We’re a little more than halfway through the NBA season, and it’s been a very fun few months around the Association. In this edition of our weekly roundtable, several of our writers give their biggest takeaways from the first half of the year, including who’s currently in the driver’s seat for MVP and who they think will square off in June for the NBA championship. Our participants for this edition are:
- Felix John-Baptiste (@TwoSmooth2)
- Eric Rose (@ericrose6)
- Evan Anderson (@Jordainian21)
- Cameron Fields (@CameronFields_)
- Justin Kirkland (@jkirk41)
1. What’s the No. 1 thing that caught your eye in the first half of the NBA season?
John-Baptiste: The NBA Finals might be less of a foregone conclusion than we all may have thought. Yes, Golden State still awaits the return of DeMarcus Cousins. However, they haven’t dominated the field as we once thought they would have. Out East, it’s a total “pick ’em” between Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. This should make for some interesting twists post-All-Star break.
Rose: Boston might not be the guaranteed dynasty everyone expected them to be. Gordon Hayward has not looked anything like the player we saw in Utah since the injury and is taking up a max contract slot, Jayson Tatum looks more like the player we saw in the regular season than the playoffs, and Jaylen Brown didn’t take that next step. The team Bill Simmons pegged to go 67-15 with a ton of 30-point victories has been pedestrian, surpassing that loss total in 36 games. It wouldn’t shock me if they bounced back, but I definitely expected a much better team heading into the year.
Anderson: The Denver Nuggets’ success. They currently sit at No. 1 in the West because Nikola Jokic is playing terrific basketball. Starting off hot, the team went 6-1 in the month of October and have shown the league that they can win big games. Jokic plays like a guard alongside Jamal Murray and Gary Harris but is the center for the team. Having a big man that can handle and is a playmaker can benefit a franchise, which it has for the Denver Nuggets.
Fields: Luka Doncic clearly shouldn’t have been as slept on as he was. He was a professional player in the EuroLeague before coming to the NBA, and even at 19, that should have been enough for him to have the respect of most NBA enthusiasts. Since the start of the season, Doncic has separated himself as the best rookie in the league. Despite his lack of speed, his understanding of pace and his dribble motions has allowed him to create space for his signature stepback jumpers, amongst other moves.
Kirkland: The Milwaukee Bucks have been absolutely dominant to start the season. Hiring Mike Budenholzer and bringing Brook Lopez into town has paid dividends for their previously stagnant offense. The Bucks are second in the league in offensive rating and have spaced out the floor around Giannis Antetokouonmpo with efficient shooting and playmaking. The Greek Freak is a walking mismatch that forces opponents to pick their poison every possession. It will be interesting to see what tactics teams deploy to try to slow him down as the season continues.
2. What’s the biggest storyline to monitor heading into the second half of the year?
John-Baptiste: It’s all about how the Western Conference playoff seedings shake out. Can we stop saying a team is “better” because they’re in 3rd as opposed to 7th? When the W-L records are so close, we should keep an eye on the potential matchups heading into the postseason. Golden State has had the chips fall in their favor, avoiding testy matchups until the Conference Finals over the last three postseasons. Will we see the Thunder, Rockets, and Lakers all fall on one side of the bracket? Stay tuned.
Rose: I hate to be repetitive, but I think the Celtics are an interesting team to follow for the rest of the year. The team is 25-17 coming off back-to-back losses to Miami and Orlando, and it looks like it might be taking a toll on the locker room. Kyrie was visibly upset with Gordon Hayward after the last play of the game in Orlando and then later called out the young players for not knowing what it takes to be a championship caliber team. You know, the same young guys who were one game away from heading to the Finals without him last season. If the struggles continue, you have to wonder when Boston finally puts all their chips in on an Anthony Davis trade.
Kyrie Irving had a lot to say postgame but what stood out was “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team. What it takes every day. And if they think it is hard now, what do they think it will be like when we’re trying to get to the Finals?”
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) January 13, 2019
Anderson: Finding out who’s going to come out on top in the East. Now that LeBron James is out of the Eastern Conference, it’s time for another team to step up and represent the East in the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia Sixers all have higher chances of winning the East because the “King” isn’t around. It tough to decided right now who will come out on top, but we will see come later this season.
Fields: The MVP race is the closest its been in years, with players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, and Anthony Davis being viable candidates. The crazy part is that there are at least three other players who are deserving of consideration for the league’s most coveted individual award. With the way Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Paul George have led their respective teams, they should garner attention as well in the second half of the season.
Kirkland: If Chris Paul stays healthy when he returns from his hamstring injury the Houston Rockets have a chance to do something special. James Harden is playing even better this season than he did during his MVP campaign last year. The Rockets have overcome some of the defensive issues that plagued them to begin the season and have re-established themselves as the main threat to the Warriors in the West. With a healthy roster, they might be able to finally slay the beast in the playoffs.
3. Which team do you think is most desperately in need of a second-half surge?
John-Baptiste: The Boston Celtics. While they haven’t been terrible, they also haven’t wowed anyone. The fearless team that took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season appear to be a shell of themselves. They may not need home court advantage in the playoffs to be successful early on, but if they advance to the Conference Finals without it, they could be in trouble. Aside from home court advantage, we can simply look at team chemistry. They should hope to have it completely together heading into April.
