Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder

Three questions that will define the rest of the NBA season

With the trade deadline in the rearview, buyout moves made and rosters largely solidified, the contours of the NBA landscape are more defined than ever and the terms of engagement for the home stretch of the NBA season are largely set. Still, so much remains up in the air, and thus fascinating to monitor as the regular season winds down. The revamped East is deeper than it has been in a decade, a slew of teams in the West are jostling for a chance to dethrone the Warriors and the and the MVP race is anything but decided.

To help sort through some of the league’s most compelling storylines, here are three questions will help define the final days of the season and beyond.

Will the Lakers make the playoffs?

LeBron James, in danger of missing the playoffs for just the third time in his career, continues to tempt fate. His participation in the postseason has become a rite of summer — the last time the NBA playoffs didn’t involve LeBron, Steve Nash had just claimed his first MVP award and Tim Duncan was in pursuit of his third title — but at present, L.A. is four games back of the Clippers and Spurs with a negative point differential and a bottom-10 offense to boot. It would be easy to hand-wave concerns about the Lakers, trusting instead that James will again find his form in the final weeks of the season. We have seen this story before, though not in quite the same fashion.

LeBron’s teams have been known to coast — and at times, stumble — through pockets of the regular season, only to recover just in time for him to reclaim his title as the world’s best player and lay waste to the Eastern Conference. James, however, now plays in the far less forgiving West, where eight franchises can rationally view themselves as playoff teams. His presence doesn’t loom as prominently over the rest of the conference, nor, despite recent comments, can his team flip the switch as easily as they once could. James battled serious injury for the first time in his career this season, and the competition in the West made every missed game a costly one. Due either to injury, lethargy or the typical aging curve of an NBA player, LeBron looks mortal for the first time in years, and the rest of the league is rushing to capitalize.

Where LeBron’s Cavaliers routinely slipped on defense — often due to a brazen lack of effort — the Lakers’ troubles stem from the other end of the floor, where they’ve sputtered to 21st in points per possession. Even with James on the court, L.A. doesn’t reach the peak efficiency at which his Cleveland teams played, thus mitigating the singular, undeniable advantage that comes with employing the game’s best player. The Lakers take the highest share of shots at the rim in the league, but a lack of shooting has cramped the spacing that helps make LeBron so lethal. In the absence of a single costar capable of alleviating his load, the Lakers have attempted to do so by committee, patching together offense while their star either rests or cedes control of possessions. Most nights, they fall short. Try as they might, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma aren’t quite ready to shoulder that kind of responsibility on a playoff team. Lonzo Ball, when healthy, isn’t wired to be the sort of sidekick LeBron is used to.

LeBron’s 18-game absence cost him his ability to help the team win, but also crucial reps that a team needs to jell ahead of a playoff run. The Lakers are still learning how to play with one another, a process that requires more than just a singular talent and precocious youngsters. They’ll now have to balance that with the fact that every remaining game could make the difference in making the playoffs or staying home.

Are the Thunder a viable threat to Golden State?

The case against the Thunder isn’t so much about their own shortcomings, but rather the inevitability of Golden State. The Warriors have such a security blanket that every rival seems incomplete by contrast. But consider: Oklahoma City has won 12 of its last 15 games, a stretch that has coincided with Paul George crashing the MVP race and Russell Westbrook playing the most restrained basketball of his career. The Thunder now own the fourth-best defense and point differential in the league and, with due respect to the rest of the West, may be the only team capable of keeping the Warriors from a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance.

In a tightly packed Western Conference, the Thunder find success in knowing exactly who they are. Opponents feel them each night, and most everything runs through George and Westbrook, who chew up as much offensive responsibility as they desire. Everyone else figures out where they fall within the team hierarchy. For Steven Adams, that means relentlessly pursuing offensive rebounds, doing subtle yeoman’s work on defense and setting punishing screens for Westbrook and George. Jerami Grant’s role requires that he plug holes at every position on defense and come to grips with the fact that his offensive touches will be sparse. Terrence Ferguson sticks 3-and-D duties while Nerlens Noel’s contributions come almost exclusively on defense.

Perhaps no team makes running offense a more uncomfortable endeavor than the Thunder, who lead the league in opponent turnover percentage. George has a valid Defensive Player of the Year claim while Westbrook, though still prone to lapses and ill-conceived gambles, has channeled his energy more productively on that end. Adams fortifies the entire operation from the interior as gangly athletes zip around him. As a result of its high-pressure scheme, Oklahoma City plays at one of the fastest paces in the league and poach easy points in transition.

Most importantly, the Thunder are designed to keep up with Golden State in a playoff series. Their athletic, rangy personnel can mitigate mismatches by switching across several positions while their constant activity and attentiveness provide some resistance to the Warriors’ constant flow of cuts, passes and screens. George and Grant’s size on the perimeter gives them some hope of making Kevin Durant uncomfortable while Adams is just the sort of big who can wrestle with DeMarcus Cousins inside. Should Adams prove too slow-footed to hang with downsized lineups, both Grant and Noel can fulfill switching and rim-protecting duties in small units.

The rotation remains short a shooter or two, and Westbrook’s inability to score efficiently could again be this team’s undoing. The Warriors may simply be unconquerable. But the Thunder have positioned themselves as best they can, and that’s all a team can really do.

Will anyone pull away in the MVP race?

This year’s MVP field isn’t quite as deep or contested as that of 2017, but Paul George’s recent stretch has demanded that voters pay at least three candidates — George, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo — serious consideration. Most every part of George’s game has taken a meaningful leap forward this year; he’s added seven points per game to his scoring average and assumed the primary role in OKC’s offense — all while posting career-high efficiency numbers and usurping Kawhi Leonard as the league’s preeminent wing defender. He transforms the Thunder from a middling playoff team into a potential title contender — the most difficult leap for a team to make.

Antetokounmpo has the traditional MVP narrative — the best player on the best team — on his side, but that shouldn’t obscure just how good he’s been individually. He outpaces both George and Harden in efficiency despite an almost nonexistent jump shot, ranks among the league leaders in rebounding and, like George, belongs in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Mike Budenholzer has brought drastic and wholesale change to Milwaukee’s offense, but none of it would be possible without Antetokounmpo, who is so overwhelming as to force the defense’s hand on nearly every possession, thus creating opportunities for teammates. He can’t be blamed for not having to carry as much weight as Harden or replicating George’s crunch-time heroics on a team that dominates opponents so thoroughly that such requests aren’t necessary.

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Harden, meanwhile, is on pace for the most efficient high-volume scoring season of all time for a team that leaned on him for every ounce of offensive production it got while Chris Paul was out. Aesthetics aside, Harden’s methods get results — night after night after night. He is unwavering as both a scorer (32 consecutive games with 30 points or more) and a passer (second in the NBA in assist percentage), and is endurance probably doesn’t get enough mention given how much weight he shoulders and how consistently he produces. Paul’s presence will help alleviate some of that burden, but the Rockets are unmistakably Harden’s team. It took time, but Houston is finally rounding into form. If they approach the level they reached last season and emerge as a threat to Golden State, it will have been Harden’s doing and, perhaps, enough to warrant a second-straight MVP selection.

Stats current through Feb. 23, 2019. All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated.

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