The second half of the NBA season starts on Wednesday which means it’s time to sort out the serious contenders for [checks notes] July’s Finals. Through the first three months of play, the field is about what we thought it would be with a few surprises. Few pegged the Utah Jazz as the league’s leader by record through the first week of March or the Philadelphia 76ers as the top team in the Eastern Conference, but there’s plenty of time for teams to swap places and recreate their rosters. The question is who, when, and how.
Let’s discuss seven of the top storylines that will be addressed as we enter the back half of 2021 NBA play.
1. Are the Nets the team to beat?
Halfway through the season, the Nets boast just the fourth-best record and sixth-best net rating, but Brooklyn’s hardly had a look at the superstars they’ve compiled for their All-Star team. Kevin Durant’s played in just 19 out of 37 games, Kyrie Irving’s played in 26, and since being traded, James Harden’s played in 23 games. The trio has spent a total of 186 minutes across seven games together (and crushed teams, outscoring opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions together.)
The Nets — on paper at least — might be the league’s most terrifying playoff team given that their three best players can each close out a game creating shots for themselves, and Joe Harris (shooting 50.6% from 3-point range) has proven to be worth every penny of his $75 million contract as the team’s fourth-man. Bruce Brown has also been key as an occasional starter to keep Brooklyn afloat on both ends, and now the team’s added Blake Griffin to the fold.
Aside from health, the question will be if the Nets can defend well enough to complement their out-of-this-world offense. They currently sit 26th in defensive net rating, ahead of just the Wizards, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, and Kings.
It was announced on February 18th that Davis’s return from a calf injury would be in approximately four weeks, which would be 11 days after the All-Star Game. The Lakers play three more times until March 18th not including the game they play that night, which would, in theory, be a target return date for Davis. L.A. will of course be very cautious with its star given the tight schedule leading up to May’s playoff run. Summer ball matters most.
Right now, the Lakers sit 3.5 games behind the Jazz for the top seed in the West, and a game behind the Suns, who have the second-best record. L.A. could free-fall a bit if Davis is out for much longer. The team has dropped seven of its last 10 games and only leads the Clippers by a half-game and Trail Blazers by two games. There is a reality in which LeBron James’ group finishes outside the top-4 in the West.
Maybe it won’t matter in the long run whether or not James and his teammates have home-court advantage. The stadiums are unlikely to be filled to capacity by then anyway. But it’s worth keeping an eye on how Davis’s return will impact where L.A. stands.
3. Are the Jazz really this good?
The Jazz lead the league with a 27-9 record and the NBA’s best net rating. They’re out-scoring teams by 9.04 points per 100 possessions, which is nearly 3.0 points per 100 possessions better than every team except the Milwaukee Bucks last year. They’re smoking teams.
Right now, the core of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert is working soundly. The offseason move to add Jordan Clarkson has been tremendous off the bench, and Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neal have been key, too. If Utah can keep this up, they may hold on to the No. 1 ranking, though they’ll be judged by their playoff run.
4. Are the Suns the most dangerous new contender?
Since we questioned the Rockets’ decision to sign Chris Paul to a four-year, $160 million contract, he’s been incredible with not one, but two other teams. Paul’s helping co-star the Suns into the second-best record in the West with a top-6 offense and defense.
The Suns are extremely talented with the Hall of Fame point guard, star scoring guard Devin Booker, big man Deandre Ayton, and a ton of switchable, sharpshooting wings like Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges. They’ve beaten the Jazz, Bucks, Sixers, Lakers, Trail Blazers, and more. The last 37 games will determine how good Phoenix really is, but for now, they’re the NBA’s most pleasant surprise and newest threat to the throne.
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McCollum (foot) and Nurkic (wrist) are both set to be re-evaluated later this week and are nearing a return to Portland’s lineup. That’s great news for the Blazers as McCollum has played just 13 games this year, and Nurkic has played in 12. But shockingly, Portland isn’t as desperate as originally thought for them to come back.
Damian Lillard, Gary Trent Jr., and Enes Kanter have led the Blazers to a fifth-place record in the Western Conference without two of their best teammates. Since McCollum’s injury, the team has gone 13-9 with a pair of wins over the Sixers and wins over the Mavericks and Warriors. The second half of their schedule is more daunting, but in the meantime, Portland’s just two games behind the Lakers.
It’ll be interesting to see how the team handles Trent Jr. and Kanter’s minutes going forward. Since McCollum went down, Trent Jr.’s played 24.6 minutes per game and is scoring 17.0 points on 39.4% shooting from 3-point range with 2.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.0 steals. Kanter has logged 12.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game in 30.2 minutes since Nurkic was first sidelined. (Fantasy managers, beware of how their minutes might change.)
Did the Blazers’ injuries accidentally cause accelerated bench development? Will Portland be better off for this?
6. Will the Celtics make a move?
The Celtics are struggling right now, sitting at just 19-17. Boston still holds the fourth-best record in the East but looks nothing like a contender so far. Of course, the team was hit with a flurry of injuries (Marcus Smart is still sidelined), and most of the team has spent time in quarantine, But the Celtics always have pressure to contend.
Boston shouldn’t be in any rush with its best players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, at 23 and 24 years old, but maybe this will be the year Danny Ainge finally makes a splashy move. It’s unclear who they’d trade as Tatum and Brown should be untouchable in almost every conversation, and Kemba Walker, who is owed another $108 million over the next three years including this one, is coming off a knee injury. The Celtics do own all of their future draft picks.
Keep monitoring Boston’s situation — especially in the buyout market.
7. Will the Nuggets bounce back after the break?
One of the NBA’s more disappointing teams to date is the Denver Nuggets, who advanced to the Conference Finals last season. Thirty-six games in, they’ve won just 21 games and place sixth in the West. Will they kick things into gear over the next three months?
There’s plenty of reason to still believe in this Nuggets team. which has seen Jamal Murray battle every injury imaginable, and Michael Porter Jr., Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and JaMychal Green all miss 10 games or more. The team has the fourth-best net rating in the NBA, outscoring teams by 5.38 points per 100 possessions. They’ve just had some crap luck, losing two games in overtime, and four more games by four points or less.
The other big reason to still believe in Denver is because it has maybe the MVP of the league this year, Nikola Jokic, who’s blowing away his other really impressive seasons. His 27.1 points per game are seven more than his previous best, and his 11.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists are also career-highs. His 3-point shooting has also jumped 10% from last season to 41.8% while he’s making a career-best 88.1% of his career-high 5.1 free-throws per night.
The evidence points to Denver being able to recover. Health and injuries appear to be the only thing holding them back.