The Biggest Storylines of the NBA Season Pre-All-Star Break
The NBA All-Star Weekend offers a chance for some perspective. It's an opportunity to take a breath and pause ahead of what'll surely be a thrilling stretch run of the regular season, followed by the elevated stakes and legacy-defining contests of the playoffs.
This is the time to settle yourself before embarking on roughly three straight months with a basketball adrenaline drip hooked into your veins.
That's not to say everything that came before the break was less valuable by comparison. Just the opposite, actually. None of the narratives that'll conclude in April, May or June would mean much without the stage-setting that took place from October to mid-February.
The first 50-plus games of the season established expectations, hopes and dreams. We need to know where we started and how we progressed if we're going to get full enjoyment out of the ending.
As a primer for what's ahead, let's look back at the biggest storylines before the 2019-20 All-Star Game.
Five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and head coach of the L.A. Sparks, Derek Fisher joins "The Full 48 with Howard Beck" to pay tribute to his Lakers brother, Kobe Bryant, and share thoughts on their special bond and friendship, Kobe's leadership style, his post-NBA career and what the media got wrong about the basketball legend during his life.
The Historic Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks' first 54 games featured an average margin of victory of 12.11 points. That's the highest such figure since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, and it's on pace to be the fourth-best in NBA history.
It doesn't guarantee the Bucks a ring, but it comes awfully close.
Of the 11 teams that previously finished a season with a double-digit average MOV, eight wound up winning that year's championship. Even the exceptions to the rule validate the historic status of this season's Bucks.
The three non-title-winning "disappointments:"
- A 1971-72 Bucks team that posted the sixth-highest MOV of all time and fell in the Western Conference Finals to the 1971-72 Lakers, who rank first on the list.
- The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who won a record 73 games and owned a 3-1 Finals edge before collapsing under the weight of injury, suspension and LeBron James' brilliance.
- The oft-forgotten 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs, whose average MOV of 10.63 ranks ninth all-time. They couldn't get past an Oklahoma City Thunder team that held a 3-1 Western Conference Finals advantage on those aforementioned 73-9 Warriors.
If you're beating teams as soundly as Milwaukee did before the All-Star break, history says the only things that keep you from a title are playoff clashes with another historically dominant opponent...or LeBron James.
The Lakers finished the first half of the season ranked 67th on the all-time MOV list, and they happen to employ James. As great as the Bucks have been, that combo ought to be enough to preserve a sense of uncertainty down the stretch.
The Battle for Los Angeles Is on Hold
The preseason narrative casting the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers as combatants vying for Hollywood supremacy hasn't really held up.
In hindsight, that angle was probably better saved for a potential playoff series. It's not like anyone was going to spend the first three-and-a-half months of the season comparing the two L.A. teams on a nightly basis. And rivalries tend to take root organically, usually after multiple meetings in high-stakes situations.
You can't just decide two teams are mortal enemies because they play in the same city*.
That said, both Los Angeles teams were prominent parts of the season's first half.
The Clips have mostly treated the regular season like a dress rehearsal. They're workshopping lineups, resting stars and battling injuries. Though they own a 2-0 mark against the Lakers so far, there's still a sense that the Clippers won't reveal their true selves until the postseason.
The anticipation attached to that unveiling is only building as we approach April.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are running away with the West, powered by a LeBron James-Anthony Davis pairing that is meeting the most optimistic preseason expectations.
Outside of four shockingly dominant pairs from the Utah Jazz, the James-Davis duo's plus-10.3 net rating when sharing the floor is the highest of any tandem with at least 1,100 minutes played. Those two are the reason the Lakers have to be considered the favorite to represent the West in the Finals.
*The Clippers outbidding the Lakers for Marcus Morris Sr. at the deadline doesn't mean these teams are at each other's throats, but it could add extra spice to an eventual playoff tango.
Philly's High Ceiling on a House of Cards
They're currently fifth in the East, though, a disappointment after an offseason overhaul created a hulking lineup that many expected to defend at historic levels and make a run for the Finals. Worse still, it's been virtually impossible to discuss this team without giving the awkward fit between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid top conversational priority.
Yet, for all the sputtering offense, villainous behavior and possible locker-room turmoil, the Sixers have proved themselves to be at least as dangerous as many expected. They beat each conference's top four seeds in the first half, downing the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat in the East, plus the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz in the West.
The air of unrest that follows this team around may stem from a simple source: When it's obvious you can hang with (and beat) the very best teams in the league, the failure to meet that high standard every night is doubly frustrating.
