With the 2021 NBA All-Star Weekend in the rearview mirror and games set to resume Wednesday night, let's take a last look back at the biggest winners and losers from the first half of the season and project what it could mean as we move toward the March 25 trade deadline and into the stretch run and playoffs.
Everyone thought LeBron would ease his way into the season after a long Bubble run and short layoff, but instead he's been a ball of energy on both ends of the floor. He's put himself near the top of the MVP conversation and within range, depending on who you talk to, of a second-team All-Defense nod. He'll be getting Anthony Davis back soon, and should he choose the path of postseason preservation, he's put himself and the Los Angeles Lakers in position to slow play the second half and still end up with a top-four seed. The question will be how important it is to the Lakers to avoid the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round. Right now, they're No. 3 in the West and would get the Phoenix Suns in the conference semis if seeds were to hold. A lot can change, but by taking care of business through the first half, LeBron has put himself and the Lakers in place to play the stretch run any way they prefer.
The Knicks are above .500 (19-18), and if the playoffs started today they would be the No. 5 seed. Yes, the Knicks. It's safe to say nobody saw this coming. And they are developing talent within the win-now approach and defensive principles that always come with Tom Thibodeau. Julius Randle was rewarded with an All-Star spot for what is, to this point, the best season of his career. RJ Barrett is shooting 3s at 35 percent on over three attempts per game, which is the key to unlocking his game. Immanuel Quickley might be a top three Rookie of the Year candidate. Mitchell Robinson is either a fourth piece, perhaps even fifth depending on how Obi Toppin evolves, or a nice potential trade piece.
The Knicks are tough. They run big, physical bodies at you. They own the No. 3 defense in the league, per CTG. They can easily get to $50 million in cap space if they want to this summer before they decide on Randle's future in 2022. The Knicks are in legitimately decent shape. Not great. Randle could regress. Barrett could fail to progress. They should've taken Tyrese Haliburton over Toppin. You can only depend on Elfrid Payton and Derrick Rose for so long. But this is a good thing. The Knicks are relevant. Fans could be back in Madison Square Garden in time for a playoff series. That's huge for the franchise and the league as a whole.
The Jazz own the best record in the league with the No. 2-ranked offense and defense -- the only team in the top five of both. Utah placed three guys on the All-Star team and Rudy Gobert should be on at least the fringes of the MVP conversation. Quin Snyder is the favorite to win Coach of the Year because he's designed a two-way system tailored perfectly to Utah's personnel. Perimeter defenders press up on ball handlers and stay home on shooters because Rudy is a one-man paint patroller. Offensively, Snyder has seen the 3-point light, unleashing the Jazz, who attempted 35 3-pointers per game last season, to fire a league-leading 42.8 3s per game in 2020-21, which they make at a 40 percent clip. Before the season, all the talk was about whether Donovan Mitchell and Gobert could coexist. Utah is a long way from that noise.
This guy's already premium stock has blown through the roof. The Portland Trail Blazers' season was seemingly cooked when CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic went down, but here they are at No. 5 in the West with a 21-14 record and their second- and third-best players hopefully on the short road back. Lillard should be in the top four, at worst, on everyone's MVP board. To me, with the way he's carried this team through devastating roster setbacks, he's second to Joel Embiid. Think about this: The Blazers are a net negative team, but they're seven games over .500 because they're plus-40 in 71 clutch minutes, the fourth-best mark in the league. That is basically all Lillard, who has scored 104 clutch points this season, second only to Zach LaVine's 105, and who swings these 50-50 contests decidedly in Portland's favor by shooting 63 percent from the field, 58 percent from 3 and 100 percent from the free throw line in the final five minutes of games within five points. Portland is in position to push for as high as a No. 2 seed if things break right. Nobody would've thought that was realistic when McCollum and Nurkic went down.
