NBA

Top 10 storylines for the second half of the NBA season

NBA Finals LeBron James Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors Cleveland Cavaliers
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Now that the All-Star Game is a thing of the past, NBA teams are looking forward to the unofficial start of the second half. It will begin with the trade deadline this week, which will surely impact how the playoff race plays out moving forward.

But there’s a whole heck of a lot more to look at when checking in on the top storylines for the second half of the NBA season.

Will the improvements we have seen from the likes of the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics make it more difficult for the Cleveland Cavaliers to repeat as NBA champions? How will the Golden State Warriors continue to gain momentum after a stellar first half of the season?

The backdrop here is even more intriguing than that. Isaiah Thomas has his Celtics playing elite basketball and has to be considered an MVP favorite. Meanwhile, the Los Angels Clippers look to make some noise in what could be the last run for the team’s big three.

These are the top-10 storylines around the NBA as its season enters the unofficial second half.

1. Much more competitive Eastern Conference

John Wall has his Washington Wizards in title contention.

Cleveland still seems to be the odds-on favorite back east, but there promises to be a much more competitive playoff slate than last season. The Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards all seem to be viable contenders. They could definitely make Cleveland’s postseason experience much more difficult than we have seen recently.

That’s the go-to line when looking at the Eastern Conference post All-Star break. It will be much more competitive than last season when Cleveland posted a 12-2 record en route to the NBA Finals. But there’s a whole heck of a lot more to it.

Toronto struggled a tad heading into the break, posting a 5-11 record in its past 16 games after starting the season with a 28-13 mark. These struggles led to the team acquiring power forward Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic for pennies on the dollar (more on that here).

What this did was give Toronto a starting five that has no glaring weaknesses heading into the stretch run. It also didn’t terribly hurt the team’s bench. That’s a big deal, especially with Cleveland’s bench struggling this season.

Rumors continue to suggest that the Boston Celtics will make a play for a big man before the trade deadline. That’s fine. It can only help in the team’s hopes of competing for a conference title. But the reality of the situation here is that Boston’s success will be dependent on the continued MVP-caliber play of one Isaiah Thomas. The former second-round pick headed into the All-Star break averaging nearly 30 points per game, including 11-plus points in the fourth quarter. That’s absolutely absurd. And it has Boston thinking NBA Finals for the first time since they had their own big three.

When looking at the Eastern Conference, a conversation cannot conclude without checking in on the Washington Wizards. John Wall has proven himself to be an MVP candidate after an absurd first half of the season. Meanwhile, the likes of Otto Porter and Bradley Beal have stepped up big time behind him. That’s one of the primary reasons Washington heads into the so-called second half having won 27 of its past 35 games.

All this wouldn’t necessarily matter if Cleveland was playing at an incredibly high level. Now without Kevin Love for the next five-plus weeks, the Cavaliers have struggled to an extent recently. Including losses to the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings over the past month, Cleveland boasts a 9-6 record in its past 15 games.

It is no longer a guarantee that the Cavaliers will head into playoff basketball with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Even if that were to happen, LeBron James and Co. would face difficult tests from the three teams mentioned above.

2. The Carmelo Anthony Equation

Behind all the drama unfolding in New York right now, there’s a legitimate point to be made here. While the Knicks themselves likely won’t be in playoff contention heading down the stretch, they can change the dynamic of the Eastern Conference in one fell swoop. That would include moving enigmatic forward Carmelo Anthony. Heck, a potential trade here could change the entire dynamic of the NBA title race. That’s not hyperbole.

All the talk has surrounded Anthony’s relationship with Knicks president Phil Jackson. That’s fine and dandy. America is at a point where she loves drama. She loves reality television. But Anthony himself is still a heck of a player. The All-Star headed into the break averaging 23.4 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting at a 38 percent mark from distance. Scorers like this don’t hit the trade block too often.

Let’s assume for a second that Melo going to Cleveland is out of the equation. It seems to be. But what if a team like the Boston Celtics were to make a play for the All-Star? With the emergence of Marcus Smart at guard, Boston could potentially get away with dealing Avery Bradley in any trade involving Anthony. Add in a couple picks and salary cap fillers, and this isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

It’s all pure conjecture here, but any trade that sends Anthony to an Eastern Conference contender could potentially shake up the playoffs. The same could be said if a team like the Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets could pull off a trade for the future Hall of Famer. It’s definitely something to think about heading into the trade deadline.

