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Crystal Small Ball: Predicting the NBA’s Second Half

Picking out the teams and players who will make the most noise to finish the regular season

Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, and Joel Embiid Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Less than two months stand between us and playoff basketball. Who will make the most of their opportunities between now and then? Last week, we picked out our award winners thus far. Now, a day before the regular-season games begin again, our staff predicts who will win the biggest battles for playoff spots, playoff seedings, and more.

Which team will make the biggest push in the second half?

Danny Chau: The Sixers. The worst stretch of their regular season is over. Philly has played fewer games against teams below .500 than any other Eastern Conference playoff contender, and has a better record against teams above .500 than the other teams slotted 4-9 out East. Joel Embiid has been magnificent since the new year, and has actually played better in the second game of the back-to-backs that he’s suited up for. The 4-seed is there for the taking. The Sixers just have to keep their inexperience at bay and handle their business like their talent suggests they can.

John Gonzalez: The obvious choice here is the Cavs. They entered the All-Star break on a four-game winning streak (or five, if you count Koby Altman dunking all over poor Vlade Divac in that ESPN piece). The new additions—Rodney Hood, George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson—acquitted themselves well in wins over the Celtics and Thunder. But their biggest impact was on the demeanor of LeBron James, who went from disengaged to busting out Clarkson’s 3-point celebration in less than a week. A happy, focused LeBron is great news for the Cavs—and terrible news for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Justin Verrier: The Jazz may be 10th in the Western Conference standings, but they rate as a top-10 team in the league by point differential and projection systems that take account of context clues like strength of schedule and efficiency. Their offense relies on a 21-year-old with 55 pro games to his name, and the Derrick Favors–Rudy Gobert frontcourt feels like it should be exploited more often than it has been this season, but Utah’s once-Mesozoic-era offense is steadily picking up the pace and the production. Top-10 rankings on both sides of the ball—the two musts on any résumé submitted for “legit” status—by season’s end is very much in play.

Kevin O’Connor: The Sixers have been up and down all season long, but they seem bound to find some level of consistency. Embiid is one of the best bigs in the game. Ben Simmons, despite shooting with the wrong hand, is still devastatingly effective as a scorer and playmaker. They’re deep with talent. I see little reason for this strong roster not to start peaking in the second half.

Jonathan Tjarks: Cleveland. This is the obvious answer because of how great the Cavs played after reshaping their roster at the trade deadline, but there’s no reason to overthink it. They have massively upgraded the overall speed and athleticism around LeBron, and they should reap the benefits in the form of engaged play from one of the best players in NBA history. The Cavs were one of the worst teams in the league over the past two months, and now they are once again the favorites to win the East.

Paolo Uggetti: The Thunder. Paul George’s rise to no. 1 option on this team is becoming more apparent by the day (his 30.0 usage rate in February is his highest of any month this season), and I think the chemistry among him, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony will continue to improve on the court, even if it means Melo will begrudgingly take fewer shots. OKC is only two games out of third place in the West, and it has already shown it is talented enough to beat Houston and Golden State on a given night. Welp. I’ve talked myself into the Thunder.

Haley O’Shaughnessy: The Cavaliers, who are likely just as embarrassed by late December and all of January as they are concerned about keeping good standing.

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Which under-the-radar player will have a big second half?

O’Connor: Brandon Ingram has been trending upward ever since his time at Duke, and he made a mini-leap this past month. Over his past 10 games, Ingram, per 100 possessions, is averaging 25.8 points, 7.2 assists, and 6.3 rebounds with efficient scoring metrics. Only 12 players over this full season, per NBA.com, meet the 25-7-6 threshold per 100 possessions, and nine are former All-NBA players. Sure, it’s a small sample, but Ingram is only 20. These flashes are more likely than not a sign of what’s to come.

Verrier: Jamal Murray. His scoring outputs still fluctuate a little more than you’d like from your lead guard, but the 20-year-old is slowly becoming a force for one of the most dangerous offenses in the league, all without Paul Millsap to stretch the floor and ease the burden on defense. To all of the Pelicans fans who tweeted at me two years ago for my Murray-over–Buddy Hield takes: That like in your notifications wasn’t a mistake.

