NBA at midseason: Will the league finally find parity?
A couple of descriptive words for the NBA over the past decade are predictable and redundant.
There were four straight Golden State-Cleveland matchups in the Finals, preceded by two Miami-San Antonio series. LeBron James' team has been in the Finals eight straight years.
At the midway point of the 2018-19 season, the NBA is showing potential for surprises, new faces and an elusive trait -- parity.
This could always change. Historically, the league trends back to the Lakers and Celtics or, in recent times, superteams like Golden State or Miami.
As of Sunday morning, though, the three best records in the NBA were owned by Toronto, Milwaukee and Denver. That's two teams that have never been to the NBA Finals and one that last made it in 1974 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was throwing sky hooks at Milwaukee Arena.
Golden State is still looming large -- just ask the Bulls. Boston began the season as a strong favorite in the East, but is struggling to get its chemistry straight. The Lakers have understandably slumped since James went out with a groin injury on Christmas Day. James should be back soon, but he's not expected to play against the Bulls on Tuesday at the Staples Center.
At least there is no chance of a Golden State-Cleveland five-peat since James moved West and the Cavs own the league's worst record. What will happen? Here are a few things to watch in the second half:
Who is the MVP?
It's an intriguing race this year. The leader at the halfway point has to be Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 26.6 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6 assists and is the most unstoppable force in the East.
Toronto's Kawhi Leonard is another strong candidate. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant might split the Golden State vote. James' injury probably hurt his campaign.
The real threat, though, is last year's winner, Houston's James Harden. The Beard is currently working a streak of 15-straight 30-point games and the Rockets have gone 12-3 in that stretch -- without the injured Chris Paul. During the last 15 games, Harden has posted an astonishing stat line of 40.5 points and 9.5 assists, while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range.
But Antetokounmpo won when the Bucks and Rockets went head-to-head in Houston this week, so MVP belongs to the Greek Freak at midseason.
Which is the best team?
Obviously, Golden State is the team to beat. The Warriors might see this as their last run together, with Durant set to become a free agent and possibly planning to join James on the Lakers. And this remains one of the most talented teams in NBA history, even with Draymond Green losing his shooting touch. DeMarcus Cousins is expected to make his Golden State debut sometime this week.
Houston and Oklahoma City figure to be the top contenders in the West. The Rockets will get Paul back eventually, while Paul George might be having the best season of his career in OKC.
It's hard to see Denver going from a team that's missed the playoffs the last six years to the Finals. But they're an intriguing group, led by Nikola Jokic, arguably the best passing center of all time. Hot take: Jokic deserves to be the first-team All-NBA center ahead of Anthony Davis.
The East doesn't have much depth, but the playoffs will be interesting. Toronto's Leonard and Boston's Kyrie Irving have championship experience. Jimmy Butler will get his chance to make a long playoff run in Philadelphia. Indiana plays well as a team and Milwaukee has been a perfect fit with new coach Mike Budenholzer's Spurs-inspired, ball-movement offense.
The pick right now is Toronto vs. Golden State as the Finals leave the U.S. for the first time.
The race for the bottom
The first thing to remember is the new anti-tanking draft lottery format kicks in this year. The worst team used to get 25 percent of the lottery balls. Now the bottom three all get a 14 percent chance, the fourth-worst team 12.5 percent, fifth-worst 10.5 percent.
So there's no need to panic if the Bulls start to win as few games. They are entrenched in the bottom four right now and eight games behind Washington, currently has the sixth-worst record.
What players figure to be at the top of the draft? It's hard to imagine Duke's Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett not going 1-2. Some other players to watch are Duke's Cam Reddish, Murray State guard Ja Morant, USC guard Kevin Porter Jr., North Carolina forward Nassir Little, Kentucky forward Keldon Johnson and Indiana forward Romeo Langford. Oregon's Bol Bol, son of Manute, is done for the season after having foot surgery.
All of those players are freshmen, with the exception of Morant, a sophomore. The Bulls' lineup vacancy is small forward, and any of the three Duke guys could fill that spot.