A look at where we stand headed into the second half
The NBA has reached its halfway mark and the stretch run begins. First is the grind to the All-Star break and then the (rumored-but-rarely-real) chaos of the trade deadline. Then teams have to get themselves together for a real playoff push. We have a lot of ground to cover: This has been anything but a boring season.
Here’s a look at 10 awesome things to know about the NBA season so far:
1. This season is bonkers in terms of watchability
Let’s start with this. Here’s how many 30-point, 40-point and triple-double performances we’ve seen this year relative to the previous four seasons:
That’s a 50 percent increase year over year in 30-point performances, and nearly a 250 percent increase since 2013 in triple-doubles. Granted, most of that is Russell Westbrook and James Harden alone, but the fact remains, we’ve never seen a season where every single night, there’s not just one, but several incredible individual performances.
The pachyderm in the room is that this trend comes in the wake of the league changing its schedule to reduce back to backs and travel and increase rest. It leaves you to wonder what we could have seen if the league office had made these changes sooner. But it also shows that their efforts are paying off and the players are responding.
It’s not just the individual stuff, either. The games themselves are well-played. We’re short on terrible teams and long on inconsistent middle-ground teams. You can think of it as mediocrity, but the great teams are truly great, the “meh” teams are alright and the bad teams are not terribly awful. There’s more ball movement, more dynamic offense, less hero ball and more heroics.
There are great narratives, too. You know the two big ones in each conference (and we’ll get to those), but the Spurs and Rockets look like world-beaters in their own rights, on pace for 60-plus wins, the Raptors look even better than last season (despite a recent swoon) and young players all over — from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Nikola Jokic to Joel Embiid — are making huge leaps.
It has been fun.
2. This is the best MVP race since …
Since 2009 when it was LeBron James battling Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade? Since 2013 with James trying to out do Kevin Durant, who shot 50-40-90 that season? Since 2014 when Durant finally toppled James? Since 2015 when James Harden won the player vote as Steph Curry won his first?
Maybe further back? Maybe Olajuwon-Robinson? Maybe Jordan-Shaq? Bird-Magic?
Harden and Russell Westbrook are putting together seasons that are really hard to wrap your head around. The Beard is averaging 29-12-8, while Westbrook boasts a mind-numbing 31-11-10. Westbrook was tagged with crazy expectations in preseason, like “Maybe he’ll flirt with averaging a triple-double.” Here he is, halfway through the season, doing it. Harden has taken his efficiency to a new level and has guided the Rockets to a top-three spot in the brutal Western Conference.
Oh, hey, and while those two are the front-runners, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard is shooting an unearthly percentage in every playset imaginable while leading San Antonio to a 36-9 record. James is putting in another one of his gonzo years, Isaiah Thomas is a tiny flamethrower and I haven’t even mentioned the best player on the best team, Durant, who is having the most complete season of his career for the Warriors.
Right now I’m giving Harden the nod. For taking his game to a new level, for becoming even just-not-terrible on defense. For being the kind of playmaker most guys of his scoring stature never dream of. For leading the Rockets’ renaissance and doing it without another star on his team. For his efficiency, which is better than Westbrook’s. Harden has to get the nod for now. But all of these players are worthy. This season is not “we have to give it to someone.” It’s “we want to give it to all these guys but only one can win.”
I’ll give it to Harden, but cannot wait to see how this race plays out.
3. The league is stratified in a fascinating way between teams that make total sense and teams that are completely guano insane
Here’s a graphic to help explain this, via a popular meme:
The Spurs are order and discipline, every player is selfless and plays within the system. The Warriors are brash and thrive in chaotic transition environments. The Rockets are launching deeper 3s than you would expect and eschewing layups for them.
The Wizards play tough defense built around athleticism with only one true big. The Hawks are built around Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, a traditional front court. The Knicks are best with Kristaps Porzingis at the 5 but never play him there. The Wolves have two shooting guards. The Mavericks are veterans, crafty and smart, but struggle to move without the benefit of a support apparatus. The Cavaliers are LeBron and a zillion shooters with Tristan Thompson crashing the glass. The Sixers are Joel Embiid and some dudes.
There’s a diversity of approaches in this league. For all the fear that the league would become homogenized with the rise of the Warriors’ 3-point dominance, we’re seeing every team take a different approach to the puzzle. Some are inventive and some are boring and some are just plain nonsensical, but the result is a league where you get something different out of every matchup.
4. The invincible teams are vincible
Yes, the Warriors and Cavaliers are worlds better than most of the teams in their conferences, and yes, the most likely outcome is a rubber match between the two best teams in the NBA Finals. But the Cavaliers are suddenly a bottom-five team in defensive rebound percentage, turning one of their big strengths into a weakness.
The Spurs have the record and stats to show they are another dominant squad, but the starting unit has struggled to defend and there continue to be questions about whether Leonard can carry them when things get tough in a playoff series.