Chau: Gary Harris. Nikola Jokic is posting triple-doubles left and right these days, and Murray’s 30-plus-point scoring barrages have us all gazing at the horizon, but it’s Harris who has been the surging Nuggets’ leading scorer since the start of the new year. Without the stewardship of Millsap, Denver has needed, more than anything, a steady presence on both ends of the floor, and that’s exactly what Harris provides. He is a hyperefficient scorer; an unselfish, no-nonsense playmaker; the team’s best perimeter defender; and an out-of-the-blue clutch performer. Since January 1, Harris is averaging a tick under 20 points per game on 49.3 percent shooting (43.5 percent from 3). Millsap’s seamless return from his wrist injury is no given; I’d expect Harris’s stellar play to continue.

Uggetti: Bam Adebayo. The Heat are mostly an anonymous team, but they do feature a player you’re bound to hear about over the next few years. Adebayo is just a rookie, but he’s already forcing Miami to reconsider Hassan Whiteside’s future, and filling highlight reels with dunks and blocks. If the Heat squeeze into the playoffs, expect Adebayo to play a substantial role.

Gonzalez: Tough to call someone who now plays with LeBron—and who hit the nostalgia sweet spot by channeling his pops in the dunk contest—“under the radar.” But not many people cared about Larry Nance Jr. not even two weeks ago. And he played in L.A.! So maybe he’s not quite under the radar anymore, but to whatever extent he’s actually on the radar now, he only recently popped up on it. Nance was a useful piece before going to Cleveland—he’s long, plays defense, and attacks the rim, and his teammates love him. Now that he’s landed in The Land, he’ll get to show everyone what they were missing.

Tjarks: Shameless plug for a feature I have coming out soon: Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Kings will be tanking hard, so expect them to minimize the roles of guys like Vince Carter and Zach Randolph. Bogdan has been their best player this season, and Sacramento has nothing to lose by letting him take 15-plus shots a game going forward. He’s an elite shooter with unlimited range and a well-rounded offensive game. He might put up some big numbers with a green light.

O’Shaughnessy: I believe in Murray, whose sophomore breakout season has gained steam lately. The Nuggets are also in sixth place in the West, with the Blazers, Pelicans, Clippers, and Jazz trailing closely. Nothing inspires like a young player’s first chance at the playoffs.

Who or what is the biggest threat to the Warriors?

Chau: It feels like a cocktail of intrasquad apathy and the Rockets—which complement each other like gin and vermouth. The Rockets are an outstanding team that has both ratcheted up its already killer offensive efficiency and given just enough of a shit on defense to settle into the top 10. But regular-season killers led by Mike D’Antoni, as painful as this is to say for me, are a dime a dozen. This is the best team James Harden, Chris Paul, and D’Antoni have ever led, but that still rings a bit hollow considering their cumulative résumés. The biggest threat to the Warriors would be not taking the Rockets seriously enough. But for now, there still might not be a compelling enough reason to.

Gonzalez: Houston is legit. LeBron and Cleveland are reborn. Toronto is playing its best basketball ever. But the answer here lies within. The Warriors spent the earlier part of the season finding different ways to counteract the creeping boredom, and Steve Kerr recently let his players coach themselves against the Phoenix Suns just to switch things up. And yet despite being the NBA’s embodiment of the shrug emoji, the Warriors have the best net rating in the league and are only a half game behind the Rockets for the best record. [Extremely after-school-special voice.] The Warriors’ biggest challenge has been inside them all along.

O’Connor: It’s the same team as it was before the season: Houston. It has one of the highest-powered offenses in NBA history, with a tremendous defense to match and personnel that can adapt to any type of lineup. The Warriors are not inevitable champions, all thanks to the Rockets.

Uggetti: Draymond Green’s feet.

O’Shaughnessy: The Rockets are the clear answer, and many of the Western Conference teams could wear Golden State down along the way should the two meet in the conference finals. But it’s worth adding that the Warriors have lost to the Thunder in both of their matchups so far this season.

