What a fun first half of the season. Most stadiums have fans in full attendance back. The incumbent champion Milwaukee Bucks sit in third place in their division behind two teams who haven’t made the playoffs since last decade. While the MVP race is down to three players, coaching and managing is more important than ever. The second half is set up for a fun and intense finish.
Here’s what we’ve learned throughout the first half of this year’s NBA regular season.
The East is Milwaukee or Miami’s to lose
Brooklyn this, Philadelphia that. Let the big boys get their credit. The Bucks got better at the trade deadline acquiring Serge Ibaka from Los Angeles. This is Ibaka’s best chance to win a second championship before retirement. For anyone wondering, the trio of Giannis-Middleton-Holiday are much better this year than last.
If there’s any team that can take Milwaukee out, the Heat have the best chance. Miami plays most of their second half at home. Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker are great compliments to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Their defense bests all but a handful of teams in the NBA.
Treatment of Nate McMillan came back to bite the Pacers where it hurts
Remember when Indianapolis thought coach Nate McMillan couldn’t win playoff series and fired him after four seasons? Turns out the Pacers were wrong in every department. Since McMillan’s firing, the Pacers are 54-78 with two coaches and no playoff appearances.
It gets better. Indianapolis traded most of their talent because the roster reached its max potential. They unloaded Torrey Craig to Phoenix, Caris LeVert to Cleveland, Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Justin Holiday to Sacramento and cut Tristan Thompson (who’s now in Chicago). Earlier this week it was reported Myles Turner could be moved when the season ends.
The Pacers can drone on about young talent and re-tooling, but it’s obvious this is a re-build. Sabonis was the star but Indianapolis went as far as he could take them. There’s no big name in the Hoosier State that impresses better teams like Chicago or Milwaukee. At least Atlanta’s in a better position with coach McMillan.
While they’re still cubs, Memphis will be big, bad bears in a few years
The Grizzlies hired the right coach in Taylor Jenkins and drafted the right players. The development of not just Ja Morant, but Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke provide a core that will be tough and nasty on defense while prolific on offense. Memphis is number one in rebounds and tied for first in points scored per game, winning 41 of their 82 games the first half of the season.
The Grizzlies need to take the next step and win a playoff series or two to be considered a true contender. While the west will be determined by Phoenix and Golden State, Memphis plays a pivotal part in who advances to the second round and conference finals. No matter what, they’ll be fun to watch.
The Top 30: Time for one view for each team. The view can range from improvement to an easier transition during the second half of the season.
Atlanta: The Hawks came a long way from last season’s All-Star break. While they’re not out of the play-in race, one wonders if they can beat anyone besides Toronto. If Brooklyn ascends back into the top five, the Hawks have a better chance of getting the seventh or eighth seed. They have to improve defensively if that’s to happen.
Boston: Despite a nine game winning streak, Boston’s sixth in the east with Toronto a game and a half back. Brooklyn’s earlier spiral hasn’t stopped Celtics criticism. Brad Stevens should’ve been let go before Ainge left.
Brooklyn: Lost in the Ben Simmons-James Harden trade is the Nets’ acquisition of Seth Curry. Curry can play point-guard much better than Simmons in home games while transitioning into a reliable shooting-guard on the road. Philadelphia may regret that part of the trade, but it won’t mean anything if the Nets crater in the playoffs.
Charlotte: On one hand the Hornets are one of the funnest teams to watch and revitalize interest from casual viewers. On the other, they’re stuck in a play-in situation despite tying with Memphis scoring the most points per game. The Hornets are a young team so they’ll get a pass this season, but keep this in mind if they’re in the same position next year.
Chicago: DeMar DeRozan is in the regular season MVP talk regardless of what fans and analysts think of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. Look at where the Bulls are in the standings, their schedule and statistics and reason how he couldn’t be.
Cleveland: Last year the Cavaliers had a hot start but faded quick. Management found the right players to add in the offseason signing Lauri Markkanen and acquiring Caris LeVert at the trade deadline. Cleveland’s a top five team in the east because they’re building the right way. That’s something Boston could learn from.
Dallas: The trading of Kristaps Porzingis to Washington highlights an ail: there’s no number two player behind Luka Doncic. Mavericks management is succeeding in self-sabotage.
Denver: Nikola Jokic is having another MVP caliber season but it won’t matter since point guard is again a long-term issue. There’s still time for the Nuggets to make the right moves after the season, but Jokic should have input on who to add.
Detroit: While a lot of talk is on Cade Cunningham’s solid rookie season, Jerami Grant’s positioned himself to be a key player in the Pistons rebuild. You never want to see rookies be alone in a team’s ascent, but you don’t expect a player in his seventh year in the league to be the team’s leading scorer either.
