What Have We Learned at the Halfway Point of the NBA Season?

A breakdown of the hopes and dreams of each playoff team and its fan base.

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While the exact mid-point of the NBA Season is game 41, one could call the peak trading season (Jan 1-Feb. 6, 2020) the real middle of the season.

At this point, most of the playoff teams are set. In the West, there is a 4.5-game gap between the #7 seed and the #8 seed. In the East, there is a 5.5-game gap between the #6 seed and the #7 seed.

There has never been this much hope among bad teams to make the playoffs.

Unlike other seasons, only 3 1/2 games separate the #8 team (Memphis) from the #15 team (New Orleans) in the West, while there are four teams in the East within a 1/2 game of the #9 seed, four games outside the last playoff spot.

With twelve teams vying for two playoff spots, this could be one of the quietest trading seasons in recent memory, as all these losing teams will wait as long as possible before deciding whether they need to add a piece to make a playoff run, build for the future by getting a good return on their better players, take on bad contracts in exchange for future draft picks, or go into a full-on tank.

Meanwhile, the rich are waiting to get richer

The top five seeds in the West are playing elite basketball, on pace to win from 55–67 games, and the top three seeds in the East are on pace to win from 57–70 games. Since 2002, there has only been one season where eight teams won at least 54 games; the average is closer to four.

The road to the NBA Finals hasn’t been this open since 2010–2011 when seven teams won over 55 games and all of them thought they had a shot at the Finals.

Since every contending team needs to fill holes in their roster, the dearth of trading partners at present could create all kinds of angst.

The top teams might have to wait for the buyout market at the end of the year, when teams try to save money by dumping players with large contracts who aren’t the right fit for their team, but did not attract good enough offers during the trade season.

Here’s a break down of the contending teams by tier.

TIER 1: Land of the Giants

Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Lakers have been the two dominant teams during the first half of the regular season and look to have the most direct road to the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee (36–6) leads the league in just about every important metric.

They are #1 in defensive rating, #3 in offensive rating, #1 in net rating, and #1 in point differential, and are led by the MVP-favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The only weakness the Bucks have is in 3-point shooting defense. The Bucks are the best team in the league at protecting the rim, and commit weak-side defenders to collapse inside as part of their system. Because of this, they are a bottom-10 team in opponent 3-point shooting percentage and dead last in allowed 3-point baskets made.

This is a calculated risk that has paid off handsomely during the regular season, due the combination of variable shooting on a day to day basis, plus the number of bad teams in the East.

The only games the Bucks have lost have been due to 3-point explosions by their opponents: Miami (16 made, 36.4%); Boston (17 made, 41.5%); Utah (15 made, 41.7%); Dallas (16 made, 39.0%); Philadelphia (21 made, 47.7%), and; San Antonio (19 made, 54.3%).

In the playoffs last year, we saw how a 3-point explosion by Toronto combined with poor 3-point shooting by the Bucks sunk their season. In response, the Bucks signed Kyle Korver, a dead-eye shooter from deep who has championship experience.

The only real question for the Bucks to reach the NBA Finals will be if coach Budenholzer can make adjustments to his system if they play an elite 3-point shooting team like Miami (#2), Indiana (#5), or Toronto (#6), or if the Celtics shoot out of their minds.

Other than that one weakness, the Bucks only possible stumbling point is to make the mental jump from regular season to playoff intensity. Giannis is a beast on a day-to-day basis, but I have to wonder if the Bucks have another gear in the post-season.

The Lakers (33–8) are almost as dominant as Milwaukee, in spite of having two big holes in their lineup.

They are #3 in defensive rating, #4 in offensive rating, #2 in net rating, and #2 in point differential, plus the combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis gives the Lakers the best 1–2 punch in basketball because their skills are complementary.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George each need the ball to do their thing in isolation. The same thing goes for the best perimeter players on most of the other teams.

But the Lakers can just put their two superstars in a pick and roll and usually get an easy bucket at the rim for one or the other, or a wide-open three point shot for one of their role players.

Since a terrible shooting slump at the beginning of the season, the Lakers have become a top-10 3-point shooting team. Four of their regular rotation players are shooting at or above league average, and three more are above 34.5%, making the team dangerous enough from outside to make teams pay when they collapse around the rim to stop LeBron, Davis and their vertical threats in McGee and Howard.

The Lakers’ have a perception or political problem during the regular season problem and a real lineup problems in the playoffs.

