The NBA’s annual All-Star break is just days away, and now is when things start to really get fun.
Every win or loss means more and more for the teams fighting for playoff position. Every 30-point game from Houston Rockets guard James Harden or dominant performance from Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has the potential to impact the MVP race. And so on.
So with less than two months left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt, Martin Rogers, AJ Neuharth-Keusch and Matt Eppers take a look at three of the league’s burning questions in this NBA roundtable.
Note: All statistics and records are as of Wednesday, Feb. 13.
Who’s the league MVP right now?
Zillgitt: Harden is the MVP unless he goes the next 30 games without scoring a point. He’s doing things (scoring 30 in 31 consecutive games) not seen since Wilt Chamberlain and carrying his team from the bottom of the standings to a playoff spot and possibly home-court advantage in the first round. At 36.5 points per game, Harden is on pace for the seventh-best single-season scoring average in NBA history. He averages five 3-pointers (No. 2 in the league), 2.2 steals (No. 3) and 7.8 assists (No. 5). But big shouts to Antetokounmpo and Oklahoma City’s Paul George.
Rogers: Antetokounmpo. The temptation is to say Harden, but I’m still not convinced that his crazy numbers aren’t partly a matter of distribution. Take him from the Houston lineup and it’s not like the Rockets would suddenly be 30 points worse off. They’d be weaker, but it would also give other players a chance to actually touch the ball — and maybe even score — every now and then. Pull Antetokounmpo from Milwaukee and a bona fide title contender turns into a borderline playoff team, even in the East. For me, that’s true “value” — the critical part of M “V” P consideration.
Neuharth-Keusch: Right now it’s Antetokounmpo, but that’s certainly subject to change. His Bucks have the best record in the NBA, and he’s putting up numbers — 27.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists — never before seen in NBA history. Harden has been even more historic, but the Rockets’ place in the standings — they’re just three games ahead of eighth-place Sacramento — could end up hurting him in the end. George is right there, too, playing the best basketball of his career, by far, as the best player on a third-place Thunder team.
Eppers: Antetokounmpo. In his sixth season, The Greek Freak has made a leap to becoming a generational talent. The surface numbers only tell part of the story, though. Antetokounmpo is a runaway train in transition, and his versatility in the half-court has been the catalyst for a Bucks squad with the best record, point differential and net rating in the league.
Which team is the best in the East?
Zillgitt: It will be popular to say Philadelphia, given that they added Tobias Harris at the trade deadline to go alongside Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid in the starting lineup. But it’s Milwaukee until proven otherwise. Milwaukee has the best defense in the league, No. 4 offense and is the only team in the top five in both categories. They have an MVP-caliber player in Antetokounmpo, another All-Star in Khris Middleton, plenty of complementary pieces in the starting lineup and off the bench and a quality coach in Mike Budenholzer. Adding Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline only helps.
Rogers: For all of Antetokounmpo’s brilliance, the best collection of talent in the East, and probably the second best in the NBA, is in Philadelphia. The acquisition of Harris is a bigger deal than a lot of people realize and it could be the thing that changes the whole picture come playoff time. Because he’s not a huge name and played previously on teams that are often ignored, not everyone is willing to accept Harris as a true top-tier player. He is, and if he can mesh with the 76ers’ other outstanding cornerstones, the sky is the limit.
Neuharth-Keusch: It’s Milwaukee right now, but Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston all make this the strongest the top of the East has been in quite some time. All four of these teams have NBA Finals potential, and their trade-deadline acquisitions (aside from the Celtics) make them even stronger. That said, I’m using this space to give a shoutout to Brooklyn. The Nets are in sixth place (!!!) in the East, and they already have more wins than they did in each of the past three seasons. Better yet, they’re actually fun to watch. Take a bow, Sean Marks, Kenny Atkinson and Co.
Eppers: Toronto. They sacrificed a bit of depth to acquire Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, but the Raptors improved their interior defense and maintained their flexibility. Even after sending Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles to Memphis (and Fred VanVleet’s recent thumb injury), the Raptors still can go nine guys deep. Gasol’s abilities as a playmaker already have begun to transform Toronto’s offense.
Who’s the team to watch after the trade deadline?
Zillgitt: Philadelphia made the biggest splash, but I’m more interested in how the Raptors develop with Gasol. They already swung for the fences to get Kawhi Leonard in the summer and took another big cut at a fastball in the Gasol trade. There’s always the chance Toronto may not retain either player in free agency this summer. To be fair, the Sixers are in the same boat with Harris and Butler. But it’s obvious that Raptors president Masai Ujiri sees a window to win the East this season and pulled off moves to go for it.
Rogers: There are two — neither of them for the right reasons. The Anthony Davis non-trade is giving early signs of shellacking the remainder of the campaign for both the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans. The Lakers’ youngsters show no interest in that important little trait called effort, perhaps because LeBron James — by implication — made it clear he saw their only value as trade bait. As for the Pelicans, let’s just say that Davis isn’t the only one acting like he doesn’t want to be in New Orleans. This is all going to get worse before it gets … even worse?
Neuharth-Keusch: Philadelphia, and the reasons are obvious. It may take time for coach Brett Brown to put it all together, and there will be some bumps in the road, but the fact that the Sixers’ starting five is even in the same stratosphere as Golden State is saying something. While Simmons, Embiid and Butler are the headline-stealers and Harris is in the spotlight after the deadline, Redick deserves some recognition. The veteran sharpshooter is averaging a career-high 18.6 points per game — in his 13th season.
Eppers: Sacramento. Perhaps it isn’t a flashy pick, but with the top of the Western Conference playoff field jockeying for seeding, the race for the eighth spot should be fascinating. The Kings acquired Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks at the deadline in the hopes of ending the league’s longest playoff drought. They both bring size to Sacramento’s perimeter rotation, and with the Clippers falling and the Lakers in disarray, the Kings’ young core appears ready to make a push for the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2006.