NBA distributes mid-season awards to stars

As the second-half of the season commences, teams look to lock in a playoff spot


Jokic puts up a shot during the 2020 Western Conference Finals.

Michael Pitts, Contributing Writer

The NBA is in the midst of the second half of their 72-game season, and the stakes could not be higher. All eyes are on the race to the playoffs and the standings of the top 10 teams in each conference, as a play-in tournament will be implemented for the first time ever featuring teams seeded 7-10. The tournament will determine the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds of each conference. The winning teams will then advance to the actual playoffs. Teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers in the East, along with the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies in the West are battling for those spots right now. With each passing day, we are getting closer to the tournament, which begins May 18 and will conclude on May 21.

Along with the tournament, everyone is focused on the recent super team created in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have joined forces to form one of the greatest offensive squads in NBA history. The Nets are a clear favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and have a legitimate shot to win it all. What’s standing in their way? Lack of chemistry, a defensive mindset and, most importantly, a clean slate of health.

Since coming together in January, this big three has only played a total of seven games together due to the fact that they can never stay on the court at the same time. Whether it’s Irving taking days off for personal reasons, Durant injuring his legs, or Harden being out indefinitely due to a quad injury, the team has not been able to form the same chemistry and camaraderie that other teams in the East such as the Milwaukee Bucks or the Philidelphia 76ers have. As June grows closer, Nets fans should be worried about the durability of this team. Whether this is going to continue, only time will tell.

Will the Lakers fall out of the top six? They have been without their star players for quite some time. Anthony Davis  has missed 35 total games after the Achilles injury he sustained against the Denver Nuggets in February, and LeBron James has missed a total of 15 games after going down with an ankle injury against the Atlanta Hawks in early March. Since then, the Lakers are 6-8, and are fifth in the Western Conference with a record of 35-23. With the big-time acquisition of Andre Drummond in the buyout market — who was averaging 15 points and 13 rebounds per game while playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers — the Lakers should be fine when Davis and James return.

With James out, and Joel Embiid returning just recently from a knee injury he suffered in March, the MVP race is up for grabs. The current front-runner is Nikola Jokic, the Serbian big man from the Nuggets who is averaging close to a 30-point triple-double every game as a center. The last time a center won MVP: Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry have had outstanding shooting seasons and are leading their teams to the playoffs with limited star power, unlike Jokic, and are still in the conversation as well.

One team that has disappointed thus far is the New Orleans Pelicans. With Zion Williamson, a transcendent talent, and Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams and several other prominent players, they should not be where they are right now. Granted, they play in the Western Conference, which is significantly harder to compete in than the East. Still, the Spurs, the Warriors and the Grizzlies should not be ahead of them in the standings. They are seven games below .500 and sit outside the top-10 teams in the West as the 11th seed. Fighting for their playoff lives, the Pelicans know how much every game means, so it will be interesting to see how they respond in this second half of the season, and if they can make a push for the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the biggest surprises come from two teams in the Eastern Conference: the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks. The Knicks, who struggled significantly last year, have a 31-27 record and sit at sixth in the Eastern Conference. Forward Julius Randle is emerging as an All-NBA player, averaging a 25-point, 11-rebound double-double. The Knicks also have the top-rated defense in the league.

The Hawks are sitting at 31-26, fourth in the conference. They are competing with the Bucks, Sixers and the Nets — three of the best teams, not just in the conference, but the league. This speaks to the influence of recently hired head coach Nate McMillan and the leadership of third-year star guard Trae Young.  Thanks to the off-season acquisitions of Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Clint Capela along with some promising young talents, they are a feel-good team. Although they were the third-worst team in the league last year, the Hawks are a team everyone should be watching as the playoffs roll in around May.

It is going to be interesting to see who makes it out of the Eastern and Western Conferences this year. There is a lot of firepower on both sides, all of it gunning for a ring. The real question is, can anyone defeat a healthy Lakers team or Nets team? With James, Davis and Drummond in L.A., and Durant, Irving and Harden in Brooklyn, the talent is going to be hard to stop (assuming they are all healthy). Can Giannis  Antetokounmpo finally deliver in the playoffs, and will the Bucks make it to the finals? Can Utah, Phoenix or Denver — young teams with minimal playoff experience — take down the likes of the Lakers or the Clippers? We will see — and it’s going to get really interesting.