The first half of this unprecedented 2020-21 NBA season is in the books, and it hasn’t been without its surprises. Who would have picked the Utah Jazz as the league’s best team? Or that the Toronto Raptors would have a worse record than the Charlotte Hornets? Or that the New York Knicks would be the fifth seed in the East?
To make sense of everything we’ve seen, we picked one stat from every team that helps explain their first half — good, bad or somewhere in the middle. It’s been hard to judge teams with so many games postponed and players missing games due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, but this should give you a sense of how they got where they are, and where they could be headed in the second half.
Atlanta HawksFirst-half record: 16-20 (11th in East)Key stat: 3 total minutes with Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari on the court together
Clearly under a playoff mandate, the Hawks spent almost $150 million on contracts for Gallinari, Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo this offseason, and that resulted in a disappointing 16-20 record before the break. The problem is we really have no idea whether the signings were effective or not because those three have hardly been on the court due to various injuries. Bogdanovic missed 25 games, Rondo missed 16 and Gallinari missed 12, and that’s not even counting the injury to De’Andre Hunter, who was on his way to Most Improved Player consideration before injuring his knee 18 games into the season.
Trae Young, Bogdanovic and Gallinari — presumably a trio that should close plenty of games for Atlanta — have only been on the court together for three minutes all season. For what it’s worth, the group produced a 144.4 offensive rating in those minutes. The Hawks have improved defensively, so they’re hoping Bogdanovic, Gallinari and Rondo can stay healthy in the second half to provide a boost to the offense under new head coach Nate McMillan.
Boston CelticsFirst-half record: 19-17 (4th in East)Key stat: 2 secondary assists per game
Hat tip to former NBA forward and current Celtics TV analyst Brian Scalabrine, who pointed out on “The Lowe Post” podcast that Boston was racking up just two secondary assists (also known as hockey assists) per game. That’s the second-fewest in the league, just ahead of the New York Knicks, who have the 23rd-ranked offense in the NBA, and it indicates a lack of ball movement from the Celtics. Teams with prolific offenses, like the Nets, Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets and Suns, are all near the top of the league in secondary assists. It’s a testament to the isolation ability of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that Boston has the league’s 12th-best offense with so few secondary assists — they’re also 27th in the league in traditional assists. It makes you wonder how good they could be if there was a little more ball movement.
Brooklyn NetsFirst-half record: 24-13 (2nd in East)Key stat: 122.4 offensive rating with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the floor
Is the defense great? No. Do they need another big man? Possibly. Do those things matter if they have Durant, Harden and Irving on the court? Maybe not.
The NBA’s newest Big Three has only shared the court for 186 minutes this season, but the results have been overwhelming with a robust 122.4 offensive rating (for comparison’s sake, last season the Mavericks set the record for the best offensive rating in NBA history with 115.9). The defense hasn’t been great (114), but that means the Nets have outscored teams by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with those three on the court. That’s exactly why Sean Marks sacrificed the future to bring Harden aboard, and it’s why many, including Warriors forward Draymond Green, consider Brooklyn to be the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference.
Charlotte HornetsFirst-half record: 17-18 (7th in East)Key stat: Plus-53 (!) net rating in clutch situations
You might not know unless you’ve been paying close attention, but the Hornets have been the league’s best clutch team with an absurd plus-53 net rating in games within five points with five minutes remaining. They’ve gone 11-5 in those games, an incredibly surprising mark for the NBA’s second-youngest team. The offensive success can be attributed to their ball movement — they lead the league with a clutch assist ratio of 19.6 — and the scoring of Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, each averaging over 2.4 points per game in the clutch while shooting 50 percent from the field. Perhaps even more impressive is the defense in those situations, allowing just 90.6 points per 100 possessions in the clutch compared to 112.8 overall. This could be an outlier that deviates to the norm in the second half, but for now it’s something for Charlotte to hang its hat on.
