We’re not quite halfway into the season but that point is soon approaching. As always, there have been some pleasant surprises as well as some utter disappointments. NBA Christmas is one of the most exciting and memorable times of the regular season. Since I’m in the spirit of giving, here is how things are shaping out from my perspective:
30. Cavaliers (8-26)
The organization seems to be taking its time with Kevin Love in terms of both health status and a potential trade. The development of rookie point guard Collin Sexton is perhaps just as important. His jumper is one of the stronger aspects of his game as he already looks comfortable taking big shots. His playmaking and ball control is where he could use improvement. All in all, the Cavs are back to hoping for the lucky ping-pong ball in May.
29. Hawks (9-23)
Being that they are last in three-point percentage, the Hawks have definitely missed Taurean Prince for the 14 games he has been unavailable. Currently on a three-game winning streak, they have done just enough offensively to stay afloat. Many did not anticipate John Collins (57.7 FG%, 18.5 PTS, 9.9 REB) to become the player he is. Trae Young (38.0 FG%, 15.4 PTS, 7.2 AST) has hit somewhat of a rookie wall but Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore have picked up the slack as of late.
28. Knicks (9-25)
Tim Hardaway Jr. is 23rd in the league in field goals attempted (17.03) but just 42nd in field goals made (6.75). Hot or cold, it’s probably safe to assume he’ll keep looking to shoot, especially in the absence of Kristaps Porzingis (who doesn’t seem that close to returning). Rookie swingman Kevin Knox has started to come around while averaging 17.6 points on 39.4 percent three-point shooting in December. New York has utilized its marginal talent as much as possible.
27. Suns (8-26)
Phoenix had a rough 10-game losing streak that ended with a victory over Dallas back on December 13th. However, we cannot disregard its road wins over Milwaukee and Boston. One of the positive takeaways from Phoenix is its three-headed monster in Devin Booker (24.8 PTS, 7.0 AST), T.J. Warren (18.3 PTS, 50.1 FG%, 43.2 3P%) and rookie sensation Deandre Ayton (16.6 PTS, 59.9 FG%, 10.9 REB). The recent acquisition of Kelly Oubre Jr. (for Trevor Ariza) adds even more athleticism to the roster.
26. Bulls (9-25)
Lauri Markkanen has suited up for just 11 games but is coming off back-to-back 30-point performances. It’s unclear whether he will make a difference in the team’s win-loss output. Zach LaVine (23.8 PTS, 86.9 FT%, 4.8 AST), who got off to a strong start to the year, has missed five straight games and counting (likely two more weeks or so). On top of all that, floor general Kris Dunn just got back into action eight games ago. Free agent signing Jabari Parker was expected to be an intriguing part of this new-look Bulls team. He has fallen out of the rotation already.
25. Wizards (13-21)
This organization is in all sorts of disarray at the moment – so much that it confused Dillon and MarShon Brooks in a trade attempt that fell through (for that reason). The Wizards, knowing their financial situation made them unlikely to retain him, shipped Kelly Oubre Jr. to Phoenix for veteran swingman Trevor Ariza. The Wiz give up a whopping 118 points per contest. The 33-year-old Ariza gives Washington an immediate impact on the defensive end. One player, however, will not be enough to change this team’s inefficient defense.
24. Magic (14-18)
Nikola Vucevic’s brilliant play (20.1 PTS, 52.3 FG%, 11.8 REB) has allowed the Magic to show possible playoff worthiness in an eastern conference with weak depth. The rest of the team has been so-so with Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier both chipping in over 15 points per game. Orlando did pick up a few encouraging wins here and there (@BOS, @SA, vs. PHI, and 2-0 vs. LAL). The Magic typically shows average offensive production at best when stacked up against other teams. The defense has been been tolerable and has room to improve with all of the youth and athleticism (Jonathan Isaac & Mo Bamba as well).
23. Timberwolves (15-18)
Andrew Wiggins (16.7 PTS, 40.5 FG%) still needs time to settle into being the second option after the departure of Jimmy Butler. That also means Dario Saric has to adapt to an unfamiliar situation. Robert Covington already appears to be a seamless fit at the three-spot. Tom Thibodeau is still working to improve the overall team defense. The Wolves’ offense will go as far as Karl-Anthony Towns (20.9 PTS, 37.9 3P%, 11.4 REB) takes them. A currently-injured Jeff Teague has not been playing his best. That has given backup point guard Tyus Jones an opportunity to prove himself.
