By Ryan Mayer
The second half of the NBA's schedule is now officially upon us, with the teams returning to action last night. That means it's time to look at each team and what they should be striving for in the stretch run.
Golden State Warriors - Maintain course
Look, the Warriors are 48-4. They didn't need to do anything at the trade deadline, and they didn't. The biggest question facing this team is whether they can break the Bulls' mark for best record (72-10). In order to do so, they would need to go 25-5 down the stretch. Considering they went 24-1 to start the year, won seven games, lost two of three and since have gone 11-0, it's entirely possible.
San Antonio Spurs - Get Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker healthy
The only way the Spurs beat Golden State come playoff time is if they're fully healthy. We saw that in the first meeting between the two when absent Duncan and Ginobili, the Warriors cruised to a 30-point win. I'm sure Popovich and staff will be in the lab much of the second half trying to devise ways to stop the Warriors, but getting these vets fully healthy should be the priority.
Oklahoma City Thunder - Find a stable second unit
The Thunder with Westbrook and Durant on the floor are dominant, we know this. But the team drops off substantially when those two aren't on the floor. Now, obviously any time you take two superstars off the court, it's going to affect the team. But teams like the Spurs or Warriors can at least tread water and sometimes gain on their opponent when the big names are sitting. The Thunder haven't proved they can do that yet. The bench unit needs to play better to compete, or Billy Donovan has to keep Durant or Westbrook on the floor at all times.
Los Angeles Clippers - Smoothly work Blake Griffin back into the lineup
Griffin is still out for another month plus four games once he is healthy following a fight with the equipment manager. The Clips have played well without him, going 19-5 in the 24 games that Griffin has missed since Christmas Day. Once Griffin is back, allowing him to seamlessly re-find his role will be a slight challenge, but one that can be accomplished. Adding Jeff Green and dumping Lance Stephenson bolster the athleticism of the starting five, but the bench is still weak.
Memphis Grizzlies - Make playoffs?
The Grizzlies seemed to give up on the season at the trade deadline by giving away G Courtney Lee and F Jeff Green for C Chris Anderson, G Lance Stephenson and picks. Now, Stephenson, if he can re-find his form from Indiana, is a solid upside player, and they helped their future by adding assets. But the team isn't any better than they were heading into the deadline and, with C Marc Gasol likely done for the year, the Griz really could slide out of the playoffs. It's hard to tell if that would be a good or bad thing for this team.
Dallas Mavericks - Make second-half run
The Mavs schedule is pretty favorable during the second half. Two games against the Clippers, two against the Warriors and one against the Cavs are the only real challenges. Winning two of those five could set up for a second-half run that moves them up into the fourth or fifth spot. This would be a nice turnaround from a rough stretch heading into the break, when they lost four of their five games.
Portland Trail Blazers - Make playoffs
The Trail Blazers were expected to be rebuilding this season, after losing LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs, Nicolas Batum to the Hornets, Wes Matthews to Dallas and Robin Lopez/Arron Afflalo to the Knicks. Instead the Blazers, behind a great backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, find themselves in the thick of the playoff race. They picked up draft assets at the trade deadline without severely impacting the current roster, which is a win. The problem is the schedule. Of their remaining 28 games, 17 come against teams either currently in a playoff spot or one spot back (Jazz, Pistons). That's a rough stretch. If they make the playoffs, their first-round pick gets sent out to Denver. So maybe making the playoffs shouldn't be the goal.
Houston Rockets - Find last season's form
Dwight Howard is still here. No trades materialized, and the Rockets really only dealt Donatas Motiejunas (expendable with the PF depth) and Marcus Thornton, for a 2016 first-round pick from Detroit. So it's largely the same team that made the Western Conference Finals last year and has drastically underachieved this season. Can they rekindle the magic? Fans are still waiting.
Utah Jazz - Improve play away from home
The Jazz are currently just outside the playoff picture, but have been a solid team, especially lately winning 7 of their last 10. A young roster has started to find itself, with six players averaging double figures. They're also very stingy defensively, allowing the third fewest points per game to their opponents. This is all without last year's top-10 pick Dante Exum, who is still recovering from a torn ACL. They've been much better at home (17-10) than on the road (9-17), which is tough because they've got more games on the road in the second half (15) than at home (14). Their away games include a five-game swing against the Bulls, Bucks, Rockets, Thunder and Timberwolves in March.
Sacramento Kings - Figure a coherent plan
The Kings have continued to be a mess this season. First, it was the Karl-Cousins drama, then the firing (but not really) of Karl, to the firing an assistant who Karl liked. It seems like this franchise still has no idea what direction it's going. The second half of the year is the time to figure that out.
Denver Nuggets - Continue to develop young players
Emmanuel Mudiay, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic are all young, intriguing pieces. Continuing to spur their growth and development, while hoping for Houston and Portland to make the playoffs (and the Knicks and Grizzlies not to) should be the goals. The Nuggets could have as many as four first-round picks this year, which can be somehow packaged together with their intriguing young players to trade for a star player.
New Orleans Pelicans - Play better in second half, regroup after season
The Pelicans are in a tough spot. They're not truly bad enough to tank and get a top-five pick in the draft, where they'd most likely get a good young player. But they're in too deep of a hole to make the playoffs, barring a huge run. Six games out of the eighth spot, the Pelicans realistically would have to go something like 20-9 or better over the second half, barring big collapses of the four teams in front of them. Further, they've been awful (6-21) on the road, and they still have 14 road games to go. Not getting a deal done to move Ryan Anderson at the deadline was a failure. Regrouping in the offseason seems like the best approach.
Minnesota Timberwolves - Continue to develop young players
The T-Wolves have an extremely bright future. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are stars in the making. Zach Lavine, Shabazz Muhammad, and Gorgui Dieng are all good, young pieces who can be solid role players/starters going forward. Add to that Ricky Rubio, who, for all of his problems on offense, is brilliant on defense. Plus they'll likely have a top-five pick in June's draft to continue the influx of young talent. Enjoy, and watch them grow.
Phoenix Suns - Start the rebuilding process... again
The Suns surprised everybody just two years ago when they barely missed the playoffs with the core of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and the Morris twins. They looked then like a team on the rise. Now, after two years of nearly incomprehensible maneuverings, only Bledsoe is left. And while there are some pieces to like around him (Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Archie Goodwin), the roster is a mess. They made a play for LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, but swung and missed. Now it's back to the drawing board. A top-five pick and possibly two other first rounders from Cleveland and Washington should help though.
Los Angeles Lakers - Enjoy sending Kobe off into the sunset, finish with one of worst three records
The Lakers were never going to be competitive this year. Kobe announced it would be his final year early on, and that at least will keep fans in the seats. Otherwise D'Angelo Russell's growth continues to be stunted by Byron Scott for unknown reasons. The only thing that would hurt more for Lakers fans would be finishing outside the top three in the draft and having to hand over their pick to the Sixers.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that's where you'll find him.
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