Things to notice and look out for as the NBA season winds down


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With the playoffs fast approaching, MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo has the Bucks in impeccable shape. Other top contenders in the league are hoping to keep up pace and take the title in June.

Matt Shea, Managing Editor

For a moment, let’s travel back two seasons ago to when Kevin Durant was still on the Warriors, and LeBron James was still on the Cavs. Those two teams finished with a combined record of 108-56 (66%), and would inevitably meet again in the finals with the Warriors once again coming out on top for their third title in four years. Fast forward to this season. LeBron and the Lakers lead the West with a stunning record of 45-13, Durant sits along the Nets bench and with the playoff picture transformed, the Warriors and Cavs are nowhere to be found. In fact, with only a quarter of the season left, those two teams are a combined 30-90 (25%) and are each last in their respective conferences.


The NBA dynamic has had a strong shift for the first time in a while and this season has been a clear indication of that. The fans have seen tightly contested races for playoff spots and hard fought battles among top contenders. For the first time in a while, most fans will have to sit down and actually think long and hard about who might win the NBA Finals. In fact, some may have a hard time deciding who they think will even play in the Finals. With tremendous growth and interest on the rise, there are important factors to consider with the most contested NBA playoffs in a while fast approaching.


During the Warrior dynasty and still present today is the known perception that the West is overall better than the East. This is in large part due to the ability of teams with worse records to obtain playoff spots in the East while teams with better records have a harder time obtaining a decent playoff spot in the West. While this is all true, it is undeniable that the strength and diversity among teams in the East has certainly been on the rise. For example, this season, even if you were to take out the Bucks, the Clippers (second in the West) would still be behind two other teams if in the East. While you could argue this is due to more strength of schedule in the West, you could also argue that the teams in the East are simply better. Despite this upward trend or however you may view the conference dynamic of the league, there is still one deadly factor to look out for in the East currently and that is road wins. The percentage of away wins among top competitors in the East is downright haunting and could be indicative of early playoff collapses in the future. Take the 3-6 seeds in the East for example. The Celtics, third in the East, are an impressive 23-7 at home (77%) but have staggered away for an 19-12 record on the road (61%). That being the best example, the trend only gets worse. If you look at the Heat, fourth in the East, they are an incredible 27-4 (87%) at home, but are a disappointing 13-18 (42%) away from Miami. The Sixers are a whopping 28-2 (93%) at home, which would be great if only they weren’t 10-23 (30%) on the road. Lastly the Pacers, sixth in the East, are 21-10 (68%) at home and are 16-15 (52%) away. Between these four teams, they tend to win an average of 35% less games on the road than at home. This is not only one of the defining factors that separate the Raptors and Bucks atop the East, but this road problem is nowhere to be found amongst the same seeded teams in the West.


While the other competitors in the East have a road problem, the Bucks and Raptors are not completely out of the water. The Bucks might have an impressive record, but a great deal of their losses come against teams over .500. Meanwhile the Raptors seem to have the same problem posting an unfavorable record against better opponents. This could spell unlikely trouble for the two Eastern conference leaders if faced with a test in the playoffs. This is not a concerning issue as I still foresee these teams meeting in the Eastern Conference Final; however, it is not something to overlook as the season plays out.


One of the more notable things this season has been the tight knit race in the Western conference. While there are two teams (Raptors and Celtics) fighting for the second seed and three teams (Heat, Sixers and Pacers) fighting for the fourth seed in the East, the overall gap from team to team is significantly less in the Western conference. Currently the Clippers are one game up on the Nuggets for second and there are only 5.5 games separating them from the seventh seeded Mavericks. Meanwhile there are 17 games separating the same seeded teams in the Eastern conference (Raptors and Magic). This means that for the last quarter of the season, seeding in the Western conference has the potential to shake out in many different ways. While it is likely that most teams will stay put, particularly the Mavericks, Thunder and Jazz (less talent, lower chance of making a run), the race for the second seed is just heating up and has become a three-horse race.


After making their presence felt last season, the Nuggets have continued to exert themselves as a strong force in the West, yet they are still right behind the Clippers and always seemingly one step behind the larger talent (this year that being the Lakers ). Despite this, most fans were eager to put the Clippers, with the addition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, near the top of the West at the beginning of the season and they have certainly lived up to that prediction (currently tied for second). The seemingly two-horse race for the second seed between the Nuggets and Clippers is expanding. With each passing day it is getting harder to deny the legitimacy of the ever lurking Rockets. Nearing the second spot, the Rockets have had notable wins recently including one in Los Angeles over the Lakers and two wins over the Celtics. The Rockets were on a six game win streak and are scoring an average of 118 points per game which is only second to the Bucks. As the season continues, look out for the Rockets in this dramatic battle for seeding in the West that is ever changing. I forsee the Clippers taking the second seed but wouldn’t be surprised if the Rockets leaped over the Nuggets to take that third spot. Regardless, the race will be very tight until the end.


Lastly, one of the main conversations on the minds of basketball enthusiasts is the MVP race. Currently there are four likely suitors in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, James Harden and LeBron James. All four candidates are highly talented and deserve to be in the conversation. Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks in points (29.6), assists (5.8) and rebounds (13.8),  Anthony Davis leads the Lakers in points (26.6), rebounds (9.5), steals (1.5) and blocks (2.5) with James only leading in assists (10.7), and Harden leads the Rockets in points (34.6), assists (7.3), steals (1.7) and blocks (.9). These are all stellar numbers, however the most impressive come from Antetokounmpo as his stats are not only well balanced but his team has a jaw dropping record and were the first to have earned a playoff spot which shows his true impact is above the other players. The Lakers may be first in the West, but it is hard to match the impact of Davis and James with Antetokounmpo when they play alongside one another. The next most impressive is Harden and while his numbers are certainly no easy feat, it just doesn’t compare to the dominance of Antetokounmpo on both sides of the floor.


As the final stretch of the NBA regular season comes to a close, look out for some of these defining trends and stats as they could very well reshape the playoff picture in April and separate contenders from champions.