From pleasant surprises to history-making losing streaks to blockbuster trades, the first half of the 2023-24 NBA season has had a little bit of everything. To mark the midpoint, our staff got together to reflect on what’s happened so far and set the stage for what’s to come.
What is the biggest surprise from the first half?
Howard Beck: It has to be the Thunder. We knew Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was brilliant. We knew Jalen Williams was coming. We knew Chet Holmgren was (at minimum) intriguing. We knew the Thunder had talent and depth and promise, enough to make a leap in the standings this season. But ...
THIS leap? No, this is more like Neo cracking the asphalt as he fires himself into the stratosphere. The Thunder were supposed to make the playoffs as a plucky seventh seed, not jockey with the Nuggets and Timberwolves (another surprise!) for supremacy in the Western Conference. Teams this young don’t generally rise this quickly. But the Thunder play with such steadiness and polish, you’d never guess that all five starters are 25 or younger. SGA keeps getting better. Williams is already flirting with stardom. And Holmgren, a rookie who missed an entire year with a foot injury, is already one of the most impactful centers in the league.
Can the Thunder sustain this pace? Will they actually win 55 games? Or make the conference finals? It still sort of feels too soon. But then, this team has already made all conventional wisdom look foolish.
Seerat Sohi: How the Clippers found a way to make the James Harden experiment work. When the trade first went down, I wrote that it was a mix of desperation and hope—a potent cocktail for self-destruction. How would Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Harden, and Russell Westbrook—all on expiring deals—make it work with just one ball? Two months later, the Clippers are three games back from the no. 1 seed in the West, Leonard just signed an extension, and Harden just said he wants to finish his career in L.A.
Zach Kram: Before this season, the longest losing streaks in NBA history belonged to the post-LeBron Cavaliers (first time) and the Process 76ers, a team trying to lose games. Then the Pistons—a team trying to win, after years of rebuilding—lost 28 in a row and sit at 4-37 as of this writing. The most galling part of all is that Detroit has actual talent on its roster! Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Ausar Thompson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jalen Duren. Yet new head coach Monty Williams seems lost, and the team is on pace for a record-setting 8-74 record midway through the season.
Michael Pina: Back in July, I wrote about the Oklahoma City Thunder’s potential to make a leap and exceed expectations, wondering whether they “can become last year’s Kings. Or, more terrifyingly, the pre-drama Grizzlies from 2021-22.” That was a best-case scenario projection, though. For them to be on a 55-win pace, electric on both ends, with a real MVP candidate? Can’t say I saw that one coming! I’m not 100 percent sold on OKC’s ability to win 16 playoff games quite yet, but I do think they’ve placed themselves on a trajectory that should absolutely petrify the rest of the NBA. The fact that they are this far ahead of schedule, as the youngest team in the league, with all those picks on the horizon … yikes.
Logan Murdock: The Clippers. Yeah, I know that on paper (and 2K home screens), L.A.’s acquisition of Harden on a roster occupied by Kawhi and PG was a no-brainer. But after arriving in Los Angeles with a diva reputation and a propensity to disappear when he’s needed the most, Harden has helped fortify the biggest surprise contender out of the West. It’s helped that Westbrook has finally taken a bench role, Leonard is operating at 2013 health levels, and Ty Lue has done some of the best coaching of his career. I’m not sure how long this will last, but it’s been a fun ride so far.
Who has been your favorite player to watch this season?
Pina: This question is impossible. Let’s throw Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Tyrese Haliburton, Trae Young, and James Harden (I am a complete sucker for genius-level passing) on the short list. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Steph Curry are no-brainers, too, while Victor Wembanyama is a beloved oddity who routinely does things no one has ever seen before.
All are aesthetically breathtaking in their own way. But I’ll go with someone who’s been my stock answer to this question for the past few years: Zion Williamson. Despite having a disappointing statistical season and showing little to no improvement on defense as doubt about his work ethic and professionalism crops up on a semi-regular basis, Williamson remains pure spectacle. His incredible blend of power, speed, and touch still has no precedent within our species. There are dunks that make the hair on your arms go straight up, laser-beam passes, and a supernatural ability to glide through the air.
