This week, the NBA will reach the midpoint of the regular season, with most teams having played at least 41 games. Halfway to the playoffs, the Basketball Prospectus team of NBA analysts shares its answers to some pressing questions around the league as well as making award picks.
At the midway point, which team is most likely to win the NBA championship?
Miami Heat. I'd still say the Heat. Miami is 30-9 when the big three are all available. San Antonio now has the league's best point differential and if I had to take "the field" or Miami, I'd take "the field." Nevertheless, I'd still put my money on a healthy Heat team.
Miami Heat. I don't think they are an overwhelming favorite, but nobody in the league has greater potential than the Heat. If Miami is healthy in the playoffs and continues to execute defensively, I put them ahead of San Antonio and Boston.
San Antonio Spurs. Right now, they have only really had one little blip (the back-to-back losses to New York and Boston), but they have seemed to put that behind them. While the big changes have been on the offensive end for the Spurs (and this is important because with Tim Duncan not being the primary focus anymore, he should be fresher in the postseason), they still play very good defense, and that is what you need in the playoffs to win.
How many total teams do you think legitimately could win the championship?
BD: Five. There are five teams that could mount a championship run: San Antonio, L.A. Lakers, Boston, Miami and Orlando. Chicago may yet join the party if they can get one more incremental upgrade of its roster.
KP: Five. Boston, L.A. Lakers, Miami, Orlando and San Antonio.
SP: Six. The Lakers, Spurs, Heat, Magic, Celtics, and the Bulls. The Bulls might be a little surprising, but I am very high on them and specifically Derrick Rose. Once they have everyone healthy (you can argue they haven't been completely healthy all season), they can really be a dangerous bunch.
What team, if any, thinks it can win the championship but is wrong?
Atlanta Hawks. I guess Atlanta still fancies itself as an elite team on the rise, but I can't see the Hawks getting out of the first round.
Dallas Mavericks. Prior to Caron Butler's injury, the Mavericks merited a spot in that discussion, but their offense is simply too dependent on Dirk Nowitzki right now. And even the return of the Diggler has hardly proven a panacea. Right now, Dallas is a notch below the West's top teams.
Dallas Mavericks. After spending most of the season competing with the Spurs for the title of "Best Team In Texas" they have looked bad due to that injury to Butler, which really hurt them. They still have a lot of nice talent and are a good team, but I don't think they are title contenders anymore.
What team most needs to make a trade to strengthen its roster by the deadline?
Chicago Bulls. The Bulls simply have to figure out a way to excise Keith Bogans from their rotation without bringing in a high-usage player that will disrupt the offensive hierarchy. They need either a Kyle Korver who can defend or a Ronnie Brewer who can space the floor. The ideal fit would be a guy like Kirk Hinrich. Alas.
Dallas Mavericks. I mean, come on, they're giving Sasha Pavlovic minutes. That's a cry for help. Dallas should be able to put its expiring contracts and willingness to swallow salary to use to bring in some reinforcement for the stretch run.
New York Knicks. And not for Carmelo Anthony. A backup point guard or a backup big could turn this team into a threat to get out of the first round.
What team ought to blow it up by the trade deadline?
Denver Nuggets. If 'Melo doesn't sign an extension with Denver, they have to get what they can and begin again. Waiting him out could set the franchise back for years.
Cleveland Cavaliers. With Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams banged up, it's unclear just how much there is on the roster worth dealing, but given that this bunch is threatening the worst point differentials in league history, there is no argument for keeping it intact.
Charlotte Bobcats. After a breakout season, they are now struggling and have an interim head coach who isn't interested in taking over the team full time. The Bobcats are going to be an eighth seed or seventh seed at best, so I think Michael Jordan might be best served sending guys like Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace to contenders for picks and young talent.
What player is flying under the radar right now and deserves more attention?
LeBron James. No, I'm serious. OK, he doesn't need more attention, but he needs more of the RIGHT KIND of attention. He's still the league's best player and, as far as I'm concerned, a fairly clear-cut favorite to win another MVP award (in terms of merit). For a great many reasons, I don't actually believe he has any chance to win the award. Maybe if he sits out another few games and Miami continues to lose them all in his absence, people will set aside the off-court stuff and remember what James does between the lines.
KP: I have a well-established bias toward stretch fours. Let's say you had one of these players who could hold his own defensively against fours of all kinds, was an above-average rebounder for the position and also happened to shoot better than 60 percent on two-point attempts. Let's further establish that this player had one of the better net plus-minuses on a contending team, was an outstanding passer for his position and was willing to play whatever role you needed of him. Well, that player is Lamar Odom, and he hasn't gotten enough credit for his terrific season. He's barely outside the league's top 10 in WARP.
Zach Randolph. Last year, Randolph was an All-Star with the Grizzlies; this year, Randolph is actually playing better, but it seems like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin are getting all of the attention at the Power Forward spot in the Western Conference.
What will happen in the second half of the season that nobody is expecting?
BD: I'll throw this out there: The Bulls will get everyone healthy, make a key roster addition and edge Boston and Miami for the top seed in the East. Not sure I actually believe this will happen, but I can imagine a scenario in which it does.
KP: With a hat tip to friend of BBP M. Haubs of The Painted Area, the Golden State Warriors making a playoff run. While the Warriors' point differential is terrible, they've survived an unfriendly first-half schedule and have been solidly competitive whenever their starting lineup has been healthy. If Golden State can avoid injuries, the Warriors have a chance to sneak into a wide-open battle for the last playoff spot in the West.
SP: Whether the Nets trade for Carmelo or not, they are going to be a much better team in the second half behind a much more aggressive (and a better rebounding) Brook Lopez.
Award picks - MVP
Chris Paul. I can't say I feel as strongly as I did about this at the quarter-pole, but Paul's role in pointing the New Orleans Hornets toward the postseason cannot be overstated. He's sixth in the league in net plus-minus and is barely edging out James for the top spot in WARP.
Dirk Nowitzki. Look at how the Mavericks played without him..
Rookie of the Year
KP: Griffin. I think it's worth noting that we would surely all change our pro-Wall votes from the last roundtable, when asked which top rookie we wanted to build around for the next decade and beyond.
Coach of the Year
BD: Gregg Popovich.
KP: Tom Thibodeau. The first-year head coach has skillfully navigated injuries to both of his starting big men and has the Bulls near the top of the league defensively. What has been a pleasant surprise to some extent has been Thibodeau's creativity on offense, though his fondness for Bogans as a starter has hampered Chicago's scoring. By the way, given the Bulls' defensive ascent and the decline of the Thunder, Ron Adams might win the mythical Assistant Coach of the Year award.
Thaddeus Young. Young has evolved into a strong contributor for the 76ers off the bench, averaging 17.9 points per 40 minutes with a solid .579 True Shooting Percentage. He's also got the team's best net plus-minus.
Executive of the Year
BD: Gar Forman.
KP: R.C. Buford. I had Buford pegged to win this award before last season. As it turned, I was just a bit early. The addition of Richard Jefferson has now paid dividends, while Gary Neal might just be the league's best value pickup. If Tiago Splitter ever starts contributing consistently, Buford will look even better.
SP: Donnie Walsh. Sure, he got Amar'e Stoudemire, but the additions of Raymond Felton, Shawne Williams and Landry Fields are what really makes him deserving of the award.