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The Big Questions We Have About NBA Contenders After The All-Star Break

The weeks coming out of the All-Star break typically tell us a lot about the teams we still have lingering questions about. This season, some of those — like the Cleveland Cavaliers — saw so much change so recently that we won’t be able to answer those questions anytime soon. But for everyone else, we’ve seen enough games to know what to look out for over the remaining quarter (or so) of the regular season. Here’s a quick survey of the contenders as they come out of the All-Star break.

Toronto Raptors

It’s time to start talking ourselves into the Raptors, and this season that means talking ourselves into DeMar DeRozan. The standard palette of advanced statistics doesn’t do much to show how this year’s vintage of DeRozan differs from previous ones. His true shooting is about the same as it has been for a few seasons; his usage rate is the same as it’s ever been; his assists are up, but not dramatically so; and even his celebrated improvement from downtown has him shooting the 3-pointer about a percentage point worse than he did two seasons ago, albeit on twice as many attempts. Drill a little deeper, and his points created on drives and the pick-and-roll are steady compared to last season as well, according to Second Spectrum.

But if you watch a few Raptors games, the difference slaps you in the head. Yes, he’s working with a bit more space now that he’s shooting more threes and hitting them at a baseline respectable rate. But it’s how DeRozan is handling the added defensive pressure, recognizing the double-team quickly and passing to shooters, that sets this season apart from his others. He is creating 100 points per 100 chances when he drives and kicks to a shooter, according to Second Spectrum. Last season that was 87 points per 100 chances. How different you imagine the Raptors’ chances are this season compared to the past more or less depends on how much you believe DeRozan’s game has grown. It’s a case where improvements picked up by the eye test are borne out by some of the more granular stats, but not in the aggregate. Sometimes that’s a signal to keep an eye out for big overall changes despite relatively few changes to the components; other times, it’s just noise.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Jimmy Butler played zero minutes in Sunday’s All-Star game, and he didn’t practice on Saturday. NBC Sports Chicago’s Vincent Goodwill reported that a person close to Butler said, “He’s OK, just tired.” This was meant to be encouraging, signaling that Butler isn’t injured. But for one of Tom Thibodeau’s players, it may be something more worrying.

Butler is logging 37.3 minutes per game this season, and has averaged 39 minutes since missing four games to injury at the end of January. He covers the league’s third-most miles per game, and does so while creating the sixth-highest “load” — Second Spectrum’s adjusted metric for describing the physical stress of accelerating and decelerating. Butler’s usage and efficiency have held steady since December, when he began to take a larger role and play more to his previous All-NBA form. But if fatigue is enough of a concern to make the Wolves’ star sit out an exhibition game, then, as the season winds down, Butler’s fatigue should be as big a concern to the Timberwolves as the team’s leaden defense. A lot of things go into a solid NBA defense, but effort and energy are high up on the list. And if the Wolves’ best wing defender is low on either, it doesn’t bode well for the team fixing what isn’t working, or maintaining what is.

Boston Celtics

After a great start to the season, the Celtics are reeling. The team has lost nine of its last 15 games and is second in the East, two games back of Toronto. It’s the defense that’s sinking them. With Marcus Smart and Shane Larkin out the past few weeks, Boston’s D has looked downright average. The team’s defensive rating is 107.7 over those last 15 games and 108.7 in the 11 without Smart. Before that 15-game stretch, it had been 102.7. The Celtics still lead the league in defensive efficiency for the season, but the defense without Smart would tie it with the Lakers for 14th. An average defense won’t be enough for Boston, which is also average on the offensive end and has not improved since Smart went down.

Houston Rockets

Early on in the season, as the Rockets were adapting to playing with Chris Paul and James Harden — two All-NBA-level guards — in the backcourt, it was popular to observe that the team was better when one was on the court and the other sat. The team was good with both, but exceptional with just one. It would eventually pay off to have one such configuration on the court at all times, the thinking went, even if the main lineup wasn’t as potent. But that’s no longer really the case.

When Harden and Paul share the floor, the Rockets score 123.6 points per 100 possessions and give up 110.7, according to NBA WOWY. That difference of 12.9 points per 100 possessions splits the difference between the Harden-only lineups (+8.7 points per 100 possessions) and the Paul-only ones (+16.5). Just as important as how the lineups fall in relationship to each other is how they compare with the rest of the league. The Paul/Harden lineup would be the best in the league and is about in line with the Warriors’ lineups that feature Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant (+12.2). The Rockets may improve further down the stretch, but they’ve already established their star lineup as as asset all on its own, not simply a means to individually successful lineups for Harden and Paul.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs’ season has been held hostage to Kawhi Leonard’s mysterious, lingering quad ailment. On Wednesday, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said he would be surprised if Leonard returns this season. Leonard has played in a total of nine games this season, the last in mid-January. Still, the Spurs sit in third place in the West and stand a good chance of winning 50 games for the 19th consecutive season. But for that to happen, the team will need to settle in under 21-year-old point guard Dejounte Murray.

Murray took over for Tony Parker as starter in late January, and the Spurs have lost seven of 12 games since the change. This is a problem because seven teams are within five games of the Spurs, including the 10th-seed Utah Jazz, who have been on fire since the return of Rudy Gobert. But while the Spurs have dropped some games, Murray has improved rapidly. Before breaking into the starting lineup, Murray was creating just 78 points per 100 chances as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, according to data from Second Spectrum. That’s one of the worst figures in the league for a player tasked with doing it with any frequency. Since taking over, Murray has created 102 points per 100 chances. It’s not as though Murray is suddenly attacking his man like Russell Westbrook does, but he’s moving the ball through the Spurs’ system well and manipulating defenders into positions to help teammates. If that form continues, the Spurs should be able to right the ship — or make it as right as it can be without Leonard.

Golden State Warriors

Out to lunch. Back in June.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.