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Keys for Golden State Warriors, all other NBA teams in second-half

By Dave Del Grande, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 16, 2016 at 8:51 AM
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The NBA's second half tips off with the Golden State Warriors chasing sports immortality while the rest of the league positions itself for a shot at what could be the greatest upset in postseason history.

And you thought dunking over a hoverboarding magic dragon was exciting.

With the Warriors seemingly unbeatable for all but maybe a handful of teams, and the prospect of a landscape-changing offseason now visible as a mushroom cloud on the horizon, it is quite possible most teams will put a greater effort into being a winner at the Feb. 18 trade deadline than in the final two months of the NBA regular season.

Here is a sneak peek at the game plans of the 30 teams (listed alphabetically by division) going all-in for the 2016 title or setting the stage for a brighter future ... or if they really are ahead of the curve, possibly both.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston Celtics

Thanks to forward Jae Crowder's breakout season and solidifying the backcourt with the acquisition of Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics (32-23) are well-positioned in the East.

Playing their best ball of the season of late (8-2 in their past 10) and dominating lesser foes (they are 23-13 against teams below them in the Eastern standings), the Celtics are providing reason to believe they will be headed up in the second half.

To do so, they almost surely will have to acquire one of the many big-time big men available at the trade deadline. Cleveland and Toronto are shopping that aisle as well, so making the best move of the three could prove to be doubly beneficial.

Brooklyn Nets

There is no greater disappointment in the East this season than Brooklyn (14-40), which went from making the playoffs last year to, for all intents and purposes, getting eliminated before the All-Star break this time around.

To add insult to injury, having one of the league's worst records won't benefit the Nets as they previously dealt their 2016 first-round pick to Boston.

The key to the second half: Getting as much as possible (including at least one first-round pick) for coveted big men Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young. Hand-delivering one to Boston could help erase another future disaster. The rising Celtics own the right to switch draft positions with the plummeting Nets in 2017, so another trade between the teams might net the Nets their own pick back in one of the upcoming two drafts.

New York Knicks

Anything is possible in the East, so even a 23-32 team stands a decent chance of rallying into a playoff position.

That being the case, the key word in New York the rest of this season must be: patience.

The patience of waiting for Golden State assistant Luke Walton to become available to be the Knicks' head coach next season. And the patience to put a resurrected salary-cap situation (only $64 million in commitments for 2016-17) to good use this summer, when the club will have enough money to afford even the highest-priced free agent to team with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis moving forward.

Philadelphia 76ers

Winning seven of 22 doesn't sound like much, but it is surely a light at the end of the tunnel for a 76ers club that totaled 37 wins the last two seasons, then hit rock bottom with a 1-30 start this year.

As the 76ers, thrilled with the good health of big men Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, pursue the top pick in the draft once again, they should be encouraged by the fact that most of this crop's top-rated players -- led by LSU's Ben Simmons, Duke's Brandon Ingram and Oklahoma's Buddy Hield -- are good fits for a club overloaded with power forwards and centers.

Nowhere will scoreboard-watching be more popular than in Philadelphia the next two months, as the 76ers stand to hoard as many as five other conditional 2016 first-round picks depending upon how other teams finish.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors (35-17) begin the second half just three games behind Cleveland for top seeding in the East, and that gap could narrow when the clubs meet for a third and final time Feb. 26 in Toronto.

The Raptors haven't lost a home game since Jan. 3, so catching the Cavaliers (a win next week would clinch the season series and earn the tiebreaker advantage) could be critical to the club's chances of making a first-ever Finals appearance.

An All-Star backcourt is set, so fortifying the frontcourt at the trade deadline could be a key to the club's future success. Toronto has been linked to the likes of Denver's Kenneth Faried and New Orleans' Ryan Anderson, and the Raptors just might have the young assets to get the forward-thinking Nuggets or Pelicans to bite.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Chicago Bulls

A remarkable 7-0 record against Cleveland, Toronto, San Antonio and Oklahoma City stamps the Bulls (27-25), currently seventh in the East, as that one team everybody is going to want to avoid early in the playoffs.

However, guard Derrick Rose's always questionable health (he already has missed seven games this season) and center Pau Gasol's pending free agency makes this club as likely to disappoint (as it has for a majority of the first half) than turn things around.

The team's current No. 7 ranking in the East and having lost center Joakim Noah to season-ending shoulder surgery might tempt the Bulls to cash out on Gasol and roll the dice on the next lottery. With the Bulls already owning a conditional first-rounder from Sacramento this June and projected to have the chance to sign one big-time free agent, management might be prompted to think long-term.

