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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
Halfway through the 2021-22 NBA season, it’s time to get reckless.
Not quite “Ja Morant rocketing himself into two 7-footers with bad intentions and only the faintest hint of a plan” reckless, but, you know, something pretty close to that.
We’re going to stare the potential for failure in the face and try not to blink because that’s how this exercise is supposed to work. Most of these should turn out to be wrong, but the goal is to find a smidge of evidence that suggests they might prove prescient.
If the outcome is probable, it’s not good enough. These predictions for the second half are only allowed to be possible, and just barely. Let’s get bold.
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Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press
Is it really that bold to predict an in-prime two-time MVP will win the award for a third time?
The key to this prediction’s rashness is in the projected margin of victory; I think Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chance to absolutely crush the field, possibly collecting MVP No. 3 in unanimous fashion.
With Nikola Jokic leading the league in just about every catch-all metric imaginable, Stephen Curry piloting the Golden State Warriors back to title contention and Kevin Durant filling it up for a high-profile Brooklyn Nets squad, the competition is fierce.
That’s not a setup for someone to dominate the field, and as it stands now, Antetokounmpo is still only third behind Curry and Durant as the betting favorite. To win going away, he’ll have to demonstrably outplay both of those guys (former winners themselves) and get his Milwaukee Bucks into unchallenged top-seed territory.
The remaining schedule makes this prediction seem even more ridiculous. Milwaukee has played the NBA’s easiest slate to date, which means it’s going to run the gauntlet in the second half. Nobody’s schedule will be more difficult.
If you take the optimist’s point of view, a necessity in the bold prediction game, that just means Giannis and the Bucks have a chance to assert their dominance against the best…and that’s exactly how you engineer an MVP blowout.
Antetokounmpo is also showing signs of growth, which seems unfair. His assist and free-throw rates have never been higher, an indicator that he’s using more guile and intelligence than ever before. The game is slowing down.
His defensive value is also greater than it’s been in the past because Antetokounmpo is playing a ton of center for the first time in his career, and the Bucks are destroying everything in their path in those lineups.
At the moment, Milwaukee is closer to losing home-court advantage in the first round than it is to winning the East’s top seed. And a trio of dynamite MVP candidates won’t just let Giannis bolt off with the MVP hardware. He and his team face a seemingly impossible uphill climb.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
Let’s stick with the MVP angle and get even braver, this time predicting Ja Morant will finish ahead of at least two of Curry, Jokic, Durant and Antetokounmpo in the voting for the season’s highest individual award.
For that to happen, more than one member of that starry quartet will have to throttle back and/or see his team hit a skid.
Quietly, Curry is already obliging. He’s putting up his worst true shooting percentage (in a full season) since 2012-13, and he’s well on his way to hitting under 40.0 percent of his threes for the first time ever. It’s not a coincidence that Curry’s swoon has coincided with what head coach Steve Kerr called a “rough patch” in Golden State’s schedule, losing to both Morant’s Grizzlies and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks 48 hours apart.
Jokic’s Denver Nuggets will have to continue hovering around .500, which seems likely. But slotting Morant into the top three also presumes DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell and a number of other legit candidates won’t outplay him down the stretch.
Memphis would also need to hold or improve on its position as a top-three team in the West, which actually doesn’t seem that difficult considering it has the best record and net rating in the league over the last two months.
It’s early for the 22-year-old Morant to ascend all the way into the top three of MVP voting, but he and the Grizzlies don’t seem all that into waiting their turn.
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Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
We started the 2021-22 season with eight new head coaches if you count Nate McMillan, who took over midway through last season for Lloyd Pierce with the Atlanta Hawks. We’ve also already seen the Sacramento Kings fire Luke Walton, which means nearly one in three organizations has had turnover at the top over the last year or so.
You’d think some stability would be in the forecast with most teams now either employing entrenched head coaches they want to keep or new ones that will get some slack. But that’s not really how the gig works. Coaches are hired to be fired, and all it takes is a losing streak or suddenly tuned-out locker room to land someone on the hot seat.
If forced to be specific, the two likeliest firing candidates look like the Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel and Atlanta’s McMillan.
Both coaches’ teams have disappointed, but McMillan can’t even blame the poor performance on injury or a foolishly constructed roster. His Hawks reached the East Finals last season, but they wouldn’t even be within sniffing distance of the play-in if the postseason started today.
Vogel won a ring just 15 months ago, but LeBron James’ presence pressurizes every situation. McMillan has only had the job for about half that long, and the Hawks extended his deal shortly after last season. Saying either of them (or in this case both of them) is going to be out of work by season’s end is a bet on the wild, reactionary capriciousness of NBA owners.
That seems like a reasonable wager to make.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
No player who’s attempted as many shots as Russell Westbrook this season has a lower true shooting percentage, but we’re not here to harp on his most conspicuous shortcoming. We’re here to point out that with a little effort, Russ can climb all the way to third place on the all-time turnover list.
