Remember when they all said that this would be one of the most boring, most predictable NBA regular seasons on record?
Neither do we.
A wild six-month ride indeed comes to a close this week with the Golden State Supervillains, as the Warriors jokingly like to call themselves, locked in as the No. 1 team in our weekly NBA Power Rankings, just as many of us did expect.
Yet there were too many surprises along the way in this season of the triple-double -- more on that as the week unfolds! -- to list them all here in the final Monday dispatch from the Committee (of One) until the fall.
We'll focus for now on the ongoing mystery that is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As recently as Christmas, we all thought that the reigning champions were firmly in the Warriors' heads. But now, after three months of mediocre basketball from the Cavs amid unprecedented offensive fireworks leaguewide and one of the greatest MVP races in NBA history, we find ourselves wondering whether LeBron James and his up-and-down crew can really dominate the Eastern Conference playoffs the way they always do.
Here's what we know: Golden State will enter the postseason as hot as any team we've ever seen. The record for the longest winning streak to close out the regular-season schedule, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is a 15-gamer by the Rochester Royals in 1949-50. Winning their final two home dates, against Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers, would take these Warriors to a record 16 in a row.
Don't forget to tune in to the overnight edition of SportsCenter that airs Tuesday at 1 a.m. ET for the weekly video feature that accompanies our 1-to-30 power poll. And profuse thanks, as always, go to all our of friends at ESPN Stats & Information and Elias -- with ESPN research ace Micah Adams running the point -- for the priceless background data they supplied to assist our efforts to arrange things here properly in season No. 15 for the Committee.
Kevin Durant is obviously back in a nice groove already. Stephen Curry is scheduled to return to the lineup from a one-game absence (left knee bruise) for Monday night's home date with the Jazz. And the Warriors, in Durant's return engagement Saturday night against the depleted Pelicans, just made it 50 games this season with at least 30 assists, which is only two shy of the league's single-season record as established by the 1984-85 Lakers. It's all looking rather ominous for the rest of the league when you thumb through all the available tea leaves, but here's something to keep an eye on as we move into the postseason and its more hostile crowds. The Warriors shoot nearly 42 percent from the 3-point line at home, compared to just 35.5 percent from deep on the road, which accounts for the second-largest such disparity for any team in the regular season behind Washington's drop-off (40.6 percent from 3 at home and 34.2 percent on the road). How significant might that be if the trend carries into the playoffs?
Maybe our pal Tom Haberstroh is right. Maybe Kawhi Leonard, with his 25.8 PPG and true shooting success rate of 61 percent for a 61-win team -- as well as his status as perhaps the game's best two-way player -- means we still have a three-man MVP race as opposed to a mere duel between former teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Something else we're wondering about: How much will San Antonio rue the opportunity it had to beat Golden State at home on the second night of a back-to-back for the Warriors and make one last push for the West's top seed? Gregg Popovich is apt to say that seeding is not a primary concern of his, but let's face it: No. 1 seeds have won 67 percent of the championships (22 of 33 seasons) since the current playoff format was introduced for the 1983-84 season. No. 2 seeds have won just 18 percent of the available titles (six) in that span. (The only team seeded fourth or lower to win the championship in this format, of course, was No. 6 Houston in 1994-95.)
DeMar DeRozan would have to score 51 points in the Raptors' final regular-season game to hike his scoring average (currently 27.3 PPG) past Vince Carter's single-season club record of 27.6 PPG. Since that's realistically too much to ask, Toronto can console itself with the knowledge that it has clinched the East's No. 3 seed and has Kyle Lowry safely back in the lineup after posting an impressive 14-7 record without him. How concerned should the Raps be that Lowry has barely played with trade-deadline acquisitions Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker? Not nearly as concerned, one would figure, as if Lowry were still out.