Tjarks: Themselves. Everyone knows they are better when they bench their traditional big men and play Green and Kevin Durant at the 5. The question is how stubborn Kerr will be about going to those lineups in the playoffs. He has traditionally waited until he was down in a playoff series to embrace small ball, and he probably will again this season. Golden State was so much better than the rest of the field last season that it didn’t matter. Houston’s emergence means Golden State’s margin for error isn’t quite as big. The Warriors still have more talent than the Rockets, but Kerr can’t mess around too much.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Who gets left out of the East playoffs: Detroit, Miami, or Philly?

Gonzalez: No chance you get me to say Philly. (The ink is still drying on my Nick Foles stomach tattoo.) And I’ve been an advocate for the Heat for much of the year. I like their weird assembly of midlevel talent. Which leaves Detroit. I wasn’t a believer before the Blake Griffin trade, and while I think adding him made the Pistons better, I’m still not sold on the mix there. Plus, Reggie Jackson will return soon enough, at which point SVG will have to reincorporate a guy he liked to openly drag. Which should be fun to watch—unless you’re a Pistons fan.

O’Shaughnessy: The Heat will get left behind if their pre-All-Star issues aren’t resolved. It’s difficult to trust that they will, despite having a player-management wiz like Erik Spoelstra. Miami is 3-9 in its past 12 games—all of which ended with a margin of fewer than 10 points—largely because the roster doesn’t have a clear, go-to closer. That won’t change returning from the All-Star break.

Tjarks: Philly has more talent than the other two, so they should be safe. My head says Detroit will miss the playoffs, but my heart says Blake Griffin will find a way to sneak them in as the 8-seed, so I’ll take Miami.

O’Connor: What a snooze-fest battle it’ll be between the Pistons and Heat. My hunch is that the Pistons will make the playoffs, because we might see more wrinkles from Van Gundy involving Griffin now that there’s been time to install sets and practice. The Heat are a cute, fun team, but it’s hard to pick against the upside of a Griffin–Andre Drummond frontcourt.

Chau: The Pistons. Their next 10 games are brutal—that slate includes Boston, Toronto (twice), must-wins against Milwaukee and Miami, and Cleveland. If they don’t make it out of that gantlet alive, it’ll be hard to see them usurping Miami, which might be able to coast into the playoffs given how easy their schedule is at the end of the season.

Uggetti: The Sixers have the easiest remaining schedule, and I trust the Heat’s system, so I’m going to say the Pistons. You’d think the team that added Griffin would springboard into the playoffs, but it may not be enough, even in the East.

Verrier: Detroit. The Point Blake Revolution (29.9 assist percentage in Detroit) has hardly brought out the best in Drummond (47.3 percent shooting since the deal). The Pistons are 5-3 since acquiring Griffin with the hopes of replacing those seat covers at their new arena with, like, humans, but they lost three straight before picking off the lowly Hawks heading into the break. Reggie Jackson will eventually return. Then again, Reggie Jackson will eventually return.

Who will get left out of the West playoffs: Clippers, New Orleans, Portland, and/or Utah?

O’Connor: New Orleans is at a severe disadvantage without DeMarcus Cousins, but the Pelicans still have the best player of any of the four teams (and Denver) on the bubble, so it’s hard to pick against them. They’re the choice, anyway, because the rest of their roster is the worst of the crop and Anthony Davis alone won’t be enough to overcome it when the other teams are deeper and stronger on both ends of the floor.

Between the others, the Jazz are such a strong, deep two-way team, and the Blazers have a high-powered backcourt with teamwide upside, so they’re both in. The Clippers have been stellar, despite injuries, but I’m not optimistic that Lou Williams will keep producing like an All-NBA scorer, so they’re on the outside looking in.

Tjarks: The good people at Denver Stiffs did a nice breakdown of the schedule for all of these teams, and the one that stands out is Utah, which plays 11 games against non-playoff contenders who don’t have much incentive to win. That should be enough to get the Jazz in. Portland’s continuity should get it in over New Orleans or L.A., both of whom had to reshape their rosters dramatically over the past two weeks.