3. The surging Washington Wizards

It was just a couple short months ago that Washington was struggling to do anything of substance. It started the season by losing 13 of the team’s first 20 games. Rumors about general manager Ernie Grunfeld’s job security and the health of recently-extended Bradley Beal swept over D.C.

Now, just over two months later, the Wizards head into NBA’s unofficial second half with a 34-21 mark and as a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference.

The turnaround can be directly attributed to John Wall playing at an MVP level. The former No. 1 overall pick is averaging 22.8 points, 10.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He’s also shooting at a career-best 45 percent from the field. It’s really been an amazing thing to watch.

Though, Washington wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the Eastern Conference without its role players stepping up. That is where the likes of Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat come into play. An argument could be made that all three are playing the best basketball of their careers.

Porter is shooting at an absurd 47 percent from three-point range. He’s been more automatic from distance than the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Think about that for a second. Meanwhile, Morris is at nearly 15 points per game and Gortat is averaging a double-double. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that Beal is averaging 22-plus points and has just missed four games on the season. He’s proven to be relatively healthy after receiving a max contract during the summer.

We’re not sold on the Wizards as a top competitor to dethrone Cleveland back east. At least, not yet. They need to continue this high level of play for a long period of time. But with 27-8 mark since the first week in December, it’s readily apparent that the boys in D.C. are turning heads.

4. Warriors look to continue gaining momentum

Golden State is currently on pace to win 69 games. It would be somewhat of a minor drop from last season’s historical 73-win performance. But in no way does this mean that the two-time defending Western Conference champs have regressed. They haven’t.

The Warriors head into NBA’s second half ranked first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating. They are also on pace to average the most points per game for a team around the Association since the 1992-93 Warriors. When you combine all this together, a minor drop off in terms of wins isn’t really worth focusing on.

Instead, the story in Oakland this season has been Kevin Durant’s seamless transition to a team that already boasted three All-Star performers. Averaging 25.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting at an absurd 54 percent from the field, Durant is having the most-efficient season of his already Hall of Fame worthy career.

It’s also not a coincidence that Golden State has improved on the defensive end of the court with Durant in the mix. During his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant was asked to do a heck of a lot on offense, which made it difficult for him to focus on defense. With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the mix for Oakland, that’s simply not the case. Now, it sure looks like Durant will be an all-defensive player when the season draws to a conclusion.

Speaking of Curry and Thompson, the two are still averaging 22-plus points per game while shooting better than 40 percent from distance. It’s a lethal combination that has seen Golden State run really good teams off the court this season. Add in Draymond Green’s exceptional all-around performance, and the Warrior should be considered title favorites right now.

The goal in the second half of the season has to be two-fold for Golden State. Currently four games ahead of San Antonio for the top spot in the Western Conference, Steve Kerr’s squad will want to wrap up home-court advantage as soon as possible.

And now, with the team not playing for the record books, the goal would then be to rest its core players late in the season. If this were to happen, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Warriors had an easier go at it in the playoffs than what we saw last year.

5. NBA trade deadline

Now that the All-Star Game itself has concluded, the short-term focus of the NBA turns to this week’s trade deadline. Will there be any blockbuster trades between now and Thursday? If so, how will that shake up things in each conference?

We’ve already seen a couple of semi-major moves take place with the Denver Nuggets acquiring Mason Plumlee and the Toronto Raptors picking up Serge Ibaka. But the expectation here has to be that there will be some significant additional movement over the next several days.

The Philadelphia 76ers have long had Jahlil Okafor not he trade block. It even got to the point earlier this month that Philly sat Okafor due to what seemed to be an imminent trade. Some of those talks have taken place with the New Orleans Pelicans, who are looking to find another big to team up with Anthony Davis (more on that here).

Outside of the Sixers, it appears the Orlando Magic are looking to be active. They already moved Ibaka for pennies on the dollars and reportedly turned down a trade for DeMarcus Cousins earlier in the season. Orlando is active on a lot of fronts, as recent trade discussions with the Pistons for Reggie Jackson have heated up.

