In an off season full of many high caliber free agents, it was inevitable that the dynamics of the NBA would change. However, despite the signings, the good teams of past years reign supreme, while rebuilding teams sneak into the lower seeded playoff spots.

The East

Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James drives against the Houston Rockets in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As always, the headlining team of the East are the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by the best current player in the NBA, Lebron James. The Cavs had a mediocre start to the year, but this sort-of thing happens every year for them. Lebron and the Cavs usually get hot towards the end of the season, allowing them to cruise through the lackadaisical East, and find themselves in the finals. The influx of new players, such as Jordan Clarkson and George Hill, will only help this cause. This year, however, there’s a new team in town…the Celtics. The results of the games have been differing, with some being close games, and others being landslide victories for one team. The Celtics have proven that with clutch performer Kyrie Irving, the dunking duo of Tatum and Brown,  and the veteran Horford, they can easily compete with the Cavs, leading to a potentially juicy match up late in the playoffs.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors, while being the number one seed, don’t seem to have the depth to be strong finals contenders, despite the ability to beat some lower seeded teams in early rounds. In fairness, they’ve performed very well over the season, with DeMar, DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry playing phenomenally, but in a 7 game series it seems very difficult for them to compete with the star power of Cleveland or Boston, where’d they would have to compete against much-superior benches.

Washington Wizards

Similarly, I don’t see Washington making it very far in the playoffs because of their less skilled bench. The Wizards have had a pretty mediocre season overall, really not changing much from their past seasons, as they still rely way too much on the Beal and Wall duo.

Indian Pacers

I think the Pacers are an interesting team, who definitely have been playing better than anyone could have expected this season. Led by young talents Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner, they’ve showed how the loss of Paul George wasn’t all that bad for them. In the era of super teams, they are certainly at a disadvantage against star-studded teams like the Celtics, but I think they could create some interesting match ups.

Milwaukee Bucks

Moving onto the Bucks, the first thing you think of is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who interestingly enough is the only star on that team. The Bucks have some good role players, but they aren’t the real support Giannis needs. The Greek Freak has had a great season, which has led the Bucks to a decent record, but they will run into difficulty in the postseason due to their lack of offensive weapons.

Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat

The Heat and the 76ers have both had average seasons, with both teams going through early rebuilding years. I can see the Heat making the playoffs with the acquisition of Dwayne Wade, and similarly barring any injuries. I see the 76ers outlasting the Pistons and Charlotte. The Process seems to be working, as they’re currently on a 6 game win streak being led by stellar seasons from Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets

The Pistons, even with the acquisition of Blake Griffin, are playing very inconsistently. Griffin shows up as a star one night, then struggles the next, while point guard Reggie Jackson recovers from an ankle injury, and without him their offense is definitely stalling. Maybe once he returns they’ll have the final puzzle piece to get on a late season streak. But it seems like their path has only gotten more difficult with Dwayne Wade returning to the Heat. The Hornets have certainly under-performed in the beginning of the season, but with Malik Monk gaining more experience and Dwight Howard and Kemba Walker having career seasons, they could get hot and sneak into a playoff spot at the end of the season.

Bottom Five Eastern Teams

The Bulls, Nets, Magic, and Hawks are all working around a young core of players, and are all essentially out of playoff contention barring a miraculous end of the season run. These younger teams will definitely be contenders in future years, but for now these prospects need more experience in order to really contend for a playoff spot. The Knicks are basically in the same boat as these teams, but I want to note that with a healthy Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. they’d be doing much better than they are now.

East Summary

I see the Cavs, Celtics, and Raptors being the biggest playoff presences while continuing their good seasons over the second half of the season. I think the Pacers and 76ers will improve over the second half, maybe advancing in the rankings a little bit. I’d be surprised if the Wizards, Milwaukee, or Heat drastically improved from where they are right now. Detroit and Charlotte are right on the fringe, but they’re really going to have to put their foot on the gas in the second half of the season in order to reach their playoff goals.

Dec 11, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts during the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Toyota Center. Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The West

In the West, at least in the past few years, the Warriors have run the show, especially since the signing of Kevin Durant. Lately, however, other teams like the Rockets, with new addition CP3, and the thunder with Melo and Paul George, along with some other teams,  have been making things a little bit more interesting in that conference.

Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia (27) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets

The Warriors and Rockets are both doing well this season, but currently the Rockets have the number one spot in the conference. Honestly, any spot that’s not number one is underachieving for the Warriors. They have four spectacular players on their lineup and a great bench, along with an excellent coach. That being said, they’ll certainly be in the playoffs, and have one of the best shots at making the finals. The Rockets, on the other hand, are doing better than I initially suspected they would. CP3 and Harden seem to be getting along well, and role players like Eric Gordon are excelling in this three-heavy offense. Injuries have been a little troubling this season, but either star can carry the team for a short period of time until the other returns. Really though, the teams are pretty even, and any match up they have tends to be decided in the waning minutes of the game.

