We're halfway home, folks!
Roughly 41 games into the 2015-16 NBA season, we've learned a lot about expectation-smashing greatness, catastrophic failure and Jeremy Lin's hair—in some order.
There's a lot to digest here, so it's best to get to it. Here are 41 takeaways to commemorate the NBA season's midway point.
Great Can Always Be Greater
A 67-win season and a relatively easy run to the title were supposed to represent the mountaintop for the Golden State Warriors. But instead of planting a flag at the supposed summit, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and friends strapped on jetpacks and rocketed into the clouds. A higher net rating, better record and louder statement wins (See: 132-98 demolition of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday) all signal last year's best are even better now.
Stephen Curry Is a New Thing
Curry's improvement on last year's MVP campaign stands as one of the least-foreseen developments from the first half. Before the season, NBA general managers gave him a 7.1 percent chance of capturing another MVP trophy. In proving those percentages wrong, Steph has also engineered a paradigm shift in the league. Never before has a player been a threat from 35 feet off the dribble, and never before have defenses had no choice but to break all of the normal rules to stop him.
Kawhi Leonard's Rare Rise: Remarkable
You're not supposed to dramatically improve during a foundation-shifting transition period, but Kawhi Leonard's ascent to the top of the San Antonio Spurs' hierarchy (to the extent anything like that exists within the league's most egalitarian outfit) has happened in concert with all reaching peak dominance and efficiency. San Antonio crushed everyone at a historic rate in December and has quietly been the league's best statistical team for weeks. It's a rare brand of superstar whose rise doesn't rock the boat.
Latvia's Chief Export Is Joy
Kristaps Porzingis inspires jams, unabashed fan worship and fuzzy feelings in approximately equal measure. His surprising readiness as a rookie has the New York Knicks in the most promising position they've enjoyed in a while. Whether he beats Karl-Anthony Towns for Rookie of the Year hardly matters; routine tip dunks and the feel of a guard in a 7'3" frame give Knicks fans more idiot-grin happiness than any trophy ever could.
For Miami, This Is All There Is
Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald knows the Miami Heat better than you or anyone else. He gets this team's takeaway:
This—slightly above average—might not be Miami's ceiling, but it's within a fingertip's touch. This is a good team, not a great one, and even staying "good" might prove greatly challenging, with injuries mounting and the schedule stiffening. Just as it's time for the aforementioned cubicle-cramped men to abandon childhood ambitions of becoming astronauts or emperors, it's time for optimistic observers to abandon preseason expectations for these Heat to become champions.
The Sun Will Explode and Destroy Us All
Whoa, things got pretty morose all of a sudden. Don't worry, though—that's just a typo.
It should read: "The Suns Have Exploded and Destroyed Themselves," which they've done in spectacular fashion. Markieff Morris threw a towel at Jeff Hornacek, Eric Bledsoe is done for the year and the team has essentially quit on both ends. Nobody's been worse than Phoenix for the past few weeks, and there's little hope of things getting better in the second half.
It Is the Wrong Year to Be a Flawed Contender
Being really good isn't enough these days, not when "historically great" is the prerequisite for serious title contention. Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus explained the rare phenomenon of two transcendent squads, Golden State and San Antonio, ruining things for everyone else:
Anchorage Man @SethPartnow
In most seasons they (and OKC/LAC) are *right there* with what they have. GSW & SA are just a cut above & there's nothing much they can do.2016-1-19 16:42:34
We Jumped the Gun on the East's Rise
Early on, it felt like the Eastern Conference's days as a punching bag were over. Virtually everyone besides the Philadelphia 76ers was above or near .500, and there were frequently six or seven East clubs in most observers' top 10s. Halfway through the year, four of the league's five best teams are in the West (San Antonio, Golden State, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles are up there with the lonely Cavs), and we haven't even seen the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks or Memphis Grizzlies hit their stride. Order will be restored in the second half.
