The All-Star break is almost over and there are 18 teams slated to return to action Thursday night. As we approach the third quarter mark of the season, the NBA landscape looks much different from the way it did at the halfway point.
The Nets have fallen from second to eighth in the East. The Suns have separated themselves from the Warriors in the battle for the league’s best record. James Harden and Ben Simmons have swapped teams. The big All-Star weekend meant to celebrate the NBA’s 75th anniversary turned out to be a dud.
With all to play for in the season’s final quarter, including playoff seedings and the awards races, our crew looks at what lies ahead for the remainder of the 2021-22 regular season.
1. What is one thing you’d change to fix the All-Star weekend?
ALDO: Scrap the current dunk contest format and instead, let them play H.O.R.S.E. with only dunks allowed or something along those lines. That way, you aren’t going to bore the crowd with miss after miss and a conversion rate that’s worse than Jalen Green’s field goal percentage. If they want to keep the dunk contest as it is, at least let the Three-Point Contest be the main event.
GIO: Not necessarily a “fix” per se, but making the winner of the All-Star game have home court advantage in the Finals would certainly raise the stakes. Of course, this would entail removing the draft that has taken over in recent years and that certainly has had its own fun moments.
FT: Add something like Tracy McGrady’s “Ruler of the Court” one-on-one tournament as the Saturday showcase event. Let’s face it, the dunk contest has gone stale—we get a good one once every five years. The three-point contest is a solid undercard, but it can’t carry Saturday night. The less said about the skills competition, the better. A WWE King of the Ring-style single-elimination tourney could spice things up, but only if the fans get to vote for the participants—which should be the case for every event because having benchwarmers headline some of the contests is a major turn off.
CARLO: According to CNBC, the NBA will generate $10 billion in revenue over the 2021-22 season. With that much money being generated, I want to see the league up the stakes a lot more with the charity prize pool for the All-Star game. $750,000 was handed out to two charities after the game, which is a lot for us normal people but seems like a paltry amount consideringhow much money went behind planning and putting on the whole All-Star Weekend. I think a cool option would be for the NBA to let the two captains talk to each other, since the highest vote-getters are usually going to be among the highest earners, and let them talk about how much they want to commit to putting in the prize pool, which the NBA then matches.
For example, say LeBron James and Kevin Durant say they want to put up $1 million each, then the NBA matches that, you end up with $4 million for charities. I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of the All-Star teams battling to earn their respective charities a million bucks a quarter. That might even bring a little bit of defense back to the All-Star game!
2. Fill in the blank: The MVP is ________.
ALDO: Chris Paul is going to miss the next six weeks with a thumb injury which effectively puts him out of the running in the MVP race. I’m still going to pick him here though as an homage to the great season that he has had so far since he would be my choice if the season ended today. He’s leading the league in assists and is the biggest reason why the Phoenix Suns are 48-10.
Paul has now been named to three consecutive All-Star teams after a three-year drought and it’s easy to forget that he’s already 36 years old with the way that he has been playing. The 12-time All-Star is expected to return right in time for the playoffs and should pick up where he left off, although it will be too late for him to make a late push for the MVP trophy by then.
GIO: Joel Embiid. He’s been playing solid basketball and should he stay healthy the rest of the way, will easily beat his record for regular season games played.
FT: Up for grabs. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and DeMar DeRozan have firmly established themselves as the MVP frontrunners (in some order, though you just read mine), and any one of these guys would be a worthy pick if the season ended today. Embiid probably has the slight edge in terms of winnability because (1) it’s easier to build a narrative around him following the Ben Simmons soap opera and (2) he’s never won the award before.
Here’s my case for Jokic, though: he has single-handedly carried the Nuggets to a respectable 33-25 record (just 2 games behind Embiid’s Sixers in the overall standings) despite not having Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the team’s second- and third-best players, for practically the entire season (JM + MPJ > BS); all while maintaining elite offensive efficiency and playing 2013 DPOY Marc Gasol-level defense.
CARLO: There are so many solid contenders this year, especially with DeMar DeRozan having an unbelievable season. I honestly don’t think Nikola Jokic gets to win it two times in a row with all of his team’s struggles because of injuries. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also having an unreal season, but my pick would be Joel Embiid, especially if he manages to mesh well with James Harden. He was my league MVP heading into the break, and will be my pick until the end of the season unless something drastically changes.
