DAR Sports: The Final Stretch of The 2016-2017 NBA Season

By @TrueGodImmortal

The All Star break is finally over and with that landmark weekend over and done with, we now head into the final stretch of the season. The best team in the NBA this regular season after the first 56-57 games? The same team as the last 2 seasons, the Golden State Warriors. The San Antonio Spurs aren't too far behind them either, and the Houston Rockets are also looking pretty good this year, as are the defending NBA champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. There have been some honest disappointments this season, such as the Portland Trailblazers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New York Knicks, and even the Chicago Bulls to an extent. There hasn't been much of a shock as to who would be in the top spots in the East, though I don't think any of us predicted that the Washington Wizards would be this good and right there in the 3rd spot for the Eastern Conference. Led by John Wall and Bradley Beal (and a focused Otto Porter), the Wizards are in prime position to make a run in the East in the playoffs. With the East looking a bit stronger than the previous two seasons, we wanted to take a look at the happenings in the NBA and what the 2nd half of this season holds for the teams in the West and East, along with some of the moves that have been made as the trade deadline approaches.

*Eastern Conference 
For the Eastern Conference, it seems like the Cleveland Cavaliers are a shoo in to head to the NBA Finals for a third straight year. After a rough run in January, the Cavs have regrouped and they seem to be focused, even with two of their biggest players out in Kevin Love and JR Smith. They went into the All Star Break on a nice bit of momentum, and one has to wonder if that will carry over into the 2nd half of the season. For the Cavs however, there seems to be one thing that should be on their mind: resting LeBron James more. Now, let's be clear, Bron is getting older and in his 14th season in the league, but he's still the best player in the game. However, he's playing too many minutes and though this doesn't seem like it'll make much of a difference in the playoffs, if the East really turns it up and gives the Cavs some competition, the road to a 7th straight Finals appearance might be harder than imagined for Bron. That, coupled both JR and Love coming back from injury in the midst of playoff season could cause some trouble in the 2nd half of the season and also in the playoffs (no one would expect Love and JR to be completely back to 100% at all this season, even after returning).

LeBron had some complaints about needing another playmaker and after acquiring Derrick Williams, it seems as if the Cavs have found a nice piece. They have Kyle Korver, who seems very comfortable now in the Cavs offense, but one has to wonder how much that'll help them in the long run, when the defense gets tighter and the games get tougher. Regardless, anytime you have LeBron and Kyrie Irving on the same team with a solid supporting cast, it's expected that the 2nd half of the season will be fruitful for the Cavs. They return to action against the Knicks to kick off the 2nd half of the season, and it seems as if all of those rumors of Carmelo Anthony to the Cavs will remain just that. Rumors.

Now, Carmelo could very well be traded to someone, but it doesn't seem likely or possible for Melo to go to the Cavs before the deadline and honestly, if I'm the Knicks, I wouldn't want to part with Melo just yet, unless you receive equal value. Who would Melo end up with? That's a tough question. Perhaps the Boston Celtics? Highly unlikely, as the Celtics likely won't deal any of their pieces to the Knicks. Maybe the Chicago Bulls? I don't think Jimmy Buckets would want to play alongside Derrick Rose again, and although Melo could be able to play with one of his best friends, Dwyane Wade, I don't see this trade happening. Could the Los Angeles Clippers manage to take Melo for Austin Rivers, J.J. Redick, and maybe a draft pick? Well, anything is possible in the NBA based on the trade we just witnessed (more on that later). My guess is that Melo isn't traded before the deadline and the Knicks make one last push for the playoffs and then during the offseason, Melo ends up elsewhere, possibly with LeBron or Chris Paul. There's a scenario that came up where Derrick Rose leaves New York and Chris Paul ends up with the Knicks next season to appease Melo and make things right, but that seems way too far fetched. With 14 years in this game, Melo is losing his power and draw, so I hope that he ends up in a place where he's comfortable ending his career.

Surprise, surprise, the Boston Celtics are the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. They have a MVP candidate in Isaiah Thomas, a solid team, and a pretty good coach in Brad Stevens. They are one piece away from really contending for the East and if I'm a betting man, I could see the Celtics making the Eastern Conference Finals and giving the Cavs a possible run for their money. The rumor mill has Jimmy Butler going to the Celtics, and if the Boston Celtics manage to bring in Jimmy Buckets without losing any vital piece of their team, then I really believe they have a fighting shot at making the Finals. Adding Jimmy Butler to a core that includes a MVP candidate, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart (who has been solid this season), Al Horford (who is disappointing this year), and more could be deadly. For my Bulls sake however, I hope the Celtics don't get Butler and that we keep him and build around him. However, Gar and Pax are idiots and nothing surprises me anymore.