Gonzalez: Utah went into the break on a heater, having won 11 straight. Plus, everyone loves Donovan Mitchell now. (This is where I point out that I was on Don Mitchell—I call him Don—even before Louisville grad Haley O’Shaughnessy.) Also, I have a long basketball love affair with passing god Ricky Rubio. No way I’m picking against the Jazz. Same goes for Portland. I’ve been on the Blazers all season. Not giving up now.

So play the sad trombone for the Pelicans and Clippers. Making the playoffs without Boogie feels like a lot to ask of New Orleans. And I have no idea what the Clippers are doing with their roster. Are they trying? Are they rebuilding? Both at the same time? Who really runs the joint these days? And do they know the answer to those questions? I’m just not buying whatever they’re selling.

Verrier: L.A. and New Orleans. I’m not sure which part of Davis’s recent ESPN interview is more puzzling: that he thought the Pelicans could have won the title before Boogie went down, that he seems to be basing that opinion off something Rajon Rondo told him, or that he openly admitted he would have to “almost get 40 every night for us—to give us a chance to win.” A chance! As far as the Clippers: Austin Rivers is back in the starting lineup. So, no thanks.

Chau: The Pelicans. With Cousins’s injury, you’d expect New Orleans to slow things down and try to grind its way into wins considering the massive loss in offensive production that Cousins’s absence represents. Instead, the team has gone in the complete opposite direction. The Pelicans have opted to blitz teams off the floor, averaging over 105 possessions per 48 minutes in the past nine games, by far the fastest in the league in that span. Problem is, they’re scoring at a rate that would suggest they’re trying to win in the trenches. We’ve seen this show before. The Pelicans just don’t have enough without a true star playing alongside Anthony Davis. This feels like an easy call.

The Clippers are lacking in continuity, and while Tobias Harris hasn’t seen a significant drop-off in production compared to the numbers he put up in Detroit, his relative success is diminished by how bad Avery Bradley is. They had a pretty compelling win over the Celtics just before the break, but they have a rough road ahead, with games against the Warriors, Nuggets, Rockets, and Cavs in their next 10. I don’t trust them over a Jazz team that looks completely locked in from top to bottom.

Uggetti: The Pelicans and the Clippers. It’s impossible to recover from losing Boogie, and though I fully believe Anthony Davis has the talent to carry the team, I don’t think starting 35-year-old Emeka Okafor alongside him will help their chances. Adding Nikola Mirotic at the deadline is bound to help their shooting, but their frontcourt is still an unsolved issue that could become the bane of their playoff hopes.

If DeAndre Jordan can tap into Contract Year DJ, then maybe the Clippers could write a happy ending to what’s been a tumultuous season. But I just don’t see how a team that’s carried by Williams and Harris will be able to survive the stretch run.

O’Shaughnessy: The Pelicans aren’t all that inspiring without Cousins, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. With Utah, Portland, and the Clippers all playing well of late, New Orleans may fall too far behind before it manages to click again in big games without Boogie. Los Angeles also has a tough schedule ahead, facing the Warriors, Nuggets, Rockets, Pelicans, Cavs, Rockets, Blazers, Thunder, and Wolves in nine of its next 14 games.

Sacramento Kings v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Which team will “win” the tank race?

Tjarks: Dallas. The Mavs have the best coach of the eight teams looking to dive-bomb in the standings, and Rick Carlisle should be able to find ingenious ways to lose. Take a look at this work of art from the fourth quarter of their loss to the Clippers on February 5. Carlisle played two limited big men (Salah Mejri and Maxi Kleber) for the last seven minutes of a game that went down to the wire, even though they hadn’t played much together before that game. Carlisle manipulates lineups incredibly well. It may look like the Mavs are trying in a given night, but don’t be fooled.

Chau: The Hawks. Only three of their 23 remaining games are against teams (Suns, Kings, Magic) as desperate as they are for the worst record in the league. Atlanta running the table is not out of the question.

Verrier: Sacramento. It’s hard to top the existential dread induced by your owner telling Dr. J that your team is a loser, but the Kings recently started a lineup in which the oldest player was Bogdanovic, a 25-year-old rookie. Being bad and young is usually a winning combination in this context.

