One half of the NBA season is in the books, and it has been one filled with many storylines. The Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors have both emerged as conference powerhouses, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are starting to make their charge after an sluggish start in the beginning of the year. James Harden has become a legitimate MVP candidate, and the Western Conference is a complete bloodbath. All of this made for a highly entertaining first half of the season, so Alec Walt takes a look at whats in store for the entire league in the second half of the regular season campaign leading up to the playoffs.
Atlanta Hawks (43-11, 1st in Southeast Division): The Atlanta Hawks were the surprise in the first half of the season, and they will continue to surprise post all-star break. Right out the gate, the Hawks are going to continue right where they left off. They are averaging the highest three-point percentage in the NBA. A huge confidence boost for this club is the fact that four of their five starters were named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. I expect the Hawks to be even better come playoff time. The Hawks have the talent and coaching to win a championship.
Boston Celtics (20-31, 3rd in Atlantic Division): Did you know that the Boston Celtics are only 1.5 games out of the eight seed of the Eastern Conference playoffs? Brad Stevens is working extremely hard and has the focus of each of his players. The addition of Isaiah Thomas is huge. Thomas is another solid player to go along with the young core of the Celtics including Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, and Jared Sullinger. What Thomas can do is score, and that is what the Celtics are missing. The Celtics will have to deal with an injury to Sullinger as he is now ruled out for a while with a stress fracture in his foot. The Celtics have the playoffs in sight.
Brooklyn Nets (21-31, 2nd in Atlantic Division): Thaddeus Young is a nice return for a 20-year veteran. He will add an athletic dimension to this team. Somehow Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson are still on the roster. The Nets have talent, but I believe they didn’t make good enough moves at the trade deadline. There are better teams than the Nets in the Eastern Conference post trade deadline and I believe they will not make the playoffs.
Charlotte Hornets (22-30, 3rd in Southeast Division): Charlotte has been a disappointment this first half of the season, but they are still the seven seed in the playoffs. Kemba Walker is currently out indefinitely looking for a mid-March return. What I am worried about is Charlotte’s big three in Kemba Walker-Lance Stephenson-Al Jefferson are all healthy, one ends up going down. The Hornets have to stay healthy. I expect Lance Stephenson to have a much improved second half. With the Eastern Conference now stronger after the trade deadline, I see the Hornets falling just short of the playoffs.
Chicago Bulls (34-20, 1st in Central Division): Chicago will immediately look to find consistency in their game. Entering the All-Star break, Chicago had a roller coaster of a ride while dealing with tension between Tom Thibodeau and the front office. Just by watching the Bulls you can tell they like Thibodeau. I have been very impressed with the play of Pau Gasol this season. His veteran and championship experience will help this team move forward. The Bulls will improve their game to keep their head coach, competing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland Cavaliers (33-22, 2nd in Central Division): The Cavaliers have all the talent in the world to be the best team in the NBA. LeBron James insists that he needs to get Kevin Love more involved in the offense, making him my second half sleeper. For the Cavaliers, it’s all about building chemistry. 27 games is plenty of time. Remember, the Cavaliers have someone named LeBron James who is the best player in the world.
Dallas Mavericks (36-17, 3rd in Southwest Division): With the recent acquisition of Amar’e Stoudemire, the Mavericks added much-needed depth on their bench. To win a championship in the NBA, a team needs depth. Dallas, along with many teams in the Western Conference are a complete team. A healthy Rajon Rondo is the difference maker who is returning right after the all-star break. The Mavericks now have the talent to beat any Western Conference team in a seven game series. I expect the Mavericks to be serious contenders come playoff time.
Denver Nuggets (20-33, 3rd in Northwest Division): The Nuggets have re-tooled their roster and are now fighting for an early lottery pick. Ty Lawson has been a problem all year. Lawson reminds me of when Rajon Rondo was on the Celtics. It is clear that the Nuggets are out of playoff contention. Struggles will continue up in the Rockies.
Detroit Pistons (21-33, 3rd in Central Division): The Detroit Pistons will be looking to make the playoffs. Point guard is no longer an issue as the Pistons have acquired Reggie Jackson from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Reggie Jackson is expecting a new contract at the end of the season, and will play well to prove he is worth a lot of money. Ever since Josh Smith was traded Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond have been one of the best front-courts in the NBA. Detroit Pistons-Atlanta Hawks would be an interesting first round playoff series.
