NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Celtics lead way as teams face tough second-half questions

The All-Star game is, as always, in mid-February, which is a bit incongruent when it comes to the progress of an NBA season. By the time we get to February, most teams will be about 70 percent of the way through their schedules, meaning that when we divide the season into first half and second half, with the break as the dividing point, we’re actually saying first two-thirds and last third.

The true breaking point around the NBA comes just about now. The Celtics, Mavs and Timberwolves have played the most games in the league, at 43, while the Sixers have played the fewest at 38. Nine of the league’s 30 teams have played exactly 41 games.

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So we’re calling this the NBA’s midpoint, and a fine time to size up what we’ve seen so far, as well as to look ahead to the biggest question teams are facing in the second half.

1. Warriors

Second-half question: Can everyone get their rest? We all know where this season is heading. We all know that, no matter the directives from the league, the Warriors are going to find ways to sit their players so that there is plenty in the tank for the grind of the playoffs, something they did brilliantly last year. Look for the Warriors to stay in cruise control, try to keep everyone healthy and ease their way through the second half of the schedule.

2. Celtics

Second-half question: Will Gordon Hayward play? The Celtics lost their prized free agent in their opener to a gruesome ankle injury, and he’s expected to be out for the year. Since then, his rehab has chugged along, though, seemingly ahead of schedule. Could Boston, short on depth and eager to have another weapon in their effort to knock off Cleveland, bring back Hayward in late April or even in May?

3. Raptors

Second-half question: Is this a new DeMar DeRozan? DeRozan was an anomaly last year. He was one of the league’s top scorers, but a terrible 3-point shooter, at 26.6 percent. He got his points off pick-and-rolls and on midrange jumpers, a trend that continued into this year — he was shooting 25.0 percent front the arc in mid-December, including a stretch of 11 games in which he went 1-for-18.

Now, though, DeRozan is up to 36.9 percent from the 3-point line, thanks mostly to his last 11 games, in which he has made 51.9 percent of his 3s. If he can be a consistent 3-point shooter, DeRozan can be an MVP candidate.

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4. Cavs

Second-half question: Are their defensive issues real? Five of the six worst defensive teams in the league are also among the worst 10 teams in terms of record — Sacramento, Phoenix, Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago. But also on that list is Cleveland, which ranks 29th in defensive efficiency, at 109.0 points per 100 possessions. Will that change when the playoffs come?

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5. Timberwolves

Second-half question: Have they gotten their defense figured out? Overall, the Timberwolves are just a mediocre defensive team, ranked 16th in defensive efficiency at 106.2 points per 100 possessions. But as the season has worn on, Minnesota has begun to click more on the defensive end. The Timberwolves are 13-5 in their last 18 games, and in that span, they’ve allowed 103.6 points per 100 possessions, fifth in the NBA. They have held opponents under 100 points in their last seven games, allowing 96.6 points per 100 possessions, second in the league in that stretch.

6. Spurs

Second-half question: Can they survive the road? The Spurs are in the midst of a second three-game trip since Dec. 30, and they have another starting next Monday. They will have their six-game rodeo trip sandwiched around the All-Star break in February, too. The vagaries of the schedule are typically of no concern for the Spurs, but this is not the same Spurs team we’ve seen in the past. These guys struggle on the road, going just 10-12 thus far. They have a long stretch at home in the second half of March, but if they can’t be better on the road, they can’t really challenge the Warriors in the postseason.

7. Rockets

Second-half question: Can James Harden finally crack the MVP vote? After finishing as the runner-up the last two seasons, Harden had been making his strongest case yet to be the league MVP this year. But a hamstring problem will cost him a month on the floor, and could well cost him the MVP, too.  

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8. Heat

Second-half question: Do the Heat have another knockdown second half in them? Last year, of course, Miami was 11-30 to start the year, contemplating a firesale of top players. They went 30-11 to close the season, though, barely missing the playoffs. This year, the Heat are in much better position, and have won 11 of 14 since Dec. 13. A strong second half will keep them among the top four in the East.

9. Trail Blazers

Second-half question: Is the frontcourt solution already on the roster? The Blazers have one of the most productive backcourts in the NBA, but figuring out the rest of the lineup has been a challenge. Jusuf Nurkic has been a slight disappointment, but he still can be the solid center they need over the long haul. What about the forward spots, though?

Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh seem to have flamed out. Will Caleb Swanigan get a chance? Can Zach Collins continue to develop quickly? They’ve used Evan Turner at small forward and Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward lately with some success, but that is a very small lineup. Power forward has been a big hole for this team since LaMarcus Aldridge left, and it’s still searching for solutions.

