10 Takeaways From the First Half of the NBA Season

James Harden is an MVP candidate, the Clippers need a point guard, why the Rockets are getting Cade Cunningham, and more.
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With the 2020–21 NBA season’s All-Star break finally upon us, here are 10 takeaways from everything we’ve seen over the last few months, from league-wide trends, notable player and team performances, and general reactions that help explain one of the strangest years in the history of professional sports.

1. There is no favorite

Thanks to an incredibly short turnaround, daily tests for COVID-19, anxiety-inducing isolation, the phrase “health and safety protocols” dictating who plays and who can’t, dozens of postponed games, little practice time, less team bonding opportunities, mental exhaustion, persistent injuries, overt caution sprung from a compressed schedule that’s driving trainers mad, no home court advantage, and many other elements that have made this season a grind unlike any before it, there is no clear favorite to win the NBA championship.

The Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Nets, Nuggets, Suns, Jazz and 76ers should, in their current forms, believe they can win four straight playoff series, while the Celtics, Raptors, Trail Blazers, Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Warriors and Mavericks are all talented enough (when healthy/after adding another player) to bust a playoff bracket. Over half the league was just listed and none of these teams is without its own cause for concern. The trade deadline and buyout market may separate two or three teams from the rest of the pack, but it can also bump a group that’s been struggling into a higher tier.

There’s also a lot of basketball left to be played, and a big injury (or two or three) could shake the picture up even more than it already appears to be. This is fun! Unpredictability is why we watch sports! If the 2021 Finals are a battle between two six seeds, all the better.

2. Lots and lots and lots of points are being scored

Of the 10 greatest NBA offenses since 1974, seven are happening this season. Translation: According to Basketball-Reference, the Nets, Bucks, Clippers, Nuggets, Pelicans, Blazers, and Jazz are more efficient than the 2017 Warriors. (The Bulls—a team that probably won’t make the playoffs!—have the 11th highest effective field goal percentage in more than 45 years!)

On the flip side is some truly atrocious defense. Fogbound, rambling, hopeless efforts by teams that have to sprint back in transition, protect the paint, hound the three-point line, force turnovers, avoid fouling, and rebound missed shots. Three seasons ago, 22 teams finished with a defensive rating below 110. Right now only 10 are that stout. The Kings are an automatic door that never closes. The Pelicans, Blazers and Wizards aren’t that far behind.

These trends probably aren’t going anywhere unless the competition committee alters the rulebook, extends the three-point line, or physically shrinks the court. Until then, three-point rates continue to climb. Floors continue to be spaced. Most strategy is defined by random actions, with ballhandlers discovering advantages before defenses even realize there’s something new they need to stop. Like, just look at this play:

This dribble handoff keeper that’s actually a dribble handoff looks like an outtake from Tenet. How is anyone supposed to keep up with this? Points are fun and offense is great. But it’s worth wondering whether/when the game might tilt too far in one direction.

3. Zion Williamson will soon hold the NBA in the palm of his hand

This is the single most enjoyable development of the season. With Point Zion already established, what makes him the most ceaselessly dominant 20-year-old who’s ever appeared in an NBA game is the promise of another evolutionary cycle taking place sometime this season—assuming the league ever catches up to the one he’s currently on.

The expansion of one’s game is unnecessary when its latest version is more unstoppable than any non-MVP candidate in the entire league. Nobody his age or younger has ever averaged at least 25 points with a field goal percentage above 60. Watching Zion play basketball is a ridiculous experience. There is no way to neutralize him. The word “verticality” is rendered meaningless. The concept of gravity no longer matters. Bomb shelters suddenly feel like a worthwhile investment.

Zion’s skill is undeniable, but the ascendance we’re witnessing this season is more tightly tied to the inherent physical advantages that turn defensive game plans into that amusing "Jimmy Butler balls up a box score" gif even after all five opponents perfectly position themselves on the court. It’s blind seal vs. great white shark, or what happens when a water balloon meets an aluminum bat. Zion’s energy has become its own scientific law, and New Orleans has one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history when he’s on the court.

His defense is riddled with mistakes but that’s hardly a long-term concern when you consider all he’s already accomplishing with the ball on a nightly basis. He’s a smart player who’ll eventually figure it out. No player in the league has a brighter future.

james-harden-nets-pistons

4. What a surprise: James Harden is an MVP candidate

Disentangling James Harden who quit on the Rockets from James Harden who leads the NBA in assists and is spearheading a historically efficient offense can be complicated—less so as each day seems to bring another commanding Nets win. Since Feb. 6, which is when Kevin Durant was essentially shut down until the All-Star break, Harden is pretty much averaging a 27-point triple-double.

He’s making 44.6% of his threes, half his overall shots and flummoxing defenses that feel the need to double him near midcourt even with a supernova like Kyrie Irving also on the floor. (Watch Irving give his own MJ shrug after this shot goes in. On one hand it’s wild how open he was on such an important play. On the other, Harden will break your brain.)

This type of attention isn’t new. Neither is Harden’s proclivity to leverage his own scoring prowess so he can set teammates up (in 2017 his assist rate was 50.7). The way he’s playing has Brooklyn looking like a title contender without Durant. That’s how good he’s been, and why the Harden Trade 2.0 remains so difficult to process.

Also, unrelated to pretty much everything written above, but Harden's pulling off a pseudo-Shammgod against the team that employs God Shammgod was fantastic.

5. Philly’s half-court offense isn’t good, but there’s no need to panic

One of the more fraught questions in Philadelphia over the past few years has been, can Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid co-create efficient half-court offense during the playoffs? The answer requires nuance. When the court narrows in crunch time, they’re predictable in the most damaging ways. Outside shooting matters, and both franchise players need more of it around them than most All-Stars do.

Even though we won’t know how this year’s iteration will fare until the postseason, so far Philadelphia has the 22nd best half-court offense in the league. Not great. But Philly’s half-court offense with Simmons and Embiid on the floor averages a whopping 103.4 points per play, which is good. Last year they averaged 94.1. In the 2019 playoffs they were at 98.2 (99.3 when Jimmy Butler joined them), and during the 2018 regular season, when they initially started to garner some Finals buzz, Philly’s half-court offense with Simmons and Embiid scored 100.9 points per 100 plays.

What we’re seeing now, in other words, is the best half-court offense Simmons and Embiid have ever been a part of, more effective than what LeBron James and Anthony Davis have done this year. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on for a team that, at times, looks unbeatable.

6. The Clippers do in fact need a point guard

The Clippers have the lowest net rating in crunch time this season by a humongous margin, with an attack that generates 13 fewer points per 100 possessions when compared to their overall, third-best offensive rating. This was not the case last season, when the Clippers had the third-best clutch offense in the league (and were unstoppable in a small sample size during the playoffs).

It’s also just ... weird. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are two stoic, hyper-efficient scorers in their prime. But Leonard has made just one clutch three all year, and in 25 minutes George has scored only 14 points. Nic Batum is -33 in crunch time and +187 overall.

Another star isn’t necessary, but a steady, smart ballhandler who can shoot, organize a half-court offense, run a fast break and not be a total liability on the other end in the playoffs would be welcome. Tomáš Satoranský, come on down!

By trading Lou Williams for him, the Clippers get a younger piece under contract next season who’s a better fit in the postseason, where Williams’ skill set doesn’t translate as well. Satoranský (one half of Stacey King’s Law Offices of Sato & Young) had a 73.3 true shooting percentage in February. He’s also 6’ 7” and competes on defense.

One ancillary effect would be an opportunity for Luke Kennard—who’s making 47.3% of his spot-up threes and has been out of Ty Lue’s rotation for two weeks—to establish himself as the important piece L.A. believed he could be when they acquired him. The Clippers are very good, and Williams isn’t having a bad year (he’s actually been fine in the clutch!). But looking ahead to the postseason, Satoranský is someone who belongs on a title contender. The Clippers should do everything in their power to grab him.

7. Maybe the Warriors can afford patience?

In December, many expected the Warriors to miss the playoffs. (FiveThirtyEight put them at 16%.) Klay Thompson had just ruptured his Achilles, James Wiseman was a rookie center who played barely any college basketball, and looking past Steph Curry and Draymond Green the rest of the roster lacked depth, shooting, and basketball IQ.

Today, the Warriors are O.K.! Curry is back to looking like an MVP-caliber phenomenon—Golden State’s offense is a damp book of matches without him—and Green finished February with more assists than every other player. The Warriors are winning games with a top-10 defense, and Andrew Wiggins doesn’t look hopeless. Upgrading before the trade deadline is always an option.

But knowing Thompson is coming back next year, while Curry and Green have an edge in their battle against Father Time, Golden State can afford to keep their most valuable assets without fear of wasting Curry’s third act. Wiseman will be better in his second season, and Minnesota’s top-three protected first-round may manifest either another young building block or, if the Timberwolves keep it, a delicious trade chip next year.

If you’re Joe Lacob, let things ride out, have your cake and eat it too. Preserve the future without damaging the present. Golden State isn’t a title contender, but they’re in a really good place.

8. Kristaps Porzingis is a problem

It’s been a strange season for Porzingis. On some nights he looks like he has one of the worst contracts in the NBA, a floating, extravagantly overpaid stretch five who is abused over and over again by offenses looking to attack him in the pick-and-roll. When trying to slow down a pull-up threat, Porzingis routinely puts himself in no man’s land, not comfortable enough to run the shooter off the line while also knowing he can’t afford to stay in the paint.

These two examples are against an exceptionally tough cover, but Porzingis treats most matchups this way: awkwardly. It helps explain why Dallas allows a whopping 116.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

But on other nights he’s the perfect pick-and-pop partner for Luka Dončić, protecting the rim and leveraging his size in the post as if Rick Carlisle's anti-post-up rant from last season never happened. Porzingis is finishing four possessions per game with a post-up—which is one more than last year—and it hasn’t been a particularly inefficient option, especially when the Mavs use him to pulverize smaller defenders on a switch. And when guarded by someone (closer to) his size, Porzingis has the speed and footwork to force a quick matchup change by the opposing coach. (He hit Al Horford with a filthy 18-foot step back a few days ago. Horford didn’t even bother trying to contest it.)

All this is to say Porzingis is at war with himself. His recovery from surgery shouldn’t be ignored as a contributing factor toward his inconsistencies. But right now it’s hard to see a world where, even when 100% healthy, he’s the second-best player on a champion, especially one making max money.

9. A sustained Jamal Murray leap is terrifying

Jamal Murray’s statistical plateau earlier this season could probably be explained by several nagging injuries endured during a pandemic-shortened season, beneath the weight of championship expectations that were shaped by a shocking playoff run in 2020.

Up until a few weeks ago, his numbers and impact were nearly identical to the previous two regular seasons: 18 points per game and underwhelming three-point shooting balanced with an occasional blast of irrepressible offense. Not bad, but certainly below what everyone knows he’s capable of—and what the Nuggets ultimately need him to be.

These were the first 20 games. Then, thanks in part to several rotation players getting sidelined with their own injuries, Mike Malone decided to stagger Murray and Nikola Jokić more than he normally does, a deviation we also saw during last year’s playoffs, when at the start of the second and fourth quarter Denver’s franchise point guard gets time to shine as a number one option.

In 11 games since that change—with nearly three extra non-Jokić minutes per game—Murray is averaging 29.1 points, five rebounds and five assists, with almost twice as many three-point attempts every game and a ridiculous 72.1 true shooting percentage. In other words, the player we’ve seen since Valentine’s Day is the same one who obliterated all forms of resistance inside the bubble. In a perfect world, the Nuggets wouldn’t need to split up their two best players. They’d maximize the mesmerizing synergy Jokić and Murray have cultivated over countless possessions, a series of inverted screens, dribble handoffs, and preposterous shots that inevitably go in.

But giving Murray an opportunity to flex on his own makes sense when he’s drilling contested threes, warping second-units, and looking like a strong All-NBA candidate. It also leaves opponents with no time to catch their breath. The Nuggets have the best offense in the NBA over the past two weeks, and Malone’s decision to modify the rotation helps illustrate why.

10. The Rockets are getting Cade Cunningham

This is part takeaway, part prediction, but Christian Wood’s severely sprained ankle might be the most auspicious injury in Rockets history. They’ve lost 13 straight since he went down, with the league's worst offense by a decent margin. It now makes sense to trade P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon and Victor Oladipo. Bleak stuff. But there may be light at the end of the tunnel!

Houston’s 2021 first-round pick will be made by the Thunder unless it’s a top-four pick. Thanks to their recent slide, the Rockets have a 52.1% chance of landing a top-four pick (the highest odds any team can have). If they keep that pick and land a legitimate franchise building block—be it Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs or Evan Mobley—the Rockets could find themselves bouncing back from Harden’s trade demand faster than anybody could have anticipated.