It’s halftime of the 2022-23 season and nobody has any idea how this will end. Which, of course, is very good for business.
That’s the best way to summarize the state of basketball at the midway point. There’s no “superteam” or bully on the block. The gap between first and eighth place in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference is manageable. Suspense and drama are both threatening to stay a while. Optimism, therefore, is running high — almost as high as the final scores of nightly games.
Even better, the league isn’t hurting for starpower or epic performances. Like: Luka Doncic’s 60-21-10 night. Or Donovan Mitchell’s 71-point game. Or Giannis Antetokounmpo going 45-22, 43-20 and 55 in three straight games. Which was more impressive?
Anyway, here are 15 takeaways from the NBA at midseason:
1. The NBA is throwing a points party. It’s points galore in a league that’s going batty with buckets, at a historic level actually. To put it in perspective, 44 players are averaging 20 points per game and five are averaging 30. Ten seasons ago, nine were at 20 ppg and nobody notched 30. Oh, and this: Miami is currently at the bottom in team scoring at 108 ppg. Ten seasons ago, that number would’ve led the league in scoring. We’ve already seen a player get a 70-piece and another get a 60-piece and 11 players with 50-pieces. Remember when 40 points in a given night was a headline-grabber? Well, 40 points has been nothing special in the first few months. When considering the increased pace, spaced floor and better efficiency from 3-point range, the league is running up the score and not apologizing for it.
2. The Jazz are not who we thought they were. They’ve slowed a bit since opening the season 10-3, and by the All-Star break could sit a few rungs from the bottom of the West if this keeps up. But the Jazz still have shattered expectations which, as you know, were rather low once they traded their two All-Stars last summer. Most nights they’re competitive and rather fun to watch. Plus, Lauri Markkanen is developing into a franchise keeper. Through the first half of the season he grabbed pole position for Kia Most Improved Player — this from someone who wasn’t a primary option last season in Cleveland and seemed to regress his final season in Chicago. He and Jordan Clarkson are part of the future for a Jazz team that suddenly is flush with assets once you include those first-round picks from the offseason deals.
3. Meanwhile, in Minnesota … The immediate impact of adding three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year center Rudy Gobert has been anything but that for the Timberwolves, who are breaking even and a lot closer to the bottom than the top. Karl-Anthony Towns missing games with injuries hasn’t helped, either, and when he was healthy, there were chemistry issues with two All-Star big men sharing the floor. Gobert hasn’t been awful (other than his inability to catch passes) and he’s among the league rebounding and field goal percentage leaders. And the Wolves, minus Towns, are on a four-game winning streak. But there are troubling big-picture signs for a team that sacrificed its future in order to win now.
4. LeBron James is having a Terrific 20th. He’s averaging over 29 points and this would rank top-five highest in his career. He dropped 47 on his 38th birthday, then followed immediately with another 40-piece here in his second NBA decade. There’s no sluggish in LeBron at this stage of the game, remarkable given the tread-wear on his body, which includes all many deep playoff runs. This, of course, sets him up nicely for breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record sometime in the next month.
5. Coaches in Boston and Brooklyn walked into great situations. If nothing else, the Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla and the Nets’ Jacque Vaughn are beneficiaries of perfect timing. Usually, when a new coach enters the picture, there’s a good reason for it: The team is either rebuilding or struggling. Neither was the case in Boston and Brooklyn as both squads are flush with MVP-level talent and decent role players. As a result, it’s been a rather smooth transition for these coaches and those teams, who sit at the top in the East. Can you imagine the coincidence if the Celtics and Nets wind up in the Eastern Conference finals? For that to happen, Boston must recapture its early-season burst while the Nets must now navigate the next two weeks without Kevin Durant, who is out with an MCL injury.
6. Paolo Banchero is indeed No. 1. In the days leading up to the 2022 draft, there were still questions about the Magic and the top overall pick. Uncertainty swirled — would it be Jabari Smith or Chet Holmgren or Banchero? He wasn’t told he was the choice until minutes before he shook NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand. For right now anyway, Orlando made the right decision. Banchero leads all rookies in scoring (21.2 ppg) while showing terrific versatility for a relatively big man. Most notably, his shooting range and court vision are obvious assets. He’s dropping plenty of hints that he’s a franchise centerpiece, which is crucial for a Magic team searching for a foundational piece.
