Four teams, four storylines to watch
The Blazers visit the Pacers (ESPN, 7 ET) in a classic matchup of good offense versus good defense. Then the Timberwolves and Pelicans meet (ESPN, 9:30 ET) in a battle of Western Conference playoff hopefuls. Our 5-on-5 crew takes a closer look at the four squads.
1. What impact will Andrew Bynum make in Indy?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Minimal impact, barring an injury to Roy Hibbert or Ian Mahinmi. Bynum's greatest impact is preventive. His presence on the Pacers' roster means that neither the Heat nor any other contender acquired a player who could help neutralize Indiana's greatest strength.
Mason Ginsberg, Bourbon Street Shots: Likely not much. If he can prove himself healthy, though, he is certainly an upgrade from current Pacers backup center Ian Mahinmi, who has performed at or below replacement level ever since he was traded to Indiana. Keeping Bynum away from Miami also can't hurt.
Zach Harper, A Wolf Among Wolves: I can't see him having really any impact. When he was playing on the Cavaliers earlier in the season, he was a huge negative for them on the court. Now he's going to join a championship contender halfway through the same season and get enough play to actually have an impact, negative or positive? Why would the Pacers disrupt the good thing they have going that already makes them a title hopeful?
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes Of Hell: My gut is leaning toward something similar to the impact Greg Oden is making in Miami, although without the warm, fuzzy feelings. I expect the allure of contending for a title again to be enough to convince Bynum to get in game shape, but he's not mentally sharp enough to excel on the floor.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: A slightly positive one, I'm guessing. The Pacers know how to deploy defensive size like few other teams. I expect they'll find good use for Bynum, in spurts, off the bench. It's one thing to ask Bynum to be your franchise player, and another, far easier thing to ask him for some quality bench minutes.
2. What seed will Portland finish with in the West?
Arnovitz: I like them as the No. 4 seed. If they can gut their way through a very tough stretch over the next week, they'll come out of the All-Star break with a few home games in hand. They'll be through with Oklahoma City and Indiana, and have a fairly soft landing in April. That being the case, they still need to improve the defense, a project that's coming along gradually.
Ginsberg: No. 4 or No. 5. They currently hold a 2 1/2-game edge over the Clippers and Houston for the No. 3 seed, but they have played the fifth-easiest schedule in the West and hold a scoring margin of almost a full point less than the Clippers. At least one of those two teams should pass Portland.
Harper: I can see Portland finishing with a top-four seed in the West and I think they'll slip nicely into the 3-seed. The Thunder and Spurs are unlikely to fall out of the top two spots, and the Clippers, Rockets and Warriors all seem to be just about as good in the regular season as the Blazers. They'll have home court in the first round and it will likely be as the 3-seed.
McNeill: No. 2. I don't see anybody in the West catching the Thunder, but the Blazers should be able to surpass a Spurs team fighting injuries and the pitfalls of a long regular season. Chris Paul's upcoming return to the Clippers could complicate things, but I'm confident in LaMarcus Aldridge & Co. to finish No. 2 in the West.
Strauss: No. 4. I still believe in their offense, despite this recent lull. People are quick to dismiss the Blazers as pretenders because "defense wins championships," as the cliché goes. But offense can still win plenty of games, and Portland remains good enough at it to secure a home series.
3. Will Kevin Love be in Minnesota to start the 2015-16 season?
Arnovitz: The prognosis on Love's future gets foggier with each Timberwolves loss, and bumping around .500 in a competitive Western Conference doesn't inspire confidence in Minnesota's ability to retain his services. Incumbent teams almost always have an advantage in recruitment, but at this point betting The Field against Minnesota seems like a better gamble.
Ginsberg: I don't think so. Slighting Love by saving the five-year max contract offer for Ricky Rubio was a bad idea, and if this Minnesota roster finally stays as healthy as it has been so far and still cannot earn a playoff berth, then Love will have good reason to look elsewhere.
Harper: I'll say yes just because he would be passing up a lot of money and doesn't have a great chance of joining a contender by being signed away from the Wolves. They can still offer him the five-year max, which will not be going to Ricky Rubio. Unless the Lakers hit the jackpot in the draft and Kobe Bryant turns back the clock, the only incentive for joining Los Angeles is lifestyle. That's still a real possibility but I'll go the other way.
