The second half of this NBA season is shaping up to be a wild one. Out East, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and a whole host of humans with ginormous hands are grasping at the Eastern Conference trophy that LeBron James finally relinquished after eight straight seasons. Out West, the Warriors are stuck in second gear, James Harden and LeBron are attempting to keep their respective squads in contention in hopes that midseason help arrives, and the Nuggets are proving they could win games with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and a couple of popcorn vendors. Because of the stiff competition in each conference, there are more questions than answers as we approach the trade deadline and All-Star Game. Let's focus on 25 of the more intriguing ones.
The Pelicans are in 12th place in the Western Conference, and it's time they start thinking about trading Anthony Davis. If they deal him this season, the Lakers might be willing to part with three of their four young assets (Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart). The 76ers might be willing to dangle Ben Simmons, too. Heck, the Warriors could even offer Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
If New Orleans waits until the summer, the Celtics will be eligible to acquire Davis (a provision in the CBA is preventing them from doing so this season without including Kyrie Irving) and could offer a package including Jaylen Brown and their war chest of valuable future draft picks. The Knicks could offer their unprotected 2019 first-round draft pick and Kevin Knox. The only downside to waiting for the summer is that if Davis demands a deal to a specific team, the Pelicans lose all their leverage. Lots to consider in the Big Easy, and none of it is all that promising.
The best-case scenario includes LeBron James and Anthony Davis. A lineup with those two could win the title. The next best scenario probably involves James, Bradley Beal and whichever two youngsters remain. This lineup could hang with any team in the league but is probably an underdog in the Conference Finals and Finals. The worst-case scenario would be if they make no major moves at the deadline because their current lineup likely has a Conference Finals ceiling and it'd be malpractice to waste a year of LeBron's prime, like when the team has a number of trade chips.
Out West, the Pelicans are sure to be in the middle of everything, as they hold the crown jewel in Anthony Davis. Yet there's a chance the Pelicans hold onto Davis and make a big trade of their own — we know they were in the mix for Jimmy Butler earlier this year. Everyone knows that the Rockets and Lakers will be looking for deals too. The Kings are desperate to make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, so keep an eye on them as well.
Out East, any of the top five teams could justify pushing their chips in and try to capitalize on the Warriors' perceived vulnerability. Also, keep an eye out for Pat Riley and the Miami Heat — they've straightened things out as of late and have been trying to land a blue-chipper ever since LeBron James left.
The conundrum of Kemba Walker: He means everything to the Hornets and wants to remain the face of the franchise, yet they can't compete with him on their roster. He's not quite elite enough to carry Charlotte deep into the playoffs, yet he's too good to not carry the team to a .500 record. With no cap room (maybe you shouldn't have maxed out Nic Batum, MJ!) and hardly any trade assets (maybe you shouldn't have turned down four first-round picks to draft Frank Kaminsky, MJ!), Michael Jordan needs to seriously consider trading Walker for some future draft picks and/or cap relief if the Hornets ever want to quit toiling in mediocrity.
The Blazers are having another solid season. They're 25-17 and have an average offense and defense. They won't miss the playoffs, but they probably won't make it out of the first round if they don't make a move at the trade deadline. Is this the year they break up the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt? How does the passing of owner Paul Allen impact the team's previously unwavering loyalty to its dynamic backcourt? Would the Wizards ever consider a Bradley Beal for McCollum plus an unprotected 2020 first-rounder swap?
A couple of teams that are teetering on the brink of falling out of playoff contention should seriously consider blowing up their rosters by trading away assets for future draft picks and high-upside prospects. The most obvious team is the Washington Wizards. At 17-25, no John Wall for the rest of the year and no cap space, the team should absolutely be looking to trade Otto Porter and his massive contract, Markieff Morris and his abrasive attitude and even Bradley Beal if a team like the Lakers offers multiple prospects and draft picks.
Just above Washington in the standings, the Magic, Pistons and Hornets are all fighting for the eight seed. If any of them falter, they'd be obvious "tank" candidates. In the West, everything is still congested in the standings, but the Grizzlies and Pelicans will want to listen to offers for their respective stars if they're on the outside looking in a month from now.
When LeBron James was 24 years old, he won his first MVP and led the Cavs to a league-best 66 wins. He was so transcendent that the team didn't think it needed to improve a roster with Mo Williams as its second-best player at the trade deadline. Everyone knows how that worked out for Cleveland — the Orlando Magic caught fire in the Conference Finals and upset the Cavs.
Milwaukee Bucks fans should be scared to death of history repeating itself with Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. Giannis is also 24 years old and an MVP front-runner, and he's leading a surprisingly good Bucks team to the top of the conference as the deadline nears. While the Bucks have better secondary options than the 2009 Cavs had, their current roster is probably another scorer and versatile forward away from being threats to win it all.