The Grizzlies Will Keep Doing It Their Way, Thank You Very Much
A handful of early blowout losses means the Memphis Grizzlies' per-game differential is only 10th-best in the West, but they're somehow the No. 5 seed in the playoff race. The Grizzlies are doing this, predictably, by winning close games with defense, grit and experience. Still allergic to the three-ball (fifth-worst accuracy rate, fourth-fewest attempts), Memphis refuses to embrace the trends of today. The Grizzlies can't contend for a ring, but they're at least competing on their own terms.
That's kind of honorable—in a tragic way.
Kevin Durant Is Himself
Whatever worries attended a fractured 2014-15 season are gone now, as Kevin Durant's comeback from multiple foot surgeries has been a relief. Durant is the same dominant force he used to be, with his first-half true shooting percentage near the career high he set in 2012-13. In even better news for the Thunder, Russell Westbrook used his solo time last year to become KD's equal.
Nobody's one-two punch is better.
All It Takes Is Opportunity
If you watched C.J. McCollum's postseason scoring binge in 2015, you might not have been stunned by the way he played in this year's first half—especially with four of five Portland Trail Blazers starters gone and loads of shots up for grabs. Still, it's been exciting to see McCollum triple last season's scoring average while sustaining his efficiency. He just needed a chance.
Kobe: The Great Uniter
His early-season inefficiency, enabled by an organization complicit in the whole mess, was divisive. But as the first half wore on, and particularly after he announced his plans to retire, the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant achieved something close to universal acceptance. Knowing the end of something truly significant—Bryant's career—was coming seemed to galvanize fans and detractors in a similar way. Lovers and haters came together to appreciate a farewell tour for one of the NBA's most iconic figures. It's been weird. And surprising. And pretty cool.
Meteoric Rises Aren't Easy
Anthony Davis was on everyone's MVP short list before the season began, and his New Orleans Pelicans were supposed to contend for a top-four playoff spot in the West. It made sense: Davis had just finished one of the best seasons ever for a 22-year-old, and New Orleans had a new coach in Alvin Gentry who was going to make it much better. Everything's gone wrong, and the Pelicans are headed for the lottery.
Maybe we should keep this in mind next time we feel so certain about a superstar's uninterrupted ascent.
Kristaps Is Not Alone
Karl-Anthony Towns might lack the novelty of a 7'3" perimeter player with handles, passing touch and a European pedigree. But he makes up for it with a can't-miss makeup and a striking historical comp, per Synergy Sports:
Synergy Sports Tech @SynergySST
Karl-Anthony Towns's offensive efficiency is almost identical to Anthony Davis's from his rookie year; a closer look https://t.co/RKgL161b1x2016-1-19 18:06:56
KAT is going to be special.
The Nets Aren't Learning
The Brooklyn Nets belong to Mikhail Prokhorov, so he can do whatever he wants and say anything he likes about them. It's just that, after scuttling his team's future by so aggressively championing shortcuts to present contention, you'd think he would have learned something.
"I'm sure for the next season, we'll be, I hope, championship contender," he told reporters Jan. 11.
The Nets don't control their own first-round pick until 2019 and don't have a viable cornerstone on their roster. This is bad, and Prokhorov doesn't seem to have a realistic handle on how to make it better.
Jimmy Butler Is Defiant
This has nothing to do with first-half rumblings that Jimmy Butler was enjoying his own stardom a little too much. Instead, it's about how Butler has bucked convention and improved substantially (and unexpectedly) in each of his last three seasons. All defense at first, he learned to draw fouls last year. Now, he runs pick-and-rolls, attacks the bucket and controls both ends as a legitimate star.
Blake Griffin Should Miss Time Every Year
The Clippers have been without Blake Griffin (partially torn quadriceps) since the day after Christmas, and all they've done in that span is amass a 10-1 mark. Their schedule has been soft, but it seems Griffin's absence has forced L.A. to sharpen up, just like it did last year, when it went 9-6 without him in February and March. If everything goes to plan, the Clips will go on another massive run when Griffin returns.
At Least the Kings' Timing Is Good
Sacramento mortgaged its future in an impatient, ill-advised push for the playoffs this season. And even if securing the eighth seed is a silly goal, it seems the Kings picked the right year to pursue it. The West is top-heavier, and those last couple of playoff spots are easier to grab, than in a long time. The Kings, led by the highly productive (and highly volatile) duo of Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, might just achieve what they set out to do.
Less Is More
The slimmer version of Kyle Lowry is showing no signs of breaking down after a first half in which he played the best ball of his career while elevating the Toronto Raptors to clear second-best status in the East.
Hit the gym, everybody.
Kyle Lowry Will Check Your Math
Two Lowry takeaways in a row? Yes, but only because this is the best interview clip of the first half, bar none.
DeMar DeRozan = Best
We have to redeem the Toronto Raptors shooting guard. Turns out that's easy: DeMar DeRozan is in the midst of his best year ever, setting career highs in scoring, assist rate and free-throw rate, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Even better: DeRozan had the best dunk of the first half.
The Cavaliers Are Going to Get Bored
Nonetheless, it's clear the Raptors will be little more than an annoyance to the Cavs, who reside on a different plane than everyone else in the East. Even without Kyrie Irving for most of the first half, Cleveland ran up the conference's best record and nosed its way into fringe contention. And now that everyone's healthy, the Cavs are primed to run away with the conference.
The Process Can Still Work
That's capital-P Process—the one the Sixers had been painstakingly following for a couple of years before Jahlil Okafor got himself into a couple of street fights and everyone freaked out over Philadelphia's lack of veteran leadership. Just remember that it was Sam Hinkie's dogged accumulation of assets that will help new chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo institute more rapid change.
Rick Carlisle Only Does One Thing
No DeAndre Jordan? No worries.
Rick Carlisle has again proved he can win with any personnel (Rajon Rondo excluded) by leading the Dallas Mavericks to the West's fifth-best record through Monday. Deron Williams, Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews make up a fragile core, but Carlisle has persevered by leaning on Dirk Nowitzki's offense and Zaza Pachulia's dirty work.
Let's spot him the Nets' roster next year and see if he can win 50 games.
Aging Is Mostly Optional
Speaking of Nowitzki, 37-year-old 7-footers aren't supposed to be playing basketball at all, let alone functioning as offensive hubs for playoff teams. Yet there's Dirk, averaging 17.8 points per game through his first 40 contests and hitting just a hair under 40 percent of his threes.
And there's Tim Duncan, 40 in April, anchoring the interior of the best defense in the NBA in over a decade.
Father Time isn't winning anymore. He's just watching, as amazed as all of the rest of us.
Byron Scott Is Not Impressed by Your Manhood
"I told them at halftime, 'Sooner or later, you've got to man up.' Sometimes it doesn't come down to X's and O's. You've got guys going at you. You've got to man up," Byron Scott said after an Oct. 30 loss, per Lakers.com.
"It's all about manning up," Scott said after a Nov. 16 loss, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com.
"He's got to grow up. Simple as that," Scott said of Julius Randle on Jan. 4, per Holmes.
You get the idea. Scott has been belittling the young players on his team all year. And it's working! The Lakers have responded and are playing great! Oh, wait. Except not that at all.
Draymond Green Is Better Than His Stats
The great irony of Green leading the NBA with eight triple-doubles and amassing more assists than all but five players (all point guards, by the way) in the first half is that his greatest value to the Warriors isn't statistical. It's emotional.
Green is the galvanizing force—the loudest, chippiest, most ruthlessly intense competitor on the roster. He sets the tone. It's just that he gets his numbers now, too.
Change Is Good
The Indiana Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race thanks to a new, smaller, uptempo identity. The change from lumbering, oversize beast felt risky during the summer, and Paul George's initial reluctance to play power forward wasn't a promising sign. But the Indiana defense remains in top-five territory, and the team's scoring is punchier than it's been in years.
The change worked, due in no small part to George changing, too. He's in the midst of a career year that makes his broken leg seem like something we all imagined.
