2nd half of the NBA season
Mike Conley celebrates in last seasons playoffs. Photo: Mike Ehrmann, USA Today Sports

Following on from my esteemed colleague Ryan Friend, who asked questions of the Eastern and Western conference, let’s examine just a few of the key topics to keep your eye on as we progress into the 2nd half of the NBA season.

The All-Star game is done and dusted. Now it’s time to plow headlong into the second half of the NBA season. Or, if you happen to be the Wizards and Grizzlies, the final three quarters of the NBA season. The first half of this campaign has been like no other in the history of the league. COVID related game delays, limited – or no – fans on game day, a packed schedule. It’s been an experience.

Can the Utah Jazz keep this up?

The Jazz have undoubtedly been the standout team of the first half of season 2020-21. They sport a league leading 27-9 record and sent three players, as well as their coach, to the All-Star game. They’re ranked 2nd in the league in offensive Rating, 3rd in Defensive rating, for a Net Rating of +9.0 – the difference between Utah and the equally surprising 2nd placed Phoenix Suns is around the same as the gap between Phoenix and 8th placed Philadelphia. In short, Utah are dominant.

How are Utah doing this? Defensively, they’re allowing practically no open 3 pointers, thanks to Rudy Gobert’s aura allowing his teammates to stick to shooters, safe in the knowledge that the Frenchman is waiting to eradicate any mistakes.

Offensively, coach Quin Snyder has unlocked his team’s deep shooting ability. Of their nine rotation players, only Gobert and Derrick Favors are not shooting the three ball. Each of the other seven are attempting between 4.6 shots (Royce O’Neal) and 11.3 (Jordan Clarkson) per game. Astonishingly, the worst shooter amongst that group is Clarkson at an even 37%, with three Jazzmen shooting over 40% from beyond the arc. Even on offense, Gobert is proving vital; his rim running and ability to reach damn near any pass forces defences to collapse in ways that Utah’s own defense doesn’t.

So, can Utah maintain this dominance? In short, yes. Although there are caveats. Whilst the Jazz have ridden out an injury to Mike Conley, should they lose Mitchell, the suddenly vital Clarkson, or fringe MVP candidate Gobert, then the whole structure collapses like a house of cards. Even an injury to Bogdanovic, O’Neal or Ingles will be tough to overcome. Opponents will also start to gear up for their postseason runs – look for the Lakers and Clippers in particular to start coalescing as we get nearer to the end of the regular season.

Balancing out those factors are Utah’s relatively easy run home. According to Tankathon, Utah have the easiest remaining schedule in the entire NBA, which can only help them maintain the push for their first #1 overall seed since 1998.

Which under performing teams – if any – are primed for a second half run?

Perhaps we could label it the Bubble Hangover, but there are quite a few teams that haven’t performed near to their expectation so far. Miami, Toronto and Indiana have all failed to fire in the East, whilst out West the Mavericks and Pelicans have flattered to deceive.

Can any of those teams get it together?

In the East, the obvious big mover is Miami – without a doubt suffering the worst Bubble Hangover – who recovered to be at .500 by the All-Star break. With Jimmy Butler seemingly back to full fitness and Goran Dragic looking good since returning from his latest absence, the 2020 vanquished finalists have their full group together, with one infamous exception.

The Pacers are also primed to make a late run. With TJ Warren injured practically all season, and Caris LeVert (the prize for trading away malcontent Victor Oladipo) yet to suit up, the Pacers have been shorthanded all campaign. With those two set to return sooner rather than later, suddenly Indiana’s starting unit has no obvious holes. Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott in turn return to the bench, making that unit very dangerous.

In the West, Dallas have been most disappointing. After a seriously poor start they, like Miami, have made a late push before the All-Star break to sneak into the West’s 8th seed, a game ahead of the Grizzlies. Having the 2nd easiest remaining schedule should help the Mavs ease themselves into the middle of the playoff picture, where they will surely scare the bejeezus out of a higher seed. Utah would want no part of a 1-4 first round match up with the Mavs.