Murdock: Tyrese Haliburton, who has stepped into the vortex of the NBA’s future this season. His performance in the NBA Cup™️ (its rightful name) was a sight to behold, not because he averaged a 27-point, 13-assist double-double in the tournament, and not because he did the Dame Time celebration in front of Dame Time himself, but because he single-handedly put an entire basketball haven back on the NBA map, willing a team with just one scheduled national TV appearance entering the season into the spotlight. Oh, and he’s leading a team that just landed Pascal Siakam and that isn’t afraid to go toe to toe with Milwaukee or Boston—or anyone, for that matter. Add in Haliburton’s Magic-level charisma, and the Pacers are gonna be the talk of the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Beck: It’s been a blast to see Haliburton burst into stardom ... and to see Joel Embiid go even harder after winning MVP ... and to watch Holmgren and Wembanyama do outlandish things with all their height and length and skill ... and to witness LeBron defying age and gravity ... and to see Jokic keep throwing mind-bending passes ... and on and on.
But if you’ll permit a slightly sentimental divergence here, I’m going with Klay Thompson. Yes, the soon-to-be 34-year-old, post–Achilles tear, post–ACL tear shooting guard who doesn’t shoot quite as well as he used to, who even in his prime never dazzled us with his hops or his handles or his quickness. Yes, that Klay Thompson.
My answer here isn’t so much about basketball as it is about spirit and pride and defiance—and a rage against the dying of the light. Thompson still struts and shoots and smack-talks with the bravado of a four-time champion. He still fires away with the confidence of a career 41 percent 3-point shooter, even if he’s now hovering around (a still respectable) 38 percent this season. He assured me last season that he’d make one more All-Star team. I’ve always appreciated Thompson’s quiet swagger and quirkiness.
On some nights, you can see Thompson try to shoot himself back into rhythm, back into relevance. Sometimes, too much so. Which is why, when I think about who I’ve most enjoyed watching this season, what I really keep coming back to is Thompson’s postgame presser on January 3—the one when he waxed philosophical about success and struggle, gratitude for the success he’s had, how to enjoy the time he has left in this league, and the need to be a better mentor to his young teammates. It was brief and poignant and heartfelt—and, to me, as enjoyable as any windmill dunk.
Sohi: My kingdom for Jaime Jaquez in the post. He has a herky-jerky utilitarianism reminiscent of his All-NBA teammate Jimmy Butler. It makes sense that the rook looks like a cross between the world’s most famous carpenter and your average 20-something strolling around Echo Park because Jaquez mixes the old with the new, crossing opponents up like the modern-day guard-forward fusion he is, getting closer to the paint before turning his back and pump-faking his way to the free throw line like he’s the second coming of Andre Miller. He can thread the needle on one end and intercept passes on the other. He is as explosive dunking in transition as he is cutting in the lane. After spending four years at UCLA, he provides all-weather, all-purpose tires for a Miami Heat engine that needed an infusion of youth in all areas.
Kram: Is it wrong to pick the player who leads the entire league in player value this season, according to estimated plus-minus’s wins metric? I could probably get more creative—but when I first read this question, my mind immediately flashed to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander when he bursts past another elite defender, slithers through traffic around the rim, pops an unguardable pull-up jumper from the midrange. I trust that instinctive reaction: SGA is averaging 31 points per game, leading the league in steals, and pushing the NBA’s youngest rotation toward the top seed in the West. He’s an absolute marvel to watch.
What is one trade you would love to see between now and the deadline?
Sohi: The Thunder, who have an MVP candidate, the no. 2 seed, and a top-flight offense and defense, have arrived early. As much as they might prefer to be patient and let their young core develop organically, I’d love to see them learn from the Grizzlies and realize that this type of chemistry, confidence, and dominance is never guaranteed to last, let alone keep trending upward. It just so happens that a star is available who could heal their shooting woes, fill their hole at power forward, and fit into their future plans (albeit for a high price): Lauri Markkanen. The Jazz, 12-2 in their last 14 games, want a murderers’ row of draft picks for his services. Luckily for the Thunder, they have those in surplus.
My proposal: The Thunder give Utah their own 2024 pick back (giving the Jazz incentive to tank), Miami’s 2025 first-round pick (protected 1-14), the Clippers’ and their own unprotected 2026 first-rounders, two second-rounders, Josh Giddey, Ousmane Dieng, Davis Bertans, and Kenrich Williams in exchange for Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk, whose contract expires at the end of the season.
Oklahoma City is running out of precious playing time to develop newcomers. Cason Wallace and Isaiah Joe deserve more run as it is, and this trade would open up room for them to contribute more and would bolster Oklahoma City’s ability to space the floor for Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Holmgren.
Kram: ESPN’s Brian Windhorst says there’s a “zero percent chance” that the Lakers would trade for Zach LaVine, but if you’re just asking what trade I want to see, that’s my pick. The Lakers need an offensive boost, and LaVine—a Klutch client who profiles best as an efficient, explosive no. 3 option next to two stars—needs a new team. I understand that LaVine’s long-term contract is scary, given his injury history, but the match just makes too much sense.
