The stretch run of the NBA season has arrived. With not even 20 games remaining on most teams’ schedules, playoff seeds are still up in the air, and deadline acquisitions are starting to settle into fresh surroundings. Now is as good a time as any to gauge what’s at stake as the playoffs near. To do so, let’s ask a few important questions that will bring some clarity to an otherwise erratic and unpredictable regular season.
1. What is going on with Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies?
There’s a portentous aphorism in sports and life: Nothing is guaranteed. One year ago, the Grizzlies were an explosion of good vibes, surging toward what they genuinely believed to be the beginning of a dynasty. Brash and gifted, Memphis was eventually humbled by a champion that knows how steep basketball’s mountainside really is. But that defeat felt more like a lesson learned than a missed opportunity.
Now, in light of Ja Morant’s minimum two-game suspension for brandishing a gun on his Instagram Live—and a subsequent apology in which he announced that he would “take some time away to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress and my overall well-being”—Memphis is feeling how fraught the path to greatness can be for even the most propitious NBA team.
(Adding injury to insult, Brandon Clarke’s season-ending torn Achilles tendon—which is always a devastating injury, but especially so for a player whose impact hinges on bounce and athleticism—was announced on Saturday. Clarke is Memphis’s current leader in win shares per 48 minutes and true shooting percentage.)
Morant was embraced as basketball’s next sensation and the face of an exciting upstart. But now, his reputation as an acclaimed leader and someone wise beyond his years is crumbling. Leaders aren’t told by their employers to go away for at least a few days, nor do they find themselves at the center of multiple investigations by law enforcement and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s office. They also don’t dangle a gun on social media days after a report emerged stating they punched a teenager in the head “12 to 13 times” and threatened a mall security guard.
Before this weekend’s suspension, Morant’s agent, Jim Tanner, addressed a previous gun-related report from The Athletic, telling The Washington Post, “Any and every allegation involving a firearm has been fully investigated and could not be corroborated. This includes the NBA investigation last month, in which they found no evidence.”
Regarding the report that Morant punched a teenager multiple times last summer, Tanner said it “was purely self-defense” and that Morant was not charged with a crime despite admitting to police that he swung first.
All of this is worrying on a number of levels that should be obvious to everyone reading this article. Morant has a problem and needs to address it. There’s plenty of time for him to reorient his priorities. But none of the events that have happened are isolated incidents. Morant’s actions are deeply rooted in a history of entitled behavior. His holding a gun in front of a phone camera thinking there would be no consequences is one symptom of more significant issues, not the cause.
The Grizzlies responded with the type of punishment that small-market franchises very rarely hand down to a superstar. It’s a big deal. And, as secondary as it might be, it remains unknown how he, his teammates, and his coaches will react. If this behavior continues, owning the best defense won’t be enough to carry Memphis further than it went last season. It’s too soon to characterize what has happened as a fall from grace, but it’s not too soon to think that this fate is within the realm of possibility for Morant and the Grizzlies.
2. Which team will finish first in the East?
If the Milwaukee Bucks learned anything last season, it’s that ceding home-court advantage to the Boston Celtics is unwise. The Bucks sat their starters in the final game of the 2021-22 season, a loss to the Cavs that allowed Boston to snag the no. 2 seed and home court in a potential playoff series. Sure enough, the two teams faced off in a second-round slugfest, and the deciding seventh game was filled with a barrage of Grant Williams 3s in front of a delirious TD Garden crowd.
Right now, these two are neck and neck for the conference’s best record, and second place may have to square off against Joel Embiid in Round 2. No race will have more influence on the ultimate NBA champion than this one.
3. When will Ty Lue figure out the Los Angeles Clippers’ rotation?
The Clippers had one of the best starting lineups in the NBA before they signed Russell Westbrook. And in the middle of a season that had been defined by their search for consistency, Ty Lue’s rotation was finally coming into focus, with Terance Mann starting at point guard, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George logging regular minutes, and Eric Gordon and Mason Plumlee sliding into sensible roles off the bench. There have been a few injuries in a six-game sample size, but with Westbrook on the court, they’ve struggled to score, especially when Kawhi and George have been out there with him.