Eric Gordon has secured my Sixth Man Award vote. Mike D'Antoni (spoiler alert!) has an excellent chance to land atop my coach of the year ballot that will be unveiled Tuesday. And James Harden, of course, is still right there with Russell Westbrook in an MVP brain twister that I'm taking until Thursday to settle on this scorecard. Throw Kawhi Leonard back in there if you wish, as mentioned in the Spurs comment, but this sentiment hasn't changed: There's really no wrong answer here. All three have strong cases, and all three have holes in their résumés to seize upon if you feel the need. Our head hurts trying to work through all the permutations. The Rockets clearly feel that the attention Westbrook is getting for his triple-double exploits is unfairly affecting Harden's campaign -- judging by the recent missives from the team's own Twitter feed and several tweets from GM Daryl Morey -- but it's also true that Harden might have had this thing wrapped if the Rockets maintained their 31-10 pace from the first half. Like it or not, Houston is only a 23-16 team in the season's second half, which we suspect has slowed some of Harden's MVP momentum as Westbrook has surged ... just as Cleveland's 23-21 record since Jan. 8 derailed LeBron James' MVP bid.
Not even our old friend Bill Simmons, wearing his trustiest pair of Celtics goggles, could have gazed into the future and dreamed up the sort of script that has presented itself to the men in green. Thanks to the back-to-back humblings that the Cavs just absorbed from Atlanta -- even after the Celtics' own failure to deal with Cleveland at home last week when the reigning champs were playing on the second night of a back-to-back -- Boston is still favored by our friends at FiveThirtyEight to snag the East's top seed: 57 percent to Cleveland's 43 percent odds. Something tells us there will be no apologies from the Celtics, Simmons or anyone else associated with the club that this will be just the fourth season under the league's current playoff format -- which was introduced for the 1983-84 campaign -- that the best team in the Least, er, East will win fewer than 55 games. (Detroit previously did it twice with 50 wins in 2002-03 and 53 wins in 2006-07; the then-New Jersey Nets won the East in 2001-02 at 52-30.) As for Isaiah Thomas: Looks like IT (29.2 PPG) will fall short of Larry Bird's best-scoring season as a Celtic (29.9 PPG in 1987-88), but he has easily supplanted Michael Adams (26.5 PPG in 1990-91) as the most prolific single-season scorer listed at shorter than 6 feet.
Do the Cavs really need the No. 1 seed in an Eastern Conference that can't offer up a single team that can match Houston's 54 wins in the West? History says no. LeBron James-led teams have held the East's No. 2 seed five times in his career ... and went on to reach the NBA Finals all five times. The suspicion here, though, is that it matters far more to the Cavs than they'll ever admit, judging by the fury that LeBron and his pals played with on Wednesday night in Boston after hearing for days from know-it-alls like us how uninspired they've looked since the All-Star break. The problem now, of course, is that consecutive crushing losses to #eventhehawks have dropped Cleveland's odds of finishing No. 1 in the East from 70 percent to 43 percent, according to our colleagues at FiveThirtyEight. Who knew they had such wild roller-coaster rides -- aside from here -- in northern Ohio?
Some long-awaited good news in Clipperland as the home team closes in on its fifth successive 50-win season: If the Clips win their final two games at home against Houston and Sacramento, it no longer matters what Utah does. L.A. holds the season-series tiebreaker between the clubs (3-1) and snags home-court advantage for its first-round series with the Jazz as long as it avoids a slip-up. Now for the bad news: Since the NBA expanded to the current 16-team playoff format in 1983-84, No. 4 seeds are curiously just 30-36 in their matchups with No. 5 seeds. (That includes the Clippers' first-round loss to Portland last season after both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went down.) Paul and Griffin, for the record, will enter this postseason ranked first and fifth all time in terms of having racked up the most All-Star selections (nine and five, respectively) without a trip to the conference finals.
Utah enters the final week of the regular season looking up at the Clippers -- L.A. owns the tiebreaker -- in the standings, which has to be a frustrating spot for the Jazz after control of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs appeared to be theirs. Yet you'd have to say that the Jazz, even if they wind up fifth in the West, had a rather impressive season to capture the club's first division title since 2007-08 and enter its final two games needing only one win for 50 given the steady stream of injuries Quin Snyder had to cope with (and is still dealing with). The individual stories are good ones, too, with Gordon Hayward hitting a new level, Rudy Gobert assembling a defensive player of the year-worthy campaign and Joe Johnson just becoming the seventh active player to cross the 20,000-point threshold.
I have never, ever believed in the concept of an aspiring MVP needing an "MVP moment" on his résumé, which seems to be important to some pundits. But how could you not be swept up in what Russell Westbrook pulled off Sunday afternoon in Denver? It was the third incredibly late comeback from a double-digit deficit that he's engineered in the past two weeks and was capped with the buzzer-beater of Russ' life to clinch his record-setting 42nd triple-double of the season and knock the poor the Nuggets out of the playoffs. What some deem to be stat chasing, as well as the Thunder's apparent teamwide devotion to help Westbrook set all these records, will undoubtedly turn off some voters. Yet the fact remains that Oklahoma City, in its first season post-Kevin Durant, is 33-9 when he triple-doubles, compared to its 13-25 struggles when he falls short. The approach is working.
The Wizards have to be disappointed, given what a fortress Verizon Center became for them earlier this season when they reeled off those 17 consecutive home victories, to know that a home loss to a Miami team playing on the second night of a back-to-back is what helped lock them into the East's fourth seed. But the bigger problem, as our pal Zach Lowe outlined in his latest "10 Things" column, might well be the recent defensive slippage that has seen the Wiz sink to No. 20 in the defensive efficiency standings. There are some real alibis at play, as you'll read, but it's an area where Washington must improve if it hopes to manufacture some postseason success to go with its regular-season recovery from that dreadful 2-8 start. Something to watch before the playoffs get going: Does Scotty Brooks opt for rest this week or decide to chase the wins his Wiz would need on the road at Detroit and Miami to seal the club's first 50-win season since 1978-79?
The Blazers' 16-5 surge into playoff position, thus hoisting themselves out of a 24-35 hole, has spawned hope that Golden State's first-round series will be more competitive than anticipated. (Whether that's truly possible without a return to the lineup for Jusuf Nurkic from that lower-leg ailment remains to be seen.) Damian Lillard's strong surge to the regular-season finish line, meanwhile, means we've seen 10 different 50-point scorers in 2016-17; Lillard's 59-point eruption Saturday night against Utah -- with zero turnovers! -- put him in the club along Russell Westbrook (four times), James Harden (twice), Devin Booker, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall and Klay Thompson (who had a 60-point game before Booker erupted for 70).
He has generated virtually no coach of the year buzz, but Jason Kidd has overachieved with the Bucks for the second time in his three seasons in Brewtown, piloting Jabari Parker-less Milwaukee to a mark of 15-7 since March 1, which happens to stand as the East's best record in that span. The next step, of course, is actually winning a playoff series, something the Bucks haven't managed since their 2001 trip to the Eastern Conference finals. Can Giannis Antetokounmpo change that storyline? Milwaukee has lost seven straight playoff series and would set an unwanted NBA record if it can't escape Round 1 this time.
The Heat weren't far from sweeping a Charlotte/Toronto/Washington road trip last week, but going 2-1 might not have been good enough to keep their fairy tale alive for coach of the year contender Erik Spoelstra. Some help, however, might be on the way: Dion Waiters has been upgraded to questionable for Monday night's home date with Cleveland (as have Luke Babbitt and Josh McRoberts) after Waiters was forced to miss the past 11 games with a sprained left ankle. The Heaters, don't forget, were as many as 19 games under .500 after a loss at Milwaukee on Jan. 30 that dropped them to 11-30. So regardless of whether these guys ultimately make the playoffs, Miami can at least shatter the previous record for a sub-.500 team's rally to the .500 mark. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Philadelphia in 2007-08 was one of eight teams in league history to scramble back to break even after slipping 12 games under .500, rising from 18-30 to 34-34 that season before finishing 40-42.
For all the second-half slippage that the Hawks have endured, they have at least preserved the only active double-digit streak of playoff appearances on the NBA map outside of San Antonio. Gregg Popovich has steered the Spurs to 20 consecutive trips to the postseason ... and now his protégé Mike Budenholzer has held Atlanta together sufficiently to book a 10th successive playoff berth for this franchise. Even more enjoyable, surely, is the double dose of torment Atlanta has heaped upon Cleveland over the past few days, first by beating the Cavs on their home floor despite resting Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, then with that furious rally at home Sunday night. Atlanta is the first team to trail by 26 points or more at the start of the fourth quarter and find a way to win since the Lakers erased a 27-point deficit to upend Dallas on Dec. 6, 2002. Teams with a lead that big entering the fourth quarter had won 840 consecutive games since the Lakers' comeback against the Mavs.
Paul George is trying to will the Pacers into the playoffs. He's scored 35 points or more eight times this season ... with seven of those eruptions coming since March 6 alone. Yet you have to wonder how much difference it really makes, when it comes to George's future there, for the Pacers to eke their way into the postseason as a seventh or eighth seed. These guys are clearly a long way from the true contention PG-13 craves even if they do find a way to stay in this season's playoff field. Indy .500 also knows it has to win its last two games to ensure a trip to the postseason because both Chicago and Miami hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pacers.
After six consecutive winning seasons, .500 is the best that the Bulls can finish now because of losses to both the Knicks and the Nets within the past week that almost make you forget these guys are an encouraging 6-2 this season against potential first-round opponents Cleveland and Boston. Blowing a nine-point late lead Saturday against Brooklyn in Dwyane Wade's return from a from an 11-game injury absence won't do much to change the perception that Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo mesh a lot better than Butler and D-Wade do. Nor does the Bulls' solid 6-4 mark and the much brisker overall pace we saw from Chicago in the 10 games Rondo played while Wade was sidelined, during which Rondo averaged 10.9 points, 8.5 assists and 6.2 rebounds before suffering a sprained right wrist. Can the Butler-led Bulls make a first-round series interesting against one of the East's top seeds? Can they even get to the first round? We're out of guesses with these guys by this point.
After missing just one game to recover from that nasty cut and significant swelling over his right eye that he recently sustained in San Antonio, Mike Conley only enhanced his tough-guy reputation by returning the lineup Friday night to shred the Knicks for 31 points. Helped along by 10 30-point games this season, after just five in his first nine pro seasons, Conley will average better than 20 PPG for the first time in his career ... in Year 1 of that monster $150-plus-million contract he landed last summer. Yet that's pretty much the extent of the good vibes for sports-loving locals to soak up these days, knowing that yet another crunching first-round series with San Antonio awaits ... and with the Committee personally (and deeply) saddened to hear that Memphis is losing the pro tennis tournament it's been hosting every February for more than 40 years.
A week ago, having won seven of nine and having survived Russell Westbrook's 40, 13 and 10 to win at Oklahoma City, Charlotte was in the midst of a 7-2 surge that made you think a playoff push was still feasible. But things turned quickly on the Hornets thanks to an 0-3 week against conference rivals Washington, Miami and Boston -- with the latter two games at home -- that suddenly saddles owner Michael Jordan without a playoff berth in two of the past three seasons. You just can't go 0-9 in one-possession games -- including 0-6 in overtime -- and expect to advance past game No. 82. Not even in the East, nor even in the midst of Kemba Walker's career year.
The Nuggets entered Sunday's play needing a 3-0 finish, along with an 0-2 finish for the Blazers, to dig out the West's final playoff spot. They wound up with their 10th one-possession loss of the season on Russell Westbrook's 36-footer at the buzzer to clinch Denver's elimination from playoff contention. Yet you can't completely point to those 10 one-possession L's as the chief culprit for this predicament; not when Portland has lost 10 one-possession games of its own. It's going to be a long summer for the Nuggets to lament how, on top of the close-game issues, they rank as the league's co-leader in rebound percentage (snagging 53.3 percent of all boards) but also No. 30 in defensive efficiency. Which is believed to be an NBA first.
The Committee always assumed that the Pistons' final game at The Palace of Auburn Hills would be a playoff game. Detroit's demise this season means that Monday's TNT-televised home date with Washington will instead serve as the Pistons' farewell to The Palace before next season's move downtown, but the Detroit Free Press reported last week that coach/team president Stan Van Gundy's job is safe despite what SVG himself openly calls "a step back" for the franchise in 2016-17. With two seasons left on his original five-year, $35 million contract, Van Gundy said of Pistons owner Tom Gores: "Tom's always supportive, but look, he's frustrated, too. We all are with the way we've played ... I know he is disappointed in what we've done as team, which certainly is my responsibility, so he's gotta be disappointed. At the same time, I think he takes a pretty long-term view, and what he's said to me is whatever's happened in these last few weeks, we're a lot better off in terms where we are in terms of what we've got as players and assets and everything else than we were three years ago."
The Pelicans' season was more like four rolled into one. 1) Before and after Jrue Holiday's return from tending to his wife and daughter. 2) The eventual shift to small ball with Anthony Davis playing center. 3) Swinging that blockbuster trade on the night New Orleans hosted the All-Star Game to land DeMarcus Cousins next to The Brow. And 4) Some stubborn play in March and April that kept the Pels in the chase for the No. 8 spot in the West longer than any team outside of Portland or Denver. Now, though, comes the hard part. What kind of team will the Pels put around their two All-Star big men? And will it include Holiday given all the external interest he'll attract as an unrestricted free agent? Stay tuned.
What do Jeremy Lin and Joel Embiid have in common? When Lin starts at point guard for the Nets, they're 13-19 this season, right there with Philadelphia's 13-18 record when the Sixers have Embiid in the lineup. When Lin is out injured or forced to come off the bench this season, Brooklyn is 7-41. June is still going to be plenty painful when Nets fans watch the Celtics happily take possession of Brooklyn's pick right at or near the top of the board, but give the Nets this much: They're finishing a long season with a still-happening flourish, winning four of six overall and going 11-11 since March 1 with Lin returned from a lengthy injury spell and being joined in the starting lineup by Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The sight of Buck Williams at Saturday night's home finale against Chicago -- with Brook Lopez closing in on Williams' franchise scoring record -- was fun for us nostalgic saps.
With the Nuggets rooting for the Wolves as hard as anyone back in the Twin Cities, Minnesota unraveled yet again Thursday night, squandering a 15-point cushion in Portland to cement its unwanted status when it comes to blown leads, just days after beating the Blazers at home to inject some drama into the West's race for the No. 8 spot. The Wolves have lost a whopping 21 games this season after going ahead by at least 10 points at any point; Phoenix is next in line with just 15 such losses. They're also at risk to finish in the bottom five in defensive efficiency; Tom Thibodeau's five teams in Chicago produced four top-five finishes and no season lower than 11th in DE.
The Mavs have been so good for so long that Mark Cuban and trusty front-office companion Donnie Nelson haven't had as many opportunities as they'd like to tap into their Bill Veeck-ian spirit that we saw often in the early days of Cuban's reign, whether it was signing Dennis Rodman or managing a Dairy Queen or brawling with a faux referee on April Fool's Day. But with the Mavs out of the playoffs for just the second time in Cuban's 17 full seasons, putting Tony Romo in uniform for Tuesday's regular-season home finale against Denver is a vintage maneuver for both the owner and his president of basketball operations, who delight in tweaking the establishment with ideas like this. Yet it's merely a one-night escape from the reality that the Mavs are dealing with their first last-place finish in the division since 1993-94, when they posted the league's worst record (13-69) to finish in the old Midwest Division basement. Worse yet: With only the league's ninth-worst record this season, how high is Dallas really going to finish in the lottery? High enough to draft the franchise point guard it so desperately needs? Debatable.
