After a relaxing week-long break from the strenuous NBA season, games picked back up on Thursday night. The All-Star break isn’t technically the halfway point in the season, considering every team has already played at least 55 games (although it could be considered the halfway point since the NBA Finals won’t even end until June), but it marks the first signs of the closing stages of the regular season. With less than 25 games remaining on each team’s schedule and playoff seeding becoming more prevalent, every game is valuable. This is the stretch of the regular season that decides who’s going to be hot or cold going into the playoffs. Energy levels will be much higher across the league and every game matters. With that being said, here are three things to watch for as the regular season begins to wind down.
1. John Wall’s return from injury
Since John Wall’s knee surgery back in January, the Washington Wizards have actually been on somewhat of a hot streak. They beat the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers in their first game back from the All-Star break, looking fluid an under control without their starting point guard. The Wizards have gone 8-2 since Wall went out (four of those wins came against teams well under .500) and backup point guard, Tomas Satoransky, has filled in better than expected.
By no means are the Wizards better without Wall. That would be a very quick and irrational decision to make, but it is interesting that the team is playing so well in his absence. The Wizards currently sit at 34-24, fourth best in the Eastern Conference, with a locker room that appears to be improving relationships between teammates. You may recall the “beef” between Wall and Wizards center Marcin Gortat, where Wall literally said he “spoon-fed” baskets to Gortat after some other – now irrelevant – Twitter squabbling between the two. They have since aired out their grievances – even after a team meeting that didn’t go exactly as planned – during a mutual meeting including just them two.
With Wall out, the Wizards have been moving the ball at a considerably higher pace, which isn’t necessarily surprising when someone with the attacking ability such as Wall is forced to sit. The Wizards are averaging more shots per game and over seven more assists per game since Wall’s injury, who averages 9.3 assists per game. This can be attributed to Wall being the driving factor of the offense who has the ball in his hands more than any of his teammates. With no one who can attack the rim like Wall, the Wizards have to rely on constant ball movement and precision passing to make up for it, which has led to more shots and more assists. Bradley Beal is currently their best player – and he was an All-Star this season for a reason – but as long as he’s the number one option, the Wizards will eventually lose their magic. Ball movement is key to any offense, but defenses will begin to learn the Wizards’ tricks. Without many players who can consistently get themselves open looks and knock down contested shots, expect the Wizards to come down to earth right around the time Wall should be ready to return.
One of the bright sides of Wall’s injury is the emergence of Satoransky, who has bolted himself to the level of viable NBA player. When Wall comes back, Satorasnky will make an excellent backup who can run the offense at 6-foot-7 and score from various areas on the court. The return of Wall to full health is necessary if the Wizards want to do any damage in the playoffs. Wall is still the team’s best player (although Beal is quickly catching up) and they become much less of an explosive threat without him. It will be interesting to see how head coach Scott Brooks incorporates both Wall and Satoransky into their new-founded success. If Wall can sacrifice his own production in order to work within the current system, the Wizards could look a lot more dangerous than they already do.
2. Where DEN/NOP finish in the standings
This topic matters for a couple of reasons. One because the Denver Nuggets have two Kentucky players who play heavy minutes while the New Orleans Pelicans have five Kentucky players who all get consistent playing time as well (especially Anthony Davis). Two, because these two teams are only separated by half a game in the standings. The Nuggets (32-26, currently seeded at number six) are trending upward while the now DeMarcus Cousins-less Pelicans (31-26, currently seeded at number eight) are trending…. neutrally.
The Nuggets are now winners of nine of their last 12 games, including wins over the Warriors, Thunder, and Spurs. Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles are playing the best basketball of their still incredibly young careers and have been huge factors in the Nuggets success. Murray might be one of the hottest players in the entire league right now, shooting over 48 percent from deep in his last 12 games while averaging 20 points per game in that span. Everything Murray touches turns to molten lava. He simply can’t miss. He refuses to miss. His shooting splits (FG%/3PT%/FT%) over the last 12 games is a mind-melting 54.1/48.6/90.5. Only four other players have hit at least the 40/50/90 over their last 12 games; Karl-Anthony Towns, Steph Curry, Joe Ingles, and (you guessed it) Tomas Satoransky.
