Kevin Durant is an MVP favorite in 2013-14, while Derrick Rose is back on the mend.
The first half of the NBA's 2013-14 season contained no shortage of surprises, both positive and negative.
It didn't take long for the madness to commence. After beating the Chicago Bulls on opening night, the defending champion Miami Heat fell to the "tanking" Philadelphia 76ers one night later, although both teams have since regressed to the mean.
Unpredictability even spread outside the U.S., as the Toronto Raptors substantially improved after trading their highest-paid player to the Sacramento Kings in December.
Halfway into the season, the legitimate championship contenders are creating separation from the pretenders. Meanwhile, the race to the top of the lottery will only heat up from this point forward, once more teams decide to bottom out.
Let's look back on 12 of the biggest winners and losers from the first half of the 2013-14 season, based on how they've fared compared to their preseason expectations.
All advanced statistics, unless otherwise noted, come from Basketball-Reference. All statistics and records are current through games played on Jan. 19.
Halfway through the 2013-14 regular season, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant is the runaway favorite for the Most Valuable Player award.
With all due respect to four-time regular-season MVP LeBron James, there's no debate between him and Durant at the moment. Even before KD exploded for a career-high 54 points against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 17, he had begun to open a sizable gap between himself and all other MVP contenders.
Advanced statistics make a rather convincing case for the OKC star. He ranks first in the league in player efficiency rating (30.5), win shares (10.5) and win shares per 48 minutes (.324) through Jan. 19, which gives him an unbeatable MVP resume for now.
As if that weren't enough, Durant also leads the league in scoring (30.6 points per game) with a slash line of .497/.396/.881. If he's able to maintain his scoring lead and boost his shooting percentages slightly, he'd be the NBA's first-ever scoring champion in the 50-40-90 Club.
For the icing on the cake, Durant is averaging a career-high five assists per contest, too. He's threatening to become just the fifth player in NBA history to average 30 points, eight rebounds and five dimes a game, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan, per Basketball-Reference.
Plenty can shake up the MVP race between now and the end of the regular season, such as James' Miami Heat ripping off another 27-game win streak. Heading into the second half of the year, however, KD clearly holds the pole position for the award.
Since signing J.R. Smith to a three-year deal worth roughly $18 million back in July, the New York Knicks appear to have developed a severe case of buyer's remorse.
Smith intentionally waited until the week after signing his new contract to undergo surgery on his left knee, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley, because "it made more sense for [his] family." The Knicks supposedly supported the decision to delay surgery, even though it caused the mercurial guard to miss most of training camp.
To make matters worse, in September, the NBA suspended him for the first five games of the season for violating the terms of the league's anti-drug program. In response to the suspension, Knicks coach Mike Woodson said Smith "has got to grow up and do the right things," per Begley.
That message apparently never made its way to the 28-year-old, however. On Jan. 5, Smith untied one of the shoes of Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion before a free-throw attempt and then tried to pull the same stunt against Detroit Pistons forward Greg Monroe two nights later.
The shoelace stunts earned Smith a $50,000 fine from the league and got him benched against the Miami Heat on Jan. 9. New York also began exploring the potential trade market for the guard, per Begley and ESPN.com's Marc Stein, although his career-low shooting percentage of .368 won't help much in that regard.
Who saw the Portland Trail Blazers emerging as a legitimate championship contender in 2013-14? Not even the Blazers' front office, that's who.
Back in August, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey told Grantland's Zach Lowe that he didn't "talk as much about trying to win a title, but more about being a factor in the playoffs." In other words, even advancing past the first round of the postseason would qualify as a major success.
Based on the way Portland looked during the first half of the 2013-14 season, there's now reason for fans to dream even bigger. The Blazers, at 31-9, are tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the Western Conference, and their plus-6.65-per-game point differential ranks fourth in the league.
In 2012-13, the Blazers scored 105.8 points per 100 possessions (15th in the league) and allowed opponents to average 109.2 points per 100 possessions (26th in in the league). They're vastly improved on both fronts this season, averaging a league-leading 114.1 points per 100 possessions and allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions (20th in the NBA).
As Lowe suggested in August, a league-average defense combined with a top-eight offense would give the Blazers a "good shot at making the playoffs." Barring a catastrophic injury, qualifying for the postseason appears to be the floor, not the ceiling, for this year's Portland squad.
Halfway through the 2013-14 season, the Brooklyn Nets appear to be this year's edition of the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers: a hastily cobbled collection of stars faltering under the weight of heightened expectations.
When the Nets traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the night of the 2013 draft, they immediately appeared to transform into one of Miami's biggest threats in the Eastern Conference. After all, how many teams can start a former All-Star at all five positions?
The season quickly went south on Brooklyn, however. Between Deron Williams' ongoing ankle problems, Brook Lopez breaking his foot and the Jason Kidd-Lawrence Frank fiasco, the team's championship hopes have gone up in flames.
At 16-22, the Nets currently hold the No. 8 seed in the East, but that's more a reflection of the conference's tragic mediocrity than anything else. Nothing about Brooklyn's first 38 games suggests that it can topple Miami or Indiana in a seven-game playoff series.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov racked up an $80-plus million luxury-tax bill for this? Here's hoping his other investments aren't nearly as disastrous.
For the first time in 1,502 days, per ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh, Miami Heat center Greg Oden played in a regular-season NBA game.
Oden played for eight minutes in his season debut against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 15, notching six points on 2-of-3 shooting and two rebounds.
"It felt good, just being able to be back out on the court," Oden said after the game, per Haberstroh. "Honestly, the big thing is, to be able to have now that connection now with my teammates."
Most importantly, Oden emerged from the game with no significant pain or swelling in his balky knees, according to ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. "Honestly, when I was out there [Wednesday], I didn't even think about my knees," Oden said the day after the game.
After sitting out Miami's 101-86 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 17, Oden played five minutes in the 104-96 overtime win over the Charlotte Bobcats the next night. He's not producing much of an on-court impact yet, but his avoidance of any major complications makes him a first-half-of-the-season winner by default.
Two years ago, Andrew Bynum appeared ready to dethrone Dwight Howard as the NBA's best center. Now, Bynum sits on the unemployment line, having played a grand total of 24 games since the conclusion of the 2011-12 season.
After not playing a single minute for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012-13, Bynum signed a two-year, $24 million contract with Cleveland during the 2013 offseason, only $6 million of which was guaranteed. Structuring his contract in such a unique way turned out to be extraordinarily wise for the Cavaliers.
The Cavs indefinitely suspended Bynum in late December for "conduct detrimental to the team," per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, and immediately put him on the trade block. Less than two weeks later, Cleveland shipped him to the Chicago Bulls for Luol Deng.
Chicago wasted no time waiving the 26-year-old big man, and no team pounced on the opportunity to sign him off waivers. Eight teams reportedly expressed interest in signing Bynum, per ESPN.com's Chris Broussard, but teams are shying away from his desire to receive more than a minimum contract, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
The guy averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game during the 2011-12 season, yet two years later, no team wants to give him more than a minimum contract? That's how someone who earned $6 million for half a season of service can still be dubbed a "loser."
How can the fans of a 13-27 team be considered winners? When the long-term plan of that squad's front office appears to be crystallizing right before our very eyes.
The Philadelphia 76ers entered the 2013-14 season with no intention of making the playoffs. In fact, after their draft-night trade of All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, the team entered the year expected to win fewer than 20 games, per the Las Vegas Hilton (via SheridanHoops.com).
Given the insane depth of the 2014 draft class, the race to the bottom made perfect sense for a Sixers team stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity for the past half-decade. Landing a prospect like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid will only expedite the team's rebuilding process.
Making matters better for the Sixers, the New Orleans Pelicans are unable to stay healthy. Along with rookie Nerlens Noel, the Pellies sent over a top-five protected 2014 first-round draft pick in the deal for Holiday. As long as the lottery gods don't betray Philly, there's a realistic chance that general manager Sam Hinkie will have two top-10 picks at his disposal in June.
And while the Sixers' on-court product ranges between "semi-competent" and "raging tire fire" on a night-to-night basis, rookie Michael Carter-Williams has been a revelation. The Syracuse product is averaging 17.3 points, 6.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals per night, earning front-runner status for the Rookie of the Year award.
Chicago Bulls fans entered the 2013-14 season with legitimate championship hopes, as former MVP Derrick Rose made his long-awaited return from ACL surgery.
Those championship hopes went up in flames on Nov. 21, however, when Rose tore the medial meniscus in his right knee against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Once Rose went down, Chicago's front office decided to transition into full-on tank mode. In early January, the Bulls shipped out Luol Deng for a handful of future draft picks and Andrew Bynum, whom they promptly waived to get under the luxury tax.
