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The NBA, Halfway Through

John Orzechowski, Head Writer

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The NBA All Star teams have been announced, meaning we’re close to the halfway point of the regular season. Most teams have played between 50 and 55 games, so let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines of the season so far.

Standout Players

Blake Griffin: Just because I’m a Pistons fan, I have to start with Blake. He’s a lone bright spot on an otherwise inconsistent season. He’s transitioned from the flashy lob city Blake who jumps over KIAs to a fundamentally excellent player having the best season of his career. He’s averaging 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists throughout the year. He’s shooting more threes than even in his career and is making them at a higher rate. He’s an All Star this year, but that’s about the only good thing about the Pistons. They started out 13-7, including a career- high 50-point game by Blake against the 76ers, but since then they’ve gone 8-21 because they aren’t consistent.

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James Harden: On January 14th, James Harden dropped 57 on the Grizzlies to earn the most consecutive 30- point games (at 17) since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. He’s currently at 28 straight, including three games of 50+ and twelve games in the 40s. Much of his production had been credited to the fact that Chris Paul had been out with a hamstring injury, but his first game back Harden dropped 40 against Orlando. Before his streak started on December 13th, the Rocket’s record was 12-14. Since then, they’ve gone 17-7, and Harden has a legitimate argument for being the best scorer of all time.

Paul George: Paul George is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and even he thinks so. He’s a legitimate member of any MVP discussion, because he’s playing phenomenally. Russell Westbrook keeps on posting his triple doubles, but George’s numbers (the best of his career) are what’s bringing in wins to OKC. He’s always been good on both ends of the court, but his steal and rebound numbers are better than they’ve ever been. If OKC keeps the pace they’re playing at, expect to see Paul George in the MVP conversation.

Luka Doncic: He was drafted third overall this summer by the Hawks, but was traded to the Mavericks for Trae Young and a future pick. Unfortunately for the Hawks, the 19-year-old Slovenian was considered one of the biggest All Star snubs when he didn’t make a reserve spot. As a rookie, Doncic is averaging 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. He’s averaging more minutes (32) and points (20) than any other rookie, and is second in assists behind Trae Young and tied for second in rebounds behind Deandre Ayton. He’s playing like a star, and the rest of the rookie class can’t keep up with him.

Kawhi Leonard: After his change of scenery, Leonard is averaging the best numbers of his career. His points average over his career has been 17, and this season he’s at 27. Along with over ten more points per game this season, he’s averaging almost two more rebounds and an extra assist. And because of these numbers, the Raptors are sitting at second in the East, just a game behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. After a yearlong hiatus in San Antonio, Leonard is back where he belongs: in the NBA’s upper echelon and MVP Race.

Other Standouts with points, rebounds, and assists

Giannis Antetokounmpo (27, 13, 6)

LeBron James (27, 8, 7)

Joel Embiid (27, 14, 4)

Nikola Jokic (20, 10, 8)

Kemba Walker (24, 5, 7)

 

Major Trades

There have been a ton of trades this season, but only a few that have seriously shaken up the NBA. Let’s take a look at the big ones and see which team won each.

Butler/Patton for Bayless/ Covington/ Saric/ pick:
Jimmy Butler was sick of being in Minnesota at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately for him, he just had to suck up and deal with it until November 12th, when the Timberwolves and the 76ers agreed to the first blockbuster of the year. It sent Butler and center Justin Patton, who is in the G League right now, for guard Jerryd Bayless, forwards Robert Covington and Dario Saric, and a second- round pick. This forged possibly the best big three in the east between Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons.

Trade Grade: Minnesota: B- Philadelphia: A-

Porzingis/ Hardaway/ Lee/ Burke for Jordan/ Smith/ Matthews/ picks:
Kristaps Porzingis has ridden the Knicks bench for the last year due to a torn ACL. And then, pretty much out of nowhere, he voiced his desire to get out of New York. That same day, the Knicks came up with a seven-player trade to Dallas. They sent Porzingis, one of the best players in the game, along with underrated shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., shooter Courtney Lee, and G League frequent Trey Burke to the Mavericks for center Deandre Jordan, guard- forward Wesley Matthews, and sophomore rising star guard Dennis Smith Jr.. Dallas paired Porzingis with rookie phenom Doncic, and New York cleared its cap space and now has enough to attract a top free agent like Kevin Durant this summer.

Grade: New York: B+ Dallas: B+

Harris/ Marjanovic/ Scott for Chandler/ Muscala/ Shamet/ Picks:
Since Tobias Harris entered the league in 2011, he’s played in four different jerseys, and in a couple days will have his fifth in Philadelphia. For this year, putting Harris in the lineup with Simmons, Butler and Embiid creates one of the best starting lineups in the league, even though they don’t have much of a bench anymore. But his contract expires this summer, meaning that they either have to pay him big money and decrease the chance of re-signing Butler, who’s also expiring this summer, or let him walk and waste four draft picks in a trade that impacted half a season. On the flip side, the Clippers dumped their bad contracts and now have about 46 million in cap room and can enter the Durant/ Leonard/ Kyrie Irving/ Butler sweepstakes this summer. Along with this, getting rid of their best player basically kicks them out of the playoffs this year and gets them a high draft pick.

Grade: Philadelphia: C+ LA: A

Porter for Parker/ Portis/ pick:
The Wizards core of Otto Porter, John Wall, and Bradley Beal wasn’t working. So they decided to blow it up. Sending Porter to Chicago for two mid-tier players and a pick seems like they were getting scammed, but in reality, it was all about getting rid of contracts. Porter is good, but isn’t worth the 57 million they owed him over the next two years. The Parker and Portis contracts combined don’t cost as much as Otto’s. This gives them room to maneuver and give Bradley Beal the money he deserves. And Parker and Portis aren’t that bad of players. Parker has had injury trouble, but he’s averaging 14 points in 25 minutes this year.

Grades: Chicago: B- Washington: B

Barnes for Jackson/ Randolph:
The Mavericks weren’t done after trading half their roster for Porzingis. Harrison Barnes, who had been considered the best player on the team before Luka showed up, was shipped to Sacramento for sophomore Justin Jackson, a young, still developing guard, and Zach Randolph, who’s been in the league since 2001. Jackson will join Jalen Brunson as a second young developing guard and Randolph will be a leader on the bench with Dirk. They unloaded their largest contracts in the last couple weeks and are going to be looking for a free agent to join Luka and Kristaps, after they get a lottery pick because their best, most mature player is gone. Sacramento, on the other hand, is surprisingly in the playoff hunt. Adding Barnes will add a little push that could force them into the 8 seed.

Grades: Sacramento: B- Dallas: A-

Mirotic for Johnson/ Smith/ Picks:
Nikola Mirotic was averaging 17 and 8 for New Orleans, and then the Bucks acquired him for Jason Smith, averaging 3 and 2, and Stanley Johnson, who they’d just received from Detroit for Thon Maker, who is averaging 7 and 3. The Bucks added another sharpshooter (Mirotic shoots 44%) for two minor role players and four second- round picks. Mirotic and Giannis will be a strong duo, and getting rid of Mirotic puts the ball in Anthony Davis’ hand even more. Plus, they got a lot of picks. Second rounders rarely produce stars, but you never know.

Grades: New Orleans: C+ Milwaukee: B+

Gasol for Valanciunas/ Wright/ Miles/ Pick:
The Grizzlies, in a desperate move, decided to split apart the Marc Gasol/ Mike Conley duo that got them to the playoffs seven straight seasons from 2010 to 2016. They’d been shopping Gasol, a center, for a while leading up to the deadline, and in a last- second move, moved the 12-year veteran to Toronto for center Jonas Valanciunas, averaging better numbers than Gasol this year, CJ Miles, who’s averaging around 5 a game, and Delon Wright, averaging around 6. Gasol isn’t the same player he was a couple years ago, but he’s still a nightly double-double machine. Pairing him with Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry will create a stronger big three core than was there before.

Grades: Memphis: B Toronto: A-

 

I was wrong, and I apologize

When I wrote my NBA preview back in October, I made some pretty bold predictions. Some of them were pretty accurate, but some of them were extremely wrong. Here are some major things I was wrong about.

  1. I, along with most everyone else, thought the Celtics were clear conference favorites. They’re third in the east, Gordon Hayward is a liability, and Kyrie is creating tension by threatening to leave. The roster has some problems, and if they can get them figured out by May they’ll be alright, but the Bucks, the 76ers, and the Raptors are looking really good right now.
  2. The Nets are a playoff team. I don’t know how, but D’Angelo Russell is an All Star and Brooklyn is 6th in the east.
  3. I said that the Grizzlies would be back in the playoffs this year. Mike Conley is having a strong comeback season, but they’re second to last in the West. They will not make the playoffs.
  4. Miami didn’t trade for Jimmy Butler. But other than that, they’re 8th in the East, about where I expected.
  5. I didn’t have faith in the Bucks. I thought that Giannis was their only hope, but this roster has become deadly. Khris Middleton, whom I didn’t even mention in the preview, is an all-star. Eric Bledsoe is averaging the best numbers of his career. So is Malcolm Brogdon. They’re at the top of the Eastern conference.
  6. After one really good year, the Pelicans are back at the bottom of the east, and Anthony Davis wants out. I doubt they’ll make the playoffs, even though Davis is the second best player in basketball (I stand by that).
  7. Markelle Fultz is still bad. I hoped that he would learn how to shoot over the offseason, but he didn’t. It doesn’t matter though, I still think the 76ers are going far in the playoffs this year.
  8. For some reason, the Kings are in serious playoff contention. I predicted they wouldn’t win 30 games all year, and they’re at 28 two weeks before the All- Star break, two games out of the 8 seed. Everything is clicking, and they aren’t the worst team in the league, and that’s embarrassing.
  9. Toronto is going to the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee.

 

My predictions for awards:

NBA Finals: Golden State vs Toronto, Golden State wins in seven just because of home court advantage.

Finals MVP: Stephen Curry, Golden State

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee

Most Improved Player: Montrezl Harrell, LA Clippers

Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George, Oklahoma City

Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee

Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic, Dallas

6th Man of the year: Dennis Schroeder, Oklahoma City

 

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The NBA, Halfway Through