NBA at the break: East is no longer Cavs and have-nots

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Giannis Antetokounmpo has the Milwaukee Bucks sitting atop the Eastern Conference with the NBA's best record at the All-Star break.

For the first time in years, there will be a different pairing in the NBA Finals. It won’t be the Warriors vs. Cavaliers this year — and the intrigue around which team comes out of the East will be as interesting as whether any team in the West can challenge the Warriors to get to the Finals.

The drama surrounding the free-agent moves in the summer and the player transition at the trade deadline makes the NBA the best of the pro sports. Even during Super Bowl weeks, the NBA was making headlines.

In the final stretch, there are still several individual awards that will be decided and the jockeying for playoff positioning will keeps fans interested the rest of the way. It’s not just the Warriors: LeBron James and the Lakers aren’t in playoff position, and the Bucks and Nuggets are looking to upset the status quo in their respective conferences.

It’ll make for a furious finish and still more interest and ink ahead of the summer free-agent season — before the cycle starts again.

Most Valuable Player

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: His numbers (27.3 points, 12.7 rebounds and six assists) aren’t as gaudy as some of the other candidates, but he has led Milwaukee (43-14) to the best record in the league. His excellence on both ends of the court lifts him to elite status. He’s shooting a career-best 58 percent from the field while keeping his minutes down.

Paul George is averaging 28.7 points, eight rebounds, and 4.1 assists this season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Paul George, Thunder: While Antetokounmpo has been the MVP favorite for most of the season, George (28.7 points, eight rebounds, 4.1 assists) is making a substantial charge of late, posting 38.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists — and 49 percent on 3-pointers — over his last eight games, and is looking every bit like the defensive player of the year. 

James Harden, Rockets: His streak of 31 consecutive games with 30 points or more is significant, but the Rockets aren’t the dominant team that they were last season and they depend almost entirely on Harden for offense. It’s no knock on the numbers: 36.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists, but Houston is hovering around fifth place in the West.

Others to consider: Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), Kawhi Leonard (Raptors), Joel Embiid (Sixers).

Most Improved Player

Pascal Siakam's 3-point percentage has improved 20 percentage points since his rookie season in 2016-17.

Pascal Siakam, Raptors: He’s having a breakout season, with 16.1 points and seven rebounds. Moving into a starting role alongside Kawhi Leonard has helped with his confidence and production and he’s responded to the increased workload. His 3-point percentage increased from 14 percent as a rookie to 34 percent in his third year.

De’Aaron Fox, Kings: The Kings are jockeying for a playoff spot in the West and Fox has provided much of the boost, increasing his scoring by 5.6 points, to 17.2. He’s also been steadier in field-goal percentage (46 percent), 3-pointers (37 percent) and assists (7.2) over a solid rookie season.

Domantas Sabonis, Pacers: Once deemed to be a small cog in the Paul George trade, Sabonis has been a valuable reserve piece for the Pacers. He’s their super-sub, but is posting starting numbers: 14.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and is 8-of-14 on 3-pointers. He could win Sixth Man of the Year, also. 

Others to consider: Buddy Hield (Kings), John Collins (Hawks) and Bryn Forbes (Spurs).

Coach of the Year

Mike Budenholzer, Bucks: One of the biggest surprises in the league is Milwaukee, which has quietly gone about its business as much of the talk has been around the Celtics and Sixers. They constructed much of the roster last season, but they’ve connected well this season, with a league-best 43-14 record.

Mike Malone, Nuggets: With their young roster, they aren’t supposed to be this good this quickly. The Nuggets have been riddled with injuries, but have been one of the better defensive teams in the West. At 39-18, Malone has them nipping at the Warriors’ heels for the best record in the conference; they’ll be a big storyline in the second half, if they can maintain their surge.

Nick Nurse, Raptors: The cupboard wasn’t bare when Nurse took over for Dwane Casey, but the rookie coach has done a good job managing the roster with the arrival of Kawhi Leonard and by carving out a starting role for Pascal Siakam. With hefty expectations, they’ve been able to deliver, with a 43-16 record.

Others to consider: Dave Joerger (Kings), Kenny Atkinson (Nets), Doc Rivers (Clippers).

Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks appears to have NBA Rookie of the Year honors locked up.

Rookie of the Year

Luka Doncic, Mavericks: It’s almost a foregone conclusion, as Doncic has become one of the most excited players — rookie or veteran — to watch in the league. He’s posting 20.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists, but the excitement he’s brought to Dallas, along with the pending arrival of Kristaps Porzingis, has brought optimism to an otherwise dull season.

DeAndre Ayton, Suns: He’s had a solid rookie season (16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds), but Doncic has rendered everyone else an honorable mention. Big men generally are slower to develop, and Ayton still is a formidable piece of the Suns’ rebuilding process.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies: After a mediocre season at Michigan State, he’s making a mark as a building block for Memphis, as he’s posting 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 36 percent on 3-pointers. With Marc Gasol gone, Jackson will get more attention in the post, and they’ll look to run more offense through him.

Others to consider: Trae Young (Hawks)

Surprise teams

Denver Nuggets: Many experts predicted the Nuggets would make a jump — but not to the upper echelon of the West. They led the conference for much of the first half and they’ll likely host a first-round playoff series. Nikola Jokic is one of the most underrated players in the league, but he’s getting a bigger profile with their success.

Brooklyn Nets: After an 8-18 start, the perennial East doormat made a huge leap, moving to playoff contention at sixth place at 30-29. They did most of that without an injured Caris LeVert (Michigan), but with a huge season from D’Angelo Russell, who earned his first All-Star selection.

Sacramento Kings: At 30-27, the Kings already have eclipsed their win total from last season — and they’re within three of their most in the past decade. Their young talent is jelling at the right time, with Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox headlining their turnaround. A playoff appearance would be a major step up in their rebuild.

Others to consider: Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers

Disappointing teams

Boston Celtics: After their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Celtics were projected to be the class of the conference, but are tied with the Sixers for fourth. They’ve had some personnel drama and the uncertainty around Kyrie Irving’s future with the team and their struggles have put the spotlight directly on coach Brad Stevens.

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are in 10th place in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers: Even after adding LeBron James, they weren’t seen as a favorite in the West. But, for them to be in 10th at 28-29 is one of the biggest stories of the season’s first half. The trade rumors involving Anthony Davis might have impacted their young players — maybe more drastically than anyone thought.

Washington Wizards: Injuries affect almost every team, but when the Wizards lost John Wall for the season, they already were in the bottom half of the East. They underachieved in the first half and dealt Otto Porter at the trade deadline, signaling they might be breaking apart their core.

Others to consider: Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans

What to watch

LeBron and the playoffs: The Lakers are on the outside looking in at the break and one has to wonder what the playoffs would look like without LeBron James. It likely won’t happen. Not getting Anthony Davis is a big enough disappointment for Magic Johnson and company, but the embarrassment (or benefit) of being in the lottery could make up for it.

The West race: Only four games separate fourth-place Portland from ninth-place Sacramento. There will be plenty of jockeying and jostling in the final stretch of the season. It could mean a couple of favorites miss out — or it could lead to some intriguing first-round matchups in the playoffs.

The tankers: The race for the bottom will be as intriguing, though there isn’t as much benefit, as the league has balanced out the odds of getting a top-four pick to encourage teams to have something to play for in the waning weeks of the season. The Knicks, Suns, Cavs, Bulls and Hawks have the inside track on trying to have the worst record.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard