There was a brief period of COVID-19 turmoil where it didn't seem like we'd reach this point, but the first half of the NBA season has now come to a close. On Sunday, the league will hold the 2021 All-Star Game in Atlanta -- a one-night event that will also include the Skills Challenge, 3-Point Contest and Slam Dunk Contest.
After a few more days off, the second half of the season will begin Wednesday and run through May 16. The play-in tournament, back again after its debut in the bubble, will be held from May 18-21. Then the playoffs proper begin on May 22 and will end no later than July 22.
Ahead of the rest of the season, here's a look at where things stand in the Western Conference:
Utah Jazz (27-9): Utah is, without a doubt, the biggest surprise in the league. And honestly, maybe in recent memory. Of course, we knew they were a solid team, but the level they've risen to this season is really impressive. They're fourth in offensive rating, fourth in defensive rating and first in net rating. They make more 3s per game than anyone and are the only team in the West with three All-Stars. Like any team without a significant playoff history, they're going to need to prove themselves in the postseason, but as of now, it's clear they mean business.
Phoenix Suns (24-11): The Suns were always going to be much better this season, because that's just what happens when you trade for Chris Paul. But even they couldn't have expected to own the second-best record in the entire league at the All-Star break. They're one of two teams to be in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating, have a clear leader in Paul, a top-tier scorer in Devin Booker and a dependable supporting cast.
The L.A. teams
Los Angeles Lakers (24-13): Defending a title is one of the biggest challenges in sports, as the Lakers are finding out first hand this season. They started off in brilliant form but got off track after they lost Anthony Davis to a calf injury that will keep him sidelined until some time after the All-Star break. Without him, they lost seven of 10 to close the first half and fell to third place in the West. But while no team wants to go through a skid like that, the Lakers are the champs and as long as they're healthy heading into the postseason they'll be fine.
Los Angeles Clippers (24-14): The Clippers made some major changes after their embarrassing collapse in the playoffs last season, but so far the results have been about the same. They have the sixth-best record in the league (24-14), the fifth-best net rating (plus-5.3) and are 18-6 when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are both active. Yet for all the success you're still left wanting a little bit more. And in any case, the regular season doesn't mean much for this group; it will all be about whether or not they show up come playoff time.
Likely playoff teams with questions to answer
Portland Trail Blazers (21-14): Portland is having another brutal season in regards to injuries -- Zach Collins, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have all missed significant time -- but Damian Lillard won't let them fall apart. The amount of clutch shots he's hit so far borders on ridiculous, and he's once again averaging nearly 30 points per game. But for all of Lillard's heroics, it's hard to take them seriously as a contender when they cannot guard anyone. Only the Kings and Pelicans have been worse defensively this season.
Denver Nuggets (21-15): Though they closed the first half on a four-game winning streak that included a 31-point victory over the Bucks, the Nuggets have been somewhat disappointing after their trip to the Western Conference finals. But on an individual level, Nikola Jokic has not. The big man is putting up career-highs across the board, is the only player in the top-12 in scoring, rebounding and assists, and has established himself as one of the leading MVP candidates.
Dallas Mavericks (18-16): Based solely on their record, the Mavericks would qualify as disappointing, but few teams in the league have dealt with their level of COVID-19 problems. As the Dallas Morning News points out, the Mavericks have the most player games missed due to health and safety protocols (41), but have had just one game postponed. That, combined with Kristaps Porzingis' late return due to offseason knee surgery meant they were often playing shorthanded. The good news is they won 10 of 13 to close the first half and have the second easiest schedule the rest of the way.
In the mix
San Antonio Spurs (18-14): The Spurs emerged as one of the biggest surprises of the season, ending the first half with the 10th best record in the entire league. And in classic San Antonio fashion, it's been a real team effort. They only have one 20-point-per-game scorer (DeMar DeRozan), but eight players who average double figures. If you haven't been paying much attention to the Spurs, it's worth keeping an eye on them in the second half. Just a really fun team with an interesting mix of young players and veterans.
Golden State Warriors (19-18): Expectations dropped significantly after Klay Thompson went down with a torn Achilles tendon, but the Warriors are hanging in the playoff race thanks to a virtuoso season by Steph Curry. He's been unbelievable so far, scoring just a shade under 25 percent of the Warriors' total points, despite not even playing every game. If he had any sort of consistent offensive help, the Warriors could be a real threat in the West, especially with how strong they've been defensively.
Memphis Grizzlies (16-16): The Grizzlies have been without Jaren Jackson Jr. all season, Ja Morant missed multiple weeks with a sprained ankle and Justise Winslow only recently made his debut with the team after a series of injury problems. And yet, despite all of that they enter the break at an even .500, which is a testament to the solidity of this group. They might not have a single household name outside of Morant, but you'd be hard-pressed to find too many weak links. There's a real chance they end their playoff drought, which dates back to 2017.
New Orleans Pelicans (15-21): Zion Williamson is starting to figure things out, and his development has been one of the most exciting things about this season overall, not just from a Pelicans perspective. Even with only 58 career games under his belt, he's a borderline unstoppable offensive force. However, he still has plenty of room to grow on the defensive end, as does the entire team. The Pelicans won't be able to win consistently until they figure things out on that side of the ball, where they currently rank No. 29 in defensive rating.
Oklahoma City Thunder (15-21): It's a little bit strange to say that a team with a 15-21 record and the worst offense in the league is doing much better than expected, but that's the truth when it comes to the Thunder. They traded Chris Paul and Steven Adams this offseason, let Danilo Gallinari walk and made it clear they were going full rebuild. Only, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has taken another leap and is now too good to let them totally tank. That being said, it would still be a major surprise to see them make even the play-in tournament.
Sacramento Kings (14-22): It was a hot and cold first half for the Kings, though mostly the latter as they closed by losing 11 of their last 13 games. The main problem is on the defensive end, where they're allowing 119.1 points per 100 possessions, which not only ranks last in the league, but would be the worst defensive rating of all-time. On the bright side, it's clear they got an absolute steal in Tyrese Haliburton, who has been one of the best rookies this season and is quite enjoyable to watch.
Houston Rockets (11-23): Everyone knew the Rockets were going to be much worse once they finally traded James Harden as the final part of their organizational revamp which began in the offseason. But no one could have expected things to go this poorly. They haven't won in over a month, and take a 13-game losing streak into the break. What's worse is 10 of those losses have been by double-digits, including a disastrous 49-point loss to the Grizzlies.
Minnesota Timberwolves (7-29): The two most notable moments for the Timberwolves this season have been Anthony Edwards' unbelievable dunk over Yuta Watanabe and coach Ryan Saunders getting fired. That tells you everything you need to know about how the past few months have gone for them. They ended the first half on a nine-game losing streak, have the worst record in the league at 7-29 and are the only team that's failed to reach double-digit victories.