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NBA Halfway: Takeaways from the NBAs first half
By Mike Jasko

With the All-Star game just a few weeks away, and every team now having played half of their scheduled games, it’s a perfect time to look at what the association has given us so far and how the second half of the season might play out. Before diving into the top teams and players from the first half, I first wanted to take a look at the top storylines that have developed as the NBA reached the halfway point.

Biggest Storylines in the NBA’s First Half

1. The Soaring Hawks

In the last month or so, Atlanta has emerged past Washington and Toronto, both as the NBA’s most pleasant surprise and as the East’s best team. At 36-8, they are 7 games up on Washington for the East’s best record and just percentage points behind Golden State for the best record in the league.  They have the NBA’s longest active win streak with 15 going into Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves.  They’ve only lost twice since December 1st; all this success despite not having a true superstar.

How have they done this? With great team basketball; they’re led at the point guard position by the unassuming Jeff Teague. The sixth year veteran is averaging a career-high 17.2 points per game, which leads the team. He’s also the team’s leader in assists with 7.5 per game, also a career high.  He’s got the Hawks as the league’s best passing team, with 26.1 assists per game.

The Hawks have put forth great all-around basketball this season. It’s easy to see the result of their league-best assist numbers as they have five players averaging double-figures. In addition to Teague, Al Horford, Paul Milsap, Demarre Carroll and Kyle Korver all average at least 11.7 PPG. Horford and Milsap have been dominant inside; the Hawks are the fourth best shooting team while holding opponents to the 3rd worse shooting percentage. They also have the league’s fifth best scoring defense at 96.1 points per game.

They look like a truly complete team that could very well win the wide-open Eastern Conference.

2. The Wild-Wild Western Conference Arms Race

Even though there are still several weeks until the trade deadline, the month of January has been ripe with trade activity, primarily involving Western Conference playoff contenders.  It started when the Boston Celtics finally decided to part with Rajon Rondo, sending him to Dallas for Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright, and a couple of draft picks. Houston then acquired Corey Brewer and signed recently waived Josh Smith.

OKC added Dion Waiters who had fallen out of favor in Cleveland; that was part of a three-way trade that allowed the Cavaliers to add Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks. This was during a stretch the Cavaliers were in freefall; in the midst of losing 9 of 10 as LeBron James sat out to rest his back and knee. Two days after trading Waiters the Cavs traded two draft picks to Denver for Timofy Mozgov.

Memphis was the next Western Conference team to act, trading Tayshaun Prince and a first-rounder to the Celtics for Jeff Green. As part of that trade, the Pelicans received Quincy Pondexter and sent Austin Rivers to Boston. That deal set the stage for Austin Rivers being dealt to the Clippers to be coached by his father Doc. That flurry of activity will surely pick up again as the February 19th deadline nears. It will be interesting to see which players get moved as more teams seek to add that piece that they think will make them a contender.

3. Ups and Downs for the Cavaliers and the Bulls

Coming into the season, the Cavaliers and Bulls were the consensus top two teams in the East,  but at the halfway point, the Bulls are fourth (29-16) and the Cavaliers are fifth (24-20) in the Eastern Conference Playoff Picture. Starting with the Bulls, who looked like the clear favorite in the East to start the season; they had added Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose was finally healthy.

They got off to a decent enough start, going 11-6 in the month of November. They went on a 7-game win streak to push their record to 22-9, and eventually to 25-10 on January 5th. Since that point however, the Bulls have struggled.  They lost Joakim Noah for four games due to an injury, going 2-2 in that stretch.  Derrick Rose has also missed a number of games, and hasn’t been as consistent in years’ past.  His 41% Field Goal Percentage is a career-low, and he’s averaging below 20 points per game for the first time since his rookie season.

It hasn’t been all bad for the Bulls however; part of Rose’s decreased production can be explained by the emergence of Jimmy Butler. He’s averaging 20.5 PPG to lead Chicago this season and has earned deserved consideration for All-Star Selection. Free agent addition Pau Gasol is also having a huge impact for the Bulls; his 11.6 rebounds per game is a career-high and he’s second on the team with 18.4 PPG.

The Cavaliers have had an even more tumultuous season than Chicago. It began full of optimism after LeBron James returned from the Miami Heat and the Cavaliers quickly moved to trade #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love. They limped to a 5-7 start, and then went on an 8-game win streak. It was around the first of the year the bottom fell out for Cleveland. They lost Anderson Varejao for the season with a torn Achilles, and LeBron, also ailing, was to sit out two weeks to rest.