It remains to be seen whether the Golden State Warriors are winners or losers after an absolutely average first half of the season. They are in a tight spot deciding between using their top two assets -- rookie James Wiseman and the 2021 first-round Minnesota pick (top-three protected) -- as a bridge to the Warriors' next era of contention or as major trade chips for a win-now star to fully maximize the remainder of Stephen Curry's prime. For now, it doesn't sound like Golden State is going to move either of those assets, either together or separately, unless a generational player is the return. That could be a prudent move. It could also blow up in their face if those assets depreciate over time (Minnesota could get better in 2021-22 if the pick doesn't convey this season, and Wiseman's trajectory, which is almost purely blue-sky speculation at this point, could flatten out once we see him play more) and the Curry-Thompson-Green era never sees title contention again.
The only thing we know for sure is that Curry hasn't lost a single step. He has been absolutely fantastic through the first half of the season, arguably the best player in the league to be frank. Before a recent shooting dip, he was in range of his historic 2015-16 numbers. He's shooting 42 percent from 3, and scoring efficiency ranks in the 100th positional percentile for the fourth time in his career. That's why the urgency is on for the Warriors not to waste what is left of Curry's best years. He can still clearly be the center of a title team. It's on the Warriors to put the right pieces around him, whether that's the ones they already have or ones they have to make a tough compromise to go out and get.
Jokic, who ranks at or near the top of pretty much every encompassing metric, is a lot of people's MVP favorite. I have him third behind Embiid and Lillard heading into the second half. The Denver Nuggets won four straight and nine of their last 13 heading into the All-Star break, and Jokic, in just his sixth season, has joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only centers in NBA history to record at least 50 career triple-doubles. Everything runs through Jokic in Denver. We'll call him a point-center because of his size, but he's a point guard in almost every way -- the only player in the league averaging at least 27 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, to say nothing of his 42 percent 3-point mark on almost four attempts per game.
We're going to continue to talk about Jamal Murray's inability to take the proverbial leap, but there's context to that conversation. He wasn't healthy for much of the first half despite refusing to come out of the lineup, and he's really the only lead-guard-type in the league with his kind of talent that doesn't control his own offense (I guess you could put Kyrie Irving in this camp now, too, with James Harden running the show in Brooklyn). That comes with some fluctuation as Jokic decides how he's going to balance scoring and facilitating that night. All we know for sure is that Murray is a playoff assassin, and with Jokic playing like this and Michael Porter Jr. making more sense all the time, Denver is not a team anyone wants to play in the postseason.
Ball didn't sign a rookie extension this past offseason because the New Orleans Pelicans weren't, and perhaps still aren't, convinced he's part of their long-term future. Either way, it's going to pay off for Ball, who had a terrific first half and will be in line to make a ton of money this summer, whether from New Orleans or some other team that signs him as a restricted free agent. Not only is he averaging a career-high 14.5 points while settling into an off-ball, supporting offensive role in the half court, but he's doing it as a legit 3-point marksmen, hitting 39 percent of his triples, including 45 percent from the corner, per Cleaning the Glass. And that factors in Ball's rough start to the season. Since Feb. 1, Ball is shooting 43.8 percent from 3 on eight attempts per game, one of just three players in the league -- along with Terry Rozier and James Harden -- shooting above 43 percent at that volume over that span.
If the Wolves are a loser for not taking LaMelo Ball , Charlotte becomes a clear winner for having him land in its lap. LaMelo looks like a future star -- a preternatural passer, good shooter, great positional rebounder and much better defender than he was portrayed (he's not a good defender in terms of the nuts and bolts, but he's active and long and makes plays). Terry Rozier, once regarded as a negative signing when the Hornets gave him a three-year, $58 million deal as something of a consolation prize for losing Kemba Walker, might actually be better than Walker at this point. Sign-and-trades with the Celtics are a real windfall for the Hornets these days, as Gordon Hayward, another guy everyone thought Charlotte gave way too much money, has looked great. The Hornets, who were a horrible fourth-quarter team when James Borrego was hired, have a net rating (plus-53 per 100 possessions) two-times higher than the second-best clutch team (Philadelphia at plus-26) in the league, and if the postseason were to start today, they'd be in the play-in series as the Eastern Conference's No. 7 seed.
