NBA Roundtable: Analyzing contenders on the season’s halfway level

It is the halfway level of the season, with the All-Star break approaching quick — and the NBA is seeing a stage of parity it hasn’t seen in years.

This week, our panel of NBA reporters — Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — takes a take a look at which groups and gamers are shining above all others, the favorites out East, and what is going on improper with the supposed title contender in Los Angeles. 

1. On the midway level of the season, which workforce has impressed you probably the most and why? 

Weitzman: The Memphis Grizzlies. They personal the league’s second-best web score, regardless of each Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. being sidelined for prolonged durations of time. Each are again on the courtroom now and the Grizzlies look, to me, just like the workforce to beat within the West. They’ve acquired the league’s top-rated protection, anchored by Jackson, and the mix of Ja Morant and Bane goes to present opponents suits within the playoffs. Certain, we might cling round and look forward to groups just like the Warriors or Clippers to get their stuff collectively, however don’t overlook simply how dominant this Grizzlies workforce is. 

Bucher: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz. In that order. Honorable point out: Sacramento Kings. It’s straightforward to overlook that the Celtics are taking part in underneath a first-year head coach after shedding their final first-year head coach to an organizational scandal, after shedding a Finals collection they have been anticipated to win. And now they’ve the very best report within the league and are pummeling groups on the common. The Nets’ gamers have been architects of their controversy, however they’ve emerged from it seemingly with a renewed sense of goal. As for the Jazz, yeah, they’ve fallen off since their scorching begin, however they took all of the discuss them sandbagging for Victor Wembanyama as a shot at them, as gamers and mentioned, “Not so fast.” Respect.

Rohlin: The Nets. The place did they arrive from? They have been on tempo for one more disastrous season earlier than it even started. Kevin Durant wished to be traded. It appeared as if Kyrie Irving can be out the door proper behind him. After they have been each on the roster on the prime of the season, the drama continued. Irving was suspended after he tweeted a hyperlink to an antisemitic movie. Coach Steve Nash was fired. The Nets have been a dumpster fireplace and their play on the courtroom was simply as disastrous. Via the primary six video games, they’d the worst defensive score within the league. Then, within the blink of a watch, they skyrocketed to the highest of the league. Durant was taking part in MVP-caliber basketball earlier than struggling an remoted MCL sprain in his proper knee. Irving has been shining. They’re at the moment tied for second place within the Jap Convention with the Milwaukee Bucks. Speak about whiplash. 

2. Which particular person participant has impressed you probably the most and why?

Weitzman: It’s acquired to be the man who’s practically averaging a triple-double (25 factors, 10.8 rebounds, 9.7 assists) and has his workforce in first place within the Western Convention, regardless of not taking part in alongside one other All-Star. It’s not simply the numbers that Nikola Jokić places up, although, and it’s not simply his dazzling passes (although I’ll say that Jokić has turn into my favourite participant to observe). It’s additionally how helpless he makes opposing defenders really feel. You possibly can’t double-team Jokić —he’s too good a passer — however you possibly can’t cease him with single protection both. If the season ended at present and I had an MVP vote, Jokić — who’s gained the award within the earlier two seasons — would get mine. 

Bucher: Laborious to select only one. The loopy numbers we’re seeing don’t impress me as a result of all of them really feel inflated; the performances have little doubt been spectacular and the ability stage being displayed is, too, nevertheless it’s exhausting to place them in correct perspective. So I’ll go along with acts of character. I’ve been impressed by how Steph Curry continues to fill gamers like Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb with confidence, and mentor Jordan Poole within the artwork of being a terrific scorer. I’m impressed with how Russell Westbrook has embraced coming off the bench and continues to play exhausting in entrance of a fan base that kicked him to the curb. And I’m impressed at how Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to develop as a pacesetter, hold his eye on the prize and supply a steadying presence, because the Bucks attempt to hold tempo with the Celtics. 

Rohlin: Mr. LeBron James. He’s 38, however he’s taking part in as if he have been a decade youthful. James is averaging 29.1 factors on 51% capturing, 8.2 rebounds and seven.6 assists. With Anthony Davis sidelined due to a stress harm in his proper foot, James put the Lakers on his shoulders and led them to a five-game profitable streak, their longest of the season. Throughout that stretch, he had two 40-plus level performances. James clearly hasn’t been slowed down by Father Time, and he’s now inside 500 factors of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 on the NBA’s all-time scoring checklist. It’s exhausting to not be in awe of what he’s doing in Yr 20. 

3. A title favourite earlier than the season, the Clippers have misplaced six of their final seven. What’s going improper in LA?

Weitzman: Amazingly, the Clippers have the league’s third-worst offense. It seems having your two greatest gamers sit out every-other-game just isn’t the best strategy to go about constructing a contender. Kawhi Leonard has seemed higher as of late, however you possibly can inform he’s nonetheless regaining his rhythm. All of that is to be anticipated. The query is whether or not the Clippers’ stars can keep on the courtroom lengthy sufficient for the workforce to seek out its groove earlier than the playoffs. 

Bucher: Rocky, uneven instances demand management, not simply out of your teaching workers however within the locker room. Who’s main this workforce? Who’s serving because the Draymond Inexperienced or Marcus Sensible or Chris Paul and holding everybody accountable? Yaron identified the offensive woes, and I see that because of the Clippers all attempting to do it on their very own all too usually. The sharing of the ball, motion off of it — after they try this they will overwhelm opponents as a result of they’ve so many scorers. However all too usually I’m seeing John Wall or Paul George or Kawhi or Reggie Jackson or Norman Powell seeking to get theirs whereas everyone else stands round and watches. The final lack of basketball IQ worries me as properly. They make a whole lot of doubtful choices in vital moments. 

