On the eve of the second half of the NBA season, it’s a good time to take stock of where everything stands from the first half.
It’s been a predictably odd season thus far amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Over 30 games have been postponed due to health and safety protocols. The lack of fans can still make for an awkward viewing experience. The shortened offseason, compressed schedule and little practice time have made for some stilted play.
Still, there has been plenty of excitement on a nightly basis to keep NBA Twitter going in all its vibrant, weird glory.
So with the All-Star Game in the rearview and a couple days off to rest and prepare for a sprint to the playoffs, we take a look at the winners and losers from the first half of the NBA season:
Winner: Joel Embiid
Embiid tantalized us for the first four years of his career. Even as he earned three All-Star appearances, two second-team All-NBA selections and two second-team All-Defense nods, we wondered just how good Embiid could be if he really put it all together. We’re finally seeing it this season, and a healthy, in-shape, engaged Embiid is completely dominant. He’s averaging a career-high 30.2 points to go with 11.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals. He’s shooting career highs of 52.1% overall and 41.6% from 3-point range. He’s a leading MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference. He’s become everything the Sixers and fans hoped.
Winner: Utah Jazz
In purely basketball terms, the Jazz were the best team of the first half. They boast the league’s best record, a top-five offense, a top-five defense and the best net rating. Giannis Antetokounmpo called them the “best team in the West.” And yet …
Loser: Utah Jazz
As Roman Pearce would say, the disrespect is real around here. The Jazz were the subject of plenty of doubt and the butt of jokes in the first half.
There was Shaquille O’Neal’s odd “motivational” ploy for Donovan Mitchell. Then Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were the last two picks in the All-Star draft, and LeBron James only made things worse with his explanation. Their tempers boiled over in the final game before the break, with Mitchell and Gobert lobbing profanities at the referees and accusations they’re officiated differently because of their small-market status.
And as well as they have played, the Jazz still aren’t seen as the favorite in the Western Conference, with the Lakers and Clippers having better odds of reaching the NBA Finals.
Winner: Phoenix Suns
The Suns were the breakthrough team of the first half and sit in second place in the Western Conference. Chris Paul has been everything they hoped for running the offense. Devin Booker and their other young core players have taken big leaps. Coach Monty Williams has Phoenix playing with confidence as they enter the second half with 16 wins in their last 19 games.
Loser: Anyone trying to get between Zion Williamson and the basket
Good luck to you, sir.
Loser: San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies
The second-half schedule crunch is going to be rough for everyone, but it will be particularly brutal for the Spurs and Grizzlies, who have the most games remaining with 40 each in 65 days. The Mavericks, Rockets, Bulls and Wizards have the next-most with 38. The Clippers have the fewest games left with 34.
Winner: Brooklyn Nets
We expected the Nets to be good this season with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. After making the biggest move of the first half and acquiring James Harden, they’re now true title contenders with the potential to be one of the most prolific offenses we’ve ever seen. The defense isn’t going to be great (and the addition of Blake Griffin won’t help on that end). But have you seen how many points they can score?
Loser: Houston Rockets
Sure, Harden didn’t comport himself very well in forcing his way out of Houston. But that doesn’t lessen the sting of losing their best player, especially when it sends the team into a tailspin. The Rockets have plummeted out of playoff contention since trading Harden and enter the second half on a 13-game losing streak. With the toughest remaining strength of schedule, according to tankathon.com, they appear headed to the top of the lottery.
Winner: 2020 rookie class
This season’s crop of rookies was thought to be short on high-end talent, but the Hornets look to have a franchise cornerstone in LaMelo Ball. James Wiseman has flashed All-Star potential for the Warriors. Tyrese Haliburton has been the draft steal everyone thought he’d be for the Kings. And key rotation contributors are emerging from the late lottery (Deni Avdija, Devin Vassell) and the back half of the first round (Saddiq Bey, Precious Achiuwa, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, Payton Pritchard, Desmond Bane).
Winner: Damian Lillard
NBA fans have known about Dame Time for years now. Lillard is bringing it to the masses this season with some truly absurd clutch numbers. He has scored the second-most points in the league during the final five minutes of games decided by five points or fewer, while shooting 63.3% overall and 58.3% from 3-point range in those situations. Lillard has made one highlight-reel shot after another look easy while keeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the thick of the playoff race despite injuries to C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
Loser: Christian Wood, De’Andre Hunter, Thomas Bryant
Injuries are always an unfortunate part of the game, and this trio was having breakout seasons before being derailed by them. Wood (sprained ankle) looked like an All-Star in 17 games for the Rockets. Hunter (knee surgery) was emerging as an elite defender in 18 games with the Hawks. Bryant (torn ACL) played 10 games for the Wizards before he was lost for the season.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.