Chicago BullsFirst-half record: 16-18 (9th in East)Key stat: 1.008 points per possession in half-court offense
Last season under Jim Boylen, the Bulls offense was 27th in the NBA, generating 0.922 points per possession in the half court, according to Synergy Sports Technology. This season under Billy Donovan, that has skyrocketed to 1.008 PPP, good for ninth in the NBA at the All-Star break. A lot of that has to do with the improved efficiency of Zach LaVine, who is in the 88th percentile in half-court offense, averaging 28.7 points on 53-44-86 shooting percentages. Chicago has also been one of the best cutting teams in the NBA, with Thaddeus Young carving up opposing bench units which has led to a career-high 4.4 assists per game.
Cleveland CavaliersFirst-half record: 14-22 (13th in East)Key stat: 0.888 points per possession in half-court offense
You can’t win if you can’t score in today’s NBA, and the Cavs offense was absolutely putrid in the first half. They have the league’s least efficient offense, and that’s even including pretty good transition numbers. Really, the trouble is in the half court, where they’ve only mustered 0.888 points per possession, last in the league by a good margin. They’ve scored fewer than 100 points 15 times this season, and have struggled to win games when Collin Sexton isn’t scorching hot — he’s scored 25 points or more in 10 of their 14 wins. They’ve been slightly better with Jarrett Allen on the court since he was traded from the Nets, and Kevin Love presumably should be returning soon to give the offense a boost.
Dallas MavericksFirst-half record: 18-16 (8th in West)Key stat: 106.8 offensive rating with Kristaps Porzingis on the court without Luka Doncic
Any team with Luka Doncic at the helm is going to score at a high clip, and that’s been the case this season again with the Mavericks scoring 115.8 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the floor. The offense gets even better when he and Porzingis are on the court together, but the problem comes when Doncic heads to the bench. Presumably, this is when Porzingis is supposed to carry the offense, but during those stretches the Mavs have struggled, scoring just 106.8 points per 100 possessions. That wouldn’t be so bad if the Porzingis units were playing defense, but they have a mediocre defensive rating of 111.5, leading to a minus-4.7 net rating. If the Mavs are going to make the leap that many expected this season, Porzingis has to start playing better, particularly with Doncic on the bench.
Denver NuggetsFirst-half record: 21-15 (6th in West)Key stat: Plus-11.2 net rating with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on the floor together
Of all the duos that have played at least 800 minutes together this season, Jokic and Murray have the best net rating (plus-11.2) and offensive rating (122) in 977 minutes. That’s a little misleading because a lot of stars around the league are staggered and Mike Malone plays his point guard-point center combo together quite a bit because of how well they work together, but it shows us that despite all the injury issues the Nuggets endured in the first half, they’re still an excellent and dangerous team when Jokic and Murray are on the court. Considering both of them will be playing heavy minutes come playoff time, this should make Denver confident despite its current place in the standings.
Detroit PistonsFirst-half record: 10-26 (15th in East)Key stat: Minus-16.9 clutch net rating
Detroit has been bad this season, but it’s not like it’s been getting blown out every night. Eighteen of the Pistons’ 26 losses have been by 10 points or fewer, and they’ve played six overtime periods so far. The problem is they generally lose close games because of their horrible clutch performance. They’ve gone a league-worst 3-15 in games that meet NBA.com’s clutch criteria (within five points with five minutes remaining), sporting the NBA’s second-worst net rating at minus-16.9. This isn’t necessarily surprising for the league’s third-youngest team that hasn’t played its veterans much and is led by Jerami Grant, who is still going through the ups and downs of being a team’s primary offensive option. The poor clutch rating, however, does explain why their record isn’t better despite being quite competitive in the first half.
Golden State WarriorsFirst-half record: 19-18 (9th in West)Key stat: 98.1 offensive rating with Stephen Curry off the floor
Stephen Curry is having arguably the best season of his career and the Warriors are sixth in the league in defense — so why have they hovered around .500 for the entire first half? Part of the reason is that Golden State’s offense falls off the highest peak of Mount Everest when Curry is on the bench, going from 113.1 points per 100 possessions to 98.1. The drop-off highlights the Warriors’ lack of another playmaker or isolation scorer, particularly since Steve Kerr likes to match minutes between Curry and Draymond Green as closely as possible because of their synergy. The answer could presumably be Andrew Wiggins, who has been a primary scoring option in the past, but in 372 minutes with Wiggins on the court and Curry off, the Warriors have mustered a paltry 91.2 offensive rating and have been outscored by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions. If Golden State is going to make a move in the second half, it’s going to have to figure out how to generate offense with Curry on the bench.
Houston RocketsFirst-half record: 11-23 (14th in West)Key stat: Minus-16.7 net rating since Christian Wood’s injury
Houston hasn’t won a single game since Wood’s ankle injury in early February, dropping 13 straight with a league-worst minus-16.7 net rating and 100.8 offensive rating over that stretch. They’ve rarely been competitive either, losing all but three of those games by double digits, five by 20 or more and one by 49, the second-worst home loss in franchise history. With John Wall, Eric Gordon and Victor Oladipo coming in and out of the lineup due to injuries and load management, it’s been a struggle for the Rockets of late. Wood will hopefully return soon after the All-Star break to provide some relief and help Houston get back in the win column.
Indiana PacersFirst-half record: 16-19 (10th in East)Key stat: Minus-14 net rating with Domantas Sabonis on the court
Let’s get one thing straight: This stat doesn’t mean that Sabonis — the team’s lone All-Star — is bad. However, when the Pacers are 4.6 points worse offensively and 9.4 points worse defensively when Sabonis is on the court, and have a 16-19 record at the break, it probably means something needs to be tweaked. Being without a dynamic wing scorer due to TJ Warren’s injury and Caris LeVert’s kidney procedure has likely contributed to Sabonis’ alarming on/off stats, and the fact that he is fourth in the NBA in minutes means the sample size with him off the floor isn’t great. But still, if you’re wondering why you haven’t won more games, your team having a minus-14 net rating when your best player is on the floor is a good place to start.
Los Angeles ClippersFirst-half record: 24-14 (4th in West)Key stat: Plus-17.5 net rating with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the court together
Much like last season, there are questions about the Clippers’ supporting cast and their clutch makeup — but once again they’re absolutely dominating when Leonard and George share the floor. Their 123.2 offensive rating is the best in the league for any duo that’s played at least 500 minutes together, leading to an impressive plus-17.5 net rating. George has also been leading the charge when Leonard is on the bench, but the real danger for the opposition comes at the beginning and end of games when the versatile two-way wings share the floor.
Los Angeles LakersFirst-half record: 24-13 (3rd in West)Key stat: 0.965 points per possession allowed
We love dissecting the Lakers offense: What do they do when LeBron James is on the bench? How can they get more shooting? But the real reason for their success has been the defense, and this season is no exception. The Lakers are leading the NBA on that end, allowing 0.965 points per possession to opponents, according to Synergy. Our Brad Botkin detailed how LeBron James has led by example with All-Defense level effort.
The offense-first additions of Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell have fully bought in defensively to begin the season and Kyle Kuzma has transformed his game — in fact, the Lakers’ defensive rating was even better with Anthony Davis on the bench in the first half. The Lakers have the 17th-best offense in the league, but their top-ranked defense has allowed them to remain in contention for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference despite Davis’ injury.
Memphis GrizzliesFirst-half record: 16-16 (10th in West)Key stat: Plus-0.8 net rating
The Grizzlies have been a .500 team in pretty much every way in the first half. Their record is even at 16-16, their net rating is almost even at plus-0.8, with their offensive and defensive ratings nearly identical. Injuries and health and safety protocols made for a disjointed first half, so there’s reason for Memphis fans to think things will improve in the second half, especially with the impending return of Jaren Jackson Jr., who has missed the entire season with a knee injury. Rookies Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have impressed, while Justise Winslow is starting to get his legs under him after making his Grizzlies debut shortly before the break. There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic in Memphis despite the vanilla start.