In the regular season, their lack of depth at point guard means their offense can stall when LeBron is on the bench. They refuse to recognize the fact that Rajon Rondo is no longer the same player he was in Boston. Aside from the occasional outstanding offensive game, like he had at Dallas and OKC to lead the Lakers to improbable victories when first Davis and then Davis, James and Green all sat out, Rondo is killing the team with bad defense and too many dumb turnovers.

The Lakers hope to sign a solid backup point guard before the trade deadline, but it has to be someone with enough of a reputation that he can overcome the internal team politics that keep Rondo in the game at the expense of Alex Caruso.

Caruso is not as gifted in directing an offense as Rondo, but he is far superior in every other facet of the game: willingness to shoot open 3-pointers; ability to attack close-outs; finishing at the rim, rebounding; and defense. So far this season, Caruso has an impossibly high +9.4 On/Off Net Rating, second only to LeBron’s +12.5. When Caruso is on the floor, the team’s defensive rating is a league-leading 100.1. When he’s off the floor, the team drops to #14 in defensive rating.

The Lakers have two 5-man lineups among the top 8 in both defense and four in the top 15 in net rating: James, Caruso, Howard, Kuzma and Rondo (+35.4); James, Davis, Howard, Green and Bradley (+34.9); James, Davis, Caruso, Green and KCP (+31.5). The only non-LeBron lineup in the top 25 is Davis, Caruso, Kuzma, KCP and Rondo (+23.8).

The Lakers didn’t play any of their best 5-man lineups against the Clippers at the end of their Christmas Day game, but I have to believe the coaching staff would risk losing in the playoffs for the sake of team politics.

On the other hand, the Lakers’ real playoff problem is their lack of depth at small forward, considering their biggest threat in the West is the Clippers. The Lakers have no one besides Davis and Danny Green to guard Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, unless LeBron has the energy at 35 to play big minutes, run the offense, and defend an elite wing player.

For the Lakers to win a title, they need a 3-and-D wing player like Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, or Robert Covington. Kuzma is the only other player with the size to do it, but he’s still a liability on defense (even though he works hard at it). Upgrading Kuzma with a better perimeter defender is the most obvious — and politically correct — way to improve the team, so he’s the main source of trade rumors.

It remains to be seen how good Rob Pelinka will be as a GM. With LeBron’s advanced age, the Lakers have a small window at a title. Those title hopes revolve around the ability to add a good wing defender or upgrade at point guard so they have a better two-way player who can guide the offense when LeBron is on the bench.

TIER 2: The Mastodon in the Room is a real load, but also on load management.

The Clippers (29–13), in spite of their uneven regular season (#3 in the West), are the one team that scares the Lakers.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the only LeBron-stoppers in the West, and they play for the same team.

So far, they have only appeared on the court together in 18 of their 42 games this season.

But we have to assume that during the playoffs they will be able to unleash their best lineup of Leonard, George, Patrick Beverly, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell for the fourth quarter in every game that matters.

However, the Clippers have a huge hole to fill themselves, as their lack of size at center means they could lose a series to a team with a dominant center like Utah or Denver in the playoffs before they get the chance to play the Lakers.

Even teams like Houston or OKC have given them problems this season.

TIER 3: The Modern-day Freak Shows.

Philadelphia, Houston and Golden State were my wild card picks for title contention.

The injury to Stephen Curry has turned the Warriors into a tanking train that won’t let Curry and Thompson play again this year when they have a great chance at the #1 pick in the draft this summer.

That leaves an ill-fitting defensive monster without a point guard who make 3-pointers, and an offensive juggernaut run by two ball-dominant scoring point guards who have to share the same ball.

Philadelphia (26–16) is put together like something out of a Frankenstein movie, except the mad-scientist pulling the strings is far more horrifying than the monster.

I thought Philadelphia was the one team with a chance to threaten the Bucks, but they have so many problems it seems unlikely they will survive the playoffs long enough to meet Milwaukee in the playoffs.

Besides Ben Simmons’ well-publicized inability to shoot from outside the restricted area, and Joel Embiid’s inexplicable desire not to dominate games in the paint, the 76ers are stuck with a coach who has been consistently dominated by the top coaches in the East.

Philadelphia is the only top-5 team that looks like a lottery team on the road (7–14), and has a losing record (10–11) against teams with records of .500 or better.

For comparison, here are the records of the other top teams against non-losing teams: Milwaukee (9–5); Miami (10–6); Lakers (11–7), Denver (9–5), Clippers (8–6); and Rockets (8–6).

