The NBA All-Star Game, the league’s perceived halfway point of the season, isn’t for another three weeks, but quietly this past week, the midpoint of the NBA’s 82-game schedule came and went.
Not a bad time to take stock of what’s going on in the roundball universe.
Some of the goings-on have been reasonably predictable, while others — hello, league-worst Golden State Warriors — have been less so.
Most preseason prognosticators had the LA Lakers and Clippers, contending for the West title, with Utah, Denver, Houston, and the Warriors expected to be in the mix.
That has pretty much been the case thus far, except for the downfall of the Warriors, who had reached the NBA Finals in each of the past five seasons with three titles.
How would you like to be a season ticket-holder for Golden State, getting the chance to see the always-entertaining Warriors move into a brand-spanking-new arena this season (with the accompanying higher ticket prices), and then seeing the franchise cornerstone, Stephen Curry, break his hand in the fourth game of the season? All this after superstars Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins left in free agency, Andre Iguodala was traded, Shaun Livingston retired, and All-Star guard Klay Thompson was expected to miss the whole season while recovering from a torn ACL.
Yes, Golden State was definitely going to struggle a little bit, but nobody would have guessed they’d be a 10-win team in late January, nearly 27 games behind the division-leading Lakers, just 7-16 at home and a ghastly 3-20 on the road.
It would probably be wise for the Warriors to just let Curry sit out the rest of the season, wait for a high lottery pick, and then restock next season, with Curry and Thompson healthy and joining Draymond Green and the lottery pick to get right back into the mix for an NBA crown.
In the meantime, the Warriors’ descent has been offset by the rise of the Dallas Mavericks, who are benefiting from an MVP-type season from second-year forward Luka Doncic, last year’s third overall pick who has been picked as a starter for the West in this year’s NBA All-Star Game. Dallas has missed the playoffs the past three seasons, but at 28-16, the Southwest Division-leading Mavs have almost matched last season’s win total of 33, and are a remarkable 15-5 on the road.
Dallas and Houston are fighting for division honors, and the Rockets’ reunion of renowned ball hogs James Harden and Russell Westbrook has paid dividends so far, although Houston is still unlikely to match last season’s 53-win total, nor make much noise in the postseason.
Utah (31-13) and Denver (30-14) are fighting it out for the lead in the Northwest, while division mates Portland (19-27) and Minnesota (15-29) have been massive disappointments. The Jazz have the conference’s best road record (17-3), while the Nuggets have been cruising along with a mostly no-name roster, led by fourth-year center Nikola Jokic, who leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists.
The most fascinating race is in the Pacific Division — make that the Staples Center — where both the Lakers (36-9) and the new-look Clippers (31-14) are living up to the hype, although the Lakers are significantly better than expected, while the Doc Rivers-led Clippers have been wildly inconsistent, suffering losses to such sub-.500 teams as the 18-26 Suns, the 17-28 Pelicans, the 20-23 Spurs, the 17-29 Bulls, a 26-point bashing at the hands of the 20-24 Grizzlies, and their most recent defeat, a seven-point loss to the 11-34 Hawks.
Meanwhile, LeBron James has been rejuvenated by his pairing with former Pelican Anthony Davis, as evidenced by the Lakers’ 23-4 conference record and their 20-4 road mark.
In the absence of the perennial favorite Warriors, the West playoffs could be more wide-open than usual, but could also see a sub-.500 team such as the Spurs claiming the eighth seed.
In the East, two teams that were expected to take slight downturns, the Bucks and Raptors (after losing shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon and superstar Kawai Leonard, respectively), have instead sparkled and lead their respective divisions.
Milwaukee went 60-22 last season en route to the conference finals, but it already has 40 wins just past the halfway point, and is a league-best 40-6 behind another MVP-type season from dominating center Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 30 points and 13 rebounds per game.
Surprising Indiana would be right in the thick of things if it were in any other division, but its impressive 29-16 record is only good for second in the Central, nearly 11 games behind the Bucks.
Quietly putting together an amazing season are the Southeast-leading Heat (31-13), whose 20-1 home record has helped Miami take a stunning 10-game lead over the Magic. If the season were to end today, the Jimmy Butler-led Heat would grab the second seed in the conference.
As mentioned, the defending NBA champion Raptors were expected to take a step back this season, but fourth-year forward Pascal Siakam, who averaged 16.9 PPG last season before excelling in the postseason, has filled the departed Leonard’s sneakers admirably, averaging 23.5 points and nearly eight rebounds per game for the Raptors (30-14), who entered Friday night with a half-game lead in the Atlantic over the Celtics.
When Boston (29-14) is healthy as a team, which has been fairly rare this season, it is one of the deepest and most talented squads in the league. The Celtics are better than most people figured and have obviously benefited chemistry-wise from the departure of Grump Extraordinaire Kyrie Irving and the arrival of All-Star starting point guard Kemba Walker, the team’s free-agent acquisition from Charlotte.
Up until recently, Boston hadn’t had many inexplicable losses (which was a disturbing trend a year ago), but in the past three weeks, the C’s have dropped a road contest to the 15-29 Wizards, along with home defeats at the hands of the 20-23 Spurs, the 17-28 Pistons, and the 18-26 Suns. On the bright side, Boston’s last two games saw it blow out the Lakers by 32 and the surging Grizzlies by 24.
A No. 2 seed in the East is not out of the question for Boston at this point, but it has already dropped all three of its matchups with the 76ers (29-17), with their final regular-season matchup of the season taking place next Saturday.
Similar to the situation out west, there are six solid teams contending for Eastern supremacy, and the top two seeds will likely draw sub-.500 teams such as Brooklyn (18-25) or Orlando (21-24) in the opening round of the playoffs.
Fun fact: The Celtics, already one of the youngest teams in the league, own the 2020 first-round draft picks of both the Bucks and the Grizzlies (top-six protected).