If he stays above 35 points per game, he should be the MVP.

O’Connor: (C) I doubt voters will reward James Harden with the MVP when Giannis is leading the top team in the East and so many people find Harden’s isolation-centric season to be repulsive. I personally find Harden’s game to be innovative and beautiful, but Giannis’s case is strong.

Kram: (D) The last player to average 37 points was Jordan in 1986-87, and Jordan lost the MVP race to a multipositional menace who averaged 24 points, 12 assists, and six rebounds per game on a 65-win team that clinched the league’s best record. So if Jordan is the Harden in this analogy, Magic Johnson is Giannis—a multipositional menace who’s averaging 27 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists per game on a team destined for 60-plus wins and the league’s best record. Harden might well win, but crossing the 36-point barrier to 37 isn’t itself going to secure the trophy for him.

O’Shaughnessy: (C) A player has averaged 37 or more points in a season five times, and of those five, only once has that player won the MVP award: Wilt Chamberlain, in 1959-60. Chamberlain hit that mark four times (five, if you round up his 1963-64 season, when he averaged 36.85, and Oscar Robertson won MVP) and Michael Jordan once, in 1986-87, which ended with Magic Johnson’s first MVP award. But this generation is more likely to be blown away by what Harden (currently at 36.59 points per game) is doing; it’s been over 30 years since we’ve seen a scoring run like this, and never before have we seen such a barrage come via so many 3-pointers. Harden’s having a historic season, but a couple factors could stand between him and the award: The Houston media market won’t have one of the league’s 100 media award ballots because of the NBA’s decision two years ago to pull votes from team-run media; the Rockets, at 33-24, have a far worse record than the teams of other MVP contenders; and lastly, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks unicorn is adding 1.4 blocks and 1.4 steals along with his 27-13-6 line, and he’s the make-or-break factor for a team with a 43-14 record that’s first in the East. Tough break for the Beard.

Verrier: (C) I think it’s a travesty if we allow the stench of Westbrook’s win two years ago to diminish one of the greatest individual accomplishments in the past three decades of the sport. Having said that: (1) It’s improbable that Harden keeps up that historic pace, and (2) I don’t appreciate Harden’s recent attempt to frame his points binge as altruism. Hitting a 3 with 52.9 seconds left of an eventual 16-point win to extend your streak isn’t something you “just had to do because of our situation.”

Devine: (E) I touched on this in my pre–All-Star column on the MVP race: Of the seven instances in NBA history in which a player had a higher single-season scoring average than Harden has right now, only one player was rewarded with an MVP trophy (Chamberlain in 1959-60).

The others all lost to a player from a better team with a better record … like, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo from the 43-14 Milwaukee Bucks. Harden absolutely could still win it, but hitting a certain scoring threshold won’t make it a done deal. (Unless he gets to, like, 40.)

3. The Sixers are the best team in the East.

A. Tattoo the take on the back of my calf.
B. As here for it as Luka is for Fortnite.
C. Somewhere in the middle, like the Pistons.
D. Barely believable, but enough to publish on The Ringer dot com.
E. As out on this take as Anthony Davis is out on New Orleans.

O’Shaughnessy: (B) When Philadelphia added Jimmy Butler, the best possible outcome was that he, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons would be able to find their own places in the offense despite each requiring space in the paint. The Sixers wound up in the East’s top tier even without Butler taking the amount of 3s Brett Brown wanted him to and with their three stars clogging the paint. But acquiring Tobias Harris alleviates a couple of those weaknesses—Harris is shooting 43 percent from deep, giving the offense more room to operate, and is a more than capable ball handler in the pick-and-roll: Before his trade, Harris was, as noted by NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh, the league’s eighth-most-efficient player this season in that role (minimum 250 plays). Whether the Sixers will be the best team in the playoffs, though, is a separate question with a different answer: Simmons and Embiid have just two series under their belts, the second of which was a complete failure that exposed their weaknesses; and they could be tripped up against the wrong matchup in a best-of-seven scenario.

Kram: (E) Here is a list of every Eastern Conference team in history with a better per-game point differential than this season’s Bucks:

1995-96 Bulls
1996-97 Bulls
1991-92 Bulls
2007-08 Celtics

That’s it—four champions, and four teams of legend. Sure, coach Mike Budenholzer’s scorching regular-season teams in Atlanta ultimately faltered in the playoffs, but those Hawks didn’t have Giannis, and thanks to Nikola Mirotic, the Bucks improved by a greater amount at the deadline than even the 76ers did.

Verrier: (C) Even after going asset-bankrupt to beef up their starting five with two All-Star-caliber wings, the Sixers still have the most glaring weak spot in JJ Redick’s defense. As good as Al Horford was last week in that win in Philly, the biggest takeaway from that game was that the Sixers were already pulling Redick on defense in crunch time whenever they could. Maybe they can get away with hiding Redick on Marcus Smart (whom Reddick guarded a third of the time last week, for what it’s worth), but having him guard Malcolm Brogdon or Danny Green? A little dicier.

