Time flies! A majority of NBA teams have played at least 41 games as of Wednesday night, which means we have already reached the halfway point of the 2021-22 season. Here are our crew’s thoughts on the best performers in the first half of the season.
1. Best Eastern Conference team of the first half?
CARLO: It’s the Chicago Bulls for me. They’ve weathered a Covid outbreak, dealt with other injuries, and are still somehow standing atop the Eastern Conference.
Things are clicking so well for them, and DeMar DeRozan has really come in to show his value, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he set what is probably an unbreakable record by being the only player to hit back-to-back shots to win a game in two separate years.
If anything, the Bulls are proving that the Nets need Kyrie Irving to be a full-time player. The Bulls’ quadruple-threat in DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Lonzo Ball sync so well with role players like Alex Caruso and the rest of their bench mob.
GIO: Considering what they’ve been through this season and how they fared last season, it’s easily the Chicago Bulls.
DeMar DeRozan has had what some would call a “career revival,” proving that the midrange remains alive and well on the way to leading the Bulls to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Special mention to EVP of Basketball Ops Arturo’s Karnisovas for putting this team together outsiders seeing him having Derozan, Lonzo Ball, and Nikola Vucevic as the second coming of the ill-fated Jimmy Butler-Dwayne Wade-Rajon Rondo trio.
ALDO: It’s definitely the first-place Chicago Bulls. Most preseason projections saw them as a middle of the pack team, but they’ve blown past those expectations.
DeMar DeRozan, who is playing the best basketball of his life, has been the biggest reason for their success. While his on-court production and the highlights that have come with it have grabbed all the headlines, his leadership in conjunction with their head coach Billy Donovan has been the driving force behind their success.
Most importantly, it has helped smoothen Zach LaVine’s transition from the team’s undisputed focal point a season ago to their option 1b this year. It has also helped bring out a higher level of defensive buy-in from Nikola Vucevic and career years from Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.
Come playoff time, there’s nothing more dangerous than a team whose players know and accept their role, which means that these Bulls need to be taken seriously by the rest of the East.
FT: Chicago Bulls. They’re number 1 in the East, 1.5 games clear of Brooklyn, and are 9-2 in their last 11 games. Given how both the Nets and Bucks have struggled as of late—the Nets have dropped six of their last nine, while the Bucks have started the new year 2-4—the Bulls are best of the East almost by default.
DeMar DeRozan had Bulls fans seeing “23” with his back-to-back game-winners, but Zach LaVine has been equally impressive. He’s averaging 25.6 points (8th in the NBA) while shooting an efficient 49.1% from the field (6th among guards) and 41.2% from three (4th among players with at least 100 makes). He was an inefficient volume scorer when he first came over to Chicago, but he’s showing that last year’s stellar .507/.419/.849 shooting splits on 19.4 FGA and 8.2 3PA was no fluke. One of the biggest questions coming into the season was his ability to co-exist with DeRozan, another ball-dominant wing, but both have thrived under the setup. The tandem is generating 112.3 points per 100 possessions and is the engine that drives the Bulls’ third-best offense.
2. Best Western Conference team of the first half?
CARLO: It’s a wash between the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns for me, and I think that’s awesome. The Suns are proving so far that their NBA Finals run wasn’t a mere fluke, and that they really have the talent and the will to compete with the best of the West.
The Warriors have been similarly great, with Steph Curry shooting his way into the record books. Granted, Steph’s had his fair share of struggles this season, but I think that also has a lot to do with how hard he’s had to carry the team sometimes. He’s been facing crazy double teams, but that just might change with Klay Thompson back in the fold.
I want a seven-game series between the Dubs and Suns in the playoffs. Hopefully in the Western Conference Finals.
GIO: It’s the Golden State Warriors. They’ve obviously had a better start than last season but how they’ve dominated so far this season and weathered some early storms is impressive to say the least.
The way the Warriors are playing this season brings back memories of the 2014-2015 title team but even better. Naturally, the holdovers from that team are a more experienced bunch but that they were able to integrate the likes of Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins while waiting for the return of Klay Thompson (who despite some rust played well) is laudable.
Key for them would be to stay healthy as the top of the Western Conference is shaping up to be a competitive one.
ALDO: A month ago, I would have picked the Phoenix Suns, but it’s difficult to make a case for anyone besides the Golden State Warriors at this point in time.
Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are playing like it’s 2016 while the rest of their team has fully embraced their respective roles as the ancillary pieces around these two future Hall of Famers.
Andrew Wiggins is drawing well-deserved All-Star buzz, Jordan Poole has become a legitimate scoring threat, and Kevon Looney stars in his role to perfection. This trickles down to the rest of their team and they have been playing with a collective joy that is reminiscent to their first title run.
The return of Klay Thompson this past week can only help their team and with the way that they’ve been playing, it’ll be difficult for anyone to thwart them from the top perch in the West for the remainder of the regular season.
FT: Golden State Warriors, by virtue of their 2-1 season series advantage over Phoenix. Those two teams have been in a league of their own this season—apart from being atop the standings, they’re 1-2 in defensive rating and 1-3 in point differential, with the Dubs holding the edge in both—and a Western Conference Finals showdown almost seems predestined.
The Warriors have the stingiest team defense in the NBA since the 2016 Spurs, with DPOY-candidate Draymond Green anchoring a D that limits opponents to 102.1 points per 100. But it’s not just Green. The team has maintained its airtight defense despite Green’s recent absence due to the health and safety protocols and a calf injury. Andrew Wiggins deserves All-Defense consideration for his improvement on the defensive end, while Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr., and Gary Payton II headline a lockdown second-unit.
