With the second half of the NBA regular season approaching, select superstars from around the league have managed to find themselves in the spotlight. The Utah Jazz (27-9) and Philadelphia 76ers (24-12) hold onto the top seeds in their respective conferences, while the New York Knicks (19-18) and Phoenix Suns (24-11) highlight some of the surprise teams to this point.
Prior to the start of our season, our previous analysts discussed their preseason predictions. Here, we answer some of the hottest topics from around the league at the midseason point:
NBA MVP Debate
To this point, there have been multiple standout candidates for the current NBA MVP race. According to Vegas odds, Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (+225) and Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid (+225) have identical odds. From the Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic (+450) is enjoying an impressive season as well.
Davis Byrd: Joel Embiid has been the most dominant big man in the game. He is averaging nearly 30 points and 10 rebounds per game on the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Isaiah Hansen: While it’s time to consider talents such as Stephen Curry and Donovan Mitchell, Joel Embiid is playing the role of a modernized Shaquille O’Neal. He is showing all of the potential that we always knew he had. This season, Embiid is averaging 30.2 points and 11.6 rebounds to go along with a league-high 11.6 free throw attempts per game.
Devon Withers: While the gap is closing, I still believe LeBron James is the favorite for the MVP award this season. The Lakers still uphold a winning record without Anthony Davis on the floor this season, and James is shooting at a higher rate from the field and three-point range in comparison to last season.
As mentioned, both the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns are among the top surprises this season. While the Eastern and Western Conference have shown their fair share of surprises, the final outcome of the standings is likely to be determined by the home stretch of regular season action.
Davis Byrd: The New York Knicks are firmly in playoff contention and above .500 entering the second half of the season. They were in everyone’s minds as cellar dwellers at the start of the year, but currently maintain the best scoring defense in the NBA.
Isaiah Hansen: I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t see this coming, but the Phoenix Suns look great to this point. Some believed it would take a season or two to mesh, but the contributions of Chris Paul has been the key to officially gelling this roster. This season, Paul is averaging 8.8 assists per game; his highest total since the 2016-17 season.
Devon Withers: Can we give credit to the Utah Jazz? Most believed they would be a playoff contender in the Western Conference, but posting an NBA-best 27-9 overall record is impressive. They currently rank third in scoring offense and fourth in scoring defense entering the second half of action.
Rookie of the Year
While the incoming rookie class didn’t maintain high expectations for some, there has been some standout play. Oddsmakers are currently giving the edge to Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball (-500), with Sacramento Kings’ Tyrese Haliburton (+600) and Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards (+1000) trailing.
Davis Byrd: Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball leads all rookie stats per game (except blocks) and is the overwhelming favorite according to Vegas oddsmakers. To this point, he has been the biggest difference maker of any current rookie.
Isaiah Hansen: The reality is that LaMelo Ball is putting up impressive numbers for a rookie, yet we haven’t even scratch the surface of what he will truly bring to the table. This season, he is averaging 15.8 points, 6.8 assists and 6.0 rebounds per contest. With experience, Ball is expected to grow as a leader for the Charlotte Hornets.
Devon Withers: No surprise, but LaMelo Ball should be the heavy favorite to receive the Rookie of the Year. The Charlotte Hornets (17-18) currently sit at the seventh seed, and if they reach the Eastern Conference playoffs, it would be the first time in doing so since the 2015-16 season.
While some teams have exceeded expectations, others have failed to meet their goals to this point. The Houston Rockets had an exciting roster on paper, but are third-worst team in the overall standings. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards, led by Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, lost eight of their first ten games to open the season.
Davis Byrd: I expected the Washington Wizards to have a better record by this point. Injuries and poor defense have taken their toll, but Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook are on the right track to turn it around in the second half of play.
Isaiah Hansen: The team that immediately comes to mind is the Houston Rockets. We knew the team would regress after Russell Westbrook and James Harden departed, but the front office compiled put a lineup that looked like it could have made some noise. To the surprise of most, this hasn’t been the case.
Devon Withers: While they’re still in the playoff hunt, the Golden State Warriors have not been able to reach their full potential. Injuries have played a factor, but outside of Stephen Curry, this hasn’t looked like the same competitive roster from year’s past. There is still time to turn things around, but it may be time to gain a sense of urgency.
Defensive Player of the Year
In another controversial debate, multiple candidates have made their presence known for the annual Defensive Player of the Year award. Vegas has granted Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert (-200) an advantage, with Indiana Pacers’ Myles Turner (+300) and Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons (+600) not far behind.
Davis Byrd: Ben Simmons has proven that he can guard every position incredibly well. He recently leapfrogged Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert in the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year rankings, and should be able to maintain that top spot.
Isaiah Hansen: On top of being an MVP contender, Joel Embiid should receive credit for being effective on both sides on the court. His 11.6 rebounds per game ranks within the top five in the NBA, as the 76ers currently are in the top 10 in the NBA in block differential (+1.6) and steal differential (+0.9).
Devon Withers: As the Utah Jazz continue to dominate the Western Conference as the top seed, it only benefits the case of Rudy Gobert for Defensive Player of the Year. He is averaging a double-double that consists of 14.2 points and 13.1 rebounds per game, along with a career-high 2.7 blocks per contest. If he upholds that level of play to close out the season, it’s an uphill battle for any other contender.
Dark Horse Playoff Team
While some teams appear to be locks for the playoffs, it’s important to remember that there is still a second half of regular season play. Currently, the Chicago Bulls (tied), Indiana Pacers (0.5 GB), Atlanta Hawks (1 GB) and Washington Wizards (2 GB) are among teams in the hunt in the East. In the West, the Golden State Warriors (0.5 GB) and Memphis Grizzlies (1 GB) are still capable of finding themselves in playoff contention.
Davis Byrd: Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizards spent most of the first half of the season injured, but have most of their roster healthy following the All-Star break. Bradley Beal would likely be an MVP frontrunner if the Wizards were in a playoff position.
Isaiah Hansen: Even as the 12th seed in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards can remain in the hunt for a playoff position. This answer changes if the front office moves on from Bradley Beal at the Trade Deadline, but if not, then a strong second half season could favor this roster.
Devon Withers: It’s a cheap answer, but I believe both the Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors reach the playoffs. Both sit at the #9 seeds in their respective conferences, but have enough talent to reach the next level. Zach LaVine is playing at his highest level to date, while Stephen Curry is averaging 29.7 points per game; his highest since the 2015-16 season.
Prior to the start of the season, our analysts unanimously agreed on the Los Angeles Lakers being the favorites for the 2020-21 NBA Championship. While the Lakers (+280) remain the betting favorites, others such as the Brooklyn Nets (+300) and Los Angeles Clippers (+500) have closed the gap.
Davis Byrd: I had the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers prior to the start of the season, and I’ll stick with it. Lebron and Anthony Davis are the cream of the NBA crop, but the 76ers can give them a run for their money in a potential seven-game series.
Isaiah Hansen: I still have the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets reaching the NBA Finals, but the debate is getting more complex. The Lakers need Anthony Davis at full health, while the Nets are in need of another big man.
Devon Withers: The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers seem like a conservative bet at this point in the season. Both have exceeded expectations, considering the injuries and Covid-19 concerns.