Cleveland Cavaliers

For the team most likely to get a shot at dethroning Golden State in the Finals, the Cavaliers (38-14) sure have a lot of issues.

For a change, the questions don't revolve around the coach. The early returns on Tyronn Lue are encouraging, especially after an 8-2 run to finish the first half.

Rather, the issue now is: Is the club sold on Kevin Love's recent double-double flurry (nine in his last 19 games), or are the Cavaliers still having nightmares of his poor defense that has contributed to two failures against the Warriors already this season? A Love deal at the trade deadline (center Timofey Mozgov can be had, too) will be discussed this week, you can count on that.

Detroit Pistons

Stan Van Gundy has the Pistons on the rise thanks to one of the best big-man/little-man combinations in the league with center Andre Drummond and guard Reggie Jackson.

Making the playoffs following a 32-50 season might be satisfying for the Pistons. However, in the East, there is always a greater achievement that is reachable, and that surely is the case this season when Detroit is just four losses behind the current third seed (Boston).

Would trading coveted guard Brandon Jennings for midsized help make a difference? Here is a reason to believe the future is now: The Pistons are one of just two teams (Milwaukee being the other) who have beaten both Golden State and Cleveland this season.

Indiana Pacers

The best news to come out of Indiana this season was forward Paul George's healthy return from a broken leg. Anyone doubting George's status among the game's elite weren't watching his near-record-setting 41-point exhibition in the All-Star Game.

The Pacers (28-25) appear to be a year away from being taken seriously again in the East, especially if one of the year's biggest surprises league-wide, forward Myles Turner, continues to develop.

In the meantime, the Pacers have 29 games in which to determine whether the George Hill-Monta Ellis backcourt pairing is a good thing, while all the while praying that George's performance in Toronto was enough to entice a few of his superstar friends to make Indiana, flush in cap space, a Miami-type destination this summer.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks (22-32) have demonstrated they are talented enough to beat Golden State and Cleveland. It is what has happened in those other 50 games that is alarming.

At times, Jason Kidd has his club reminding some of the old Sidney Moncrief-led squads that threatened the Celtics' supremacy. More often than not, though, the Bucks have played like the Nets squad that got Kidd jettisoned out of town.

Forward Jabari Parker is healthy, which -- other than the stunners over the Warriors and Cavaliers -- was the biggest reason to celebrate a 32-loss first half. Point guard remains a concern. A team still thinking about making a run this season would pounce on one of the many available at the trade deadline.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks (31-24) have taken a step backward in the East, which puts them at a crossroads at the trade deadline.

Dealing potential difference-making big man Al Horford and even possibly highly regarded point guard Jeff Teague could produce some young assets that could reverse this year's skid as early as next season.

But at the same time, is there any reason for a division leader, one that has wins over Dallas, Indiana and Chicago this month, to panic and break things up?

Horford's pending free agency and the memories of home-and-home losses to Orlando leading into the break could help answer that question.

Charlotte Hornets

Congratulations to coach Steve Clifford for coaxing a winning record out of the Hornets (27-26) despite getting a total of just 26 games from forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and center Al Jefferson.

Unfortunately, Kidd-Gilchrist appears likely to be done for the season with a torn labrum, and nobody is quite sure what to expect from the 31-year-old Jefferson following knee surgery.

In other words, as the Knicks, Pistons, Bucks, Wizards and Magic eye a second-half surge into the postseason, they would be wise to paint a bull's-eye on the back of the Hornets.

Miami Heat

Don't be misled by the Heat's 8-10 finish to the first half. Fourteen of those games were on the road, and the Hawks, Clippers and Spurs were three of the four home opponents that were interspersed.

Led by a new Big Three (OK, Goran Dragic is no LeBron James, but he is not bad nonetheless), the Heat (29-24) already have sent messages to Cleveland and Toronto with 15- and 20-point shellackings.

The Heat are healthy and playoff-tested. They won't be an easy out in the postseason.

Orlando Magic

Everything about the Magic's young roster screams up-and-coming ... except the results. Sitting in last place in a Southeast Division in which three other teams are having disappointing seasons can't be a good thing.

Alas, at least the organization is back on the NBA map following the performances of forward Aaron Gordon and Stuff the Magic Dragon on All-Star Saturday.

If only Gordon were as productive in games as in exhibitions.

