NBA Midterms
BLEACHER TALK - Rico S. Navarro (The Freeman) - February 16, 2020 - 12:00am

It’s midterms time in the NBA, and with this comes the All-Star weekend, the deadline for trading of players and the usual assessment of what happened in the period. Is your team on top of the standings? Are your favorite players dominating? Is the addition of Anthony Davis making the Lakers a title favorite? And how about Paul George and Kawhi Leonard teaming up across town with the Clippers?

Ironically (and unfortunately), the biggest development of the season didn’t come from the court but off it with the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven others in that horrible helicopter crash. This took the sting out of the exciting activities that had teams fighting for playoff spots. But while tragic, Kobe’s death also served as a wake-up call for all of us sports fans that basketball and everything that happens in this world is all temporary. There’s a bigger, more important event that we ought to be fighting for and that’s our final place after we all go. It’s surely bigger than an NBA championship or an MVP award. The entire NBA and sports world screeched to a halt, took time-out to honor Kobe and surely reflected on the significance of his passing away.

In the battle for playoff spots, things have turned out as predicted with a few surprises. In the West, the Lakers are in top of the team standings at 41-12, followed by Denver (38-17), LA Clippers (37-18), Utah (36-18), Houston (34-20), Oklahoma (33-22), Dallas (33-22), Memphis (28-26), Portland (25-31) and San Antonio (23-31). No surprise for the top three teams. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have performed as advertised, and so have Paul George and Kawhi. I don’t see the Clippers’ third place ranking as indicative of their real worth (no thanks to load management). If they went all-out in every game of the season, they could’ve been the top team today. Denver though has been a pleasant sight, performing under the radar of the Hollywood teams. Houston has remained to be a question mark as regards the Harden-Westbrook experiment. Let’s see if this picks up in the second half of the regular season. I really like the rise of Memphis with Ja Morant leading the team impressively. More importantly, they’re doing this at the expense of Portland and San Antonio, regular participants of the playoffs. I’ve always remembered the Spurs to be a team that has been an automatic participant in the playoffs, and things don’t look very good this year. LeBron is having yet another MVP year, averaging 25 points, 7.8 rebounds and 10 assists a game. He’s also shooting 48.9% from the field; all this 35 years old! Harden isn’t far behind at 35-6-7.

The East has also been competitive with Milwaukee leading the pack with its league-best 46-8 record. Toronto, even without Kawhi, is right up there at second (40-15), followed by Boston (38-16), Miami (35-19), Philadelphia (34-21), Indiana (32-23), Brooklyn (25-28), and Orlando (24-31). At ninth and tenth are Washington (20-33) and Chicago (19-36). With Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way, the Bucks have been on a tear, but can they sustain this and not fade away in the playoffs in a replay of last year? Toronto has been a revelation. While everyone thought they would drop down in the standings with Kawhi’s departure, here they are playing as if nobody left the team. Miami has also been a pleasant surprise at fourth. Not too many expected them to play this well and Jimmy Butler has somehow re-engineered himself to be a better team player. Giannis is LeBron’s main rival for the MVP award, averaging 35 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game. He’s also shooting an impressive 55% from the field. Trae Young of Atlanta has been another pleasant surprise with averages of 29.7/4.4/9.2, but the bad news is that Atlanta is out of the playoff picture. I also like the more balanced approach of the Raptors and Celtics and the way four to five players are doing their share in working together for the team: Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet, Kyle Lowrie, Serge Ibaka, Normal Powell and Anunoby for Toronto; and Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward for the Celtics. The East has always been branded as weaker than the West, but Toronto’s NBA trophy proved otherwise. Will it be Milwaukee or Toronto out of the East? Can Boston pull off a surprise?

But let’s all chill. Before getting out of hand, this is just the midterms. And like college, the grade that counts most is the final grade. We can still expect teams to work for their playoff spots, then pick up steam moving into the post-season. Staying healthy and injury-free will be key for all teams, and you’ll hear more about load management for teams that are safely in the playoffs already. Things are just heating up and the million-dollar questions are: Which LA team will make it to the NBA Finals and can the Bucks finally overcome the hump?

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