Miami HeatFirst-half record: 18-18 (6th in East)Key stat: Plus-12.3 net rating with Jimmy Butler on the court
It’s been hard to judge the Heat’s first half with so many players missing time due to injuries and health and safety protocols, but one thing is for sure: Miami is a lot better with Jimmy Butler on the floor. Its net rating is 12.3 points better with Butler playing than when he’s on the bench, with a significant difference on both offense and defense. The Heat are 14-8 this season with Butler in the lineup, and 4-10 when he’s out, which makes sense when you look at all he does for the team. Miami has slowly begun to get its pieces back, and should be poised for a strong second-half run.
Milwaukee BucksFirst-half record: 22-14 (3rd in East)Key stat: 18th in NBA in half-court defense
Regular-season juggernauts for the past two seasons, the Bucks haven’t dominated this year, largely because of a drop-off in defense. Last season the Bucks led the league in half-court defense, allowing 0.896 points per possession per Synergy. They fell to 18th in the first half of this season, allowing 0.988 points per possession. Correspondingly, their defensive rating has gone from a league-leading 102.5 last season to a 12th-ranked 110.4 so far. There are a few reasons for this, namely Mike Budenholzer changing up his drop scheme to allow more switching, which has caused a considerable adjustment period. They also have new rotation pieces in Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and DJ Augustin, who aren’t exactly known for their defensive prowess. Give Budenholzer credit for tying to adjust the strict defensive scheme that may have cost them in previous postseasons, but we’ll see if their personnel allows them to improve in time for the playoffs.
“Are we trying new things? Yes, we are trying new things,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said after a February loss to the Jazz, via The Athletic. “We started the game switching. We’ve never done this before. It’s something we did at the end of the game in [a one-point loss to] Phoenix. It’s something we think is going to help us.”
Minnesota TimberwolvesFirst-half record: 7-29 (15th in West)Key stat: 90 minutes with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell on the court together
Not much went right for the Wolves in the first half, but there’s at least some reason for optimism under new coach Chis Finch. The front office brought in Russell to pair with Towns, and this season they just haven’t been able to stay on the floor together. Due to injuries to both players and Towns also contracting COVID-19, the duo has played only 90 minutes together all season. The Wolves posted a positive net rating during that tiny sample size, which suggests that Minnesota might not be the worst team in the league if those two get more minutes together in the second half. But given the fact that Russell had a knee procedure in mid-February and the Wolves have strong incentive to make sure they keep their top-three-protected pick, we may not see him much until next season.
New Orleans PelicansFirst-half record: 15-21 (11th in West)Key stat: 1.027 points per possession allowed in half-court
Zion Williamson is having a historically efficient season, Brandon Ingram is matching his career numbers from last year and Lonzo Ball is shooting 39 percent on nearly eight 3-point attempts per game. Yet at this moment, the Pelicans wouldn’t even make the play-in series in the West. That’s because the defense has been borderline atrocious, despite being under the direction of defensive-minded coach Stan Van Gundy. New Orleans is second-to-last in the league in half-court defense, allowing 1.027 points per possession, and they’ve been terrible defending at the rim despite the offseason addition of Steven Adams. The personnel dictates that this should be a much better defensive group with Ball, Ingram, Williamson, Adams and Eric Bledsoe, so something is clearly not connecting. Van Gundy called out his team’s effort early in the season and they’ve played better since, but they need to learn how to get stops consistently if they’re going to compete for a playoff spot.
New York KnicksFirst-half record: 19-18 (5th in East)Key stat: 108.1 defensive rating
In contrast to the Pelicans, the Knicks’ new head coach has immediately given the team a defensive identity that has allowed them to surpass expectations. Tom Thibodeau’s squad is second in the NBA in defensive rating at the break, allowing 108.1 points per 100 possessions, after the Knicks finished 23rd in the category last season. The turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous, and it has everything to do with the players buying in from Day 1. Sure, there’s been a little bit of luck with opponents missing open jumpers, but there’s no doubt that this team is going to compete defensively every single night. The question is whether the offense can be competent enough to keep them above .500 for the rest of the season.
