We hit the halfway mark for the NBA regular season last week. And by the looks of it, the Golden State Warriors are ready to return to the big leagues. We have some pleasant surprises, some no-surprises, and not-so-pleasant surprises as well. And with the league’s trade deadline coming up fast this February, teams are scrambling to make the changes that will hopefully propel them to this year’s playoff games.
The re-emergence of the Warriors, after years in the doldrums, is creating so much excitement for the Bay Area fans. With a 30-11 record – second in the league – and with Klay Thompson rejoining the team, there is just so much to look forward to. This line-up is just oozing with talent, it’s just scary. With MVP-hopeful Steph Curry, top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, All-Star hopeful Andrew Wiggins, plus solid back-up players Gary Payton 2, Jordan Poole, Otto Porter, Nemanja Bjelica, Jonathan Kouminga and Kevon Looney, nobody knows who among these players will explode with the points at any given day. Oh, and there’s the veteran Andre Igoudala and James Wiseman coming back from another injury. And they’re not only devastating in the offense, as their defense this year has stepped up big time as well. This team is so ready for the playoffs, their only undoing now would be injuries and the risk of peaking too early. They are deep with talent, they have experience and court-savvy; now, if only they can stay healthy. They are definitely the team to beat right now.
The league-leading Phoenix Suns, with a 31-9 record and owner of this season’s longest winning streak at 17, will be the biggest challenge for the Warriors. Having retained everyone from last year’s roster that reached the NBA Finals, the Suns are as steady as a rock. With Chris Paul and Devin Booker leading the pack, and if they’re able to keep DeAndre Ayton happy with a new contract, they will give the Warriors a run for their money. They have 3 upcoming youngsters in Cam Johnson, Cam Payne and Mikhal Bridges, plus vets Jae Crawder and Javale McGee, all of whom provide stellar support to their Big 3.
The Memphis Grizzlies are the next pleasant surprise among the frontrunners. The Grizzlies hold a surprising 3rd-best 30-15 record in the Western Conference; and are doing it with a tough-as-nails defense, and a scintillating all-around performance from Ja Morant. The Griz own a 11-game win streak, 2nd best for the year. The team’s win streak could propel Ja into a starting role in the incoming All-Star Game. What is quite amazing though is that they have accomplished a substantial part of this without Ja, who was out on injuries for a period of time. Kudos to Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr and veteran Steven Adams for the exceptional effort in Ja’s absence.
The Utah Jazz (28-14), the Dallas Mavs (23-19) and the Denver Nuggets (21-19) continue to slug it out in the highly-competitive Western Conference. These 3 teams are capable of reaching greater heights, if injuries and the COVID protocols favor them.
In the east, the Chicago Bulls (27-13) are giving us another pleasant surprise. With Demar DeRozan flashing eye-popping All-Star figures, and a pesky defense bolstered by the addition of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, the inspired Bulls are the surprise leaders in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are now a rejuvenated team capable of trading blows with the big boys. With resident All-Stars Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic providing the steadying force, the Bulls are expected to go deep in the playoffs.
The Brooklyn Nets (27-15) are a superpower in turmoil. Despite the absence of Kyrie Irving at the start of the season, the Nets have managed to present a winning record right up there with the conference leaders. Kyrie’s return however has placed the team’s mindsets awry. His availability for only half the games (absent for ‘home’ games, present for ‘away’ games) makes for a confusing situation among the players. Kevin Durant is still the deadliest gunslinger in hoop town, and with James Harden in tow, the Nets remain a frontrunner in the race for the playoffs. Now, if only Kyrie gets his full-blown return-to-work status, they will certainly be the east’s team to beat.
The Miami Heat (27-15) added 3 notable players with the championship pedigree of the past 3 titles. PJ Tucker (Milwaukee Bucks 2021), Markieff Morris (LA Lakers 2020) and Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors 2019) provide so much more veteran sense to a team that is already loaded with talent. If Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Victor Oladipo, plus young guns Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson get to the playoffs in the pink of health, the Heat could be right in the thick of the battle.
Finally, the defending champs Milwaukee Bucks (27-18) has seemingly toughened up with their victory in the playoff battles last year. Despite the absence of a key piece in PJ Tucker, the team now banks on their championship experience to remain very competitive. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kris Middleton and Jrue Holiday leading the pack, the Bucks are looking for a repeat performance.
Among the heartbreakers, it is the Los Angeles Lakers who have underachieved big-time. Despite the presence of 7 current or former All Stars, the heavily-favored Lakers are barely surviving with a 21-21 record. A most disappointing run for the Lakers, there are wild rumors being thrown around. With Lebron James’ partner Anthony Davis waylaid by injuries, and Russell Westbrook not contributing as expected, there is a growing clamor to reboot the Laker project for this season. And we should find out as the trade deadline nears. At 38, Lebron is no longer the spring chicken he used to be, and the championship window with him around will be closing fast.
Other heavyweight teams that appear to be fading away this year include the LA Clippers, the Portland Trailblazers, and last year’s cinderella story, the Atlanta Hawks. These injury-riddled teams still have plenty of time to get back on the leaderboard, but they will have to make their moves soon.
This year’s season is an extension of last year’s troubled COVID games. The campaign will be decided once again by injuries, and how the COVID pandemic affects the playoffs.
But the game will certainly remain full of excitement. For there will always be young, dynamic players, intuitive coaches with new moves, new innovations. The game continues to evolve. Creatively. Beautifully. And with that, the cage world and the fans – everybody, for that matter – win.
Cover photo courtesy of NBC Sports. Other photos courtesy of Bleacher Report, ESPN, Sporting News, NBA.com, Lakers Daily, the New York Times, Fadeaway World, the Dallas Morning News, and Denver Stiffs. For a closer look, just click on the pics.