Rose: To avoid talking about the same team again, I’ll go with Philly. The Sixers went all-in on a Jimmy Butler trade and it’s fair to wonder whether the trade has even moved the needle after losses to Washington and Atlanta. The surge will have to come with a move at the trade deadline and on the buyout market because no matter how good Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Butler are, you’d need the Dream Team to help carry what is safely a bottom five bench in the league. If the Sixers don’t get it right soon, the decision to re-sign Jimmy Butler becomes an iffy one and that trade will look horrible in hindsight.
Anderson: The Los Angeles Lakers. We know LeBron is still out with a groin injury, but they need to win games without him. Dropping games is costing them and putting them in a bad spot in the West. They currently sit at No. 8 in the West right now, just barely in the playoffs. With LeBron’s return date still in question, they need to start winning these close games if they want a more secure spot in the playoff race.
Fields: The Utah Jazz. The Jazz, who were a playoff team last season, started this season 12-13. The Jazz’s main problem right now is that their guard depth is lacking because of injuries. Dante Exum, Ricky Rubio, and Raul Neto have all been out recently, which means Donovan Mitchell has had to shoulder the load. Going forward, getting healthy during the second half of the season will be important for the Jazz’s playoff push.
Kirkland: The New Orleans Pelicans know that the rest of the league smells blood in the water. Anthony Davis is one of the league’s best and they have yet to field a roster that has a realistic chance of a deep playoff run. AD has already said he prefers legacy over money so staying competitive is going to be key. If New Orleans can string together some wins and make a playoff run they can convince Davis that their roster may only be a piece or two away. A second-half flop may cost them their franchise player.
4. After the first half of the season, your MVP is…?
John-Baptiste: James Harden. He has single-handedly saved the Rockets’ season and is on a historic tear in his own right. I understand Giannis has the Milwaukee Bucks outperforming expectations and is putting up ridiculous numbers as well, but Harden is operating with injuries all over his roster. We can honestly say, had it not been for these Kobe-like performances, the Rockets might have missed the playoffs.
Rose: Yeah, it’s got to be Harden. The Rockets started off this year in a slump no one expected and the run he’s been on over the past month or so has been other-worldly. The Beard hasn’t scored under 30 points since December 11th and the Rockets have only lost three games since – all by under 10 points. Since Chris Paul went down, the Rockets are 8-2, largely in part due to utterly dominant individual performances. There’s just no one doing it like him right now.
Anderson: The Greek Freak, Giannis Antentokoumpo. The Bucks have had a successful first half to the season and have been on top of the Eastern Conference for a majority of the year. Giannis is playing unbelievable basketball, averaging 26.6 points per game, 12.8 boards, and six assists. He’s leading this team to the top because without him, they don’t have a dominant leader. Harden is runner up, but Giannis has a bigger impact on the game.
Fields: Giannis Antetokounmpo was the MVP at the start of the season, but James Harden has been too good. He’s scored 30-plus points in 16 straight games, and he’s led the Rockets to the sixth seed in the West after their slow start to the season. The MVP race is still close, but Harden has a good chance of winning his second consecutive MVP award.
Kirkland: Nobody is living on the planet that James Harden is on right now. He has been carrying the load and has been lighting stadiums on fire for about a month and a half now. He dictates the pace of games by repeatedly getting to the line and getting his teammates involved in between all of the step back facials that we see in the highlights. His game is so well-rounded and his playmaking is more than good enough to keep defenses honest. He’s completely unguardable and will be even tougher to stop when Chris Paul returns.
5. Based on what you’ve seen the first half of the season, this year’s NBA Finals matchup will be…?
John-Baptiste: This question makes me queasy. I can put money on the Warriors coming out of the West, simply because when they’re on… they’re on! Add DeMarcus Cousins to the fray and they have five All-Stars they can throw on the floor. Out East? I haven’t trusted any of the four (Raptors, Celtics, Bucks, Sixers) for various reasons. Let’s just say whoever gets homecourt will win, and I expect the Raptors will finish with the top seed in the conference.
Rose: Warriors-Raptors seems like the safest bet for me. The Warriors are, well, the Warriors but with DeMarcus Cousins, I cannot imagine any team winning four out of seven games against them. The Raptors aren’t as much of a lock, but they’ve definitely looked the best compared to the rest of the conference. Kawhi Leonard came back from his lost last season with the San Antonio Spurs looking like Kawhi Leonard. Pascal Siakam has blossomed into a very, very good player seemingly overnight, and their bench is one of the best in the league. I think this is the matchup we see come June and I am definitely looking forward to it.
Anderson: I agree with Eric and say the Warriors-Raptors. The Raptors, led by Kawhi Leonard, will bring max competitiveness against the Warriors in a seven-game series. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka are both very effective when they are on the court. The young man Pascal Siakam has also stepped up this year and became a huge factor for them. I’m not saying that matchup is guaranteed, but I see it happening come NBA Finals time.
Fields: The Warriors should still be feared in the West, and while this is probably going to be a tough road to the Finals for them, they’re still going to get there because of how much talent they have. The Raptors arguably have the best depth in the league, and they should likely reach the Finals relatively easily, especially if the Celtics don’t figure things out.
Kirkland: The Golden State Warriors still are the best team with the best brand of basketball in the league. Their ability offensively combined with the imminent return of Demarcus Cousins will place them as firm favorites going into the playoffs. Cousins will be motivated and playing for a new contract with fresh legs. The Raptors should come out the East if they stay healthy. Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the conference and they have the deepest roster. This is the year for Toronto to finally get over the hump.