What more can we say about the Jazz? They thoroughly dominated the first half on both ends of the floor, and have drawn comparisons to the 2014 Spurs because of their ball movement, spacing and unselfishness. They entered the break on a two-game losing streak, but there’s no reason to believe that Utah can’t finish the season at the top of the West if it stays healthy. The Jazz were undoubtedly the NBA’s best team for the first half of the season.
Brooklyn’s first half took a dramatic turn when it acquired James Harden, and it has become one of the scariest teams in the NBA since. With Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the court together, the Nets have put up a massive 122.4 offensive rating, and it’s hard to imagine a defense that’s going to be able to stop them if they’re healthy. Blake Griffin isn’t exactly the defensive-minded big man addition most expected the Nets to make, but we’ll see how he fits in. At this point, it’s hard to say anyone but Brooklyn is the favorite to come out of the East.
The Suns have not disappointed after adding Chris Paul to a team that already looked to be on the verge of a breakout after a perfect stint in the bubble. Paul and Devin Booker have found their bearings together, while Mikal Bridges has become an ideal 3-and-D complement. Deandre Ayton’s scoring is down, but he’s still rebounding and shooting well from the field as he adjusts to playing with Paul. Monty Williams changed his starting lineup quite a bit over the first half, showcasing a malleable roster that can adjust according to matchups. There’s no doubt the Suns are for real, with the No. 3 defense and No. 8 offense in the NBA.
The Lakers came out of the gates hot despite a short offseason, but understandably struggled when Anthony Davis went down with a calf injury and Dennis Schroder was forced to miss a few games due to health and safety protocols. LeBron James finally took a rest in the team’s last game before the All-Star break, capping off a brilliant first half on both ends of the floor. Schroder and Montrezl Harrell have been strong additions, but Frank Vogel still needs to figure out his rotations. No matter what seed they get, the Lakers will likely be the title favorites as long as LeBron and A.D. are healthy.
Joel Embiid was the MVP of the first half of the season, and he and Ben Simmons are thriving on the court together for the first-place 76ers — it’s a dream come true for Philly fans. The additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green have opened up the offense, and Tobias Harris has been excellent as the third star next to the team’s two All-Stars. There’s still room for this team to grow, and we’ll see if Daryl Morey decides to go all-in on a half-court playmaker to help fill in the gaps.
The Clippers ended the first half on a sour note, dropping six of their last 10 games, but they’ve once again been dominant with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the court together. The clutch statistics are slightly alarming — a league-worst minus-26.4 net rating and a 7-11 record — which may encourage the front office to make a move for another playmaker before the deadline. That being said, the Clippers still have the third-best offensive rating in the league, and should have confidence as long as Kawhi and P.G. are healthy.
Change has been the operative word for Milwaukee in the first half. Mike Budenholzer has adjusted his defensive scheme to incorporate more switching while newcomers Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and DJ Augustin have earned significant rotation minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting up another monster season with 29 points, 11.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, while Khris Middleton is once again on the cusp of a 50-40-90 season. Jrue Holiday seems to have fit in well, and it will be fun to watch the Bucks continue to grow in the second half.
For all of the injury issues and inconsistent play, the Nuggets finished the first half just two games behind the Lakers for the No. 3 seed in the West. Nikola Jokic has been much more aggressive looking for his own shot, which has led to an MVP-caliber year with averages of 27.1 points, 11 rebounds and 8.6 assists on 42 percent 3-point shooting. Jamal Murray was banged up to start the season, but came on toward the break by putting up 29.5 points per game on 51 percent 3-point shooting in his last 10 games. If they get healthy, the Nuggets are poised for a second-half run.
Dame Time is in full swing as the Blazers have exceeded expectations following injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum, who was having a career season when he went down. Lillard has been sublime, averaging nearly 30 points and eight assists per game while scoring the most clutch points in the league. Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. have stepped up in McCollum’s absence, while Enes Kanter has held down the fort at center with Nurkic on the shelf. This can be a very dangerous team if and when it gets its pieces back.
The Celtics’ first half was a bit disappointing, but keep in mind that their four best players have rarely been on the court together. Jaylen Brown earned his first All-Star selection with his improved play, but Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker struggled to find their shooting stroke. The eventual return of Marcus Smart should help on both ends, but Boston’s lack of wing depth has been exposed while he’s been out. We’ll see if the Celtics make a move with their gigantic trade exception before the deadline.
The Spurs just aren’t going to beat themselves, evidenced by their historically low turnover rate, and DeMar DeRozan has evolved into a tremendous facilitator with a career-high 7.2 assists per game. Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson have taken a step forward while LaMarcus Aldridge has struggled, and Derrick White rejoined the fold shortly before the break. Perhaps more importantly, San Antonio has gotten back to being a top-10 defense, after landing in the bottom 10 for the past two seasons.
Steph Curry has reminded everyone how great he is and the Warriors have the sixth-best defense in the league, yet they’ve hovered around .500 for most of the season due to a lack of scoring when Curry is on the bench. Andrew Wiggins has done exactly what has been asked of him and Kelly Oubre Jr. has come on after a horrid start, but neither has been able to carry the offense without Curry. Draymond Green has been tremendous, averaging a career-high 8.6 assists per game.
There are legitimate questions about whether it’s sustainable, but give the Knicks credit for finally building some positive momentum over the first half of the season. Julius Randle’s improved shooting and facilitating made him an All-Star, and Tom Thibodeau has developed an identity that has New York second in the league in defensive rating. The young players haven’t quite blossomed, though rookie Immanuel Quickley has had dazzling moments, but that’s the trade-off you make if you want to be competitive.
Luka Doncic has once again been phenomenal, averaging 28.6 points, nine assists and 8.4 rebounds in the first half, and the Mavericks managed to rattle off some wins before the break to put themselves back in playoff position. Kristaps Porzingis has struggled on both ends so far while dealing with injuries, and the Mavs are going to need him at full strength if they’re going to make a move in the Western Conference.
Through all of the absences due to injury or health and safety protocols, the Heat wound up with a .500 record in the first half. Jimmy Butler has been incredible on both ends, but the inconsistent lineups led to inconsistent results for most of the season. They came on strong toward the break, however, winning seven of their last 10 and looking much more like the team that made a Finals run in the bubble. Bam Adebayo has been rock-solid, averaging 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game.
After a rough start to the season, the Raptors looked to be turning things around before coaches and players were struck by COVID-19, leading to four losses in five games heading into the break. The defense was looking a lot better before that, and Fred VanVleet has earned his contract thus far with 20 points and 6.6 assists per game on 38 percent 3-point shooting. Masai Ujiri has a decision to make on Kyle Lowry, who’s having a tremendous season and could be a hot commodity at the trade deadline.
An ahead-of-schedule LaMelo Ball, an improved Terry Rozier and a resurgent Gordon Hayward have made the Hornets one of the most entertaining teams in the league, as they sit in playoff position at the All-Star break. James Borrego has a good thing going, even with Devonte’ Graham struggling for most of the first half. Charlotte has been lights out in the clutch as well, going 11-5 with an absurd plus-53 net rating.
It was a strange first half for the Grizzlies, who remained a .500 team despite both injuries and health and safety protocols. Ja Morant is as dynamic as ever, bumping up his point and assist averages from his Rookie of the Year campaign, though he’s struggled from behind the 3-point line thus far. Justise Winslow is starting to ramp up his minutes and Jaren Jackson Jr. presumably should return at some point in the second half, which would deliver a serious boost to the team on both ends.
An injury to TJ Warren and a kidney procedure for Caris LeVert have left the Pacers with a dearth of wing scoring after trading Victor Oladipo. Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis have done all they can, but Indiana has struggled to keep its head above water with a minus-13.4 net rating in clutch minutes. TJ McConnell is having a career season, but Indiana needs some more pop on the wing if it’s going to make any noise in the second half.
The Bulls’ first half was all about Zach LaVine, who has blossomed into an All-Star through increased efficiency and playmaking. He’s become one of the best clutch scorers in the league, which has allowed the Bulls to win more close games than in previous seasons. Patrick Williams looks like the power forward of the future for Chicago, which raises questions about how they’ll proceed with Lauri Markkanen, who could become a hot name as the trade deadline approaches.