These dinosaurs are legit. Unlike past years, they have a roster built for the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is back to being the Kawhi Leonard of old (albeit, a little better on offense and a little worse on defense). Danny Green is having his best season in years. Same goes for Serge Ibaka, whose switch to small-ball center appears to have triggered a Benjamin Button-like reverse aging in his body. Kyle Lowry is second in the league in assists, too.
And who could forget Pascal Siakam — wow, where the hell did this guy come from? In his third season, he's made the jump from solid defensive presence off the bench to potential All-Star and two-way terror on the court. He's always sprinting, making offensive players uncomfortable on defense and pushing the envelope on offense — just making winning plays all over the court. He's like Toronto's own mutated version of Draymond Green. If you haven't seen him play yet, you're missing out on the best spin move in the NBA.
James Harden probably answered this one at Golden State last week where he put on one of the most impressive performances of his career. His three-pointer between the outstretched hands of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green was the climax point of an on-going, 15-game stretch in which he's averaging over 40 points per game. We know Harden will keep stuffing the stat sheet, but we also know that he's prone to wear down in the playoffs if another teammate isn't there to lighten his load. Can Chris Paul get back on track once he returns from his hamstring injury? Does Houston trade for another shot creator at the deadline?
Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets' meteoric rise to the top of the Western Conference has been one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season. Jokic is proving to be a one-man elite offense, as the Nuggets have been able to withstand significant injuries to a number of their key players, including Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton. Even if they sputter at some point during the second half of the season, they should finish with a top-four record in the West. The question then becomes what is their ceiling this season with a roster comprised mostly of players with little to no prior playoff experience? A safe bet is that they'll win their first-round series and then lose a close battle in the second round to a more experienced team like the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder or Lakers. Regardless, the future is bright in Denver.
With Paul George playing at a first team All-NBA level this season and Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant playing excellent two-way basketball, the Thunder might be the team best equipped to take down the Warriors. Notice I didn't mention Russell Westbrook? That's because the Thunder are often winning games in spite of Westbrook. While he is taking two fewer shots per game and has recommitted himself to defense (leading the league in steals), his shooting splits and shot selection are abysmal. He's a key reason why OKC has the worst field-goal percentage in the NBA. It's so frustrating because this team could absolutely steal some games from the Warriors in a series (they're 3-2 vs. Golden State since acquiring Paul George) with its defense and overwhelming athleticism. However, Westbrook has to be a much more efficient player for the Thunder to take down Goliath.
There are layers to this one. For starters, the relationship between franchise cornerstones, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, is somewhere between "working partnership" and "icy." It's probably closer to the latter right now after their recent rebounding collision and Embiid's subsequent freak-out. If that weren't enough to worry about, Jimmy Butler is apparently already comfortable dressing down head coach Brett Brown in front of teammates about his role in the offense. Some teams can excel amid chaos like this; others fall victim to it. Will the Eastern Conference's most talented team straighten things out for a long playoff run? Or will it implode from within?
It may come as a surprise to the casual fan, but the Indiana Pacers are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference this season. They're currently in third place and have the NBA's third-highest rated defense despite missing their star, Victor Oladipo, for 11 games this season. Their defense and plethora of excellent role players will keep them in every game come playoff time, but can Oladipo carry their offense enough for them to make a deep run? Look for the Pacers to add some more scoring pop at this year's trade deadline.
How many players do you think a casual NBA fan could name on the Clippers? Three? Four? Despite having no star power, the Clippers are 24-16 and in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference. This is no longer a cute story about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts — this team is legitimately good. Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are all good players and have destroyed unsuspecting opponents this season.
How good are they? Can they win a playoff series? It'll depend on the matchup and whether they pick up a better two-guard (Avery Bradley stinks now) and rim protector (Gortat isn't cutting it). They could probably take down any team without an MVP-caliber player in a seven-game series, so if they play the Spurs, Blazers or Jazz in the first round, they'll have more than a puncher's chance to advance.
If someone told you that Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward were averaging only a combined 23.6 points per game, you'd probably assume that the Celtics were having the season from hell. Fortunately for Boston, the "Marcuses" (Morris and Smart) have stepped up their respective games and covered for Brown's and Hayward's struggles. The team is comfortably in fifth place in the top-heavy Eastern Conference and will always have a chance in any playoff series with Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and the Marcuses playing well. However, if the Celtics want to compete for a title, they'll need at least one of Brown or Hayward to start playing better. Both have shown some signs of life recently, but an occasional good game won't suffice come May and June.
Quin Snyder has been a second-half miracle worker in his tenure as head coach of the Utah Jazz. Last season, after a 17-24 start to the season, the Jazz ripped off a 31-10 record the next 41 games and rode that momentum to a first-round upset over the Thunder. At 20-21 through 41 games this season, Snyder will need to once again work his second-half magic to get Donovan Mitchell and Co. back on track.
