Whether it’s luck, ignorance or a blessing (or a combination of all three), the National Basketball Association has played the first half of the 2020-2021 season despite COVID problems. Unlike last year’s first half analysis, death of significant figures hasn’t lingered. However, issues such as league parity have grown and will need to be addressed in the offseason/second half.
Here’s what we’ve learned throughout the first half of this year’s NBA regular season.
Last year there was no clear winner for Coach of the Year. This year there’s no clear winner for League MVP.
Giannis Antetokounmpo decisively won MVP the past two years, but it’s unlikely by audiences and analysts alike he’ll win it this year. Outside of this thinking, the choices are muddled. 38 year old LeBron James and Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid are the top considerations for the award, but they’re not the only names who should be in the running. Without Stephen Curry, the Warriors would be the worst team in the league. Golden State is in the race for the eighth seed because of Curry.
Bradley Beal should be the other name in this category. The Wizards, like the Warriors, should be the dregs of the league especially after John Wall was traded to Houston. They aren’t because Beal’s 32.9 PPG, 4.8 APG and 1.4 Stl. per game have kept Washington sub .500.
Whoever of the four wins league MVP will deserve the award. It’s worth wondering if the award could be split since there’s no clear choice.
The Houston exodus benefitted everyone except the Rockets
The Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets are neck and neck in the Atlantic division, but they both have prominent members in their organizations who were with the Houston Rockets last season. Daryl Morey is the president of basketball operations for the Sixers, while James Harden was traded in a blockbuster deal to the Nets. Brooklyn isn’t just the most interesting team to watch, they’re the funnest because of the lack of league parity they use. Harden’s role changes every other night because of who sits out (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving due to whatever).
The Rockets meanwhile have lost 13 straight, dropping to second to last in the western conference. Steve Silas is a good hire, and that showed with how early he handled turmoil at the beginning of the season, but the drop-off was coming and now, it’s a free-fall. At least they have first round draft picks after the season.
For one season, Michael Jordan can shut critics up with his management of the Charlotte Hornets
Something that hasn’t changed the past ten years are the criticisms on how owner Michael Jordan runs the Charlotte Hornets. Much of that criticism is valid, and this past offseason looked no different. Hornets management decided it was a good move to walk away from franchise star Kemba Walker and go after injury prone small forward Gordon Hayward. They added Terry Rozier and drafted LaMelo Ball with the third overall pick in the draft.
All three moves have turned out to be home runs. LaMelo Ball will probably win rookie of the year, while Hayward and Rozier are the top scorers and defenders. While they’re in second place in the worst division in basketball, they might make the the playoffs as the eighth seed, possibly facing Philadelphia in the first round. Even if they lose that round, the future is bright and there are good cornerstones to build on.
Now for what each of the 30 teams can do to improve upon or keep doing right the remainder of this season.
Atlanta: If Lloyd Pierce was fired because the Hawks blew over 11 fourth quarter leads, then that was the right move. Looks like there’s one team in Georgia that wants a divorce from giving wins away.
Boston: Brad Stevens has to give Tacko Fall more minutes. Daniel Theis the starting power forward trails Fall in both blocked shots and field goal percentage. Theis is in his third year and the only constant is Boston’s need for a big man. It wouldn’t be bad to move on from Kemba Walker midseason. He’s not helping the team as much as was anticipated.
Brooklyn: The Nets have held under five teams to under 100 points five times this year, but three were last month and two of those were in two weeks before March. If they can hold four teams to under 100 in March (looking at their schedule it’s likely), we could see a dangerous and almost complete Brooklyn squad heading into the playoffs.
Charlotte: Strangely, there are talks of trading Terry Rozier for additional players. Charlotte shouldn’t move Rozier for someone unless they know what they’re getting is better. This is a team that can and should sneak into the playoffs, then keep building in the offseason.
Chicago: The Bulls are where a lot of people expected them to be: finding good rhythm at the right time. Coach Billy Donovan will still needs more than a season to implement his system, but the Bulls are much better than last year.
Cleveland: After their hot start, they’ve lost enough games to be the third worst team in the East. With rookie guards and some positive center depth, they could use some forwards this offseason and shop Kevin Love. Their re-build has to be thorough.
Dallas: Stunning how they didn’t start the season better, but it could be how much Kristaps Porzingis was missed. If he and Luka Doncic finish the season healthy, the Mavericks won’t have too much to address outside of bench depth.
Denver: Unlike the past few seasons where they’ve dominated the first halves of regular games, the Nuggets are adapting and seem to want better production heading into the playoffs. They’re learning lessons from past postseason failures. Rookie backup shooting guard Facundo Campazzo and second year center Isaiah Hartenstein will be tested when that time comes.
Detroit: They finally reached double digit wins. Hurray. Now to pressing matters. Dwane Casey has to go. The roster and the Pistons have gotten worse in his tenure. Granted there are five rookies and notable players injured, but what can we say during Casey’s tenure that we like what he’s done?
Golden State: It might be time to let Steve Kerr go. There’s no ill-will towards Kerr or anger now that the Warriors aren’t in the Finals anymore. The Warriors have lost three games they should have won against Orlando, Charlotte and last night Portland. That’s on coaching especially when those losses occur after double digit leads. It leads to quick exits in the playoffs.
Houston: P.J. Tucker and Victor Oladipo figured out early there’s no reason to stay with the Rockets for a full re-build. This will be a long second-half season for the franchise. Steve Silas is a great coach to keep moving forward. He just came in at a conflicting time.