Oklahoma City ThunderFirst-half record: 15-21 (12th in West)Key stat: 1.408 points per possession, including assists, for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
After a fire sale from the front office that clearly signaled a full rebuild, many picked the Thunder to be the worst team in the league heading into this season. Projections had OKC winning anywhere from 21-23 games this season, and they’re already at 15 exactly halfway into their schedule. That has everything to do with Gilgeous-Alexander, who has taken another step forward this year and is proving he might be the best asset in a trade that involved Paul George, Danilo Gallinari and seven future first-round draft picks. The combo guard has produced 1.408 points per possession, per Synergy, when you include assists, just behind Chris Paul, James Harden, Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard for players with at least 800 such possessions — pretty elite company. Gilgeous-Alexander is doing all this with very little help around him, and the biggest leap in his game has come at the rim, where he’s finishing in the 88th percentile with 1.374 points per possession, compared to last season’s 1.039 (28th percentile). He’s also improved his 3-point shooting to 41 percent on nearly five attempts per game, including 40 percent off the dribble, up from 31.9 percent last season.
Orlando MagicFirst-half record: 13-23 (14th in East)Key stat: 0.951 points per possession in overall offense
There’s no sugarcoating it — the Magic have struggled this season. Beset by season-ending injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz and long absences from Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, Orlando’s offense has been a slog all year long. Nikola Vucevic has done all he can, but overall the team is producing 0.951 points per possession, 28th in the NBA ahead of just the Timberwolves and Cavs. Keeping Fournier on the court is key, as the Magic are 9.4 points per 100 possessions worse offensively when he sits, but even with him it’s going to be a grind. The hope is that the defense improves and that the offense can meet it halfway as the season continues.
Philadelphia 76ersFirst-half record: 24-12 (1st in East)Key stat: Plus-14.5 net rating with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the court together
It’s a question as old as The Process itself: Can Embiid and Simmons co-exist? The answer so far this season has been a resounding yes. The 76ers have been absolutely destroying teams with their two All-Stars sharing the court, producing a 119.2 offensive rating (compared to 104.5 last season together) and a stingy 104.7 defensive rating in 754 minutes. The net rating of plus-14.7 is tops among NBA duos playing at least 700 minutes together. Speaking of minutes, Doc Rivers has played the pair together more than Brett Brown, who generally staggered Simmons and Embiid for most of the game. The result has been increased chemistry, with Embiid saying earlier this season that things have “just been different” between him and his co-star. It also helps that Daryl Morey added necessary shooting around them by acquiring Seth Curry and Danny Green over the offseason. Just look at how much room Simmons and Embiid have to operate with Curry, Green and Tobias Harris spacing the floor.
The improved performance in Simmons-Embiid minutes is one of the biggest reasons the Sixers have the best record in the East at the break.
Phoenix SunsFirst-half record: 24-11 (2nd in West)Key stat: 1.285 points per possession around basket
We get caught up in the 3-point barrage we see on a nightly basis in the NBA, but the highest percentage shot on the court is still a layup or a dunk. The Suns haven’t gotten into the paint as much as some other teams, but their efficiency around the basket has been phenomenal, third in the league with 1.285 points per possession, according to Synergy, up from 19th last season. Much of that comes from the addition of Chris Paul, one of the best finishing guards in the league who uses that leverage to draw defenses in for kick-outs to open shooters. Deandre Ayton’s efficiency around the rim has also improved, partly a product of deep paint touches on dishes from Paul and space created from 3-point proficiency from Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder.
