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NBA at the Half: New Year, New West

They say the NBA season “unofficially” starts on Christmas Day, but the truth is, even if we are only a couple weeks past the casual fan’s re-introduction to the league, the regular season is almost half over already. Now that we’re firmly into 2019, it seems like as good a time as any for a bit of a reset.

In case you’ve been tuned out since Christmas (or before, tsk tsk), here’s a primer on where things stand in the ever-shifting sands of the Western Conference, starting with a team (and a player) you may have heard something about:

James Harden and the Rockets are soaring to new heights. Along with every other NBA writer on Planet Earth, I covered Harden pretty extensively last week. He hasn’t slowed down much since, and while the Rockets finally dropped a couple games (at Portland on Saturday and home against Milwaukee on Wednesday in the battle of MVP candidates), they are still 12-3 in their last 15 games and sit at 6th in the West at 23-17. In the process, Houston has completely rewritten the narrative on its season from “wow, they suck compared to last year” to “wait, are they just as good as last year?” and simultaneously positioned itself within one more hot streak of Denver, Golden State, and OKC, the triumvirate of front-runners in the Conference.

While Harden’s virtuoso act has obviously been the main story, things have quietly coalesced during this recent run for the rest of the roster as well. They are all the way back up to 3rd in Offensive Rating, despite being without guards Chris Paul and Eric Gordon for the last handful of games. Newly-acquired Austin Rivers has been a nice fit — a combination of words I’m fairly certain has never been written before — and 36-year-old Nene has looked a bit rejuvenated since returning from whatever injury it was this time. Two-way contract player Danuel House has given them good minutes as a thick-bodied wing who can hit open shots while leading the league in times the opposing team’s play-by-play guy uses the “surprised Marv Alberts” inflection when announcing his name following a good play.

After coming into the league as a tall, wiry guy who got pushed around a lot, at age 24, Clint Capela has developed into what — and pardon the technical jargon here — we in the industry refer to as a “grown-ass man.” His rate stats and advanced metrics look pretty similar to last season’s breakout campaign, but his minutes and corresponding counting stats are all career highs, and he has arguably become the team’s second-most important player, even when CP3 is healthy. He is in the top-tier of “true centers” in the league today (read: screener/roller/dunker/defender/rebounder-types) and is certainly deserving of All-Star consideration, though he’ll likely get squeezed out again because of the ridiculously crowded field of frontcourt talent in the West. Nevertheless, Capela has been a huge part of the team’s turnaround in the second quarter of the season, and the 5-year/$90 million contract he signed this summer is starting to look like it will be a bargain as he moves through the prime of his career and the salary cap presumably continues to rise.

There are still hurdles for this squad to clear, even before a potential playoff rematch with the Warriors. Eric Gordon has been downright lousy. Chris Paul needs to prove he can stay healthy once he returns, and it will be interesting to see if he can both coexist with and cede minutes to his former mortal enemy Rivers. Relying as much as they do on role players James Ennis, Gerald Green, and Gary Clark on the wing is far from an ideal scenario. The preseason trade with Phoenix has been a total bust, as rookie De’Anthony Melton has shown some signs in a limited role with the Suns, while Marquese Chriss continues to DNP-CD his way out of the league. It has become increasingly obvious Brandon Knight’s career effectively ended the moment DeAndre Jordan dunked his soul out of his body a few years back, even if we don’t want to admit it. [Two things: first, what has happened to poor Brandon bolsters the argument for the “Sliding Doors” theory of NBA careers, which I’ll need to do a separate column about, to an incredible degree; and second, if you don’t think I’m mentioning this purely so I can drop the video of the dunk square in the middle of this column, then you don’t know me well enough yet.]

Unlike Brandon, it appears everyone left the Rockets for dead a bit prematurely, and despite the limitations of the roster, if Harden and Capela can keep performing at this level, it won’t be surprising to see Houston lock up some form of home court in the playoffs.

