Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 14:06 PM
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The NBA has delivered the goods thus far in 2018. Isaiah Thomas has debuted, Kyrie Irving got on the board against LeBron James’ Cavs and basketball looks perfectly poised to continue bridging the gap on football as it prepares to take the sports entertainment baton full-time for the next few months.
We’ve had skirmishes, Chris Paul running up the score on Portland and running into locker rooms with posses to confront former teammates, so he's certainly added to the drama. Cleveland is looking vulnerable enough that people are letting their minds wander about other possible finalists out of the East.
With James Harden hoping to return by the end of the week and the Clips going on a run after getting Blake Griffin back to give us a ninth playoff candidate in the Western Conference, there are interesting story lines developing beyond Stephen Curry’s ankle injuries.
Following Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Day upset of the Raptors, every team has now reached the halfway point of the season, playing at least 41 games. Here’s a breakdown of how they’ve done and what’s to come:
Atlanta: The Hawks need to play John Collins more. The 20-year-old rookie has had his minutes restricted for most of the season, surpassing 29 minutes only twice. In those games, losses to the Spurs and Clippers, he shot 17-for-21 and grabbed 19 boards. With center Dewayne Dedmon back, the Hawks could become a live ‘dog later in the month despite reaching the halfway point with the fewest victories. The duo combined for 24 points and 18 rebounds off the bench in the MLK Day upset of Utah. This was meant to be a rebuilding year where rookies got on-the-job training, so it’s hard to call Atlanta a failure when Taurean Prince is excelling, but it would be nice to see Collins develop more.
Boston: Halfway to wrapping up the homecourt edge in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics have found a way to overcome losing Gordon Hayward on Opening night in a way no one could’ve foreseen. Jayson Tatum’s brilliance as a rookie has been something to behold, while Jaylen Brown’s emergence has been a terrific surprise. The Celtics started 0-2 but then took off and won 16 straight to set the pace in the East. They were the first team to 30 wins and need to stay ahead of the Raptors, Cavs and Wizards to maximize their potential since they won’t be able to get to a Finals without it. Only homecourt advantage can help Boston overcome is youth. The stamina of Tatum and Brown is going to be tested. The same goes for Kyrie Irving’s ability to lead a team on his own.
Brooklyn: Since the Nets are also on the first floor of their rebuilding stage, they must continue developing center Jarrett Allen. The 6-foot-10 teen won’t turn 20 until after the regular-season ends and appears to be a great building block. He opened ’18 by setting a career-high with 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting in a win over the Magic and matched that on Saturday by going 6-for-10 in a career-high 28 minutes against Washington and has reached the point where he should stop being restricted to just 20 minutes per game. Tyler Zeller returned from a hip injury to start so there will be less minutes available for Allen and Jahlil Okafor, the hope should be that they help make one another better. Caris LaVert is developing some nice chemistry with him, while D’Angelo Russell’s return is imminent, so Brooklyn can really make strides over the next few months after being stifled by injuries so early.
Charlotte: Nicolas Batum must play better. The talented wing has had a dreadful season interrupted by injuries and hasn’t been able to find a rhythm. His lack of production is the main reason the Hornets have been a disappointment, but there’s still time to get things turned around. Batum entered the new year on a 4-for-17 run from 3-point range and has lacked the explosion to routinely get to the free-throw line, shooting no more than two in 14 of his 15 December outings. He opened ’18 with a 21-point game, making 8-for-12 shots, but has followed that up by going 4-for-20 from beyond the arc. With Kemba Walker playing the best ball of his career and Dwight Howard enjoying a resurgence with his back feeling healthy, the Hornets can still hope to reach the playoffs by catching one of the Central Division teams currently in position to finish top-eight. They’ll need Batum and Marvin Williams to turn their level up to do so.
Chicago: There’s no way the Bulls wanted to have a stretch where they won seven straight games since the plan this season was to rack up the losses and play all the kids, but the deep collection of young talent apparently has other ideas. With Zach LaVine now healthy enough to join Kris Dunn in the backcourt landed through the Jimmy Butler deal, Fred Hoiberg has an explosive backcourt working with a trio of very capable young power forwards in Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis in addition to 26-year-old Nikola Mirotic, who has come into his own after returning from being pulverized by Portis. How will the Bulls manage to tank as envisioned? Will Mirotic be moved?