The 76ers have no cap space, so they will have to give up a good asset to get a two-way player who can shoot, but the quandary over how to have their two best players, Simmons and Embiid, on the court at the same time remains an unsolvable mystery, even though their coach has been working on the problem for three years.

Here’s a crazy trade idea that would help both teams in the long run: D’Angelo Russell and Omari Spellman for Al Horford.

Philadelphia gets a point guard who can shoot from outside, and a backup big who can space the floor (41.5% on 3-point shooting this season), while Golden State can put out a lineup next year of Curry, Thompson, Green, Horford and a small forward like Covington in exchange for a possible #1 pick in the draft. That could be a championship starting five.

Houston (26–14) is at full strength, and they are still losing to average teams.

The Russell Westbrook experiment is looking worse and worse. Last night he had a rare 30-point triple-double (31–11–12), and the team lost at home to the #10 seed Trail Blazers. Meanwhile, James Harden scored 13 points on 12 shots.

Houston’s defense is mediocre to bad, and they’ve lost by double digits against Memphis, OKC, New Orleans and Golden State over their last 10 games.

Like Philadelphia, there’s something really wrong with Houston and it doesn’t look like it can be fixed unless they make a radical addition-by-subtraction trade.

Daryl Morey has to be able to find some team dumb enough to take on Russell Westbrook, right?

Would the Suns take Westbrook for Rubio and Oubre? According to the ESPN trade machine, it doesn’t change Phoenix’s winning percentage, and only improves Houston by 2 wins, but can you imagine Rubio’s defense and passing as a backup to Harden, while Oubre just waits for wide open 3-pointers?

Would the Kings take Westbrook in exchange for Harrison Barnes and Trevor Ariza? According to the trade machine, the King’s winning percentage would be unchanged, while Houston’s record would decrease by five wins, but it might do the opposite, considering how it would allow the Rockets to add two more solid 3-and-D guys, while letting Harden totally dominate the ball.

Tier 4: They’re More Dr. Jeckyll than Mr. Hyde.

Boston, Denver and Utah have outstanding records, on pace to win over 56 games this season. But for all the preseason whispers and the impossibly high fan expectations, these teams look fragile.

In other seasons, that might guarantee a #1 or #2 seed in the playoffs and a deep post season run.

This season, nothing is guaranteed, except maybe the unliklihood of getting out of the second round — a huge blow to their insane fan bases.

Boston (27–13) once again has some gaudy stats, but my views on them haven’t changed over the last three years, in terms of their ceiling.

They have three fundamental, structural problems that make them a great regular season team with no extra gear to jump the elite teams in the playoffs:

  • Boston will not have the best player on the floor against any of their main Eastern rivals, which makes it extremely difficult to win in crunch time against a Giannis, Embiid, Butler, Siakam, or even a healthy Oladipo.
  • Boston is without a dominant center who can get rebounds and points in the paint during crunch time. (They have improved in this area with the increased driving by Tatum, Brown and Walker to the point they are now in the top 10 in points in the paint, but those numbers are deceptive. They got swept by the bigger lineup of the 76ers, in spite of their coaching advantage with Brad Stevens.)
  • Boston still lives and dies by the outside shot, but they are a lower middle team in 3-point shooting percentage. In my earlier analysis at the beginning of the season, I compared Boston and Miami in this way:
    they both have a top coach, play great defense, have a bunch of good two-way players at the wing, depend on their outside shooting, and rarely have the best player on the floor when they play against a team with a superstar.” The difference is Miami is #2 in 3-point shooting percentage and Boston is #18.
  • Until Brad Stevens wins a ring, I’m going to stick by my age-old observation about coaches: some can develop young teams into winners, and some can deal with superstar egos to find a way to win championships, but it’s extremely rare to find someone who can do both.

Denver (29–12) has benefited from roster continuity over the last three years, but they’re also starting to look a little stale.

When a great team wins a championship, people accept the fact that the team will get complacent in future seasons, trying to conserve energy for the end of the season.

In Denver’s case, they never won anything.

After missing the playoffs in 2018, the Nuggets were on fire to start the next season, and ended up as the #2 seed in the West. From there, they almost lost in the first round to the washed-up Spurs, and then lost a game 7 at home to Portland.

This year, they have had another fast start, but there is a complacency in the team that shouldn’t be there, suffering lopsided losses to the Pelicans (twice), Wizards and at home to Cleveland. With seven losses, Denver has more losses to losing teams than twelve of the top 13 teams in the league, and the trailed the weaponless Warriors by as many as 19 points before finally winning in overtime.

