— Depending on allegiance, your team’s playoff hopes may have combusted long ago (Clippers, Kings, Grizzlies, Raptors, Wizards, to name a few), or are on the verge of combusting at any moment if they haven’t done so already (Suns, Bucks, Pacers, Nets, Knicks).
And even if you are fortunate enough to have your team heading to the postseason, there's the possibility your squad has had its playoff seed locked in place for a mind-numbingly long time (Lakers, Cavs, Hawks).
Regardless of where you fit, the bottom line is if you root for one of the above-mentioned teams, there’s not an excess of excitement to be extracted from the playoff chase over the final two weeks of the season. There is, however, plenty of intrigue to be found elsewhere around the NBA.
Here’s a look at some of the compelling storylines that lie outside the boundaries of playoff positioning:
Most Valuable Perspective
Say what you want about Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard, but at this juncture of the season there are only two viable candidates for the MVP award: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Take a look at the statistical comparison between the two:
In sum, both have posted positively obscene stats in just about every major category, both have elevated their teams to unexpected heights (Cleveland’s win total has improved by 15 this year while Miami’s has improved by 24), and on an unrelated side note, both get away with traveling on a fairly maddening percentage of their drives to the basket.
With all that said, ultimately the choice for MVP comes down to preference. Do you prefer someone who has simply done more (the Cavs' 60-13 record and 35-1 mark at home are both best in the NBA), or do you prefer someone who has done more with less? Wade’s supporting cast isn’t as strong as LeBron's, but he has hit for 40 or more points in just under one-sixth of his games this year — 12 out of 73 — and as great as LeBron has been, Wade’s individual performance has consistently been the most explosive in the league.
With the race between these two as close as a razor blade skimming along Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ scalp, the final two weeks of the season have a significant amount of potential for triple-doubles, massive scoring outbursts and other statistical absurdities as James and Wade attempt to one-up each other in an effort to secure the league’s most coveted individual award.
You shall not pass
With Wade having extracted virtually all of the drama from the scoring chase (his average of 29.9 points leads James’ 28.4), we shift to the next-most compelling pursuit in a major category: the race for the assists title. New Orleans' Chris Paul currently leads the league with 10.9 per game, and whether he realizes it or not, Utah's Deron Williams (10.6) is in ferocious pursuit. In his first 14 games of March, Williams has averaged 11.7 assists, with Paul averaging 10.5 (in part because he has been busy averaging 24.8 points during the same stretch).
Regardless of what happens in the assists race, Paul is still the consensus No. 1 point guard in the league, but Williams — with season averages of 19.0 points and 10.6 assists — is rapidly evolving into No. 1A.
Speaking of point guards, it has been a lost season for the Raptors (28-45) and something of a lost one, too, for Jose Calderon, who has missed 14 games because of a nagging hamstring injury. However, one thing that has not been misplaced during Toronto's season of hapless basketball and failing hamstrings is Calderon’s free-throw shooting. He made his first 84 attempts and a stunning 135 out of 138 on the season. That scalding mark of 97.8 percent puts Calderon steadily on course to topple Calvin Murphy’s record of 95.8 percent set in 1980-81.
How’s that knee treating you?
The final days of the regular season should provide a critical prognosis on injured right knees for two players on title-contending teams. And at the moment, it appears Kevin Garnett and Andrew Bynum’s knees are headed in diverging directions.
On Tuesday, the Celtics announced plans to shut down Garnett until at least their final three games of the regular season to get his knee healed, while Bynum’s torn MCL has apparently improved to the point he was able to famously hoist a Playmate onto his shoulders at the Playboy Mansion this past weekend.
Fast-forwarding past any obligatory jokes about proper behavior while rehabbing a knee injury, the healthy returns of Garnett and Bynum will be critical to both the Celtics’ and Lakers’ title hopes. In 15 games without their defensive anchor since he injured his knee on Feb. 22, the Celtics have gone a less-than-intimidating 9-6 and allowed 97.9 points per game (compared to 92.6 points allowed on the season).
The Lakers, meanwhile, have gone a more impressive 21-6 without Bynum, but even so, there’s no mistaking the potential boost they could receive from a player who averaged 26.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in his last five games before the injury. And assuming Bynum can return during the final week of the regular season to prove his fitness in an arena outside of Hugh Hefner’s living room, the already formidable Lakers will become that much more difficult to stop.
The unlikely ironman
One of the more astonishing achievements of the 2008-09 campaign is that Grant Hill has played in every one of Phoenix’s 74 games, a feat he last accomplished over the course of an entire season — well, never (unless you count the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when Hill played in all 50 of the Pistons’ games).
And never mind that Hill is averaging a career-low 11.5 points per game; the important thing to realize is the 36-year-old is finishing the season in surprisingly strong fashion under a sizable workload. Averaging 34 minutes in March (up from 30 on the season), Hill is turning in 14.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks on 53.1 percent shooting, including games of 23 and 26 points in critical wins over Denver and Utah.
Those aren’t numbers that will remind anyone of Hill’s heyday (in 1996-97, he averaged 21.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.8 steals), but they are an important reminder that quiet, spectacular occurrences can take place on the fringes of the playoff chase in the dwindling but meaningful last days of the NBA regular season.