Eight bold predictions for second half of the NBA season

Joel Embiid Sixers

As the second half of the NBA season gets going, there’s been a ton take place around the Association. We’ve seen certain teams surprise the masses by putting up stellar performances in the first half. The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz come to mind first.

We’ve also seen the status quo remain, with the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors maintaining their status atop the NBA.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be surprises as the season progresses. How will next month’s trade deadline play out? Will the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks actually contend for a playoff spot? Which coaches will be fired?

We’ll take a look at that and more as we give you our eight bold predictions for the second half of the NBA season.

1. Multiple All-Stars will be traded

This season’s trade deadline promises to be more active than in the past. There’s a couple reasons for this. First off, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that less than a handful of teams have a real opportunity to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. That’s going to play a role, especially when it comes to mid-tier playoff contenders.

Secondly, we’re looking at a Summer of 2016 that’s likely going to be filled with top-end free agents potentially switching teams. Money will be thrown around at a record clip, and some of these teams simply won’t find it financially worth it to retain their stars with little hope of title contention moving forward. That promises to lead to an active trade deadline.

While Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has indicated an interest to sign a long-term deal with the team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him moved. The backstory here is by now well-known and it could lead to the Kings’ brass deciding it’s time to move on from the enigmatic center.

In addition to this, there’s been a lot of talk about the Atlanta Hawks moving on from All-Star big man Paul Millsap as the team looks to rebuild its roster following the trade of Kyle Korver (more on that here).

With the likes of Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Serge Ibaka and Zach Randolph set to become free agents during the summer, it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or two of these players moved prior to the deadline. This makes it more than likely that at least two All-Stars will be dealt in what would be an in-season rarity around the Association.

2. Milwaukee Bucks will find themselves to a top-five seed

Here’s a team that’s definitely bordering on breaking out. One game under .500 on the season, Milwaukee currently finds itself tied for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s mediocrity Jason Kidd and Co. shouldn’t be happy with, especially considering the otherworldly young talent on the roster.

More than anything, this bold prediction is predicated on the basis that Giannis Antetokounmpo will continue his ascension to the top-tier of NBA players. The 22-year-old wing has been absolutely splendid this season, averaging 23.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game while shooting at an astounding 54 percent clip from the field.

He embarrasses opposing defenders (watch here), sets up other members of the Bucks from a so-called point forward position and has one of the top-five all-around games in the Association.

With a finally healthy Jabari Parker taking his game to the next level and Matthew Dellavedova creating much-needed consistency at the point, Milwaukee is in good hands moving forward this season.

It is also just a handful of games outside of a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. As this young team continues to mature, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bucks surprise the masses as the season draws on.

3. Continued struggles in Portland

Courtesy of Adam Hunger, USA Today Sports

The dynamic just isn’t working out in the Pacific Northwest this season. Sure Portland is currently in position to potentially nab one of the bottom seeds in the Western Conference. But the progression many expected from this team after a second-round playoff exit last spring just hasn’t come to fruition.

We can blame Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum for less-than-stellar defense. That’s fine. Whenever a coach has to sub out his two-best players on defense, it’s never a good thing. Unfortunately for Portland, the issues here are more widespread.

The larger issues here is that Portland’s supporting cast just isn’t up to snuff with the rest of the Western Conference. Despite doling out a combined $255-plus million to the likes of Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu over the past couple years, none of these players have stepped into substantial roles.

That right there is the problem, and it likely won’t change moving forward this season. Lillard and McCollum are right up there with the best offensive tandems in the Association.

It’s what the Blazers have after them that doesn’t compare to the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder, Clippers and Jazz. This is why Portland will be left contending for a bottom two seed when all indications were that it might be on the verge of conference title contention.

4. Sixers will contend for a playoff spot

Let’s preface this by indicating that the Sixers are surely a long shot to make the playoffs. Here’s a team that boasts the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. With 14 wins, they have surely improved from the past few seasons. But there’s a lot of work to be done here.

With all that said, Philadelphia is in a prime position to shock the basketball world in the season. Despite its less-than-stellar record, this squad is just a half dozen games out of the final playoff spot. It has also improved leaps and bounds over the past couple weeks, posting a 7-2 record after a 7-24 start to the season.

After missing his first two NBA seasons, Joel Embiid is currently playing at an entirely different level. While he’s only seeing action for 25 minutes per game, Embiid is averaging 19.9 points and 7.8 rebounds. He’s also shooting at an 46 percent clip from the field, including 35 percent from distance.

We’ve also seen fellow rookie Dario Saric put up a solid first season in the states. Those two can be the building blocks moving forward. And they’ve been the most-impressive players on the roster thus far. Though, the likely return of No. 1 pick Ben Simmons to action or the first time in his Sixers career could be a major boost for this team. Simmons already boasts pro-ready scoring ability, which will come in handy with Embiid and Saric doing what we’ve seen from them.

Now add into account the fact that Philadelphia might get another reinforcement or two by virtue of a trade, and this is magnified even further. After all, rumors continue to swirl that the team might be looking to move Nerlens Noel. If so, Philly will likely get another important cog back in return.

At this point, those squads ahead of Philadelphia in the standings are not terribly impressive. Currently as the eighth seed, the Bulls are facing drama with Rajon Rondo at point guard and find themselves under .500.