Over their last 15 games, Denver is again a bottom-5 defense, another sign of inconsistent effort, and it now makes them vulnerable at home.

As I wrote in my preseason predictions, Denver doesn’t check enough boxes to be a serious contender. They have a good coach, a good system and a bunch of good pieces. But they don’t have an unstoppable offensive player in crunch time, and they don’t have a player to defend Giannis, LeBron or Kawhi.

The trade rumors for Denver currently center on upgrading at point guard, allowing Jamal Murray to slide over to the two. That could certainly help Denver beat the Thunder in the first round, and Utah if they’re lucky enough to avoid the Lakers and Clippers until the Conference Finals, but I don’t see how it gets them over the hump, or have a chance against Milwaukee.

Denver has the fourth toughest remaining schedule, featuring the Bucks (x2), Lakers (x2), Clippers (x2), Toronto (x2), Utah (x4), Houston (x2), OKC (x3), Dallas (x2), at Miami and at Indiana. That’s 21 of 42 games against winning playoff teams, of which 18 are against teams on pace to win at least 50 games.

Unless Michael Porter turns into Michael Jordan, I’m not buying the Nuggets’ chances to strike gold this season.

Utah (28–13) is on fire right now, but there’s a wet blanket headed their way soon… a maybe some torches and pitchforks in the hands of their fans.

It seems like every year Utah starts out with an impossible early schedule, gets into a hole, and plays great in the second half of the season to earn a high playoff seed.

This year, aside from signature wins against the Bucks and the Clippers, they look like a good bad team, with the worst record (5–9) against opponents above .500 of the top 6 teams in the West, while cleaning up against losing teams (23–3).

Utah has a similar schedule to Denver, with 20 of their 42 games remaining against playoff teams on pace to win 50+ games.

Utah made a great move in acquiring Jordan Clarkson in exchange for Dante Exum. Clarkson is a heat-check guy who can run the offense and get to the rim. He’s not a great defender, but he’s never had a rim protector like Rudy Gobert to back him up. He sometimes over-dribbles, but having a great systems coach like Quinn Snyder should help him.

Still, Utah faces big challenges.

First, they are no longer an elite defense, the core of their identity. In getting rid of Ricky Rubio, Derreck Favors, and Jae Crowder, Utah doesn’t have the same toughness, or a defender that can match the physicality of LeBron or Kawhi.

Second, they will be forced to deal with the Mike Conley Conundrum. Since his injury, Utah is 15–3. Before that, they were 13–9.

I saw Utah play the Clippers at Staples Center at the beginning of the season and Conley looked completely washed. He couldn’t guard anyone, and he was ineffective on offense.

Because of his huge contract and Jazz fan expectations, I wonder how well they will be able to work him back into the lineup.

When I watched the Jazz lose easily to the Lakers, I suggested that the best player coming from Memphis may have Avery Bradley. At least he can defend a few players.

Of Utah’s off-season signings, Jeff Green is gone, Conley is injured but looks terrible, Mudiay hasn’t done much, and Ed Davis is racking up DNPs.

The only silver lining for Utah is they seem to match up well against the Clippers, overpowering their undersized center.

If they could end up in the right bracket, they could make a conference final. Or, they lose in a brutal first round series against a team like the Mavericks (if the playoffs started today).

Tier 5: The Unexpectedly Undead.

Finally, there are three teams that have seemingly risen from the dead and are giving their fans a season full of thrills, chills and spills.

Each one has a slightly different approach to overcoming normal human limitations that might make them lottery teams or first round playoff fodder.

Miami (28–12) is kind of like the zombie apocalypse — nothing they do makes sense, but they keep coming after their opponents.

Aside from Jimmy Butler, the Heat is composed of the Walking Dead: ex-G-League players, undrafted players, end-of-the-bench rejects from other teams, and a few over-performing draft picks.

When a team depends on three rookies to come up big in crunch time, you expect to see a record like the Bulls or the Pelicans, not the #2 seed in the East.

The Heat are 6–0 in overtime games this year.

And then there’s Jimmy Butler, who talked, bullied and cajoled his way out of two locker rooms and left a third — wisely — because he has enough experience to know what a good coach looks like, and knew that Brett Brown will never take Philly to the promised land. Instead, he signed up with one of the best organizations in the NBA and a 2-time NBA Champ as coach.