USA TODAY Sports


San Antonio’s funeral will take place at half-past never. 
First, a mea culpa: the Spurs rooked me, just like they eventually do to every writer/pundit/take-smith out there. After ascending point guard/defensive octopus Dejounte Murray tore his ACL in preseason, I penned a half-hearted Spurs’ obituary, which might as well be a rite of passage in this industry. At first, it looked pretty prescient. San Antonio struggled out of the gate, going 11-14 through December 5th with the exact combination of solid offense and execrable defense I predicted. In late November/early December, they lost four out of five games, with three of the losses coming by 30+ points. Without question, it was the nadir of the Gregg Popovich era in San Antonio.

And then, something changed. Since a loss to the Lakers on December 5th, the Spurs have been the best team in the league, full stop, going 13-3 while ranking top-2 in both Offensive and Defensive Rating and sporting a gargantuan +15.3 point differential during the stretch. DeMar DeRozan has been terrific (if not quite MVP-caliber in the way his trade counterpart Kawhi Leonard has been for Toronto), and LaMarcus Aldridge is slowly returning to the form he displayed last year as the team’s primary option. The offense remains retrograde as hell (last in the league in 3PA per game), but it’s still not terribly hard to see how they’ve crafted a top-10 unit on that end. What is crazy is how Popovich has cobbled together a workable defense out of these parts, and it’s important we never take for granted just how much better he is at coaching than everyone else.

Point guard Derrick White has done a solid Murray impersonation since returning from injury, and he looks to be yet another late first round find for San Antonio’s perennially shrewd front office. Bryn Forbes has done an admirable job filling in holes in the backcourt and providing needed spacing (43% from deep on five attempts per game). This year’s first round pick, athletic guard Lonnie Walker IV, is just now working his way back into game shape after a preseason injury, so the team could improve further as he and White get acclimated and solidify their spots in the rotation.

It has truly been a remarkable turnaround for a team that appeared dead to rights a month ago, but it’s just another day at the office for Pop and the Spurs. Lesson learned.

The standings remain tight, but the lesser teams are beginning to fall back. I was ready to write the obit for Minnesota after the firing of head coach/basketball czar/bellowing enthusiast Tom Thibodeau, but then the team went and beat OKC on the road, a top-notch win in which Andrew Wiggins looked like the star everyone keeps expecting him to be. The team danced joyfully in the locker room afterwards, as though they had been trapped under “ICE” and were now free. [Thank you, I’ll be here all week.] Perhaps the organizational restructuring will continue to breathe new life into the team, or it will turn out to be little more than a brief sugar high and reality will come crashing back down on them. Karl-Anthony Towns has gone full Beast Mode of late (26.3/ 13.5/ 3.3 and improved defensive focus since the calendar flipped to 2019), but the same questions I brought up in preseason (pre-Butler trade) about the ceiling of a team led by even this version of KAT are still valid. The improved chemistry may buoy their postseason hopes for a time, but in the end this is probably not a playoff outfit.

After a surprising start, Dallas has dropped 11 of its last 15 contests to fall to 13th in the West at 19-22. The steep descent has done little to quell the much-deserved ballyhoo surrounding Luka Doncic, as the team now has its unquestioned cornerstone for the future. But what do you do about a problem like Dennis Smith, Jr.? He has shown some off-ball juice in his new role alongside Halleluka, but hasn’t quite enjoyed the second-year breakout many fans were expecting. Questions of fit will continue to circle him, and the organization will need to decide sooner rather than later about his future with the team and how to maximize his value.

Dirk’s last ride through the league has been oddly mesmerizing. Opponents still have to account for the gravity his shooting creates, but he simply has no mobility anymore, and it’s strange watching fans (both of Dallas and the opposition) longing for one more glimpse of the all-time great we have become so accustomed to seeing. It’s always bittersweet watching great players age out, but there is this unusual, hopeful nature to it around Dirk, like he’s so universally beloved around the league that everyone REEEEAAALLY wants him to go out on a high note. It’s unfortunate it probably won’t include one last postseason berth, but fans can take solace knowing the Mavs are in good hands going forward.

