The halfway point of the NBA season has passed, and there has been no shortage of intriguing storylines so far. The Warriors’ defense of their championship has been combined with their bid to set the greatest win-loss record in NBA history. Several teams have failed to live up to preseason expectations, like the Wizards, Bucks, Pelicans and Suns, while others, like the Celtics, Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Knicks, have well exceeded those projections.
Star rookies have captured headlines, with Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor leading the strong freshman class. There have been several disappointing rookies, however, as D’Angelo Russell, Mario Hezonja and Emmanuel Mudiay have all failed to live up to expectations to this point. Injuries have also played a big part in this season so far, as key players such as Blake Griffin, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarre Carroll, Dante Exum and Joakim Noah have all shifted the landscape for their individual teams.
- Golden State Warriors (44-4) — The defending champs have played at an even higher level all season long as they function at a level not seen since the 1995-96 Bulls went 72-10 in the regular season. Steph Curry, the defending MVP and the favorite for this year’s award, is on pace to post the highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of all time. Draymond Green has emerged as a superstar, piling up stats in every category. Klay Thompson, their third-best player, scored 45 points against the Mavericks last week. This team has ridiculous star-power depth and remains the favorite to repeat as NBA Champions.
- San Antonio Spurs (39-8) — The Spurs have won 14 of their last 16, with their only losses (both without Tim Duncan) coming at the hands of the Warriors and Cavaliers. Kawhi Leonard has become the franchise player for this team, playing at elite levels on both sides of the floor. LaMarcus Aldridge is settling into his role with the Spurs, and ageless-wonders Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan have continued to drive this team toward the top of the standings. They look like the most legitimate threat to the Warriors’ championship aspirations.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (36-13) — The superstar duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have once again carried the Thunder near the top of the basketball world. Winners of ten of their last eleven games, the supporting cast of Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters have helped the Thunder close out key opponents. This team could easily make a run in the stacked West.
- Toronto Raptors (32-15) — Riding an 11-game winning streak, the Raptors are firmly in second place and sit just two and a half games back from the Cavs for the top seed in the East. All-Star starter Kyle Lowry and reserve DeMar DeRozan have led the team all season long. With Jonas Valanciunas continuing to improve since his return from injury and DeMarre Carroll’s return seemingly near, the Raptors could challenge the Cavaliers atop the East.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (34-12) — When the Cavs fired former head coach David Blatt, they became the team with the best record in NBA history to fire their coach midseason. New coach Tyronn Lue has led the Cavs to four straight wins, including a convincing victory over the Spurs. At this point, the Cavs seem to be the most likely team to win the East. LeBron James is still the leader and best player on this team, but he has been helped by strong seasons for Kevin Love and a strong return from injury by Kyrie Irving. The latter two likely will be the biggest keys to the Cavs’ success.
Kyle Lowry has been instrumental in the Raptors’ ascent to the top of the East. (Photo courtesy of https://goo.gl/LlQvyp)
- Memphis Grizzlies (28-20)— After a rocky start to the season, the Grizzlies have come alive in the past few weeks. They now place as the fifth seed in the West and are four games behind the Clippers. If Mike Conley can shake off his poor start to the season and return to star form, they could secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
- Los Angeles Clippers (32-16) — Before breaking his hand punching a team assistant, Blake Griffin was playing some of the best basketball of his career. Now that he will be out, the Clippers will look to Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan to continue their strong seasons to maintain their number four seed in the West. The Clippers have finally started to enjoy strong performances from their bench, their most glaring weakness from a year ago. If this trend can continue and Griffin can come back strong in a month, the Clippers should be in position to make some playoff noise.
- Boston Celtics (27-22) —Advanced metrics have loved the Celtics all season long, and have suggested that they should have been winning more by now. Now, the Celtics are finally starting to string these wins together, winning eight of their last 11. Behind the strong seasons of first-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas and do-it-all forward Jae Crowder, the Celtics have a strong core of players who seem determined to lead this team to a high seed in the playoffs.
