Milwaukee and their MVP elect Giannis Antetokounmpo will continue to run roughshod over the league in their quest to win 70+ games. For them, the true test starts in the post season. The Los Angeles teams are in the same boat: the Lakers are set to claim the #1 seed in the West; they know that true success will be measured in playoff victories.

The Clippers are also in Championship or Bust mode, but they seemingly haven't moved out of 3rd gear all season. Will they get it together by the time the playoffs roll around, or is their current ambivalence and inconsistency a sign of what's to come? In short, can the Flip the Switch?

It's those sorts of situations that we'll examine today: the players and teams that will provide the most intriguing plot lines for the remainder of the NBA regular season.

Al Horford

Philadelphia paid a premium to take the one person that could slow Joel Embiid out of the equation.

At the time, Horford's four-year $109 million deal was seen as a coup for the Sixers. Even at 33 years old, Horford was seen as a key to Philly's title hopes. His defensive chops were good enough to slow Embiid, so the idea of pairing them together as a huge double team against Antetokounmpo was exciting for the Sixers faithful. To that end, the experiment has held up. The Sixers are 5th in the NBA in defensive rating, and 4th in all line-ups with Horford on the floor.

At the other end of the court, however...yuck. Philadelphia are a below average 19th in the NBA in offensive rating. They're currently scoring a mere tenth of a point per 100 possessions more than the anaemic Detroit Pistons. In theory, Horford is a floor stretching, play making big that can supplement the offense with Embiid on the floor and be a fulcrum when the Cameroonian sits.

However, 32.4% shooting from deep (on 4.4 attempts per game) has mitigated the spacing it was hoped Horford could provide. Being away from the basket has led to career lows in rebounding and blocked shots, and his declining athleticism has hindered him when chasing around the stretchier power forwards of the league.

Before the All Star break, Coach Brett Brown made a significant change in moving Horford away from the starting five for sharp shooter Furkan Korkmaz. The spacing the young Turk provides was sorely missed (Elton Brand's Kingdom for a JJ Redick), but he is of course a huge negative on defense. Brown is betting that Simmons, Embiid and Josh Richardson are good enough to cover for him.

There’s been chatter about how Horford will handle his demotion. He's a pro's pro, so you know that he’ll will do what he's asked, to the best of his ability. But is it fit, or declining capability that has resulted in the demotion in the first place? If what we're seeing is not so much Horford struggling to adapt, as much as the veteran simply struggling, then Philly's big swing has seen them strike out.

Doc Rivers

Doc Rivers has perhaps the most difficult coaching assignment in the NBA through the closing stages of the regular season. You would be well within your rights to ask why. He's in possession of the deepest list in the NBA; a roster that can shapeshift with to match up with any opponent. He has a pair of superstars, including one that is a two-time Finals MVP and arguably the best player in the NBA. He has battle-hardened vets and young tyros. How is coaching this difficult?

The answer is that in the regular season, being able to manipulate a roster like this is easy. But the Clippers are all in for the Championship. Given the contract situations of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the clock is ticking. The Clips need to strike now.

Come play-off time, teams generally pare things down to a solid 8 man rotation, with a 9th player getting spot minutes. For most teams, that's easy. For the Clippers? Check out this depth chart:

Someone is going to be missing out, here. The obvious candidate is Reggie Jackson. The recent buyout signee just doesn't fit with this team. He's a better shooter than Pat Beverley but isn't in his world as a defender. He's a better ball handler than Landry Shamet but lacks the youngster’s shooting or defensive chops. He's a better defender than Lou Williams (damning with faint praise) but isn't as good a shooter of ball handler. On this team he's nothing more than an overqualified insurance policy. Patrick Patterson and Rodney McGruder – both solid rotation players for 25 other teams - are both likely to be nothing more than victory cigars to this team, as well.

There's also the Marcus Morris conundrum. He was having a career year as The Man on a terrible Knicks team. Now, he's thrust back into a 5th option role. How does the famously headstrong Morris cope with that? How do Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell deal with being afterthoughts in close playoff games, as Kawhi and PG monopolise the ball?

Rivers will be hoping that the chase for the Championship will keep these guys in line, because there is certainly the potential for trouble.

PJ Tucker

You could really talk about the whole Houston Rockets team, here. But let's focus on Tucker, as the keystone in this whole Rockets project.

So why is a soon to be 35 year old who averages 7.5 points per game the key to the Rockets season? Because he's the player that allows their small ball line-ups to operate. On offense, Tucker's solid stroke from the corner opens up the lane for the languid genius of James Harden and the wrecking ball ferocity of Russell Westbrook. On defense, his ability to reasonably approximate a centre (remembering that he was drafted into the NBA as a shooting guard! His DraftNet comparison was Mario freaking Elie) allows Houston to play their phalanx of guards and rangy wings, switching everything in sight.