He’s fifth at the moment, and he’d only have to cough up the ball at a rate right around his career average to pass John Stockton for fourth on the list. He’ll get there without issue as long as this season’s 4.4 turnovers per game sustain.
We should also note here that Stockton’s career assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.7-to-1; Russ’ is only 2.1-to-1. These two are not in the same galaxy as facilitators.
To move into third, passing Moses Malone’s 4,264 turnovers, Westbrook would have to average around 4.8 turnovers per game while playing all 39 of his team’s remaining contests. Miss a night here or there, and Russ might have to surrender over five giveaways per game to make up the difference.
That’s a tall order, and you’d have to think James and the Lakers would angle to take the rock out of Russ’ hands (or try to trade him) if his shooting woes persist and his carelessness with the ball actually increased at the rate necessary to reach No. 3 on the turnover list.
But it’s not like the Lakers have easy trade options or viable in-house replacements. They might be stuck with Westbrook logging heavy minutes for the duration.
In the last six seasons, Russ has exceeded 4.8 turnovers per game three times, peaking with a ghastly 5.4 in 2016-17. If James misses time and Westbrook’s usage rate increases, he could blow past Malone. Not that you want recognition like this, but if Russ moves into third, he’ll give the Lakers two of the three all-time turnover kings.
LeBron is No. 1.
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José Luis Villegas/Associated Press
Over most of the last two decades, a bet on the success of the Sacramento Kings was no different than setting money on fire. Their 15-year postseason drought is the longest in the league, a full decade longer than the Charlotte Hornets’ second-place entry.
It ends this year.
Don’t mistake this for a show of faith in Sacramento, a squad that has already fired its head coach and is led by De’Aaron Fox, whose promise of stardom seems to have evaporated. The Kings currently have a mere 4 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff odds.
The bottom of the West is weak, though. Really weak.
Despite the sixth-worst net rating in the league, the Kings are tied in the standings with the Portland Trail Blazers for the last of two play-in spots.
The Blazers will be without Damian Lillard for at least six weeks following the star guard’s abdominal surgery. With CJ McCollum also out of action as he recovers from a collapsed lung, we should expect the tank to commence. The Los Angeles Clippers are currently eighth in the West, and league sources told B/R’s Jake Fischer that the Clips have considered approaching this season as a “gap year” (code for tanking) with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard both potentially out for the season.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been up and down all season, and they’re a LeBron James injury away from total catastrophe. Ditto for the Denver Nuggets and their dependence on Nikola Jokic.
The other struggling mid-pack teams in the West have major vulnerabilities and, in some cases, losing on purpose is an attractive option. That’s just what the Kings need to quietly fail their way into the postseason mix. They’ll still have to survive the play-in round if they finish in the West’s top 10, but they might not have all that tough of a draw if they’re relatively healthy.
I’m just saying there’s a chance.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Kevin Durant is chilling at a league-leading 29.7 points per game, well on the way to securing the fifth scoring title of his career. Only LeBron James joins him above 29.0 points per contest, with Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Joel Embiid and Curry rounding out the top six.
It’d seem that if KD is in for any competition on the scoring-crown front, one of those guys will most likely provide it.
Nope. Donovan Mitchell is going to be the one who gives Durant a run and, since we’re being bold, overtakes him for the scoring title.
Mitchell would have to average nearly 34 points per game and suit up for all 39 of the contests left on the Utah Jazz’s docket, all while Durant’s point production either holds steady or declines. With Kyrie Irving set to play in road games and James Harden playing better than he did during that lost first month of the season, there’s a decent chance KD scales back.
Of course, we’ve also got those other names between Mitchell and Durant on the list.
Mitchell has developed in key ways as a scorer this season, most notably improving his finishing inside the arc. All those gorgeous sidesteps and slow-down scoops are going in at higher rates than ever. His mid-range shooting is at a career-high, and Mitchell is in the 77th percentile among guards (also a clear career best) in efficiency at the rim.
The key to making good on this prediction will be an uptick in three-point percentage and better foul-drawing. Mitchell is shooting just 34.6 percent from deep, the lowest figure since his rookie year. He’s hoisting a career-high 9.4 treys per contest, though, so as his accuracy regresses to the mean, he could easily add a couple of extra points per night. Mitchell is also getting to the line just 4.2 times per game, the worst rate since his first year and a figure much too low for a player with such dynamic downhill burst.
Pure speculation, but Mitchell’s finishing package is so varied and skillful that he sometimes (justifiably) tries to convert everything, rather than attacking with the intent to draw contact against off-balance, panicked defenders.
If Mitchell’s threes start to fall, the closeouts will come more quickly, affording more advantageous situations for his drives. The cascading effect could get Mitchell the 34-ish points per game he’ll need to steal the scoring title.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Jan. 16. Salary info via Spotrac.