With games returning this Thursday after the NBA all-star break, teams will have to quickly refocus in order prepare for the playoffs. The most interesting teams will not only be those on the playoff bubble but those attempting to prove whether or not they are legitimate contenders. After the madness of the trade deadline, many new-look teams will have to prove themselves. Which team should you keep your eye on as the playoffs approach? Here are 5 teams you won’t want to ignore:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
This may not be a surprise to any NBA fan, but the Lakers are still in the spotlight. This season we’ve already witnessed the Anthony Davis fiasco and now LeBron James might miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005. These two events make the Lakers’ must watch basketball. In the proposed deal for Anthony Davis, the young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram were all offered. A move of that size badly fractured the team’s chemistry. The following weeks after the NBA all-star break will determine what kind of team this will be.
Currently, the Lakers sit 10th in the Western Conference standings. They trail the 8th seeded Clippers by 3 games and 9th seeded Kings by 2 games. Luckily for the Lakers, the Clippers dealt their star player, Tobias Harris, for future assets at the deadline. Additionally, the Clippers’ first-round pick is lottery protected this year, giving them more motivation to tank. Their management seems content with missing the playoffs this season in order to build for the future. There is still a chance this team keeps it together long enough, and at the very least threatens to take the final playoff seed from the Lakers.
The other team the Lakers must compete with is the Kings. This season, Sacramento has surpassed every expectation set for them by a mile. The emergence of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield as a dynamic young backcourt in addition to veteran play has been a key reason for their success. Additionally, they traded for Harrison Barnes at the deadline bolstering their wing depth. The Kings are young and desperate to break their 14-year playoff drought. Although the Lakers are a key piece to the NBA, they will face stiff competition as they attempt to snap their own playoff drought of 7 years.
As we rapidly approach the end of the season, there are a few players to watch on the Lakers. Since January 1st, Ingram has been averaging 18.4 points per game on 49.5% shooting. With LeBron James returning, we’ll have to see if he continues his high level of play. Additionally, Reggie Bullock is somebody to keep an eye on. He was acquired at the trade deadline and has shot 38% from three in his first 2 games with the Lakers. The most important player to watch will be LeBron James and his return to the team after injury. He is obviously a great player, but he has brought chemistry and playstyle issues to the team. These final 25 games will determine whether or not the Lakers can come together and make a run at the final playoff spot.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
After being extremely mediocre for years, the Bucks have become the best team in the NBA. A primary reason for this is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s MVP-caliber season. Of course, due to James Harden and Paul George‘s incredible seasons, there is a chance Giannis doesn’t actually win MVP. Anyways, that’s beside the point. Giannis’ Bucks have been incredible this season. They rank 4th in offensive rating and 1st in defensive season. They are third in threes made and first in total rebounds after ranking 27th and 30th in those categories, respectively, last season.
The reason for this team’s revitalization is not only Giannis’ improvements but Mike Budhenholzer’s great coaching and the addition of Brook Lopez. Lopez has quietly been one of the Bucks’ best players and is only being paid $3 million this season. He’s shooting 37% from three on 6.5 attempts a game and averaging 12.1 ppg to go along with 2.1 blocks per game. Another underrated asset on the Bucks is Malcolm Brogdon. The forgotten rookie of the year is averaging 15.8 ppg on 51-41-94 splits. Although Milwaukee is having a great season, all of their players are unproven in big moments. This final stretch before the season ends will help prove if the Bucks are a true contender.
Another reason to watch them after the NBA all-star break is to see how Nikola Mirotic fits in with this already dominant team. The highly coveted big man fell to the Bucks for just Stanley Johnson (who was acquired earlier for Thon Maker) and second-round picks. With the Pelicans, Mirotic Averaged 16.7 ppg and shot 37% from three on 7.2 attempts per game. Currently, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton are the Bucks best three-point shooters, but they’re only attempting 6.5 and 6.0 threes a game, respectively. Mirotic fits perfectly in the Bucks system. Milwaukee surrounds Giannis with shooters and lets him attack the rim. A big man who is an elite three-point shooter will surely thrive.
The Bucks are on pace to win 62 games this season, their best since the 1971-72 season. After years of struggling, Milwaukee is finally an exciting basketball team once again. The rest of this season will determine just how good they can be and whether or not they will be legitimate contenders. I will surely be keeping an eye on the Bucks as they look to make their first Finals appearance since 1974.
3. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have finally made the changes they’ve needed to for years. After moving on from DeMar DeRozan and Dwayne Casey, acquiring Kawhi Leonard, letting Pascal Siakam thrive, and trading for Marc Gasol at the deadline, the Raptors are more interesting than ever before. The structural changes they made suggest this team is an actual contender this year. I wrote in-depth about these changes here. Besides those changes, other moves have made the Raptors a contender in the East and a must-watch after the NBA all-star break.