Cleveland: Bringing Isaiah Thomas along responsibly, but doing so effectively enough to truly generate confidence will be the Cavs’ primary focus going forward. The x-factor for the Cavs this season will be how they manage the biggest asset gained from appeasing Irving’s trade request. He’s coming off a hip issue and needs to find his niche, be it coming off the bench or taking pressure off LeBron among the starting five, so there are a lot of potential mines in incorporating him into the King’s court now that he’s healthy enough to play. So long as he’s back to 100 percent, there are assets he brings to the table that James will be able to lean on. It doesn’t matter where the Cavs finish as far as seeding is concerned. Unlikely to be the top seed, they’re going to have to win on the road in key playoff games. That’s nothing James and many others on this roster shy away from.
Dallas: Winning just three of their first 17 games crushed all hope that the Mavericks might find a way to compete for another playoff spot in the Western Conference, so the second half of the season has to be entirely about Dennis Smith, Jr.’s continued development. He’s shooting just 39 percent in January and is just a 33 percent 3-point shooter, so working on his outside shot is going to be essential. He’ll face off against John Wall, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard during next week’s homestand and can generate confidence by performing well against vets. Maybe he’ll get baptized. Either way, it will be good for him.
Detroit: Andre Drummond must finish as strongly as he started for the Pistons to stay in the playoff hunt. The 7-footer has become one of the NBA’s top big men by becoming more polished, avoiding foul trouble and hitting a career-best from the charity stripe. He’s stopped being a liability late in games. If he stays healthy, continuing his strong, steady play will serve as the Pistons’ backbone. That’s why it’s not a good sign that he managed to score just 3 points in being dominated by Charlotte’s Howard on Monday while battling a foot issue. If he breaks down, with Stanley Johnson ailing and Reggie Jackson out, Detroit could fall apart or have a fire sale.
Denver: The Nuggets have run out of gas in games to start the new year, an issue related to Will Barton getting worn down by extended minutes initiating offense behind point guard Jamal Murray since Emmanuel Mudiay has lacked inconsistency. After opening January with a 134-111 rout of Phoenix, Denver only topped the century mark once in its next six outings. In order to make the most out of the built-in edge the altitude offers them, they’ve got to get better use of their guards and their overall depth. Trey Lyles has stepped up and Paul Millsap has his cast off after undergoing wrist surgery in late November, so they’re going to remain in the mix for a playoff berth so long as they can get their batteries recharged. I expect Millsap will beat estimates that had him out until the All-Star break.
Golden State: The Warriors were first to 35 wins and should again emerge as the No. 1 seed in the conference. Considering all the injuries they’ve dealt with, from Curry’s ankle to various issues Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala have suffered through, Steve Kerr has done a nice job making sure everyone is on track to be fresh in June. It’s easy to get caught up in golden State’s offense, but the number of bodies Steve Kerr is able to deploy against elite wings -- Green, Klay Thompson, Durant, Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Patrick McCaw and even Nick Young, is a major edge. Keeping those guys all healthy would make them virtually invincible as they seek out another title.
Houston: The Rockets caught a break in the fact James Harden’s hamstring strain won’t linger into February as originally feared, so they’ll be able to challenge Golden State for the homecourt edge. Chris Paul was able to integrate seamlessly into Houston’s style after missing so many weeks early, doing so expertly enough that he was able to run the team as it has been his for years when Harden went down. That should prove invaluable in the postseason. Harden’s injury will end up being a blessing in other ways too, keeping his mileage down, allowing Eric Gordon to show he’s again ready for a large role and creating a void that signing Gerald Green filled. He’s been a find who should also pay dividends.
Indiana: Nate McMillan needs to take it easy on Victor Oladipo. The Pacers must be responsible with their standout shooting guard, the clear favorite in the race for Most Improved and a likely All-Star given his production to date. He’s complained of knee soreness and can’t be allowed to push it despite how rough Indiana looks without him. He’s driven, so the organization needs to take the cautious approach to ensure he doesn’t wear himself out after playing the best basketball of his career these last few months. Their unlikely playoff push depends on having him and Myles Turner fresh in late March. Turner is out with an elbow sprain that will have him week-to-week, but should return with some juice.
L.A. Clippers: Blake Griffin has helped spark the Clippers on a run to get back over .500, turning a first half that looked destined to be a disaster into a salvageable situation. Paul’s projected replacement, Patrick Beverley, went down for the season in the first few weeks, but Doc Rivers may be able to survive his absence since Lou Williams has become an elite scorer and “rookie” Milos Teodosic and more traditional first-year player Jawun Evans are holding down the fort. Steve Ballmer’s team has a pulse and is playing for one another, so it’s important they avoid a lull after defeating Paul’s Rockets in what could be a galvanizing experience given the nonsense afterward.