Markelle Fultz sat courtside at Madison Square Garden for the Knicks' home loss Sunday to Toronto and spoke of how "amazing" it would be to wind up playing for the home team at "the greatest place to play" in the world. In the same game, unheralded rook Willy Hernangomez scored 20 points in the first half and wound up recording his 11th double-double for the season, tops among rookies this season. And Knicks legend Patrick Ewing finally got his head-coaching shot last week in a storybook return to his alma mater. Why are we closing out this season's series of Knicks comments with so much positivity? The Committee gets tired of all the drama sometimes, too, Knicks fans. They're a 50-loss team for the seventh time in 12 seasons, but this one was a real draining doozy.
Not the way he wanted to end his second-half rookie of the year push: Dario Saric is suddenly on a minutes restriction (no more than 24 per game) thanks to a case of plantar fasciitis that presumably stems from all the high-level ball he played in Europe before making the jump straight into the NBA. Injuries, of course, have dominated so much of the discussion surrounding the star-crossed Sixers because of Ben Simmons' lost rookie season and the various ailments that limited Joel Embiid to 31 games ... but Gregg Popovich wasn't exaggerating too much last week when he said that Philly coach Brett Brown has done a "ridiculous" (in a positive way) job of hanging in there amid all the obstacles and setbacks to coax nearly 30 wins out of this group.
Our first trip to the Golden 1 Center was all lined up. But the Mavs' imminent "addition" of a certain Tony Romo has forced the Committee to audible on the schedule front, meaning our first visit to the Kings' new home to gauge the progress of Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere in Tuesday's home finale against Phoenix will have to wait until next season, when Sacramento will no longer have the league's newest building as Detroit prepares to relocate downtown. Our man Zach Lowe has a handy Hield scouting report in his latest "10 Things" that we'll lean on here, but fear not. If history is any guide, we'll be writing about the Kings and their usual flurry of offseason maneuverings soon.
Oh, Lakers. Why now? The most poorly timed four-game win streak in franchise history, as we suspect you know by now, has greatly increased the chances that L.A. falls out of the top three in next month's lottery, which would be flat-out disastrous. We suspect you know all these ins and outs by now, but we are duty-bound to repeat them: If the Lakers' pick lands outside of the top three in June, it must be conveyed to Philadelphia as a continuation of the Steve Nash sign-and-trade from the summer of 2012. On top of that, L.A. would also lose its 2019 first-round pick to Orlando as part of the Dwight Howard trade from later that same summer. But if the Lakers can stay in the top three with the help of those proverbial pingpong balls, that 2019 first-rounder potentially bound for the Magic Kingdom would turn into two second-round picks. If the Lakers finish with the league's second-worst record, they would have a 56 percent chance of picking in the top three and clinching the far more pleasant of those two scenarios. That figure drops to 47 percent if the Lakers finish with the league's third-best record, which is where they sit. A random draw would take place, finally, if the Lakers and Suns finished with identical records, with the winner inheriting the better pre-lottery odds. To sum up all of the above: Magic Johnson is advised to be as clutch as he's ever been if he indeed represents the franchise on the lottery dais for the first time.
Amid a steady stream of speculation that changes are coming to the Magic's front office at season's end, it was the last thing this team (and specifically GM Rob Hennigan) needed: Patricio Garino's agent tweeting a picture of his young client signing with Orlando without realizing that the picture exposed sensitive material listing Orlando's potential offseason trade and free-agent targets. That's obviously not the sort of surprise that the Magic were hoping to swing in Year 1 of the Frank Vogel era, but we're bound to remember the dry-erase board snafu as much as anything from an otherwise forgettable season in the Magic Kingdom that -- five years removed from Dwight Howard's departure -- still finds them so far from anything resembling playoff contention.
For those long-suffering hoops fans in the desert who take solace in every flicker of promise from the Devin Booker Show: Booker's 21 consecutive points to open the fourth quarter Friday night against Oklahoma City marked the second time this season he's turned that trick for the Suns. No other active player, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, has done it more once in his career. The win over Russell Westbrook's Thunder, meanwhile, brought a halt to a 13-game skid that had matched the two longest winless runs (1996-97 and 2015-16) in franchise history ... but the Suns still might find a way to inflict a huge lottery blow to the hated Lakers.