Ness Notes: Feb 19 NBA "State of the Union"

by Larry Ness

The 2020-21 NBA season tipped off on December 22, meaning we are just about two full months into the current season, which consists of a 72-game schedule, not the usual 82-game one. The NBA All Star break is rapidly approaching, as the first half of the season ends March 4. The All Star break will last from March 5-10 (All Star game will be played Mar 7 in Atlanta), with games resuming on March 11. The NBA trade deadline is Mar 25 and the regular season ends May 16.

A Play-In Tournament will run from May 18-21 with the following format. The seventh and eighth seed in each conference will play each other for the seventh spot in the playoffs. The ninth and 10th seed teams will play each other for a chance to play the loser of the seven/eight game. The winner of that final matchup will get the eighth spot in the playoffs. The playoffs are scheduled to start May 22 and run through July 22. So where are we as of Feb 19? Glad you asked.

Starting in the West, which features the league's three-winningest teams. Back on Opening Night (Dec 22), the Clippers and Lakers met in Staples Center with the Clippers beating the defending champs by the score of 116-109. The Staples Center co-tenants were expected to be the West's top teams this season and the Lakers are 22-8 (.733) overall while owning the NBA's best road record (13-3). The Clippers check in at 21-9 (.700), just one game back of the Lakers. The Clippers own a slight edge over the Lakers in point-differential, leading with a plus-6.8 PPG average to the Lakers' plus-6.5. The Clippers are 17-13 ATS, while the Lakers check in at just 14-16. Each team owns a pair of Superstars. For the Lakers it's LBJ (25.9-8.2-7.9) and A.D. (22.5 & 8.4) and for the Clippers, it's Kawhi (26.7-5.9-5.0) and Paul George (24.4-6.2-5.5). No one will be surprised that LBJ hasn't missed a single game (he's averaging 34.6 minutes at age 36) but the health status of the remaining three will have a lot to do with how the two LA teams fare the rest of the way. A.D, has already missed seven games for the Lakers and just last night had his injuries reevaluated by team doctors and the word is he will be out four weeks. Kawhi has already missed seven games and George 10. Both are listed as out for Friday's game with the Jazz (more in a bit), Kawhi with a leg injury and George with a foot injury. Only time will tell.

The second half of ESPN's Friday doubleheader will feature the Clippers hosting the Utah Jazz. The teams just met Wednesday night at Staples Center, with the Jazz routing the Clippers (minus Kawhi and George) 114-96. Utah has 'quietly' built a juggernaut in Salt Lake City in the 2020-21 season. The Jazz ended last season by blowing a 3-1 lead in the Opening Round of last season's playoffs to the Denver Nuggets and after eight games of the current season, Utah was just 4-4. However, "look at them now!" Wednesday's win over the Clippers was Utah's 20th win in its last 21 games (19-2 ATS). NINETEEN of the team's 20 wins in its current streak have come by double digits, giving the Jazz the league's best overall record (24-5, .828), it's best ATS record at 22-7 and the league's top point-differential (plus-9.6 PPG). Guards Donovan Mitchell (24.2-4.4-5.1) and Mike Conley (16.5 & 5.8 APG) plus center Rudy Gobert (14.2 & 13.4) are All Star quality players, while Jordan Clarkson (18.2) will surely be in the running for Sixth-Man-of-the-year. Then there is Quin Snyder, who may be the best NBA head coach no one has really ever heard about.

Moving over to the Eastern Conference, I'll start with a trio of disappointments. The Miami Heat entered last season's playoffs as the East's No. 5 seed but made it all the way to the Finals, before falling to the Lakers in six games. Miami went a MONEY-MAKING 16-5 ATS in the postseason but a check of the current standings (through Feb 18) show the Heat at 12-17, leaving them a half-game out of the top-10 (see above for the "Play-In" format). What's more, last postseason's MONEY-MAKERS are the current season's MONEY-BURNERS, as Miami owns the NBA's worst ATS record at 9-18-1. The Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA title and last season, even after Kawhi left for the Clippers, the Raptors' 53-19 regular season record was second to only Milwaukee's 56-17 mark (more on the Bucks coming). Toronto opened the season 2-8 but have rebounded somewhat (12-7 its last 19) but remain a sub-.500 team with a 14-15 record. The Boston Celtics were considered a real contender to win the Eastern Conference and opened 8-3 but Boston is currently just 14-14 (6-11 since its fast start) and word around the league is that the Celtics are mulling trade options as the deadline approaches.

While the West's top-three teams all own winning percentages of .700 or better, the East's top-three teams are the 19-10 (.655) Philadelphia 76ers, the 19-12 (.613) Brooklyn Nets and the HUGELY disappointing 16-13 (.552) Milwaukee Bucks. I don't know what to make of the Bucks. Milwaukee was 60-22 in the 2018-19 regular season and 56-17 in last year's pandemic-shortened one but flopped in the playoffs both times. The Bucks haven't looked 'right' all season but won FIVE straight (also 5-0 ATS) to open February and sat 16-8. However, the Bucks have followed by losing FIVE in a row (also 0-5 ATS) and despite owning the East's best point-differential (plus-6.5), what should we make of a team that's seen its winning percentage drop from .748 the last two seasons, to .552 this season (Bucks are just 13-16 ATS).

The 76ers own the East's best overall record on the strength of the team's 12-2 home record (Sixers are 7-8 on the road). Embiid's a load' when he plays (he's missed six games), averaging 29.7 & 10.8, while PF Harris (20.8 & 7.7) and PG Simmons (15.2-8.3-8.0) form an excellent trio That said, Philly's point-differential is a sorry plus-2.9 and the 76era are 14-14-1 ATS. Many questioned Steve Nash taking over in Brooklyn as its head coach (no previous experience) but all-in-all, he seems to be doing a pretty good job. Then again, he does have three future HOF players on his roster. K.D.'s health continues to be a question, as Durant (29.0-7.3-5.3) has missed 12 of the team's first 31 games (and counting) plus Kyrie (27.7-4.7-5.6) will NEVER win teammate of the year honors. He's missed 10 of Brooklyn's 31 games, as well. Then there's James "No Ring" Harden, who has averaged 24.2-8.2-11.7 in his 17 games with the Nets, after he 'pouted' his way out of Houston. Fact is, the Nets are 12-5 since Harden arrived (were 7-7 without him) and are currently on a five-game winning streak SU & ATS. It's not a stretch that the Nets just could be the East's best team. However, it's still a LONG way to May 16 (end of the regular season). 

Good luck...Larry

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