Now Butler sounds like the aw-shucks All-American, putting team above all else:

Did Pat Riley perform a non-league recognized lobotomy?

The only thing that actually makes sense is the addition by subtraction in getting rid of the corpse of Hassan Whiteside and his massive contract so Bam Adebayo (a Draymond Green-style big averaging 15.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg and over 4.5 assists per game) can anchor the defense and beat opposing centers down the court in transition. He doesn’t shoot 3-pointers, but he doesn’t need to, as Miami is #2 in 3-point shooting percentage.

Miami has the best record (8–2) against their top four rivals in the East: 1–0 vs Milwaukee, 3–1 vs Philadelphia, 2–0 vs Toronto, 2–0 vs Indiana, and 0–1 vs Boston.

Maybe that, and a very tight salary cap will motivate them not to make any trade moves.

Their biggest upside would be to add a healthy Justice Winslow to their playoff roster, as he is probably their best wing defender, capable of guarding all five positions.

For now, Miami is the only dark horse that has a real chance of upsetting their way to a conference final.

Speaking of horses, Toronto (26–14) is galloping through the East like the Headless Horseman.

What team loses a top-5 superstar and plays almost as well the next season?

The defending champions broke out of the gates more like a thoroughbred than a childhood horror story.

Pascal Siakam became a candidate for Most Improved Player after winning the award last year, and his inspired played helped Toronto start the season 15–4.

On top of losing Kawhi Leonard and their starting shooting guard Danny Green, the Raptors have seen Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Serbe Ibaka, Norman Powell and now Fred VanVleet injured this season.

They trail four teams in total man games lost to injury this year only because their free agency losses are not counted in their total.

The two things Toronto can do, in spite of all the injuries, is defend (#2 in the defensive rating) and make 3-pointers (#3 in shooting percentage).

That bodes well for this team.

Plus, they play in the East.

Toronto will end the season with the third weakest schedule in the league.

Look for them to bounce back up the standings as their coach concocts unearthly lineups that somehow win, while the fans fill the Scotiabank Arena with blood-curdling howls.

Dallas (26–15) is hoping their bionic men can stay healthy for the rest of the season.

Did Luka Doncic go back to Europe for some procedure banned in the United States, like that thing they did to Steve Rogers in Captain America?

It certainly looks that way, as he averaged a 32–point triple double throughout the month of November and become a part of the MVP conversation this season.

In addition, the bionically repaired Kristof Porzingis helped lift the Mavericks from hopeful lottery team to the #3 seed in the West, on pace to win 54 games before he got slowed down by injury.

Since Porzinigis has been off the court, Dallas is 5–4 and looking more like a sacrificial lamb than a playoff nightmare.

But they still are the #1 rated offense in the league, boast the #3 point differential in the league, projecting a 60-win season, and have won signature games against the Bucks, Lakers, Nuggets and 76ers.

No matter what happens, this has been a wonderful surprise for Dallas fans.

Indiana (26–15) has been on life support for what seems like two years, waiting for the return of their heart and soul.

No matter how good I thought Malcolm Brogdon was with the Bucks, I didn’t expect him to have the year he is having and somehow leading the Pacers to be this competitive without their one superstar, Victor Oladipo.

If Oladipo can regain his old form, couldn’t we make the case that Indiana (with the injuries to Curry and Thompson) has the best back court in basketball?

Both guards can score at all three levels, hit clutch shots, pile up assists with very few turnovers, and defend at an elite level.

I never count on Indiana to be an elite team because they don’t have a dominant wing or big man, but could Oladipo and Brogdon turn into the Splash Brothers East?

Brogdon was a member of the 50–40–90 club because of the attention given to Giannis last year. As the focal point of Indiana’s offense, his shooting has dropped off.

What happens when he can play his more normal position as a shooting guard who can also pass?

What happens when defenses are worried about Oladipo, and the Pacers can stretch the floor with TJ Warren, Myles Turner and Brogdon?

I never thought I would say this, but Indiana could just as easily turn into a giant-killer like Miami or Boston.

They may not make the Finals, but this is a team that can make a huge move without trades if their star play can get healthy.

Final Predictions

I haven’t seen anything to differ from the consensus view that Milwaukee and one of the L.A. teams will make the Finals.

I have been the most shocked by Philadelphia’s struggles, but that’s more a matter of my refusing to believe two years of evidence indicating that the 76ers have the two most mismatched superstars in the league and a coach who will never figure out how to optimize the considerable talent he has been given.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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