Fans and media alike traditionally treat the All-Star break as the midpoint of the NBA season, but thanks to the league’s adjustments to the calendar in recent years, the actual midpoint comes much sooner. In fact, after tonight, every team will have played at least 41 games, more than a month before the All-Star festivities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
So with that in mind, we look ahead to the biggest storylines to watch for in the second half of the season, whether your team has championship aspirations or has already circled the draft lottery on the calendar.
More West standings mayhem
Things aren’t quite as compressed top to bottom as they were just a few weeks ago, but the West is still very much a 14-team race for eight playoff spots. The Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors have created a bit of a cushion for themselves above the rest of the conference, but the third-place Oklahoma City Thunder and eighth-place Los Angeles Lakers are separated by just three games heading into Saturday. Three games also separate the eighth-place Lakers from the 14th-place Grizzlies. One extended winning or losing streak by any of those teams could see a complete upheaval of the conference standings.
The tightness of the race means that any game between two West teams in the season’s second half is practically a must-win, not only to help your own playoff hopes, but to hurt those of your opponent. And picking up wins against the few non-playoff contenders in the league — the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns — is imperative.
Here is how BPI sees things playing out:
The East race is down to five
Compared with the West, the Eastern Conference has things figured out for the time being, at least when it comes to the battle for home court in the first round of the playoffs. Five teams — the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics — are currently fighting for the top four spots. Here’s a look at where BPI projects each of the conference’s top teams:
The race for the No. 1 pick
Byron Scott, Chiney Ogwumike and Amin Elhassan react to Duke star Zion Williamson saying he hates being classified as a dunker.
With an exciting 2019 draft class headlined by Duke freshmen Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, the NBA’s basement dwellers are already putting themselves in position for a high lottery pick. Here’s a look at the race to the bottom as the NBA hits the halfway point, according to ESPN BPI:
Draft protections to watch
Cleveland will send its pick to Atlanta if it falls outside the top 10.
Dallas will send its pick to Atlanta if it falls outside the top five.
Memphis will send its pick to Boston if it falls outside the top eight.
LA Clippers will send their pick to Boston if it falls outside the lottery.
Denver will send its pick to Brooklyn if it falls outside the top 12.
Will James Harden repeat as MVP?
Jay Williams explains why he thinks James Harden is leading the MVP race despite losing to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks Wednesday night.
Early in the season, it looked like the Houston Rockets might miss the playoffs, as James Harden slumped following his MVP season of a year ago. That’s in the distant past now, as Harden has been on a hot streak not seen since the days of young Kobe and T-Mac.
Harden’s numbers for the past 15 games, a run that started when he dropped 50 points on the Lakers last month, look like something out of a video game: 40.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 9.5 APG while shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc and 88.6 percent from the line (on 13.5 free throw attempts per game). Harden is just the fifth player in NBA history to score at least 30 points in 15 consecutive games. He’s already set the Rockets’ single-season record for 40-point games with 13 (including the 43 he scored against the Cavaliers in just 30 minutes Friday night), and he’s had four 40-point triple-doubles this season; the entire rest of the NBA has combined for one. Perhaps more important than Harden’s individual numbers is the Rockets’ team success. Houston has gone 12-3 during Harden’s 30-point scoring streak, despite being without Chris Paul for the last 10 of those games.
As for the MVP trophy itself — one Harden recently declared was coming back to him — there’s plenty of competition. Giannis Antetokounmpo is dominating the paint in a way not seen since Shaquille O’Neal’s prime and is leading the Bucks to the top of the East in the process. Former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard has made the Raptors’ bet in trading for him pay off. Paul George is looking more and more like the league-leading two-way player he was on track to be in Indiana before his devastating leg injury. And then there are former MVP winners LeBron James and Stephen Curry, both of whom might’ve missed too much time with injuries but have played like MVPs when they’ve been on the court.
Westbrook’s triple-double triple play
Russell Westbrook’s offensive issues have been well documented this season, but the 2016-17 MVP is yet again averaging a triple-double (21.2 PPG, 10.3 APG, 10.8 RPG). That season, Westbrook joined Oscar Robertson as the only other player in history to average a triple-double for an entire season. He then repeated the feat last season for the Thunder.
Can Russ do it again? As his jump shot comes and goes this season, Westbrook has been picking it up in other areas to keep OKC near the top of the West and the “triple-triple” pursuit intact.
The return of Boogie Cousins
With DeMarcus Cousins set to make his debut for the Warriors, check out what he brings to the Bay Area.
For all of the hand-wringing after the two-time defending champion Warriors signed four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in July, we’ve still yet to see Cousins play a minute in a Warriors uniform. That will change next week, when Cousins makes his season debut against the LA Clippers. However, it remains to be seen just how effective the big man will be after not playing for nearly a year due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. The track record for players returning from that injury isn’t great, and Cousins might be the biggest player, physically, to attempt such a comeback.
Assuming he can be effective, Cousins arrives just in time for a Warriors team that trails the Denver Nuggets for the top spot in the West and has ranked among the NBA’s worst teams when it comes to production from the starting center position. Adding to the relative ineffectiveness of Damian Jones (who is now out with a torn pectoral muscle), Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell is the fact that Draymond Green has been in a season-long slump that has seen his scoring dip to rookie-year levels. So Cousins, who has averaged at least 22 points per game in each of his past five seasons, will be a welcome addition to Golden State’s lineup.
Is LeBron’s postseason streak in danger?
Jalen Rose breaks down why having a tough remaining schedule isn’t much of a factor for the Lakers.