Washington Wizards

Atlanta, Chicago and Washington have been replaced by Toronto, Boston and Miami as the chief threats to the Cavaliers in the East.

The Wizards (23-28) have fallen the hardest, having gone from a 46-win team a year ago to a potential 46-game loser this season.

Sadly, the slide can't be blamed on a key injury. Guard Bradley Beal did miss one month with a leg injury, but the club was no better (6-9) when he returned for the final 15 games of the first half.

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks (29-26) have become the Knicks of the West, which isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds.

No doubt, the present looks bleak. Even if a seriously outmanned Dallas squad sneaks into the Western playoffs, it is unlikely to survive the first round. So what's the use?

The positive view is the product of an improved cap situation that gives Mark Cuban the potential to flaunt his massive checkbook in the offseason. The future might not include forward Dirk Nowitzki, but even his best efforts haven't taken the Mavericks far in recent years, anyway.

Houston Rockets

All eyes are on Houston as the trade deadline approaches. The only thing more intriguing than where enigmatic center Dwight Howard will land is how the Rockets, a Western Conference finalist last season, will respond to his departure.

The Rockets, undoubtedly the biggest disappointment in the West this season, have the potential to hold an all-out fire sale. Teams looking to add frontcourt depth could be interested in forward Terrence Jones; those desperate for help at the point might consider Ty Lawson.

The Rockets actually would benefit from sitting out the playoffs one season. They would retain their first-round pick (dealt conditionally to Denver) if they are in the lottery. Consider that just another good reason to cut ties with Howard.

Memphis Grizzlies

Losing center Marc Gasol for the season to a broken foot undoubtedly turns the Grizzlies (31-22) into someone's first-round playoff fodder.

So it must be asked: Would dealing their pending free agents, point guard Mike Conley and/or forward Jeff Green be in the long-term interest of the franchise? No doubt, Conley could command a king's ransom from any number of teams playing catch-up with Golden State, Cleveland and San Antonio.

But as opposed to Houston, the Grizzlies would benefit from making the playoffs, even if they are not around long. They stand to lose their first-round pick to Denver if the selection falls in the No. 6-14 range (just outside the playoffs).

New Orleans Pelicans.

With Houston having dropped out of postseason position and Memphis headed south, the door opened for Portland and Utah to sneak into the seventh and eighth playoffs spots at the break. That in and of itself gives hope to the Pelicans, another of the West's first-half disappointments.

At 20-33 and losers of five of seven before the break, New Orleans doesn't appear to have much hope, however, especially with guard Tyreke Evans now out for the season with a knee injury.

Contenders have the Pelicans on speed dial as the trade deadline approaches. Forward Ryan Anderson and guard Eric Gordon are attractive pieces to auction if New Orleans wants to position itself for another do-over this summer.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are healthy, they have the second-best record in basketball (45-8), and everything is in place for a shot at Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan's sixth title.

But there remains one piece of unfinished business, even if Popovich would never admit it.

Make no mistake: March 19 is circled on the Spurs' schedule. It will be their best opportunity to send a message to Golden State that the Warriors are not necessarily bulletproof this season.

The Spurs' first rematch since the Warriors' 30-point blowout win on Jan. 25 could be the single-most impactful game of the next two months.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Denver Nuggets

Who would have thought a 22-32 team at the All-Star break would have realistic playoff hopes in the West, but such is the case this season. An inspirational first half that included a winning record (10-9) since Jan. 6 contributed to that.

Even so, the improvement won't keep the Nuggets' phones from ringing as often as those of any other team leading into the trade deadline. The suitors for forwards Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried and guard Jameer Nelson are numerous.

The Nuggets, buoyed by the prospects of seeing Sacramento twice within five days to start the second half, are unlikely to cash in, but it is nice to have options for a change.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The entry to the Western playoffs that is ajar clearly isn't wide enough for the Timberwolves (17-37), who once again find themselves with a front-row seat reserved at the draft lottery.

They are the Magic of the West -- an intriguing group of impressive athletes more likely to make a splash in a dunk contest than in a playoff game.

A decision on guard Ricky Rubio, who is by no means for sale but is attractive to many teams nonetheless, is pending.

Oklahoma City Thunder

So much was written about Golden State's record start and forward Kevin Durant possibly leaving this summer, the Thunder's 40-14 first half generally was overlooked.

The prospect of having to meet the Thunder in the playoffs just to get a shot at the Warriors figures to make the Spurs consider exerting the energy necessary to make a run at Golden State in the second half of the season.