I wrote previously about the resurgence of Memphis, but as I kinda-sorta predicted, Grit ‘n’ Grind 2.0 has encountered some bugs lately, struggling to a 3-11 record in their last 14 games and dropping them into a tie with the aforementioned Mavs at 19-22. There is dissension in the ranks, they’ve lost useful wing Dillon Brooks for the season with a toe injury (should’ve traded him when they had the chance!), and they recently made a deal for lesser Holiday brother Justin in an attempt to bolster their questionable depth. Holiday is a solid player, but he is unlikely to be the cure for what ails them, namely an anemic, stuck-in-mud offense (27th in Offensive Rating, dead last in pace). The Chandler Parsons situation has just become sad.

On the plus side, rookie Jaren Jackson, Jr. has been everything the Grizz could have hoped for, and looks destined for stardom. But today is not that day. Even if the defense can get it back together — they allowed only 86 points in a win over San Antonio on Wednesday — it’s unlikely there is enough firepower here to hang long-term with the more modern attacks in the West.

Denver is for real. The upstart Nugs continue to sit atop the West at 27-12, and they could be getting closer to whole again soon. Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Isaiah Thomas should all be back sometime this month, making an already-deep rotation burst at the seams with quality players. The defense slipped a bit while Paul Millsap was out (now 10th in Defensive Rating), but the offense has gotten on track, with Jamal Murray beginning to show the breakout scoring touch we were promised and Nikola Jokic slowly, plumply edging his way into the MVP conversation. The role players have been dynamite, with Mason Plumlee, Juancho Hernangomez, Monte Morris, Torrey Craig, and Malik Beasley all filling their niches perfectly. The minutes distribution and chemistry could be thrown into a state of flux once the above trio returns to the court — along with whatever they might eventually get from first round pick Michael Porter, Jr. — but these are some serious first-world problems.

Denver hasn’t been tested inside the crucible of the playoffs yet with this group, and they may not be quite the threat to Golden State Charles Barkley seems to think they are, but for now, things are gorgeous in the Sunshine State.

What on Earth will New Orleans do? The Anthony Davis pre-agency chatter has reached a fever pitch around the league following LeBron’s tampering-adjacent comments and the Pels falling to 12th in the West at 20-22. They’ve won three straight over lackluster competition, and the recent return from injury of both Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton can only help, but GM Dell Demps’ chair has got to be getting a little hot. Short of Davis agreeing to the 5-year/$239 million supermax extension New Orleans can offer him this summer — which he will likely decline, if you can believe that — there is no simple way for Demps to extricate himself and the organization from this situation. They could trade Sixth Man of the Year candidate Julius Randle before the deadline in an attempt to restock their barren wing rotation, but Randle has been really good, and it might not make much difference.

If Davis declines the extension, it almost certainly means he is intent on bolting for greener (or purpler and golder) pastures, at which point it becomes a race to extract as much trade value for him as possible, which incidentally, would still be a ton. It is an edge-of-your-seat game of front office chicken playing out in front of our eyes. AD has dropped some small bread crumbs (his move to Klutch Sports, which is totally not influenced by LeBron in any way, along with his “legacy over money” comments), and the trade of a star of his caliber (whether to LA or otherwise) would be a cataclysmic event.

Even in its current form, the team remains elite offensively (2nd in O-Rating) and a train wreck defensively (25th despite having a perennial DPOY candidate in Davis), making them an entertaining oddity ultimately going nowhere. The parts still don’t fit together in a coherent way. Their playoff drubbing of Portland last season feels like long ago indeed, a perfect storm of the right matchup at the right time which clouded our collective judgment about where this franchise was really headed. It’s unclear what the Pelicans will do next, but whatever it is will likely shape the future of basketball in New Orleans and whether or not it continues to exist at all.

Top Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

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