The second half of the NBA season officially begins tonight with a trio of games and more than a handful of exciting storylines. Every team remains interesting (the NBA is fun!), but this is time of year to start paying more attention to teams in the title chase and cutting out the teams already looking forward to next season.
This season has six title contenders. Four are are dangerous and two are just a tier below, but could make a jump if the right things fall in to place.
Fresh off hosting a successful All-Star weekend, “The 6” boasts a team that looks determined to make the Eastern Conference Finals. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan might be the best backcourt outside of the Bay Area and Jonas Valanciunas provides a solid interior threat. Plus, the Raptors could be even better if/when they DeMarre Carroll back. I would have liked to see them upgrade the Luis Scola spot at the deadline and go all-in, but given that Donatas Motiejunas and Markieff Morris netted first round picks, the price for quality guys may have been too high.
Still, the Raptors could make a ton of noise and should be considered a serious threat to win the Eastern Conference. They start the second half just three games back of the No. 1 seed and a Game 7 at the Air Canada Centre sounds daunting. And who knows if another team’s key player will get injured? In the NBA, fortunes can go from 0-100 real quick.
Despite the Clippers’ 18-4 record without him this season, Blake Griffin punching an equipment manager is not a blessing in disguise. It only hampers the Clippers’ ability to answer their most essential question: Can Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul work well enough together to win an NBA title? The spacing is certainly better without Griffin in the interim, but missing a potential top-5 NBA player is not a good thing.
The Clippers will need to do two other things in the second half- incorporate the inconsistent Jeff Green and find a player other than Paul who can create with the ball in his hands. Come playoff time, smart teams will load up on Paul and make him pass. Does Doc Rivers have anyone who can securely handle the rock and keep the offense flowing?
The Raptors and Clips have to remain in the conversation, but neither appears as dangerous as these next four teams.
The greatness of San Antonio and Golden State has kept Oklahoma City off the national radar, but the Thunder are still really good. Kevin Durant looks as good as he did during his MVP season and Russell Westbrook continues to be terrifying.
Still, the Thunder have yet to find one, let alone two, guys who can play alongside Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka when the game is on the line. Enes Kanter’s defense makes him a question mark. Steven Adams cramps the spacing. Cameron Payne is a rookie. Kyle Singler is, well, Kyle Singler. First-year coach Billy Donovan is finally starting to get the hang of things in the NBA and if he can find a crunch-time rotation the Thunder will seriously contend for the NBA title.
Cleveland Cavaliers (38-14)
King James is starting to shown signs of age, but his team remains the favorite to win the East. The Cavs need to focus on developing their game now that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are fully healthy, but it remains a challenge for new coach Tyronn Lue. Where Love’s shots come from and the pace at which Cleveland plays will be interesting to watch in the second half. Will Lue be successful in getting the team to run more? And, considering that they beat the Cavs twice in last year’s Finals after slowing the game down to a halt, is that really their best strategy? New addition Channing Frye, added at the deadline for Anderson Varejao’s contract, can be a useful piece, but will his skillset overlap too much with Love’s?
Despite being blown out in their first matchup, the Spurs remain this season’s biggest threat to the Warriors. Their defense, held up by the ageless wonder Tim Duncan and the mutant hands of Kawhi Leonard, is the league’s best. Leonard has also blossomed into a go-to scorer and taken his three-point shot to another level. Were it not for Curry, Leonard might be the leader in the clubhouse for MVP.
The Spurs’ patented balancing act will be key in the second half. Gregg Popovich has mastered the NBA regular season and knows how and when to rest his key guys. However, the Spurs may choose to avoid playing a game 7 on the road like last season and tighten their grip on the No. 2 seed. Will their aging big three be able to avoid breaking down?
Golden State Warriors (48-4)
Until such time as they lose their 11th game, the Warriors will remain the most-talked about team in the NBA this season. Michael Jordan reportedly gave Klay Thompson the go-ahead to try and break his Bulls’ record of 72-10 and I wouldn’t bet against this team pulling it off.
Steph Curry’s nightly theatrics will continue to be worth tuning in every night and Draymond Green’s all-around awesomeness remains my favorite thing in the league.
The Warriors, though, do have a question they need to answer: How do they replace Festus Ezeli in the rotation? Ezeli, who is aiming to be back before the regular season ends, is far from their most important player, but he’s a solid rotation piece. The team will likely miss his defense, especially when Andrew Bogut gets in foul trouble. Marreese Speights will undoubtedly see increased minutes, but Steve Kerr has kept a tight leash on Mo’ Buckets in the past. Where will the Dubs go if Speights doesn’t have it?
All photos are courtesy of Wikimedia.