As far as the 2nd seed from last year, the Toronto Raptors, they have two All Stars on their team in DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry, and they just added a big piece in Serge Ibaka. Does this help them? Yes and no. They've struggled in recent times before the All Star break, but now with DeMar back and seemingly healthy, as well as a new piece in Ibaka, does this increase their chances of contending and possibly beating the Cavs? I don't think so. Why? Ibaka is a solid piece to add, but he's not the same player he was some years ago and that could be the determining factor in how far the Raptors really go. If the Raptors can have the OKC prime Ibaka show up, then maybe they could make some noise, but I have my doubts on this happening. I have my doubts on the Washington Wizards too, but I think they could end up finishing as the 3rd seed in the East behind a healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal. I think they should make a move as well before the trade deadline, but admittedly, I'm not 100% sure what that move could be to take them over the top. Still, after seeing the Wizards push the Cavs to the limit recently, I think a 2nd round (if the Wizards fall to the 4th seed) battle with the Cavs or even an Eastern Conference Finals battle would be amazing. Only time will tell how the Wizards finish out the year, but I think they'll be able to stay in the 3rd or 4th seed at the very least.

The rest of the East just seems lifeless to me. The Atlanta Hawks aren't a real threat, the Indiana Pacers aren't a real threat, and there are rumors of the Pacers possibly trading Paul George (hopefully he lands somewhere Bunny Talk is the language of choice). The Chicago Bulls have Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, but there's a possibility that Jimmy Buckets will leave before the trade deadline and there's a big possibility that Wade will leave the Bulls in the offseason. Rajon Rondo hasn't made much of an impact for the Bulls, and although the Bulls are currently in the 7th seed, a big trade could either see them keeping Butler and adding a nice piece to the roster or losing Butler and tanking completely. Knowing the Bulls organization, it will be the latter.

As for the rest of the East, the Miami Heat are knocking on the doors of that 8th seed, while the Detroit Pistons are trying to stay afloat. There's not much to speak of in the East once you get beyond the first 3 or 4 teams, but in the West? Business has just picked up.

*Western Conference 
The West technically goes through Oakland this year, much like it has the last two years. After letting small injuries and mental strain get the best of them last season, the Golden State Warriors returned with Kevin Durant and a mostly new team. Keeping Iggy, Livingston, Ian Clark, and of course their 3 All Stars in tact, the Warriors have shown that they can be just as good as they have been the last two seasons this year. Adding KD doesn't make them necessarily unstoppable, but when you're talking about a team who hasn't lost back to back games in the regular season in about 2 years, you're looking at something special. KD and Stephen Curry are still two of the five best players in the league and with both averaging about 25-26 points a game, they've carved out their lane as the best team in the NBA and the top team to beat in the West. A lot of the Warriors losses this season have seemed like them just taking a night off or blowing leads they should have sustained (Grizzlies and Cavaliers on Christmas come to mind). They've had some tough stretches, but still have managed to start the 2nd half of the season at 47-9, which is amazing. Though it doesn't seem likely they'll come up with 70 wins again, they could very well finish with 66-68 wins, which would be amazing to witness for a third straight season. One man who has seemingly also been a captain of this ship is Klay Thompson, who is averaging 22 points a game, and of course, there is Draymond Green, who is the only man in NBA history to get a triple double without scoring 10 points. The Warriors are the team to beat in the West, and as the 2nd half of the season rolls on, I feel like we will see them get even better going into the playoffs and they will a couple of significant win streaks I believe in these final 26 games. I predict they'll finish the year 68-14, which is an amazing feat in itself.