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10. Wizards

Second-half question: Can the Wizards stop playing down to their competition? Washington is fifth in the East, somewhat disappointing at 23-18 this season. The big problem — on display again in a home loss to the Jazz on Wednesday — has been the Wizards’ frustrating inability to knock around bad teams they should dominate. They’re just 12-11 against teams that are below .500. The Wizards have more talent than their record indicates, and that’s because they have not guarded against letdowns when playing bad teams.

11. Bucks

Second-half question: Can Jabari Parker save the season? The Bucks added an element of athleticism when they traded for Eric Bledsoe, but the team is still woefully lacking on the bench — Milwaukee’s reserves average 24.7 points, 28th in the NBA. Parker is scheduled to come back from a second major knee injury next month, and the Bucks could desperately use his scoring punch with the second unit.

12. Sixers

Second-half question: Can Joel Embiid be nudged to the finish line? Embiid played 48 minutes in a loss to the Thunder in December and missed three games after that, including one with a sore back, a problem that has lingered for him. More than making the playoffs, what matters most to this team is getting Embiid through an entire season in one piece, which would be a breakthrough, psychologically, for both the team and player. He has missed nine of the team’s 38 games, and they’re 2-7 without him.   

13. Thunder

Second-half question: Can Paul George be convinced? The Thunder brought together the trio of George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony this summer, and after some rough early returns, the team has improved. They’re 14-8 (including a current three-game losing streak) since Dec. 1, and the offense has looked much smoother. George will still be one of the Lakers’ big targets this summer, and the lure of returning home will be strong for him. What do the Thunder have to do to get him to stay, and is there enough time to accomplish that?

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14. Pistons

Second-half question: Can February heal the Pistons? Much has gone wrong for Detroit since their 14-6 start (they’re 8-12 since), including the loss of Reggie Jackson to an ankle injury. But the result has been a team that just can’t win on the road. They’ve gone 3-9 in their last 12 road games. But the hope is that, after Saturday’s game in Chicago, the Pistons can use a home-heavy schedule to get themselves back on track for a strong stretch run. From Jan. 15 through Feb. 23, the Pistons play 14 of 17 at home, with just three one-game trips — to Toronto, Cleveland and Atlanta, a total of nine short hours of round-trip flying for those trips.

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15. Nuggets

Second-half question: What’s wrong with Nikola Jokic? This has not been the big breakthrough season many were expecting from Jokic, whose scoring has dipped a point to 15.7 per game, and whose shooting has dropped from 57.8 percent last year to 47.9 percent this year. He’s been in a particularly bad slump lately, shooting 36.6 percent from the field and 20.7 percent from the 3-point line in his last eight games. Denver was hoping Jokic would blossom into a franchise cornerstone this year, but you have to wonder if he is up to the task.  

16. Pacers

Second-half question: Is Victor Oladipo for real? One of the nice stories of the first three months of the season has been the ascension of Oladipo from frustrating non-star in Orlando, to solid role player in Oklahoma City, to legitimate All-Star back home in Indiana. But at 24.6 points per game, Oladipo has never carried the load he’s trying to carry with the Pacers, and the roster is far too thin to survive a playoff push without him maintaining his current levels — when Oladipo missed four games with a knee injury, the Pacers went 0-4, losing by an average of 13.5 points.

17. Clippers

Second-half question: Should they keep this gang together? The Clippers beat the Warriors on Wednesday with Lou Williams scoring 50 points, rookie Tyrone Wallace scoring 22 and Montrezl Harrell putting in 14. That does not sound like a sustainable model. Injuries have ravaged the Clippers, and put them in a position to sell off pieces — namely center DeAndre Jordan. But Doc Rivers is fighting for his job, and the Clippers are within 2.5 games of the fifth seed in the West. Long-term, the best thing would be for the team to sell what it can. But Rivers might not be thinking that way.

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18. Pelicans

Second-half question: Do the Pelicans have a run in them? This team has not been more than two games under .500 this year, but it has not been more than three games over .500. That’s been enough to keep them in the postseason picture, but it is not enough to clarify the franchise’s future. Coach Alvin Gentry, general manager Dell Demps and free-agent big man DeMarcus Cousins could all be gone this offseason, unless the Pels can rally with a strong finish.  

19. Knicks

Second-half question: Is Kristaps Porzingis tired? Porzingis admitted to fatigue last week, immediately raising questions as to his conditioning and to the wisdom of making such a confession while playing under the scrutiny that comes with being the leader of the Knicks. He has not played well recently, averaging 20.0 points in his last 11 games on just 37.1 percent shooting and 30.4 percent from the 3-point line.     