None of the teams mentioned above stand a real good chance to make an impact as the season draws to a conclusion. Instead, it’s going to be all about what teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers (more on that later), Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics do.

Boston has been the most active of the bunch and is expected to pull off a somewhat major trade between now and the deadline. That could come with the team acting as a facilitator or it could involve the lottery pick it acquired from the Brooklyn Nets. Boston is the true wild card here.

It has the assets to pull off a major trade that could shake up the Eastern Conference. And with Isaiah Thomas playing at an MVP level, this is something general manager Danny Ainge and Co. might consider doing. A deal involving Brooklyn’s pick (potentially No. 1 overall) would have to net a major asset in return. That’s where both Paul George and Jimmy Butler come into play.

Either way we spin it, the next few days between now and the deadline promise to be action packed. It just remains to be seen whether there will be a deal that shakes the foundation of the Association. It hasn’t happened in recent years, but it most definitely could change here soon.

6. Drama in Cleveland

Public comments about his team’s lack of depth created a firestorm directed at Cavaliers forward LeBron James. And while the Cavaliers bench is among the weakest of all contenders, it might not have been the best idea to put that out there publicly. It’s akin to saying that certain members of the team are not good enough to play substantial minutes. It’s a thought one might have privately, but James’ public comments led to warranted criticism.

Now, with the Cavaliers still sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, they will have to play the next four-plus weeks without the injured Kevin Love. This comes amid speculation that James himself was pushing for his squad to land Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks, potentially for Love himself. It also led to a sit-down meeting between James and general manager David Griffin.

The backdrop here is what seems to be a bigger basketball story. James continues to play at an all-world level. He’s now been joined by flat Earth truther Kyrie Irving, who is having the best season of his already stellar career. For his part, Love is averaging 20-plus points and 10-plus boards per game. Simply put, it is one of the best trios in the NBA east of Oakland.

The issue for James is that he saw what the Warriors did during the summer, bringing in former MVP Kevin Durant. He knows just how difficult it will be for the Cavaliers to hold off Golden State should the two meet in the Finals for a third consecutive season. It has surely caused some frustration behind the scenes.

With that said, Cleveland still boasts a 39-16 record heading into the unofficial second half of the season. It is still the odds-on favorites to win the conference title. It will be interesting to see if any major move is made between now and the deadline. If not, will the drama we’ve seen this season spill over to the latter part of the schedule? That’s the biggest question in Cleveland right now.

7. Last run of the big three in Los Angeles?

With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin again having to work through injuries, the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves at 35-21 on the season and as the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Not only would this mean a second-round playoff matchup with Golden State, it could potentially lead to a first-round series against the up-and-coming Utah Jazz. That’s definitely not an ideal scenario for this squad.

Unfortunately, we simply can’t look at the Clippers as legitimate conference title contenders. Despite boasting one of the best trios in the game, Los Angeles has not made it past the conference semifinals in Doc Rivers’ three-plus seasons as the team’s head coach. This has led to speculation that said big three might be broken up here in short order.

More so than the injury bug that keeps in plaguing this squad, it simply has not proven capable of going up against the big dog out west. The Clippers are 0-3 against Golden State this season, losing by a combined 76 points in those three games. Dating back to last season, Los Angeles is actually 0-7 against the Warriors with an average defeat of 15.2 points.

That’s the crux of the issue here. If the Clippers can’t remain competitive against the best the NBA has to offer, what makes us think they can go deep in the playoffs with this current group of players?

Chris Paul has an early-termination option on his contract this summer. Based on the increased cap, it’s something he is surely going to utilize. Meanwhile, Griffin has just one year remaining on his deal.

It will be interesting to see what the Clippers do here if they don’t make a deep run in the playoffs. Maybe, the team will attempt to keep both Paul and Griffin while getting a nice package in a potential DeAndre Jordan deal. Either way, the future is now in Los Angeles. It just doesn’t seem likely that the future will include June basketball.