After the Suns ran off eight straight wins in the Disney bubble, there was a nice little buzz around them heading into this season. Then they traded for Chris Paul. They signed Jae Crowder. Mikal Bridges, a likely All-Defense first-teamer, and Cam Johnson have turned into arguably the most valuable under-25 two-way wing duo this side of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Devin Booker is one of the best mid-range shot creators in the world, a perfect option at the end of Paul's many drawn-out possessions. Dario Saric is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Monty Williams a Coach of the Year candidate, GM James Jones an Executive of the Year candidate. It's easy to think of the Suns as merely an improved team based on the low standard they've set over the years, but you look up and they're one of two teams with a top-10 offense and defense with the second-best record and third-best net rating in the league. Paul was brought in to chase a playoff spot. A legitimate shot at a conference finals berth, if not an outside shot at a Finals berth, was not supposed to be in the cards.
The Philadelphia 76ers are winners all over the place. Joe Embiid is an MVP candidate. Daryl Morey is an Executive of the Year candidate. But Simmons, to me, is the biggest winner because he was the closest to not being a part of what looks like a championship contender. His name was central to the James Harden rumors. Reports suggested Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta refused to deal with Morey, his former GM. Other reports indicated the Rockets didn't want to include Tyrese Maxey. Perhaps Houston simply preferred the three-way deal with Brooklyn and Cleveland, which was a terrible decision if Simmons really was an option. Whatever the case, Simmons stayed in Philly. He's a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and for all the talk about the spacing issues Simmons causes, when he and Embiid share the court, the Sixers have a 120.2 offensive rating, per CTG, nearly an identical mark as the Nets, who boast the best offense in the league.
Harden bullied his way out of Houston and landed in Brooklyn. You can chastise him for the way he went about it, but he got his wish. He's going to compete for a championship. Harden has been sensational for the Nets. He has no chance to win the MVP. If Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry were basically eliminated from MVP consideration for playing on the same team, then the same is certainly true of Durant, Harden and Irving. But they don't care about that at this point. They all want to win a title. Irving wants to prove he can do it without LeBron. Durant wants to prove he can do it without Curry. Harden wants to prove he can do it at all. He's got his chance. That's all he can ask for.
On the surface, a .500 team (18-18) -- a worse record that Boston, which was deemed a loser -- that went to the Finals last season would look like a clear loser. But here's my theory: Miami is better when counted out, and with the way the first half played out, most everyone has already concluded that last season's bubble run was a fluke. The Heat can, and I believe will, use that to their advantage over the second half and into the playoffs. There have been some very head-scratching stretches for the Heat, but most of the damage to their record was done in the early going when the Heat got blasted by COVID, not to mention the short layoff after they had after their extended bubble stay.
Much like the Celtics, the Heat could change the course of their season in a snap. They may already be on the right path, having won seven of their last eight games heading into the All-Star break. Suddenly all signs are pointing north with Jimmy Butler, who missed all but four games in January, back among the game's best two-way players. With Butler in the lineup, the Heat are 14-8. Since the start of February, when Butler came off his three-week absence, the Heat have the second-best defense and seventh-best net rating in the league. To me, this all sets up really well for the Heat moving forward. They'll go into the playoffs with skeptical outside expectations as a team nobody wants to play, and for good reason.
In a few weeks, this could all change. Marcus Smart is on his way back, and Kemba Walker is playing better (though I reject that he is anywhere near back to his old form; the full-speed stops and general space creation still isn't there). The Celtics won four straight heading into the All-Star break, and through all the struggles they're still at 19-17, good enough for the No. 4 seed in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. That said, they've been a flat-out bad team over long stretches. Jayson Tatum, when not in COVID protocol, has declined pretty steeply as a pick-and-roll and isolation scorer, and he's not nearly as efficient a jump shooter, particularly off the dribble, as he was last season. That's a major problem in that Boston, as a team that doesn't create a lot of good looks through passing and downhill leverage, relies heavily on these tough, contested, largely self-created shots going in. Before his recent resurgence, Walker's game was in the dumps. The two-big starting lineup with Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis has been kind of a bust all things considered; Robert Williams looks potentially better than both those guys moving forward.
Boston isn't in terrible shape, but being outside the top 10 in offense and defense, and clinging to 10th in point differential, is not where they envisioned being at this point. Brad Stevens has taken heat. Danny Ainge has taken heat. The future draft assets are spent, and this was supposed to be the title-contending finished product. They have a massive $28.5 million trade exception to spend, created by the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade. We'll see if they have a big deadline move in them. Nikola Vucevic, anyone? Harrison Barnes?
They passed on LaMelo Ball, at least in part, because they have D'Angelo Russell, whom they gave up their 2021 first-round pick to get in the first place. Not great. Anthony Edwards, a highlight-reel athlete, has shown flashes but has been one of the most inefficient scorers in the league, and scoring is the best thing he does. Struggles are to be expected for a rookie, but in the same breath, I can't imagine anyone would take Edwards over Ball with the information we have now. Russell and Edwards were supposed to be the reason Karl-Anthony Towns would want to stay in Minnesota. Now they might be the reason he ends up wanting to leave. Also, Ryan Saunders was the first coach to get fired this season. And the Wolves have the worst record in the league.
Former coach Lloyd Pierce lost his job, and president of basketball operations/GM Travis Schlenk could be next if the Hawks don't turn things around in the second half. Whether that's fair or not is up for debate, but the reality is a playoff expectation was set when Atlanta added Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Clint Capela to its young core of Trae Young, De'Andre Hunter, John Collins, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter. It looked good for a minute. The Hawks won their first three games of the season. Since then, they've gone 11-20. Injuries have killed them. Before Hunter went out, the Hawks were 10-9 and in the thick of the playoff picture; after he went down they went 6-11 before the break. Bogdanovic missed almost two months. The good news for new coach Nate McMillan, hired on an interim basis, is that he has a good chance to secure the job when the Hawks get healthy, because this is a talented roster. A second-half playoff push is within sight, though that won't do Lloyd Pierce any good.
New Orleans Pelicans
This one requires context. New Orleans got a haul for Jrue Holiday, and Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram look like a star foundation. The future still looks awfully bright. But the idea was to also be a good team this season with Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe joining the young core. The thought was those guys would anchor the defense but hurt the offense for spacing issues, yet it's been the opposite: New Orleans is a top-10 offense (the starting lineup is elite with Bledsoe and Adams) but defensively it's terrible. Adams and Bledsoe are both on the books for pretty big money through 2023. Zion has to get better defensively, and we'll see what the Pels can get for JJ Redick at the deadline. Lonzo Ball's restricted free agency is a major question this summer. It's all still pretty good long term in New Orleans, but as far as this season, not great.
So listen, the two best players included in the James Harden trade were Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. The Rockets gave both of them away. Allen went to Cleveland, and LeVert went to Indiana for Victor Oladipo, who almost certainly isn't going to be a part of Houston's future. He turned down a $45.2M contract extension and represents relatively minimal trade value as a free agent who's going to want a least more money than that this summer. So really, what did the Rockets end up with for Harden? Some future draft picks that, as of right now, will fall in the late 20s? If the Nets go in the tank after a few years of this super-team experiment and the distant future picks become more valuable, that will be one thing. But right now, the Rockets, who lose 13 straight games going into the All-Star break, might have screwed up the Harden deal. They signed Christian Wood (honestly, what was Detroit thinking?), and that's a solid piece. John Wall has looked pretty good but that's a lost cause with this roster. Perhaps they could trade him given the way he's played. P.J. Tucker will net them something. But all things considered, Rockets stock, to me, is on the decline.