I am someone who thought this experiment could work, but not without specific, important caveats. Westbrook should not start or close games. He should not play significant minutes with anyone else who can’t shoot (i.e., Plumlee). Gordon, Norm Powell, Nic Batum, and Mann are all better than Westbrook and, thus, should play more minutes.
The Clippers have won just once since the Westbrook signing, largely because Lue has done the exact opposite of that strategy: starting Westbrook, playing him with non-shooters, and letting him figure it out in crunch time instead of Gordon, Batum, or Mann.
The Clippers’ first two games with Russ were acceptable overtime losses against very good teams, and Westbrook made sense. He pushed the pace, attacked the rim, set ball screens, tried on defense, and showed enough discipline to not hijack L.A.’s offense. There was hope!
But he was counterproductive in a bad loss against the hapless Timberwolves and was then atrocious in a humiliating defeat up in San Francisco that really mattered for a team trying to avoid the play-in.
As someone who still thinks the Clippers can win the title, I sometimes feel like I’m eating dirt and trying to convince everyone around me that it tastes great and holds immense nutritive value.
That’s mostly because I know the playoffs are not the regular season, and this Clippers roster was built to weather the constant need for adjustment in every series. But that flexibility is of no use if you don’t know who you have, how you want to play, or what your identity is.
Even after Westbrook’s efficient performance Friday night against the Kings and Powell’s shoulder injury, Westbrook is a wrench in the Clips’ gears right now, and the sooner they pull it out, the better off they’ll be.
4. Will the Phoenix Suns have the NBA’s best offense from this moment on?
We’ve seen very little of the Suns offense with Kevin Durant, but already, it looks like an unguardable dilemma that defenses may never solve (especially if Josh Okogie hits his 3s).
In 49 minutes, their new starting five’s offensive rating is 129.4 with a 67.3 percent assist rate. Everyone’s making shots. Everyone’s playing unselfish basketball. When defenses show KD two (or more) bodies, be it out of the post or coming off a ball screen or pin down, the ball zips around until an open man catches it. When that open man is Devin freaking Booker, it’s poetry.
They haven’t played a great defense yet, but few will be willing to play Durant or Booker straight up, and no one should leave those two open on the perimeter when Chris Paul is running a high pick-and-roll with Deandre Ayton either. Throughout the 48 minutes, either KD or Booker should always be on the floor to virtually guarantee efficient looks out of almost every half-court possession.
The Suns already make scoring the ball look too easy. And with each passing game, they’ll only get better and better.
5. Will the Raptors regret their conservative trade deadline?
Instead of shedding O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and/or Pascal Siakam in early February, the Raptors decided to give up a first-round pick to tack Jakob Poeltl onto this season’s most disappointing team. Their thought process was simple enough: More conventional lineups with a traditional center could steady Toronto’s disoriented offense and take a ton of pressure off their smaller groups on the other end.
Poeltl has done his part. In nine games, he’s averaging 15 points, nine boards, two steals, and two blocks while shooting 76.1 percent and generating a 29.2 player efficiency rating. The Raptors are plus-41 when he’s on the court and minus-57 when he sits. Most importantly, Toronto is 6-3 since the deadline, and it enjoyed its first four-game win streak of the season. It’s not great, but the Raptors are very hard to score on with Poeltl in the middle and so many capable wing defenders feeling less pressure on the perimeter.
The offense is still generally swirling around a toilet bowl, and spacing issues haven’t dissipated. But clouds part when Poeltl shares the floor with VanVleet. In just a six-game sample size, those lineups are generating 121.3 points per 100 possessions. Their pick-and-roll partnership is a breath of fresh air, with Poeltl diving through the paint as a gigantic release valve. Throw him the ball and good things happen.
This is all very nice, and Toronto may even round into the proverbial team nobody wants to face in the play-in tournament. Then, if they slide into the right first-round matchup (cough cough—the Sixers) they may even make actual noise. As they are currently built, though, they still can’t score enough to beat the Celtics or Bucks in a seven-game series—and maybe not the Cavaliers either. Even making the playoffs is far from guaranteed, considering they have the most treacherous remaining schedule in the league.