McNeill: I'm going to say yes, just because I think Love will exercise his player option for that season and not leave any guaranteed money on the table, and I don't see him forcing a trade before then. After that, though, it's anyone's guess. There would have to be a serious success over the next 18 months to keep him in Minnesota past that.
Strauss: No. I prefer taking the field here -- based on Love's public grumblings -- though I'm not sure Love would be wise to leave. The Wolves are a slightly improved bench away from being playoff fixtures and there's no guarantee that the next stop flanks Love with the right mix of talent. It would be ideal for Love to play alongside a shot-blocking center, but such players are actually fairly rare commodities. Love isn't Kevin Garnett in the lean Minnesota years. Back then, KG would have killed to play for a team this talented.
4. When will New Orleans return to the playoffs?
Arnovitz: April 2016, when Anthony Davis will be in his fourth season and Jrue Holiday will be 25. The Pels already boast a top-10 defense when even partially healthy, but they need a couple of seasons of continuity to craft a defense. They've got a nice set of bookends to do that -- Davis in the interior and Holiday on the ball. But it's going to take a little more time while the West is stacked.
Ginsberg: Next season. Anthony Davis is progressing (especially offensively) even faster than many of us expected, and if you restore a healthy Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson alongside him, then New Orleans should be one of the best eight teams in the Western Conference.
Harper: Let's say 2016. I still think the West is a little too stacked for them next season unless they really pull everything together. I don't want anybody to lose their job, but my dream scenario for them is Monty Williams moves on after this season and the Pelicans go out and hire Stan Van Gundy to take over. They have elements he'd love to coach, and he'd turn them into a serious franchise.
McNeill: In 2015-16. It's clearly not going to happen this year, and New Orleans probably won't have a first-round pick in this summer's draft, so we're likely to see a similar team next season. I'll be optimistic and say they hit on their first-round pick in the 2015 draft, and Anthony Davis might be one of the five best basketball players in the world by then.
Strauss: Two years from now, and I don't even really expect them to improve outside of Anthony Davis. It's just that once Davis grows into his skill set, he should rule the league. It's unfortunate that the Pelicans have made bad moves -- Why oh why did they trade Robin Lopez for the "privilege" of overpaying Tyreke Evans? -- but they have a superstar who can guarantee a playoff berth nearly on his lonesome.
5. Which teams win tonight?
Arnovitz: Pacers and Pelicans. The Pacers are 23-2 at home while the Trail Blazers have cooled off. The hope here is that their second matchup of the season is every bit as entertaining as their first -- a Blazers win that stands as the best regular-season game of the season. The Pels are a .500 team at home. And I'm tired of lending my support to the Timberwolves every week. Wake me when Minnesota strings together more than three straight W's.
Ginsberg: Give me both home teams -- the Pacers and Pelicans. The Indiana vs. Portland game pits the league's best defense, which prides itself on forcing midrange jumpers, against an elite offense that loves to shoot them, but I think Indiana prevails. As for New Orleans vs. Minnesota, this is Anthony Davis' chance to make his All-Star replacement statement on national television. I'm not betting against him.
Harper: Pacers and Wolves. The Pacers defend the 3-point shot better than anybody the last two seasons, and they'll have a great opportunity to take that away from the Blazers' offense throughout the night. And the Wolves should win if Kevin Love plays because the Pelicans are still so banged up.
McNeill: Pacers and Pelicans. Indy is incredibly tough at home, where they're allowing 88.9 points per 100 possessions defensively this season. Meanwhile, New Orleans isn't playing well. But neither are the Timberwolves, and the Pelicans have home-court advantage, so I'm going with the Pels.
Strauss: Pacers and Pelicans. The Pacers win because they have an excellent 3-point defense and the length to challenge LaMarcus Aldridge. That's a good recipe for stymieing that vaunted Portland offensive attack. A healthy Wolves team beats the Pelicans, but the Wolves' front line isn't healthy. This will be another unfortunate victory for a New Orleans team that has every incentive to tank right now.
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