The 2020-21 regular season was shorter, tighter and largely about surviving the turnaround from 2019-20. This season is more traditional but defined by surviving endless potholes along the way, based on who is or isn’t playing on any given night.
The league and its teams have to be hoping for an end to the madcap comings and goings of players, coaches, even broadcasting into and out of the COVID-created Health and Safety Protocols. If so, this endurance test-slash-obstacle course that is 2021-22 could send everyone into a postseason worthy of the NBA’s diamond anniversary celebration.
If not, well, they’re going to hold the tournament anyway.
The Eastern Conference, approximately halfway through, looks to have a natural break after the Top 4, which conveniently suggests the conference’s likely homecourt holders come the playoffs. Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami have sniffed these heights before, while Chicago appears to be ending a slump that began when Derrick Rose left town.
The second tier, by comparison, is vast — seven teams grouped tightly within four games of each other, all near .500, with another not far behind. At least five — Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Atlanta — are underperforming according to their expectations. However, four others — Cleveland especially, but Toronto, Charlotte and Washington — probably would have grabbed their current W-L marks if offered back in early October and taken their chances from here.
Indiana? It will make its intentions known at the trade deadline, perhaps by making significant changes to its core. Thus, it joins the two clubs — the Pistons and the Magic — that seem truly committed to rebuilds. As far as the playoffs, then, the East — with the trade deadline, All-Star weekend and buyout market still to come — offers an intriguing collection of 12 teams vying for 10 chairs when the music stops.
Below is a breakdown of the Eastern Conference landscape midway through the season.
(All stats through Tuesday, Jan. 11)
Chicago Bulls (27-11): One of the East’s two biggest surprise teams, the Bulls at the midpoint last season were playing .444 ball. Now they’re the East’s only team topping .700. Big boss Arturas Karnisovas, after mostly a feel-out first season, got busy in adding Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and notably DeMar DeRozan to last season’s acquisition Nikola Vucevic and holdovers Zach LaVine and Coby White. DeRozan, seemingly an overpay for a limited, aging player, has made a lot of us “experts” look silly by performing at a Kia MVP-worthy level. Billy Donovan will get Coach of the Year votes with a team that a year ago was pining for a Play-In Tournament spot.
Brooklyn Nets (25-14): The same question that hung over this team last season — What can they be if they have all three stars meshing and thriving? — has hung over this one. The revolving door of virus protocols finally broke down Brooklyn management’s traditional strategy and chemistry stances to let Kyrie Irving return as a part-time player (still unwelcome at Barclays Center due to New York vaccine mandates). Kevin Durant has kept the Nets afloat as the Best Achilles Recovery in league history and a top MVP contender. James Harden adapted to foul interpretations to return to form (except at the 3-point line). Adjusting to Irving as a here-today, not here-tomorrow asset — especially by Patty Mills — and cutting turnovers are two big challenges.
Miami Heat (25-15): Any notion at the start of 2021-22 that Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo could miss 17 and 22 games respectively out of the first 40 and the Heat would be breathing down the conference leaders’ necks would have been absurd. Yet Miami has gone 11-6 and 15-7 without them — how’s that for respective? Tyler Herro arguably is the top sixth man of the season’s first half, outscoring (20.6 ppg) rivals for the award as the most potent reserve in Heat history. But performance off the bench would matter little if not for the crew plugging holes in the rotation. Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven is contributing 13.6 points and 15.5 rebounds for every 36 minutes he plays, while Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Kyle Guy are averaging a combined 30 points. Messing with opponents’ field-goal attempts (just 83.5 per game, fewest in the league) and rebounds (also fewest at 41.5). Here’s an ace up Miami’s sleeve: It has only 17 road games left, and a .750 winning percentage (12-4) so far at home.
Milwaukee Bucks (26-17): This was going to be a funky year for the defending champs regardless, with a possible title hangover and understandable desire to “manage” the regular season. Then it got funkier with center Brook Lopez’s back trouble that sent him to surgery. Giannis Antetokounmpo might face voter fatigue but he’s MVP worthy on pace to become the first man in NBA history to average 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game for the fourth time. When he, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday all start, the Bucks are 16-3 (and 10-13 when they don’t) and 8-0 when each scores 20 or more. GM Jon Horst has caulked around his stars well with pickups such as Wesley Matthews and Grayson Allen.
Still in the mix
Cleveland Cavaliers (23-18): The East’s other surprise team, with as many victories midway through as it had all of last season (22-50). Not easy, either, after losing both Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio from the backcourt — the Cavs have dropped six of their last nine. Darius Garland may snag an All-Star spot and Kia Most Improved attention, but do he and recently added Rajon Rondo have what it takes to run things from the backcourt? The jumbo front line of Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and Kia Rookie of the Year favorite Evan Mobley has worked as coach J.B. Bickerstaff has the Cavaliers chasing their first postseason appearance without LeBron James since 1998.
Philadelphia 76ers (23-16): From a standings perspective, this is a bit of a flipping for Philadelphia. The reason is the Ben Simmons situation, which still hangs over the Sixers’ ambitions this season. Brooklyn has half-fixed its major personnel issue and Cleveland is coping on the fly. Joel Embiid, when available, has been a monster and Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry have stepped up. But without Simmons, the defense has been spotty, rebounding is a problem and somehow Philadelphia has slipped a notch in 3-point attempts. Tobias Harris has perked up after a dreary December (41.6% shooting, 16.8 ppg), though Sixers fans might not yet have caught on.
