The best record in the Association belongs to the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors (42-9) won their only championship in 1975 with the underhanded free throw skill of Rick Barry. The shooters on this team are not conventional either, because they might be the two best in the league at their positions, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The game is evolving back to traditional NBA basketball, free flowing and athletic instead of slow-down and bruising. The Warriors are leading that revolution led by first-year coach Steve Kerr.
As for Atlanta (43-11), they too are leading the way back to exciting basketball, but employing the formula that has worked for so many years in San Antonio. Longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer has put his stamp on this team in his second season, beautiful team basketball. The Hawks have not lost their tenacious defense either and were led by a quartet of all-stars, a team approach. Like Golden State, Atlanta is lethal from the perimeter with the skills of Kyle Korver. The last title for the Hawks (they were the St. Louis Hawks) was in 1958.
For the preseason favorites however, the road has not been nearly so smooth, but they are coming. LeBron’s return to Cleveland has involved a lot of growing pains, and some literal pain. Injuries to the new Big Three of James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love have slowed down the Cavs. But 14-2 in the last 16, 33-22 overall, Cleveland stands fifth in the East with second place surely within reach.
San Antonio, the defending champion, stands 34-19 hampered by injury and the persistent questions of age. But the Spurs have won seven of 10 and will be fine. A move from seventh into the top half of the West appears certain. Oklahoma City started the season without MVP Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook (and started 5-16). But they are 23-9, even with KD in and out lately with a toe issue. At only ½-game out of the eighth spot, the Thunder appear a sure bet for the playoffs and making life extremely difficult for a top seed in the first round.
The Memphis Grizzlies have either been first or second in the West all season. They are 39-14 at the break, four games behind Golden State. The Grizzlies are defense first and rely on physicality, led by Zach Randolph in the middle. Marc Gasol, once seen as an afterthought, is the team’s best player and all-star. But the outside shooting must improve and become more consistent if they are to truly challenge for the championship this year.
After Atlanta, the other teams in playoff position in the East include: Toronto, Chicago, Washington, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Charlotte and Miami with Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit and Indiana—all within two games of the eighth spot. Milwaukee (30-23) has been the most pleasant surprise, already having doubled last season’s win total for Coach Jason Kidd. A team to watch is Indiana. Once thought lost for the season, Paul George appears set to return to the lineup within the next month. He is a player good enough to carry Indiana into the playoffs and likely into an upset in the first round.
Portland, Houston, Dallas, L.A. Clippers, San Antonio and Phoenix follow the top two in playoff position with OKC and New Orleans the only other contenders. Dallas is the team to watch here. They traded for Rajon Rondo earlier, and now they just signed Amare Stoudemire from the Knicks. It will definitely be an exciting second half to watch.