The Warriors have lost twice to the Grizzlies, and have losses to Houston, San Antonio and Cleveland. They have struggled in the clutch and while their defensive metrics are superb, you don’t watch them and feel that they are a juggernaut that cannot be stopped or a torture puzzle that cannot be solved. They are the best team in the league, no doubt, but there are cracks in the pavement, just enough to keep it interesting.
5. Coach of the Year might be as fierce as MVP race
Mike D’Antoni is talked about as the favorite, for transforming the moribund Rockets to the most exciting team in the league, and they’re on pace for 58-plus wins to boot. But as Zach Lowe spoke about this week on his podcast, the Spurs have an audacious record and on top of Tim Duncan’s retirement, they’re pulling this off with previous no-name contributors.
If it wasn’t for the revelation of the Rockets, or the consistency of the Spurs, Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder might well be in line. The Jazz aren’t just better than last season, they’re on track for 50 wins. Or there’s Brad Stevens, whose Celtics are a top-three team in the East. Or how about Tyronn Lue for steadying the Cavaliers’ ship? Or Steve Kerr for seamlessly integrating Kevin Durant?
If you want the best coach, Gregg Popovich has the résumé. If you want the team to make the biggest jump, there’s D’Antoni. You can make an argument for a lot of coaches right now, because the teams that are good are really good.
6. Defensive Player of the Year should be a two-man race, and Kawhi should probably be on the outside
Leonard remains the most dominant wing defender in the NBA, probably the best since Scottie Pippen, honestly. But after our post on his conspicuous defensive metrics in December, many thought that it was just small sample size and that it would correct itself.
As of Jan. 25, Leonard still has the highest defensive rating on the Spurs while on the floor, 10 points worse than when he’s on the bench.
Now, as I noted in our post from December, this isn’t about him. Leonard’s numbers individually have rebounded since then; opponents are shooting and scoring worse vs. him on NBA.com’s tracking data and via Synergy Sports. But here’s what it comes down to: As a wing defender, you can put Leonard in quarantine and keep him away from impacting the rest of your offense. You cannot do the same for the other two candidates, Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert.
|Defensive Rating||Defensive rating differential vs. off court||Synergy percentile rank||Opponent FG% against||Opponent FG% differential against|
|Draymond Green||100||3.1 points better||84th||45.7||-4.3|
|Rudy Gobert||99.8||5.2 points better||82nd||48.3||-7.5|
Here’s what this argument essentially comes down to: Do you value elite rim protection that enables the rest of your defense, or hyper-versatility that impacts every possession?
With Gobert behind them, Jazz defenders can play up more and close out on shooters, because they know Gobert is there to deter drives at the rim with his shot-blocking and physical presence. Or you can switch Green onto any offensive player in the league outside of maybe Westbrook and John Wall and he can contain them. Switch him onto a big? He smothers them in the post. Switch him onto a point guard? He pressures them and his quick hands force steals. He can protect the rim, run off shooters, guard the pick and pop or the lob, anything. That versatility makes him arguably the league’s best defender.
But Gobert is just as valuable, and anchors what might be the best overall defense in the league. When fully healthy, which the Jazz never are, they are a torture chamber to score on. They grind you into dust and then snuff you like a cold wind on a candle. All of that is only possible because of Gobert.
Gobert is eighth in rebound percentage, Green is 10th in steal percentage.
In the end, I lean toward Green. The NBA is perimeter oriented now, and while Gobert’s presence enables the Jazz to allow the fewest 3-pointers per game in the NBA, the Warriors lead in opponent 3-point percentage, with opponents shooting 3.6 percent worse at 32 percent vs. Green. The only thing that might give you pause is the same thing that hurts Kevin Durant’s MVP case. If you ask what happens to the Warriors offense if Durant isn’t there, the answer is “it’s great, they have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.” If you ask what happens to the Warriors’ defense if Green’s not there, the answer is “it’s great, they have Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.”
This is going to be a very tough one to decide, and that’s before you get to the matter of Leonard still very likely to pick up a big chunk of votes.
7. The Embiid Show
Joel Embiid is a revelation. Not only is he a runaway winner for Rookie of the Year, despite playing in only 30 games so far and on a minutes restriction of less than 30 a night, but he has single-handedly validated The Process. People (like me) who questioned the pick because of how it elongated their timeline look like idiots and Sam Hinkie looks like a prophet ahead of his time.
Embiid legitimately looks like a future Hall of Famer (if he stays healthy), and the closest thing we’ve seen to Olajuwon since the Dream. Only if the Dream could shoot 3s. And if the Dream tried to use the All-Star Game to get a date with Rihanna.
Players, coaches, even the home team announcers for his opponents have commented on how impressive he is. The kid was a mystery, an unknown, a maybe-never, and now he’s one of the most dominant players in the league, and his story has just begun.
And hey, the rest of the Sixers aren’t so bad, either!
