The All-Star break is finally upon us and the first half (or so) of the season is gone, and there have been several surprise developments that have come this season. To talk about what we saw so far this season, a few of our wordsmiths have come together to talk about it.
So, without further ado, let’s get into it.
Who is the most surprising team thus far?
Mike Fanelli: Milwaukee Bucks
Before the season started, I would have never guessed the Bucks would be one of the best, let alone the best team in the Eastern Conference, let alone the entire league. Vegas had their win total around 47.5 wins, and currently, the Bucks are on pace for 61.5 wins. Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken his game to the next level and is a legit MVP candidate. His sidekick, Khris Middleton, made his first all-star game this year and will get a big contract this offseason. With the addition of Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline, the Bucks should be the favorites to represent the east in the finals this year.
Zach Gotlieb: Denver Nuggets
Missing out on the playoffs by one game on game 82 last season was heartbreaking, but it just raised the expectations for Denver to make the playoffs and they’re so far answering the bell. Answering the bell is an understatement. They have hugely defied all expectations. With the 3rd youngest team and the team that has the most games lost due to injury in the entire league and somehow they are still the second seed in the West, where they weren’t supposed to be. The team hasn’t had all five starters active for a game since game two this season, including games where they’ve been down 3 starters, and somehow they are still a top contender in the West. This team is built to beat any team with any group of players hosting one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. It goes past the starters going into the bench unit, which was one of their biggest weaknesses last year. Malik Beasley has become one of the team’s top 3-point shooters and provides scoring on almost every single night. Monte Morris should be in the running for 6th man of the year and/or most improved player as he is provided an output that quite literally no one around Denver was expecting providing a spark and impressive output almost every night off the bench. There are so many more positives to this team that just can’t be explained in the way that they deserve. Once this team gets fully healthy, they can potentially be really scary come the playoffs.
Josh Elias: Denver Nuggets
Denver was always poised to take a big step forward this year after the young team just barely missed out on the playoffs last season. I don’t think many people expected them to propel themselves into the top echelon of NBA teams this quickly though. Nikola Jokic has established himself as a historically impressive player. Jamal Murray has continued his ascent. Paul Millsap has returned from injury and made his presence known. Through the injuries of Gary Harris, Will Barton, and new acquisition Isaiah Thomas, young studs like Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, and Juan Hernangomez, as well as Torrey Craig, who they managed to discover as a defensive star in Australia, have all gotten their chance to shine as well. There’s no more well-rounded or deeper team in the NBA right now.
Troy Pierce: Sacramento Kings
The Kings young talent has been a big surprise and success this season. Fox runs the offense with an urgency and a poise that is allowing SAC to play above their talent level and has them fighting for a playoff spot. Hield has become a go-to scorer in crunch time. Bagley III has had a somewhat slow start to his rookie season but has really come to life in the last couple of weeks. Big man Willie Cayley-Stein has even been a solid contributor for the Kings this season. They are a far cry away from making any noise in the playoffs but they are certainly on the up-swing and Kings fans should be happy.
Kit Shepard: Sacramento Kings
It’s amazing what a team can achieve when they don’t have their first-round pick. The Sacramento Kings were expected to spend the season languishing near the bottom of the standings, with Vegas predicting them to win the lowest amount of games in their conference. Instead, going into the break, they are only one game off eighth seed in the brutal West and a first playoff appearance since 2006 is a serious possibility.
The young Kings are a fascinating watch, and their young core has shown that they may not need that outgoing draft pick this summer. De’Aaron Fox has taken a huge leap after an underwhelming debut season, adding a reliable jumper and excellent distribution to his explosive game at the point. Buddy Hield is deadly from behind the arc and has responded perfectly to those who labeled him a bust. Elsewhere rookie bigs Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles have given Kings fans a glimmer of hope that passing on Luka Doncic may not haunt them for eternity. All of a sudden, there is lots to be excited about in Sacramento.
Who is the most disappointing team thus far?
Mike: Los Angles Lakers
During the preseason, many thought the Lakers could finish the season as high as the number two seed in the western conference. Vegas had their win total around 48 wins, and currently, the Lakers are on pace for 41 wins. Even before LeBron James got hurt and missed five weeks with a groin injury, the Lakers were in the middle of the pack in the western conference. The younger players have struggled this season, and with all the Anthony Davis trade rumors, the team is a mess. They are fighting for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, just to be the Golden State Warriors first round punching bag.
Zach: Washington Wizards
The Lakers seem like an obvious choice, and for tons of reasons, they are an excellent candidate for this, but not just this year, but it’s now a string of years where the Wizards have greatly underachieved. Before several trades at and before the deadline, they had a core of Kelly Oubre Jr; Otto Porter Jr; John Wall, and Bradley Beal. That is way too much talent to have the seasons that they’ve had. Right now they are 3 games back from even the 8 seed. I didn’t expect them to be a top seed since the Celtics (another underachiever in my book), Raptors, Bucks, and 76ers will control the top, but a 5th or 6th seed would have been where I’d have them. Honestly now is the time to blow up the team and start over. They’ve started by trading Oubre and Porter, but I expect Beal, Wall, or both to be gone this offseason.
Josh: New Orleans Pelicans
While there’s a host of teams to choose from as potentially the most disappointing team, I’m going to have to go with New Orleans. Anthony Davis came into the year, having just masterminded a sweep over Portland last postseason, with the most help he’s had in his career, and they’re still not particularly close to the playoffs. While the extremely tight Western Conference this year means they’re not in as quite of bad a situation as 13th place makes it seem, this year was Davis’ best chance to prove he can lead a team to success before he leaves for greener pastures. The team’s managed to stay relatively injury-free for once, but they’ve struggled defensively so much that it’s entirely canceled out the impact of their league-leading scoring. Add in the fact that Davis demanded a trade and consequently was inactivated for two weeks, and they make a strong case for the season’s biggest disappointment.
Troy: Los Angeles Lakers
Injuries, turnovers, and free throws have been the biggest drawbacks for the Lakers this year. LeBron missed 17 games, and the Lakers fell from fifth in the West to 11th. Lonzo Ball has been out for the last 10 or so games, and the Lakers have fallen from 7th in DEFRtg to 26th… Turnovers and poor free-throw shooting have been a big area of concern for much of the season as the Lakers ranked at the bottom of the league in both categories for much of the season. I think many people assumed Los Angeles would just waltz into the playoffs because of LeBron James but it hasn’t been the case, and I have a tough time thinking they’ll turn it around. LAL has 25 games left following the All-Star Break with about fifteen of those being against playoff or fringe-playoff teams; the Lakers are gonna have to win just about all of those to sneak into the 8th seed.
Kit: New Orleans Pelicans
This season was the Pelicans’ final shot at convincing Anthony Davis to stick around long-term, and it is fair to say they have missed by a distance. Any hope of building on last year’s impressive playoff showing was extinguished by December, as a 4-0 start proved to be a false dawn. They slipped to 22-28 before AD made his trade request public on January 28th and now sit 13th in the West at 26-33. Admittedly, as the team’s centerpiece, Davis must shoulder some of the blame for his team’s shortcomings, but it is difficult to point the finger at someone averaging 28 points and 13 rebounds per game. In reality, depth has been the glaring issue for the Pelicans; their production falls off a cliff when Davis and guard Jrue Holiday are off the floor; thus it is little wonder that the former has had enough. With nearly a third of the season still to go, New Orleans has no hope of either making the playoffs or re-signing their generational superstar, hardly the perfect blend for the few fans left at Smoothie King Center. Nevertheless, if the Pelicans manage to trade Davis for Zion Williamson, they will get the chance to do it all over again.
Who is your MVP favorite right now?
Mike: Paul George
George won’t win the award because James Harden is putting up crazy numbers and Giannis Antetokounmpo may get the Milwaukee Bucks the best record in the NBA. However, George is having a career year across the board and has been the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s best player this season despite Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double. George is the biggest reason why the Thunder have a shot at the top seed in the Western Conference this season.
Zach: Paul George
This is a particularly tough field. Antentokounmpo, James Harden, and in my mind dark horse candidate Nikola Jokic should all be in the conversation, but right now I have Paul George just ahead of Harden, who’s a close second. Statistically, Paul is having a career year. He’s averaging around seven points, two assists, and two rebounds more than his average last season. After drawing a ton of criticism for not signing with LeBron and the Lakers, he’s proving all of the doubters wrong after turning into the number one option despite having Russell Westbrook posting some crazy numbers, especially over the last 10 games, posting triple-doubles in each of them. There’s ultimately gonna have a part of this that’s gonna include the narrative. A gruesome leg injury in 2014 leading to going into a superstar and MVP candidate is a great narrative and story. Ultimately, I think PG13 is going to be the key to how far this team gets this year.
Josh: James Harden
James Harden has been absolutely fantastic this year. I always refer to him as my favorite player that I hate to watch, because, on a level, I wholeheartedly agree that watching him shoot 20 free throws isn’t my ideal basketball game. But the numbers he’s put up while leading his injury-depleted team on a march back up the standings are absolutely ludicrous. People like to discredit his performances by saying he has empty numbers. How could that possibly be the case when it translates to wins? I have to acknowledge, though, that it’s a fairly close race – Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George are not far behind him at all in my eyes, and I could definitely understand why people would choose either of them too.
Troy: Paul George
This is a tough one for me.
James Harden is in the midst of a historic scoring streak while Paul George has dominated on both ends night in and night out this season. You could argue both are playing the best basketball of their careers. Paul George is unique in that he has a legitimate chance at the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP awards this season. George would make history and become the fifth player ever to win both awards (David Robinson, Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan, and Hakeem Olajuwon) and only the third (Jordan, Olajuwon) to win the awards in the same season.
Kit: James Harden
Harden’s season on the offensive end has been unprecedented; only Jordan and Wilt can better his points per game (36.6) over a season, while his on-going streak of 30-point games is frankly ridiculous. However, his MVP case can call on more than just statistics. Chris Paul and Clint Capela have both missed large chunks of the year, meaning Houston’s only path to victory is for Harden to do it all, and his ability to drag them to several crucial victories is the reason why the Rockets are fighting for homecourt rather than a playoff berth. This has been on full display through some iconic moments, including the backbreaking game-winner at Golden State, and the 61-point outing at Madison Square Garden. For the time being at least, Harden’s one-man show is a winning formula.
Yet what separates the reigning MVP from the field is that no other player forces a team to change their strategy more. We have seen zone defense, opponents guarding Harden from behind to stop that deadly step back, and the Lakers even putting their hands behind their back because they could not avoid fouling him. Teams are doing whatever it takes to stop him, and it is still not enough. Paul George and Giannis are both still in the running for MVP, but this has been the season of Harden. It’s his to lose.
We’ve seen a season’s worth of surprises and drama so far; hopefully, the season can continue to bring surprises and excitement. Truth be told, this season may just be one of the most interesting and fun seasons we’ve had in a long time, and it should be a fascinating finish.
Questions and comments?
Follow Zach Gotlieb on Twitter @zachgotlieb
Follow Troy on Twitter @HoopHead_prod
Follow Josh Elias on Twitter @_SunsofThunder_
Follow Kit Shepard on Twitter @KitShepard
Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images