BEST TEAM: PHOENIX SUNS
Phoenix really did listen to all the “that was cute, but it wasn’t real” talk about its run to the NBA Finals last season and entered the 2021-22 campaign with something to prove. Through the first half of the season, the Suns have been far and away the best team in the league.
While you can make arguments based on health and given lineups (Milwaukee is 18-3 with Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday all in the lineup), the night-in, night-out consistency of the Suns is what propelled them last season and is carrying them again. Phoenix has nine players averaging 10 points or more per game, with Devin Booker being the only person above 17 per, and whenever one man goes down, someone else steps up.
There are the obvious concerns about Chris Paul wearing down as the season progresses and the playoffs eventually get underway, but don’t be surprised if his minutes get dialed back a little in the second half to give he and the Suns the best chance to make another run to the Finals this year.
Q1 Winner: Phoenix Suns
WORST TEAM: ORLANDO MAGIC
Owners of the worst record in the league, the Magic are stuck in another “when are things going to turn around for us?” type of season.
There have been positive moments — Mo Bamba going off the other night; Franz Wagner looking like a terrific pick at No. 8 — but for the umpteenth consecutive season, Orlando has a roster with too many overlapping parts and not enough guys that give you a tremendous amount of hope for the future.
After taking Jalen Suggs at No. 5 in last year’s draft, second-year guard Cole Anthony has been the team’s most consistent player. Wendell Carter Jr. and Bamba have started much of the season together, but still feel like an awkward fit. Gary Harris Jr. has enjoyed a slight uptick in performance over recent years, but still makes too much money ($20M) to deliver less than 12 points per game and few other counting stats, though he’s an expiring contract and could get moved before the deadline.
While teams like Oklahoma City and Detroit are showing glimpses of a bright future, and Houston is still in “accumulate assets” mode, it’s unclear what Orlando is doing, yet again, and when, if ever, they’re really start moving in a positive direction.
Q1 Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder
MOST SURPRISING TEAM: MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
The Grizz are currently the third seed in the Western Conference, and even if you want to make a “the West is weaker this season” argument (which is true), there’s still no way anyone anticipated this team being 32-17 and holding down home court in the opening round of the playoffs if they started today.
Ja Morant has taken a major leap.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has taken a smaller, but no less significant leap.
Desmond Bane is making the 29 other teams in the league wonder how they allowed him to fall to Memphis with the final pick in the first round last year.
Here’s what makes Memphis so special: the Grizz only have four players averaging double figures, and one of them (Dillon Brooks) has only played half of the team’s games. But every night, it seems like someone else steps up, or Ja goes off, or their length and defensive pressure suffocates their opponents.
This isn’t smoke and mirrors — Memphis is the real deal.
Q1 Winner: Chicago Bulls
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM: LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The reason the Lakers maintain their stranglehold on being the most disappointing team in the league is because all the beats are playing out in exactly the way anyone that looked at this team logically heading into the season would have forecasted.
Los Angeles gave up their depth to bring in Russell Westbrook and opted for established names and re-up Talen Horton-Tucker rather than re-signing Alex Caruso, a proven contributor who accepted his role and offered consistency off the bench.
Westbrook has been Westbrook, the veterans have been exactly who they’ve always been, and the Lakers have struggled all season, with Anthony Davis having his worst season in some time before getting hurt.
And for the last couple weeks, all the blame for this woefully predictable, yet still disappointing season has been getting collected and dumped at coach Frank Vogel’s feet, like he’s the one that built the roster. This is the way sports work — you fire the coach because you can’t fire the players, and no GM is going to fire themselves — but this isn’t on Vogel; not even a little.
What makes it worse is that the Lakers have no outs, no way to turn this around this season or even in the next couple years unless another team miraculously agrees to take on Westbrook’s salary. Even with a healthy AD and LeBron being LeBron, picturing this team, as currently constructed, making a deep run in the Playoffs is difficult, no matter what LeBron and his loyal subjects would suggest.
Q1 Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
Steph still leads the field, but he’s not alone in the lead pack and the race is far from finished.