Per ESPN.com's Chad Ford, Chicago might not be done just yet. In a Jan. 8 SportsNation chat, Ford revealed that there has been "lots of trade talk" about both center Joakim Noah and guard Kirk Hinrich, as the team's "management has made the decision to tank this season."
Now, Bulls fans are left wondering whether they can rely upon Rose as the long-term face of their franchise. This season couldn't have unfolded much worse for Chicago.
Given how the first half of their respective seasons unfolded, Doc Rivers must have zero regrets about leaving the Boston Celtics for the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2013 offseason.
Rivers abandoned ship once it became clear the Celtics planned on trading away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, as he clearly wanted no part of a long-term rebuild. He convinced the Celtics to release him from his contract, per ESPNBoston.com's Jackie MacMullan, in exchange for the Clippers' 2015 first-round pick.
The deal worked out famously for both sides. As great as Brad Stevens and the Celtics' long-term future appear, the addition of Rivers turned the Clippers into legitimate dark-horse title contenders.
At 28-14, the Clips currently hold the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference and a two-game lead over the Golden State Warriors for the Pacific Division crown. Rivers deserves much of the credit for Los Angeles' substantial improvement, particularly when it comes to center DeAndre Jordan.
Even before the start of the season, Doc touted Jordan as part of the Clippers' "Big Three," per ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi. Lo and behold, the center is averaging career highs in points (9.5), rebounds (13.5), assists (0.9), steals (1.0), blocks (2.5) and minutes (35.4) per game, helping to anchor the Clips' eighth-ranked defense like Garnett did in Boston.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' decision to grab Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 draft pick in 2013 looks like a mistake that could haunt the franchise for years to come.
As SB Nation's Drew Garrison noted on Jan. 14, the rookie currently has the worst PER of any No. 1 pick in NBA history. His PER of 1.0 is 10.2 points lower than the next lowest, owned by the unmitigated disaster known as Kwame Brown.
Bennett ranks dead last in the league with negative-0.9 win shares, suggesting that his presence on the court has actually cost the Cavaliers close to one win. He's producing an estimated 66 points per 100 possessions this season, the lowest of any player with at least 150 minutes under his belt.
His shooting splits—26.9 percent from the floor, 14.3 percent from three-point range and 59.1 percent from the charity stripe—are cringe-worthy. On 108 field-goal attempts this season, the rookie has recorded a grand total of 75 points.
Bennett says he's open to a stint in the NBA Development League, per Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer, as he admits that he's "kind of behind in everything." Suffice it to say, this can't be what Cleveland expected from its No. 1 pick.
How often can a team trade its two highest-paid players and significantly improve its on-court product? Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri pulled off that very feat over the past seven months.
On June 30, Ujiri agreed to send Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks in exchange for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, a 2016 first-round pick and two future second-round picks, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Seeing as Ujiri made clear his desire to move Bargnani by July 1, the deal was nothing short of a heist.
The GM wasn't done wheeling and dealing, however. On Dec. 9, the Raptors and Sacramento Kings completed a seven-player trade headlined by Rudy Gay. As noted by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Chris Broussard, Toronto "essentially offload[ed] his contract, which has another year and $20 million on it, for three players who will be free agents after this season."
No matter what happened to the Raptors from that point forward, Ujiri would have been declared a first-half-of-the-season winner. He managed to wipe clear Toronto's two biggest cap commitments without giving up anything of value.
Making matters even more impressive? The Raptors have substantially improved since the Gay trade. After starting the season 6-12 with Gay in the lineup, they've gone 14-7 without him, vaulting themselves into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak entered the 2013-14 season with a lose-lose proposition on the table.
Kobe Bryant, fresh off a torn Achilles tendon, was entering the final year of his contract. If Kupchak allowed the Black Mamba's deal to expire at the end of the season, he ran the risk of losing Bryant in 2014 free agency for nothing in return.
On the other hand, Kobe made clear to Serena Winters of LakersNation.com that he didn't plan on taking a pay cut to preserve the Lakers' cap space. Handing $20-plus million a year to a 35-year-old coming off Achilles surgery isn't the stuff of general managers' dreams, to say the least.
In the end, Bryant won out, signing a two-year, $48.5 million extension before ever playing a minute on that repaired Achilles tendon. "One meeting," he told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "and it was basically done."
It didn't take long for the risk involved in such a contract to rear its ugly head, sadly. Six games into Bryant's return from his Achilles injury, he fractured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee, sidelining him yet again. With Bryant on the mend once more, the Lakers have plummeted to a 16-25 record, fourth worst in the West.