Author: Gideon Beck
Editor: Samuel Traynor
It’s that time of the year again. Halfway through another NBA season and things are only starting to get interesting. Maybe you’re still hungover from New Years and maybe your bank account is drained from the holidays, but there’s no better remedy for the woes of January than a good old fashioned mid-season analysis.
So far, there has been no shortage of surprises. The early success of small market teams certainly makes for exciting basketball, not to mention a level of team parity unseen in decades. It seems like players are having 50-point nights on a weekly basis as offensive numbers are soaring past what was previously thought to be impossible in the modern NBA. Meanwhile, rebuilding teams are taking advantage of their poor records to try and score the coveted Victor Wembanya lottery draft pick. One of the most concerning trends this year is the rate of injuries among young high-level talent. All of these developments will be discussed through a division-by-division analysis. I take a deep look into each team’s first half, identifying their success factors, their let downs, and, if necessary, their concerns. I start off with the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Rob Carr / Getty Images
The Success Story: SGA
It’s hard to imagine a player with higher odds of winning the Most Improved Player Award this year than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A mere four years after being traded away from the Clippers, the ‘22-‘23 season has him averaging 30.5 PTS, 5.5 AST, and 4.9REB, not to mention he makes 35% of his 3-pointers, 53% of his 2-pointers, and 91% of his free throws. Shai has become one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the league which, if all goes right, will translate into All-NBA shooting guard honours. The 2019 Clippers-Thunder trade saw L.A. receive a mid-prime Paul George and Oklahoma receive a sophomore Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, four first round picks, and two pick swaps – it’s truly remarkable, with the benefit of hindsight, of course. Whether it’s his unique ability to maneuver his body around defenders to score in the paint, or his smooth midrange game, the 24-year-old SGA has started carving his name into NBA history with each passing game.
The Let-Down: Early defensive implosion
Despite Shai’s triumph into super-stardom, the Thunder are lacking a cohesive supporting cast. Lu Dort and Josh Giddey show promise of being good two-way facilitators in years to come, but there seems to be a lack of defensive competence otherwise. Surprisingly, they now have the tenth ranked defensive rating, a massive improvement to their dead-last ranking in October. Defensive shortcomings aren’t too surprising considering they have one the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 22.9. The defensive competence will increase as the team becomes more experienced, but it certainly makes OKC a noncompetitor in this year’s title race.
The second-overall pick from the 2022 draft, Chet Holmgren, was not only projected to be the first-overall pick ahead of Paolo Banchero, but he was also expected to be an immediate contributor to the Thunder’s ‘22-‘23 campaign. Before the season even started, the 7-foot center was playing in a pro-am game and was guarding Lebron James on a fastbreak. As he went up to block the 18-year veteran, Holmgren landed awkwardly and suffered a midfoot fracture, sidelining him for the entirety of the coming season. Sorry Thunder fans, but this rebuild has been extended once again.
The Success Story: Jaden McDaniels
I think some people are going to be pissed off that it’s Jaden McDaniels selected as the Wolves’ success story over Anthony Edwards. Hear me out. The third-year power-forward has managed to maintain a field goal percentage of 53% and has been a better shot blocker than his 7-foot teammate, Rudy Gobert. He was a late-round pick in 2020 but has managed to find a starting role on a Minnesota team that is desperately trying to pave the way for a playoff run. He is an underrated bright spot amongst a flurry of team drama.
The Let-Down: Gobert trade is the worst in history?
I think it’s safe to say that if the Wolves don’t make it past the first round this year, their front office will be subjected to some of the most ferocious criticism the league has seen in a long time. Only half a season in and there persists rhetoric from fans, players, and the media that dub the Rudy Gobert trade one of the worst in NBA history. Giving up Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, Walker Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt, and four first round picks, the Timberwolves traded away their entire future to bank on a squad led by Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russel, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert. The problem is that when Towns and Edwards aren’t shooting threes, they’re taking advantage of an empty key where they can burst through, pull up for an easy midrange, or throw down a dunk. Now with Gobert on the team, the key has become overcrowded and neither Towns nor Gobert have been able to adjust their playstyle to accommodate. Furthermore, it seems like Edwards will require more development to truly be called a number-one option on a championship team like the Wolves’ GM had hoped.