Curry’s numbers aren’t ever going to be as monstrous across the board as Jokic or Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but all you have to do is watch Curry and the Warriors do their thing and you see why he’s still the frontrunner. He has a gravitational pull unlike anyone else in the league, and when he gets on one, it has a different energy to it than when anyone else gets rolling.
Golden State has been much less dominant over the last 20-odd games, but remain in second place in the Western Conference, and much of that comes down to Curry, who sits eighth in the league in points per game (26.0), is shooting 37% on 13 threes a night, and adds five boards, six dimes, and a steal every evening.
This race is going to get tighter throughout the second half of the season, but at the midway marker, Curry remains in front.
Q1 Winner: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Cade Cunningham has come on after being injured to start the season, Franz Wagner has been a surprisingly consistent contributor from the jump in Orlando, and Scottie Barnes has shown flashes of being a future All-Star in Toronto, but Mobley has easily been the best rookie in the league.
Not only are the numbers there — 15/8/3 with a steal and two blocks (rounding up) — but when you watch Mobley, it’s easy to forget that he’s not yet 21 and has still played less than 50 NBA games. He legitimately could make the All-Star team, and if he doesn’t, it might end up being the only year in the next dozen when he doesn’t suit up for the mid-season showcase; he is that good.
While the emergence of Darius Garland and development of Jarret Allen have been key factors in Cleveland’s surprising play through the first half of the season (28-19, fifth in the Eastern Conference), Mobley is the glue holding it all together. He makes everyone better on both ends of the court and is only going to continue to improve as the season, and his career, progresses.
The 2021 draft class has the potential to end up being remembered as a special group, and there are several players from the lottery that will be multiple-time All-Stars, but Mobley has been the best of the bunch so far this season and has the chance to be quite special.
Q1 Winner: Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
For the last couple years, the fact that Simons was viewed as “untradable” by former Blazers GM Neil Olshey was a bit of a running joke around the league, as the young guard logged inconsistent minutes and played inconsistent ball through his first three seasons.
But with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both going down for extended periods this season, Simons has stepped up this season, especially since the start of 2022, to become a dynamic force on the court for the Blazers. Through 10 games in January, the 22-year-old fourth-year man is averaging 25 points per game on 48% shooting from the field and 44% shooting from deep, while adding a tick over seven assists and under three turnovers in 37.5 minutes per.
There are actually some similarities between Simons’ ascent this year and McCollum’s third-year breakout in the 2015-16 season, when after spending his first two years on the bench playing limited minutes, the Lehigh grad started all 80 games and averaged 20 a night. McCollum’s game was a little more refined than Simons’ is now, but the surging IMG Academy product is still two years younger than McCollum was during his breakout and plays with a different pace to his game than his backcourt mate.
Simons is going to regress over the second half — he’s unlikely to average 25 the rest of the way — but if he can remain relatively consistent, he should be in the mix for Most Improved Player (which is probably going to go to Ja Morant, just so we’re clear), and will continue to make the Trailblazers think long and hard about finally breaking up their long-time backcourt duo and potentially handing the keys to the improving 22-year-old.
COACH OF THE YEAR: NICK NURSE, TORONTO RAPTORS
While there could be some Canadian bias factored in here, Nurse has guided the Raptors to a .500 record through 44 games, navigating injuries and absences from key players, and Goran Dragic being shut down after five games.
Everyone has dealt with missed games but the Raptors roster isn’t one you look at and think, “This team is equipped to deal with key players missing chunks of games,” and yet despite Pascal Siakam missing the first couple weeks of the season and OG Anunoby playing just two games in December, the Raptors have remained frisky and look poised to make a playoff push in the second half of the season.
As a Canadian, it’s hilarious to watch scores of people south of the border realize how good Kyle Lowry is now that he’s playing in Miami after he was the heart-and-soul of the Raptors for seven seasons. It feels like the same happens with Nurse, who gets his due from folks like Zach Lowe who watch the Raptors on a regular basis, but toils in obscurity for a lot of others, even though he’s one of the best coaches in the league… and has already won a championship!
There was a little “… but how good of a coach is he really?” chatter when the Raptors won the title a few years back, but Nurse’s excellence has been on display once again this season, and if Toronto finishes above .500 and makes the playoffs, he should be in the hunt for Coach of the Year.