The Clippers Are Figuring It Out
Per Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group, Austin Rivers had this to say about L.A. being one of the league's most hated teams on the Jim Rome Show:
Diamond Leung @diamond83
Austin Rivers to Rome on why ppl hate Clips: "For one, if I had to choose a reason, a lot of times ppl feel like our team complains a lot."2016-1-19 22:39:40
Leadership Still Matters
The Houston Rockets started the season as a trendy pick to contend, which was defensible after they added Ty Lawson to a team that got much healthier in the summer after it reached the conference finals.
Houston has been among the most disappointing in the league, suffering all year from lapses in effort, general malaise and a visibly shaky chemistry. James Harden hasn't been the leader the Rockets need, B/R's Jonathan Feigen explained in November, and it's still holding Houston back today.
The Hawks Are Who We Thought They Were
The win total won't hit 60 this season, which validates those who believed it never should have last year. Atlanta hasn't replaced DeMarre Carroll, and Kyle Korver's shooting has slipped. Result: The Hawks are good but hardly a threat to do damage deep into the playoffs.
It's Still a Star's League
Everyone appreciates the collective spirit, defensive intensity and brilliant coaching that drives the Boston Celtics. But it'd be nice if they could lean on a true star to get them buckets late in games. They rank 19th in the league in clutch offense, per NBA.com. The Celtics are playing the long game, so don't expect them to trade assets for that badly needed star in the second half.
Everyone Likes Boban
How can you not be entertained by the Spurs' enormous backup center? There aren't many high-leverage minutes in Boban Marjanovic's future this season, but seeing the 7'3", 290-pounder dominate garbage time is treat enough.
The Jazz Aren't Finished Yet
After a Murphy's Law first half in which everything that could have gone wrong did, the Utah Jazz start the second semester in playoff position, albeit only a hair ahead of the Blazers and Kings. That's encouraging, as Rudy Gobert is already back from an extended absence. And Derrick Favors' back spasms can't limit him forever, right? Utah can still deliver on the hopes many had before the year started...as long as things are done going wrong.
Jeremy Lin's Hair Is Still This Way
When you lose a bet to Spencer Hawes, you lose for (at least) 40 games. Here's hoping Hawes eventually surrenders his right to select Lin's hairstyle before each game. Enough is enough.
Steve Kerr Is the Exception, Not the Rule
Both the Bulls and Thunder changed coaches after enjoying protracted but ultimately unsatisfactory runs of success. The Warriors' leap in Kerr's first year last season seemed to awaken hopes of going from good to great elsewhere. Cut to midseason, and neither the Bulls nor the Thunder seem all that different under Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan than they were with Tom Thibodeau or Scott Brooks in charge.
Maybe the lesson is that replacing a coach is only guaranteed to foster improvement if that coach is Mark Jackson...or Kerr. Luke Walton has done fine as an interim coach for half the year.
Nobody Is Any Closer to Reading Kevin Durant's Mind
You don't need telepathy to understand some of KD's thoughts. He's been plenty vocal about his feelings on the media, for example.
One area that has been inscrutable all year, though, is his plans for unrestricted free agency this summer. Will he stay in OKC? Go home to Washington? Start working as a beat writer?
Nobody knows, and it's starting to look like nobody will until he makes an official decision in July.
We're Going to Need a Four-Point Line
Three points just doesn't seem like enough. Curry led the league with 6.9 attempts per game from 25-29 feet in the first half of the year, and he hit 45.3 percent of those shots.
That's just dumb.
The Future Is Here
You could have been courtside for the season opener between the Warriors and Pelicans, even if you were really on your couch. The NBA, Turner Sports and NextVR partnered to live stream that game in virtual reality. If you haven't seen/heard/felt what that was like, find a couple hundred bucks or a friend with a Gear VR rig and investigate immediately. It's insane.
Pop Is Enjoying This
You couldn't always tell, but Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was pretty happy during the season's first half. He pulled Tony Parker aside during San Antonio's win over the Cavs on Thursday just to say, "You're doing great."
The Spurs are doing great, too. And Pop will probably have many more effusive moments between now and June.
It's Still Early
This one's important.
Everything we think we've learned after a half-season could prove false when the final calculus is complete. Stars could slip, powerhouses might crumble and teams left for dead could rise again. That's part of the fun, though.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.