Gonzalez: As our resident tank enthusiast, I object to the nakedly pejorative use of quotations around the word “win.” That said, I’ll take the Suns. They have a bunch of young players who may or may not be good and who figure to get a lot of run over the final quarter of the season. That usually translates to lots of losses. Also, as losing goes, Phoenix has gotten really good at being really bad in these past couple of seasons. Right now, the organization is figuring out whether it’s allowed to bench Eric Bledsoe via long-distance remote.

O’Connor: Mark Cuban said the best option for the Mavericks is to lose, which is certainly true, but it’s largely fascinating because the statement could either suck the life out of the team or motivate it more than ever to close the season strong. I would’ve picked Dallas, but after the comments, I’m going with the Hawks because their team stinks the most.

O’Shaughnessy: I am cheering for the Hawks. Getting the top pick would be one of their very few wins all season.

Uggetti: Suns. Devin Booker already did enough this season by winning the 3-point contest, and a rib injury he had in late January could be used as a way to hold him out of future games. Plus, I’m still not sure that anyone else on that roster—which, by the way, is led by an interim head coach in Jay Triano—is good. Someone please save Tyson Chandler from this wreckage.

Which team will finish first in the East standings?

O’Connor: The Raptors are the deepest team in the East, and they seem to be getting better and better as the season progresses. They’re built to close the season at a high level, and they might not have peaked just yet.

Chau: The Raptors. Because Boston is suddenly bad, Cleveland is due for at least one hitch right before the playoffs, and Toronto is good.

Gonzalez: Hmm. The Celtics are starting to fray a little bit, and the Cavs—despite the fact I think they’re about to make a serious charge—are probably too far back to make up 6.5 games in the standings with 26 games left. That leaves Toronto. The Raptors have been the most consistent team in the conference. They know who they are and how they like to play. (Look at them, shooting more 3s in the year of our lord 2018!) They play well together, and DeMar DeRozan is having an outstanding season. This feels like the season they take the top seed.

O’Shaughnessy: Toronto has figured out a solid, reliable system. Cleveland’s roster is much improved, but could also have growing pains with so many new faces. And Boston (I apologize for doubting Brad Stevens) is in the midst of a downward spiral. So by default, and because of how dependable they’ve been this season, I’m going Raptors.

Uggetti: The Raptors are too good and too consistent to think they won’t hold on to the 1-seed. The hot-take artist in me wants to say the Cavs can go 21-5 over the second half with LeBron’s switch turned on to max power. But it’s hard to think the improving Raptors will stumble to a .500-or-worse record, which is basically what Cleveland would need to have a chance at leaping them.

Tjarks: The Raptors. They have too big of a lead on Cleveland (6.5 games), and they have one of the deepest teams in the NBA. They are playing great basketball and they are well suited to the regular season.

Verrier: Toronto. Believing in the Raptors is scary, especially when the Celtics, through all the hand-wringing over their recent skid, are just two games back in the standings. But Toronto is deeeeeeep, and the Raptors’ point differential (plus-8.5) suggests they’re far closer to a team on par with the Warriors and Rockets than the East also-ran they’ve been in recent years.

Which team will finish first in the West standings?

Tjarks: Houston. It just means more to the Rockets than Golden State, who definitely have a bit of championship malaise this season.

Gonzalez: Warriors. Even if they’re on autopilot, it’s impossible to bet against them.

Verrier: I give resident Rockets superfan Sean Yoo my proxy:

Sean Yoo: FIRST PLACE BY A MINIMUM OF FIVE GAMES.

O’Connor: Golden State is cruising and still only a half game back from the top of the standings. If the Warriors press Go, they’ll be back on top in no time. The Rockets will be right there, though.

Chau: The Warriors. I’m not sure Kerr will let the team limp into the playoffs as the lifeless zombies they’ve been for the past few weeks.

Uggetti: Rockets. The Warriors don’t care right now, and even if they start to in the second half of the season, the closing act to James Harden’s MVP push will keep Houston in the driver’s seat.

O’Shaughnessy: The Warriors, who are only half a game behind Houston. There really isn’t any slump bad enough that it can’t be worked out on a roster with Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.