As the NBA season approaches halfway, we take stock of what we’ve learnt so far, and what we can expect in the second half of the campaign.
The Raps have been sensational so far this season, boasting the best record in the league and looking every bit like title contenders since trading for Kawhi Leonard in the off-season. New coach Nick Nurse has seemingly revamped the way Toronto plays ball, and a trip to the NBA Finals could well be on the cards.
Behind emerging superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have been red-hot to start the season. They have the best points differential (+9.5) in the NBA – a full 3.3 points ahead of their nearest challenger – and their 117.7 points per game is also an NBA-best mark. Defence wins championships, but the Bucks are going to be a handful for any side.
The Pacers are right in the thick of things again, sneaking up on their much-fancied opponents. Their roster is deep and talented, and they are the best defensive team in the NBA with just 101.9 points allowed per contest. A healthy Victor Oladipo and continued improvement from the likes of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis could see them feature deep in the playoffs.
It’s been toughh to get a read on Philly at times, but after a slow start to the season they are right where they need to be. An NBA-best 17-3 home record and a trio of legitimate superstars in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler should make them a tough cover for any team, with Simmons and Butler in particular forming a dangerous partnership already.
The Celtics have been a little underwhelming to date, but there is plenty of improvement still to come and the famous franchise will be right there when the whips are cracking. Gordon Hayward is starting to show glimpses of his former self after last year’s horrific broken leg, while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are adjusting to their new roles after having to step up and be the stars in the 2018 playoffs.
In The Playoff Picture
The Heat have fought back well after a slow start and will fancy their chances of making the playoffs in a shallow East. A 9-11 home record will need to be improved on as the season rolls on, while consistency has been another issue.
The Nets have been somewhat of a surprise packet and have put themselves in the playoff hunt. Spencer Dinwiddie has been exceptional off the bench, while Jarrett Allen is an exciting prospect at both ends of the floor.
Two words: Kemba Walker. The superstar guard has been super-human this season and has put his Hornets in the playoff picture. Can he drag Buzz City into the post-season?
The Pistons have two stars in Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin but lack depth around them, so it’s no secret that their fortunes this season depend on how the duo performs.
Another surprise packet so far has been the Magic, behind Nikola Vucevic’s dominance inside the paint. Exciting times for Magic fans, regardless of whether they feature in the playoffs this year.
Dwight Howard strikes again. The Wizards are the latest to succumb to the Howard curse, looking more like a lottery team than a contender at times this season. Remarkably they remain just four losses outside of the playoffs at this stage.
Headed For The Lottery
Another team on the rise is the Hawks, with the likes of Trae Young and John Collins leaving fans salivating. Their NBA-worst 117.6 points conceded per game is something that needs work, but that will come.
New York (10-30)
The Knicks didn’t have much expectation for this season with prodigy Kristaps Porzingis out long-term, and that’s where they have landed. Rookie Kevin Knox looks like a star of the future.
The Bulls have been a mess this season. The firing of Fred Hoiberg in December was never going to solve anything, while troubled recruit Jabari Parker has been left out of the rotation by new coach Jim Boylen. Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen will excite Bulls fans for years to come.
LeBron has left the Cavs in tatters again, with All-Star Kevin Love on the sidelines for much of the year only making things worse. The mid-season return of Aussie Matthew Dellavadova, who was part of the Cavs’ breakthrough championship in 2016, was a bright spot in an otherwise dull season so far.
The Nuggets are somewhat surprise leaders of the West but look every bit the title contender. Nikola Jokic is fast becoming a top 10 NBA player (if he’s not already there), Jamal Murray will be a star point guard for years to come, and Denver’s depth is strong. A 16-3 record at home in Colorado makes them a tough proposition in a playoff series too.
Golden State (26-14)
The Warriors were $1.60 title favourites in the pre-season (and are still around that mark) but it’s been a bumpy road to date. Injuries to Steph Curry and Draymond Green made things tough early on, while DeMarcus Cousins is yet to take the court for his new side. The worrying sign now is that everyone is healthy bar Cousins and they are still leaking losses, including an unprecedented three straight defeats on their home floor. How will ‘Boogie’ fit into their lineup?
Oklahoma City (25-14)
The Thunder started 0-4 while Russell Westbrook was out injured, but have since motored along to sit third in the congested Western conference. Paul George is having an MVP calibre season and the Thunder have the best points differential in the West with +5.8.
Los Angeles Clippers (23-16)
The Clips would have to be the surprise packet of the year so far, defying expectations to be occupying the 4-seed in the West. Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris have led the first unit superbly, while Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell have kept things ticking over off the bench, making the Clippers a deep and balanced squad that can do some damage.
The Rockets sit fifth after a disastrous start to the campaign and a spate of injuries to their stars. Chris Paul remains out with a hamstring injury, while Eric Gordon is also missing, making the Rockets’ recovery to be 22-16 nothing short of remarkable. We’re unsure if James Harden is man or machine at this point, with the MVP favourite unstoppable. Clint Capela has been in beast mode as well.
San Antonio (24-17)
It’s hard to know what to expect of the Spurs this season, but so far they seem to be tracking nicely for a shot at the big boys in the post-season. With coach Pop in the driver’s seat and DeMar DeRozan giving them a scoring punch that was lacking last year with Kawhi Leonard out, there’s no telling how far San Antonio can go in this year’s playoffs.
The Blazers are in contention for another year, sitting just a game outside the top four at the moment. Damien Lillard continues to hit big shot after big shot, while Jusuf Nurkic has taken his game to another level this year, highlighted by his recent 20-20 AND 5×5 stat line – 24 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals and 5 blocks.