So many Eastern Conference teams have improved their roster that nobody is guaranteed a spot in the Finals. That said, the Raptors have as good of a shot as any other team. By acquiring Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and a second-rounder the Raptors have definitely improved their odds of landing in the Finals. In the three games, Gasol played in the Raptors scored 104, 127, and 129 points. That averages out 120 points a game, which is much higher than the Raptors’ season average of 114 points per game. Marc Gasol may not be an all-star anymore, but he still has lots of value for the Raptors. He is a big man that can shoot threes, spreading the floor for his teammates.
The other development to watch on the Raptors post-NBA all-star break is Pascal Siakam. In the last 9 games before the break, Siakam was averaging 22.1 ppg on 51-44-79 splits. This included 28, 33, and 44 point performances. Siakam is a shining star of the Raptors’ development program that also produced Fred VanVleet. If Pascal can keep up this high level of play, the Raptors will be an entirely different team. Also, should Kawhi decide to leave this offseason, Siakam will become the centerpiece of the Raptors’ rebuild. His development will continue to be an intriguing part of the Raptors’ future and worth keeping an eye on.
The final reason to watch the Raptors for the remainder of the season is to learn about the Kawhi situation. Rumors of him wanting to join the Lakers this offseason have died down, but that option is still on the table. Watching the Raptors’ play and Kawhi’s involvement with the team could have huge implications for the future of the NBA. Toronto may be gearing up for a run at the Finals or they could be headed for a complete rebuild next season. While we don’t know what will happen yet the next 2 months should give us plenty of clues.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers were extremely active on the trade market this season and it’s now time to see if it paid off. They have acquired two new starters in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris as well as bench pieces such as Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis, and Jonothan Simmons. Obviously, they also had to give up players to get these new pieces. Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Wilson Chandler, Markelle Fultz, Mike Muscala, and Landry Shamet were all moved before the deadline. Creating this much change within a team is always a risky move, but it might pay off for the 76ers.
The Sixers have made it clear they intend to compete for a spot in the Finals this season. Getting two players on expiring deals that are expecting a lot of money next season in Harris and Butler is an obvious win-now move. A starting line up of Ben Simmons, J.J. Reddick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid does give the Sixers a shot to win the East.
Harris has the potential to be a great off-ball player that will benefit from playing with Simmons. With the Clippers, Harris averaged 20.9 ppg on 50-43-88 splits and just a 23.6 USG%. In his first 4 games with the Sixers, Harris is averaging 17.8 ppg on 52-38-78 shooting and a 19.6 USG%. More importantly, Harris has seen the percentage of his baskets assisted significantly increase. In LA, 34% of his two-point shots were assisted and 81% of his three-point shots were assisted. Now, 60% of his two-pointers are assisted and 88% of his threes are assisted. This increase signifies that Harris will become a key off-ball player for the Sixers. He likely won’t be a 20-point scorer, but Philadelphia doesn’t need that from him.
Although the early indicators are great, the playoffs will be the Sixers true test. If they don’t make a deep run, then they will look silly for giving up so many future assets just to get knocked out early. All we can do now is wait and watch how the new-look Sixers finish out the season after the NBA all-star break.
5. Houston Rockets
Despite the Rockets position as the 5th seed and James Harden’s incredible play, the last 25 games of this season will determine if they are true contenders. Last season, this team looked invincible at times. They won an incredible 65 games and earned the 1st seed in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, they won their first two series in a total of 10 games. Then they had their series against the Warriors when they were up 3-2. Then, Chris Paul injured himself in game 5 and the Rockets missed 27 straight threes in game 7. Even though losing this series was tough, it looked like they would be back next year. Now, I’m not sure about this team’s potential.
Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah Moute had a larger impact on the team than most fans expected. These were two 3 and D players that fit the Rockets’ style seamlessly. This season, especially with the injuries to Paul, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon, the Rockets have had to rely on Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, and James Ennis. Now that House is back in the G-league after contract disputes and Ennis was traded they have had to find more replacements. This came in the form of two buyout players, Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried. Also, they picked up Iman Shumpert at the trade deadline. With these new additions, as well as the return of Paul and Capela from injury, the Rockets will have to show how good they are in this final stretch.
Although it’s been incredible, Harden can’t keep up his last 2 months of play throughout the playoffs. He’s been averaging 41.6 ppg on an insane 41.7 USG%. This has been necessary to keep the Rockets afloat, but it usually doesn’t work in the playoffs. His infamous game 6 against the Spurs in the 2016 Western Conference semi-finals should come to mind. Harden was so tired from carrying his team the entire season, he fell apart in that game. When teams are able to create a specific defensive gameplan, relying on one player offensively doesn’t lead to a lot of success.
This leads to the major question and the primary reason the Houston Rockets are worth watching in this final stretch. Can CP3 return to his old self to help the Rockets go deep in the playoffs? After signing a 4-year $160 million contract to stay in Houston, Paul has not played well this season. He has missed 23 games and is only averaging 15.6 ppg, a career low, on 42-35-83 splits and a 50% eFG%, the lowest since his 2nd season in the NBA. Much of the Rockets season now depends on CP3. If he continues to play poorly, they will likely be a second-round exit. If he returns to his old self, this Rockets team could take another shot at the Warriors. Houston has plenty of questions to answer in the final 24 games and this final stretch will surely be an exciting ride.