The plight of LeBron's Lakers and other second-half NBA storylines
The plight of LeBron's Lakers and other second-half NBA storylines
Previewing the biggest storylines after the 2019 NBA All-Star break, including the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff push and a thrilling MVP chase.
All-Star Weekend has come and gone, and Thursday begins the final stretch of the 2018-19 NBA season. There are a handful of intriguing games on tap the day the NBA returns, including the scuffling Los Angeles Lakers hosting MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets. LeBron James' Lakers sit at just 28-29 on the season, 10th in the Western Conference and three games behind the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. With a 30-27 record, the Sacramento Kings also stand between the Lakers and a playoff spot. LeBron hasn't missed the playoffs since 2005, his second season in the NBA. It seems crazy to think he'd miss out on the postseason in his first season in Los Angeles, but they're actually now an *underdog* to make the playoffs. [Via BetChicago's Chris Mascaro:](https://www.betchicago.com/lebron-james-lakers-not-favored-to-make-playoffs) > The Lakers, who opened the season 12/1 to win the NBA title (the fourth favorite behind the Warriors, Celtics and Rockets), were listed at -110 to make (and miss) the playoffs, per a prop bet released Friday at the Westgate SuperBook. The line has been adjusted to 'No' as the -140 favorite, with 'Yes' now the +120 underdog. > LeBron's groin injury is a big reason why the Lakers are in this hole, but they suffered humiliating defeats against the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers with their superstar in the lineup after he returned. Los Angeles also went into the break with an ugly loss to the Atlanta Hawks despite James' presence. [There was talk](https://www.latimes.com/sports/lakers/la-sp-luke-walton-lakers-job-20190213-story.html) after the Hawks loss about LeBron not looking "totally engaged," and [The Athletic's Joe Vardon reports](https://theathletic.com/823742/2019/02/18/does-anthony-davis-pivot-toward-celtics-mean-he-knows-something-about-kyrie-irvings-plans-nba-all-star-final-thoughts/) the Lakers "are privately a little concerned" about him. There's an assumption that The King will rev things up over this final stretch to bring Los Angeles to the playoffs, but things need to turn around quickly. It certainly won't be easy. The Lakers have a tough schedule to finish out the season, with 16 of their last 25 games against teams currently in the playoff picture. Lonzo Ball isn't ready to return from the ankle injury that has kept him out a month. Ball may be a flawed young player, but Los Angeles is missing his defensive presence at the point of attack, which has been acknowledged by several of his teammates. I still can't bet against LeBron at this point, but it's going to be a battle ... and Anthony Davis isn't walking through that door. In addition to the Lakers, here are some other post-All Star break storylines to keep an eye on: ### The MVP race The Rockets will be a tough challenge for the Lakers on Thursday, especially because Harden is gunning hard to repeat as MVP. The Beard has been on an historic tear, going for 30-plus points in 31 consecutive games, tied with Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 for the second-longest streak in NBA history. Harden is up to an absurd 36.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6.7 rebounds per game on the season. He boasts an impressive 62.2 true shooting percentage despite a whopping 40.8 usage rate, and his 30.88 PER is first in the league. [He's also second](http://www.espn.com/nba/statistics/rpm/_/sort/WINS) in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus and RPM Wins behind Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George (more on him in a bit). Harden is the co-favorite to win MVP at -110, according to odds posted at the Westgate LV SuperBook, with Giannis Antetokounmpo also at -110. The Milwaukee Bucks superstar has been a dominant two-way stud on the league's best team, as they're 43-14 with a massive plus-9.8 average point differential. The Greek Freak is averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists while shooting 58.1 percent from the field. Milwaukee is fourth in offensive rating and first in defensive rating, [per](https://stats.nba.com/teams/advanced/?sort=OFF_RATING&dir=-1) NBA.com, with Antetokounmpo leading the way on both ends. Giannis has the two-way numbers, team success and potential first-time winner narrative behind him, while Harden's Rockets have had some notable bumps in the road. Harden's historic run might be enough for him to repeat as MVP, but Antetokounmpo is a great pick and my lean for this season's award. Let's not count out George at +900, though. PG-13 has been destroying worlds for the Thunder as part of a career-best season. He's putting up 28.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game while boasting a 59.8 true shooting percentage. In seven February games before the break, he posted 38.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game with a 66.1 true shooting percentage. George is also in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, and his profound impact on the Thunder has to be taken into account. OKC has outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions [with George on the court this season](https://stats.nba.com/team/1610612760/onoffcourt-advanced/?sort=NET_RATING&dir=-1), and they've been outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. That net rating swing is by far the biggest among these three candidates. Guys like Nikola Jokic (60/1 odds) and Joel Embiid (40/1), among others, also deserve recognition, but Harden, Antetokounmpo and George stand above the rest coming out of the break. ### The top of the East The top of the Eastern Conference is a bloodbath. The Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers all made significant moves [leading up to the trade deadline](https://www.betchicago.com/bulls-surprise-deal-otto-porter-jr-exciting-nba-trade-deadline), while the Boston Celtics are loaded with talent, and the Indiana Pacers have recovered nicely after losing Victor Oladipo. Just one game separates the Bucks and Raptors at the top of the conference, and then the Pacers, Celtics and Sixers are all bunched together at 3/4/5. Indiana might be able to hold relatively steady for the rest of the regular season, but without Oladipo, it's hard to envision them making a deep playoff run. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see either of those other four teams come out of the East. The odds are close, per the Westgate - Bucks +200 - Raptors +200 - Sixers +250 - Celtics +275 Milwaukee has been the consistently dominant force in the conference all season, so it's only natural for them at least to share favorite status. However, Antetokounmpo's Bucks have never won a playoff series, so they still need to prove they can win big when it matters. The Celtics are a good bet at +275. They've had a drama-filled season, but they're still ridiculously talented, well-coached and have a big-time playoff performer in Kyrie Irving. Boston also has Philly's number of late, which is bad news for the Sixers if they match up. ### The Zion Williamson sweepstakes There are a handful of truly awful teams hoping to get lucky in the lottery in order to draft Duke phenom Zion Williamson. At least that's who should be the No. 1 pick, regardless of who gets it. Williamson is the clear-cut top prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Phoenix Suns have the worst record in the league at 11-48 thanks to 15 straight losses, but the New York Knicks are right there at 11-47. Don't forget about the 12-46 Cleveland Cavaliers. The Chicago Bulls are 14-44, but they've looked a bit better with Otto Porter Jr. in the lineup and will likely get a few more wins than these other teams the rest of the way. The good news for the non-worst teams and bad news for the team that finishes with the worst record are the flattened lottery odds. The three worst teams all get a [14.0 percent chance](http://www.tankathon.com) of winning the No. 1 pick, while the fourth-worst team has a 12.5 percent chance. Even the fifth-worst team has a 10.5 percent chance. These lottery changes were made to curb blatant tanking, though the Suns, Knicks and Cavs will likely finish in the bottom three without really having to try for it. __Also read__: [How tanking affects NBA betting market](https://www.betchicago.com/nba-tanking-betting-market) ### The Warriors The Warriors had their drama at the beginning of the season, and there's plenty of smoke about Kevin Durant leaving in the summer. But Golden State remains the favorite at -250 to secure the three-peat, per the SuperBook. The Warriors are 41-16 and recently got DeMarcus Cousins in their lineup last month, giving them five All-Stars. They're unstoppable when clicking and have a massive margin for error. If healthy, there's still no reason to think anybody beats Golden State in a seven-game series. __Play along__: [Daily contests for NBA and more](https://betchicago.chalkline.com/)2019-02-19T18:09:51.037Z2019-02-19T13:09-05:00