In The Playoff Picture
Los Angeles Lakers (22-19)
The city of LA was buzzing as LeBron James made his way to the Staples Centre in the American summer, and until he injured his groin on Christmas Day things were going very well for the young Lakers. A 3-7 record in their past 10 outings has them on the brink of the playoff seedings and no doubt praying for King James to have a speedy recovery.
The Jazz have overcome a slow start of their own to get back in the playoff race. After a successful 2017/18 campaign, anything other than at least a playoff berth would be a major disappointment for the franchise.
The Kings have been another side that has surprised so far, only just falling below .500 recently. It’s little wonder both De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are being touted as potential Most Improved Players.
The ‘Wolves have been a touch disappointing, with off-court drama hurting them as well. Controversial star Jimmy Butler was traded to Philly after falling out with his teammates and coach Tom Thibodeau was fired early in the new year. They have the talent, with Karl-Anthony Towns developing into a monster, but where they finish is still anyone’s guess at this stage.
New Orleans (19-22)
Anthony Davis has been enormous this season but a few injury worries and a lack of help has the Pelicans languishing outside the top eight. It’s a tight league and they aren’t done with yet, but will need to start stringing a few road wins together on the back of their MVP candidate.
It’s a case of home versus away for the Mavericks, who are 15-4 in their own gym but just 3-18 away from Dallas. Luka Doncic is going to tear the league apart for at least the next decade.
The Grizzlies are an interesting case. They haven’t quite been the pushovers they were expected to be in the pre-season, but are now starting to fall away a little bit and will need to find another gear as the season wears on.
Headed For The Lottery
The only team out of playoffs contention in the West. Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton will lead a brigade of young stars for years to come, but they have a little growing up to do just yet.
James Harden (Houston)
Harden is the popular choice right now after a string of performances that need to be seen to be believed.
He’s in the midst of a 13-game streak of 30+ points, which includes six over 40 (including an NBA record five straight) and a 50-point triple-double to kick off the stretch. That was just one of four trip-dubs in that time as well.
Houston’s slightly worse-than-expected record will count against him but the Rockets are getting back to their best and time is still on their side.
Giannis Antetokoumpo (Milwaukee)
The heir to the throne is the Greek Freak. The 6’10” point-forward has got it all – except a reliable jumper. That doesn’t matter if you can get to the rim and finish through contact like he does. With averages of 26.5ppg, 12.6rpg, 6.1apg, 1.3spg and 1.6bpg – and a ridiculous 59% from the field – it’s scary to think what the 24-year-old can do for the next 10 years.
The Bucks’ impressive record only helps his cause in claiming the highest individual honour in the NBA, and if they continue to win games then he will be every chance of taking home the trophy at season’s end.
Kawhi Leonard (Toronto)
The best two-way player in the game has come back with a bang this season after missing much of 2017/18. Leonard has led his Raptors to the best record in the league and is absolutely on fire at both ends, averaging 27.2ppg, 7.9rpg, 3apg and 1.8spg, all while shooting 50% from the field.
The former Finals MVP is still only 27 and looks to have some improvement left in him. He’s the best player on the best team in the league at the moment, and his individual numbers stack up.
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
Curry is always in the MVP conversation. The Warriors struggle when he’s out and seem to be much better when he’s playing, for a start. That’s before you look at the numbers – 29.4ppg, 5.1rpg and 5.2apg while shooting 45% from beyond the arc.
He will finish up his career as the greatest ever shooter in the NBA and would be a worthy recipient of another MVP award. Right now he’s probably on the outside looking in, however.
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)
Embiid is now widely regarded as the best centre in the league at just 24 years of age. The big man has been a beast inside for Philly this season, averaging 26.9ppg, 13.5rpg and 3.5apg while swatting shots at a rate of 1.9bpg at the other end. Embiid has a tendency to fade out of games in the second half after a hot start, but if the Sixers keep on winning games then the Cameroonian will have a legitimate claim to the MVP throne.
Paul George (Oklahoma City)
George has been much-maligned in recent years but has taken his game to another level this year, which is great to see following the broken leg at he suffered at Team USA training camp. The Thunder’s strong record, combined with PG’s averages of 26.8ppg, 8rpg, 4apg and 2.2spg. If his team keeps winning and he keeps playing at the level he is, George’s name will certainly be featuring prominently at season’s end.
LeBron James’ Lakers are trying to keep their head above .500 and the all-time great is injured, so he’s probably not quite in the race at the minute. Anthony Davis has the numbers but not the winning record with his Pelicans, while being apart of the stacked Warriors will likely count against Kevin Durant. The ever-improving Nikola Jokic could make a run at the trophy if the Nuggets keep up their winning ways.
Rookie Of The Year
Luka Doncic (Dallas)
The Slovenian Wonderkid has exceeded his already-lofty expectations so far in his rookie season. The numbers are impressive – 19.4ppg, 6.7rpg and 4.9apg while shooting 37% from deep – but it’s the way he plays and the moves he puts on opponents that has seen him streak clear in the race for Rookie of the Year. For now, the award is Doncic’s to lose.
DeAndre Ayton (Phoenix)
If anyone is going to challenge Doncic, it will be Ayton. The number one overall pick has been huge in first year, averaging a double-double with 16.7ppg and 10.7rpg while shooting at a whopping 61% from the field. Super impressive numbers for a rookie big man in a league full of men, and there is no doubt Ayton will be dominant for years to come.
Trae Young (Atlanta)
Young started the season on fire but has slowed down significantly since. That said, the young Hawk is not out of the race for ROTY at the mid-way point just yet. His numbers are solid, posting 15.4ppg, 2.9rpg and 7.4apg, but it’s his shooting that has let him down as the season has worn on. Young is going at just 39% from the field and 29% from deep, which would need to improve if he is to snaffle the award.
The NBA season has hit it’s halfway point but there’s still plenty of action to come.
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