The 2017-2018 NBA season has been full of exciting action and drama.
The Houston Rockets have emerged as a viable threat to the Golden State Warriors. The San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder have also made some noise in the West.
In the East, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have led the way, but the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers are in third place and are seemingly ready to make a move upwards. The Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers are also in the mix.
From an individual perspective, the MVP race is probably down to four candidates: James Harden, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo, possibly in that order.
With the All-Star break coming after Thursday’s games, let’s look forward to the last part of the season. Here are four bold team predictions about what might go down in advance of the playoffs.
Prediction 1: The Utah Jazz finish third in the West
Currently riding an 11-game winning streak, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the entire NBA. Now at 30-28 on the year and with center Rudy Gobert back on the floor, they have regained their defensive identity. Although Utah went 7-5 in Gobert’s first injury stint early in the season, they struggled mightily in his second stint, going just 4-11 in that span.
With their rim protector on the floor, they’ve gone 19-12 this season. Without him, they’ve gone 11-16. That's not a coincidence.
Although he’s currently battling a minor injury, point guard Ricky Rubio has also recently come into form, resembling his best self from previous seasons. That could also be a result of Gobert’s presence, but Utah’s core of Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Royce O’Neale and now Jae Crowder has proven to be a cohesive unit.
Best of all, they’re only 4.5 games behind the Spurs, who hold the third seed in the West. Since the Spurs, Timberwolves, Thunder, Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers have been inconsistent this season and aren't as hot at Utah right now, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the Jazz will keep climbing the standings assuming that everyone stays healthy.
Seven of Utah’s next 14 opponents after the break have records below .500 and they will not square off against any team that ranks first or second in either conference in that span. Therefore, their current run has a strong possibility of extending and there’s no reason to doubt that it will.
Prediction 2: The Cleveland Cavaliers finish first in the East
Despite the fact that the Raptors and Celtics have been consistent all season long, there are obvious questions and concerns with each squad. Are the Raptors actually for real despite the fact that they didn't really add anyone new from last year's squad? Will Boston’s youth and inexperience show up and eventually limit them down the stretch?
Someone to never question is LeBron James, especially when he has his mind set on something. With virtually an entirely-new team around him, he will be looking to extend Cleveland’s current four-game winning streak moving forward in the hopes of gaining momentum for their playoff run.
James’ teams have traditionally gotten really hot at this point in the season and given the recent influx of talent on Cleveland’s roster, a move upwards in the standings should be expected.
Over the next 14 contests, the Cavaliers will play just one team that currently ranks in the top three of either conference (the Spurs on February 25).
Prediction 3: The San Antonio Spurs will not win 50-plus games for the 20th-straight season
Under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have been a model of consistency that has simply never been seen before in the world of sports. Regardless of the players on his roster or the limiting effects that key injuries can cause, Pop has always managed to inspire his club to at least 50 wins in 19-straight seasons and has won five championships in that span.
Unfortunately for him, this Spurs team will struggle to win 50 games.
At 35-24, the Spurs are currently in third place in the West. With 23 games remaining, San Antonio must go 15-8 in order to get to the half-century mark.
Without Kawhi Leonard, who is out indefinitely with a confusing quad injury, the Spurs will have to take on the Cavaliers, Warriors twice, Thunder twice, Rockets twice, Timberwolves, Wizards twice, Jazz, and Bucks among others before the season comes to a close.
With partly an aging group and partly a youthful and inexperienced bunch, the Spurs will struggle to avoid losing eight of those games, not to mention contests against their other opponents.
If Leonard returns, he could make a difference, but if not, the odds might surprisingly be stacked against San Antonio.
Prediction 4: The Milwaukee Bucks will finish ahead of the Boston Celtics in the East
After losing 129-119 to the Los Angeles Clippers in front of their home fans on Wednesday night, the Celtics have gone just 5-5 over their last 10 games and have not performed at an elite, consistent level recently.
Since Marcus Smart lost a fight with a picture frame and has been out with a lacerated hand, Boston’s highly-touted defense has been anything but that. As evidenced by LA’s 129-point showing on Wednesday and some other recent contests, the Celtics could be fading. Since the team is very young, they might not know how to keep things together throughout the course of a full 82-game regular season yet.
Since Joe Prunty took over as the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks following Jason Kidd’s firing, the team has gone 11-2 and has skyrocketed up the Eastern Conference standings. Now at 32-24, the Bucks are trending upwards and might have some exciting times ahead of them.
Although reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and reserve Matthew Dellevadova are currently out nursing injuries, Jabari Parker is back and is slowly progressing back into his old self. As a legitimate 20-plus point per game scorer, Parker will most likely eventually become part of a starting five that includes Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe.
While they’re 6.5 games behind the Celtics, Milwaukee could make up the difference in a few weeks if they keep trending upwards while the Celtics plateau or decline.