Meanwhile, the likes of the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons have done nothing to prove themselves worthy of a playoff spot this season. With the talent Philadelphia currently boasts and the reinforcements it’s likely going to receive moving forward, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the team contend for a playoff spot.

5. Kings and Lakers to battle it out for eighth spot

For the first time in ages, it sure looks like one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference will be taken up by a team that finishes under .500. Currently, the Denver Nuggets hold that spot at seven games under .500. This has made it possible for recent bottom-feeders to potentially contend for a playoff spot out west as the spring comes calling.

While the injury to Rudy Gay will surely impact Sacramento moving forward, it does have one of the top all-around players in the NBA in the form of DeMarcus Cousins. He’s also a player that’s suggested he wants to remain with the team over the long haul. Add in the presence of Ty Lawson at point guard, and there’s seemingly enough talent for Sacramento to compete moving forward this season.

The Kings currently find themselves just one game behind Denver for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They’ve also been firmly in trade talks for potential upgrades. Depending on what happens at the trade deadline next month, we can expect continued contention in California’s capital city.

The Lakers are a bit of a different story. They started out the season at 10-10 under first-year head coach Luke Walton. Since that decent start, Los Angeles has lost 21 of its past 26 games. There also seems to be some issues regarding the team’s best players giving it their best effort on a nightly basis.

Normally a team that’s been on such a cold streak for such a long period of time wouldn’t be considered playoff contenders. That’s until we realize the Lakers are just two games back in the win column for the final playoff spot. It’s the absurdity that comes with a top-heavy conference.

Now that Luol Deng is out for an extended period of time, rookie Brandon Ingram is set to take on a larger role. Considering what we’ve seen from Jordan Clarkson and veteran Lou Williams, there’s enough talent for Walton and Co. to turn this thing around.

6. At least three coaches will be fired

Courtesy of Mark L. Baer, USA Today Sports

We’re not too sure which coaches are truly on the hot seat heading into the second half of the season. What we do know is that there are multiple disappointing squads out there who simply are not living up to expections.

Let’s assume for a second that first-year coaches such as Minnesota Timberwolves head man Tom Thibodeau and Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson are safe. That leaves a handful of potential firings from now until the end of the season. There still promises to be a few coaches find themselves on the hot seat in the season’s second half.

Are the Miami Heat willing to go through their rebuilding process with Erik Spoelstra manning the bench? Considering the success he’s had in the past, one might think so. That’s until we realize that Spoelstra is a representation of a bygone time in Miami — one that included NBA championships. It’s pure conjecture here, but Pat Riley and Co. may indeed look to start anew. Now completely out of the playoff race and with losses in 13 of their past 16 games, the Heat could make that decision sooner rather than later.

The same could potentially be said for Rick Carlisle in Dallas. His past success is not in question. Neither is Mark Cuban’s opinion of the man as a head coach. Still, the Mavericks are on the verge of a complete rebuild. They’re 14 games under .500 and are relying on Harrison Barnes to be their best player. That’s not a recipe for success moving forward.

As it is, there appears to be multiple coaches who are legitimately coaching for their jobs in the second half of the season. We could definitely include Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks in this list as well. Pure math indicates with that many coaches on the hot seat, at least two will get their walking papers before the season concludes.

7. Rumors will swirl about Carmelo in New York

We know the backstory here. Carmelo Anthony is open to moving on from the Knicks should they view him as someone who doesn’t have a future with the team. In turn, Anthony himself has met with team president Phil Jackson about this situation (more on that here).

Still playing at an elite level, there’s little reason to believe Melo wouldn’t draw interest on the open market. Here’s a dude that’s still averaging 22.2 points per game and can be a top-end player for a contender. Unfortunately for the Knicks, they are nowhere near contending status.

It’s also important to note that New York will quickly become Kristaps Porzingis’ city with the Knicks building around him. Despite a recent Achilles issue, the 21-year-old forward has taken his game to an entirely new level as a sophomore. He’s averaging 19.4 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting at a 40 percent clip from three-point range.

Jackson and the Knicks’ brass would surely be better off moving Anthony for some younger parts to build around Porzingis. It will be all about value New York can receive for a player in Anthony that should still draw a nice amount of interest on the open market. If it’s not this season, it’s something New York should consider during the summer.

8. Warriors will finish with 70-plus wins again

At 36-6 on the season, Golden State is currently on pace to win 70-plus games for the second consecutive year. Head coach Steve Kerr now boasts a 176-30 record as the team’s head coach. Two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry has been joined by potential 2016-17 NBA MVP Kevin Durant to form one of the most star-studded teams in Association history.

Add in Draymond Green’s continued all-around excellence and Klay Thompson’s ability to fit in, and it’s not a surprise Golden State boasts the best record in the NBA. Recent blowout wins over Cleveland and Oklahoma City magnifies this even further. In fact, the Warriors — in the midst of their toughest week — have beaten these teams by a combined 56 points.

Led by Durant’s MVP-caliber performance, the Warriors also rank No. 1 in the Association in both offensive and defensive rating. That’s an uptick from what we saw the Warriors do during last season’s record-breaking 73-9 performance.

While definitely stopping short of anointing the Warriors NBA champions, there’s very little reason to believe this team can’t finish the season by winning 34 of its final 40 games. If so, they’ll again join Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the record books. This time, as the only other team to win 70-plus games in consecutive seasons.