Lyles has continued to build off his surprise start to the season, averaging 12.8 points and 6.0 rebounds over his last 12 games. He and Murray (along with Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic) have the Nuggets looking like a team ready to win now. Throw in the imminent return of four-time All-Star Paul Millsap and Denver should continue their current tear in the Western Conference. Getting Millsap back from injury will likely have a negative impact on the overall team offense to start (although a positive one on defense) which might limit Murray’s touches, but he’s been the starting point guard for a while now and should still have the ball in his hands for most of the game. The best way to get Murray going is to let him do him. If Millsap’s return doesn’t diminish that, the Nuggets will be looking mighty dangerous as a mid-level seed.
The Pelicans, on the other hand, are struggling. They’re 4-5 since the Cousins’ injury, however, currently on a three-game winning streak (all three opponents had a losing record). Anthony Davis has been nothing short of extraterrestrial during the nine-game span. He’s averaging a cool 31.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.2 steals, and 2.1 blocks per game with shooting splits of 49.8/42.4(!!!)/81.1. Those are Hall-of-Fame numbers, people. The MVP talk will surely poke it’s head out if he keeps this up, if it hasn’t already.
With Davis and no Cousins, the Pelicans can likely keep themselves afloat and stay above .500 for the rest of the season. Their schedule for the remainder of the regular season isn’t a cakewalk by any means, but there are more than enough games against very bad teams that will be winnable.
The bad part is the two teams slowly creeping up on them. The Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the NBA right now (oddly enough), winning 11 straight games behind hot shooting from Donovan Mitchell and excellent team defense from Rudy Gobert and co. The Jazz currently sit at 30-28 but are shooting up the standings with impressive wins.
Slightly ahead of them is the Los Angeles Clippers, who are 30-27 and also going through a renaissance of sorts. The Clippers have won seven of their last 10 and have looked like a legitimate playoff over the past month or two, despite having a roster riddled with once borderline NBA players.
It will be an uphill battle for the Pelicans, a team already close to the top than the ones charging after them, but Davis can get them there. As we get closer and closer to the playoffs, we’ll find out pretty quickly if the Pelicans are in a position to keep their current playoff seed. Then the question becomes whether or not they decide to fall completely out of the playoffs if they can’t keep up with the Jazz and Clippers, potentially gunning for a higher lottery pick. Either way, there are eight teams all within 4.5 games of each other in the West with only six available spots, so it should be an exciting end.
3. Bam Adebayo catching up to Hassan Whiteside
Bam Adebayo is in the news for the wrong reasons at the moment, but the rookie season he’s put together should not be ignored. He’s become a reliable backup for the Miami Heat when center Hassan Whiteside is on the bench. His numbers don’t stick out, not just yet, but the energy and knowledge for the game he possesses shine a bright light on his future. So much, in fact, that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him steal some of Whiteside’s minutes as the playoffs approach.
The Miami Heat are eighth in the Eastern Conference standings with a record of 30-28. With only the Detroit Pistons to worry about as far as another team potentially stealing their spot, the Heat are in a much better situation than the Pelicans to make the playoffs. Miami won’t need another miraculous run like they had last season (where they won 13 games in a row during the middle of the season before riding that to a 41-41 record), but they’ll absolutely need help from everyone on their roster, which includes Adebayo.
You’ll find more dedicated Heat fans who favor Adebayo over Whiteside than you would the other way around. His play has been so infectious that there have been Heat media members asking the question of whether or not they should trade Whiteside altogether and build around Adebayo. These are strong words about a rookie, but Adebayo has been that good in a limited role. The Heat have been using both Whiteside and Adebayo together at times, which has worked for the most part but will eventually hurt them in the playoffs. The two center lineup is great for rebounding and paint scoring, but horrendous for outside shooting and guarding quicker forwards.
Not even one year of Adebayo has fans and media alike questioning if Whiteside and the three years/$75 million left on his contract is a piece they take with them in the future.