First-half disappointment culminated in the firing of Lloyd Pierce just before the break, but he certainly didn’t have a full roster to work with. De’Andre Hunter was in the midst of a breakout season before a knee injury, while offseason signings Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo have all missed significant time. Trae Young has gone in and out of shooting slumps, but overall the numbers are good, while John Collins is having one of the most efficient offensive seasons in the league. We’ll see if they can stay healthy under interim coach Nate McMillan.
Zion Williamson’s interior scoring has been a revelation and Brandon Ingram has continued the progress he made last season, but the Pelicans have not been able to figure things out defensively under new coach Stan Van Gundy. That’s led to an underwhelming first half, even with Lonzo Ball on pace for career highs in 3-point percentage and volume. Van Gundy called out the team’s inconsistent effort early in the season, but the talent is certainly there to make some noise in the second half.
Halfway through their schedule, OKC is already approaching the win totals most sportsbooks set for the entire season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been incredible, improving his 3-point shooting, finishing at the rim and distribution while averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game. The front office will continue to look to deal Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza, but even without their vets, this team has remained competitive behind youngsters Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Hamidou Diallo and rookie Theo Maledon.
Bradley Beal is leading the league in scoring, but the Wizards’ offensive and defensive ratings are nearly identical to last season despite the addition of Russell Westbrook, who is having one of the least efficient offensive seasons in the NBA. Thomas Bryant getting hurt certainly didn’t help matters, and Rui Hachimura hasn’t made the leap the Wizards hoped. They were more competitive as the All-Star break approached, winning seven of 10 games, but it’s hard to see this team making a significant run in their remaining schedule.
The Cavs struggled to put the ball in the basket in the first half, and rarely won when Collin Sexton didn’t have a huge game. Jarrett Allen has played well since supplanting Andre Drummond as the team’s starting center, and Darius Garland has been healthy and consistent, a huge step for his growth. Kevin Love has played two games, so if he and Larry Nance Jr. get back on the court in the second half, that should provide a boost to Cleveland’s offense. All that said, 14-22 is probably better than most expected from the Cavs in the first half.
The Kings managed to win 14 games in the first half despite having the worst defense in the history of the NBA. Literally. They’re allowing nearly 120 points per 100 possessions, which creates a razor-thin margin of error in every game. De’Aaron Fox has continued his ascent as one of the league’s best young guards and they got a good one in rookie Tyrese Haliburton, but until they fix the defense they can’t consider this season as a step forward.
Nikola Vucevic has been incredible, earning his second All-Star nod, but that’s about all the Magic have going for themselves right now. Injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz took the energy right out of the team, while players like Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and promising rookie Cole Anthony have also missed significant time, causing coach Steve Clifford to get creative with some of his lineups. The result has been a very bad offensive team whose defense simply can’t keep up with the scoring explosion from the rest of the NBA.
Detroit loses a lot, but it sure does compete. Jerami Grant established himself early as a true No. 1 option, but quickly saw the downside of that status with all the defensive attention thrown his way. The Pistons parted ways with Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin, signaling a devotion to developing its young talent regardless of success, or lack thereof. Rookie Saddiq Bey looks solid, and Delon Wright and Josh Jackson have been pretty good with the extra opportunity. It will be fun watching their young players and reclamation projects in the second half, but don’t expect much winning.
What a roller coaster first half for the Rockets, who had to deal with the James Harden situation, looked pretty decent after the trade, then absolutely cratered with 13 straight losses before the break. Offense is going to be a struggle, but the eventual return of Christian Wood should help. It will be interesting to see how Houston handles Victor Oladipo, since its performance thus far can’t inspire confidence that he’ll be willing to sign with the Rockets in free agency this offseason.
Not much positive came out of the first half from the Timberwolves, but the good news is Karl-Anthony Towns is back on the court and starting to look like his old self after a wrist injury and a bout with COVID. New head coach Chris Finch has his work cut out for him, particularly with D’Angelo Russell still out indefinitely after a knee procedure. The Wolves will probably lose a lot more in the second half of the season, but that’s not the worst thing in the world since the pick they owe the Warriors is top-three protected this year.