Beck: Mikal Bridges to Oklahoma City, for some combination of young players and draft picks. Let’s be clear: The Nets aren’t getting anywhere with Bridges as the pseudo–no. 1 option. He’s a fantastic, versatile, multiskilled two-way player—a guy every team would love to have—but his best role is as costar, not leading man.
The Nets would surely prefer to keep Bridges as the eventual Robin to some Batman to be named. That’s logical. And Bridges, at 27 years old, is just entering his prime. But how many years (and losing seasons) can Brooklyn endure until this mystery superstar appears? The Nets as constructed are uncompetitive and uninspiring, with little upside. They might not even make the play-in tournament. They’d be better off long-term swapping Bridges for younger prospects and picks—and the Thunder have a surplus of both.
You could argue that the Thunder have no urgency to make a deal. They’re young, talented, and just beginning a bright new era behind Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren, and Jalen Williams. But an “era” in today’s NBA sometimes ends before you can blink. There’s never a bad time to go all in. Also: They won’t be able to pay all of these guys, so they might as well consolidate. They should send the Nets some combination of players—Giddey, Wallace, a Williams (Jaylin or Kenrich), and a handful of first-round picks (from their stash of 30-plus) and take their best shot at winning the West.
Which team has the best chance of making a deep playoff run—the Suns, Lakers, or Warriors?
Kram: Can I cheat and sort of pick two teams? I’ll say the Lakers if they make a big trade, using their 2029 first-round pick as an incentive, just as they did last season with their 2027 first-rounder. LeBron James + Anthony Davis + defense is a proven formula.
But if the Lakers stand pat or make only small moves, I’ll take Phoenix, because the Suns have the star power and high-level scoring ability to defeat any individual opponent. Does that mean I think the Suns can win four series in a row, or even more if they land in the play-in because they have the hardest remaining schedule? No. But with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, they’ll have two of the top three players in any series they play—other than maybe against the Lakers—which is at least a good starting place for an upset.
Murdock: The Lakers. The Warriors are a shell of themselves, staring at the reality of missing out on the postseason altogether. And the lack of frontcourt depth will doom Phoenix’s run before it starts. That leaves the Lakers, who still have the skeleton of a contender with the pillars of Bron and AD, and the assets to bring in reinforcements before the looming trade deadline. Last year showed us not to bet against Bron and AD when they have a second wind, and if they can get on the right side of the bracket, away from Denver, they could be right in the mix by May.
Beck: This question simultaneously broke my brain and sent me into a mild depression. Because there’s a good chance the answer is, sadly, “None of the above,” and I’d prefer not to contemplate a spring without Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. It just feels wrong.
Logic says the Suns have the best shot—in part because they have three identifiable stars (yes, Bradley Beal still counts), and because they’ve looked much better recently with all three healthy. And if not the Suns, then bet on the Lakers, because LeBron is still LeBron, and Anthony Davis has been dominant all season.
But I’m shunning logic for now and picking the Warriors. Yes, it looks rather bleak at the moment, given Draymond Green’s volatility, Klay Thompson’s inconsistency, and, uh, whatever the heck is going on with Andrew Wiggins. But Curry is still making magic, Green is still a force when focused and Thompson still uncorks a 30-point explosion occasionally.
The bigger concern is the young guys, who have failed to produce when needed. The bet here is that the Warriors front office makes a big swing (or several) before the trade deadline, to give Curry the quality support he deserves, and to give that aging core one more chance at postseason glory.
Pina: When Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal share the floor, Phoenix outscores its opponent by 14.5 points per 100 possessions. That number provides the glass-half-full case for optimism, coming out of a nine-game, 175-minute sample size. Unlike the Lakers and Warriors, two teams unable to evolve internally and desperate to be rescued by a trade that might not exist, the Suns just need to get healthy, plus some time to jell.
Sohi: A dastardly fuck, marry, kill scenario here. Each of these teams is deeply flawed, and rightfully malleable. The Lakers and Warriors could make rotation-altering trades, but there’s no season-saving move out there. Frank Vogel should be shoulder-checking when he walks down the halls of the Footprint Center. That said … the Lakers … I guess? They’ve demonstrated how dominant and versatile they can be with a motivated LeBron James, and while they’d need luck by way of shooting, health, and timely performances from role players to replicate their in-season tournament run, those things exist within the realm of the possible. The Suns finding a way to protect the rim, and the Warriors turning back the clock—not so much.
What is the most intriguing second-half story line?