7. Zion was healthy and producing, until he wasn’t. What happens when encouraging meets discouraging? You get Zion Williamson. All of the great anticipation that greeted him when the season tipped off was justified and Williamson’s brand of bully-ball was tremendous (and, at times, breathtaking). He powered the Pelicans into the top shelf of the West, made more impressive once Williamson was forced to work without his injured fellow All-Star Brandon Ingram. But then, the injury bug returned to spook Williamson, this time with a hamstring tweak. The good news is the injury, unlike the foot injury that caused him to miss all of last season, is temporary. The bad news? Guy can’t get a break.
8. Anthony Davis was healthy and producing, until he wasn’t. Once again, a freakish injury has Davis in street clothes. There continues to be justifiable fears about his body. Too bad, because before his latest injury, AD was delivering on MVP-level for the Lakers. They need him back, and healthy, in order to salvage LeBron’s 20th season and at least create the impression of them being a playoff team.
9. Donovan Mitchell is the best Cavs player since, hmm. The speed in which Mitchell justified the trade for him was rather rapid. It’s almost as if Mitchell was destined to be in Cleveland from the get-go. Sure, his 71-point masterpiece is clearly the highlight so far and will be tough if not impossible to top. But Mitchell has been rather consistent all season so far, showing constant aggression, a willingness to demand the ball in moments that beg for a hero. He also brings a magnetic effect in the locker room among his teammates and coaches. Nobody’s quite sure what the Cavs’ ceiling is this season, but it wouldn’t be a complete shock if, assuming all goes well, Mitchell takes them further than anyone imagined.
10. A two-time MVP is better than ever. It’s not a stretch to say Nikola Jokic is on pace to surpass his last two seasons when he won back-to-back Kia MVPs. At the very least, there’s a chance he could become the first center to average a triple-double. It’s crazy enough that a center is flirting with double-figure assists. Even better, he has the Nuggets at the top of the West, evidence of his all-around impact and ability to carry a team that’s load managing Jamal Murray. The MVP competition is fierce but Jokic could join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only three-straight winners.
11. The LM (Load Management) Clippers are risking the season. They bring two superstars and lots of depth and decent coaching … and the Clippers in the end might not get the chance to flex all of that. They spent the first few months giving plenty of rest to Kawhi Leonard (who doesn’t play back-to-back games) and some to Paul George, so it’s no surprise the Clippers are currently treading water in the standings. Here’s the problem: The longer this continues, the more the Clippers run the risk of falling into the Play-In Tournament again, where anything goes. And if they survive the Play-In, they won’t get a favorable first-round seeding and more than likely, see the Nuggets or Grizzlies. That’s taking the hard route through the postseason, a chore for a team that still hasn’t done anything special in the George-Leonard “era.”
12. Something’s wrong with the Raptors. Everywhere you look, there’s lots to like about Toronto, starting with Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anonoby, Scottie Barnes and coach Nick Nurse. Then why are they perhaps the most disappointing team in the league so far, sitting five games under .500? They rank 29th in 3-point shooting (32.7%) and are 10-13 in clutch games so far this season, among other issues. Toronto, therefore, is a team to watch at the trade deadline because the Raptors are putting GM Bobby Webster in a tough spot. By next month, if the situation hasn’t improved, the Raptors must decide to regroup for the future or take their chances with the current roster.
13. The Bulls are stalled in neutral. Last season, they prospered after signing DeMar DeRozan and pairing him with Zach LaVine. So far this season, not so much for a team in 10th place in the East. LaVine hinted at team chemistry issues as the reason for the Bulls losing to lesser teams, often because of late-game collapses, while having a winning record against the Nets, Bucks, Celtics, Heat and Cavs combined. They’ve rallied lately and perhaps cooled discussion of being sellers at the trade deadline (LaVine to the Lakers chatter gathered steam for a while). And there’s no word on when, or if, Lonzo Ball will suit up this season.
14. Miami seems caught in a vice. The Heat came within a Jimmy Butler 3-point shot from reaching the 2022 NBA Finals. Since then, they’ve been mostly misfiring, starting the new season 7-11 and are in eighth place in the East. Butler has missed 14 games with injuries and as a result, Miami has the lowest-scoring team in the league. Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo are responsible for preventing the first half of the season from being a bigger problem. With Butler back in the fold, Miami has a chance to change the conversation with two games with the Bucks this week.
15. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis are beaming with pride. Been a minute since the Kings caused a stir in Sacramento, so their fifth-place presence in the West counts as significant progress. Fox and Sabonis are working on their first full season together and the evidence points to this being a delicious duo. Fox in particular is engineering this team through winning finishes in tight games and ranks second in the NBA in total clutch points. The Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2005-06 and sifted through 11 coaches in that stretch. Mike Brown, the newbie, is connecting with a young core and making defense a priority.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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