Each week NBA Australia‘s stable of experts - which this week includes Downtown’s Liam Santamaria, Tommy Greer and Michael Collins - takes a close look at the big issues in the NBA.
We’re just past the halfway point of the season, and there’s still plenty of basketball to be played.
This week, the Starting Five were tasked with coming up with some BOLD predictions for the second half of the season.
Liam Santamaria: Phoenix, not Oklahoma City, will make the playoffs
The Phoenix Suns – the team nobody outside of Arizona (and my house in Melbourne, Australia) wants in the playoffs – continue to hold down the hotly-contested eighth spot in the Western Conference Standings.
Sorry folks, I know you want to see KD and Westbrook in the postseason.
You’d even settle for Anthony Davis and his sprightly pod of Pelicans.
But it’s just not happening… the Suns ain’t budging.
Not after last year.
Last April, at the conclusion of head coach Jeff Hornacek’s first season at the helm, Phoenix missed the playoffs with an impressive 48-34 record.
It was a tough pill to swallow after a thrilling season of up-tempo overachieving.
Instead of pushing the Spurs in the opening round, Dragic and Co. joined the ‘07-08 Golden State Warriors as the winningest teams in the modern era to not make the playoffs.
In the current climate of lopsided conferences, 48 wins was seemingly no longer good enough in the wild, wild West.
This year, however, the Suns will make the cut.
They’re currently 28-21 and have won 16 of their past 23 games since inserting centre Alex Len in the starting lineup.
The move has been a masterstroke, with the fifth pick from the 2013 Draft progressing ahead of schedule and improving the Suns’ leaky defence with his intimidating rim protection.
Hornacek has also decided to play scoring point guards Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas together more regularly – a kooky approach that has paid off in wins on numerous occasions.
Indeed, it has also helped that Oklahoma City just can’t seem to work themselves out.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have missed large chunks of time through injury, but as Grantland’s Zach Lowe tweeted yesterday, the Thunder have struggled even with their superstars in uniform. No team in NBA history has missed the playoffs with 49 wins so that represents a reasonable target for each of these teams to aim for.
Phoenix will need to go 21-12 (.636) the rest of the way to achieve it.
OKC will need to go 26-9 (.743).
For a team that won 72 percent of its games in each of the past two seasons, that’s not outside the realms of possibility but I’m sorry… I’m just not buying it. Not with what we’ve seen thus far.
The Phoenix Suns may not be ready to contend for a title like the Western Conference teams above them, but they will make the playoffs this season.
Perhaps then the disappointment of last year can be forgotten by those in Arizona (and my house).
Tommy Greer: Cleveland will take the second seed in the East
After hovering around .500 for most of the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are now less than five games behind the second-placed Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Standings.
Any team featuring four-time MVP LeBron James is going to be highly scrutinised and this team is no exception.
Since ‘the shove’, which was reported as a true indication of where LeBron and coach Blatt’s relationship stood, the Cavs have gone on a 10-game winning streak; the league’s second largest current win streak, behind the Eastern Spurs or the San Antonio Hawks (whichever you prefer).
Unsurprisingly, the rumours of LeBron’s distain for Blatt have all but disappeared.
It’s amazing what a couple of wins can do for people’s perception of a situation.
LeBron has been the major factor in turning things around. Over these past 10 games James is averaging an MVP-worthy 29.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.1 steals and is truly leading by example.
Kyrie Irving has also turned a corner and has been relishing his time playing off the ball, recently posting a new career high 55 points against Portland.
Irving and James have begun to look more comfortable together on the floor, with Kyrie’s outstanding perimeter shooting providing LeBron and others plenty of space to operate offensively.
The midseason trade for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert may prove to be a godsend for Cleveland.
The extra rim protection and impact on the defensive glass that Mozgov provides has been a large contributing factor to their recent success.
The Cavs are also beginning to click defensively, where they have kept opponents to below 100 points in each of their past eight games.
Prior to that stretch, they’d given up 100+ in 24 of 41 games.
Having Mozgov in the middle has filled their perimeter defenders with the confidence to get up and in, knowing that the second line of defence is there and they will not get hung out to dry.
With their stars growing more and more comfortable playing together, and some new important pieces on deck, the Cavs are starting to put it together.
Michael Collins: Anthony Davis will win the MVP
There is nothing quite like Anthony Davis catching the ball at the elbow and overwhelming his lumbering foe at the rim on the last possession of a NBA game.
It’s devastating, smooth and so simple. Just like the entirety of his game.
As the All-Star break draws near, the natural conclusion is that the MVP award is a two-horse race between Stephen Curry and James Harden.
And yet, there is reason to suggest that Davis can catapult himself above the favoured duo before the end of the season.
Seriously, there’s room for Harden’s MVP candidacy to digress as Dwight Howard’s absence extends and the season’s general wear-and-tear kicks in.
With Houston’s lack of secondary playmakers and Josh Smith’s continued struggles, Harden has shouldered the heaviest load of any lead act in the NBA.
Of course, Golden State’s sheer depth and roaring record renders Curry the safest MVP bet.
It’s easy to say that the MVP should be sourced from a playoff team, but Davis is posting alien numbers including a PER (31.9) that would be the greatest of all-time.
The Pelicans aren’t exactly your traditional lottery team. They’re stuck in a historically unfair conference, and yes, they’re only two games out of playoff positioning.
Indeed, he’s not a great defensive player yet; he’s mostly dependent on his freakish physical attributes to thwart enemy attacks rather than hopping to the right spots on the floor. Still, the kid is only 21 freaking years old.
In many ways, the case against The Brow is petty semantics. If New Orleans edged Phoenix for the eighth seed, he would likely be the consensus MVP pick.
Boasting a league-leading 10 30+ point and 10+ rebound games this season, Davis has been the league’s premier player this season.
Screw it: The Pels will orchestrate a playoff heist and the world will have no more counters to Davis’ MVP claim.
To read bold predictions from the other #StartingFive members, including NBA Australia’s Simon Legg, click here.
This article first appeared on NBA Australia.