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NBA at the break: Rod Beard looks at top players, title contenders, more

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Not only will the Golden State Warriors not be in the championship discussion this year, but they won’t even make the playoffs. What’s more, they’ll likely be closer to the No. 1 pick in the draft after injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry torpedoed their season.

The NBA title watch stays out west, though, as the Lakers and Clippers are garnering most of the attention. The Bucks and MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo have the best record in the league and are lying in the weeds, out of much of the hype and conversation about title favorites.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Several stars shifted teams and changed the look of the championship chase, including Anthony Davis landing with LeBron James with the Lakers and Kawhi Leonard joining Paul George with the Clippers, making Los Angeles the center of attention.

Those have been some of the top stories of the first half of the season, but the second half holds the next chapter and the prelude to the playoffs.

Here’s a look at some of the superlatives from the first half on NBA All-Star Weekend, and what to watch for in the playoff stretch drive:

Most Valuable Player

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: It’s looking like a repeat performance for Antetokounmpo, who has vaulted Milwaukee (46-8) to the best record in the league. He’s increased to career-high numbers of 30 points, 13.5 rebounds and a respectable 31 percent on 3-pointers. If the Bucks finish with the best record, he should win again.

LeBron James, Lakers: James has helped the Lakers get back to the apex of the West, at 41-12, four games ahead of the Nuggets. Of course, getting Anthony Davis has helped their fortunes, but James, at age 35, has done it with only 25 points, the lowest total since his rookie year, with a league-best 10.8 assists.

James Harden, Rockets: It could come down to the classic comparison of gaudy stats versus title contention. The numbers are big for Harden: 35.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists, and Houston is fifth in the West playoff race, within reach of getting as high as second.

Ja Morant

Rookie of the Year 

Ja Morant, Grizzlies: This looks to be a done deal already, because Morant has been one of the most exciting young players in the league, posting 17.6 points and 7.1 assists in 48 games. What’s more, he’s helping elevate Memphis to a playoff spot, which seemed unthinkable when he was taken second overall.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans: Because of injuries, the No. 1 pick has played in just 10 games, but has filled the stat sheet: 22.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 58 percent on field goals. Some pundits are saying there’s a chance Williamson can catch Morant’s production by the end of the season but it’s highly unlikely.

Tyler Herro, Heat: The 13th pick was one of the surprises of the season, but playing for a true contender, he got more attention and opened some eyes. He’s hitting 39 percent from beyond the arc, but an injury likely will limit him for much of the season after the All-Star break.

Erik Spoelstra

Coach of the Year

Erik Spoelstra, Heat: Miami (35-19) is one of the big surprises in the East, chasing the Celtics for the third spot in the playoff standings. With Jimmy Butler and a cast of up-and-coming talent, Spoelstra has them positioned to be contenders for years to come.

Mike Budenholzer, Bucks: After losing early in the playoffs last season, Milwaukee has retooled — and they still have the best record in the league. They have a size advantage at every position and with a good second half, they could be one of the top two favorites to with the NBA championship.

Mike Malone, Nuggets: With so much talk about the other top teams in the West, Malone has Denver (38-17) in the thick of it, with the second-best record. They could have a tough road getting to the Western Conference finals but they’re as deep and talented as the other contenders.

Title contenders

Bucks: They have the best record and the best player in the East, but the test will be whether they can get over the hump in the playoffs. Having Antetokounmpo makes things a bit easier.

Clippers: They’re on cruise control until they get closer to the playoffs, but adding Marcus Morris at the trade deadline could make them the prohibitive favorite, as one of the best defensive teams in the league.

Lakers: LeBron James and Anthony Davis are a formidable duo, but the key to the Lakers’ success could be what their supporting cast can do. Rajon Rondo will need to be Playoff Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Dwight Howard will have to elevate their games.

Raptors: Kawhi Leonard is gone to the Clippers but the Raptors still have a lineup that can get them back to the NBA Finals. They surprised almost everyone last season and if they get back there, they can do it again with Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.

All-Star Game

When: Sunday, 8 p.m., United Center, Chicago


Starters: Team LeBron – Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James. Team Giannis – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Kemba Walker, Trae Young.

Saturday’s events: Skills challenge, 3-point contest, dunk contest, 8 p.m. (TNT)


Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard