NBA season check-up: playoffs, leaders and the MVP race

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The Atlanta Hawks are one of four teams in contention for the Eastern Conference in the playoffs. Photo courtesy of Keith Allison/Wikipedia Commons

Emmanuel Rivas Valenzuela, Sports Editor

With the 2022-2023 NBA regular season reaching its midpoint, the postseason picture becomes clearer with every game. It is now time to answer difficult questions like “what teams are busts,” “which players are dominating on the court” and “who will win the MVP this year?” 

With the addition of the current NBA Play-In Tournament in 2021, two additional teams, one from each conference, are eligible for playoff contention. Currently, the teams in contention are the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference. The Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trailblazers and Utah Jazz are eligible for the Western Conference. 

The Play-In Tournament will include teams with the seventh through tenth highest winning percentages in each conference. The teams with the ninth-highest and tenth-highest winning percentages in each conference will each have to win two consecutive games to earn a playoff spot. The winners of the Play-In tournament will receive the seventh and eighth positions in each conference. Following the Play-In Tournament, the NBA Playoffs will commence with the traditional 16-team, best-of-seven series structure, per the NBA. 

 

The NBA Playoffs and the Play-In Tournament are two different tournaments and the top six teams in each conference are automatically entered into the playoffs. Those teams now are the first seed Boston Celtics, who would play the eighth seed, second seed Brooklyn Nets, who would play the seventh seed, third seed Milwaukee Bucks, who play the sixth seed New York Knicks, and the fourth seed Cleveland Cavaliers, who go up against the fifth seed Philadelphia 76ers in the East.  

For the West, the first seed Denver Nuggets face off against the eighth seed. The second seed Memphis Grizzlies will play the seventh seed. The third seed New Orleans Pelicans will play the sixth seed Golden State Warriors. With the fourth seed Dallas Mavericks facing the sixth seed Sacramento Kings. 

This is where the matchups stand as of early January but are subject to change between now and April. 

This season continues to push the limits of offense as several players have made headlines across the league with jaw-dropping statistics. Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell blew past Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic in points scored during a game where he dropped 71 points against the Chicago Bulls Jan. 3. Doncic still holds the lead for points per game, averaging 34 points this season. Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton currently leads the league with 10.2 assists per game. Holding down his legacy as a lockdown three-point shooter is Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry with five three-pointers made per game. 

On defense, Sacramento Kings forward Domantas Sabonis has averaged 12.5 rebounds a game with Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert trailing with 11.9 rebounds per game. Both Brooklyn Nets center Nic Claxton and Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez are tied for first in blocks with 2.6 per game. Toronto Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby leads the league with 2.2 steals a game. 

As far as the MVP race goes, names like Memphis Grizzles guard Ja Morant, Philidelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and of course Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry have been floated for the award. The main standouts, and the most likely to receive the honor, are Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic. 

Both Durant and Jokic have put up extraordinary numbers so far this season averaging 25.4 and 30 points per game respectively. Durant shot 60.1 percent overall, 39.4 percent on three-pointers and 95.5 percent on free throws over the course of 20 games. Jokic meanwhile leads the NBA in triple-doubles with nine, five of which came in December alone. 

The issues for the two veterans may hold them back for the title. Durant has been an “X” factor for the Nets but has also benefited greatly from his teammate guard Kyrie Irving. Irving tends to average just shy of 26 points per game. For Jokic, the problem arises off the courts as opposed to on the court as he is coming off two straight MVP seasons and is shooting for a third, something that has not been done since 1986. 

The true “dark horse” in this race is Doncic as he has put up incredible numbers so far this season. The Swedish guard is averaging 34 points per game, leading the NBA, along with 8.7 assists per game, fourth in the NBA. In the month of December, Doncic put up 526 points for the Mavericks. In that same stretch, Doncic had three games with 50 or more points including a record setting 60-point triple-double in an overtime win over a playoff team in the New York Knicks. 

The MVP race will become clearer as the season progresses along with each team’s progress moving toward the finish line. The NBA season is still in the heat of competition and is sure to instill some excitement and awe as teams vie for a Finals run. 

Statistics provided by ESPN and espn.com. 

Emmanuel Rivas Valenzuela is the sports editor and may be reached at [email protected]: @rivasemmanuel2 on Instagram