Let’s be clear. The All-Star break is not the halfway point of the NBA season. That has been way behind us. There are about 22 games left in the season. That makes it about one-fourth of the way to go as we enter the final stretch. With that said, there is plenty that can happen in terms of stats, playoff seeding, and awards.
The NBA standings are in such flux right now. With Chris Paul’s injury, the Phoenix Suns are a lot more vulnerable than before. The Eastern Conference could see the one seed drop to the seven seed with just one minor losing streak. The MVP and scoring title is up for grabs.
These are 10 predictions for the rest of the season.
10. Evan Mobley Wins Rookie Of The Year
Mobley trails Cade Cunningham and Franz Wagner in points per game among rookies, but you have to look at the optics. Cunningham is playing for the second-worst team in the East, while Wagner is playing for the worst team. Mobley is a key integral part of the Cavaliers surging back to the top of the Eastern Conference, while also helping the Cavaliers lead the league in team defense.
Mobley is averaging 14.9 points and leads all rookies with 8.1 rebounds. Scottie Barnes and Josh Giddey should get consideration, while Cunningham and Wagner will make the All-Rookie First Team. With that said, the best rookie from the 2021 draft class has been Mobley this season.
9. Tom Thibodeau Keeps His Job
The New York Knicks were a success story last year. Julius Randle was an All-Star. Derrick Rose looked vintage. The team defense was at the top of the league and they did that mainly without Mitchell Robinson contributing. RJ Barrett was just a sophomore. The team had so much to look forward to this season, especially after signing Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker.
Instead, the Knicks can’t find a reliable point guard. Nearly every player has regressed this season. Fans are calling for the firing of Tom Thibodeau, who won Coach of the Year last season. In the end, Thibodeau is going to keep his job. He signed a five-year contract and this is his second year. That is way too much money for the Knicks to absorb after one bad year.
8. Warriors Finish No. 1 In The West
With Chris Paul out for six to eight weeks, the Suns are going to rely on Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton to lead the team down the stretch. The Suns have 24 games left on their schedule and own a 6.5 game lead over the Warriors. While that may seem like a lot, no lead is safe when you have what the Warriors have on the roster.
Steph Curry had a historic spring last year. Why can’t he do it again? As Klay Thompson gets healthier and stronger, this team will only get better. The Warriors are going to see an opening and they know how important home-court advantage is. If it means getting to play at the Oracle more often in the Conference Finals, they are going to try and win, which means the Warriors are going to take advantage of the injury and win the No. 1 seed.
7. Zion Williamson Debuts In April
Look out because here come the New Orleans Pelicans. There are rumors that the Pelicans are going to shut down Zion Williamson with his latest setback. However, if the Pelicans are in a position to play in the play-in, Williamson is going to come back. He has never played in the playoffs and if he gets a chance, he will come back to help the team.
The Pelicans are two games back of the Trail Blazers for the No. 10 seed. With the addition of CJ McCollum, the Pelicans expect to compete. Williamson is the final piece of the puzzle to do that.
6. Bulls Win No. 1 Seed In The East
The Bulls have the second-hardest schedule the rest of the way. They are going to do what they have done all year, which will surprise you. The Bulls are going to prove they belong at the top of the conference by taking care of business against teams like the Nets and Heat. Once Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso come back healthy, this team is going to be dangerous to stop.
DeMar DeRozan is already a top-5 player in the league this season. The Bulls are currently tied for the No. 1 seed in the East despite all the injuries they have had. All it has done is make rookie Ayo Dosunmu a starter in this league, while Coby White has turned into one of the better scorers off the bench. A fully healthy Bulls squad will be No. 1 in the East.
5. Brooklyn Nets Finish As No. 5 Seed
The Nets are one-seed caliber on paper. With Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and Kevin Durant all on the floor, this team is going to be hard to top. That lineup is going to only happen on the road as Irving is not allowed to play home games due to his vaccination status. The Nets will have a lot of work to do as they trail the No. 1 seed by seven games.
In the end, the Nets are not going to get over the hump. The Bulls are going to pull away, while the Heat is going to settle for second place. With that said, the Nets are going to finish just a few games behind the 76ers. Brooklyn will also defeat the Bucks both times in their final games.
4. Lakers Finish As No. 7 Seed
When looking at the rest of the schedule, the Lakers play the Spurs, Rockets, Wizards (twice), Pelicans, and Thunder. The Lakers are going to need to win four or five of these games. This would help the Lakers remain in the play-in conversation. The difference-maker is going to be what the team does in the other games, which all feature opponents contending for the playoffs.
The Lakers are 3.5 games back of the Timberwolves for the No. 7 seed and 6.0 games back of the Nuggets of the No. 6 seed. The Lakers play Denver two more times and Minnesota once. The Lakers also have to play the Raptors, Warriors, and Clippers two more times. There is a lot of pressure on LeBron James. When he has pressure, he delivers. The Lakers are going to win down the stretch but will be forced to play in the play-in tournament.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo Wins Defensive Player Of The Year
Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert are going to be right in the middle of this conversation. Green is the main catalyst for the Warriors' defense that is fighting for the top spot among team defense. Gobert is leading the league in rebounding and is second in blocks. With that said, keep an eye out on Giannis down the stretch.
Since Brook Lopez has been out for the year, Giannis has played more at the five this year. The Bucks rank 12th in the league in team defense. The last time Giannis won, the Bucks were ranked first in the league. Assuming the Bucks can rise to the top of the standings, pay attention to the defensive stats during that stretch. Giannis could win his second DPOY.
2. LeBron James Wins Scoring Race
As previously mentioned, James has a lot of pressure on him to deliver. Have we seen this type of pressure on a 37-year old player before? Not even Michael Jordan had to endure something like this. For the Lakers to climb up the standings, the work is going to be put on the shoulders of King James, which means he is going to have to do some heavy-duty scoring.
James is right in the thick of the scoring race. Right now, Joel Embiid leads the league with 29.6 points, while Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.4 points. A third is James with 29.1 points per game. James is going to go on a tear down the stretch to get the Lakers winning because the chemistry with Russell Westbrook is the least of his worries at this point. With all that work, he is going to stockpile enough points to help himself win the scoring title.
1. Joel Embiid Wins MVP Award
The 76ers are 2.5 games behind the Bulls and Heat, but the 76ers have owned the Bulls this season. The team will play the Heat again this year and a win could go a long way. Everyone wants to talk about the addition of James Harden. The 76ers were in this position without both Ben Simmons and James Harden. Embiid has been carrying this team all season long, as evidenced by leading the league in points per game.
Embiid has scored over 40 points in three of his last seven games. He is not your normal center. He is averaging 29.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. He is shooting 49.5% from the field and 36.9% from the three-point range. These are numbers LeBron James roughly averaged when he won the MVP in 2010 at a different position and different era. If the 76ers keep pace at the top, Embiid is an easy choice to win his first MVP and Philly’s first MVP since Allen Iverson in 2001.