The Concern: The future
If the Gobert experiment doesn’t work out the Timberwolves are screwed. They barely have any first-round draft picks to their name for the foreseeable future. They have tried to build a championship team around a 21-year-old star and are quickly discovering that he has not yet developed the discipline to command such responsibility. If the Wolves get knocked out early or, god forbid, they manage to miss the playoffs entirely, I will have to agree with the rhetoric that says the Gobert trade was the worst in recent memory.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Success Story: Jerami Grant
Was anyone else surprised with how little the Blazers had to give up to acquire Jerami Grant? A first-round pick plus two second-rounders was enough to secure the dynamic 28-year-old wing. Sure, Grant’s last two years in Detroit were injury plagued, but the guy was putting up 20 points per night on decent efficiency. He has steadily improved his play every year since he’s been in the league, and this year is no different. Averaging 22 points per game, he is the perfect pick-and-roll partner and has managed to keep the team afloat despite Lillard’s intermittent injury absences.
The Concern: Lillard’s Recovery
With a revitalized young core and a prime Jusuf Nurkic, it’s easy to forget that Lillard is still the captain of this franchise. He has the talent to bounce back from last year’s injuries, but he has played in only 32 games. The team’s continuity has certainly been hindered with him coming in and out of the lineup. There’s honestly not much else to say about this Blazers team. They were expected to be a club that just barely makes the play-in, and now it seems like they have real aspirations for the playoffs.
The Success Story: The Joker
Is there such thing as MVP voter fatigue? If so, this year’s MVP ballots may expose this psychological phenomenon. Listen, he may not be as flashy as Ja, as powerful as Giannis, or as graceful as Tatum, but we damn-well know that Nikola Jokic is one of the best centers to ever play the game. Last year, he nearly averaged a triple-double on terrific efficiency. This year, his point totals are down slightly, but only because Jamal Murray is back from injury. He is currently averaging 25 PTS, 9.9 AST, and 11 REB and he makes all of his teammates around him better in the process. He is one of the most elite passers the league has ever seen and, considering the Nuggets record of 32 and 13, it would be a crime to take their best player out of the MVP conversation.
The Concern: Depth
Denver has one of the most complete rosters in the league; there’s not too much to criticize. Kentavious Caldwell Pope and Bruce Brown were excellent offseason role player additions, although they should look to beef up their bench before the playoffs start.
The Success Story: Lauri Markkanen
Do I smell a franchise player? While his play has plateaued (maybe even declined slightly) since the first few weeks of the season, it cannot be overstated how well Lauri Markkanen has fit into an unpressured Utah system. He has come a long way from his underwhelming years in Chicago and Cleveland where he was averaging around 14 points per game. Utah was amongst the top teams likely to tank for Victor Wembanya, seeing as they traded away both Donavan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert this offseason. Yet, what they got in return may have turned out to be far too lucrative to secure a lottery draft pick. Lauri Markkanen is averaging 24.8 PTS and 8.7 REB. Around him are Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Malik Beasley, and Mike Conley who have all played efficient team-oriented basketball; both ‘spread’ and ‘transition’ offences are their bread and butter. Despite how well they share the ball, Markkanen is their clear central piece.
The Concern: The Jazz currently have a record of 24 and 24. From a GM’s perspective, it does not make sense to win any more games. Unlike the fans in Charlotte, Houston, and Orlando, the Utah fans have had the luxury of cheering for competitive basketball thus far. I struggle to see how (or why) they would push to be above a .500 record when this year’s draft class is to be historically stacked. I’m sorry Jazz fans, but obviously your team is not built for a playoff run and you should expect to see some unprecedented tanking maneuvers in the months to come.
The Success Story: Devin Booker
Booker is averaging 27 PTS, 5.6 AST, and 4.6 REB. If he stayed healthy, he would have remained in the MVP conversation, although more than a few players have a better case than him. The Suns are one of the most competently put-together teams in the league, and Booker is their most valuable player. Players like Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton go under the radar, but the Sun’s had the ninth ranked offense in the league before Booker was injured, and it has now fallen to fourteenth.