But I’m not as high on the Warriors as most people are, particularly because they’ve tailed off significantly on offense (they only rank 26th since the start of December), which coincides with Steph Curry’s prolonged shooting slump (that talk of hitting 16 threes against Portland might have really upset the basketball gods). Maybe Klay Thompson’s return fixes all that—he looked good albeit rusty in his first two games back—but there’s an uneasiness watching the Warriors keep chucking up threes even on nights when everyone is ice-cold.
3. Who is the midseason MVP?
CARLO: When we were through a quarter of the season, my MVP was Steph Curry. Currently, the needle has shifted a bit toward DeMar DeRozan for me. Yes, he and Zach LaVine are putting up almost exactly the same numbers, but DeRozan’s move to the Bulls has really pushed them over the top.
The Eastern Conference is no joke this season, so managing to sit at the top is no easy feat.
GIO: My guide for MVP is more often than not the best player on the best team and right now it’s Stephen Curry. DeRozan and Giannis Antetokounmpo are playing well too to merit consideration, but Curry has been having too stellar of a season to not be the frontrunner at this point in the season.
ALDO: I have to go with Kevin Durant. He’s back to scoring effortlessly and is once again leading the league in points per game. Despite all of the theater surrounding Kyrie Irving and James Harden playing below his usual MVP-level, Durant’s consistency has kept the Brooklyn Nets near the top of the standings in what may be turning into the league’s stronger conference.
FT: Kevin Durant. The NBA’s leading scorer has scored at least 20 points in 34 of the 35 games he’s played this season. His consistency is the biggest reason why the Nets have the second-best record in the East despite a subpar season from James Harden and Kyrie Irving only returning for part-time duties last week. If it were any other superstar, the Nets would be hovering around .500 right now.
4. Who has been the best rookie?
CARLO: Evan Mobley is my rookie of the year halfway through the season. The Cavs have suffered devastating losses in the form of Colin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, but Mobley and the rest of the Cavs continue to fight hard.
I’m biased towards players that make two-way contributions, and Mobley’s 14.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.7 APG and 1.8 BPG as a rookie show that he has the makings of a future star. He’s played a major part in why the Cavs are playing a bit ahead of schedule and are competing for a guaranteed playoff spot, instead of hoping for the play-ins.
GIO: Evan Mobley has helped the Cavaliers remain in the playoff hunt and despite an injury early in the season, he continues to get better with each passing game.
Scottie Barnes should get some consideration and Cade Cunningham is finding his form, but Mobley’s total body of work is too hard to dismiss.
ALDO: Evan Mobley has to be the choice here. While Cade Cunningham has been putting up numbers and Scottie Barnes has found a niche on a team with a core that won a championship just three years ago, Mobley has defied expectations and is playing like an established veteran.
He’s a huge reason why the Cleveland Cavaliers are right in the thick of the playoff hunt despite all of the injuries that they have suffered and while it is still early, he is already looking like the clear-cut best player in this draft.
FT: Evan Mobley. Many experts projected Mobley to end up as the best player of the 2021 Draft five years from now, but it turns out he is the best player of the draft class period. He reminds me a lot of a young Anthony Davis, in terms of his raw athleticism, disruptive defense, and a better-than-expected offensive game. Check out how similar their rookie numbers are:
- AD (2012-13): 13.5 points/8.2 rebounds/1.8 blocks/55.9% true shooting percentage
- Mobley (2021-22): 14.9 points/8.1 rebounds/1.8 blocks/55.6% TS%
Scottie Barnes, Franz Wagner, and Cade Cunningham all have good statistical cases for the Rookie of the Year award, but Mobley is the only one from this draft class that I’d consider building a franchise around.
5. What is the best moment of the NBA’s first half?
CARLO: As a long-suffering Sacramento Kings fan, the best moment of the season for me so far was our triple-overtime victory against a Lakers squad that had LeBron James, Anthony Davis AND Russell Westbrook on the floor. We don’t win a lot of games, so getting one over those fuckers from LA is always sweet.
A close second is Klay Thompson’s comeback game. As a basketball fan, I’m simply happy to see someone come back to the game after devastating injuries. I honestly hope that Klay has a Kevin Durant-like return to form.
GIO: It’s not so much a moment but it’s more of the players who have gotten a chance, or for some second chance, to play in the NBA due to the Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
Of course it sucks it came at that cost, but they are proof that a lot deserve to be in the NBA and despite there being 30 teams, there’s just not enough opportunities. To see the likes of Greg Monroe, Lance Stephenson, and Stanley Johnson back in the NBA is great, and hopefully other players could be given the same opportunities.
ALDO: Call it recency bias, but the only thing that I can think of here is Ja Morant’s block versus the Los Angeles Lakers.
His athleticism is off the charts and the way that he uses it to enhance his game, instead of solely relying on it, is what makes him truly elite. He’s been drawing some favorable comparisons, most commonly to Allen Iverson, though some even
exaggerate believe that his ceiling may even be higher.
The fact that he does this on a winning team is special and it’s exciting to think about what the future has in store for this 22-year-old.
FT: Klay Thompson’s first NBA game after 941 days. The triumph of the human spirit over adversity makes this the feel-good story of the season. He suffered a torn ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals (which the Dubs lost), rehabbed for a year, then tore his Achilles even before training camp opened in 2020, and had to go through another yearlong rehab. Just seeing him back on the floor in front of the home crowd was an amazing sight, and he punctuated his return with a nasty dunk that brought the house down. An injured Green starting the game just to share the court with his brother for the opening tip was a nice gesture.
Honorable mentions: DeRozan’s back-to-back game-winning buzzer-beaters, becoming the first player in NBA history to hit such shots on back-to-back days; and Curry breaking Ray Allen’s all-time three-point record at the Mecca of Basketball.