Minnesota Timberwolves

I was pretty impressed with the Timberwolves this season, as they really stepped up their game a lot in this competitive conference. They definitely exceeded my expectations, as I thought they were still a year or two away from seriously contending. This all changed when Jimmy Butler got hurt, and made the picture more complicated. They will certainly still make the playoffs, but now without that defensive shooting guard to cover Klay, or Harden, or Paul George, or McCollum, it will be much more difficult to win in the West. If Butler returns quickly, then I like their odds to make it far in the playoffs. Even without him though, they will still do well with Karl Anthony Town and Andrew Wiggins picking up the slack.

San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans

The Spurs and Pelicans both are doing alright, but they both are suffring from injury trouble. Demarcus Cousins, star center of the Pelicans, had a season ending injury, while Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs has been battling a quad injury the whole season. The Spurs really revolve around Kawhi, as he’s essentially their future. Sure Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker are good role players, and LaMarcus Aldridge is great, but they really need that dynamic game changing player in Kawhi to really succeed in this second half of the season. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, they won’t have the return of an injured player to motivate the team like the Spurs do. Without Cousins, the Pelicans somewhat lose that big man advantage they had over all teams, and without any above average guards, winning won’t be easy for them. Sure, Anthony Davis is putting up great numbers every night, and really it’s a shame to see how things would have been if Cousins had stayed healthy, but they just lack the versatility and depth to take on the higher seeded teams of the conference.

Portland Trailblazers

The Blazers, led by an excellent season from Damian Lillard (Dame Dolla), are doing a little better than normal this year. They’re a pretty interesting team to watch, and I could see them upsetting New Orleans or San Antonio in the playoffs, but they don’t have all the firepower they need yet to take on the big guns of Houston and Golden State. With solid rookie play from Zach Collins, the Blazers are showing they will be a big threat in future years, but the pieces haven’t all fit together yet for them. They’ll continue their excellent pace in the second half of the season, and will easily glide into the playoffs.

Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket past Washington’s Otto Porter Jr. (22) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Washington Wizards in at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

OKC Thunder

I think the Thunder have had an underwhelming first half of the season, because of the stars they posses. That being said, I also consider them one of the greatest playoff “sleeper” picks. If Melo gets hot, I honestly think this team can win it all. They have three great two way players, in Adams, Westbrook, and George, along with some good defensive role players. Those three above have all been playing very well this season, but Melo hasn’t, at least by his standards. If he starts playing well, then they can compete with the best of teams, as they’ve shown in small flashes over the season. Keep an eye on them moving into the second half of the season.

Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, and Utah Jazz

The Nuggets have done better than expected, but ultimately their successes will be for naught as Jokic can’t carry them past all of the West. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, and has made the team better during these times, but they aren’t nearly consistent enough for them to go anywhere in the playoffs, assuming they hold onto their spot, which is no certainty. LA doesn’t have much on their roster, with Blake Griffin having been traded away, so I don’t really see a situation in which they can get into the playoffs unless the Nuggets collapse. Since losing some of their best players, they are doing better than anticipated, but still not doing well. The Jazz, carried by rookie Donovan Mitchell, have completely exceeded expectation for this season. Not only have they started playing well as a unit, but also due to Mitchell’s rapid growth along with veteran players like Rudy Gobert, they could easily surpass the Nuggets for the final playoff spot in the West.

Bottom Five Teams

While the Mavs, Grizzlies, Kings, and Suns are all in the rebuilding processes, the Lakers have the talent they need, and now just need experience. I’ve heard that if they win a large majority of their games, they could make the playoffs. Even if by some miracle they do make the playoffs, they’ll just be squashed by the Warriors in the first round. Still, with the surprising play of Kuzma, the Lakers have really stepped things up a notch this season.

The Mavs, as we all know, are tanking this season, which is the right move for them to make. With the scandals amidst the organization right now, and the possibility of them losing a draft pick, that could really set back the rebuilding process by a few years. Dennis Smith Jr., a draft pick from last year, is excelling this year, but overall the team generally needs more experience.

The Grizzlies are a bit of a disappointment, coming from a playoff contender last year to know this. In theory, they should be able to duplicate their results, but as it has been shown this season, they are in need in a big change in direction as a franchise.

The Kings and Suns are both in the early stages of their rebuilding processes, but with young talents De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at each respective franchise, things may look up for them in future years. I can pretty safely say that none of these teams have a good shot at making the playoffs this year.

West Summary

The Warriors and the Rockets are the dominating forces in the division, but many other teams can compete with them and don’t depict a clear team head and shoulders above the rest, like in the East. The playoffs are going to be interesting.

Final Thoughts

The balance of power in terms of teams in the NBA has changed a lot in this past year, but halfway through the season you can see that almost all the teams which produced good seasons in recent years are able to duplicate those results this year. Because of that, I’d expect the playoffs and finals to be full of many familiar faces and match-ups, but also allowing in some different teams and yielding some different results in the early playoff matches.

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