- Dallas Mavericks (28-22)— The ageless Dirk Nowitzki is once again leading the Mavericks to playoff contention. With the help of Zaza Pachulia and the continued progress of recovering stars Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews, this team has exceeded most experts’ offseason expectations. Having just finished the toughest stretch of the season, this team seems to be on the rise.
- Atlanta Hawks (27-22) — The big man tandem of Paul Millsap and Al Horford has once again led the Hawks to a high ranking in the East. There are many cracks in this team, however, as they have lost five of their last six. In addition, rumors have recently swirled that star point guard Jeff Teague could be traded before the trade deadline. The recent struggles along with the trade rumors surrounding a key player make this an unusual situation for a highly-ranked team.
- Miami Heat (27-21) — Anchored by the strong play of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic, the Heat just finished a brutally scheduled month of January with four straight quality wins. Hassan Whiteside has continued his emergence and looks to help push the Heat further up the East’s standings. A deep Heat team has a strong chance to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference.
- Detroit Pistons (25-23) — The Pistons currently sit on a two-game lead for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Led by Reggie Jackson’s breakout season and Andre Drummond’s average of 17.2 points per game and a ridiculous 15 rebounds per game, the Pistons seem to have a strong young core locked in for the future. With solid support pieces like Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and sitting just two games out of the third seed, Detroit could make a run up the standings before the end of the season.
- Chicago Bulls (26-20) — The Bulls have just not been able to put it all together this season. Derrick Rose has played the best basketball since before his knee injuries in the past month, and Jimmy Butler continues to grow his reputation as one of the league’s best two-way players. New coach Fred Hoiberg has failed to improve their offense, and losing the heart of the team in Joakim Noah for the season has not helped the team settle their identity crisis after firing Tom Thibodeau over the offseason. Unless they can start playing to their on-paper potential, the Bulls seem destined for another disappointing playoff performance.
- Houston Rockets (25-25) — James Harden has once again created the bulk of the Rockets’ offense, though he is being helped by strong campaigns by Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza. The Rockets have slowly been on the rise since a weak start to the season. Still, they sit at just .500 and have several serious question marks. Though a playoff berth seems likely, a run like last season’s to the conference finals seems highly improbable.
- Indiana Pacers (25-22) — Back in November, Paul George seemed to have returned to his elite level of wing play. He has continued to score and defend at high levels, but he’s taking many more shots. On the season, he is shooting just 41 percent on field goals, which is below his career average. Rookie big man Myles Turner looks like a future star, averaging nearly 19 points and nine rebounds per 36 minutes. He recently scored 25 against the Nuggets, and then hung 31 on the Warriors.
- Charlotte Hornets (23-25) — The Hornets lost defensive star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the first preseason game and he only just returned. Star big man Al Jefferson has missed 28 of their first 47 games. And yet, the Hornets stand just two games out of East’s final playoff spot. Kemba Walker has played the best basketball of his professional career and has been helped by offseason acquisition Nicolas Batum. The Hornets should be able to make a playoff push with their key players back, though it may take time for the pieces to gel.
- Utah Jazz (21-25) — The Jazz have been riddled by injuries all season, losing three starters for at least 17 games this season. Still, they find themselves just half a game out of the final playoff spot in the West. Gordon Hayward has been aided by strong play from Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors, a group that could lead them to their first playoff appearance since the big man duo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap led them there in the 2011-12 season.
- Portland Trail Blazers (23-26) — After losing four starters and two key bench players, Portland was projected to finish near the bottom of the standings. Led by the improved Damian Lillard, the Blazers currently sit in the West’s eighth and final playoff spot. Lillard has been helped this season by a breakout effort from C.J. McCollum, as well as steady performances by Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe. If talented young big man Noah Vonleh can build on his strong recent showings, the Blazers could hold onto that final playoff spot.
