For some NBA teams, All-Star Weekend offers a chance to reset. For other clubs, it’s an opportunity to look ahead.
We’re well past the midway point of the 2021-22 season, and the playoff push becomes paramount for most teams in the Association, particularly given the installment of the play-in tournament. Numerous squads also need to adapt following moves at the trade deadline and signings in the buyout market.
The Philadelphia 76ers will hope James Harden is the second superstar who can push them over the top. At the same time, the reeling Brooklyn Nets salivate over a full-strength lineup with Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, and Kyrie Irving all in the rotation. Meanwhile, teams like the Chicago Bulls look for improved health to power them to the top seed, while the Boston Celtics hope to sustain the momentum they built before the break.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the top teams to watch after the All-Star break. We chose these teams based on impact additions at the deadline. Others, including those burgeoning Celtics, merited selection because of their terrific play heading into All-Star weekend.
Without further adieu …
The Phoenix Suns have the best record in the NBA, but the Boston Celtics have arguably been the best team in 2022.
According to NBA.com, the Celtics have the best net rating in basketball since the calendar flipped. What’s more, they actually have the best net rating in the Eastern Conference for the entire season.
Sure, Boston’s net rating is, in part, boosted by blowout wins against bottom-feeders like the Washington Wizards (29 points), Sacramento Kings (52 points), and Orlando Magic (33 points). The Celtics also benefited from playing the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets when they were saddled with injuries.
Still, the C’s are starting to look like legitimate contenders.
Boston ranks second in defensive rating. It improved the team defense by adding combo guard Derrick White at the trade deadline, who also provides vital creation alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics held a dynamic Atlanta Hawks offense to just 95 points on Feb. 13 and have a hyper-versatile group spearheaded by Marcus Smart in the backcourt and budding star center Rob Williams in the middle.
The Celtics could stand for internal improvement in terms of perimeter shooting. But they are stout defensively and have plenty of playmaking potential on the roster. Boston stood just 4.5 games back of the No. 1 seed in the East entering play on Thursday. It is absolutely one of the top teams to watch after NBA All-Star Weekend.
Does any team have more variability than the Brooklyn Nets heading into NBA All-Star Weekend?
After starting the season with a 29-16 mark, the Nets fell all the way to the No. 8 seed in the East following a shocking 11-game losing streak. However, counting Brooklyn out of the title race feels premature.
The Nets’ acquisition of Ben Simmons gives Brooklyn one of the best defenders in the league and, on paper, an ideal playmaker for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Speaking of Irving, Uncle Drew could suit up for home games if New York City Mayor Eric Adams adjusts the city’s vaccine mandate, which seems possible after some poignant comments from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Still, the Nets do not have much clarity on Irving’s status, and it remains to be seen when Simmons will suit up.
Even still, Brooklyn has reasons for optimism. Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, also acquired in the Simmons-Harden blockbuster, add vital floor-spacing in the backcourt and some tenacity down low. Moreover, rookie combo guard Cam Thomas has legitimately flashed as of late.
Ultimately, availability defines this team’s title hopes. But if they can integrate Simmons, receive clearance for Irving to play at home, and get Kevin Durant and Joe Harris back in the near future, the Nets are going to look scary come playoff time.
If the Boston Celtics have been the best Eastern Conference team in 2022, then the Toronto Raptors aren’t far behind.
The Raptors are 18-8 since Dec. 31. Pascal Siakam has been a major catalyst for their success. Siakam averaged 22.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 6.4 assists in January. He’s taken things a step further this month, averaging 25.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 5.4 assists in nine February contests.
With Siakam and rookie Scottie Barnes giving Toronto versatility and playmaking in the frontcourt, the Raptors are off and running. Fred VanVleet made his first All-Star team thanks to his exceptional two-way value. Gary Trent Jr. has infused the backcourt with more scoring and shooting.
The big question is whether the Raptors have enough size and can manufacture more opportunities in the half-court offense.
Toronto added Thaddeus Young at the deadline, and the veteran forward’s court vision and persistence on the glass suit the Raptors’ system, and his willingness to screen and cut could spark more ball movement. He’s also a strong defender, though he’s not exactly the rim protector-type the Raptors appear to need.
Additionally, as Nekias Duncan of Basketball News noted, Toronto ranks 26th in half-court offense this season entering Thursday’s action. That mark doesn’t exactly bode well for the Raptors come playoff time, no matter how good they are on the offensive glass.
The Raptors likely feel great about their current position heading into NBA All-Star Weekend, considering they’re just five games back of the No. 1 seed in the East. That said, head coach Nick Nurse needs to find a way to get more out of his team’s offensive sets.
Memphis holds the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. As of Thursday, four games separated the Grizzlies from the No. 4-seeded Utah Jazz, and they were just 1.5 games back of the Golden State Warriors for the No. 2 seed?
Why aren’t more people talking about Memphis?
The Grizzlies are one of the most well-balanced teams in the NBA. They rank fifth in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating. Memphis dominates the boards and shares the ball. The Grizzlies lead the league in rebounding and rank seventh in assists. They also turn opponents over at the fifth-highest rate while ranking 10th in turnovers on the offensive end. That’s terrific two-way efficiency.
The individual brilliance is there, as well. Ja Morant has made a seismic leap in his third season, averaging 26.8 points on a career-high 49.5% shooting while also racking up 6.9 assists and 5.8 rebounds. He’s an MVP candidate. Meanwhile, Desmond Bane might win the Most Improved Player Award, and Jaren Jackson Jr. — averaging 1.0 steals and 2.2 blocks — could come away with Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Memphis runs all over opponents in transition. Morant, JJJ, and Brandon Clarke are as athletic as they come. Plus, the Grizzlies talk a ton of smack. What’s not to like?
You had to know this was coming, right?
After months of speculation, the Philadelphia 76ers landed the big fish by acquiring James Harden at the trade deadline. The Beard heaped added expectation on the Sixers during his introductory press conference by proclaiming that he and MVP candidate Joel Embiid can lead Philly to a championship this season. Harden said it’s go time after NBA All-Star Weekend.
The question is: How do the pieces fit together?
Harden is the kind of dynamic playmaker and scoring archetype the Sixers have long desired. Still, his arrival brings about plenty of questions.
Having jettisoned Seth Curry to Brooklyn in the Harden deal, Philly lost floor-spacing. That isn’t good news, given The Beard thrives off being surrounded by shooters and Embiid post-ups demand more spacing. To the latter point, Harden doesn’t move well without the ball. Does that mitigate Embiid’s effectiveness on the low block?
The 76ers have a lot of work to do in getting Harden acclimated. If he can mesh with the rest of the roster and allow Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris to flourish off the ball, then Philly is certainly capable of winning the title.
Much like Harden himself, the Sixers are sure to be one of the most polarizing teams in the NBA after All-Star Weekend.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of Feb. 17.