Mid-season Takeaways: Today’s NBA uniquely rich with star power

The San Antonio Spurs' DeMar DeRozan is guarded by the Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard. (Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

As the NBA season reaches it’s mid-season point, here are takeaways from the eventful first half of the 2018-19 season:

Must-Watch Player of the (Mid) Season: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The MVP front-runner, Antetokounmpo’s combination of physical abilities and basketball skill (jump shot aside) is nearly unthinkable. He’s just 24 years old and will be owning the league for years to come, but I don’t think we’ll ever stop being amazed at what he can pull off on any given night.

Star Gazing

Night after night fans are served with a reminder that today’s NBA is uniquly rich with star-power. Nearly every team boasts at least one player worth the price of admission (notable exceptions include East bottom-dwellers like the Bulls, Cavaliers and Knicks).

The abundance of superstars plying their trade this season is increasingly becoming what separates the NBA from the other major North American sports leagues. Sports like baseball, football and hockey (outside of Canada, at least) can’t match the depth of star-level talent that fans will tune in to watch. Baseball is in dire need of more name-level and recognizable talent, as is football — although the NFL brand is strong enough that people tune in and consume the product regardless — while the influx of players like Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Elias Pettersson, and Patrik Laine in recent years has given the NHL a much-needed talent infusion, while established names like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews et al move to the latter stages of their primes.

But the NBA? Here’s a running list, in no particular order, of current bona fide stars: LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving — eight all-time greats — Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Klay Thompson, Victor Oladipo, Luka Doncic, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker, LaMarcus Aldridge, Ben Simmons, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Rudy Gobert, Donnovan Mitchell, and Michael Beasley.

Plus, a pair of first-ballot Hall of Famers running victory laps in Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.

That’s just off the top of my head and probably omits several worthy names, not to mention incoming generational talents Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Point being, it’s a nice time to be a basketball fan.

Weaker Warriors?

The Golden State Warriors are clearly the team to beat and will stay that way until they’re beaten (#analysis). But between the bizarre incident involving Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, Green’s declined shooting, a suspect bench and the big question of how DeMarcus Cousins factors into all of this, the Warriors’ shield is weaker than ever.

Cousins’ addition to the Warriors lineup could be an absolute game changer in the West — he’s set to be in the starting lineup and make his debut on Jan. 18 — but as it stands the Warriors, favourites as they should remain, haven’t looked this vulnerable in years.

The result is legitimate optimism on behalf of contenders like the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors — who’ve already swept their season series with Golden State — Oklahoma City Thunder, and Boston Celtics that you wouldn’t have thought possible before the season began.

The Spurs Keep Spursing

After being forced to trade away Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio was almost surely going to take a step back. Whether Leonard fetched a package of young players and picks or another established player, the Spurs weren’t going to be getting equal value in return, no matter what.

When they landed DeMar DeRozan, it was a coup in comparison to other rumoured deals, but there were questions about the former Raptors all-star’s fit in a lineup featuring LaMarcus Aldrige that already relied heavily on the mid-range game — not to mention how to go about trying to replace what Leonard and Danny Green provided defensively.

They started off the season struggling, as was sort of expected. Nearly two months into the season the team was under .500, and even though DeRozan was settling in nicely, it seemed like this could be something of a lost season in San Antonio.

But sure enough, as is the Spurs Way, the Spurs quietly have the NBA’s best record over the past month — 14-4 in that span, they’ve also boasted the league’s only double-digit average point differential at 13.4 while beating up on the likes of the Thunder, Nuggets, Celtics, Clippers, 76ers, and of course, Raptors.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

Crazy numbers

You need to make sure you’re sitting down before you read a typical NBA box score these days. Stars like Harden, Westbrook, Antetokounmpo, Durant, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Blake Griffin, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Brook Lopez, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns, and many others are posting eye-popping statistical lines this season.

Just in the last few days alone: 24-24-13 from Westbrook; 56-9-4-4 from LaMarcus Aldridge; 38-13-7-2-4 from Davis; 28-18-3-4 from Towns; 31-4-6-6-1 for Kawhi Leonard; 44-11-6-2 from Harden. And so on.

A lot of it can be explained in part by an increased pace to today’s game and subsequent higher game-scoring averages, along with recent rule changes like the one implemented for this season that sees the shot clock reset to just 14 seconds instead of the usual 24 following a missed shot and the like — resulting in slightly more possessions. That, and the fact that, once again, the upper-echelon talent pool is deep these days.

Most Dissapointing Team: Utah Jazz.

Currently at .500, Utah was supposed to challenge for the West crown, but a bumpy second season for Donnovan Mitchell hasn’t helped their cause.

Most Surprising Team: Sacramento Kings.

As much as teams like the Nets or Clippers could qualify, the Kings are just two games out of the playoffs despite being pegged for another season playing for the lottery — and it’s no fluke.

Lakers’ Robin Problem

Before LeBron James went down, he was playing his typically dominant ball, and the Lakers were starting to click, with two four-game win streaks and a fairly comfortable spot in the playoffs. While the roster is likely to undergo significant change in the off-season, this season the Lakers remain a mystery.

With their bevy of young talent and tradable assets they’ll be players at the trade deadline if they want to, but may opt to wait until the summer to make their biggest moves. As it stands, it remains to be seen who can be relied upon outside of LeBron. The team has talent, but like last years Cleveland Cavaliers team, no clear secondary star.

Kyle Kuzma can score but is a defensive liability, Lonzo Ball has made fewer free throws than Markelle Fultz, and Brandon Ingram has been a disappointment so far. They’re left rolling the dice with inexperienced youth, or sub-par veterans, something James is familiar with. And, I know what you’re thinking — But hey they still have Michael Beasley! — but how much can you really ask of one player?

So, the Lakers are still something of a mystery.

As mentioned, while Golden State is the obvious favourite, the path to the Finals in the West hasn’t been this open in years. Teams like the Warriors, Thunder, Rockets and even Nuggets should all be in the race, but halfway through the season, LeBron’s Lakers loom as the ultimate wild card.

The Anthony Davis Question Lingers

When is Anthony Davis going to be available via trade? It seems as if it’s just a question of when, not if.

On pure talent, Davis might be the NBA’s best player not named LeBron (it’s a fair fight between him and Antetokounmpo) and has continued to establish his case this season while putting up absurd numbers and delivering plays like this:

Davis has one year left on his contract beyond this season, and is as good a flight risk as any. The Pelicans are expected to recover their losses and trade Davis before he walks, but if that decision comes as early as next month’s trade deadline, then that could disrupt the entire landscape of the league.

Most Dramatic Storyline:

Forcing his way out of Minnesota in the most dramatic way possible, the Jimmy Butler saga already captured this spot long before the latest round of rumours that Butler is displeased with his role and wasn’t shy about letting his coach know about it.

All-Star Starters:

East: Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetkounmpo, Joel Embiid

West: Steph Curry, James Harden, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis

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