Golden State Warriors (42-9, 1st in Pacific Division): The Warriors made no moves at the deadline but this team is so good they didn’t need to. There are seven players on this roster that are starter quality in the NBA. Draymond Green wants a nice-sized contract at the end of the season so expect him continue to thrive. Steve Kerr will continue to tighten the defense and stretch the floor on offense. The Warriors have a four game advantage on rest of the Western Conference for the one seed. I can’t imagine the Warriors dropping in seeding.
Houston Rockets (36-17. 2nd in Southwest Division): The Rockets really wanted to acquire a point guard at the deadline but they didn’t. Dwight Howard’s health scares me. It seems once he has rediscovered his touch he finds another way to get injured. James Harden will be this seasons MVP. I like the Rockets but I don’t trust them. James Harden and Dwight Howard have never proven to be winners in the NBA, and I don’t believe they will win anything this season.
Indiana Pacers (21-33, 5th in Central Division): The Pacers decided to keep bigs David West and Roy Hibbert. The key to the rest of the season is the return of Paul George. He is aiming mid-March but it isn’t definite. George Hill has been great since he has returned from injury. If Paul George returns, this Pacers team will surge instantly. The only problem is if Georges’ rehab gets set back in any way, the Pacers may not have enough time to make the playoffs.
Los Angeles Clippers (35-19, 2nd in Pacific Division): Doc Rivers coached teams play their best after the all-star break. I was hoping that the Clippers would add scoring depth at the deadline but they made no moves. Chris Paul has never advanced to the Conference Finals once in his career. Blake Griffin is also shaken up and they have a tough schedule ahead. I believe there are much better teams then the Clippers in the Western Conference. First round exit seems likely in my opinion.
Los Angeles Lakers (13-40, 5th in Pacific Division): The Lakers need to lose. In the Steve Nash trade, the 2015 1st round pick is now top five protected to the Sixers. If on lottery night the Lakers pick is outside the top 5, the pick will go to Philadelphia. If the Lakers come in last place they will be guaranteed a top five pick. It’ll be tough to be worst then the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers.
Memphis Grizzlies (39-14, 1st in Southwest Division): The Grizzlies are firing on all cylinders. Jeff Green has been a perfect fit since the trade from Boston. Zach Randolph has a double-double in each game since returning from injury. I expect Marc Gasol to continue to play like the best center in the NBA for the remainder of the season. I think the Grizzlies will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Miami Heat (22-30, 4th in Southeast Division): Goran Dragic to the Heat makes the Heat contenders again. Dragic is a perfect fit to play next to stars like Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. The Heat pick and roll offense is going to give defenses nightmares. Depth is what I am worried about. Wade and Bosh have been banged up all season. I wouldn’t want to play the Heat if I was a top seed in the East. I expect the seven seed in the Eastern Conference to be owned by the Miami Heat.
Milwaukee Bucks (30-23, 3rd in Central Division): A change at the guard, sending Brandon Knight to the Phoenix Suns and receiving Michael Carter-Williams from the Philadelphia 76ers. This roster is long and athletic. Jason Kidd will make strides with this young team which has already shocked the NBA landscape. With the six seed, the Bucks have a 7.5 game lead on the rest of the division fighting for the final two playoff spots. This season is a good season that will give the younger players confidence and playoff experience.
Minnesota Timberwolves (11-42, 5th in Northwest Division): Kevin Garnett, the best Timberwolves player of all time, is going back to Minnesota. Kevin Garnett will practically be a coach for the Timberwolves. He will teach the young players to be patient and professional. There will be an improvement in the defense because that is Garnett’s specialty. It will be happy times with the return of Garnett. Timberwolves fans will see one great exit the game while watch Andrew Wiggins develop into the face of the franchise. That is all the fans will have to cheer for.
New Orleans Pelicans (27-26, 5th in Southwest Division): The Pelicans are going to start the second half of the season with a limited Anthony Davis and injured Jrue Holiday who has no return date. I am expecting this season to be a normal season for the Pelicans falling short of a playoff run. Still have to give credit to Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans who have had outstanding seasons so far and will continue to play well. The Pelicans will end the season at .500.
