In the midst of one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, the NBA is primed to deliver a memorable second trimester of drama, controversy, and brutal basketball bloodbaths.
Expect competition to ramp up after the All-Star break in 2018, when teams look to lose their rest cycles and shift away from cruise control into overdrive.
Beasts of the East
For the first time in ages, there exists a steady parity between the Eastern and Western Conferences. Despite the much-ballyhooed mass superstar exodus of Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George, several Eastern teams have matured just in time to find themselves within a stone’s throw away from the top of the NBA.
Among the alpha tier teams, the Boston Celtics have easily been the most impressive. Coming from Gordon Hayward’s crippling early-season injury, Kyrie Irving (10th in ppg) has lent his steady hand to the young but disciplined Celtics, allowing younger talents to take center stage—including rookie Jayson Tatum, who continues to buck the freshman trend by averaging shockingly veteran stats: 51% fg% and 48% on long-range shooting on 1.3 turnovers. But perhaps the most impressive quality of this year’s Celtic squad: they just find ways to win games that matter.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has embraced every ounce of his unicorn status and has since led the league in “How did he do that” Youtube highlights. Despite still missing elite perimeter shooting, Giannis has weaved and paced his way to a mind-boggling 2nd in ppg and player efficiency, 10th in rpg, 8th in spg, and 14th in bpg, all while taking a few leisurely giant paces to do so—but he desperately needs help. The Bucks are dead last in the league in points (28th), rebounds (30th), and long-range shots (29th); they will likely require a prolific scorer to join them if they plan on making noise in the playoffs.
John Wall and Bradley Beal have transformed the Wizards into an inconsistent yet lethal team hell-bent on pushing the pace. Wall’s athleticism has created a steady offense for the Wiz (6th in 2PT), but his inability to take care of the ball (3.0 tpg) makes for some frustrating lapses in the game. Wall’s pronouncement on his so-called “stat-padding” teammates have created the impression that the Wiz are inches away from either a true breakout or a total breakdown.
With Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond’s return to form married to Avery Bradley’s uncanny propensity to bring a winning culture to his teams, the Pistons have resurfaced to NBA prominence by commandeering a suffocating defense (2nd in pts allowed and opponent field goal attempts) and a efficient, democratic offense (6th in 3p%)—however, despite the contributions of Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond and Ish Smith, the Motor City’s lack of depth have hurt their sustainability in more critical games and will continue to do so unless they find dependable scorers and gang rebounders (24th in rebounds and 26th in points).
The rise of the middle class
The unsung heroes of the middle tier of the NBA are a large part of why this season has remained competitive across majority of teams.
That’s not a typo you’re seeing. Victor Oladipo—forgotten lottery pick and perhaps Russell Westbrook’s least favorite backcourt partner—is 7th on the scoring list; one rank below Westbrook himself and above household names Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and DeMar DeRozan. Nate McMillan has created a potent and efficient offense for Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers to thrive in (2nd in 3p% and field goals), with Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis all scoring in double-figures and finding reasonable ways to impact the offense with limited roles. Sabonis himself comes off as a minor miracle from the OKC trade—he’s averaging 11.7 ppg on .532 shooting and a respectable .385 from long range all while being the team’s top rebounder.
In the era of superstardom, we have Erik Spoelstra, Udonis Haslem’s walking corpse, and the rest of the Miami Heat to thank for bringing back a team-first mindset into NBA basketball. The Heat have eight players averaging in double-digits, and have relied on defense (5th in opponent field goals made, 3rd in 3pt made) and tenacity of Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic, but have struggled to maintain their offense during crucial moments—and this is a sign that despite a good foundation, every team still needs that one closer to take them above and beyond their means. This means only one thing—time to free Dion Waiters again.