L.A. Lakers: Despite all the hype, both positive and negative, the bottom line is that Lonzo Ball makes the franchise that took him No. 2 better, so if he continues to mature, there should be plenty of progress made from this young group. Kyle Kuzma is a gem and Brandon Ingram is coming along nicely, so they’ll be like most young teams going forward, exciting, yet maddeningly inconsistent. Their four-game winning streak following a nine-game skid just ended in Memphis, which sounds about right.
Memphis: The Grizzlies are 7-22 since losing Mike Conley, so outside of turning Tyreke Evans’ emergence into something that can aid their future, there isn’t much to look forward to. Rookie Dillon Brooks has been a find and the bench is going to be an asset if everyone stays healthy since they’ve got a lot of guys who hustle, so they’ll probably be a tough team to fade consistently if Marc Gasol stays healthy. Make no mistake, though, losing Conley killed what would’ve been an interesting run given their excellent start.
Miami: The Heat were 11-30 at last season’s halfway point before rallying to finish 30-11, narrowly missing the playoffs on the final night. They’re in much better shape this season despite injuries to center Hassan Whiteside, forward James Johnson and wing Justise Winslow throwing a wrench into things, so if they can get everyone healthy, they could be a team to ride going forward. After winning seven straight, Miami moved into the Southeast Division lead, but won’t have Dion Waiters available the rest of the way and just lost Tyler Johnson to a knee injury, so there will be more obstacles to overcome, including Whiteside’s stretches of mindless miscues. Still, the Heat just find ways to win, which is most valuable and more trait than skill.
Milwaukee: Jabari Parker has the potential to elevate everyone’s play by the time the playoffs roll around, which is exciting since the Bucks could use a boost from the form they’ve shown coming into the season’s second half. Eric Bledsoe is starting to better impose his will, so another adjustment will have to be made when Parker is ready to return in two or so weeks. Coming off an ACL injury, he’ll be brought along slowly, but the former No. 2 pick is eventually going to be expected to play major minutes in a small lineup alongside Giannis Antentokounmpo, Khris Middleton and guards Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon. If it all comes together, Milwaukee will be a force.
Minnesota: The Timberwolves picked up their fifth consecutive outright win and improved to 6-0 against the spread since Jan. 6 by blowing out Portland on Sunday night. The team will play seven of the next nine outside Minneapolis, giving the Vikings an opportunity to soak up all of the attention as they make their miracle run at playing in the Super Bowl the city is set to host. That’s not to say they’re not deserving of some love themselves since Jimmy Butler has delivered the goods as the veteran presence Tom Thibodeau badly needed to guide his team. If he can do a better job developing the bench, the Wolves should be a force as potential top-four seed.
New Orleans: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have improved their chemistry well enough to where one allows the other to carry the team when they have a matchup they can exploit, so if sharing is caring, this group is headed in the right direction. How high the Pelicans’ ceiling lies hinges on consistency at point guard, where Rajon Rondo has been the best option but has struggled with his energy level from night to night. Signing Mike James is a move that could supply a temporary offensive boost since he gives them someone who can penetrate better than anyone on the current roster.
New York: Frank Ntilikina has to factor in more. The French 19-year-old rookie had injuries hold him up over the summer and he started slowly, but he’s being counted upon to play starter’s minutes lately and dished out a career-high 11 assists on Dec. 28 in San Antonio. Considering how well he defends, if he’s able to get comfortable on the offensive end, the Knicks will be able to move forward confident they’ve secured an asset in this past lottery. His 10 points, 10 assists and team-best plus-17 in an MLK Day win in Brooklyn was a fantastic sign for a team still dreaming about making the playoffs.
Oklahoma City: Still dealing with a number of continuity issues, the Thunder have remained afloat long enough so that it would be surprising to see them move Paul George prior to the trade deadline since it’s worth the risk to ride this out even if it means watching him walk in the offseason. His partnership with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony has produced wins against some of the NBA’s best, including the hunted Warriors, but leaves you wanting more on a nightly basis. Steven Adams is a factor as a Top-10 center, so that emergence has been great to watch, but OKC must improve to truly reach its potential. Can they add another bench piece?