Just before the break, head coach Brett Brown brought season-long starter Al Horford off the bench. The move produced better spacing and unclogged the lane in Tuesday's 110-103 win over the Clippers. The result of the lineup change, in Brown's estimation, was perhaps the best combined effort from Embiid and Simmons since they've been a pair.
It's not ideal if the key to unlocking the team's potential is benching a player it just paid $109 million in free agency, but anything that nudges the Sixers toward their potential is worth trying.
The vibes haven't always been great in Philly. But if Simmons and Embiid can keep the waters calm and the offense moving, they're still the East team with the best shot to beat the Bucks in the playoffs.
Zion and Ja Are Next...and Now
Ja Morant's floor-reading skill and next-level vision belong in the body of a 10-year, ground-bound vet who paid for them with a decade of arduous, body-breaking wear and tear. That they exist in one of the most dynamic athletes to ever play the point guard position borders on unfair.
Morant's Grizzlies are improbably in playoff position and hit the break with a 15-4 record in their last 19 games. They're not ahead of schedule; they've destroyed the concept of schedules entirely. They're like if the Uber you called somehow showed up before you even took your phone out of your pocket.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and De'Anthony Melton give Morant a young core to develop with, while Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson and the recently dealt Jae Crowder provided veteran ballast. The trade that brought Justise Winslow aboard proved the Grizzlies are still future-focused as they embrace a win-now mode.
Meanwhile, Zion Williamson's return to the court following rehab from knee surgery sent the New Orleans Pelicans into the break as one of the West's hottest teams. His combination of speed, size and bounce is unprecedented. As New Orleans gets more comfortable with him at center in five-out looks, its offense will become truly unstoppable.
In Williamson and Morant, we've got two generational talents delivering on arrival and exceeding the hype.
Luka Doncic: Superstar
Everybody agreed Luka Doncic was going to get better in his second season, but nobody could have anticipated a leap into full-fledged, no-questions-asked, qualifier-free superstardom.
In his age-20 season, Doncic is averaging 28.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists. Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook are the only players with three-category averages like those over a full season, and neither can touch Doncic's 59.2 true shooting percentage.
The numbers aren't empty, either.
Doncic has the Dallas Mavericks on pace to post the highest offensive rating in NBA history, and there's no mistaking his influence on that mark. Dallas scores 5.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the floor.
Nearly every night, Doncic sets some new historic mark. He becomes the youngest player to do X, the first since LeBron James to do Y or the fastest to ever amass this many Zs. Just keeping up with his edits to the NBA record book has been exhausting.
It's not just the stats that set Doncic apart during the first half. It was the undeniable creativity and preternatural instincts. It was the way he altered the very concept of athleticism, forcing us to view deceleration and change of pace on equal footing with the old "run fast, jump high" definition.
And, again, deep breath: He's 20.
The Houston Rockets Will Live or Die on Their Terms
Even if this bold experiment flops, you've got to hand it to the Houston Rockets. They're not messing around with half measures.
Already unique for their isolation-heavy, trey-obsessed offensive approach, the Rockets' decision to swap out center Clint Capela for wing Robert Covington at the trade deadline pushed them into truly uncharted territory. They are now committed to playing without a traditional big man, and unless something changes, they'll honor that commitment against all comers, at all levels of what they hope will be a deep playoff run.
Now, if this gambit is only the best-of-a-bad-situation response to ownership's phobia of paying the luxury tax, it loses some of its luster. But if this is really head coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey deciding to go all the way on a novel strategy, it's a beautiful, daring, possibly doomed decision.
It may even be more beautiful and daring because it's a doomed decision. There's just something noble about going out on your own terms. The Rockets are, at worst, poised to do that.
One of the criticisms Houston faced during a first half that saw James Harden pound the ball into the ground while four teammates stood around was that the product was boring and predictable. Call Houston shoving all its chips in on small-ball deranged. Call it foolish. Call it the last desperate gasp of a coach and executive who might not see themselves as part of the organization much longer.
Just don't call it boring.
There's no way to recap the pre-break portion of the 2019-20 NBA season without acknowledging two great losses.
Former commissioner David Stern, rightly credited for turning the NBA into the global phenomenon it is today, died on Jan. 1 at age 77. Kobe Bryant, just 41, tragically died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
The NBA isn't the product of any one person's work, but it's difficult to think of many people who had greater singular impacts on the game than Stern and Bryant. The former stewarded the league during its periods of greatest growth and success, and the latter stood as one of the most iconic figures in its history.
Two titans are gone, but the impact they made will forever enliven the league they both loved.