New York Knicks (10-43, 5th in Atlantic Division): Carmelo Anthony is out for the season and Amare Stoudemire has been bought out. The Knicks look to be trying to lose. It will be a competition with the Philadelphia 76ers to see who will have a worse team. Phil Jackson will be looking to see if young players like Langston Galloway, Tim Hardaway Jr, and Cleanthony Early will be role players for future Knicks teams. The Knicks will continue to play horrible.
Oklahoma City Thunder (28-25, 2nd in Northwest Division): Don’t let the second place team in the Northwest deceive you. The Thunder are the 8 seed in the Western Conference, tied with the Phoenix Suns record-wise. The Thunder are the big winners at the trade deadline. Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler, and DJ Augustine give the Thunder a center and bench depth. As an eight seed, the Thunder can compete with teams like the Warriors. This roster reminds me a lot of the one in Cleveland.
Orlando Magic (17-39, 5th in Southeast Division): The Magic surprisingly made no moves at the trade deadline. This Magic team is extremely young, and needs repetition. It is clear that Payton and Oladipo are the future in the backcourt. Nikola Vucevic is the most underrated player in the NBA because the Magic are not very good. The Magic organization need to find what pieces work and who needs to leave. I expect the Magic to try to tank and get a nice player through the draft, but don’t take them lightly. They have been notorious for putting teams on upset alert.
Philadelphia 76ers (12-41, 4th in Atlantic Division): The 76ers movement at the deadline tells me they have no interest in winning a single game this season. Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels were the two most relevant players on the roster, and were traded for not much in return. The Philadelphia 76ers are in a battle with the New York Knicks to see who can put together the worst NBA team. I think the 76ers are the worst of the worst.
Phoenix Suns (29-25, 3rd in Pacific Division): The Suns made the most moves on deadline day and have neither Goran Dragic nor Isaiah Thomas. In return they now have near all-star Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks. The Suns are a tied with the Thunder record-wise, but due to being 0-and-2 against Oklahoma City this year currently sit at the ninth seed. I believe the Suns made too many big moves to put together a team that can compete in a challenging Western Conference.
Portland Trail Blazers (36-17, 1st in Northwest Division): Welcome to Portland Aaron Afflalo. Afflalo adds much need scoring depth to the Trail Blazers bench. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will continue to be the best 1-2 punch in the league. I am expecting a turn-around in the horrid play of Nicolas Batum and a continuation of consistency from Wesley Matthews. The Trail Blazers will be guaranteed a top four seed in the West because of the weak Northwest Division.
Sacramento Kings (18-34, 4th in Pacific Division): It is George Karl’s turn as coach for the Sacramento Kings. The Sacrament Kings, no matter how hard they try can never put a good team together on the court. George Karl has proven to be successful in this league, they just need the right players. Management will have to decide if DeMarcus Cousins will be the face of the franchise. Cousins reminds me of Carmelo Anthony. Anthony formerly played under George Karl, but was traded due to player-coach tensions. The Kings are going nowhere.
San Antonio Spurs (34-19, 4th in Southwest Division): Kawhi is back, and the Spurs are now well rested. No matter how poorly this team can play on some occasions, they can’t be taken lightly. I am expecting a much more consistent second half to the season. Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA for a reason. I see the Spurs a bottom four playoff team in the Western Conference and I wouldn’t be surprised if they represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Toronto Raptors (36-17, 1st in Atlantic Division): The Raptors are the most fun team to watch and finally have DeMar DeRozan back. DeRozan makes one of the leagues best offenses even scarier. Kyle Lowry is the reason this offense is so great. He deserves MVP votes because he kept the Raptors afloat when DeRozan was out. The Raptors need to improve on the defensive side of the court. I love where the Raptors are heading.
Utah Jazz (19-34, 4th in Northwest Division): Enes Kanter out means its Rudy Gobert’s time. The 22-year-old has been a surprise all season, and averages 2.2 blocks per game. Now that he is the full time starter that number will go up. The Jazz have a zero precent chance of making the playoffs this season and are searching for answers. Dante Exum is the organizations biggest projects with unreal potential. Expect Exum to get more playing time this season.
Washington Wizards (33-21, 2nd in Southeast Division: The Wizards looked like contenders to the start the season than pretenders towards the all-star break. John Wall has been playing at an MVP level all season and there are no signs of him slowing down. The Wizards have a lot of work to do. Times like this is when players like Paul Pierce become key. Pierce has the experience to teach teams how to keep composed during tough times. I don’t see the Wizards advancing past the semi-finals.