The Let-Down: Playoff performance
Last year’s Western Conference Semifinals has left a stain on the Phoenix Suns that will last a lifetime. Oozing with confidence in an important game 5 against Dallas, Booker exaggerated the contact he received while shooting in the paint; he purposely flopped to the ground and exclaimed to the courtside fans that he was imitating the “Luka Special”. After the game, Doncic responded to Booker’s mockery by walking past the media to say, “everybody acts tough when they’re up”. In the words of Michael Jordan, Luka took it personally. What followed was one of the worst playoff choke jobs of the modern NBA. The next game the Mavericks beat the Suns by 27 points to force a game 7. In game 7, Doncic shot 63% from the field and put up 35 points while Booker shot 21%, mustering 11 points. The Suns looked unequivocally checked-out from
the moment after tip-off. The Mavs won by 33 points, leaving the Suns and the entire NBA stunned by what just occurred. Their league-leading regular season record of 64 – 18 was wasted on a series that, by all stretches of the imagination, should have been a minor hurdle on their way to the finals. The Suns have been on a losing skid recently but are generally playing decent basketball again this year. It means nothing if they don’t show up to the most important games.
The Concern: Chris Paul’s health
No one’s denying that he can still be an excellent facilitator. After all, he is third all-time in assists total. However, Paul has only played in 26 games. His ability to get himself buckets is well on the decline, and a team that is in championship mode should certainly be concerned with their 37-year-old point guard’s health come playoff time.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Success Story: Defensive dominance
Are you really surprised that the Clippers’ saviour this year would be their defense? It’s no secret that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are the epitomes of two-way players. However, they also epitomize the fragility of the human skeletal system; they are of the most injury prone superstars in the league. It’s a miracle that George has suited up for 31 games, and Leonard 22. Players like Ivica Zubac and the ever-underrated Norm Powell have been able to keep things afloat in their stars’ absence. The team has managed to uphold the ninth-best defensive rating while having the fith-worst offensive rating, allowing them to inch their way into the 8th seed in the Western Conference at the halfway mark.
The Let-Down: John Wall
I will admit my hopes were far too high when I saw that John Wall had signed with the Clippers. The excitement around him pairing with Kawhi and George only primed me for disappointment. That’s not to say that Wall has been a negative addition to the team, but it is heartbreaking to watch him average 11.4 PTS, 5.2 AST, and 2.7 REB with subpar efficiency. Reggie Jackson has rightfully claimed his spot as starting point guard.
The Concern: Injuries, Injuries, Injuries
The Clippers do not stand a chance in the postseason if Leonard and George don’t stay healthy. Having just one of them won’t cut it. We all saw what happened to George in the play-in game last year. For god’s sake, Kawhi, let us watch a healthy Clippers team for once.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Success Story: Anthony Davis
Before he was reinjured, Davis was looking like his New Orleans self again. He started off the season taking terrible shots and working outside the paint, leading to a team record of 0 – 5.
But as always, he was making a case for defensive player of the year. He gradually found his mojo and put up a deadly field goal rate of 62% in his last 10 games before the stress fracture in his foot.
The Let-Down: Shooting
The Lakers currently have the fifth worst 3-point percentage in the league at 33.7%. Everyone knows that in today’s league, while you may not have to follow the Golden State “Splash Brother” model of perimeter-intense offense, you certainly need to have a couple of reliable shooters on the payroll. Austin Reaves and Thomas Bryant have bright futures in that role, but they lack the defensive capability to avoid becoming a straight up liability. They are both in the negatives of the defensive box plus/minus stat category.
The Concern: Fragility
Anthony Davis has played in 25 games. Need I say more?
The Success Story: De’Aaron – Domantas combo
The Kings are good, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The so-called “Beam Team”, named for their celebratory purple light beam that shoots into the Sacramento night sky after their home wins, are making a real case for a playoff run. Maybe not a deep run, but Fox and Sabonis are an exciting duo that have a bright future. Keeping in mind that the average player efficiency rating in the NBA is a score of 15, Fox and Sabonis are rated 20.5 and 23.9 respectively, which are impressive numbers for this advanced statistic. Also, has anyone noticed that the big man Sabonis is shooting 38 % from 3?
The Let-Down: Malik Monk’s defense
I’m being really picky here. There’s not too much to criticize about this up-and-coming team. It can be argued that Malik Monk, a player who has shown so much promise as an offensive weapon since being drafted by Charlotte in the first round in 2017, is showing to be a defensive liability. He is currently well under the average NBA defender according his defensive box plus/minus.
Golden State Warriors
The Success Story: A 34-year-old Curry
This could actually be Steph Curry’s greatest season to date. On a Warriors team trying to dig themselves out of an early season hole, the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ has maintained a 3-point percentage of 42%, a 2-point percentage of 59%, and a true shooting percentage of 66%. Despite his 2020 injury, he hasn’t lost a step. In fact, if this year’s league wasn’t stacked with the likes of Embiid, Tatum, Doncic, and Antetokounmpo, Curry would certainly be in a serious conversation for another MVP title.
The Let-Down: James Wiseman
He was sent down to the G-League for a couple games in December, a treatment pretty rare for a second-overall pick. Let me remind you that Wiseman was picked ahead of Lamelo Ball, Tyrese Halliburton, Tyrese Maxey, and Desmond Bane in the 2017 draft class. The big man off the bench has yet to find his confidence, averaging 6.8 points per game, and a measly 3.6 rebounds.
The Concern: An injured ‘Maple Jordan’
Andrew Wiggins has played in only 27 games and was injured for most of December. The Warriors have no chance at another title without their best defender.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Success Story: The return of Zion
This article features some heavily opinionated claims that may not be empirically valid. Here’s another one of these claims for you: the Pelicans are the most exciting team in basketball. CJ McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Ingram, Trey Murphy, Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, Larry Nance; I challenge you to find another team with a more explosive and energetic roster, both starting and off the bench. Depth aside, their “crème de la crème” is Zion Williamson. He has returned from injury with a head full of steam and is the league’s master of the paint. Resembling a young Shaq with bigger hops, he makes 72% of his shots when three feet from the basket and is averaging 26 points per game.
The Concern: Brandon Ingram
This is a concern for both the Pelicans and the rest of the league. Currently, New Orleans is the 4th seed in the Western Conference and Brandon Ingram has only played in 15 games thus far. If the ‘Pels’ are as ferocious as they are without Ingram, what will they look like when they’re fully healthy? Although I would not expect a championship title without Ingram on the floor.
The Success Story: Luka Magic
Everyone’s tired of hearing it, but we have to keep saying it. Luka Dončić is the future of the league. On December 27, 2022, the Slovenian god put up 60 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists in an overtime win against the Knicks. Down by 2 at the end of regulation, he purposely missed his last free throw, reattained the rock, and put up a miracle shot to send it into overtime. He then scored 7 points to secure the win, capping off one of the best performances the league has ever seen. Tatum, Durant, and Giannis better watch out because that historic game has
made it difficult to vote against Luka for MVP this year. After an early season slump, the Mavs are back in contention thanks to Mr. Magic.
The Let-Down: Kemba Walker
I really need to tone down my expectations when it comes to injury-prone former all-star point guards. Kemba Walker pairing up with Luka is an exciting headline, but Walker just isn’t that guy anymore. He hasn’t played a full season since 2020 and, while his efficiency was never really there, his production has gone away now too – 8 PTS, 2.1 AST, 1.8 REB.
The Concern: A one-man show
Luka has a usage rate of 38.1%, second in the league behind Giannis. Just like the James Harden Rockets throughout the 2010s, an isolated offense that requires one superstar to initiate every possession is one that cannot make it through to the finals. Yes, the Mavs arrived at the conference finals last year, but they were no match for the team-oriented Warriors. What if Luka gets hurt? What if an opposing team unravels his offensive schemes?
The Success Story: A rising young duo
When it comes to Ja Morant, there’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said. The Grizzlies are currently the 2nd seed in the Western Conference and Ja Morant is largely to thank for that, having the fourth highest usage percentage in the league. Yet, it is often the unsung heroes that iron out a team to make them a contender. For the ‘Grizz’ that player is Desmond Bane. The third-year shooting guard has tremendous chemistry with his superstar point guard. He isn’t the most efficient, nor is he the best defender, but a player who can average 21.8 points per game on a serious contending team while only 24 years of age is impressive to say the least.
The Concern: Health
It’s difficult to nitpick one of the best, most fast-paced teams. Bane is surely needed healthy in the playoffs and a title is nearly out of the question without him.
San Antonio Spurs
The Success Story: Keldon Johnson
The Spurs are not looking for wins this year. They are in an ugly pursuit for as many losses as they can get without hindering their young players’ development. After all, Wembanyama is the ideal candidate to replace their previous franchise center in Tim Duncan. As soon as Dejounte Murray was traded to the Hawks, an opportunity presented itself to small forward Keldon Johnson. The few wins the team has gotten in the first half have been ushered in by Johnson and his steadily increasing scoring numbers. I wouldn’t say he’s a frontrunner for the Most Improved Player Award, but his sizable increase in production is nothing to scoff at.
The Let-Down: Poeltl’s shooting
Don’t get it twisted, Poeltl is a crafty center that any team lacking a big man would kill to have protecting their rim. However, there’s something to be said for versatility. Guys like Jokic, and Embiid have learned to expand their game behind the arc and shoot around three 3-pointers a game, and with good efficiency. This offensive capability has catapulted them into superstars, allowing them to space the floor, pull defenders away from the key, and dish out easy assists. Meanwhile, Poeltl has attempted a total of three 3-pointers in his entire career. If he could develop an outside shot he could be become one of the premier centers in the league.
The Success Story: A developing young core
The Rockets may be the worst team in the league this year, but that doesn’t mean they’re the most incompetent. With the youngest team on average at 22.4, Kevin Porter, Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Jabari Smith make up a core that could have the highest ceiling of potential of all the rebuilding franchises. Eric Gordon is the perfect veteran mentor to help bring out that potential. Much like all the 2023 rebuilders, the Wembanyama sweepstakes are too tempting to make any more structural changes that would improve their record.
The Concern: Bobi
No one can criticize the Rockets for their ugly record. After James Harden left them in the dust by forcing a trade to Brooklyn, they were forced to enter a rebuild and have done a pretty good job thus far. A notable concern is the absence of fan-favourite Boban Marjanovic. The lovable center has only suited up 15 times this year. Whether it’s due to minor injuries or simply not being a helpful contributor, it would do the Rockets some good to put Bobi on the floor to help get some asses in seats during a tank year.
The Success Story: Pascal’s takeover
Before the season began, Siakam was quoted saying he wished to be a top-5 player in the league. For the first two weeks of the season, his wish came true as he was virtually unstoppable when shooting his patented spin-to-fadeaway midrange jumper. He was then sidelined for two weeks after a groin injury caused by a slip in a game against the Mavericks. Since his return, he hasn’t been able to match the scoring intensity of the league’s other big names, but there is no doubt he resides in the top 10-20 player area. He currently averages
25.5 PTS, 8.2 REB, and 6.4 AST, putting up a 52-point night against the Knicks in December. Not bad for a 27th overall pick.
The Let-Down: Scottie B.
Scottie’s numbers have dipped in most aspects of his game despite his increased field goal attempts. Call it a sophomore slump or a string of off-nights, the reigning Rookie of the Year has been one the faces of criticism on a struggling Raptors team. Fans should not be so worried. His assist percentage has shot up to 21% and his defense remains solid. He has started 2023 with newfound energy, but the way his season began stunted his confidence.
The Concern: FVV
Fred VanVleet is a shooter; it’s in his DNA. He was an all-star last year but now he is on track to have his worst shooting season yet. Hovering around 33% from behind the arc, he has become more and more unreliable to make clutch shots and effectively slows down the Raps’ offence. That doesn’t stop him from having the odd 30-point night.
The Success Story: The Beard
It was not too long ago that some NBA fans were predicting that the end of Harden’s career was sooner than later. After forcing his way out of Houston and showing up to training camp out of shape, he went to play on a Brooklyn Nets team ripe with controversy. Harden then forced his way out of yet another team to play for the 76ers alongside Embiid. The past two years have shown us a declining Harden that focuses on playmaking over shot-creation. It turns out that in Philadelphia this year, that’s exactly what they need. Harden is averaging over 10 assists per game and the team’s record is 28 and 16.
The Concern: Tyrese Maxey
Another case of injuries getting the best of young talent. Maxey is a shifty up-and-coming point guard. He was sidelined for the entirety of December, leading many to worry about the success of this team come playoffs. He is back on the roster in January, but foot injuries can often derail an entire season.
The Success Story: A rapid turnaround
A team that centres around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is always a contender. Yet, these future hall-of-famers managed to start their season off with a record of 2 – 6, leading to the firing of head coach Steve Nash. Now, a whole two months after the dramatic ordeal, the Nets have a record of 27 and 16, among the top teams in the east. Some say it is due is due to a newfound team chemistry. More significantly, it is because Durant is having a career year and Nic Claxton is the most efficient role player in the league. Durant is averaging 30 PTS, 6.7 REB, and 5.3 AST while Claxton has the highest true shooting percentage in the NBA with 70%. True shooting, which factors in all field goals and free throws, is a stat dominated by all-star big men. Fortunately for the Nets, Claxton is a player who needs few touches to make an impact. As Kyrie and KD put up over 25 points on any given night, they are supported by a center as reliable and unselfish as any.
The Let-Down: Ben Simmons
Ben isn’t the worst point guard in the league, but he is certainly not the best. After playing in three straight all-star games, his career has been tormented by injuries and drama associated with the 76ers organization. He was the first-overall pick in the 2016 draft and was expected to develop a solid jump shot to pair with his elite passing and driving abilities. Seven years later and his shot is nowhere to be seen. He has taken one failed 3-point attempt this season which makes it easier for defenders to leave him open at the arc and cover his passing lanes.
New York Knicks
The Success Story: The return of Randle
Julius Randle was in the all-star game in 2021 but he missed out in 2022 as his numbers dropped across the board. After missing the playoffs, he received truckloads of criticism from the staunch Knicks fans which seems to have proven an effective motivator. Randle has upped his 3-point attempts to nearly eight per game, sinking 34% of them. He averages 10.7 rebounds and 24 points per game. It would have to be a cataclysmic second half for Randle not to make an all-NBA team.
The Concern: RJ Barrett
No one is saying he is a draft bust. He is only 22 and is still developing his game. The shooting guard hasn’t exactly wowed the league with his lackluster defence, homing in a defensive box plus/minus that is 1.6 points worse than the league average.
The Success Story: The most dominant duo
The Celtics have the best record in the league and the most unstoppable duo. Jaylen Brown is averaging 27 points per game while Jayson Tatum makes a real case for MVP with 31 points per game. Everything about this team screams title contention. No team puts up more points than the Celtics do. In fact, the 2022-2023 Celtics currently have the highest offensive rating in their franchise’s history.
The Concern: Robert Williams
Williams is probably the Celtics’ best defender and he was a huge reason for their 2022 finals run. He has been out for most of the season, returning for the first time in December with limited minutes. As a result of his absence, the Celtics defensive rating sits at eighth place in the league, an immense downgrade from last year’s second place rating.
The Success Story: DeMar DeRozan
The Bulls are in limbo. Sitting at a lowly play-in spot in the Eastern Conference standings, they aren’t quite sure whether to trade away some assets to make way for a rebuild, or if they should hedge their bets. By trading away future picks for another star to pair alongside DeRozan, Lavine, and Vucevic, the Chicago Bulls could assemble some sort of playoff presence; they risk throwing away their whole future. Luckily, the 33-year-old DeRozan is continuing to dominate the old-fashioned midrange game, sinking 51% of his shots from 3-10 feet out.
The Concern: Lonzo Ball’s knee injury
Lonzo is an ultra-skilled defensive guard. Last season the Bulls had a top-5 record while Lonzo was healthy. After he got injured, their defensive schemes began hemorrhaging and became a first-round playoff exit. It is unlikely Lonzo will log a single minute on the court this season as the longevity of his career altogether is in question.
The Success Story: Haliburton’s new gig
Last year the Pacers made a blockbuster trade to move Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento for rising star Tyrese Haliburton, turning out to be the ultimate win-win scenario. Haliburton leads the league in assists per game with 10.2. The Pacers were not supposed to be playoff participants at all. Haliburton’s ability to always find the open man makes the entire roster better and has led to an impressive winning record for a team expected to tank for Wembanyama.
Another Success Story: Ben Mathurin
There’s virtually nothing to criticize about this team’s first half. It would be a shame to talk about them without mentioning their dazzling rookie Benedict Mathurin. He is averaging 17 points per game coming off the bench. If Paolo Banchero manages to derail his season, Mathurin is next in line for Rookie of the Year, while also making a case for Sixth Man of the Year.
The Success Story: Giannis’ prime
It’s hard to say if this is Giannis’ best year yet… it sure looks like it. Khris Middleton has missed almost the entire season thus far, leaving Giannis with only Jrue Holiday, Brooke Lopez, Grayson Allen, and Jevon Carter to take on starting minutes. This team should not be contenders without Middleton, but yet they are one of the best teams in the east and have the fourth ranked defensive rating. Giannis is averaging 31 points per game with terrific efficiency. He has the highest usage rate in the league and is basically putting this shorthanded Bucks team on his back. The ‘Greek Freak’ is 28, meaning this year will be among the peak years of his ability.
The Concern: Long term practicality
Giannis cannot fathomably keep this up. He will need rest before the playoffs. Middleton is absolutely vital to the survival of this team down the stretch.
The Success Story: Bojan Bogdanovic
Detroit knows that they are well in the mix for the Wembanyama sweepstakes. They stand to benefit from having the worst record possible while maintaining positive development for their young talent. With Cunningham out for the season, 33-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic has stepped up and become a formidable shooting veteran. He is averaging a career high 21 points per game and is shooting 42% from 3-point range. It’s become very clear that 2023 is a tank year for the Pistons, but the young guys still need guidance from veterans like Bojan.
The Concern: Cunningham’s injury
Cade’s tibia fracture should be very concerning for the Pistons front office. Young players are more overworked than ever and the Ball brothers are a prime example of what could happen to Cade’s long term health. Through their youth, both LaMelo and Lonzo trained vigorously to be lottery draft picks. Now Lonzo is out for the rest of the season and LaMelo has only played 22 games due to a prolonged ankle sprain. Last year’s first-overall pick, Cade Cunningham, also has a stress fracture that has sidelined him for the season. No one can really point fingers here, but one could deduce that players who strive be a lottery pick put in copious workloads that can be detrimental to their long-term health.
The Success Story: The ‘Spida’ trade
71 points. On January 2, Donovan Mitchell became the eighth player in NBA history to reach 71 points in a single game. More impressively, he is the only player to put up 70 points and 10 assists in a single game. It’s easy to come to the conclusion that we witnessed one of the greatest performances ever. It was odd seeing one of the league’s biggest names wind up on a small market team this offseason. After all, Donovan is from New York and he was hoping to play for the Knicks. It turns out there couldn’t have been a roster more suited to Mitchell than the Cavs. What the city lacks in flair and international notoriety, it makes up for in lob threats (Evan Mobley), lockdown defense (Jarret Allen), and elite playmaking (Darius Garland). It’s one of the best starting rosters the NBA has to offer. Of course, the signing of Mitchell would make them immediate contenders.
The Let-Down: Lack of wings
The Cavs are in need of some wing depth. Caris LeVert is a fine role player and Evan Mobley is blossoming into a star. But there is a real chance this team has title contention in them this year. Some extra bench support couldn’t hurt.
The Success Story: Dejounte Murray
The Hawks have been spiralling since December. A series of losing streaks coupled with tension between Trae Young and head coach Nate McMillan have led to a record around 500. On a more positive note, Dejounte Murray has lived up to his trade value as an impactful two-way guard. He leads the team in steals with 1.7 per game and has maintained a steady split of 20.6 PTS, 6.1 AST, and 5.5 REB. As it is known throughout the league, Trae Young is a complete and utter liability on the defensive end. Murray’s presence makes it more difficult for opponents to burst through the perimeter defense.
The Let-Down: Trae Young’s defense
At what point will Young’s defensive incompetency outweigh his offensive greatness? Sure, he is averaging 27.2 points per game, but he also has the highest turnover rate and the worst defensive box plus/minus on his team. Most would assume that this former lottery pick would have developed some defense by now.
The Concern: Clint Capela
Atlanta’s best rebounder has been injured through most of December and the new year. His absence has certainly contributed to the teams drop in the standings. If he cannot remain healthy then Hawks fans should expect further misery, regardless of Okongwu’s formidable play as starting center.
The Success Story: Paolo Banchero
There’s a lot to love about this team. The rise of Franz Wagner; the comeback of Bol Bol; the leadership of Terrence Ross; the subtle yet consistent play of Markelle Fultz. It’s all fun to watch. The team’s highest scorer is something else entirely. Clearly the frontrunner for rookie of the year, Paolo Banchero has burst onto the scene with fire and fury. Paolo joined Lebron and Kareem as the only players ever to put up 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in their NBA debut. It’s exceedingly rare to see a rookie make such an impact, let alone lead their team in points per game.
The Let-Down: Mo Bamba
Mo has officially lost his starting spot to Wendell Carter and Bol Bol. It’s unfortunate. Mo has been improving his production and efficiency since his rookie year only to be confined to the bench this year. What’s odd is that he has continued to progress, especially his 3-point shot, but is still denied prime minutes. It looks as though Bamba is not a part of the Magic’s rebuild plan and he should expect to be traded away before the deadline.
The Success Story: Kristaps Porzingis
A reminder: Washington traded away Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans to receive former all-star Kristaps Porzingis and a second round pick. It’s safe say Washington won that trade. Porzingis has never played better. His value plummeted when playing alongside Doncic, but now with Beal, Porzingis is putting up more points than he did his all-star year with better efficiency.
The Let-Down: NBA limbo
Washington will probably be a play-in team at best. They are kind of halfway between a Wembanyama tanker and a team trying to make a playoff run. They have too much talent to be lottery favourites, and they don’t have enough to be serious competitors. It’s a predicament that might be worse than finishing in last place.
The Success Story: Scary Terry
The Hornets tasted competency last year. For most of the season they hovered around the seventh seed but ultimately missed the playoffs. This year they are in full tank mode. Luckily, having one of the worst records in the league isn’t all bad. ‘Scary’ Terry Rozier is a human highlight reel, always ready to throw down a dunk to breathe life into a dead Carolina arena.
The Concern: LaMelo’s injury
He’s played in less than half the games so far. He sprained the same ankle twice this season and it’s not even the all-star break. Michael Jordan and his front office staff have much to fear if Melo can’t stay healthy throughout the second half.
The Success Story: Bam Adebayo
Since his all-star season in 2020, the league has recognized Bam’s tidy jumper, elite rebounding, and effortless defense. Now it could be argued he is more valuable to the Heat than Jimmy Butler. Of course, Butler’s playoff performances have historically been out of this world. But this year Jimmy Buckets can’t stay healthy or consistent enough to be dubbed the best Heater. That title is reserved for Bam and his 21.5 PTS, 10 REB.
The Let-Down: Duncan Robinson
Robinson is contractually guaranteed $17 million this year, $18 million the following year, $19 million in 2025, and $20 million 2026. He truly has one of the most untradeable contracts. The Heat’s front office made a rash decision to splurge on their newfound sharpshooter after the 2021 season. It turns out Robinson was not as advertised. He went from shooting 46% from 3-point range in 2020 to 33% in 2023. His minutes have dropped dramatically and so have his point totals. He is the perfect example of an NBA let-down… no offense, Duncan.
It’s looking like the second half of the 2022-2023 season will be even more exciting, upsetting, and record-breaking as the first half. Even for the tanking teams, the coming months should be entertaining as the looming trade deadline could change the future of organizations. Players are putting up more points than ever and the top teams are looking evenly matched. If that doesn’t make for great basketball, I don’t know what does.
All statistics are up to date as of January 19, 2023
Data Sources: Basketball Reference