Portland Trail BlazersFirst-half record: 21-14 (5th in West)Key stat: 5.5 clutch points per game from Damian Lillard
There’s no need to get fancy when it comes to Blazers analysis — Damian Lillard has saved a season that could have gone downhill very quickly due to injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. The Portland offense improves by 14.3 points per 100 possession with Lillard on the court, but his impact is even stronger at the end of games. The Blazers are 14-5 in clutch games (within five points with five minutes remaining), and Lillard leads the NBA with 5.5 points per game in those situations. It passes the eye test, too, as any time Lillard raises up for a meaningful late-game shot, you have total confidence that it’s going in. It’s remarkable that Lillard has his team seven games over .500 in a tough Western Conference, and he’s put his name squarely in the MVP conversation with his consistent heroics.
Sacramento KingsFirst-half record: 14-22 (13th in West)Key stat: 1.073 points per possession allowed
There’s bad defense, and then there’s whatever the Kings have been playing this season. The 2018-19 Cavaliers hold the dubious distinction of having the worst defensive rating in NBA history with 117.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to Stathead. The Kings are blowing that out of the water this season with a rating of 119.9. They’ve allowed fewer than 100 points just once (to the offensively challenged Knicks), and have given up 120 points or more in 21 of their 36 games. Sacramento’s offense has been pretty good overall, but even the Nets would have trouble keeping up with that pace. Luke Walton’s job is reportedly safe for now, but something will have to be done if the Kings continue to be this awful defensively.
San Antonio SpursFirst-half record: 18-14 (7th in West)Key stat: 11.1 turnovers per 100 possessions
Gregg Popovich’s teams are usually disciplined, but the Spurs are taking things to another level this season. They’re averaging just 11.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, and are on pace to have the lowest single-season turnover percentage in the history of the NBA, according to Stathead. That’s largely due to DeMar DeRozan, whose 4.27 assist-to-turnover ratio is best in the league for players averaging at least 30 minutes per game. He’s putting up a career-high 7.2 assists per game as the team’s primary facilitator, and is one of the main reasons why the Spurs have remained in the playoff race despite a subpar season from LaMarcus Aldridge and myriad injury/COVID absences.
Toronto RaptorsFirst-half record: 17-19 (8th in East)Key stat: 1.009 points per possession allowed
Last season, the Raptors were able to win more games than most analysts predicted because of their suffocating defense, and that just hasn’t been there so far this season. In 2019-20, the Raptors were second in the league, allowing 0.935 points per possession per Synergy, and that has now fallen to 14th with 1.009 points per possession. The departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have definitely hurt, and their transition defense has dropped from first in the NBA last season to 21st this season. OG Anunoby missed 13 games in the first half, which also contributed to their defensive decline. Toronto’s defensive rating is 6.3 points better when Anunoby is on the court.
Utah JazzFirst-half record: 27-9 (1st in West)Key stat: 17.1 3-pointers made per game
Only four teams in NBA history have made over 15 3-pointers per game. This season, the Jazz are averaging 17.1 3-pointers per game, nearly a full 3-pointer ahead of the next team on the list. Utah’s defense has been brilliant, but the offense has taken it from a second-tier Western Conference team to a full-fledged title contender. The Jazz are fourth in the NBA in half-court offense, averaging 1.114 points per possession, and have gone from 13th in the league in jump shot efficiency last season to third this season. The combination of offensive prowess and defensive toughness has made the Jazz one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA.
Washington WizardsFirst-half record: 14-20Key stat: Minus-7.3 net rating with Russell Westbrook on the court without Bradley Beal
The acquisition of Russell Westbrook was supposed to take some of the offensive burden off Bradley Beal’s shoulders. So far, it hasn’t worked out as the Wizards hoped. The two haven’t been great together, posting a net rating of minus-5.4, but the real problems start when Beal goes to the bench. The Westbrook-only lineups have a minus-7.4 net rating in 303 minutes, including a futile 97.8 offensive rating. Westbrook’s offense has been dismal this season, averaging 0.743 points per possession in the half-court, dead-last in the league among players with at least 300 such possessions. He’s been slightly more effective in transition and when you account for assists, but he needs to be much more efficient in half-court scoring if the Wizards are going to make the playoffs.