Over the past few years, the NBA has faced a difficult competition problem. Unlike the other professional sports leagues, the championship teams have been mostly predictable, and the talent level converged. Recently, however, smaller market teams have stockpiled young talent and created an entertaining, competitive balance for the league. After passing the halfway point of the season last week, several teams sit at unexpected parts of the standings.

Starting on the positive side of the standings, the Indiana Pacers have improved drastically from last season. They sit at 23-21 (8th in the Eastern Conference). Since the Pacers came into the season with the tenth-youngest roster in the NBA, most experts thought this team would be playing for a lottery pick at this point of the season. Also, the Eastern Conference is stacked this season, and the Pacers did not fit anywhere near the playoff conversation.

Acquiring Tyrese Haliburton at the trade deadline gave Indiana an up-and-coming superstar, and their young players have seen a major improvement. The Pacers’ guard depth has given them a boost from the bench, with Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Ben Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard, Chris Duarte, and TJ McConnell averaging 15+ minutes per game. This team’s youth could carry them to a play-in appearance and pose a struggle to some playoff teams.

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Over in the Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings might be the most surprising regular season team in years. Their 23-18 record puts a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in sixteen years at fourth in the conference. Following the win-win trade with the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline, which landed them Domantas Sabonis, the Kings have developed a potent dynamic duo with Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox. At the beginning of the season, I do not think many people saw these two evolving into a superstar tandem.

Like Indiana, this team stockpiled young talent through trades and the draft. Keegan Murray has risen to the Summer League hype, averaging about 12 points and 4 rebounds per game. Also, former Atlanta Hawk and Maryland star Kevin Huerter is averaging 16 points per game, a drastic improvement from last season.

Finally, and probably the least surprising out of the three, the New Orleans Pelicans have solidified a superstar big three and are creating a case to be one of the top teams in the West Conference. After the hard-fought series with Phoenix last season, fans expected a substantial improvement with Zion Williamson returning from injury.

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Zion, newly-acquired CJ McCollum, and young star Brandon Ingram all average over 20 points per game. The youth coming off the bench for this team creates a difficult group to compete with on the court. With Jonas Valanciunas locking down the middle and players like Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, and Larry Nance Jr. bringing great energy, New Orleans poses a potent threat to many Western Conference playoffs teams.

On the other hand, the Chicago Bulls’ locker room drama has caused a difficult first half of the season. Fans saw Demar Derozan and Zach Lavine as one of the most formidable duos in the league when the season started. Still, a scoring feud between the two stars has generated unnecessary attention.

The lack of playmakers on this team, though, creates a problem only Lonzo Ball can solve. Many people thought he would be back by the start of this season, but injury setbacks have left a massive hole in the backcourt. They hold a reasonably strong frontcourt, with Nikola Vucevic and Patrick Williams locking down the basket, but it hasn’t been enough to lift their record.

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Staying in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat’s performance has caused lots of surprise around the league, considering their great star power. Following an Eastern Conference Finals run last season, the Heat kept their core of Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and Tyler Herro together. Looking at the Eastern Conference at the beginning of the season, Miami looked poised to finish in the top six of the standings. They sit at 24-20 and are seventh in the Eastern Conference.

Last season, we saw lots of their depth come alive in the playoffs to help carry Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry in the backcourt. That depth hasn’t stepped up to their prior levels, and most of their bench players have specific roles. Now that Butler and Lowry have entered their thirties, this team may find some difficulties as these veterans face fatigue toward the end of the season.

Finally, the Los Angeles Clippers are difficult to explain, considering their performances over the past few seasons. With Kawhi Leonard finally returning from injury, many experts expected a resurgence from the Clippers. His limited appearances so far this season raise a serious question about the future of him and Paul George. Their management assembled a solid supporting cast for these superstars during the 2019 offseason, but they cannot seem to rise to an elite level.

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We saw last season that without Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Clippers are average, which speaks to their 23-22 record this season. If he cannot return completely healthy by the end of this season, the Clippers may be looking at another low seed in the playoffs. To climb out of this disappointing stretch, Kawhi must provide this team with more scoring and production.

Alex Kwas is a sophomore member of the Multimedia Journalism class.