T-minus 30 days until the NBA playoffs.
This week, our panel of NBA reporters — Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — analyzes the league’s punishment of Ja Morant, if Philly can come out of the East, and which star that isn’t currently in the MVP race should be in it.
1. What do you make of the resolution regarding the recent Ja Morant controversy? What’s your take on the NBA’s punishment?
Bucher: I’d like some clarity. In light of the results of the investigation, I don’t know why he is receiving an eight-game suspension. I’m not condoning or excusing the behavior, I just would like to know exactly what the league is punishing him for and what, if any, precedent was used to make it an eight-game suspension. As for believing all Ja needed was a wake-up call and a week of counseling in Florida, I guess we’ll see. I will say this: If the Grizzlies think flying out after games in notorious party cities rather than staying and flying out the next day is the solution, they should look into some counseling as well.
Rohlin: I’m glad Ja is getting counseling during his eight-game suspension, but it feels far too fast for any real change to be realized. In fact, it almost feels performative. Ja has the potential to be the future face of the league, and I’m worried he’ll slip down the same path again. I’d be very interested to see the league implement some sort of program in which the biggest stars mentor the biggest up-and-comers. Guys like LeBron James and Steph Curry have gone their entire careers avoiding controversy, and I can only imagine how far it would go for them to teach and caution guys like Ja how to navigate the pitfalls of superstardom, extreme wealth, and living under a microscope at such a young age.
Weitzman: It was sort of predictable. The league clearly wants to make sure it makes clear that Morant’s recent behavior was unacceptable, but it has no interest in embarrassing Morant or dragging his name through the mud. This has been the NBA’s way of doing business since Adam Silver became commissioner, and, from a business perspective, it probably makes sense. From the outside, though, it does feel like we’ve gone from Morant saying, “I’m going to take some time away to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress and my overall well-being,” to him sitting for interviews in which he claims that he’s grown and learned his lesson, really quickly.
2. Philadelphia has hit its stride, winning six in a row and sitting in a virtual tie with Boston for the No. 2 seed in the East. What percentage chance do you give the Sixers of coming out of the East and why?
Bucher: Fifteen percent. Bucks: 50 percent. Celtics: 35 percent. And that’s at least a five percent increase for the Sixers because of how they’ve played of late. The reason it’s not more — and won’t be, short of something happening to the Bucks or Celtics — is in part questions about Joel Embiid and James Harden holding up for a deep playoff run, Doc Rivers’ history of postseason underachievement and Philly’s thin bench.
Rohlin: If Joel Embiid can stay healthy, I give them just as much of a chance as Boston or Milwaukee. Embiid has been injured the past three postseasons. If he weren’t, I think the 76ers would’ve made a real run by now. He has been playing out of his mind recently, and he clearly feels as though he has a lot to prove. If he can avoid injury, the 76ers will be a real threat.
Weitzman: Should I make up a percentage or equation? A “solid” percentage, how’s that? The Sixers are really good. They have an unstoppable half court offense, led by Harden and, of course, Embiid. The question will be whether their defense can get enough stops come playoff time. Or, put a different way, can a team that plans on running out lineups with Harden and Tyrese Maxey slow down playoff opponents. Milwaukee is still my pick to come out of the East, but if the Sixers were to represent the East in the Finals, I certainly wouldn’t be shocked.
3. What do you make of the Lakers — in the midst of a playoff push and with LeBron James out due to injury — load-managing Anthony Davis on Wednesday in an eventual loss to the lowly Rockets?
Bucher: It is mind-boggling. And it makes AD’s proclamations about “every game matters” and “playing with desperation” laughable. The Lakers crushed the Pelicans the night before and AD still played 33 minutes. They couldn’t have reduced that in order to make him available against the Rockets? And I realize that the Pels’ game got competitive down the stretch and Darvin Ham was forced to put him back in the game to close it out, but he played 16 first-half minutes. They were up by 24 when he subbed in for Wenyen Gabriel in the second quarter with less than eight minutes left in the period. He played the REST of the quarter as the Lakers went up by 35. I get that AD is fragile and needs to be handled very carefully. I just have to believe there’s a way to manage his minutes so that he’s available every night. Thankfully for the Lakers, they only have one more back-to-back set of games: April 4-5 against the Jazz and Clippers. It will be interesting to see if he suits up should their play-in chances hang on winning the second game.
Rohlin: It would be one thing if this was midseason. But with 13 games left, James out, and the Lakers engaged in an extremely tight battle to even make the play-in tournament, it truly doesn’t make sense. Every game counts right now, and for the Lakers to give up a game to the Rockets is nonsensical. I’m sure the Lakers are questioning that decision right now. Sure, AD has struggled with injuries over the past couple of years — and, obviously, throughout his career — but now is not the time to be overly cautious. Now is the time for teams to put their chips on the table.
Weitzman: Um, I don’t understand it at all. Unless there’s some official medical reason — and the Lakers have said that Davis is healthy and medically cleared to play — then I don’t see how you can be resting one of your key players in such a tight playoff race. Then again, I’ve long given up trying to make sense of the decisions in Laker-land.
4. The West’s top-seeded Nuggets have lost four in a row (will change Thursday night with win or loss). What is going wrong in Denver as of late?
Bucher: I’m going to chalk it up to boredom or lack of motivation. They have the best record in the Western Conference pretty much sewn up, and they played a stretch of teams that they probably thought they could beat with less than their best effort, especially at the defensive end. They were on a pretty good tear right before this stretch, going 12-3 with dominating performances. That Jamal Murray is dealing with a bit of a knee issue the last few games doesn’t help. I don’t know if they are going to come out of the West, but I wouldn’t interpret this as anything more than a temporary slump. We’re at the point in the season when teams locked into playoff spots start preparing mentally and physically for the postseason.
Rohlin: I agree with Ric. They’re one of the few teams in the Western Conference that have a semblance of security in their playoff positioning. I think they’re checked out and looking ahead to the playoffs. It’s a risk. Losing momentum is a dangerous thing in this league, especially with so many teams playing with desperation and clawing for relevance at this point in the season. The question is whether they can turn the faucet back on when necessary.
Weitzman: They can’t get stops. Before the All-Star break, the Nuggets were surrendering 113.2 points per 100 possessions, the NBA’s 13th best mark. Prior to Thursday — they defeated lowly Detroit 119-100 on the road — that number had soared up to 117.3.
5. Who is the one player that’s not in the MVP conversation that should be?
Bucher: Steph Curry. He won’t make many, if any, ballots because of the Warriors’ record, but he is playing out of his mind. May I remind you he is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, getting swarmed every night and is shooting over 50% from the field while averaging 30 points a night. What’s possibly being overlooked is how hard he is working at the defensive end as well. Jalen Brunson probably deserves a bit of love as well, since I can’t see the Knicks being remotely this good without the impact he has made.
Rohlin: The MVP conversation is a three-horse race right now between Jokic, Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, as it should be. I’m not sure anyone else belongs in that conversation. At various points in the season, it was fair to discuss other guys as contenders for the award, such as Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, James and Curry. But at this point, the race has been whittled down to three contenders.
Weitzman: Assuming that “the MVP conversation” includes Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo, then I don’t think anyone is missing. You can go with any of those three, but the conversation stops with them.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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