Now that the calendar has switched to March, the NBA is into its final stretch drive. Most teams have between 23 to 25 games left in the season. Some teams have hopes of playoff berths while others are looking towards next season. As the stretch drive begins, what questions face the NBA as teams race for the playoffs?
Here are 8 questions as we enter March.
1. Are the Denver Nuggets for real?
At the end of December, the Denver Nuggets were a 17-15 team. Since then they have gone 22-7 and have rocketed up the standings. They are now in a battle for the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
Last season, the Nuggets were the sixth seed and took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in their first-round matchup before losing. Over the summer they added Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer, who have both provided solid play and blended in well with the rest of the cast.
Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Kosta Koufos and Kenneth Faried are all putting up career-best numbers. This has helped them to be one of the most efficient scoring teams this season, per the team rankings at NBA.com.
Their defense is underrated. They do give up the sixth-most points in the league, but that is due to their fast-paced style. A deeper look into the numbers will show that they are 11th in field-goal percentage allowed. They also lead the league in rebounds, are second in steals and third in blocks.
They do struggle on the road as they have the worst road record (13-19) among the top five teams in the Western Conference.
While not a team that will make a long run in the playoffs, this is a team that can pull off an upset come playoff time.
2. Can anybody catch LeBron for MVP?
The short answer is no, no and still no.
LeBron James has somehow gotten even better this season. He is shooting his best field goal percentage (56.3 percent) and 3-point percentage (40.7 percent) of his career. Those numbers far surpass his previous best of 53.1 and 36.2, respectively.
There has not been a player this year that can bring the complete, all-around game that James brings night after night.
His ranking in the following categories, compared with other MVP contenders.
The bigger question is who will be the runner-up. Early season contender Carmelo Anthony has cooled off and the late charging Tony Parker will miss too many games due to his recent injury. It will come down to Paul, Durant and Harden with Durant taking home the distant runner-up honors.
3. Can the Los Angeles Lakers make the playoffs?
The Los Angeles Lakers were thought to be contenders for the championship this season. Instead it has been a train wreck of a season.
Stats are misleading with this team. Usually when a team has the third-best scorer in the league (Kobe Bryant) and the leading rebounder (Dwight Howard) they would be expected to be more successful. Instead this team has spent most of the season below .500.
A recent 7-3 hot streak has helped them reach the .500 mark. This has them 1.5 games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Currently the bottom three of the West’s top eight are only separated by 2.5 games. A strong final few weeks could propel the Lakers as high as the sixth seed.
It is hard to imagine the ultra-competitive Bryant allowing his team to miss the playoffs. They will benefit from having the league’s fourth-easiest remaining schedule, according to ESPN.com.
Expect them to make the playoffs and be the one team that nobody wants to face in the first round.
4. Derrick Rose
There are so many questions with Derrick Rose. Will he play this season? How well will he play? How will his return affect the flow of the team?
Without him in the lineup the Chicago Bulls have done better this season than most people expected. At one point they were battling for the top seed in the East. They are on a skid which has seen them only win six of their last 15 games. This has dropped them to fourth in the conference. It has also shown just how much they need Rose back in the lineup.
Coach Tom Thibodeau, in a Chicago Sun Times article, admitted that he did not know if or when Rose would return but asked everyone to remain patient. Rose has been practicing for several weeks but there has been no word on a possible return date.
In a USA Today article, Rose stated that “I’m not coming back until I’m 110 percent. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It’s just that I’m not coming back until I’m ready.”
With Rose in the lineup, the Bulls become a major threat. They are one of the best defensive teams in the league already. Rose would not only make that area stronger but add an offensive force that the team lacks.
Without Rose they will likely continue to slide down the standings. The Milwaukee Bucks, currently the eighth seed, are only three games behind the Bulls. Luckily for the Bulls the ninth-place Toronto Raptors are still 10.5 games behind them. They desperately need a healthy Rose to return and fast.
5. Can anyone in the East stop the Miami Heat?
The defending champion Miami Heat look to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. They are currently on a 16-game winning streak that has padded their lead for the top spot in the East. James is playing better than he ever has in his career. Dwayne Wade looks rejuvenated and the rest of the team is filling their roles as planned.
Despite their record, the Heat have struggled against the three closest teams to them in the standings. Against the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls they are 2-5. The Pacers have been their Achilles heel as they have beaten the Heat in both matchups this season.
Despite the success, it would be hard to pick any of these teams to beat the Heat in a series. The Knicks have been in a funk lately, only winning five of their last 11 games. Even with the success that they have had, the Pacers really need Danny Granger to not only be healthy, but to return to his previous level of play in order to truly challenge the Heat.
If Rose does return to the Bulls then they would be the biggest road block to the Heat. Otherwise the Heat look to be set for another trip to the finals, where they would face a much more battle-weary team from the West.
6. Who wins the Western Conference?
The Western Conference has three of the four favorites for the title; the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers. The fourth team, the Miami Heat, are alone to conquer the East.
The top seed will mean more than just home-court advantage this year. Assuming they each win their first-round series, then the second- and third-seeded teams would play each other in the second round. The battered winner would then take on that top-seeded team.
No disrespect to the Memphis Grizzlies or Denver Nuggets, as they would not be easy wins, but a team would rather face them over the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers.
Another issue facing one of these teams is the Lakers. With them making a charge for one of the final three playoff spots, one of these teams will have the toughest of first-round matchups. The possibility of facing the Lakers then one of the top three teams in back-to-back series is a tall order for any team to overcome.
Whatever team earns the top spot will already have an advantage; if they also get to avoid the Lakers in the first round then it will be a huge advantage and one that should propel that team onto a final round appearance.
7. What impact will Thomas Robinson have on the Houston Rockets?
Thomas Robinson was the fifth pick in last year’s NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. On Feb. 20, the Kings traded him to the Houston Rockets. For some reason, Robinson just could not get consistent minutes with the Kings.
At Kansas as a collegian, he was a double-double machine, as he averaged 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds last season.
He has only played in three games with the Rockets since the trade. In his most recent game, he played 17 minutes and had 10 points, eight rebounds and three steals. He is currently behind Donatas Motiejunas on the depth chart.
If Robinson can live up to his potential, it would give the Rockets an athletic frontcourt player who can grab rebounds and provide a viable scoring option. Often the Rockets use James Harden as the first, second and third option with a little Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin mixed in. If Robinson can develop, and quickly, then it will give the team a post player that could relieve some of the burden on Harden.
It was a quiet addition at the trade deadline but it could provide a huge boost to the team as the playoffs draw near.
8. Does the addition of J.J. Redick make the Milwaukee Bucks a sleeper team?
J.J. Redick was traded from the Orlando Magic to the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline and the Bucks have gone 4-1 since.
They were averaging 98.5 points per game before the trade, good enough for 13th in the league. Since the trade, they have jumped to 107.6. With Redick, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, the Bucks have an impressive scoring punch.
The downside is that apart from Larry Sanders, the team is not too focused on defense. They have given up 104.4 points since the trade.
As the playoffs draw near, the Bucks could be thought of much like a mid-major team in the NCAA tournament. They are a free-shooting and fast-paced team with nothing to lose that will be against a higher-rated team. They could pose a serious threat to teams like the Knicks, Bulls and Pacers in a first-round matchup.
The rest of the season should be exciting.