For the 2nd and 3rd seeds, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, both teams have at least 40 wins and look great going into the 2nd half of the season. For some reason, I see James Harden possibly losing some steam in the 2nd half of the season, and though it's obvious neither the Spurs or Rockets will lose their seat in their respective positions, I feel like Rockets will end up at 54-28 by the end of the season. As good as that team has been, the fatigue will start to catch up and their live by the three, die by the three mentality that was adopted from the Warriors (who changed the game in this era), will come back to haunt them in the long run. As for the Spurs, after going 67-15 last year, I don't see them repeating that obviously, as they are currently 43-13. I do see them finishing out the year at around 61-21, and that's still a damn good season no matter how you cut it. I see Kawhi taking a few games off and the Spurs taking a few losses back to back also, but otherwise, heading into the playoffs will see the Spurs energized and ready for war. In the West, the top 3 seeds are basically already set. Those are the true contenders this year. However, the rest of the West just got put on notice with a blockbuster trade.

DeMarcus Cousins seemingly had found peace in Sacramento. After what was a tumultuous relationship recently, and his knack for showcasing his bad temper, it seemed as if the Kings and Cousins had agreed to not part ways and Boogie would sign a big time contract extension. For some reason, the Kings went back on all of that. In a deal that still baffles me about 24 hours later, the Kings sent Cousins to the Pelicans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and two draft picks. To make matters worse, the Kings aren't even keeping Langston or Tyreke, at least from what I've heard. How stupid is the Kings organization? Well, they lost a MVP candidate in Isaiah Thomas, they lost Hassan Whiteside, and they've lost Cousins for virtually nothing. Now, the Pelicans don't necessarily have the strongest backcourt or the strongest team, but when you add in the new All Star Game MVP Anthony Davis alongside Cousins, that is the scariest front court in YEARS for the NBA. Even the Twin Towers of Duncan and Robinson weren't as scary because Robinson was nearing the end of his career when Duncan really came of age as a player. These are two younger guys, in their athletic primes in the post together. Two former Kentucky teammates at that. This could be a match made in Heaven.... or hell. Depends on the attitude of Boogie when he gets there and how well the team gels. Regardless, this is the biggest news in the West aside from the top 3 seeds and while I'm sure there might be some other trades on the horizon, there is NOTHING that will top this in the West. Not even Melo going to a Western Conference team like the Clippers.

Speaking of the Clippers, they've rested into their 4th/5th seed comfort zone just fine once again after fooling the NBA world in the first couple of games. Injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have hurt the team, but I don't see them relinquishing their 4th seed to the Jazz heading into the playoffs. In reality, it doesn't matter because whoever finishes 4th and 5th have to battle each other in the first round anyways. I don't see the Thunder or Grizzlies moving into that spot. Speaking of the Thunder, I do have them somehow overtaking the 6th seed by the end of the year to set up a huge battle in the first round between Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I see the Grizzlies falling to 7th seed, and as far as the 8th seed goes? While many are automatically saying the Pelicans get it, I don't think so. I think the Nuggets hold on to the 8th seed and keep Portland, New Orleans, and of course Sacramento out of the playoff race. I think the Pelicans have a big shot at the 8th seed, but chemistry and attitude, as well as their back court and bench will play a factor in bigger games. Cousins and AD will dominate in the post, but I don't see them overtaking the Nuggets completely and if they do, I don't see them getting beyond the first round. The Twin Towers will be unstoppable, sure, but the biggest question is, what DeMarcus Cousins shows up in New Orleans? Rumors have Cousins also being slightly banged up and hurt, so this could also be an issue. If AD were to get injured or miss a few games heading into playoff season, that could cost the Pelicans big time. Big time. We'll see how this new duo works together. I have high hopes and skepticism at the same time.

I can't mention the West without mentioning my personal MVP pick, Russell Westbrook. There's no player more valuable than him on the floor in the NBA for their team. Sure, we can argue LeBron, but let's be honest: LeBron has top tier help and two All Stars next to him. Russ is leading his team to 8 games above .500 without any other All Stars or any true top tier help. Steven Adams has done well and Oladipo is solid, but without Enes Kanter in the lineup for an extended period of time, the Thunder have grinded out tough victories over teams like the Cavaliers and though they got handled by the Warriors easily every time they played, early on the Thunder gave them trouble. To see where Russ has managed to bring the Thunder so far is amazing, and to do it averaging a triple double is even more amazing. The Thunder can close out the season very strongly if they want and I'd love to see them sneak into the 5th or 6th seed, though it doesn't seem likely. Regardless, the story of the West this season and the 2nd part of the season will be Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry and the dominant Golden State Warriors, and now, the New Orleans Pelicans and their 2017 version of the Twin Towers.

What does the rest of the season hold? I guess we have to stay tuned to REALLY find out.



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