Devine: (D) Milwaukee has earned that distinction. I’m also more comfortable picking a Raptors team that’s been more consistent, is significantly deeper, and has a better late-game shot creator than anyone Philly can offer. I’m not sure the Celtics are better, in a pure on-paper sense, than the Sixers, but they continue to offer evidence to the contrary in head-to-head matchups. There’s a burden of proof here. The Sixers have yet to provide it.

Tjarks: (E) All roads in the East go through Milwaukee. Giannis has the length of Joel Embiid, the playmaking of Ben Simmons, and the defensive ability of Jimmy Butler. And he has a deep and talented supporting cast that has bought into their roles around him. Nothing written in that last sentence applies to Philadelphia.

Uggetti: (B) If you look at the top of each conference, one trait among the teams there stands out: continuity. The Sixers are the anti-continuity team. Their entire roster has been flipped more than Jeremy Renner’s houses. And yet I want to believe this into existence because I can’t look at that starting lineup and not see a Finals contender, especially when the rotations will be shortened in the playoffs. The final 25 games or so will be an important glimpse at how they all jell together.

Chau: (E)

O’Connor: (C) The Sixers are the fourth-best team in the East right now. It’s hard to foresee them earning that status by the end of the regular season when the three teams ahead of them also have room to improve. There’s always a chance with their amount of top-end talent, but I wouldn’t bet on them earning that designation until the playoffs.

4. Al Horford is the most valuable Celtic.

A. Tattoo the take on the back of my calf.
B. As here for it as Luka is for Fortnite.
C. Somewhere in the middle, like the Pistons.
D. Barely believable, but enough to publish on The Ringer dot com.
E. As out on this take as Anthony Davis is out on New Orleans.

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Tjarks: (A) Horford is still underrated, even after all the pieces that have been written about how underrated he is. He’s a 6-foot-10 version of Draymond Green who consistently plays bigger centers off the floor in the playoffs. The question for Boston is how he will respond to his own medicine: Does he still have the juice in his legs to run with Pascal Siakam or Giannis at the 5?

Kram: (C) Horford at his best elevates the whole Boston team, but it’s hard to reconcile that potential with the fact the Celtics have been better with Horford off the floor this season. Big Al’s on/off split places him in the bottom half of the team’s rotation players, and while he might represent the Celtics’ best chance to beat the 76ers, I’m sorry to inform The Ringer’s Philly contingent that the 76ers aren’t the East’s team to beat.

Chau: (B) Thinking about the Celtics is thinking about the mind-numbing minutiae that contributes to the concept of “replacement level.” The team, up and down the roster, is stocked with strong, switchable forwards. It has gutsy playmakers across many positions. But there is only one Horford—a player who can serve as a primary facilitator, a floor-spacer, and Embiid Kryptonite.

O’Connor: (C) Horford is critical to Boston on both ends of the floor, but Kyrie Irving is an elite scorer, and he runs the show. The Celtics need both of them to be their best version, but Irving’s go-to scoring gives him a clear edge.

Devine: (B) When the Celtics need a bucket, Irving is their man; I am not in any way downgrading that. When they need literally anything else, though—a way to stonewall a locomotive in transition, an antidote to the league’s most dominant post player, a cheat code to bust up a stout interior defense, etc.—they turn to Horford. I don’t think it’s a hot take to suggest that Boston’s chances of getting to the Finals depend more on his health than on Kyrie’s.

O’Shaughnessy: (D) Horford is the key to beating the Sixers, which gives the Celtics the advantage in any series against Philly, but Irving’s offensive ceiling will decide whether Boston can get past any of the other elite teams in the East. Kyrie has to be the most important player on the team, because he’s who will dictate whether they can finish off an opponent late in the fourth or collapse on the final possession. Horford is a stabilizing element, but he’ll never be the talent that can push a playoff team to where it needs to be.

Uggetti: (D) Wait, this hasn’t already been published on The Ringer? Look, I know we made a big deal out of Horford making Embiid look like Ian Mahinmi for the umpteenth time, but the only acceptable answer here is Irving. The Celtics may better resemble a well-oiled machine when Irving is off the floor, but their ceiling expands as soon as he touches the ball. Boston is 8-2 when Irving scores more than 30 points. Horford’s season high is 24 points. And yes, Horford’s game is about everything but the scoring, but who is going to have the ball down two with five seconds on the clock? Not Horford.

Verrier: (E) Curveball—it’s Brad Stevens. With Anthony Davis remaining in New Orleans past the deadline, the Celtics are in position to eat all of the cake: They can go deep in the playoffs and then replace all of their young players (thanks for guarding Kawhi, Jaylen!) with the Pelicans’ angsty All-Star. But it’s hard to envision the latter happening without the former, because Kyrie Irving, Davis’s friend, will make a call on his future in Boston before any AD deal can be executed. So it’s up to Stevens to make it all work—to win games, to keep the value of the young players high, to appease Kyrie—over the next three months.

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