The unofficial start of the 2019-20 NBA second half is under way. In a league where the past few years have been very much predictable, certain changes, including free agent signings and a legendary team’s fall from grace has made this NBA season very different. Here’s a quick recap of the season so far:
Wide Open Race
For the first time in six years, there is doubt about what team will win the NBA championship. The Golden State Warriors are depleted in more ways than one (more on them later) and their reign on top was officially over early. LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavalier teams have been the Warriors’ competition for four of five NBA Finals, is now in his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers and a favorite once again. However, with the best record in the West (43-12), the Lakers may not even be the best team in the City of Angels. The Los Angeles Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, have the 3rd best record in the West at 38-19 but the Clippers have a 2-0 record against the Lakers this season.
Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to a shocking NBA title run by dethroning the defending champion Warriors, has left the North for the West coast, leaving the Eastern Conference open for several teams. The Bucks lead the conference in wins, and surprisingly, the Raptors remain second in the standings at 42-15 despite their best player’s departure. The Celtics (39-17) and Sixers (36-22), two teams with high hopes at the beginning of the season, are firmly planted to be there at the end.
At the time of this post, the Milwaukee Bucks are 49-8 and have locked up a playoff spot! Let me repeat, they have LOCKED UP A PLAYOFF SPOT and it’s still February! This feat broke the NBA record set by last year’s Warriors team as the fastest to do so. With two months left in the season, the Bucks can’t rest with so much still at stake. Not only is the top seed in the Eastern Conference at play, but for the NBA Finals as well if they get there. This surge of success with a franchise that hasn’t won a NBA championship in almost 50 years is largely due to reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak, as he is commonly referred to, is putting up another monster season (30.0 PPG,13.6 RPG, 5.8 APG) and is in line for another MVP award. Only a handful of greats in NBA history has won the award back to back. Will this be the year Giannis leads the Bucks to finally win it all?
This is a tale of two halves when it comes to the race for the top rookie. To say that at draft time would’ve been far fetched. Going into this season, most people figured it was a slam dunk that New Orleans Pelicans’ forward Zion Williamson would win the award. The number one pick, who is a walking highlight film, was the clear odds on favorite. However, he was sidelined for most of the first half of the season with a knee injury.
This paved the way for other rookies to showcase their talents without being overshadowed. Some are having good starts to their NBA careers, but none more than Memphis Grizzlies’ star guard Ja Morant. Not only is his stat line impressive (17.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 6.9 APG), but he is leading a young Grizzlies team, who were picked to have a terrible season, into the thick of the playoff chase. They are currently sitting 8th in the conference standings (28-29).
With all of the success Morant has had, it was only a matter of time before Zion made his mark. Making his NBA debut in a prime time game on Jan. 22nd, Zion put on a show in the 4th quarter after a slow start. Since then the phenom has averaged (22.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.3 APG). So it is now a two player race for the Rookie of the Year award. Can Morant hold off a surging Zion?
Along with Leonard leaving Toronto for LA, there were a number of major players switching teams that have shaped this exciting NBA season.
Anthony Davis: the trade that was once dead between the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans was finally completed over the summer, sending the dominate power forward to the Lakers for a handful of players, including Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.
Paul George: In a trade that no one saw coming, the Clippers got Leonard some help by getting the perennial all-star from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Russell Westbrook: With a total overhaul that signaled an end of an era, the Thunder parted ways with their franchise point guard and sent him to the Houston Rockets. With his trade, along with Kevin Durant’s and James Harden’s departure over the past couple of seasons, the Thunder let go arguably three of the top 10 players who have each one an MVP award. In the trade for Westbrook, the Houston Rockets sent Chris Paul.
Jimmy Butler: The hardworking small forward was a vital piece in the Philadelphia 76ers run to the playoffs last season. One of the most iconic shots in NBA history in Game 7 in Toronto derailed their season, and it also ended his tenure in the City of Brotherly Love. Butler was traded to the Miami Heat, which has worked out to make them one of the surprise teams in the league (36-21).
No Splash in the Bay
One of the biggest surprises of the first half is not a good one, depending on the fan base. Since 2014, the Golden State Warriors has been the NBA’s cream of the crop. Led by the Splash Bros’ Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors had been in five straight NBA Finals. Within this run they added then 7-time All-Star Durant to form one of the most dominant teams in NBA history. They would go on win back to back titles with Durant, with him winning Finals MVP both times. A year ago at this time they were 43-17, cruising towards the playoffs to defend their crown, and seeking their 3rd title in four years.
Then the playoffs happened. Durant suffered a calf injury, which caused him to miss several games in the Western Conference playoffs. However, they were able to reach the NBA Finals with their original core of stars to face Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. With the Warriors trailing 3-1, Durant came back for a pivotal Game 5. In his return, he ruptured his Achilles, effectively ending his season, and also his tenure with the team. A game later, the Raptors would go on to win the series and their first NBA title. In the game 6 loss, Thompson would go down with a torn ACL.
Fast forward to today, and with Thompson (out for the season), Durant (who will miss the entire season as well but also left for the Brooklyn Nets) and Curry (who broke his hand and has missed four months) out, along with the departures of Sean Livingston and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, the Golden State Warriors are 12-45, last in the entire league! Most of the NBA world thought the team wouldn’t be contenders without Durant, but with the injuries to two of their mainstays, this season was over before it started. From finals to rebuild in a matter of months, NBA life can come at you fast!