It’s mid-February. Alabama’s took home another national championship, Denver’s won the Super Bowl, Tay-Tay took home album of the year, and the first half of the season is officially behind us. So let's grade some of our more prominent teams. Who’s improved since last season, and who has regressed? And, what is going on in the Bay area?
Golden State Warriors: The chase for the 73 wins
We’re witnessing history in the making. No two teams have ever reached the All-Star break with 45 wins until now. San Antonio (45-9) and Golden State (49-5) are both incredible teams, but it’s Golden State that’s certainly taken everyone’s breath away. Two Super Bowl champions have been crowned since they last lost a regular season home game. The previous record for the greatest start in NBA history was set by the Hakeem Rockets in 1994, with an unimaginable 15 wins before finally losing to Atlanta. Then Stephen Curry and his Golden State Warriors smashed their record with 24 wins before losing to Milwaukee, but their run hasn’t stopped there.
They’ve torn the league asunder, winning 49 games, seemingly on a crash course to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins. Are they the best team ever? Far from it, and far too early to tell. Are they even the best team of this season? Well, yes. At every leg of the season, critics have questioned their ability to deal with one team after another. It began with the Clippers, then it was Cleveland on Christmas day, then of course, it was the Spurs, and lastly OKC. And yet, no one has proven they can stand toe to toe with the Warriors.
What’s so remarkable is the fact that this is coming off a championship run. When Chicago won 72 games, it was after losing in the Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando. When Larry and his Celtics won 67 games in 1986, it was after losing the finals to Los Angeles. When the Lakers recorded the longest win streak in 1972, it was after losing 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals to Milwaukee. The Warriors have accomplished all of this, after winning 67 games and a championship last season. That’s just incredible.
Personally, I love watching this team. Their chemistry, dedication to the system, selflessness, and showmanship are astounding. And, to be honest, I didn’t even expect Golden State to be a top 3 team in the West. After the offseason moves made by the Clippers and Spurs, plus Kevin Durant returning, I just expected the Warriors to fall behind the pack. Yet Curry is practically a shoot-win for MVP, and he’s led his team to the greatest start in NBA history. Of course, his All-Star supporting cast helps.
Can the Unbeatable Warriors Be Beaten?
So where does that leave the rest of the league? If you were to break the NBA down into tiers, Golden State may be in a class of their own, but right below them lie San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland.
The King against the Warriors 2.0.
Out of the three, Cleveland is by far the shakiest. In the last two months they’ve been blown out by Golden State at home, fired coach David Blatt, hired Tyronn Lue, and now they’re trying to run a faster-paced offense. The problems I see with Lue’s plan to run a faster-paced offense is that they can certainly score, but can they defend in transition? Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are mediocre defenders at best, so against stronger offenses are they going to be able to react well?
I found last season that Cleveland’s greatest strength was their ability to play slow basketball, and control the tempo through the defense. However, Cleveland’s had convincing wins over San Antonio and the Clippers since Lue took over, so I wouldn’t count them out yet.
The Return of the Thunder?
On the flip side, there’s Oklahoma City, who has returned to prominence thanks to Durant’s return. On paper, this is the league’s most talented starting five, sporting Westbrook, Waiters, Durant, Ibaka and Morrow. When you throw in Kanter as a dedicated sixth man, that’s incredible. But, even having two top 5 players in the league can’t propel them past Golden State. They’re still unable to fully commit to team basketball, due to Westbrook and KD’s affinity for isolation plays. It doesn’t help that Westbrook is missing 10 of his 18 attempts per game. Still, isolation plays have gotten them pretty far.
Well, far enough to be sitting comfortable at third. Can they improve though? Yes, tremendously. Westbrook has proved he isn’t only an elite scorer, but he’s a great glue guy. He can rebound and run the break, pass, and play defense. If Russ can just improve his shot selection and dial his field goal percentage in a little closer to 50%, than the Thunder can truly be a terrifying team in the West. But, as of right now they’re just a wild card. Stay tuned to their matchups against Golden State throughout the season though, I wouldn’t count Westbrook and Durant out.
San Antonio Spurs: We Are Still Here
Meanwhile, San Antonio is a very interesting team in a very interesting place. Since Kawhi Leonard won Finals MVP in 2014, he’s slowly progressed into the Spurs go-to guy since. Now he’s All-World and an exceptional first option player among teammates Tony Parker and Lamarcus Aldridge. This team is deep and has a plethora of players for a plethora of styles. They can go small, go big, run a fast-paced offense, or go slow and control the tempo with defense.