With five games remaining against the Warriors and Spurs, the Thunder have plenty of opportunity pave their own path to the Finals and bring the focus back to 2016.

Portland Trail Blazers

Let's flash back to the Trail Blazers' offseason. Gone: forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum and guards Arron Afflalo and Wes Matthews. Arrived: forward Al-Farouq Aminu, center Mason Plumlee and guard Gerald Henderson.

That hardly seems like a fair fight. But at least Portland would have almost every salary off the books (just $14 million in commitments) for the free agent frenzy of '16.

Amazingly, the Trail Blazers (27-27) find themselves with the seventh-best record in the West, thanks to the dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

If you don't count the Warriors' Luke Walton, Terry Stotts has to be the West's Coach of the Half.

Utah Jazz

This says it all about the current state of the Jazz: Utah superhero Jimmer Fredette won Most Valuable Player honors at the D-League All-Star Game last week, and there has been no talk about him joining the Jazz.

That's right. There are no publicity stunts needed these days in Utah, where the Jazz (26-26) appear headed to their first postseason in four years.

The Rockets lurk, so a .500 second half might not be enough to get the Jazz into the playoffs. But with key big men Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert having missed a combined 37 games in the first half, a strong finish could be in the cards.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Golden State Warriors

Following a record-setting first half of the season, one that featured neither a trip to San Antonio nor Oklahoma City, the Warriors figure to get tested immediately with a tough six-game trip that runs through the end of February.

The Warriors (48-4) can still lose five games and log the best NBA record of all time. That said, the schedule gets tougher, including five remaining games against the Spurs and Thunder.

At this point, Golden State management publicly is poo-pooing the notion of adding forward Kevin Durant in free agency this summer. That possibility might not be as laughable a month from now.

Los Angeles Clippers

Forward Blake Griffin's run-in with a team equipment flunky, and resulting broken hand, rendered a pretty decent first half (35-18) relatively lackluster.

Griffin should be back by the end of March, which might set up a powerful Final Four in the West with the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder.

That is, if the Clippers can avoid the temptation of trading pending free agent guard Jamal Crawford, improving forward Lance Stephenson or even Griffin before the jockeying for playoff positioning gets a chance to start.

Los Angeles Lakers

Now that Kobe Bryant has demonstrated for all to see why he is retiring, the Lakers (11-44) can get back to the business at hand: Setting the stage for a smooth transition into their next superstar's future.

No doubt, that marquee talent isn't currently employed by the team, but that's OK. The Lakers have only $23 million on the books for next season, when the cap is expected to land around $90 million. And they would love to deal guard Lou Williams and/or guard Nick Young at the deadline to free even more cash.

The Lakers, who currently have the second-worst record in the league, will keep their first-round pick in June if they land in the top three. That guy, at least two max-value free agents and three impressive young holdovers, guards Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell and forward Julius Randle, could bring back "Showtime" faster than most would imagine.

Phoenix Suns

Key injuries have helped shape a new landscape in the West this season, and the Suns haven't been immune to the ailment. Losing point guard Eric Bledsoe for the season to a knee injury was dream-ending for an already subpar squad.

The Suns (14-40) have a chance to catch the Lakers for worst record in the West, especially if forwards P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris are jettisoned at the deadline.

The NBA Pacific has rarely been this weak.

Sacramento Kings

Looking for a losing team that will have the biggest impact on the second half of the season? Here it is.

It wasn't long ago that Sacramento was happy with George Karl, who had the dysfunctional club 20-23 and seemingly clicking on at least three cylinders.

Now Karl is rumored to be the next coach to go, and if so, it could come within days of guard Rajon Rondo and forward Rudy Gay being given one-way tickets out of the California capital as well.

Rondo and Gay are both potential difference-makers this season. No doubt, several contenders have spent the All-Star break preparing trade offers.

Stay tuned. The fun is about to start.

Topics: Isaiah Thomas, Luke Walton, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Tyronn Lue, Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Mike Conley, Brandon Jennings, Jason Kidd, Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson, Kevin Durant, Goran Dragic, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Terrence Jones, Ty Lawson, Jeff Green, Tyreke Evans, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Danilo Gallinari, Jameer Nelson, Gerald Henderson, Jamal Crawford, Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, Nick Young, Eric Bledsoe, Rudy Gay, Al Horford, Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, George Hill, George Karl, Jimmer Fredette, LaMarcus Aldridge, Markieff Morris, Monta Ellis, Paul Gasol, Ryan Anderson, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings
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