The Cavs Lost 9 of 10 games, including 6 straight losses. In the midst of the freefall, GM David Griffin made the aforementioned trades and they seem to have worked swimmingly. LeBron returned on January 13th against the Suns, a game the Cavaliers played well but couldn’t win. Since that point, the Cavaliers have won 5 straight games, culminating in a 129-90 thumping of the Hornets on Friday night.

J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov have fit very well alongside LeBron, and he seems confident of both of their offensive abilities, as he’s a willing passer to both of them.  Since LeBron’s return to the line-up, Mozgov is averaging 10.5 points per game, and 14.3 in his last four. He’s also been a huge addition defensively, making Cleveland much tougher inside, averaging a block per game and 9.4 rebounds since joining the Cavaliers. J.R. Smith has had similar success, he’s putting up 15.3 PPG, up from 10.5 PPG which he averaged this season for the Knicks. He’s also shooting better, nearly 40% from behind the arc compared to 35% when with the Knicks.

The Cavaliers currently look poised for a strong push going into the All-Star Break. Iman Shumpert is now healthy for the Cavaliers, who will add more defensive capability to Cavaliers’ backcourt. They continue to be a fascinating team to watch develop as LeBron tries to build them into a true championship contender.

Top Five Title Contenders

 Here’s a quick look at which teams look like they have what it takes to raise to trophy in June.

1. Golden State Warriors

There’s no question that Warriors have been the best team in basketball thus far.  They’re 35-6, the best record in the NBA. They’re the top scoring team at 111.1 points per game, and they’re the most efficient scoring team, shooting 48.7% from the field. They are also a great defensive side, first in the league in defensive efficiency. Steph Curry (22.8 PPG, 8.1 APG) and Klay Thompson (22.6 PPG, 45% from behind the arc) have established themselves as the league’s best backcourt.

2. Atlanta Hawks

A month ago, I wouldn’t have considered putting any Eastern Conference team higher than 4th on a list like this due to all of the great teams out West. The Hawks have earned all their accolades thus far; they currently hold the best record in the East by 7 games.  What has impressed me about the Hawks is that they are 11-2 against the Western Conference; only Golden State’s 22-6 mark is a better winning percentage against Western Conference teams league-wide.  They’ve notched wins over Houston, Dallas, Portland, and Memphis already, and beat the Clippers twice. They’ve shown that they are more than capable of contending with the powers out West.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

With the Western Conference’s 2nd best record, the Grizzlies have impressed so far and look like they are gearing up for a deep playoff run. More than most teams in the NBA, the Grizzlies are one that is built for the playoffs. They’ve held teams to just 97.4 points per game, 4th best in the NBA. Their interior of Zach Randolph (16.7 PPG, 12 RPG) and recently elected All-Star starter Marc Gasol (19.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG) are as imposing of a duo as you’ll find in the league. The addition of Jeff Green gives them some added scoring and athleticism, which makes them even more dangerous.

4. Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks’ addition of Rajon Rondo has made them “sleeper” contenders in the West. They have the league’s fourth highest offensive efficiency and are just behind the Warriors for most points per game in the league.  Defense will be the biggest question mark come playoff time for Dallas; they are 15th in defensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive scoring at the halfway point

5. San Antonio Spurs

 Even though their record is just 28-17, 7th in the Western Conference, it’s far too early to count out the defending champion Spurs.  They’ve become infamous in recent years for pacing themselves during the regular season and it’s worked the last two seasons sending them to the finals.  They have a top ten offense and defense; my only question is will their older stars be able to withstand a 3rd consecutive run to the Finals

My MVP Shortlist

Here is my list for guys that should be the front-runners for MVP after a half-season played.

1. Stephen Curry, Warriors

So far I think Curry is the runaway MVP at this point in the season. The Warriors, as previously mentioned, have the league’s best record, and Curry has played fantastic along the way. In addition to his 22.8 points and 8.1 assists per game, he’s shooting a shade under 40% from 3, 91% from the free-throw line, and his 2.1 steals per game is 2nd only to Russell Westbrook.

2. James Harden, Rockets

Once again, Harden has the Rockets in the thick of things in the Western Conference.  He leads the NBA in scoring at 27 PPG. He’s 11th in assists at 6.8 per game. He’s shooting 45% from the field, 88% from the free-throw line and his far and away the lead leader in both Free Throws Attempted and Free Throws Made.

3. LeBron James, Cavaliers

 The way that LeBron has flown under the radar in understandable; he’s won the award four times and people are simply used to seeing him put up his numbers, however great they are. James is 2nd in the league with 26.0 PPG; he’s inside the top ten with 7.4 assists per game and he’s also averaging 5.5 rebounds per game. If he can guide the Cavaliers to a top-notch second-half, there’s no question he’ll be on the shortlist of MVP Candidates.

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