Most to gain, lose in the stretch run
The NBA playoffs tip off in two weeks, but there is still plenty to decide before the league's second season begins. Which players and teams have the most to gain over the home stretch? Which have the most to lose? Our experts break it down.
1. Which team has the most to gain in the regular season's final stretch?
Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Chicago Bulls. There's still no real word on whether Derrick Rose is coming back this season, but it's clear that there is no team that stands to gain more in the final games of the season than Chicago if their star point guard returns. Defense has been the issue of late, but shoring up their inconsistent offense couldn't hurt.
Bo Churney, Hawks Hoop: Los Angeles Clippers. Finally getting to the 50-win plateau is a nice milestone, but it isn't going to mean as much if they are still opening on the road to start the playoffs. They still have a matchup at Memphis, which is the team ahead of the Clippers for home-court advantage. Getting that win would not only pull L.A. a game closer, but it also would clinch an instrumental tiebreaker.
Dan Feldman, Piston Powered: Chicago Bulls. If the Bulls win enough to secure the No. 5 seed and avoid the Pacers in the first round, that would be a win. If the Bulls rest their tired and hobbled rotation players, that would be a win. If the Bulls do both, that might even allow them to advance far enough in the playoffs for Derrick Rose to think about considering possibly returning this year.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Los Angeles Clippers. They need to lock down at least the fourth seed in the West. Memphis looks like the likely matchup for them and that will be an absolutely brutal series. Yes, they won a Game 7 on the road last year in Memphis in the first round. But do you think that's going to happen again? It won't.
Michael Pina, Red 94: Milwaukee Bucks. If the Bucks can somehow leapfrog the Boston Celtics into the 7-seed, they'd avoid certain death (aka the Miami Heat) and head into the postseason with a marginally greater chance at winning their first playoff series since Glenn Robinson made the All-Star team.
2. Which team has the most to lose in the regular season's final stretch?
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Churney: Boston Celtics. If they still want to hold on to the hope that they can beat Miami in a playoff series, they might want to consider avoiding them in the first round. They still have a 2.5-game advantage on Milwaukee, but with the Celtics trying to rest their guys, that lead could slip before they know it.
Feldman: Los Angeles Lakers. It would be incredibly embarrassing for these Lakers, whom many considered preseason favorites over the Heat, to miss the playoffs. A competitive first-round series probably wouldn't mean much, but at least it would save a little face. Plus, the Lakers traded their draft pick, so a poor finish doesn't even provide the usual ancillary benefits.
Palmer: Lakers. It's pretty well evident what's at stake here. Failure to make the playoffs would be the single biggest failure in NBA history. And it's not even close. Admittedly, now that we're two weeks away from the end of the regular season, it doesn't feel like as big a catastrophe. Because we know who the Lakers are now. Still, doesn't make it any less of a failure.
Pina: Los Angeles Lakers. Thanks to their inconsistent play, our expectations for the Lakers have been tempered throughout the season. But if they don't make the playoffs it will be remembered as a colossal squandering of talent and money.
3. Which player has the most to gain in the regular season's final stretch?
Chau: Josh Smith. Nothing has taught us anything new about Josh Smith this season -- he's more or less producing at the same rate as previous seasons. But if he's looking for his max payday, this is the time to prove he has what it takes to lead a team. With the fourth seed still within reach, the test starts there.
Churney: Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo seems to go on month-long streaks where he appears unstoppable offensively, and his first two games of April may be an indication that he has just started another one of those stretches. If he can keep playing like this for the remainder of the season and go into the playoffs with confidence, the Knicks could become a deadly team to compete with in the postseason.
Feldman: Carmelo Anthony. The 2013 NBA All-Star Game featured five NBA champions (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant), two former Rookies of the Year (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin), a three-time scoring champion (Kevin Durant), a three-time Defensive Player of the Year (Dwight Howard) and Carmelo Anthony. Melo, in part because he plays in New York, is insanely popular right now. But unless he wins a championship, a major award or a scoring title, history won't judge him as kindly.
Palmer: Dwight Howard. No doubt Howard's stock has dropped this season with his inconsistency and inability to fully regain his health. But he's starting to look good. On some nights really good. One of the oddest developments this season is how the best center in the league conversation was busted wide open. But Howard can end it for good with stellar play down the stretch and all will be forgiven.
Pina: Al Jefferson will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career this summer. Several teams that can afford him also need offensive help in the frontcourt, and if he leads the Utah Jazz into the playoffs, Jefferson's perception on the market could take a dramatically favorable turn.
4. Which player has the most to lose in the regular season's final stretch?
Chau: Al Jefferson. Whether the Jazz end up making the playoffs or not, Jefferson might be a big loser soon with his free agency looming. He remains as consistent as ever, but that consistency extends to his most glaring deficiencies. Judging from the buyer's remorse after Carlos Boozer's deal, teams might be hesitant to throw big money Jefferson's way given their similarities.
Churney: Strangely enough, I think it's LeBron James. In my opinion, he should already have the MVP award locked up, but as we all know, that could turn out differently than we think. If he sits out for the rest of the season, and Kevin Durant starts lighting up the court for the final few games, the MVP race could end up a lot closer than it should be.
Feldman: Andre Iguodala. Iguodala is playing very well right now, helping the red-hot Nuggets surge up the Western Conference standings. But Iguodala, who would turn 30 in the first year of his new contract, already has played his most minutes since his mid-20s, when he led the league in minutes one year and ranked second the following year. As his body experiences more stress, the risk for injury rises. That's particularly important for Iguodala, who's reportedly set to decline his $16 million option and become a free agent seeking long-term stability.
Palmer: LeBron James. The MVP is in the bag and the top seed in the East is locked up. Gotta stay healthy. But James can't sit out the remainder of the regular season, can he? Maybe he should. Sustaining any kind of injury that would limit him in the playoffs would be disastrous. Nothing left to accomplish in this regular season, but he's got to play. Still, if I'm Spo I'm drastically limiting his minutes.
Pina: Dwight Howard. If the Los Angeles Lakers do not make the playoffs, it will be an unmitigated disaster. If they fail because Dwight Howard doesn't play well down the stretch, it will make offering him a five-year max contract this summer more awkward than anyone would've ever thought possible.
5. What's one bold prediction about the regular season's final stretch?
Chau: Derrick Rose will come back before the regular season is over. Chicago is extremely close to nabbing the fifth seed in the East against a Brooklyn team that is much less intimidating than the Knicks or Pacers. Seeding will be the difference between an early exit and a surprising postseason run. Rose can, and will, be the difference.
Churney: The Knicks take their win streak to 15 and secure the 2-seed in the East. After about a decade of futility, a finish like this would solidify that New York has established itself as a contender, and that it's not going to allow another team to move into New York and steal its power.
Feldman: In the most compelling drama down the regular-season stretch, the Bobcats will beat Cleveland on the season's final day, allowing the Magic to claim the No. 1 seed in the lottery. Charlotte and Orlando each have one game remaining against the Cavaliers, who've lost 10 straight and have proved in recent years most adept at out-tanking their opponents. Those matchups will be crucial in determining which team has the best chance to draft Nerlens Noel.
Palmer: Carmelo Anthony will average 35 points the rest of the way. Actually, with the way he's shooting it right now, it might not be that bold. But how fun would that be?
Pina: Stephen Curry will end the season as the NBA's most accurate player on free throws and 3-pointers. He's currently ranked third from behind the 3-point line (45.4 percent, which is amazing given he leads the league in attempts) and second on free throws (89.7 percent). It probably won't happen, but if anyone's never missing another shot, it's Curry.