Since unleashing Point Zion, the Pelicans have started to resemble the side that many thought would make the playoffs. Somewhat surprisingly, Lonzo Ball has transitioned into an off-ball role far better than many anticipated – his catch and shoot game, especially from the corners – has opened the floor for Zion’s bullocking drives. A tough schedule – two games against the Lakers, Nets and Sixers all remain – might hold them back a touch, however.

What will Brooklyn’s roster look like come playoff time?

As discussed on NBA shorts with Trey Daubert, Nets GM Sean Marks will surely have resigned himself to the buyout/ring chasers market once he made his deal for James Harden. The first of those bargains has been secured, in the form of Blake Griffin. Colour me sceptical as to what the former high flyer can provide in his current physical state. Rather, this writer would like to see the team secure Griffin’s former running mate in Andre Drummond from Cleveland.

Whilst he wouldn’t exactly solve Brooklyn’s defensive woes, Drummond’s offensive rebounding, screening, and ability to catch and finish could be vital come playoff time. Frankly, he’s a far better option at both ends of the court that DeAndre Jordan, right now. Drummond can at least switch a little and has more play making ability. Jordan’s best asset is his rebounding yet Drummond is so much better than Jordan in that facet of the game, too.

Griffin and Drummond would fill out Brooklyn’s front court rotation. Don’t expect them to look to make any major moves in the back court, though. Kudos to Steve Nash for putting Bruce Brown in a position to have such a brilliant impact as, essentially, a point guard playing as a screen-and-roll centre (and of course kudos to Brown for making such an unconventional role work). With three superstars to carry the ball and create, and an elite shooter on the wing, with solid support in Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot the back court is somewhat set. If by some medical miracle they regain Spencer Dinwiddie this season, then the Nets might be the deepest of all the contending teams.

That’s a long way from where they were immediately after the Harden transaction.

How do the Lakers approach the second half of the season?

Part of the plan when the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis, was to allow LeBron James to rest in the regular season and let his younger superstar teammate shoulder the load. With AD out for about a month now, the Lakers have (including the contest with Denver where he went down) plummeted with a 3-7 record. Davis is expected to return in the next week or so, and the Lakers are only 3.5 games behind the Jazz. But surely the team will ease Davis back into action – there’s no point in chasing the top seed only to lose him for the playoffs.

That leaves only the still whip smart but glacial Marc Gasol as a true centre on the roster. Should the Lakers pick up Andre Drummond – currently a race between the Nets and themselves – then that alleviates so much of the pressure on AD. There have been Boogie Cousins rumours floating around, but the Lakers must see Drummond as the superior option.

Expect the Lakers to ensure they hold at worst the 3rd seed, whilst pushing for 2nd in the West. They’ll have to be careful both reintegrating Davis and managing LeBron’s minutes. Their front court is wafer thin, so losing more rotation pieces – let alone their superstars – will severely handicap them.

Like Brooklyn, the Lakers are shopping in the buyout marketplace. A slightly left field option should they not secure Drummond: LaMarcus Aldridge. The soon to be released Spurs big man is, at age 35, not the rim runner or rebounder that Drummond is, but his ability to shoot from the centre spot, combined with savvy play making and a still gorgeous post game give the Lakers options than Boogie could provide.

Who will look to make a splash at the trade deadline?

The delayed trade deadline this season is on March 25th. There will always be some action around the edges on deadline day, but will we see any seismic shifts? Frankly, it’s unlikely.

The NBA’s implementation of the play-in tournament means that, in a league where traditionally more than half the league makes the playoffs, there are simply not enough sellers on the market to supply those teams looking to buy.

Out West, Memphis and Golden State sit outside the playoffs with San Antonio and Dallas currently in – only a single game separates all four squads. In the East, 7th placed Charlotte are only three games ahead of the 12th placed – and suddenly very frisky – Washington Wizards.

That leaves only the Rockets (Oladipo), Thunder (Horford/Hill) and perhaps the Magic (would they trade away Vucevic?) as genuine sellers, set against a bevy of teams looking to strengthen. An aside: for what it’s worth this writer doesn’t believe Bradley Beal is going anywhere this season.

Whilst we likely won’t see many bigger deals, the lack of supply may drive the costs of doing business up. With league front offices valuing a first round pick more than ever, it will be interesting to see if any are coughed up for a rental in Dipo or for old men like the Thunder duo.