Order restored in the East, Embiid’s MVP chances take a hit and the G-League Bubble
Eastern Conference standings return to normalcy
With the quick turnaround from the bubble, it was understandable that some teams would be slow out the gate.
Well, looking at the standings today, the balance of power in the Eastern Conference has been restored. The top four teams in the East are the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat – as expected.
Yes, it was fun when the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Nets back-to-back, but nobody thought of the Cavs as a sustainable contender in the East.
As weeks progressed, players got healthy and moves were made that separated the East into proper tiers.
The Miami Heat are a different team with all-star Jimmy Butler in their lineup, evidenced by their 18-9 record with him versus 4-10 record without. Their early season woes were largely attributed to their best player being unavailable, but he’s back now and so are the Heat.
Since guard James Harden joined the Nets, they have a 21-6 record; a massive turnaround from the squad he joined that was just 7-7.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has been on a triple-double tear since his All-Star MVP, and the Bucks are better because of it. Since February 19, the Bucks are an impressive 10-1.
Teams like Charlotte, New York and Atlanta appear on track to make the postseason for the first time in some years. There’s a race to finish in the top six seeds to ensure a playoff berth, because the last two spots must be earned through the play-in tournament.
As for Philadelphia, there’s no concern over whether they’ll make the postseason, but the condition of their MVP candidate is now in question.
Embiid injury reignites the MVP race
This past weekend the founder of “The Process,” Joel Embiid, was diagnosed with a deep bone bruise after landing awkwardly in a win against the Washington Wizards.
It was a scary moment given the big man’s injury history, but fortunately it appears he has done no severe damage.
He is said to be doing “great” so far per head coach Doc Rivers, but his absence has certainly opened the door for others to lay claim to this season’s MVP award that was in his grasp.
Here are the others in the running:
LeBron James – After winning last year’s Finals MVP, he told us that he wants his damn respect. In year 18, he’s earning that respect by spearheading the league’s most efficient defense, posting the best real plus-minus of 9.22, along with his casual 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game.
The knock on James would be that he has a top-five player beside him, but that hasn’t been the case for a month now with Anthony Davis’ nagging calf injury. After last year’s truncated season, he’s clearly in pursuit of the award he hasn’t held since 2013.
Nikola Jokic – The Joker is simply special. He recently notched his 50th career triple-double, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only centers to do that in the league’s history. He’s top-ten this season in points, assists, rebounds and steals. Not to mention he has the best PER at 31.49 and a true shooting percentage in the mid-60s.
The only blemish on his résumé is the slow start his team got off to.
The Denver Nuggets struggled early so it looked as though Jokic was posting empty stats, but they’ve turned a corner as of late going 8-2 over their last ten games. If he can power this team to a three or four seed, he has a legitimate case for deserving the award.
Damian Lillard – Somebody must give Dame his flowers. Sure, his team’s record isn’t reflective of the traditional MVP candidate, but his game is off the charts right now. If you remove him from that team, the Blazers would possibly be in the Cade Cunningham sweepstakes.
He’s that much of a difference maker.
“Dame Time” is the most intimidating force in the league. Lillard has scored the most clutch points of any player this year while doing so on an out-of-this-world 83% true shooting (perfect 38-38 on free throws). He has single-handedly kept Portland alive and is second in the league with a career-high 30 points per game.
His 50-ball against the New Orleans Pelicans suggests he has bad intentions for the second half of the season.
We’re paying close attention to the MVP race and eagerly awaiting Embiid’s return. Odds are, one of these four men will be hoisting that trophy.
G-League bubble pays dividends in multiple ways
The league’s developmental product just wrapped up their 30-day Bubble season that was a success in multiple ways.
Serving as the NBA’s farm system, the G-League is where players who aren’t quite ready to earn a roster spot can continue their development. Several players on different tracks capitalized on that opportunity this year.
The most buzzworthy topic from the G-League season was the professional debuts of draft prospects Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Daishen Nix and Isaiah Todd for Team Ignite.
These prospects are the first of their kind to opt for the G-League over playing in college or professionally overseas before declaring for the draft. Playing beside them were NBA vets such as Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson.
Green stood out the most, boosting his draft stock by being a top-20 scorer at almost 18 points per game. His 30-point showing in the playoffs against the one-seeded 905 Raptors has some scouts arguing he should be the first overall pick in the draft.
Other young players took this opportunity to sharpen their skills before returning to their main rosters, such as Kevin Porter Jr. and Aleksej Pokusevski.
Personal reasons caused Cleveland to ship Porter jr. to Houston earlier this season. The 30th overall pick from the 2019 draft showed promise as a rookie, but inconsistently.
He led the G-League in scoring with 24 points per game and has returned to the Rockets where he now finds himself in their starting lineup. Though his career has been rocky thus far, his talent has never been in question and his stint in the G-League has brought out the best in him.
Pokusevski was the youngest player taken in last year’s draft, and was a polarizing selection by the Thunder at the 17th pick.
The 7-footer weighs only 190 pounds, but with his developing frame there’s no way to predict his ceiling. Trying to find himself amongst the NBA’s elite competition would be detrimental to his future, evidenced by his brutal numbers at the beginning of the season.
After spending some time in the G-League, Poku has returned to the Thunder a better player with a more understandable trajectory.
A not-so-young player that seized their opportunity in the G-League also was Jeremy Lin.
In ten seasons, Lin has played for eight different teams, primarily serving as a reserve or backup point guard. After reaching peak Linsanity, he never found his footing as a consistent contributor.
Playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin averaged nearly 20 points and six assists and led his team to the semifinals before losing to the future champions the Lakeland Magic.
At 32-years-old, Lin still has a few years of serviceable talent to offer a team in need of help at point guard. He knew the G-League was his best shot to prove that to NBA executives and that’s exactly what he did.
These players represent the different ways in which the G-League can serve as a valid alternative to the NCAA, or proving ground for main roster hopefuls.
Expect the G-League’s notoriety to expand in future years as more players realize its potential.