Sadly like all Spurs teams, we won’t know what they’re really made of until the playoffs. However, their record (45-9) speaks for itself. As un-Spurs like as it may seem, this team is hungry. Their first round heartbreak to the Clippers has only fueled their success, and their on a mission. While the Warriors should be everyone’s number one team right now, don’t count out the Spurs. Come playoff time, they’ll be more than capable of going the distance with any team.
Houston Rockets: The Ego's Code
Below those four contenders, the league has seen three “anomalies” so-to-speak. The first being the Houston Rockets, who have plummeted since last season. Nine months ago they were battling the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Then Harden shows up to training camp overweight, Ty Lawson can’t find his footing in the offense, Dwight Howard suffers a knee injury, and then management unjustly fires coach Kevin McHale.
Now they’re just barely fending off Utah for the eighth spot. It’s as if the players just hand the ball to Harden and expect him to win them games. Their teamwork has improved, but it’s possible that they may not even make the playoffs. And, to think that this team was perceived as a contender before the season began.
The Bulls: Below the Expectations
The second would be Chicago, which has collapsed for a number of reasons. Jimmy Butler’s ascension to star status has really helped Chicago maintain relevancy, but now that he’s injured the team's deficiencies have become more than obvious. I would blame Hoiberg, but it may just be the void left by Thibs. It’s clear that there’s really no coordination in the front court, and now without Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah, it’s become even more of an issue.
There’s no return date for Jimmy Butler, but he’s maintained that he’ll return before the end of the season and hopes to begin rehab soon. At this rate though, I would weary of their playoff hopes. Sorry Chicago fans.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Roller Coaster of the NBA
The last “anomaly” would be the Clippers, whose season has been an absolute roller coaster. They have an amazing offseason, adding Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, and Paul Pierce. Then Doc Rivers even went as far as to call the Warriors “lucky” to have won their championship. We all know how that’s panned out now though. Instead of improving, the Clippers were unable to even land in the top four.
The team has only begun to gather steam after Blake Griffin’s injury, and then Blake injures himself again after punching an equipment manager in the jaw. Strong jaw right? And, now they’ve even explored options to trade him. Will the Clippers become a true force of nature once Blake returns? I would imagine so, but it’s really hard to tell.
The Eastern Conference: Who Can Stop LeBron James?
I would say one of the associations biggest surprises has been the Eastern Conference. Compared to the last few years, it’s become extremely competitive. Can anyone beat Cleveland? Probably not. But, the battle between two-eight has become really interesting. Without Jimmy Butler, it seems like Chicago’s chances are slim to none.
Detroit’s really become an interesting wild card thanks to Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Maybe Tobias Harris is the deciding factor that pushes them into playoff contention. Further south, the Hornets have become an interesting team, and with Al Jefferson returning I think they’re certainly poised to “make some noise”, as they say.
I think the league’s biggest surprise has been Boston though. Brad Stevens has turned that young squad into a well-oiled machine, capable of exploding for over 110 points while playing elite perimeter defense. Depending on their seeding, it’s more than possible that they can reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Although if anyone in the East is going to challenge Cleveland, it’s going to be Toronto. Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan have cemented themselves a top-shelf backcourt. When you combine their performance with Jonas Valanciunas and the addition of Demarre Carroll, you have a balanced offense and defense that can compete with any team, East or West. I’m not sold that they can actually beat Cleveland in a 7 game series, but I have a feeling they can at least go the distance.
The last team I’d like to talk about is Miami, who I believed was going to compete in the Eastern Conference with the Cavaliers. Sadly, it seems Chris Bosh is still dealing with blood clots. So to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if he announces his retirement.
There is still hope for the Heat, thanks to Dwyane Wade and his supporting cast. With his leadership and good coaching, Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside should be more than enough to hold the seventh or eighth seed. Fingers crossed that Wade can finish out the season.
Now I’ll give you all of my predictions for the season's major awards and winners.
2015-16 NBA Predictions
Executive of the Year: R.C Buford
Sixth Man of the Year: Will Barton
Most Improved Player: CJ McCollum
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens
Most Valuable Player: Stephen Curry
Eastern Conference Finals Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers
Western Conference Finals Winner: Golden State Warriors
The NBA Finals Winner: Golden State Warriors
Finals MVP: Stephen Curry
By RP3, Contributor.