The landmarks in the NBA season are rapidly coming and going. The trade deadline saw a flurry of action that completely remade one contender (the Cavs) and saw one fringe playoff team try to light a spark (Pistons), but little else. Now, the teams and players get the next week off for the All-Star break as the top players descend upon Los Angeles for the All-Star festivities. Though we’re well past the halfway point of the season, really closer to the 3/4 mark for some teams, let’s take stock of the league heading into the “second half” of the season.
Contenders- Warriors, Rockets
Steve Kerr has apparently “not been reaching his team” for the last month, and as such, allowed them to run timeouts and huddles during the blowout of the Suns earlier in the week. Whether or not the Warriors are bored or tuning the coaching staff out, it’s undeniable that they’re the most talented team in the conference leading the league in net rating at +10.
However, the Rockets appear capable of accomplishing Daryl Morey’s mission of potentially de-throning the Warriors come playoff time. The combination of James Harden and Chris Paul has been devastating this season and the Rox are just behind the Warriors in net rating at +8.6. They’ve also won two of the three regular season meetings between the teams and sit just 1 game back of Golden State for the top spot in the West.
Potential Troublemakers- Spurs, Timberwolves, Thunder
The Spurs are here simply because they have Gregg Popovich and always find a way to remain competitive in the post-season. They’re 3rd in the conference despite Kawhi playing just 9 games this season. Not much else to be said there.
Thibs’ team is growing up before our eyes this season, living up to the high expectations that folks had for them heading into the year. They’re +2.8 net rating, but they still have a lot of work to do defensively, ranking 26th in the league in Defensive Rating at 108.4.
The Thunder’s quartet of Westbrook, ‘Melo, PG, and Steven Adams is formidable. But, since losing Andre Roberson, the Thunder have still been searching for the right guy to slot in alongside these guys. With Roberson, that quintet was one of the best lineups in the league, logging 539 minutes and a +14.2 net rating. Lineups with Terrance Ferguson (207 mins -10.2) and Alex Abrines (166 mins, +0.1) haven’t been nearly as effective. The playoffs is largely about who’s got the best players, and the Thunder could certainly give Houston or Golden State problems. Question is who will step up to help that top four.
Potential Playoff Teams/First round Fodder- Trailblazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, Jazz, Clippers
The Trailblazers own a positive net rating (+0.4) and have one of the better overall defenses, ranking 11th at 105.0, but surprisingly, just an average offensive rating (105.4, 14th). Lillard and McCollum are dangerous, but Nurkic hasn’t replicated the success of that magical 2nd half last year.
The Nuggets have a Top 10 offense (107.8) and a bottom 10 defense (107.7). They’re certainly good enough to make the playoffs, but a likely first round exit looms.
Anthony Davis has been a monster since DeMarcus Cousins went out, averaging 31.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game as New Orleans has gone 4-5 in that stretch. They’ll need him to remain a monster to hang on to the 8th spot.
That’s because the Jazz (winners of 11 straight) and Clippers (7-3 last 10) are hot on their heels. The battle for the final couple spots should be compelling.
Kick the tank into high gear- Grizzlies, Kings, Mavericks, Suns
All four of these teams are in full on “let’s see how high a draft pick we can get” mode. Play the young guys, embrace the good and bad moments, and get your lucky rabbit’s foot ready for Lottery night.
Waiting for Free Agency- Lakers
The Lakers won’t own their own pick this year so they can’t “tank” to try and add another top, young asset. However, they did accomplish their goal of unloading salary in the trade with the Cavs, clearing up their cap sheet for a potential run at top free agents (cough LeBron, cough Paul George) this summer. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
Contenders- Celtics, Raptors, Cavaliers
The Celtics limped into the All-Star break losing three straight and going just .500 (5-5) in their last 10. Regardless, they own the league’s top defensive rating (100.9) and the fourth-best net rating (+3.5). But, their offense has been bottom 10 (104.4) this season, which is a little surprising. Nonetheless, they’re clearly among the East’s elite.
The Raptors have done the opposite of the Celtics heading to the break, roaring in on a seven-game win streak (9-1 last 10). Tied for 3rd in D-rating (102.6) and fourth in O-rating (110.7), the Raps have the third-best net rating (+8.1) in the league behind the Rockets and Warriors. But, the nagging question is whether they can translate regular season success to post-season play. We’ll have to wait for April to find out.
The Cavs were an absolute mess heading into the trade deadline. Since, they’ve beaten the Celtics (121-99) and Thunder (120-112) and LeBron looks re-energized and engaged. There will be bumps in the road and two games is super small sample size, but the young guys appear to have re-invigorated the team. As long as that continues, Cleveland’s right back to being a top dog in the East.
Potential Troublemakers- Wizards, Bucks
The Wizards are without John Wall for likely another month at least. Losing Wall hurts, but developing confidence for some of the bench guys in his absence could help the team in the long-run. We know the starting five is good (+6.4 net rating in 446 minutes), but the bench will be the key. As it has been for the past several years with this group.
Milwaukee’s offense (10th, 107.2) and defense (14th, 105.6) are right around where they need to be to be considered as a potential contender. They’ve really put it together lately, going 9-2 since they fired Jason Kidd. The line-up of Bledsoe, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Giannis, and John Henson is one of the best high usage (379 minutes) units in the league posting a +15 net rating and a 99.6 defensive rating.
Potential Playoff Teams- Pacers, Sixers, Heat, Pistons
I’ll admit, the Pacers have far exceeded my expectations this season. Victor Oladipo has blossomed in a lead role back in the state where he played college ball and as a result, Indiana has posted a Top 10 offensive rating (108.4, 6th). The defense (17th, 106.5) needs to improve, but they could present some problems.
Philly’s play this season has been up-and-down as expected from a young team. They also have the Markelle Fultz story overshadowing some of the on-court play. But, the Sixers are in the 7th spot, posting the league’s 3rd-best defensive rating (102.6) and a league average offensive rating (105.4). They’re young, and Embiid is clearly the key (his on/off splits are nuts) but, this team will be fun to watch down the stretch.
Miami’s offense has been it’s Achilles heel this season, posting a bottom 10 rating on that end (103.1), worse than the Hawks, Knicks and Nets. But, the defense (104.4, 8th) has kept them afloat.
The Pistons got a brief spark out of the Blake Griffin trade winning four straight, but then they lost three in a row before winning their final game before the break. The rollercoaster needs to straighten out more to make the playoffs.
Kick the Tank into high gear- Hornets, Knicks, Bulls, Nets, Magic, Hawks
See the paragraph in the Western Conference category above. Time to kick back, watch the youngsters play, and see what the lottery odds bring.