Indiana: Coach Nate Bjorkgren is a clear downgrade from Nate McMillan, and they traded away Victor Oladipo to the Rockets in the blockbuster James Harden trade. If self-sabotage is the goal they’re doing great.
Los Angeles Clippers: Didn’t think Tyronn Lue would be this good coaching the Clippers, but it’s a pleasant surprise. Outside of playing the Lakers, the team still struggles to beat quality opponents on a consistent basis, especially when Paul George plays a lot of minutes. Despite the upgrade at coach, keep watch of how well the Clippers perform in the postseason.
Los Angeles Lakers: The only knock against this team is Frank Vogel’s unwillingness to learn offense. As we’ve seen since Anthony Davis’ injury, the Laker offense is anemic if he’s not on the court starting. Dennis Schroder was a great point-guard pickup while Wesley Matthews has run out of gas just like Danny Green did last year.
Memphis: They’ll need to fill out the roster more (especially bench depth), but pending a second half collapse, they’ve shown improvement this year. Taylor Jenkins was a great hire for this franchise.
Miami: The Heat’s March schedule is the kindest of the first three in 2021. The clear favorite in the pitiful Southeast division, they’ve found their groove the longer the season’s continued. Just like the Chicago Bulls, this is where we expected them to be.
Milwaukee: With very few changes made even to the defense, it’s inevitable Mike Budenholzer will get the boot at the end of the year. If the Bucks get a great option at coach this offseason (because they will be bounced out of the playoffs), they’ll take the next steps towards winning a championship.
Minnesota: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Timberwolves are one of those two teams.
New Orleans: Since that awful start to the season, the Pelicans have gone 10-10. They’ll have another good start to March, but the second half would be easier if they weren’t climbing out of the western conference hole. Disappointing too with the roster that’s been constructed.
New York: Truly unexpected. Tom Thibodeau has coached the Knicks to the fifth seed in the East. While they need depth at center behind Nerlens Noel, forwards RJ Barrett and Julius Randle are pushing the team forward. The addition of Derrick Rose helps at point-guard and helps the team believe more in Thibodeau’s defense-first philosophy.
Oklahoma City: Fans and analysts didn’t expect much of the Thunder this year. They’re only better than the Rockets and Timberwolves in the west, but it’s free-agency and the draft that will show how well the Thunder make their moves.
Orlando: If the New York Knicks are the pleasant surprise, this is the downtrodden disappointment. Dead last in field goal percentage, they’ve cratered due to injuries involving Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz, and Aaron Gordon. One of the few times we’re left wondering if a team will trade or cut players at the end of the season or bring everyone back. It’s a franchise changing decision.
Philadelphia: Doc Rivers has made the 76ers a much more disciplined and better team on the court. It’s important for them to win the number one seed in the East since the Brooklyn Nets could be the better team at home in the post-season. Point guard Ben Simmons has to improve scoring in the second half and heading into the playoffs.
Phoenix: Nick Nurse did deserve to win the coach of the year award last year, but Monty Williams could’ve won it too. The big addition the Suns made was bringing in Chris Paul, a former Williams player who helped the New Orleans Hornets to multiple playoff berths. The Suns should be able to make the playoffs, but it’s important they keep pushing this season to get the best seed possible. The Suns have a shot at knocking out some good teams in the playoffs thanks to their quality leadership.
Portland: If you’ve listened to any of the sports shows I’ve recorded or aired in the past few months, you’re familiar with a topic I brought up to my partner Wesley Woods about the Trailblazers, leading to a thought-provoking conversation. Portland had one of the worst defenses in the league before CJ McCollum injured his left foot. Since that injury, the Trailblazers have ascended to the fifth seed in the west and look much better on defense.
It’s not that Damian Lillard and McCollum can’t play well together. They’ve shown great chemistry for years. However, one has to wonder if McCollum could be the leader of the second string behind the starters. It would help the Blazers preserve most of their leads and would be a problem for playoff contending teams to try and match up against. It probably won’t happen, but it’s something coach Terry Stotts should consider heading into the playoffs.
Sacramento Kings: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Kings are the second of those two teams.
San Antonio: Despite news of COVID scares, the Spurs haven’t been talked about much this season. That is surprising since they have a better record than both Nicola Jokic’s Nuggets and Doncic’s Mavericks. The chances for them making the playoffs are 50/50 but they’re re-building faster than most people thought.
Toronto: Nick Nurse can only do so much with a depleted roster and the team re-locating to Tampa for the season. While the Raptors are in last place in the Atlantic, they’re the eighth seed if the postseason started. They’re one of the few teams who could make excuses this season but aren’t. That’s something to feel good about when they’re knocked out of contention.
Utah: In order for this team to show they’ve taken the next few steps in winning a championship, they need to win a series against a quality opponent in the playoffs. The Jazz blew a lead and lost in overtime to the Philadelphia 76ers after splitting their Florida and Los Angeles Clippers series. Considering Utah is the best team in the NBA record-wise, this isn’t a good look. If they draw a team like Dallas or Denver in the first round, the smart money goes to those two teams until the Jazz prove otherwise.
Washington: As was stated after last year’s first half analysis, Scott Brooks has to get the axe in D.C. Bradley Beal is a worthy candidate for Most Valuable Player this year. Sadly, it’s being wasted on a team that should be vying for the number one pick. The Wizards need to trade Beal and acquire a fortune to rebuild right after the season.