While his NBA Finals streak — eight years and counting — gets all the attention, LeBron James hasn’t missed the postseason entirely since 2004-05. That was his second year in the league, when his Cavaliers finished in a tie for eighth in the East with the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets, but lost the tiebreaker, forcing James to wait until 2006 to make his playoff debut. He hasn’t missed the playoffs since, and in fact has advanced to the second round for 13 consecutive years. Whether that streak comes to an end this year might depend on how soon James returns from his groin injury. He has missed the Lakers’ past nine games and will sit out at least two more. L.A. was in fourth in the West prior to his injury and has slid all the way to eighth in his absence.
It’s not unprecedented for a star like James to miss the playoffs in his prime, even in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant’s 2004-05 Lakers team failed to qualify for the postseason, as did the 1975-76 team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his first season with the Lakers.
Trade deadline and buyout market
Stephen A. Smith explains why Anthony Davis will have to demand a trade from the Pelicans if he wants a chance at wearing a Lakers uniform before 2020.
It might seem hard to believe, since the calendar just turned to 2019, but the trade deadline is less than four weeks away. Teams have already been active in the trade market, thanks in part to a compressed Western Conference that has 14 teams separated by less than 10 games.
The name everyone will be watching, even if he’s not likely to move, is Anthony Davis. The Pelicans big man has been linked to the Lakers, Celtics and even Warriors, even though he doesn’t become a free agent until 2020 and could be eligible for a supermax extension this summer. Regardless of Davis’ availability, if LeBron and the Lakers truly feel they’re in danger of missing the playoffs, don’t expect them to let February go by without making a move.
In the East, the Celtics, who could potentially have as many as four first-round picks in the 2019 draft, have both the assets and the motivation to make a move. Kevin Love becomes trade eligible on Jan. 24, and with the Cavs far, far out of playoff contention, they might look to move him to a contender that needs shooting. Jimmy Butler, who has already been dealt once this season, could be on the move again if the 76ers decide he’s not fitting in with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Speaking of the 76ers, there’s also little clarity on the future of Markelle Fultz, who could end up needing a trade to get a fresh start. And if the Wizards decide to blow things up, keep an eye not only on All-Star Bradley Beal, but role players Jeff Green, Markieff Morris and Trevor Ariza, who, like Butler, has already switched teams this season.
For teams that don’t make a trade, there’s always the option to improve through the veteran buyout market, with exiled players like Carmelo Anthony, Chandler Parsons and J.R. Smith — all of whom are also candidates to be traded — likely to end up available to potentially help a contender. Other buyout candidates who are actually contributing to their teams currently to some degree include the Hawks’ Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter, big men Robin Lopez and Enes Kanter, and the Mavs’ duo of DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews, if Dallas falls out of the playoff race by late February.
One last note to teams: Please remember to confirm both the first and last name of the player you’re trading for.
All-Star 2019 in Charlotte
This time, the revolution will be televised.
Unlike last season’s debut of the playground-style format, which didn’t reveal the picks made by captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry until hours later, fans will get to witness every decision play out live on TNT. Friendships will be challenged and feelings will be hurt — reality TV at its finest. As of now, James would repeat as captain — this time representing the Western Conference — while Giannis Antetokounmpo is on track to be the top vote-getter from the East. The two would then draft, first picking from the pool of starters before moving on to the reserves, and the respective teams would face off on All-Star Sunday. A year ago, Team LeBron beat Team Stephen, thanks to some clutch last-second defense from James and Curry’s Warriors teammate Kevin Durant.
Key All-Star dates
Jan. 24: All-Star starters announced
Jan. 31: All-Star reserves announced
Feb. 15: Rising Stars, Celebrity game
Feb. 16: All-Star Saturday night (skills, 3s, dunk contests)
Feb. 17: 2019 NBA All-Star Game
Milestones to watch
Some future Hall of Famers are chasing history in the second half. And yes, LeBron has quite a few greats on his radar:
LeBron James: 327 points away from passing Michael Jordan for fourth on the all-time scoring list; 74 assists away from passing Andre Miller for 10th; three triple-doubles away from passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth-most all time; 36 steals away from passing Kobe Bryant for 15th all time; two 3-pointers away from passing Steve Nash for 19th on the all-time list
Dirk Nowitzki: 189 points away from passing Wilt Chamberlain for sixth on the all-time scoring list
Vince Carter: 51 points away from passing Jerry West for 21st on the all-time scoring list; 16 3-pointers away from passing Jamal Crawford for sixth on the all-time list
Chris Paul: 51 assists away from passing Gary Payton for eighth-most in NBA history; 14 steals away from passing Mookie Blaylock for 11th on the all-time list
D-Wade’s farewell tour
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade hug it out then swap jerseys after the Lakers beat the Heat in the friends’ last matchup.
Every Miami Heat game will be an event, as the music fades on Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance.” He is retiring after the season — as is longtime Heat teammate Udonis Haslem — and his farewell tour has included some vintage moments, some incredible receptions around the league and plenty of jersey swapping. Here are the noteworthy regular-season games remaining in Wade’s 16th and final NBA season:
Jan. 19: Heat at Bulls (Wade’s final game in his hometown of Chicago)
Feb. 13: Heat at Mavericks (final game in Dallas, where Wade won his first Finals)
March 22: Heat at Bucks (final regular-season game in Milwaukee; Wade played two seasons at Marquette)
April 3: Celtics at Heat (final regular-season game against Celtics; he faced Boston four times in the playoffs)
April 9: 76ers at Heat (final regular-season home game)
April 10: Heat at Nets (final regular-season game)