While the NBA unfortunately does not have a pure halfway point, now seems like a proper time to do a summary of where we are in the season thus far.
What we know
Despite their travails, the Miami Heat still stand apart as the best team in the Eastern Conference…for the regular season: What makes this so startling is that the Heat have played with all of the post-title malaise that many expected yet still appear to be running away with the regular season crown. That said, I see both Chicago (with Derrick Rose) and Indiana having the talent to make life very uncomfortable for the Champs in a seven-game series if they do not turn it back on before then. I fully expect them to kick into gear, of course.
The top three teams in the Western Conference, with Memphis standing as the likely fourth: Simply put, the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers have established themselves as the elite teams in the NBA (with Miami as the only Eastern team joining them) despite each having their own difficulties thus far. Memphis has lagged a little bit behind in terms of record but should strike fear into the hearts of the top three because of their potent frontcourt and talent on the perimeter. The Golden State Warriors should make their blood run a little cold too if they can get Andrew Bogut back to full strength without losing another core piece. Even with those two and Denver lurking, the top three should be duking it out for homecourt throughout the rest of the season and one would expect for the conference champ to come out of that triumvirate even as the next tier strengthens.
Tom Thibodeau is the second-best active coach in the league: This may have been clear to some before now but his management of this Bulls squad has been incredibly impressive. What strikes me is not how he has made do without Derrick Rose- the shocking part has been how well he has done so with a Bench Mob that got savaged last offseason along with hearty minutes for Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli. Very well done.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the two best players in the league: You knew that already.
Kyrie Irving will be a star very, very soon: Irving is officially an All-Star this season, yet we all know there is another chasm between All-Star and true star in the NBA. Irving has been dynamite when able to stay on the court and the appalling lack of swingman talent on the Cavs has not prevented that emergence. Here’s hoping we can see him develop with a strengthened group around him through draft picks and shrewd offseason moves over the next summer or two.
What we still do not know
Whether the Lakers can piece it together enough to make the playoffs: Others may be pouring the dirt on their season already (with good reason), yet I always hesitate to pile on a team with talent, even one with as much trouble as Mike D’Antoni’s team has already been through in 2012-13. They are done if Dwight Howard has been playing close to his new, post-back ceiling, yet I do not feel that is the case. Considering the absolute dearth of benefits for tanking since the team loses their first round pick regardless and apparently needs to sell Howard more on sticking around, the Lake Show will give it a go for as long as possible either way.
If the Pacers are for real: The emergence of Paul George has been both expected and startling because Indiana feels dangerous even though Danny Granger has not played a single minute, while Roy Hibbert has not performed up to his big deal as of this writing. To me, the Pacers have the most room to grow of any relevant team in the East over the course of this season considering their depth, energy, and the match-up problems they pose for the rest of the league.
What the Hawks do without Louis Williams for the rest of the season: The Hawks became one of the best feel-good stories in the first half of the season, yet that turned when the team announced that Williams was done for 12-13 due to a torn ACL. Now the infinite possibilities that Atlanta already had this summer with Joe Johnson’s contract off the books and plenty of free agent space take center stage while the team continues to fight for the playoffs. The flexibility Danny Ferry created last summer has provided his organization a multitude of different directions moving forward and it will be fascinating to see which way they go.
If Denver will make a major move: No playoff team has shown the willingness of the Nuggets in recent years to make changes even when the team has been doing well. The moves to acquire JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari/Wilson Chandler and Andre Iguodala were all smart and proactive measures that portend an interesting trade deadline for the Nuggets. They have the assets to make some interesting splashes and possess a GM with the right kind of trigger finger to make it happen.
Beyond all of these things, I am looking forward to a playoff stretch that feels dramatically less settled than last season. The West and East (besides Miami) are both relatively balanced and have the potential for some compelling clashes of styles and some must-see individual player matchups. As always, the trade deadline will give us some much-desired insight into where teams like Utah, Atlanta, Memphis, and Denver are looking both the rest of this season and next summer as we get a fun and unpredictable crop of free agents along with an incredibly unusual draft class.