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20. Jazz

Second-half question: What to do with Derrick Favors? Injuries have torpedoed the season in Utah, but Favors has been relatively healthy, though he is now dealing with an ankle injury. His inability to stay healthy set him back last year after a productive — if injury-wracked — 2015-16 season. Favors has talent, but he has not developed into a consistent threat at the power forward spot. He is a free agent, and Utah could either trade him next month or let him walk in July.  

21. Suns

Second-half question: Can their recent top-eight picks show some progress? Devin Booker is a budding star. T.J. Warren has been a very productive scorer. But if this franchise is going to begin a turnaround, it will have to come from the development of some combination of Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marqueese Chriss, all of whom were drafted with high picks in the past two seasons. The Suns have played better lately, but the long-term focus still needs to be on those three.

22. Bulls

Second-half question: Are we tanking? Back when they were 3-20, the Bulls’ path was clear. They would lose, and lose a lot. Then they’d sit atop the draft in June and pick a franchise-changing big man like Marvin Bagley or DeAndre Ayton. But the Bulls are 12-7 since then and have Zach LaVine returning on Saturday. They’re unlikely to put together a playoff run on one hand, but playing too well to land a surefire cornerstone in a top-heavy draft. What to do?

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23. Hornets

Second-half question: Who’s getting fired? The Hornets gave significant money to guys like Marvin Williams (two years, $30 million remaining), Nic Batum (three years, $77 million remaining), Cody Zeller (three years, $44 million remaining) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (two years, $26 million remaining). They also took a gamble on Dwight Howard, who has another $23 million on his deal for next year.

For all that, they’ve gotten a 15-24 team in danger of missing the postseason for the second straight year. Without a miracle turnaround, GM Rich Cho is likely to be fired and coach Steve Clifford, who is away from the team contending with a health issue, might join him.

24. Nets

Second-half question: Do they have some keepers in this group? With Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell out for most of the first half of the season, little could be expected from the Nets. Yet they have performed above expectations, and might even have some players who factor into their future. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one, but Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LaVert — good college players whose draft stock was dinged by injuries — have shown themselves to be legitimate NBA players. They could even help Jahlil Okafor salvage his career. It won’t always be pretty in Brooklyn, but they have interesting guys to watch.

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25. Mavericks

Second-half question: Is this the end for Dirk Nowitzki? That has been the question for the last couple of years for the Mavs, who have desperately tried to put together a competitive roster to give Nowitzki one last run into the postseason. It has not worked, though, and even with the Mavs having played better in the past two weeks, it’s hard to imagine them re-entering the playoff picture. Nowitzki will be 40 in June and could decide to call it a career.

26. Lakers

Second-half question: Can Luke Walton hold this bunch together? Walton’s job was called into question by, of all people, LaVar Ball, and while it’s safe to assume that the Lakers will not make personnel decisions based on Ball’s input, Walton’s job is tough — too many young guys who are running out of steam at this point in the season, and too many veteran playing for their own interests. Walton does not need to get the Lakers to the playoffs, though, he just needs to keep things moving in a positive direction so that, when the Lakers sit down with free agents this summer, they can credibly sell themselves as a team of the future.

27. Grizzlies

Second-half question: Are they ready to cash out? The firing of coach David Fizdale was an embarrassment for the franchise, but things have not exactly improved since — they’re 6-15 under J.B. Bickerstaff. The Grizzlies will need to rebuild, but are they ready to ship out star big man Marc Gasol to do so, and can they get back a high draft pick and/or a young player for him? Can they get a return on a rejuvenated Tyreke Evans? Would they even be willing to part with Mike Conley?

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28. Hawks

Second-half question: Can Mike Budenholzer survive? The Hawks are heading into the depth of a rebuilding situation, and the team’s new general manager, Travis Schlenk, might want to hire his own coach to proceed with that job. The Hawks have a shot at the No. 1 pick this June, but other than rookie John Collins, there is not much on the roster Schlenk figures to want to keep. Expect Atlanta to take action at the trade deadline, and to make a decision on Budenholzer quickly after the season.

29. Kings

Second-half question: Is there hope in the backcourt? The Kings are awful, but they’re likely to send away some of their veterans (George Hill, Garrett Temple) in order to pave the way for the backcourt of the future, Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox, who have started the last three games together. The Kings have bungled a number of their frontcourt draft picks recently, but with the depth in this year’s draft, they are almost certain to get a star big man. Will the backcourt be ready for that star?

30. Magic

Second-half question: Is Aaron Gordon their man? That was the question heading into the season for the team’s new front office, and it has not changed much since. Gordon is a restricted free agent this summer, and he has made significant progress this season — he is averaging 18.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 37.0 percent 3-point shooting, all career highs. But this team is also 4-26 in its last 30 games. How much of a commitment will the team be willing to make to a star player who has not done much to help them win?

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