In this frankly weird and unprecedented season, the NBA continues to march on as we hit the All-Star break, with teams vying to stand head and shoulders as championship favourites.

With the added caveat of COVID-19 where several teams have had to cancel games, readjust on the fly and as in the case in the Brooklyn Nets vs Toronto Raptors game, just flat out have your best player pulled during the action due to contact tracing rules, it’s been even more difficult to establish a semblance of momentum.

Like the old saying goes, the cream rises to the top, however, the crème de la crème at the all-star break comes from an unlikely source.

All that Jazz

Despite all the bells and whistles associated with the big market franchises such as the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers and Brooklyn Nets, it’s small market Utah Jazz that has everyone’s attention at the half way stage.

The Jazz enter the all-star break with the best record in the league. They stand alone at 27-9 as their brand of basketball has fans drawing comparisons to the 2014 San Antonio Spurs.

 
 
 
 

Anchored with two-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have the best net rating of +9.04 and best defensive rating of 109.58 per 100 possessions and will have fans hoping for their first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1998. Having extended the contracts of all-star duo Donavan Mitchell and Gobert to max deals at the start of the season, as well as the resurgence of form for Mike Conley and the impressive Royce O’Neil providing All-NBA calibre defence, the Jazz continue to show everybody that they mean business.

Watch the Throne

Why Utah is perhaps not taking as a serious threat is primarily because they will have to go through LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

We’ve been here before in the NBA. A team surprises everyone, overachieves in the regular season, only for LeBron to stomp a mudhole and advance to the finals.

We saw this with the 60-win 2015 Atlanta Hawks coached by Mike Budenholzer. Their utilitarian offense and non-descript cast of Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll were simply no match for The King and the Cavs roster.

First seed, apple seed, pumpkin seed, it just does not matter for LeBron, who remains as hungry as ever to add to his already incorporable career.

The Lakers are currently the third seed in the west and will hope to have Anthony Davis back from a calf strain that has kept him out since 14th February in their defeat to the Denver Nuggets.

Their aspirations hinge on Davis’ health, who has been averaging 22PPG and 8.4RPG, as well as the cast of role players who played so fervently during last year’s playoff run and know they can be counted on when the lights shine brightest. It’s a marathon not a sprint will certainly be the mantra for the Lakers.

Nothing but Nets

Over in the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets have looked imperious. Questions on whether arguably three of the top 15 players can play together have been quieted to a whimper as they have shown a selflessness and determination to make it work in Brooklyn.

Harden, who is averaging 25.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 11.1 APG (league leader), continues to change the narrative around his playing style. His ability to find the open man and generate quality looks for teammates has resulted in three-point sniper Joe Harris shooting a remarkably 50% from 3 on 6.7 attempts per game.

Much has been said about their defence, or lack thereof as they currently have the 26th-rated defence (113.6) – sandwiched between the Washington Wizards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The new acquisition of Blake Griffin recently bought out by the Detroit Pistons won’t give you much on the defensive end and having parted ways with Jarred Allen during the Harden trade, the Nets lack a defensive lynchpin. General manager Sean Marks and head coach Steve Nash know all too well that this glaring omission might prove costly.

Despite Durant’s hamstring injury, the Nets have gone 9-1 in their last ten and sit a half game back out of first in the East. They have beaten the Lakers, Clippers Jazz, Sixers, Celtics, Bucks and Nuggets this year.

The team continues to dazzle the league, with the artistry of the mercurial Kyrie Irving, who is shooting just a smidge below 50-40-90 as well as emboldened role players like Harris and Bruce Brown, the Nets can feel good about their championship chances. Scary Hours, as Harden said upon joining, has been everyone’s worst nightmare.

Here They Come

Joel Embiid is playing like the best basketball player in the world. The front runner for the MVP award, Philadelphia 76ers franchise player Embiid is delivering much of what was expected of him coming out the 2014 draft.

No longer plighted with niggling injuries, Embiid has been on an absolute tear this season scoring a career high 30PPG whilst averaging over a steal per game and having a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.1, second only to Nikola Jokic.

His low post domination has been beautiful to see and his midrange this season marks a significant improvement shooting 56.8% compared to 40.2% last season.

The Sixers sit atop of the Eastern Conference boasting a 24-12 record. New head coach Doc Rivers has overseen growth in his players’ game. Simmons is playing DPOY level defence, Tobias Harris has rediscovered his LA Clippers form (also coached by Doc at the time) and Seth Curry has added a new and much needed dimension for the Sixers. The question on this team’s potential will always be tied to Embiid’s health and Simmons’s shooting woes but instead of fretting on the negatives, Sixers fans should feel good about its teams chance to win its firs championship since 1983.

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