3. Can the Suns hold on to the no. 1 seed without Chris Paul?
ALDO: Yes. They have a 6.5 game cushion over the Golden State Warriors and Cam Payne proved last season that he is more than capable of filling-in for Paul. Their system is solid and gives them as high a floor as anyone regardless of who is on the court for them. Paul’s absence will also give Devin Booker more opportunities to try his hand at being the primary playmaker for the team which should come in handy in the postseason.
Also, this upcoming stretch of the regular season is notoriously known as “Silly Season” because of all the teams that start vehemently tanking which should help them pick up a couple of easy wins here and there.
GIO: No. CP3 opens things up for Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and there will be days the Suns’ offense as a whole will struggle without Paul shouldering the offense. No CP3 means a win requires a great night from Booker and another Suns player at the minimum. Considering how Paul gets people into great spots, it could be easier said than done.
FT: More likely than not. At 48-10, the Suns are 6.5 games clear of the Warriors and 8 ahead of the Grizzlies with 24 games remaining on their schedule. They have the 8th easiest remaining schedule and they’re simply too good to be a 0.500 team even without CP3. Even if they go 12-12, they’ll finish with a 60-22 record, meaning the Warriors and Grizzlies would have to go 18-5 and 19-3 respectively to match the Suns. Considering that Golden State has gone 12-8 and Memphis 15-5 in their last 20, the odds of them catching Phoenix, while possible, is not probable.
CARLO: I think the Suns manage to hold on, because they have a “next man up” mentality and I think their backup guards will be able to hold it together by committee while Chris Paul gets his rest. I continue to feel that the injury to CP3 may be a blessing in disguise, because it will let him heal up from any other knocks that may currently be suffering from. A fresh Point God in the playoffs is more important than the best record in the league.
4. Which team finishes with the best record in the East?
ALDO: I think it’s the Miami Heat. They’ve survived extended absences from Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry which allowed their reserves to gain much-needed confidence that bolstered their depth. Now that they’re as healthy as they’ve been all season, they should manage to hold on to the top spot in the East.
GIO: Miami Heat. They look like they’re peaking at the right time. Players clearly understand their role and can step up when one of their teammates is down. That Heat head coach Spoelstra is the longest-tenured coach in the East only helps, especially when it comes to adjusting to situations.
FT: The East is a crapshoot this season, so this feels like throwing a dart, but I’m going with the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday all finally look healthy, and something tells me that they’ll turn it up a notch as they gear up for their title defense. Watching Giannis at the All-Star Game reminded me how seriously he takes every game; he doesn’t coast and I expect he wouldn’t let his teammates slack off down the stretch either.
CARLO: I have no fucking idea. This is the most competitive the Eastern Conference has ever been in my memory. The Heat keep coming back, while it looks like the Bucks are starting to ride into form behind the Greek Freak. The 76ers are about to find out whether or not Embiid and Harden can play well together. I’d probably go with the Bulls, even though they’re missing key guys like Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.
5. Which team gets the final play-in spot in the West?
ALDO: It’s the New Orleans Pelicans for me. They’ve gone 22-24 since starting 1-12 and are now 23-36. While that record is far from impressive and Zion Williamson still seems months away from a full recovery, the acquisition of CJ McCollum is a reason for optimism in the short term.
McCollum has been on fire since arriving at New Orleans and has formed a nice trio with Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas. This “Medium Three” is cumulatively better than anything that their main competitors for the last play-in spot (the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trailblazers) have on their roster and should be enough on the basis of talent alone to tow them to 10th place in the West.
GIO: Portland Trail Blazers. They’re playing with house money with Lillard out indefinitely and the backcourt of Anfernee Simons and Josh Hart has been solid.
FT: The New Orleans Pelicans just because of how desperately they want to get in. That’s the reason why they traded for CJ McCollum, so I hope they get “rewarded” for it.
CARLO: I like to dream impossible dreams, so I’m hoping the Sacramento Kings get that last play-in spot. But if I’m being honest, I think the Pelicans nab that spot.