- New York Knicks (23-27) — Losers of 5 out of their last 6, the Knicks also need to worry about Carmelo Anthony’s knee sidelining him again. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis looks like a future superstar in the making, bringing hope of bright years ahead. Just three games out of the eighth playoff spot in the East, a solid run could push the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since the 2012-13 season.
- Milwaukee Bucks (20-29) — After coming into the season with high expectations, the Bucks stumbled out of the gate to a 12-21 record. Since then, Khris Middleton has emerged as a legitimate star, leading them to an 8-8 record in their past sixteen games. With the recent return of their coach Jason Kidd, things are looking up for the Bucks, begging the question of whether this team can push themselves into the playoff conversation.
- New Orleans Pelicans (18-28) — Though they have one of the worst records in the league, the Pelicans finished with a record of 8-6 in the month of January. It is probably too late for them to make a run at a playoff spot, but the rest of this season can serve as a chance to create momentum for next season and decided which pieces fit the team’s long-term plans.
- Washington Wizards (21-24) — A team many experts picked to finish in the East’s top four spots, the Wizards currently sport a sub-.500 record and sit two and a half games out of the East’s final playoff spot. Several players have commented that their team lacks an identity more than anything else, providing fans with some hope that they can still turn it around this season if a leader can unite them.
- Sacramento Kings (20-27) — In the mix for the final playoff spot in the West, the Kings followed up a five game win streak with their current four game losing streak. DeMarcus Cousins has obliterated teams lately, with back-to-back games of 48 and 56 points, respectively. Even still, Cousins’ superhero act may not be enough to carry this team to the eighth spot in the West.
- Philadelphia 76ers (7-41) — Though they still own the worst record in the league, the Sixers went 3-3 in six games before pushing the defending champion Warriors to the brink, losing only after a clutch shot by Harrison Barnes. After several seasons spent tanking, the 76ers finally seem interested in winning again, which they hope will create a better atmosphere for young players Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.
- Denver Nuggets (18-30) — Although their top pick Emmanuel Mudiay has struggled mightily this season, there have been a few bright spots for the Nuggets this season. Wing Will Barton has emerged as legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Nikola Jokic has emerged as a future building block at center, and small forward Danilo Gallinari has returned from his torn ACL averaging nearly 20 points per game. Mudiay, only 19 years old, still has a chance at developing into the franchise cornerstone they envisioned when picking him seventh overall.
- Orlando Magic (21-25) — Since their promising 19-13 start to the season, the Magic have gone 2-12, including an eight game losing streak they just ended. The young talent they have cannot be denied, but a logjam at nearly every position will force many decisions this offseason if they wish to elevate their squad to a playoff-caliber team.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (14-35) — The Timberwolves, sporting a 2-14 record since the New Year, have more problems than just their sinking record. A recent report suggests that almost half of the players have complained about the job coach Sam Mitchell has done this season. The abundance of young talent on this team suggests the future is bright, but another top five pick this season seems likely.
- Brooklyn Nets (12-36) — The good news: with just one win in their last nine games, the Nets are positioning themselves squarely for a top three pick in this year’s draft. The bad news: They do not own the rights to a first round pick until after the 2019 season. This, coupled with the dire lack of young talent (or any talent at all) means Nets fans better get used to such low performance levels.
- Phoenix Suns (14-35) — In addition to Eric Bledsoe’s season-ending injury and fellow star Brandon Knight’s recent injury that will keep him out at least until the end of the All-Star break, the Suns just fired their head coach, Jeff Hornacek. This continues the disappointing season for a team many thought would turn their recent successful seasons into a playoff spot this year. Possibly the only bright spot has been rookie sharpshooter Devin Booker, who has shown that he can be a solid building block for years to come.
- Los Angeles Lakers (9-41) — Losers of ten straight, this season has essentially become an extended send-off for Kobe Bryant. Key young players D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle have struggled, as coach Byron Scott has neglected to focus this lost season on their individual development as future franchise cornerstones.
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