The first half of the NBA season has seen LeBron James’ Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks take off as the best two teams in the league, with sizable leads for the No. 1 seed in each conference. Can anyone stop them?
The rest of the league will be playing catchup as the second half begins. That includes the two teams we thought had the best chance to dethrone them in the preseason: the Clippers and Sixers. Will either find their ground in an open playoff field that includes the surging Celtics, surprising Heat, steady Raptors, and balanced Nuggets?
Here’s everything to look forward to in the second half of the season, including fun outside of the playoff race.
Steph Curry’s return
Curry has played just four games this season since breaking his hand on Oct. 30, and the Warriors have been an utter disaster without him, Klay Thompson (ACL surgery) and Kevin Durant (signed with the Nets.) But Curry is reportedly coming back, and hopefully soon. Despite the Warriors being virtually out of the playoff race, they’re going to let Curry play.
“He’s perfectly healthy,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”
Steve Kerr on the idea of holding out a healthy Steph Curry: “No. He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?” pic.twitter.com/3I8VUmCN07
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 19, 2020
Even if it’s just for a few games, seeing Curry play basketball is a huge win for us all. He makes the game fun even without high stakes.
Finding out if the 76ers actually are contenders
Philadelphia has been the most disappointing team in the NBA this season, losing 19 of 28 road games so far, and owning a record just two games better than the Pacers. Losing Jimmy Butler and replacing him with Al Horford wasn’t supposed to sting this bad. The Sixers are too talented to struggle like they have.
They have the 11th-best net rating in the NBA, behind the Heat, the team that Butler left for. Their offense ranks a mere 20th, as Horford, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons still prove to be a clunky fit.
Horford’s now moved to the bench, and maybe that’ll spark some life into one of the league’s most frustrating cores. Or maybe this turns messier than anyone anticipated.
The Eastern Conference playoff seeding
The East is loaded with five teams that could reach the Finals, starting with the 46-8 Bucks up top, and ranging to the wild card Sixers at No. 5. Milwaukee has been the best team of the regular season, and likely runs away easily as the No. 1 seed. How the next four teams: Toronto, Boston, Miami and Philadelphia, place themselves will be the question.
Currently, the Raptors sit 1.5 games above the Celtics for the No. 2 seed, and the Heat sit 1.5 games above the Sixers for the fourth-seed. If the playoffs started today, the Raptors wouldn’t have to see the Bucks until the conference finals, while the winner of a Heat-Sixers series would have to play them in the second round.
Does dropping to the No. 6 seed make sense for Philly? Should Boston play its stars until the bitter end of the season in pursuit of the No. 2 seed? Seeding will get dicy.
Will the Clippers wake up?
The runaway team of free agency hasn’t been the dominant force we all expected. Adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a stacked group of competitors was supposed to put the Clippers ahead of the pack. Instead, they sit No. 3 in the West behind the Lakers and Nuggets. They rank No. 6 in net rating below the Bucks, Lakers, Celtics, Raptors and Mavericks.
Will LA put its pieces together by April? Anything short of a championship appearance would be a disappointment.
How Damian Lillard’s MVP-worthy season closes
Lillard has been nothing short of amazing this season, but injuries to Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic and Rodney Hood have capped his Blazers team’s ceiling. Lillard is averaging a career-best 30 points per game with eight assists and four rebounds on 39 percent thee-point shooting and 46 percent shooting from the field. Yet Portland sits four games below the rebuilding Grizzlies for the eighth seed.
Portland isn’t out of the running yet, even if Collins and Nurkic don’t return. But it’ll be a tough gap to close. It’ll be Dame Time at all times, and must-watch TV until the final buzzer.
Zion Williamson’s pursuit of the eighth seed and Rookie of the Year
Just like the Blazers, the Pelicans will be making a run at the Grizzlies’ No. 8 seed with Zion Williamson leading the charge. Since his debut, New Orleans has gone 5-5, though he’s been a tremendous difference-maker who should only get better. The Pels are 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him playing than not. The team has a 5.5 game gap to fill, which is even steeper than the Blazers, but the road is not impossible.
There’s also the Rookie of the Year chase for Williamson. He can only play a maximum of 37 games if he stays healthy the rest of the season, which might be too much to overcome. But he is averaging 22 points, eights rebounds and two assists on 58 percent shooting from the field. Those are ROY stats. If he’s able to maintain those numbers and steal the Grizzlies spot in the playoffs, he may have a case over Ja Morant.