Beck: Honestly, weirdly, it’s the 65-game rule, which just might warp the awards races—and, possibly, the résumés of several stars.
To review: For the first time in NBA history, players must appear in at least 65 games to be eligible for MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, and the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. Which means that, for the next three months, we’ll be having some really strange conversations, like: Should Player A rest his sprained knee, or preserve his awards eligibility? Did Player X just load-manage his way out of the MIP race? If the team doctor insists on a rest day, but the player wants to stay awards-eligible, who wins the argument?
And those conversations are almost certainly coming. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid has already missed 10 games—meaning he can miss only seven more over the 76ers’ final 43 games. Luka Doncic, a perennial MVP candidate, has missed seven games.
And there are countless All-NBA candidates who might have trouble qualifying this season. Miami’s Jimmy Butler has missed 15 games, while costar Bam Adebayo has missed 10. Others on the watch list include Dallas’s Kyrie Irving (16 missed games), Denver’s Jamal Murray (14), Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell (nine), Suns stars Kevin Durant (seven) and Devin Booker (nine), Utah’s Lauri Markkanen (10), and the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson (eight). Indiana star Tyrese Haliburton, one of the best stories of the season, is currently out with a hamstring strain.
It’s a near-certainty that a deserving player (or several) will be disqualified by rule this year. And maybe that’s OK. Availability matters. And maybe one missed All-NBA team won’t impact anyone’s legacy or Hall of Fame chances. But, well, it also might?
I’ll just add, as a longtime awards voter, I’d prefer the NBA leave it to the judgment of the 100 voters, so we can assess each situation on its own merits. A star who missed three weeks in November and two weeks in March, with legitimate injuries (and no designated “rest” days), but dominated in the 64 games he played, should be eligible in my view. The voters historically have done a good job of weeding out players with low game totals, anyway. In that sense, the rule feels unnecessary.
I do understand the league’s desire to nudge stars to play more and rest less—and maybe the new rule gets it done. But this all feels a bit too rigid.
Pina: The Western Conference standings! There are so many important questions that may not be answered until early April, adding intrigue to a typically vapid stretch of the season. Who will finish first? Which four teams will earn home-court advantage in Round 1? Which two teams will put themselves in position to have it for Round 2? Who can avoid the ninth and 10th play-in spots to land the (slightly) more comfortable seventh and eighth seeds? Who tumbles out of the frame, down to 11th and 12th? The Timberwolves, Thunder, Nuggets, and Clippers have a realistic shot at that top spot. All should want it.
Sohi: Who can differentiate themselves from the murderers’ row of talent at the top of the NBA? The Nuggets’ drop-off doesn’t rise to the level of a championship hangover, but they do exhibit the post-afternoon fog of a team that powered through a morning after one beer too many often enough that it’s given about a fourth of the league a genuine reason to believe it could be their year.
The Celtics have the résumé, record, net rating, starting lineup, depth, and balance, with a top-five offense and defense. The new-look Clippers are getting more familiar, and more dominant, by the day. The Thunder are young, but they are exhausting to play, über-talented, and imbued with self-belief. The Bucks have the second most efficient offense in the NBA and Damian Lillard hasn’t even caught a rhythm yet. Miami is always lurking. Philly is probably a big 3-and-D wing away, but has a stocked asset chest for a contender thanks to the Harden trade, and Joel Embiid has never been better. Also, the vibes are immaculate.
Murdock: If the Thunder can follow through on their regular-season promise in the playoffs. They have the superstar face, a superior young supporting cast, and the perfect complementary pieces that should have the rest of the league shooketh. They also have signature wins against the Celtics, Nuggets, and Suns, proving that their swagger is no fluke. Their trajectory is eerily similar to the Thunder of the early 2010s, when Oklahoma City, led by KD, Russ, and Harden, methodically built a contender, reaching the first round, conference finals, and Finals in successive seasons. The current iteration of the team has the same twinkle in their eyes and the next few months will determine whether the stardust will send them into the league’s top tier of contenders.
Kram: We all knew the Bucks’ defense with Damian Lillard in place of Jrue Holiday would drop off—but the reality has been much worse than the hypothetical seemed. Halfway through the season, the Bucks rank 22nd in defensive rating; of the teams behind them, only the Pacers, who just traded for Pascal Siakam, have a winning record. The Bucks don’t have the assets to make a major deadline upgrade, and if rookie head coach Adrian Griffin can’t figure out a defensive scheme that at least leads to competent defense between now and April, it won’t matter that the Bucks have two superstars and a dominant offense and a top-two record in the East. The defense simply isn’t good enough for top-tier title contention.