8. Watching the Sixers continue to improve

Jan 27, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts to his three pointer in front of Houston Rockets center Nene Hilario (42) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Now 5.5 games out of the final playoff spot back east, it’s highly unlikely Philadelphia will make a trip to the postseason. Though, that’s really not where the interest is here. The Sixers have improved leaps and bounds from what they were able to do in previous seasons. In fact, they have won more games (21) this season than they did in each of the past three years. It’s really been a fun turnaround to watch under head coach Brett Brown.

More than anything, the performance of Joel Embiid has been absolutely stunning. After missing his first two NBA seasons to injury, the former top-three pick has been sensational. Despite the fact that he’s currently on the shelf with a minor meniscus tear and has seen his minutes limited, Embiid is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

Here’s a dude that’s averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting at a 37 percent clip from distance. He’s doing this in less than 26 minutes of action per outing.

Fellow rookie Dario Saric, one of the most-talented young forwards in the game, is also making his presence known next to Embiid. He’s already averaging double figures in just his first NBA season.

Sure Philadelphia could make a run at the postseason here in the second half. After all, it boasts a 14-11 record in its past 25 games. However, we’re simply just looking forward to watching the team grow. Once rookie No 1 overall pick Ben Simmons returns (if he does), that will only be magnified further.

9. Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics

At this point, Thomas has to be considered an MVP favorite with the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. That’s how good the former second-round pick has been for Boston this season. The stats surely tell us a story here. Thomas is averaging 29.9 points while shooting at a tremendous 47 percent clip from the field. More than that, he’s been the best crunch-time player in the NBA this season.

This has Boston with a 37-20 record heading into the season’s unofficial second half. Heck, the Celtics are just three games behind Cleveland for the top spot. As Thomas continues to grow, the rest of Boston’s lineup has followed suit. Big-time free-agent signing Al Horford continues to play stellar all-around basketball. He’s averaging 14.6 points to go with an otherworldly 4.9 assists from the center position.

In addition to this, both Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart continue to improve in the backcourt. It’s actually at the point right now where Bradley has been bandied about in trade rumors due to the emergence of Smart.

That’s where it gets incredibly interesting for Boston. As mentioned before, it has a ton of assets to move for a potential star. As trade rumors linking the C’s to Jimmy Butler continue to heat up, one has to wonder whether Danny Ainge and Co. will pull off that major deal to close the gap between themselves and Cleveland back east. One then has to wonder whether adding someone of Butler’s ilk would make Boston the favorites in the Eastern Conference. That’s how much this squad has improved in 2016-17.

10. Rooting for an NBA Finals rematch

Despite all the stuff that has happened thus far this season, it’s readily apparent that the NBA is looking at a third consecutive NBA Finals matchup between Golden State and Cleveland. It might seem like a broken record. And in reality, it might also make for a lack of drama down the stretch. But why shouldn’t we be rooting for this to happen?

Cleveland and Golden State are 1-1 in the Finals over the past two seasons. A third consecutive matchup could decide the best team in today’s NBA once and for all. More than that, the backstories here are absolutely insane to think about.

LeBron James absolutely dominated the Warriors en route to earning the NBA Finals MVP last June. It was one of the best performances we have ever seen around the Association. It also helped Cleveland pull off a historical comeback after falling down 3-1 in the series.

This came after Golden State put up a record 73 regular season wins and saw Stephen Curry earn his second consecutive MVP award. It also forced the Warriors to shake up the foundation of the NBA by adding Kevin Durant to the mix. That right there is what makes a potential NBA Finals rematch so interesting. An argument could be made that James and Durant are the two-best players of the modern era. They play the same position. They would be matched up against one another, making for one of the best one-on-one duels in NBA Finals history.

Then, we have the entire Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry dynamic to look at. Irving dominated his All-Star counterpart in the Finals last June. We can bet Curry wants a nice tonic of revenge here. None of this even takes into account a building rivalry between Draymond Green and the aforementioned King James.

The other interesting point to look at here is just how drama-free other NBA Finals matchups would be. Does anyone really think Boston, Toronto or Washington stands a chance against Golden State in the Finals? The same argument could be made if Cleveland were to go up against San Antonio or Houston. So while the path to this particular championship re-run might be ho-hum, the matchup itself would be absolutely tremendous.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi