We have reached the NBA All-Star Break. For basketball fans, this is an exhibition of the most entertaining facets of the NBA: high flying dunks, young superstars facing off and the best players in the world competing against one another. But for NBA players, the All-Star Break’s purpose is to provide a much-needed rest as they prepare for the grueling, final 30-game push toward the playoffs.
As we look toward the second half of the season, a few teams have stood out as those to keep an eye on.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors hold a 42-9 record, which has them in first place in the brutally competitive Western Conference. They have been a model of consistency throughout the first half of the season and boast one of the deepest lineups in the NBA.
Incredible backcourt play from sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, coupled with the surprise emergence of Draymond Green as a versatile forward, have driven an offensive juggernaut overseen by first-year coach Steve Kerr.
Their defense has also been remarkably solid, allowing an NBA-best 42.1 percent field goal percentage.
One problem that could limit the Warriors’ success is their susceptibility to injuries. Curry has had ankle issues since his season-ending injury in 2011 and his health should be carefully watched as his minutes pile up. Andre Iguodala, a key player, has missed 15 or more games in three of the past four seasons. And maybe the most critical piece is center Andrew Bogut, who has missed 135 games in the past three years. He is Golden State’s best interior defender and will be important contending with the West’s abundance of skilled big men.
If the Warriors remain healthy, however, they should win the Western Conference Finals.
The Grizzlies sit at second in the West at 39-14, but still receive little of the media attention their record would typically warrant.
They possess one of the most dominant low-post combinations in Marc Gasol (18.3 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game) and Zach Randolph (16.8 ppg, 12.0 rpg). Their style of play emphasizes these strengths but gives way to a weakness in their offensive tempo and scoring output.
Jeff Green, who is averaging 12.3 ppg this season, was recently brought in from the Boston Celtics through a trade in attempt to give the offense more firepower. The Grizzlies will go as far as their perimeter offense takes them, even though they will continue to win every battle in the paint.
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With a roster full of talent, the Rockets are an interesting case. They sit at fourth in the West at 36-17 and are legitimate title contenders, due in most part to the play of superstar and potential NBA MVP James Harden. He is leading the league with 27.4 ppg.
Unfortunately, their other star, Dwight Howard, widely considered to be the best center in the league when healthy, has had knee injuries and has not played much since Jan. 19.
Harden’s heroics and the Rockets’ improved defense (eighth in the league defensive efficiency) have been crucial in keeping them competitive in the West’s standings, but they will need more to truly contend for a championship.
If Howard does not return to the dominance he showed with the Orlando Magic (18.4 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 2.2 blocks per game) or last year in Houston (18.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg) the Rockets will lose to a more balanced team in the playoffs.
The Hawks have been the surprise of the NBA, rampaging to a 43-11 record through the first half of the season by using an offense focused around sharing the ball. This offense was implemented by second-year coach Mike Budenholzer, who used to coach under legendary coach Greg Popovich in San Antonio.
For the first time since the 2010 Boston Celtics, the Hawks have four players in the All-Star game: Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver.
The team has the firepower to continue to dominate its competition, but it does not possess a wing player capable of consistently finishing at the basket. Their success will depend on remarkable shooting (38.9 3-point percentage) to continue.
If teams begin to figure out how to defend the Hawks’ complex offense and their shooting numbers worsen, they will lose early in the playoffs because of their reliance on jump shooting.
Because of an increase in offensive efficiency, the off-season acquisition of All-Star Pau Gasol (18.4 ppg, 12.1 rpg this season) and the long-awaited return of Derrick Rose (18.9 ppg), the Bulls are 34-20 and third in the East.
Guard Jimmy Butler has drastically improved and Nikola Mirotic’s addition to the team has aided the Bulls’ offensive production, which has typically been the issue for Chicago in recent years.
Unfortunately this year, with 2014 Defensive Play of the Year Joakim Noah missing 12 of 54 games and Gasol’s questionable interior defense, defense is now the problem for the Bulls. They have slipped from second to 13th in defensive efficiency since last season.
Keep your eyes on the Bulls’ defensive struggles in the second half of this season, because it will determine their potential in the playoffs.
Probably the most intriguing story in the NBA, the Cavaliers have a completely different roster and set of expectations from last year because of the return of LeBron James. After a tumultuous first half, the Cavaliers are 33-22, fifth in the East.
Although their record is not spectacular, they ride into the break having won eight of their last 10 games. After taking a two-week absence for rest, James returned and boosted the Cavaliers to success.
Additionally, the acquisitions of J.R. Smith (12.7 ppg) and Timofey Mozgov (10.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg) have changed the fortunes of the team.
The glaring question for Cleveland is Kevin Love, the marquee player of the 2014 free-agent class. He is an unbelievable talent, but his work ethic and attitude have been questioned throughout his career.
Currently, Love is underperforming in his backseat role to James, and in order for the Cavaliers to become a real contender in the Eastern Conference, Love must play more like he did in Minnesota (26.1 ppg, 12.5 rpg), and less like the first half of this season (17.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg).
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com.
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