As they attempt to three-peat and win their fourth title in five seasons, the Warriors are struggling with mental and physical fatigue. Even when they're at full strength, they seem as vulnerable as they've seemed since Kevin Durant joined the team. That could all change when DeMarcus Cousins makes his debut. Will the Warriors be rejuvenated by their "new toy" and find new ways to throttle teams? Or will Cousins' overwhelming but unnecessary offensive talent hurt the team's on-court chemistry? Boogie's commitment to defense could ultimately dictate this one.
Remember when Steph Curry won the first-ever unanimous MVP in 2015-16 and forced us to recalibrate how basketball was going to be played moving forward? That season he averaged 30.1 points per game and joined Steve Nash as the only players to ever join the 50-45-90 Club (FG percentage-3FG percentage-FT percentage). Well, he's doing it again this season. Right now he's averaging 28.9 points per game on 48-44-91 shooting splits. (And he's been in a slump lately too.) Thanks to the equally ridiculous seasons guys like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are having, hardly anyone seems to be noticing how insanely well Curry is shooting this year.
Barring injury, the answer is yes. Doncic has been a revelation in Dallas and is must-see television every time he steps on the court. He might even get voted in as an All-Star Game starter. And while he shouldn't be an All-Star starter, nobody should have any issues with him making the team because he's averaging 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game and absolutely has a case as being one of the 12 best players in the Western Conference this season.
If you recall, Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL just before the All-Star break last season. With a crappy roster in place and their sights set on Kevin Durant, the Knicks have been in no rush to get their young star on the court before he's completely healthy. They are going to evaluate Porzingis in mid-February, but there's a chance he doesn't play at all this season.
Should he play? On one hand, it'd be nice to get him back on the court for about 10-15 games to help him get his rhythm and confidence back heading into the offseason — this is what the Pacers did with Paul George following his broken leg. On the other hand, with a shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, they might not want Porzingis winning games for them and screwing up their lottery odds.
After some early season struggles, the San Antonio Spurs seem to have turned things around, making this question seem a little premature. However, with all of the injuries to their young players, you definitely started to see some bizarre "old man" frustrations coming out with some of coach Pop's comments earlier this season about how three-pointers have ruined the game. With no path to a championship, if things went very wrong in the second half of the season, it wouldn't be the most shocking thing if coach Pop at least began to set up a succession plan for next season or the one after.
With the T-Wolves recently relieving Tom Thibodeau from his duties as team president and head coach, a total of three coaches (Thibs, Fred Hoiberg and Ty Lue) have been axed this season. Are there more to follow? Who is on the hot seat? Scott Brooks and Luke Walton are two obvious names that come to mind. Brooks heads up a Wizards team that is imploding before our very eyes and doesn't have a bright future with an ungodly amount of money tied up in John Wall and Otto Porter. Walton deserves more time (just ask Kobe!) but should have his head on a swivel with an impatient Magic Johnson serving as team president. Another coach who could meet his demise if things take a turn for the worse is Brett Brown in Philly. If he can't get Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler on the same page over the next few months, we may see a David Blatt-Ty Lue-type midseason transition with Brown and Monty Williams.
At the quarter-season mark, teams were averaging about five more possessions per game than they had the previous season. That increase is closer to four additional possessions per game now. Scoring, on average, has stayed about the same (although the top-end teams are scoring a few points less per game than they were early on). Will these averages stay the same the rest of the season? Or will teams' defensive intensity improve a little as the playoffs near? Will referees allow a little less freedom of movement off the ball when the defense picks up? Since the playoffs are traditionally more of a half-court game, my guess is the pace drops off by a couple of possessions per game at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.
In a word: No. There will still be tanking; it will just shift up the standings a bit. The new rules, which flatten the odds at the top of the lottery, will make it more enticing for OK teams to brazenly tank during the last 10-15 games of the season. This season, there are five atrocious teams — Cleveland, Phoenix, New York, Chicago and Atlanta — that are going to finish with the five worst records in the NBA. Per the new lottery odds, the difference (in the odds to land the top pick) between having the worst record in the league vs. the fifth-worst record in the league is only 3.5 percent (14 percent vs. 10.5 percent). Thus, for struggling teams like the Wizards and Pelicans, it doesn't make sense to tank until there's hardly any chance at making the playoffs. Once they hit that point of no return, however, look for teams to dive-bomb for the sixth (9 percent) and seventh (7.5 percent) spots.
Let's hope so — because his performance in last season's playoffs were truly something to behold. He reached the middle of a three-circle Venn diagram where the Cavs' complete reliance on him met his generational athleticism and his absolute mastery of the game. His averages were insane: 42 minutes, 34 points, nine rebounds and nine assists per game. He hit two buzzer-beaters to win games and had multiple virtuoso performances in every series. At 34 years old and in a tougher conference, does he have another GOAT-like playoff performance in him this spring? The Cavs were built around his strengths with three-point shooters all over the court. The Lakers, as currently constructed, are a much different team. Can LeBron adjust his game accordingly?
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