Sports Corner

By: Robert Bishop

Back again, and after a lengthy All-Star break, the NBA will return to the court tomorrow night with the start of the league’s unofficial second half. Aside from Phoenix’s claim to the top of the West—and even that isn’t a certainty with Chris Paul’s recent injury—the standings are in constant flux, and the sheer number of storylines at work in the league is mind-boggling. 

               Perhaps no story is more interesting than the saga of the Brooklyn Nets. At one point in the season, the Nets appeared poised to make a run at the top spot in the East. That came to an end when Kevin Durant suffered an injury. Then, James Harden’s displeasure with the organization became the story, and Brooklyn wasted no time sending him to Philadelphia for a king’s ransom of a package. The headliner of the package, Ben Simmons, seems likely to join the Nets shortly. Until then, with Durant still on the sidelines, the Nets will look to make up ground in the East. Brooklyn recently suffered through an 11-game losing streak and, as a result, tumbled to eighth in the standings. It will be an uphill climb for the Nets to avoid the dreaded play-in tournament. 

               Joining the Nets in the play-in tournament entering the second half are the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets, and Atlanta Hawks. Given the strength of the teams occupying the top six spots in the Eastern Conference standings, only the Raptors sitting at a half-game behind the Celtics in the standings, are in a position to make a charge. Atlanta has the talent, but an awful start to the season has likely doomed the Hawks, coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, to being in the play-in. Even the Hornets, led by first-time All-Star LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges, are formidable. Unlike last season, the play-in field in the East is shaping up to be a bloodbath of legitimately viable playoff teams. 

               Out West, Phoenix, Golden State, and Memphis are in solid control of the top three seeds, with Utah also likely in possession of home-court advantage in the first round. Dallas and Denver continue to surprise thanks to the sheer will of their respective MVP candidate superstars. Still, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic will need to remain elite-level producers on a nightly basis to keep their teams out of the play-in. The Western Conference is top-heavy compared to the East, but seven teams are vying for the final four spots in the West’s playoff field. 

               Unsurprisingly, one of those seven teams is the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite a season from LeBron James that continues to defy age, the Lakers are 27-31 on the season. As bad as that is, things aren’t going to be any better for L.A. during the season’s final stretch as Anthony Davis will likely miss at least half of the team’s remaining games. James has been incredible this season, often operating as a one-man juggernaut in ways unseen from the all-time great since his first tenure with the Cavaliers. It’s a shame James’s brilliant season. It is being squandered due to a roster ill-suited to contend and a front office ill-equipped to surround him with complementary pieces. 

               Fighting the Lakers for a position in the play-in tournament are the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Portland Trail Blazers. On the outside of the play-in but within striking distance are the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans, and Sacramento Kings. The Pelicans and Kings made moves at the deadline with hopes of making the play-in, while the Trail Blazers had a fire sale in hopes of securing a better spot in the draft. It would be shocking for the Blazers—winners of four straight, somehow—to remain in control of a play-in spot. The only certainty is this: the back half of the Western Conference playoff standings will be bonkers through the final day of the season.