Fellow unicorn Kristaps Porzingis has finally risen above Melo and Phil Jackson’s shadow, to the rabid delight of New York Knicks fans. Despite averaging a pedestrian 6.6 rpg, which frankly should be unacceptable for his standards, the Porzingod continues to fill the statsheets with 24.5 ppg and 2.1 bpg (3rd in NBA)—but still struggles in finding a steady, winning rhythm. Thankfully, the New York fanbase has received new cult heroes in his stead: Turkish rebel Enes Kanter—who is averaging 13.8 ppg (5th in fg%) and 10.5 rpg (8th in NBA), and everyone’s favorite meme Michael Beasley (yes, that Michael Beasley), who is cooking up a cool 10.7 ppg on .512 shooting. Now imagine if they drafted Dennis Smith Jr. or Donovan Mitchell...
In as much as we might have been embarrassingly wrong about Markelle Fultz’s role with the Sixers, it’s equally refreshing for everyone to have been embarrassingly right about Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Embiid’s (7th in rpg, 5th in bpg) uncanny likability and strangely effective swagger have allowed the Sixers to move past the Process and aim for something higher—the playoffs. Simmons has been no slouch either: the surefire ROY-lock is averaging 16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 7.6 apg on 51% shooting, showing us glimpses of the next coming of Lebron James with showtime panache. If Robert Covington and Dario Saric can sustain being significant contributors, and if Fultz finds his rhythm in the second half of the season—the Sixers can easily raise their ceiling to a whole new level.
Over in the West, we’re still patiently waiting for the Minnesota Timberwolves to reach the next gear. Despite the much-touted defensive prowess of Coach Thibs, the Wolves have fallen incredibly short of expectations (25th in pts allowed, 30th in 2p% allowed, 24th in defensive rebounds), leading to speculation that Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns’s bad habits may not have been as trivial as initially thought. Here’s hoping that the T-wolves finally live up to their reputation and bring back a stifling defense unheard of since the ’90s.
The Denver Nuggets are blessed with natural scorers in Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Jamal Murray, along with unnatural talents Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap—but neither seems to translate well enough defensively. Still, Jokic’s post play (8th in PER, 6th in fg%, 17th in rpg) and interior passing ability lends well to Denver’s propensity to shoot. In a league that’s gone crazy for scoring and three-point shooting, potent offenses simply aren’t enough anymore—which is why the Nuggets’ undersized roster may struggle to reach their defensive potential in the long run. That won’t stop them from being intensely watchable though.
And then we come to the upper tier: the ones we’ve expected to get there all along—perhaps just now how we thought they would.
The Golden State Warriors will need to fend off the one opponent they never really needed to face until now: themselves. On the cusp of a repeat championship, the conference-leading Dubs will have to dig deep and find ways to improve their already historic offense and defense—and they will have to do so managing Steph Curry’s injuries and lessening impact of aging vets Andre Iguodala (33), Shaun Livingston (32), Nick Young (32), and David West (37). The Warriors will have to look to their young guns to steady the ship while their Big Four rest on the sidelines: Jordan Bell, Kevin Looney, and Patrick McCaw. The Warriors’ offensive and defensive ratings remain encouraging (2nd and 4th, respectively)—but they will have to eventually face off against the league-leading Celtics, the vengeful Cavs, and another team with a superior offense.
The Houston Rockets are actively trying to break basketball. First in offensive rating and by far the most historically prolific long-range shooting team in the NBA, the Rockets are poised to steal the Warriors’ trophy, and are doing so while dealing with intermittent injuries to point god Chris Paul, who has already proven that he can unleash his midrange-heavy game without undermining the Rockets’ rangy offense. James Harden himself is averaging 39% in 3p, and a whopping 32.4 ppg, both career-highs. For Harden to create this much impact single-handedly at incredible efficiency is astounding in itself. However, despite the Rockets’ infatuation with the three, only Chris Paul and Ryan Anderson seem to be efficient in shooting them—this creates an asterisk for the Rockets: a volume-driven offense that skirts on middling efficiency might translate to worse performance in the post-season. Time will tell whether the Rockets’ engineered basketball takeover has enough miles to take it to the end.
And of course, there’s the Spurs, whom we should always mention for fear of embarrassment by their constantly solid and underrated play. Oh, look. Manu’s still playing.