Picks to Click in the Second Half
The midway point of the NBA season has come and gone with every team passing the 41 game mark. As we look ahead to the second half most teams have found their identity and are looking forward to competing for a championship, competing for the playoffs, or hoping the ping pong balls fall their way in the lottery.
Some teams do surge ahead and breakout of their current positions in the second half. Sometimes it’s due to getting everyone healthy, other times a team just needed to gel with new offseason additions, especially if a new coach is involved. The following teams are my picks to click in the second half.
Few teams have had the ups and downs the Hornets have had during the first half of the season. They faced the bizarre reality of losing their owner, the NBA then taking over the team, and just recently they met an attendance goal locking them into an extended lease that will keep them in New Orleans until 2014. Furthermore, in the preseason there were rumors of star Chris Paul wanting out and demanding a trade, all while David West has an opt clause at the end of the season that could make him an unrestricted free agent. If any team (except maybe Portland due to injuries) had an excuse to quit it was the Hornets.
Instead, they started the season winning 11 of 12 games and they’ve burst out of the gates in the second half by putting together a 10 game win streak that included a dominating 16 point win over the league leading San Antonio Spurs, and wins over championship hopefuls Orlando, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Denver. The Hornets are healthy, they are locked into New Orleans for the next several years, their fans go crazy helping them to a 19-5 home court record, and they have two closers in Paul and West. Everything points to them being one of the top team’s in the league during the rest of the season.
Chicago Bulls: (33-14) 35 games remaining, projecting 56 wins.
Carlos Boozer has missed 18 games and Joakim Noah has missed 23 and counting. Boozer and Noah have played a total of nine games together and went 7-2 in that time, despite Noah already being injured. Yet the Bulls have persevered and are locked into a battle with the Miami HEAT and Boston Celtics for the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Noah is expected to be back by the end of February giving this team plenty of time to play together as a healthy unit and prove they are championship contenders.
Furthermore, Derrick Rose is one of the mid season favorites for MVP and was just named a starter in this year’s All-Star game. They lead the league in overall defense, despite arguably their best defender (Noah) being out since December 16th. While much of the talk around the league is the Bulls may be a year or two away, if they happen to make a long rumored move to upgrade at Shooting Guard, where journeyman Keith Bogans starts, the sky is the limit for the best Bulls team since number 23 was in town.
Los Angeles Clippers: (18-28) 36 games remaining, projecting 38 wins.
The Clippers started the season 1-13 but have righted the ship and are above .500 since their difficult start. While they may not be able to make up enough ground and slip into the playoffs, it is safe to say the Clippers will be one of the tougher teams to beat in the second half. Blake Griffin has burst on to the scene and is running away with the Rookie of the Year. His nightly dunks can be seen on highlight shows around the country, but his biggest accomplishment may be in helping rejuvenate Baron Davis.
Davis came into the preseason out of shape and missed 14 of the team’s first 18 games. After coming back from injury he was even coming off the bench. Since December 12th, when he was moved back into the starting lineup, Davis has averaged over 13 points a game and 7 assists. The Clippers record is a direct reflection of how important Davis is to this team. When Davis struggles or is out of the lineup, like he was at the start of the season the Clippers are in trouble. In 32 games with Davis in the lineup he has shot 44% from the field and averaged 8.6 assists per game during wins and only 39% from the field and 5 assists in losses. As important as Griffin is, no one doubts his contributions to the team, the Clippers appear to go as Davis goes, and barring injury I would continue to expect big things.
Lastly, one of the unsung hero’s of the Clippers is Center DeAndre Jordan. Thrust into the starting lineup after an injury to Chris Kaman in November, Jordan has developed into the perfect frontcourt sidekick to Griffin. He is leading the team in block shots and field goal percentage. If he continues to improve, the Clippers interior defense is going to get better and it’s possible they will be able to improve upon their opponents scoring average that is over 101 points per game, which ranks in the bottom half of the league.
Milwaukee Bucks: (19-26) 37 games remaining, projecting 41 wins.
In the next week or so the Bucks should get starting Point Guard Brandon Jennings back who has been out since December 20th with a broken foot. That alone could be enough to get them back into the playoffs, after all they are only one game out of the 8th seed in the East. Throw in the fact they have the most games against teams with losing records in the second half of the season and it’s clear the Bucks are in great shape to make a run towards the playoffs.
Another interesting Bucks note, last season Skiles had his team playing their best basketball during the second half. They earned a 29-12 record that propelled them to a second place finish in the Central Division, and the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. After an offseason that saw the Bucks add veterans Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette it would be surprising if they missed the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs: (40-7) 35 games remaining, projecting 65 wins.
Have you seen the Spurs play? They are the best team in the NBA and are showing no signs of letting up.
Boston Celtics: (35-11) 36 games remaining, projecting 57 wins.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two best records in the NBA over the first 41 games of the season. Both are veteran led teams that are thinking championship and it appears the only way to slow them down is if the injury bug hits them. It’s safe to say these are the two teams to beat in the second half and if health is on their sides, both will be in a great position to earn the top seed in the playoffs for their respective conferences.
Any Team That Ends Up with ‘Melo: Carmelo Anthony is the big elephant in the room. At this point his future is up in the air and I think it’s pretty safe to say even the experts have no idea where he will end up. Anthony has stated repeatedly he wants to go to the New York Knicks and if he ends up there without them having to blow up the core of the team the sky is the limit for them. If the Houston Rockets ‘rent’ Anthony for a season it seems plausible they could jump from a sub .500 team to a playoff team. The Chicago Bulls, the New Jersey Nets, and the Dallas Mavericks have all been linked to ‘Melo and he would help each of those teams get to another level.
However, if the Nuggets decide not to trade him, they will have a chance to become one of the elite teams in the West. Since Nets Owner Mikhail Prokhorov withdrew from the Anthony sweepstakes the Nuggets have played some of their best basketball of the season going 5-1 with a win over the Division leading Oklahoma City Thunder. If the trade distraction ever ends and the Nuggets can get back to focusing on playing winning basketball they should find themselves competing for one of the top spots in the West.
Every year the second half of the season sees teams come out of nowhere to make the playoffs or become one of the elite teams in the League. Last year the Bucks and Charlotte Bobcats used big second halves to earn the 6th and 7th seeds in the East. In 2008 Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets surprised everyone and earned the two seed in the West after going 27-14 during the second half.
If I had to pick one team in the second half to watch this year it would have to be the Bulls. Getting Noah back and pairing him with Boozer in the frontcourt is a matchup few teams can compete with. Throw in Rose playing at a MVP level and it’s clear to me this is a team that can make the leap from playoff team to championship contender.