Rohlin: My largest concern proper now’s their effort and chemistry. They seemed extra like a workforce final season when Leonard was sidelined and George performed solely 31 video games. Now, they’re all over. Final week, they’d a 33-point loss to Denver. And this week, they blew an 11-point fourth quarter result in fall to Atlanta. Final season, even with out their superstars, they constantly left their hearts on the courtroom. This season, that depth has drastically been lacking. 

4. It’s crowded atop the Jap Convention. Rank these 5 East contenders on the halfway mark: Boston, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Cleveland. Why?

Weitzman: 1. Boston, 2. Brooklyn, 3. Philadelphia, 4. Milwaukee, 5. Cleveland. The Bucks’ poor half-court offense (twenty fourth within the NBA, based on Cleansing the Glass), worries me. A part of that’s as a result of Khris Middleton has been unable to remain on the ground, however that’s turning into a regarding development, too. That’s why I’ve each Philly and Brooklyn forward of them. Boston, to me, stays the clear title favorites, given how dominant they’re on either side of the ball. 

Bucher: 1. Boston, 2. Milwaukee, 3. Brooklyn, 4. Philadelphia, 5. Cleveland. I agree that the Celtics are the clear favourite proper now, however the Bucks’ offensive points really feel to me like a by-product of experimentation greater than lack of ability. Grayson Allen is taking part in a whole lot of minutes and I can’t assist however consider Middleton, Joe Ingles and Pat Connaughton will eat into these as soon as they’re wholesome and supply just a little extra offensive juice. It’s exhausting for me to fully purchase into the Nets or the 76ers, despite what their data say and the way formidable they generally seem. Kevin Durant’s harm, sadly, was virtually predictable based mostly on latest historical past, and the way for much longer can Kyrie Irving go with out doing or saying one thing that creates a distraction? As for the Sixers, there are just a few parts that don’t make sense. They play at one of many slowest paces, they’ve ample measurement, however they’re a poor rebounding workforce. And for all their depth, Joel Embiid and James Harden log heavy minutes (for at present’s sport) at any time when they’re accessible, which isn’t all the time.   

Rohlin: 1. Boston, 2. Milwaukee, 3. Brooklyn, 4. Philadelphia, 5. Cleveland. The Celtics have that “it” issue this season and that’s why they’re my No. 1. They’re hungry after reaching the NBA Finals final June for the primary time since 2010, after which falling to Golden State in six video games. They’ve chemistry with Jayson Tatum, Marcus Sensible and Jaylen Brown of their sixth season collectively. Tatum has emerged as a professional celebrity who’s in competition for the MVP award. And Sensible, the reigning Defensive Participant of the Yr, is a superb anchor. This workforce seemingly has all of the parts to go all the best way.

5. The Nuggets are the highest workforce within the West close to the halfway mark. Is Denver an actual menace to win a title?

Weitzman: Completely. Jokić is a monster, which is the place all of it begins, but in addition, Jamal Murray is discovering his footing. So is the protection, which is now as much as twenty second within the NBA, to associate with the Nuggets’ second-ranked offense. Additionally, nobody within the West has separated themselves. There’s no cause the Nuggets can’t be the final standing among the many group of the Pelicans, Warriors, Clippers and Grizzlies. 

Bucher: It’s exhausting to place my finger on why I’m not feeling them, however I’m not. Jokić continues to be good, however far too usually I see stretches the place the remainder of the Nuggets appear to overlook that. As a substitute, Michael Porter Jr., Murray, Aaron Gordon and Bones Nyland take turns trying to find their shot, particularly when Jokić is off the ground. I virtually get the sense at instances they’re all vying to be the second All-Star to Jokić. Their particular person expertise is plain, so it could actually work in the course of the common season, however who’s taking the final shot in a playoff sport? Jokić will however is OK not taking it. Each Murray and MPJ strike me as believing it must be them. Bones is as fast to let it fly as both of them (averaging 11 photographs in 20 minutes!). All of that wouldn’t concern me fairly as a lot if Jokić had extra of a take-charge character, however he doesn’t, so I’m not relying on him pulling everybody in line when it issues most. And for all of Jokić’s genius, the Nuggets don’t strike me as a excessive IQ workforce. What they’ve going for them is that nobody seems notably dominant or flaw-free within the west. However let’s put it this manner: If the Nuggets find yourself as convention champions, the East is profitable the title.

Rohlin: The West is huge open. Being the highest workforce in that convention doesn’t imply a lot at this level contemplating how tight many groups have been packed collectively for a lot of the season. Proper now, my favorites within the West are the Grizzlies. That being mentioned, this may very well be the Nuggets’ 12 months. Why not? Jokić is a beast. And he has some help this season with Porter Jr. and Murray again. The Nuggets are undoubtedly an enormous menace, particularly if the workforce’s supporting solid retains stepping up. 

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA author for FOX Sports activities. She beforehand lined the league for Sports activities Illustrated, the Los Angeles Occasions, the Bay Space Information Group and the San Antonio Categorical-Information. Comply with her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA author for FOX Sports activities. He’s the writer of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Comply with him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

Ric Bucher is an NBA author for FOX Sports activities. He beforehand wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Journal and The Washington Put up and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA ahead Brian Grant’s battle with younger onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He additionally has a every day podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Comply with him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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