The NBA season is edging towards its midpoint. We have had gut-wrenching injuries, breakout performers and some surprising off-court decisions.
With a fascinating set of festive fixtures, we are here to talk the season so far.
Boston’s crusade to topple Cleveland in the East looked to have taken a blow when Gordon Hayward was hurt on opening night. The Celtics brushed that off with a swagger, though, going on a spectacular streak as Kyrie Irving proved that he was every bit as good without LeBron James.
Cleveland changed Dwayne Wade’s role to bench leader after a rocky start. Since then, the 2016 champions have been their usual selves and LeBron is putting in another historic season. He’s second favourite to win MVP. Their defensive record is – as expected – poor, averaging 107.1 points against at the time of writing.
That pair competing for the number one seed is spectacularly unsurprising. It has not been without challenges, however. The worry for any other team harbouring dreams of a trip to the Finals is that Hayward could yet return for Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is yet to step onto the court for the Cavaliers.
Amidst the festive schedule, one fixture stands out about all over as James’ Cavs head to Oakland to face Golden State.
Away from the big two, the New York Knicks’ return to something that resembles success has caught the eye. Kristaps Porzingis is having a truly special year, and the post-Carmelo world is not as bleak as it once appeared in the Big Apple. They remain fourth favourites for their division, but there is a sniff of playoff basketball.
The disappointment stakes are led by Washington. Of course they may well turn it all around, but the matchups with Boston and Houston in the coming weeks suggest they will have to wait a while. Their weak division should save a postseason-missing embarrassment, though.
Boston’s flying start and league-best defence gives them the edge over Cleveland at the moment. How the returning Thomas fits with the Cavs will be key to who snatches top seed in the East, but the diminutive guard – who is expected back in January – will not exactly bolster a woeful Cleveland defence.
Team to watch: Toronto Raptors. They are lurking in third, and festive fixtures against Dallas, an underperforming Oklahoma City, and Atlanta give them a chance to make further ground.
Golden State are not leading the Western Conference. That alone warrants a news flash.
The reigning champions have coasted at times this season, and the absence of Steph Curry has hardly aided their cause. Despite that, they still lead the league in scoring, they are still the strong favourites to get another ring.
It has taken superhuman performances from James Harden to nudge Houston ahead, with handy assistance from Chris Paul. The bearded magician was clearly spurred on by missing out on MVP to Russell Westbrook last year. If he continues at this rate, he will win the award in 2018.
Amidst a mouth-watering Christmas schedule, Harden returns to Oklahoma City. The flying Rockets are expected to dispatch the dysfunctional Thunder easily.
Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony had an aura of dream trio in the offseason. The reality has been almost the exact opposite, as they linger around .500. All three are having career-worst years from the field, and a change is becoming increasingly necessary or George could be getting traded again at the deadline.
San Antonio have done what they always do: win. Win a lot, and kept just about in touch with the Warriors and Rockets. Kawhi Leonard comes back to a team that has been led by LaMarcus Aldridge, and, while that could present problems, it is a significant boost. The Spurs’ shadow is appearing over Steve Kerr’s shoulder.
Facing Brooklyn, the Knicks, and the Detroit Pistons, Greg Popovich’s side are as close to being a dark horse as they can be.
Team to watch: Minnesota Timberwolves. After a very active offseason, a playoff berth is the least Jimmy Butler and co. should produce. Their young, athletic team could spring a surprise or two in the postseason.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo to win @ 13/2
TITLE: Houston to win @ 8/1
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*