Toronto Raptors (20-18): After spending a season in Tampa, the Raptors lately have played at home before Ontario mandated empty houses. Against that dreary backdrop, though, Toronto won six in a row through Jan. 9 and 11 of 16 since the start of December. Fred VanVleet should have been higher than 10th in the first returns of All-Star balloting and he leads his team in scoring, assists, minutes and effective field-goal percentage. “Point forward” Scottie Barnes, a Rookie of the Year contender, has versatility that coach Nick Nurse values as a starter and with the second unit. As players such as Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have gotten healthy, the offense has ignited while the Raptors’ defense has tightened up. Toronto is facing a looming 22-game stretch with 16 road games.
Charlotte Hornets (22-19): These guys can put up points (115.2 per game). They can give up points, too (115.9). That means a lot of shootouts, with 17 games (11-6) in which Charlotte has scored at least 120 points — and 16 (3-13) in which it has yielded that many or more. The Hornets are 7-0 when they hold an opponent under 105 points but 14-19 when they don’t. The core of LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges has been mostly healthy, with Bridges having a breakout season (19.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.6 apg). Kelly Oubre Jr. is providing a boost off the bench at 16.6 ppg, making 37.3% of his career-most 7.8 threes nightly.
Washington Wizards (21-20): That 10-3 start that grabbed everybody’s attention seems almost like a distant memory — the Wizards are hitting the midpoint at .500 after going 6-12 since Dec. 2. Bradley Beal has looked more like his old self since mid-December while Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell have been better for the Wizards than Russell Westbrook was. But while Spencer Dinwiddie has perked up recently, he had an 11-game stretch in which he averaged just 8.3 points on 8.6 shots, making 31.6% as Washington went 4-7. Another taste of the Play-In Tournament is a realistic goal.
New York Knicks (20-21): The half-full perspective on the Knicks is that, well, they were in a similar position last year, 18-18 halfway home. Then they took off, going 10 games over .500 the rest of the way to nail down homecourt in the first round (then falling 1-4 to Atlanta). Do they have that type of finishing kick in them again? The half-empty perspective says no, they already should have propelled themselves from last season’s promise to more formidable status. Hard to do, though, with point guards dropping to injuries and the rotations have been rocked by virus layoffs. Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett and Julius Randle have (variously) been in coach Tom Thibodeau’s or Knicks fans’ doghouses. It’s New York with lofty expectations off last year, so this is Play-In or bust.
Boston Celtics (20-21): What a weird, disappointing first half of the season. Boston was expected to take off with Brad Stevens now upstairs in Danny Ainge’s old job, Ime Udoka in Stevens’ spot and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the wings on which they’d soar high. Yet they’ve been losing to weak teams to cancel out victories over strong ones. And they have failed to get and keep momentum — the Celtics have won more than two in a row only once so far, saddled with fourth-quarter failings and what Udoka labeled a lack of toughness. Tatum and Brown have maintained their numbers but haven’t lifted the team. Udoka is starting to get scrutinized. Dennis Schroder looks like a trade-deadline goner. A bright spot: Robert Williams III is a hustling fixture in the middle.
Atlanta Hawks (17-22): These guys will reach the midseason 5 games under .500, without the excuse for being underwater that they had last season — no Lloyd Pierce to shed as coach this time. Blame the virus protocols, blame a possible malaise from advancing so far in the 2021 playoffs they kind of assumed they’d take off from there, but most of all blame it on the defense. The Hawks have been miserable at that end, getting felt from 2- or 3-point range, doing little to disrupt their foes’ attack (30th in forcing turnovers, 29th in assists allowed). Trae Young has been putting up bigger numbers than in his All-Star bubble season, but when your team goes 11-14 when you score 25 or more, it feels like empty calories. (Atlanta was 23-13 when he did that last season.)
Looking ahead to next season
Indiana Pacers (15-26): Heck, even the Nate Bjorkgren era didn’t produce a midseason mark this dismal — the Pacers were 16-20 amid that turmoil last season. Injury absences have been rampant: high-energy guard T.J. McConnell has been sidelined with a wrist problem and T.J. Warren (foot) hasn’t played since December 2020. Indiana is in this second-tier because of its record and how tightly grouped the competition is here. But president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard’s public announcement that he was open for trade business seemed to take the wind out of this Pacers season. Tanking is on the horizon, as well as forwarding addresses for one or more of Caris LeVert, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
Detroit Pistons (9-31): The Pistons took their lumps last season when they played four rookies — Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes and Saben Lee — significant minutes. Now they’ve added the Draft’s No. 1 pick, Cade Cunningham, to that slightly more seasoned group … and they’re taking their lumps again. Cunningham’s development is the top priority here, both individually and how he meshes with his teammates’ games — one of whom, Jerami Grant, is a top trade target with one more year on his contract. Even if the Pistons wanted to chase a Play-In spot, the numbers — 10 1/2 games out of 10th place and four teams ahead of them in the standings — make such a push unfeasible.
Orlando Magic (7-34): Next season? At which point the Magic will only be a season away from being a season away? OK, there’s no reason their progress can’t be fast-tracked more than that, but this sure isn’t that year. Injuries have dictated coach Jamahl Mosley’s lineups and rotations more than merit, but a heavy dose of the youngest, most talented Magic players — Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba — at least can tease Orlando fans with bright moments while they root for underdogs. Wagner, especially, looks ready to be a star.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.