8. There’s no shortage of drama
The Kings were set to implode, with DeMarcus Cousins losing his mind once again, and the team toiling in sub-mediocrity for the billionth year in a row. But after the new CBA meant that they can offer him a $200 million extension next year, all’s right as rain. Except their offense. And their defense. And their record. And his relationship with the local media. And his rapidly diminishing window to be a member of a relevant NBA franchise.
The Knicks (Derrick Rose, specifically) called themselves a super-team to start the season, and truth be told, they’re not half-bad. By that, of course, I mean that their offense is not bad. Their defense is super-bad. But they’re still hanging around in the East playoff picture and staying just alive enough to keep in the conversation. Yet we’ve had Rose go AWOL, Phil Jackson making inappropriate comments about the business associates of Carmelo Anthony’s good friend LeBron James, Jackson calling out Melo for being a ball-stopper, Jackson’s ghostwriter and confidante writing that Melo’s time in New York is growing short, Melo saying if they want him gone they should say that, and then Melo of course telling Jackson he doesn’t want to leave New York, and since he has a no-trade clause, that’s that.
That was a month. One month contained all that. That’s before talking about how Rose said coach Jeff Hornacek should do a better job coaching up the defense, and an under-the-radar bubbling sense that Courtney Lee is absolutely miserable there.
So, basically a typical Knicks year.
The Bulls signed Rajon Rondo in the offseason. He is now rooted to the bench and unhappy about it. Their shooting predictably went off a cliff and none of their young guys look like long-term building blocks. Nikola Mirotic’s trade value is an asteroid hurtling toward a second-round pick. Bobby Portis is barely an NBA player (and I loved Portis going into the draft). And yet the Bulls are also still hanging around that Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Paul George has said he’s not having fun and wishes the fans in Indiana wouldn’t boo, the Cavaliers have made it their life’s mission to troll the Warriors, Marcus Smart is popping off at assistant coaches and the Westbrook-Durant feud is what we all dreamed of.
The NBA is many things. Boring is not one of them.
9. The playoff races are set to be compelling
The eighth seed in the Western Conference is a hazmat zone and teams should be running away from that spot as quickly as possible to avoid being the person tied to the post and sacrificed to the Warriors’ King Kong. But there is a certain degree of interest in seeing if the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Pelicans — each with a young core — can figure out their problems enough to snag a spot, even if they’re under .500 when they do so. Plus, you have the Kings and Blazers looming, and the latter still a threat with two of the best perimeter scorers in the league.
The race for seeds 4-7 in the West looks tight as well. The Clippers can’t get healthy enough to run away with it, and neither can Utah. The Grizzlies and the Thunder are both flawed teams, but their best shot will level any team and they both have wins against the Clippers, Rockets and Jazz this season.
In the East, the Raptors have a chance to catch Cleveland if the Cavs’ woes continue, but they’re facing a challenge for their No. 2 seed from Boston and Atlanta. Then there’s the messy middle in the East. You can look at that and say that none of those teams matter but playoff races are most compelling when it’s teams trying to avoid finding out they’re actually terrible. The Hawks, Hornets, Wizards, Pacers, Bulls, Bucks, Pistons and, yes, the Knicks all have a good team somewhere inside them, but they struggle to find it consistently. It looks like the Hawks and Wizards have figured things out, but they’re also both known to swoon.
These teams will be locked in a tight race all the way through if they stay healthy, and that’s going to make for a rarity: meaningful late March and early April Eastern Conference matchups. Get your popcorn.
Oh, and on the other side, we’re going to see some fun tanking considering how great this draft class projects to be. A reminder, the Lakers, currently with the second-worst record, need to stay in the top three to avoid handing Philadelphia their draft pick.
10. We know where this is going
I’ve long said, the NBA’s ideal playoff world is one where in the end, the two best teams with the biggest stars meet in the Finals, but the road there is as dramatic as possible. The East was a snoozefest and will probably be so again this season, but last season the West saw the Thunder knock off the mighty Spurs and go up 3-1 over the Warriors before what turned out to be the second-most dramatic comeback in NBA playoff history.
We might get the same this season. The Warriors and Cavaliers (despite their recent slump) are the best teams in basketball. They’re going to the NBA Finals, barring injury, and we’re going to get Cavs-Warriors III, this time with Kevin Durant. But if the Celtics or Raptors can make one big trade, if the Spurs can find a formula to slow down the Warriors with enough time to prepare, if the Rockets can actually be the first team to bring more actual firepower than the Warriors, we could see a special postseason.
And if not, we still get the two best teams at the end, with either LeBron’s chance to add his fourth title, overcoming even more odds and gaining even more ground on that ghost of Michael Jordan he says he’s chasing, or the redemption of Golden State’s massive failure last June, plus the coronation of Durant as the league’s best player and finally, an NBA champion.
There’s a lot to love about this season so far.
And we’re just getting started.
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