Golden State: If the Warriors don’t end up in the finals or conference finals, it’s because general manager Bob Myers didn’t trade for a center/big man. It’ll be more painful if the Bucks repeat because of their trade for Serge Ibaka, a player who would’ve fit in coach Steve Kerr’s system.
Houston: Coach Steve Silas deserves better and should get another opportunity to coach a talented team when the Rockets move on. They’re the Miami Dolphins of the NBA.
Indiana: The wildest of the Pacers’ moves was firing Nate Bjorkgren in favor of Rick Carlisle, who stepped down in Dallas to re-evaluate where to go next in his career. Indianapolis is tearing down for a full re-build, but why hire a coach who’s won a championship when you can stick with the coach you had before and have a possibly better draft position? Front office doesn’t appear to know what they’re doing.
Los Angeles Clippers: Tyronn Lue’s an upgrade at coach. You read that right. He’s surpassed Doc Rivers’ coaching last decade. No Kawhi Leonard or Paul George and the Clippers got better at the trade deadline at the eighth spot. Lue is coach of the year and the Clippers could be championship bound next season.
Los Angeles Lakers: While the team is unwatchable and underwhelming, it’s horrifying to watch how Anthony Davis has regressed after winning a 2020 bubble championship ring. One has to wonder how much he has left after this season.
Memphis: One of the key trades general manager Zachary Kleiman made was with New Orleans last season, bringing in Steven Adams. Adams is one of, if not the strongest center in the league yet doesn’t lash out at opponents. He’s the right mentor to players such as Morant and Bane.
Miami: Eerily similar to last year’s first half analysis. Both the Heat and Bulls are managed well and are the top two seeds in the east. Despite the schedule being closer to home, they’ll be tested when the second half hits with games against the Knicks, San Antonio, Chicago, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Houston and Phoenix. If they come out of those games with at least five wins, that’ll be a problem for the rest of the east.
Milwaukee: If you ever want to know how slim the margin for success can be in the NBA playoffs, look no further than last year’s analysis of the Bucks. If Kevin Durant’s foot is behind the three-point line in game seven’s second round playoffs, Mike Budenholzer is not coaching in Wisconsin, there’s no championship, and the Bucks aren’t the favorite to repeat. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging under 30 points a game and the defense is much better, all while Brooklyn’s been hit or miss. Sports is a strange world.
Minnesota: Continuing with the strange world of sports, the Timberwolves are in the bottom half of the league in field goal and three point percentage but are top five in points scored. They’re three wins over .500 and find ways to win games. Even if they’re in the play-in round, that’s a sign they can get past two of the other three teams.
New Orleans: How big was the Zion Williamson pick? If his career continues with injury problems, the NBA has to decide if the team needs to be sold or be under league protection. It could be a failure of epic proportions.
New York: Like last year, truly unexpected. There aren’t words to describe their season outside of wild.
Oklahoma City: The Thunder have their guard duo in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. Now they need to figure out who their forwards and centers will be. With draft picks and money to spend, they’ll be interesting to watch the next few years.
Orlando: Despite a hard schedule in February, the Magic’s first three games after the All-Star break are against the Rockets and a double-header versus Indiana. All three games are at home. This will tell us where in the re-build Orlando is.
Philadelphia: Joel Embiid may be the front-runner for MVP this season but the Sixers need to find other players who can score. James Harden’s debut should help but Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey need to step up.
Phoenix: Despite a historic season, the Suns will be the most relieved if the Golden State Warriors fall out of the playoffs before the conference finals. Back in 1976, the Suns dethroned the top seeded Warriors in seven, but lost in the finals. While it’s been almost fifty years, the Warriors would love to return the favor, especially since they lead the regular season series two games to one.
Portland: Blazers and Seattle Seahawk fans are interested in what Portland does this offseason. C.J. McCollum’s trade to New Orleans was shocking on a lot of levels, and it could be a warning that a re-build is coming. Seahawk fans have dealt with news headaches regarding trades with Russell Wilson, but their coach Pete Carroll said re-tooling the team could take a few years. Management is planning something and no one knows what’s in store.
Sacramento: There are 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 one of those teams.
San Antonio: It’s clear coach Gregg Popovich wants the all-time wins record. The Spurs have nothing else going and the roster is in worse shape than Oklahoma City’s.
Toronto: Most underrated team all season. Third in the Atlantic division and seventh in the east. Again, Nick Nurse should be in the coach of the year conversation, because how else would a team in the bottom five in shooting percentage be primed for a playoff run?
Utah: Despite blowing a win to the Lakers, the Jazz recovered well in February, losing only that game. Their play in March will show us how legitimate a contender they are.
Washington: The Wizards went from a hot 20 win start to having jokes made about David Duke Jr. dunk on them. That’s the current state of the franchise.