The NBA's best second half players
Whether it’s a matter of comfort, team fit, or all about rhythm, some NBA players get a lot better the later it gets in the season. Today we’re taking a look at those players who thrive during the second half of the league's grueling 82-game schedule.
This list was compiled with the assistance of NBA Math’s Rolling Player Ratings system, which you can check out here.
5. RAJON RONDO (Cleveland Cavaliers)
You don’t earn a nickname like "Playoff Rondo" without a serious, and specific, reputation. Rondo has just about reached the end of his productive playing days now, but in the twilight of his career, he earned acclaim as a kind of basketball mercenary, brought in by contenders in search of veteran leadership, defense, and passing in the playoffs.
But his interest, and ability, does not extend to the whole year. Rondo clearly felt he only had so much basketball left in him, and saved it for the NBA’s biggest stage, helping the Los Angeles Lakers to their championship in the NBA Bubble. Just don’t ask him to mentor a rebuilding team.
4. PASCAL SIAKAM (Toronto Raptors)
Pascal Siakam, the Swiss Army Knife forward for the Toronto Raptors, is another player that traditionally gets better as the season goes on. Siakam’s perceived value has fluctuated wildly since signing his four-year, $137-million contract. He and Kawhi Leonard combined for more postseason points in the Raptors' championship run than all but one other duo in NBA history (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in 2012).
But he’s been up and down since then, reaching a nadir early last season when he was suspended one game by the Raptors for conduct detrimental to the team. There was outside perception that the Raptors would seek to trade him, but he quietly turned his game around by season's end.
He started off much better in 2021-22, but has absolutely exploded as the calendar turned over a new year, including a 30-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple double in a victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 16.
4. DE’AARON FOX (Sacramento Kings)
De’Aaron Fox and the Sacramento Kings are mired in a depressing losing season right now, but there’s at least some small reason for optimism. While Fox has been playing poorly so far this year, it wasn’t until after the All-Star game last year that he really turned it on.
His scoring jumped more than five points, and his efficiency grew across the board after the break last season, and he eventually eclipsed most of his previous career highs. Fox has certainly shot it better and shown more aggression in the past several games even as the Kings have struggled, continuing to show that he’s a far better second half NBA player.
2. RJ BARRETT (New York Knicks)
Barrett has certainly underwhelmed as a No. 3 overall pick if you just look at his box score production and efficiency, but he remains a tantalizing prospect because there are stretches where he puts together truly impressive basketball. And notably, those stretches always seem to begin somewhere around midway through the NBA season.
At the start of last year, Barrett was struggling from basically everywhere on the floor. At one point he missed 21 consecutive 3s. Then suddenly, he couldn’t miss from deep, he began to hit floaters at a reasonable rate, and he drastically improved his free throw shooting.
Rather than build off that foundation though, RJ struggled again to begin this season. And like clockwork, around the middle of the year, he’s begun to turn things around. Over his last 10 games, he has averaged an efficient 22.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists, and has notched multiple 30-point games.
At some point, if Barrett is going to fulfill his promise as a Knick, he’s going to have to get off to better starts. But for now, Knicks fans have come to expect Barrett to find his footing somewhere around the midway mark of the season.
1. RUSSELL WESTBROOK (Los Angeles Lakers)
Westbrook is perhaps the most famous second half player in the NBA, a reputation that began as soon as he was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder, and that has reliably followed him now on stops in Houston, Washington, and Los Angeles.
In Westbrook’s case, it’s more about the team getting comfortable with him than any other factor. The Rockets ended up trading Clint Capella to cater to Westbrook’s needs, and LeBron moving to the center position is just the latest in a long line of teams realizing that in order to maximize Westbrook, you simply cannot play a traditional two-big lineup.
The issue that has plagued Westbrook teams ever since Kevin Durant left the Thunder, however, has been that Westbrook often runs out of gas. While he typically has a run where he plays dominant basketball around the All-Star break, he hasn’t managed to make it to the playoffs healthy and energized in quite some time. Finding the sweet spot, where Russ is in rhythm but not totally burned out, will be critical to the Lakers' postseason chances.