VanVleet and Trent will still be free agents this summer. Anunoby still wants a larger role and is due a significant raise very soon. There’s still a seven-year age gap between Siakam and Scottie Barnes. And short of a miracle, this nucleus is still more likely than not to splinter this summer.
6. Are the Golden State Warriors sleeping giants?
Yes! To be the champs, you have to beat the champs. And downing a healthy Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson four times in seven tries has proved to be impossible for nearly a decade.
This year, they’re 14-12 when Curry—who was an undeniable MVP candidate until mid-December, with 50/40/90 splits and a 30-point scoring average—does not play. That should terrify everyone. Thompson is making a career-best 4.3 3s per game. That should terrify everyone. Green is still the best help defender. That should terrify everyone. When those three are on the court, Golden State’s assist rate is 74.5 percent. That should terrify everyone.
There are concerns. This team can’t win on the road and has battled inconsistency and effort issues all season. But the Warriors just find ways to win. It’s in their DNA. Last week, without Andrew Wiggins, they threw a triangle-and-two zone at a boiling Damian Lillard and had one of their best defensive performances of the season.
They executed a perfect and humiliating defensive strategy against Russell Westbrook, which helped fuel a second-half turnaround in a victory over the Clippers. They’re in fifth place, with four losses and a five-team buffer from falling out of the play-in. It’s exactly where they want to be, with Curry back for the final five or six weeks as they finalize their rotation and get into shape. If/when Gary Payton II returns, Steve Kerr will have eight guys he really trusts in a playoff series. And, again, that should terrify everyone.
7. Will Damian Lillard make first-team All-NBA?
The answer is yes. He’s irreproachable and enjoying one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history, and he would be a fun, albeit ingenuous, MVP pick given the fact that his team can’t buy a win with two starters sidelined by injuries.
The more relevant question extends beyond this season though: Will Portland finally trade for another All-Star this summer? If they make the playoffs—currently, they’re 13th in the West—the Blazers will surrender their first-round pick to the Bulls and can then bundle a whole bunch of future picks in a package with Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, and, should it be necessary, Jusuf Nurkic’s contract.
Could all or some of this be enough to get Karl-Anthony Towns, Pascal Siakam, Lauri Markkanen, or Jimmy Butler? Not only do the Blazers owe Lillard this sort of blockbuster trade, but he’s clearly still good enough for it to make sense.
8. Did the Chicago Bulls discover the greatest starting five of all time?
Before Billy Donovan decided to break them up in Friday night’s loss to the Suns, maybe! With its “Big Three” still around after the trade deadline, Chicago has “stabilized” itself by signing hometown hero Patrick Beverley, plugging Alex Caruso back into the starting lineup, and beginning each game with a five-man unit that has actual fangs. In 87 minutes, this unit has outscored opponents by 34.8 points per 100 possessions, with amazing play on both ends. It’s a small group that doesn’t play small, led by a pair of the league’s most abrasive perimeter defenders, with plenty of ballhandling, shot creation, and spacing.
It’s too little, too late to actually turn their disappointing season around, but at the very least, with this starting five and an intriguing DeMar DeRozan–led bench unit that features Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, and Coby White, the Bulls are, um, well, a team worth watching as they try to make the play-in.
9. Is it too soon to throw dirt on the Los Angeles Lakers?
Absolutely not! Even with 10 games at home this month. Even with Jarred Vanderbilt looking like Dennis Rodman (this man really had 17 rebounds in 27 minutes against the Mavericks last week). Even with Anthony Davis still being on the team and having a fairly dominant February. None of it matters. LeBron James is in a walking boot and out for the foreseeable future; all year long, they’ve been an abomination without him. It’s possible Los Angeles won’t completely fall apart, sure. But as a team in 11th place, with the Thunder and Blazers right behind them and no squad (save maybe the Jazz) in front likely to plummet, average basketball won’t cut it. The Lakers are spit-roasted.