Orlando: Aaron Gordon must continue to be the first option even when Nikola Vucevic returns from a broken finger sometime next month. Since that injury makes it less likely that they’ll be able to deal him, seeing what the team’s new brain trust does before their first trade deadline at the helm becomes most important. Jonathan Isaac’s rookie season has been marred by injuries and Gordon’s emergence has been one of the few bright spots, but don’t expect the Magic to move on from Frank Vogel since they were fortunate he was available when Scott Skiles opted to bail out. A season that started off promisingly has certainly gone awry since not even a run at the No. 8 seed appears to be in the cards.
Philadelphia: Joel Embiid has to go back to playing no more than 30 minutes. He’s special, but certainly brittle, entering the new year doubtful to play in the first game due to a hand injury. He dominated in December and played more than 30 minutes in all but one game, but scaling back some is essential to keep him fresh for March and April as the 76ers attempt to crash the playoffs. Treating with kid gloves needs to remain the norm in January.
Phoenix: The Suns are running third in the Pacific Division despite their awful record, but playoff contention isn’t in the cards for this group either. Rookie Josh Jackson scored a career-high 21 points in a start on Sunday and can team with Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender to continue gaining experience. Chriss is starting to truly develop, Booker is already a star and Jackson has the potential to be, so if nothing else, Phoenix has to be pleased with its recent draft picks and just needs Bender to also turn the corner over the next few months in order to feel good about what was always going to be a rebuilding season.
Portland: The Blazers have seen center Jusuf Nurkic pick up his production, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum could certainly use more help. Terry Stotts’ team has really struggled against the league’s best, which is cause for concern that they’ll wear down in the second half without some sort of upgrade. There are a lot of young frontcourt pieces to dangle in order to secure veteran help, but it remains to be seen what approach is taken. The idea that Portland’s ceiling will once again be the eight-seed wasn’t part of the plan.
Sacramento: After relying on veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Kosta Koufos to help set a tone, the Kings are now going to rely on youth the rest of the way, which should give them a chance to wind up with the NBA’s worst record. Sacramento is 2-10 since Dec. 23 and will host Utah on Wednesday before embarking on a season-long six-game road trip that won’t see them return home until February. There should be plenty of long nights ahead, but Isaiah Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere are worth developing alongside Willie Cauley-Stein as the team’s primary core. Bring on the growing pains.
San Antonio: Kawhi Leonard has barely played all season and is still shaking off rust, not to mention with a shoulder injury, but the Spurs have played well enough that they’ll still be in the mix for a top-four seed and were given the exact same odds as the upstart Rockets (17/4) by Westgate when they released their Western Conference numbers. With better knowledge of how to get the most of LaMarcus Aldridge and a roster that’s as deep as there is in the league, not to mention the NBA’s best coach, San Antonio remains a factor to win it all so long as Leonard is able to get back to 100 percent.
Toronto: DeMar Derozan’s killer instinct must continue to be a weapon. After scoring 52 points on New Year’s night, it’s clear that he can carry the Raptors to unprecedented levels since he’s playing the best ball of his career as one of the East’s most gifted scorers. With a talented, deep supporting cast around him, he’s got a shot at fueling Toronto past Boston and into the East’s top seed, which is a prerequisite if they’re going to shock the world by coming out on top. Taking care of business at home the next few weeks will go a long way since they’re embarked on a stretch where 12 of 16 games are being played at the Air Canada Centre between Jan. 9-Feb. 8.
Utah: Losing Rudy Gobert on two separate occasions has really disrupted the season, likely putting a stop to realistic playoff aspirations since the Jazz haven’t handled his absence well. Even Derrick Favors’ resurgence and the unexpected rise of rookie guard Donovan Mitchell haven’t been enough to keep the team from sinking to the bottom of the competitive Northwest Division. Gordon Hayward’s absence was a huge blow, but could’ve been overcome had Gobert stayed healthy. Rodney Hood’s shooting struggles haven’t helped either, since the offense looks especially stagnant when he’s in a rut and settling for tough jumpers.
Washington: Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat have each seen their numbers dip. Morris has dealt with a hip issue, while Gortat is starting to feel his age, but maximizing this group’s potential means that the frontcourt must take advantage of the freedom playing with John Wall and Bradley Beal affords. The Wizards enjoyed one of the NBA’s most productive starting lineups last season, but they’ve taken a step back and have seen the Heat rise up as a contender to snatch the Southeast out of their clutches. Washington will play 11 of its next 14 outside of D.C., making it one of the most important stretches of the season.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA