Golden State’s 134-127 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday wasn’t perfect, but the energy, exuberance and – maybe most importantly – the joy the Warriors played with was an encouraging sign for a team that had recently felt bogged down by malaise, apathy and boredom.
After going 4-4 over the past eight games before the All-Star break, Golden State played with their familiar vigor to beat the Clippers as Curry and the offence went supernova to get the second half of their campaign started in ideal fashion.
Curry exploded for 44 points on 14-of-19 shooting, including 8-of-11 from long range, while dishing 10 assists and grabbing six rebounds in arguably his best performance of the season.
It was the two-time MVP’s first game with at least 25 points since his 49-point outburst to defeat Boston on January 27.
Curry’s efficiency this season hasn’t been far off his spectacular 2015-16, but eruptions like the one he had on Saturday haven’t been as frequent. In taking a flamethrower to the Clippers though, Curry showed that he can still now and again produce magical nights where he and the Warriors are seemingly unstoppable.
The rest of the offence was also on its game as the team shot 62.7 per cent overall and 56.0 per cent on 3-pointers.
The other end of the floor is where Golden State weren’t exactly flawless, allowing 104 points over the final three quarters. But holding the Clippers to just 23 points in the opening period proved to be useful and kept Golden State form having to mount a comeback later on, as they’ve needed to do so often this season in games they’ve lacked urgency.
“It was a good step in the right direction,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I think we did a lot of good things, but you can tell, it’s not like we’re going to wave a magic wand and be on top of our game again. But I liked our start. We got off to a better start.”
A motivational force for Golden State in the rest of the regular season could be home-court advantage, which Houston currently with a game advantage in the loss column in the standings.
Both teams have fared almost equally well on the road as they have at home, but considering the Rockets won two of the three head-to-head clashes, the Warriors have enough incentive to push for the top seed for the fourth straight year.
If the NBA season ended today… well, that would be weird. But hypothetically if it did, which players (and coach) would earn the league’s individual awards?
Let’s take a look at who would walk away with what honour, with our picks solely based on the first half of the season. These aren’t projections or what we believe will happen, but rather what would happen if, again, we decided not to play the remaining schedule and instead went straight to the playoffs right now.
MVP: James Harden
The case for Harden finally winning MVP is ironclad. He’s the best player on the best team in the league (record-wise) and has the stats befitting the award – first in the league in points, player efficiency rating (PER) and value over replacement player (VORP). While he’s not the two-way force that stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo are, his offensive arsenal is second to none and he’s simply performed the best of anyone so far.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green
It’s easy to overlook Green, even though he won the award last season. He’s not the paint protector or perimeter hawk that some of the other candidates are, but the beauty of Green is his versatility and ability to do everything well on that end of the floor. He’ll have competition from both his team-mate, Durant, and Rudy Gobert, with the latter potentially leapfrogging him with a strong second half after an injury-riddle first few months.
Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons
After being the runaway favourite for most of the first half, the gap between Simmons and the field has closed thanks to the surge of Donovan Mitchell. However, the Philadelphia 76ers phenom remains the rookie to beat due to his all-around game. Mitchell is the better scorer and undoubtedly the better shooter, but Simmons’ playmaking has been crucial to the Sixers’ current position as a playoff team.
Ben Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game this season. The only other rookie in NBA history who averaged at least 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists at the All-Star break was Oscar Robertson for the Royals in 1960-61 (via @EliasSports). pic.twitter.com/BCfeSSlmZO— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 19, 2018
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams
When you nearly make the All-Star team as a bench player, you’ve got this award sewn up. Regardless of how many minutes Williams play – and he does play starter-type minutes with 32.4 per game – he technically comes off the bench (only 14 starts in 55 games), and is in the midst of a career year at the age of 31. Eric Gordon has been excellent as well, but Williams has this in the bag.
Most Improved Player: Victor Oladipo
Of all the individual awards, Most Improved may be the most obvious. Not only have Oladipo’s stats significantly inflated this season, but he has a narrative working in his favour as well. When the Indiana Pacers traded a star in Paul George to Oklahoma City for a package headlined by Oladipo, almost everyone thought the return was underwhelming. But Oladpio has turned into a legit All-Star and is boasting career-highs in scoring (24.4) and efficiency (48.4 per cent shooting overall, 38.1 from 3).
Coach of the Year: Dwane Casey
Brad Stevens looked like a lock to win this as recently as a couple weeks ago, but the Celtics’ skid combined with the Raptors’ jump has seen Casey take the lead. It’s not just that Toronto have been the best team in the East, it’s that they’ve done it by changing their style of play to utilise the 3-pointer more, as well as their youth and depth. What Stevens has done without Gordon Hayward has been nearly as impressive though and there’s still time for him to retake pole position.
We’re at the unofficial halfway point of the NBA season, so it’s only right we take a look at how every team has fared so far and hand out midterm grades.
Keep in mind that these grades are fully based on context and expectations and not determined simply by how teams have done in a vacuum.
After handing out marks for the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, here are the grades for the Western Conference.
Standing: 14th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 104.5 (20th)
Defensive rating: 107.4 (21st)
Dallas aren’t stocked with talent, but they should be doing a little better than they currently are. However, being closer to mediocre would do them no favours and if anything, they’re better off near the bottom of the standings while Dennis Smith Jr gets minutes and the rebuild continues.
Standing: 6th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 108.2 (7th)
Defensive rating: 107.8 (22nd)
Denver were expected to make a jump this season and though they haven’t vaulted into the West’s upper echelon, they’ve made strides. Their offence and home-court advantage have predictably been their hallmarks and they’ve done most of it without their big free agent addition, Paul Millsap.
Standing: 2nd in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 113.7 (1st)
Defensive rating: 103.7 (5th)
If any other team had the record the Warriors do, they would at the very least receive an A. But Golden State aren’t any other team and it was fair to wonder if they would improve on last year’s record. Instead, they’re already only one loss away from last season’s mark and have been in a malaise at times.
Standing: 1st in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 113.2 (2nd)
Defensive rating: 104.6 (9th)
Despite dealing with injuries to their two best players, the Rockets entered the All-Star break with the best record in the league. More importantly, they’re 33-6 when Chris Paul plays and beat the Warriors twice in three meetings to gain confidence if they clash again in the playoffs.
Standing: 9th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 107.1 (12th)
Defensive rating: 106.0 (15th)
Even after trading away their best player in Blake Griffin, the Clippers remain very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. They chose not to move DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams, and while their decision on the former could come back to bite them, the latter is having an All-Star calibre season.
Standing: 11th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 102.8 (26th)
Defensive rating: 105.6 (13th)
At one point, it appeared as if things were going south fast, but since LaVar Ball called out coach Luke Walton in early January, the Lakers have gone 12-7. They also made a trade to clear enough cap space for potentially two max contracts in the summer, all while continuing to develop the young guys.
Standing: 12th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 102.7 (27th)
Defensive rating: 106.9 (21st)
It’s hard to be too critical of Memphis, considering they’ve been without Mike Conley for most of the season. But this grade is more an indictment of their front office, who’ve chosen to stand pat instead of being proactive to net assets for an aging Marc Gasol or Tyreke Evans, who could walk in the summer.
Standing: 4th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 111.3 (3rd)
Defensive rating: 108.3 (26th)
The young Timberwolves have finally taken a step forward and look like a lock to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Their defence has improved only slightly though and until they figure out that end of the floor, their ceiling remains capped, even with the amount of offensive talent they possess.
Standing: 8th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 107.7 (8th)
Defensive rating: 106.7 (19th)
Just when it seemed like they were picking up steam, DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending Achilles tear. Fortunately for the Pelicans, they still have Anthony Davis who went into the All-Star break on fire and even with the talent drop-off after him, New Orleans will fight for the playoffs.
Standing: 5th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 107.2 (10th)
Defensive rating: 104.0 (7th)
Simply put, they haven’t lived up to the lofty expectations that they rightly earned when they put together their ‘big three’. It’s taken them a while to figure out chemistry and fit issues, but as long as they peak by playoff time, the process will have been completely worth it.
Standing: 15th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 101.5 (29th)
Defensive rating: 110.6 (30th)
This is what you get when you have a bunch of young players and hardly any top-level talent. Devin Booker continues to trend upward, but prospects like Josh Jackson and Marquese Chriss need a strong finish to the season to give Phoenix more hope that the future will be brighter.
Standing: 7th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 105.4 (14th)
Defensive rating: 105.0 (11th)
Portland have been the definition of middle class in the West, where they appear to be stuck for now. Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t played as well as he did in the second half of last season and while Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum keep putting in work, the rest of the roster is lacking in firepower.
Standing: 13th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 100.9 (30th)
Defensive rating: 109.9 (29th)
They tried to blend youth and experience in the offseason, but the results have been downright ugly. Sacramento are horrendous on both end of the courts and are arguably the worst team in the league. At least rookie De’Aaron Fox has been bright spot and shown some promising flashes.
Standing: 3rd in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 105.1 (16th)
Defensive rating: 101.9 (2nd)
What more can you say about the Spurs and Gregg Popovich? Despite not having Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games, San Antonio have cruised along to sit in the tier below Golden State and Houston. That’s a good sign for the playoffs if Leonard comes back at full strength, but that’s a big ‘if’ at the moment.
Standing: 10th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 106.0 (13th)
Defensive rating: 103.9 (6th)
Their 11-game winning streak entering the All-Star break has saved their season and turned around what was a floundering campaign. Utah’s defence hasn’t been as stout as they would like, but they’ve unearthed a real gem in Donovan Mitchell, who has quickly turned into their go-to scorer.