If Tucker goes down with injury, or simply can't handle the game to game load of bodying players like Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic, the Rockets will be forced to turn to the improving but limited Isaiah Hartenstein or the ancient Tyson Chandler – obviously neither open up the floor like Tucker does.

So much is riding on Tucker's ability to stay healthy and effective, beyond simply the success of the team this season. Coach Mike D'Antoni is in the final season of his contract and is presumed a lame duck. Short of coaxing Don Nelson out of his retirement, what NBA coach would be comfortable rolling with a roster like this? Acclaimed GM Daryl Morey may be on his way out, as well. He's been in the chair since 2007 but with the Hong Kong controversy and a new owner that might not be as willing to let him experiment, he may be on the hunt for a new challenge. Despite his longevity in his current role, Morey is still only 47 years old – he's got decades ahead of him.

If the Rox can at least win the West, it will be a massive 'Told You So' for both Coach and GM. But Houston's season is finely balanced. If Tucker can't hold up his end of the deal, the house of cards will come tumbling down.

The Race for 8th in the West

Unlike the East, where Brooklyn and Orlando are apparent locks for the final seeds, the West gives us an exciting race that should come down to the wire.

As it stands, that race looks like this:






Schedule Strength








New Orleans












San Antonio





*Strength of schedule via Tankathon

The Grizzlies currently hold a solid lead on the chasing pack as we head into the final two months of the season, but look at that Schedule Strength: Memphis have the toughest run home in the entire league, whilst their direct competitors have amongst the easiest.

The recent knee sprain to Jaren Jackson Jr complicates things further for the Grizz, just as the Pelicans get Zion Williamson up to speed and Portland look to welcome back Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic.

New Orleans have had a new lease on life since getting their full roster back together (it’s forgotten, but Zion’s knee has been far from their only injury this season) and with an easy stretch of games, could come home with a wet sail. Watch out for back to back games against the Grizz on March 21 and 24 – a sweep of those two games by either team could decide the 8th seed.

Portland have been snake bitten all season, to the point that Carmelo Anthony was exhumed to play meaningful minutes. As they get their starting front court back, don’t count out a Damian Lillard fuelled run at the final playoff spot.

San Antonio really should be out of it, shouldn’t they? Shouldn’t they?? I think we’ve all been burnt by counting out the Spurs at some point, so until it’s not mathematically possible to make the playoffs, I’m considering them as a part of this race.

There is improvement to be had in San Antonio. Neither Dejounte Murray nor Derrick White have had good seasons: if either get hot, could they spur (sorry!) a late push?

My prediction: Memphis lose their last 3 games (OKC, Philadelphia and Houston), ceding the 8th and final spot to a streaking Pelicans, despite their own closing game loss to the Spurs.

Brooklyn Nets

Regular readers of my Power Rankings will know that I've been harping on throughout the season about the Ewing Theory potential of these Nets. So here's a stat for you.

  • Nets record with Kyrie Irving: 8 wins, 12 losses.

  • Nets record without Kyrie Irving: 18 wins, 17 losses.

A 32 win pace, against a 43 win pace. That's despite Irving averaging a career high 27.4 points per game on very good percentages (including a career high 92.2% from the charity stripe), along with 6.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 5.2 rebounds. By any measure, Irving's numbers are great. So why does the team play so much worse with him on the floor?

Irving is certainly a ball dominant lead guard, but so was the man he replaced in D'Angelo Russell - he's not substituting for a John Stockton style set up man here. The Nets score about 8 points more per 100 possessions with Kyrie; they of course give up far less points when the defensive sieve that is Kyrie sits – that all balances out to roughly a net zero.

One difference between D'Lo's Nets and Kyrie's Nets is the passing. With Russell at the controls, the team were top 5 in passes per possession, according to Second Spectrum. With Kyrie taking command, that drops precipitously to 26th in the league. Spencer Dinwiddie is the Nets leader with Irving out, and he's not exactly a pass-first type. So what's the issue?

I question the Nets attitude. Specifically, their energy levels and urgency then playing with Kyrie. Irving is one of the best ball handlers in the history of basketball. Watching him dance with a defender is a sport within a sport. But it does lead to a lot of standing around, waiting for Kyrie to roast his man. Does a guy like Taurean Prince (not saying for a moment that Prince's attitude needs adjusting) run as hard to corners, after defending Irving's man, knowing that he's probably not going to feel the basketball? Of course, all players should have a level of professional pride, and do their job. That's a reasonable expectation. But as a role player you want to know that your Main Man has your back. Remember this?

How the Nets perform to close out the season, now that Irving is sidelined, will be extremely interesting. 

One final thought to leave you with. Do you recall the last time Kyrie and a star teammate both missed significant time with injury? Do you remember how well things went when they were back on the court? The Celtics do.