NBA: Not many ripples now, but don’t rule out whirlpools!

While the season has nearly played out as per expectations — in case of the Golden State Warriors’ domination in particular — there is still the possibility of the unexpected happening as playoffs beckon. That is the message at the midpoint of yet another exciting NBA season.

All-round game: This season, the Golden State Warriors have added more dimensions to their play — they are surprisingly the best shot blocking team in the league. Leading the block party is Kevin Durant (left), who has emerged as a defensive terror in the paint after making all his money by being a superlative offensive player in his career. Stephen Curry (right) has been somewhat injury-prone but that has not reduced his effectiveness.   -  AP

At the mid-point of the 2017-18 season, a look at the conference standings would tell the fan of the National Basketball Association what he/she would have guessed at the beginning of the season — that the Golden State Warriors would yet again emerge as the leaders and the main contenders to win the championships later this year. And that the other claimants — the Houston Rockets, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs will not be as good as the Warriors but would use the regular season to firm up their team strengths and strategies to mount a strong playoff challenge.

But a mere look at the standings will hide much of the surprises that have come about this season and the dynamic changes that have been worked out by many a team — including the Warriors — in order to stay in contention. And the standings will not say much about the emerging talent that are shaping the transition to newer and more unpredictable forms of playing basketball. Here’s a look at how the contenders are faring at the mid-point of the NBA season and some new trends and talent who are making their mark in the game.

The favourites

The Warriors have yet again managed a 80% plus record (36-9 as of January 16) till the mid-season despite a rather slow and a decidedly premeditated low-key start. The Warriors believe that they lost out on repeating as champions in 2016 as they had focussed too much on beating the all-time record on regular season wins (they won 73 out of 82 games in 2015-2016) and in the process made players such as Stephen Curry vulnerable to injury in the playoffs.

Star attraction: James Harden, the multifaceted shooting/point guard of the Houston Rockets.   -  AP

 

This season, the Warriors have added more dimensions to their play — they are surprisingly the best shot blocking team in the league (by a mile — 8 blocks per game with the second best Raptors only blocking 5.9 per game). Leading the block party is Kevin Durant, who has emerged as a defensive terror in the paint after making all his money by being a superlative offensive player in his career. The Warriors are no longer the best offensive team in the league (more on this later) — they are just a close second, but they are still the most all-round team in the league with a net rating of 9 points (see graphic) and reflected in their league best record.

Curry has been somewhat injury-prone but that has not reduced his effectiveness. In both games when he returned following a hiatus due to ankle injuries, Curry did not seem to have missed a beat, showcasing his potent offensive game. The Warriors, also did not seem to miss Curry during those games, as they fielded a strong and long lineup with 6 ft 6 guards Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala (a Swiss army knife of a player) taking over ball handling duties and being a menace on defence.

So, is it a foregone conclusion that the Warriors are going to retain their 2017 championship win? That’s where the surprise element of this season comes in. The answer is a clear “No”.

The contenders

The Houston Rockets went through a stretch of basketball early in the season where they were utterly dominant when both multifaceted shooting/point guard James Harden and longstanding point guard “guru” Chris Paul were in the line-up. Paul, who transferred from the LA Clippers, has fitted brilliantly with the high-pick-and-roll; move-the-ball-around and shoot-threes-at-any-given-time offence orchestrated by coach Mike D’Antoni. He has even added another dimension by relieving Harden — who was clearly the leading MVP candidate before his injury — off ball handling duties on every possession and helping him save his energy.

The role players have delivered too. Reigning sixth man of 2016-17, Eric Gordon and swingman Trevor Ariza have been as good and better than in last season while even the relatively one-dimensional (stretch power forward) and defensive Achilles heel Ryan Anderson has competed well on defence. The addition of forwards P. J. Tucker and Luc Mbah-a-Moute is what has pulled some wind towards the Rockets’ sails as the team has competed well in both games played against the Warriors so far, winning one and running the defending champions ragged in the next one (without Harden). The Rockets have improved and compete well on defence and they pose a strong threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference. All chips will fall in place once Harden returns from injury.

Top draw: The Boston Celtics have been the biggest surprise this season. Kyrie Irving’s offensive prowess and ball handling wizardry have contributed a lot to this.   -  AFP

 

The Boston Celtics have been the biggest surprise this season. After making a splash in free agency and in preseason trades — getting small forward Gordon Hayward and ace point guard Kyrie Irving — the team was supposed to compete well in the East. But they lost Hayward to a season ending injury in the very first game against the Cavaliers and no one expected them to recover from that. But rookie forward Jayson Tatum who plays like a veteran with poise and sophomore forward Jaylen Brown have filled the vacuum left by Hayward’s absence very well. Expertly coached by Brad Stevens, the Celtics play stifling defence (the best in the league) and are very effective in clutch moments due to Irving’s offensive prowess and ball handling wizardry plus center Al Horford’s consistently good performances at both ends of the floor. It might not be inconceivable to see the Celtics overcoming the Cavaliers bump and reaching the NBA finals this year.

Another surprise this season has been the play of the Toronto Raptors, who did not make any major changes to last year’s squad, which looked like having reached a peak and set for a inflection point that would only lead to regression. Instead, the Raptors revved up their defence (fourth best in the league), amped up their three-point shooting (the Kobe Bryant-like Demar Derozan in particular) and have a healthy mid-point record, owing largely to a settled team that has gelled well. Coach Dwyane Casey will hope that his team will continue to maintain this momentum into the playoffs as well.

Death, taxes and the Spurs have been the constant givens in the U.S. in the past two decades and running. Since the retirement of their lynchpin Tim Duncan, the Spurs have leaned on small forward Kawhi Leonard, who is the NBA’s best perimeter defender and has improved by leaps and bounds to become a dominant scorer, to remain in contention. So, when Leonard had a quadriceps injury (tendinopathy due to stress) and managed to only play 10 of the Spurs’ 44 games, the Spurs was expected to falter and struggle due to the lack of adequate talent to replace Leonard’s minutes.

Leading the charge: The San Antonio Spurs have remained in the third spot in the Western Conference in part due to the resurgence of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge has carried the Spurs on his back by scoring efficiently from the post and giving a great effort on defence.   -  AP

 

Instead, the Spurs have remained in the third spot in the Western Conference, depending entirely on their disciplined roster to play within a well defined defensive system besides the resurgence of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge has carried the Spurs on his back by scoring efficiently from the post and giving a great effort on defence. 40 year old veteran Manu Ginobili — whose high basketball IQ, competitiveness and dedication to his craft have allowed him to stay relevant at this advanced age — has led a bevy of role players in giving great effort and helping the Spurs win games through crucial performances. That said, the Spurs need a healthy Leonard to make a match of it, if it comes to taking on the Warriors or the Rockets in the playoffs. Expect coach Gregg Popovich to shorten the rotation and build a rhythm as the Spurs embark upon their annual long road-trip in late January-early February.

The Cavaliers have a similar record as the Spurs, but can only be termed a disappointment. That is because, LeBron James has had a phenomenal season as a facilitator and a scorer, showing no signs of diminishing returns even as he turned 33. Statistically, this is one of James’ most efficient seasons. The Cavaliers have lacked a good secondary ball-handler after Irving’s departure and the loss of replacement Isiah Thomas to a hip injury for three months. Disappointingly, the Cavaliers have also regressed badly on defence and this has reflected in their middling record despite James’ brilliance.

Other pretenders

The biggest leap made by any team in the NBA this season must be the Minnesota Timberwolves who are seeking to overcome the longest running playoff drought for any team (14 years). Aided by the two-way presence of free agency recruit Jimmy Butler, the Wolves’ talented core of center Karl Anthony Towns and forward Andrew Wiggins has shown significant improvement, especially in the offensive end. The Wolves are now fourth in the Western Conference.

The Oklahoma Thunder, following the signing of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, were expected to fare strongly in the Western Conference, but their record has been disappointing. While they have been more consistent on defence — center Steven Adams and defensive specialist Andre Roberson adding to that component — their offence has sputtered in crucial moments, especially in the fourth quarter. With Westbrook, George and Anthony better off as ballhandling scorers rather than playing as spot-up shooters and the lack of a sufficiently good offensive gameplan by coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder have had an inconsistent offence. They still have nearly half-a-season to iron out a gameplan to accommodate their above-average talent which could make them a tough out in the playoffs.

The Wizards are the Thunder of the East. On some nights, the talents of John Wall and Bradley Beal are enough for the team to mount a strong challenge to the best of the teams. On some other ones, even against middling or poor opposition, the team’s play comes unstuck.

Promising break-outs

Teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers — still seeking a turnaround after a long rebuilding process that kept them at the bottom of the table for nearly half-a-decade — or the New York Knicks, perennial sad sacks are still not out of the woods. But they have shown gumption to compete and remain in the possible playoff picture — aided largely by the burgeoning of young players like PG Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid for the Sixers and the outrageously talented and uniquely gifted center Kristaps Porzingis for the Knicks. The present may be more of a challenging time for these teams but their future seems bright enough. The same goes for surprisingly resilient teams such as the Indiana Pacers for whom young talent such as guard Victor Oladipo and center Myles Turner have been revelations.

Shining star: The Cleveland Cavaliers have been a disappointment though LeBron James, listening to what head coach Tyronn Lue has to say here, has had a phenomenal season as a facilitator and a scorer, showing no signs of diminishing returns even as he turned 33.   -  AP

 

Ben Simmons has also headlined a promising rookie crop that includes Tatum, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Lakers guard Lonzo Ball — who brings a confounding mixture of bad shooting and incredible passing, and his team-mate and forward Kyle Kuzma, who is clearly the steal of the NBA draft.

James Harden of the Rockets was the clear choice for the MVP, but his injury-absence could hurt his chances. Warriors Curry and Durant will be in the mix for the award, but the jack in the box has been Giannis Antetokounmpo who has emerged as a tour-de-force on both offence and defence as a point forward for the Milwaukee Bucks. James and Irving are also possible choices for the award as things stand now.

The NBA in 2017-18 has become an even more perimeter-oriented and versatile basketball league with long and bulky centers developing a three-point range to remain relevant, besides more use of analytics to determine player value and playing time. While the season has nearly played out as per expectations — in case of the Warriors’ domination in particular — there is still the possibility of the unexpected happening as playoffs beckon. That is the message at the midpoint of yet another exciting NBA season.