22. Pelicans (15-19)
Anthony Davis (28.0 PTS, 12.7 REB, 2.8 BLK) maintains other-worldliness from game to game and his status as part of the league’s elite on both ends is never questioned. Jrue Holiday (20.8 PTS, 47.5 FG%, 8.8 AST), easily a top-10 point guard, has been everything Davis could ask for and more. Julius Randle’s physicality and offensive versatility make him a solid third option (24.8 PTS, 12.1 REB per 36) for this team. Outside of Nikola Mirotic, New Orleans’ high-volume offense does not have much production. The outside touch from E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller helps N.O. boast the fourth-best shooting percentage.
21. Nets (16-19)
D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie (17.5 PTS & 17.6 PTS respectively) have formed a dynamic duo at point guard. Although he was their best player before getting hurt, the Nets have enjoyed a seven-game winning streak without Caris LeVert (14 games played). Most improved player candidate Joe Harris (16.0 PTS per 36, 47.0 3P%) has helped validate its outside shooting attack with a team average of 12.2 3PM (fourth in NBA). Looking at the other end of the floor, Brooklyn allows a league-low 9.1 3PM to opponents. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson plays with contagious defensive energy and second-year center Jarrett Allen is showing promise as a two-way factor.
20. Heat (16-16)
Miami is the only current playoff team with a losing record (7-9) at home. The Heat will be no better than sixth seed in the East and even that is hard to imagine. Goran Dragic has not followed up last year’s All-Star campaign favorably. He is not expected to return from a knee procedure until after the All-Star break. Josh Richardson was already showing signs of leading the team – not that he has superstar potential but he has the tools to become a quality two-guard with a steady career. The rest of Miami’s roster is what it looks like on paper: high-IQ role players like Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson and Rodney McGruder. A .500 winning percentage seems about right.
19. Pistons (15-16)
The Pistons’ stifling perimeter defense (allows league-low 32.1 3P%) is a step in the right direction. However, their lack of perimeter shooting (32.7 3P%) continues to haunt them. Blake Griffin (25.3 PTS, 2.2 3PM, 35.6 3P%) has expanded his repertoire, being gladly willing to shoot from deep. Andre Drummond’s (17.7 PTS, 15.5 REB) dominance on the glass is a given. He has also taken significant leaps as a post defender. Bench players Langston Galloway and Stanley Johnson have come back stronger this season. Ideally, the Pistons could use a versatile guard or wing player to take some of the weight off Griffin.
18. Mavericks (15-17)
Luke Doncic (19.0 PTS, 6.6 REB, 4.9 AST) seems to be running away with Rookie of the Year far too early. As long as he stays on the floor, the award is his to lose. Not only has he stood out from an individual perspective but has also made Dallas a legitimate playoff contender. Doncic’s 6-foot-7 frame makes him super valuable considering he can play the one, two or three-spot. With exception to a few games, the Mavs have been automatic at home with a stellar 13-3 record. That gives them a brutal 2-14 record on the road. Perhaps the imbalance needs to be addressed as winning the majority of remaining home games is not a foregone conclusion.
17. Hornets (16-16)
Kemba Walker (24.8 PTS, 6.2 AST) is no LeBron James but he does his best impersonation. Take him off the Hornets and we would probably be looking at a similar situation to what’s going on in Cleveland. Walker has done it all from becoming the franchise scoring leader to making game-winning plays. His patience with the organization though, has been his most desirable trait. He mentions how much he loves the city of Charlotte and how he would be devastated to leave when asked about trade rumors. He has kept this team at middle ground without a particularly convincing second option to complement him.
16. Grizzlies (17-16)
The greatest driving force behind the Grizzlies’ success has been their persistence on defense. They allow a league-best 81.3 field goal attempts per game, which is more than three attempts less than the next best team. Marc Gasol (16.1 PTS, 38.0 3P%, 8.6 REB) continues to hold down the painted area and help the team allow the second-lowest points in the paint per game. They are accomplishing all this while their two best players (Gasol 43.9 FG% and Mike Conley 42.1 FG%) aren’t shooting the ball all that effectively. Rookie big man Jaren Jackson Jr. (18.7 PTS, 51.2 FG%, 2.5 BLK per 36) has also fueled this team to peak above mediocrity.
15. Jazz (16-18)
The bright side of Utah’s somewhat lackluster start – it has played only 13 home games, having yet to establish any rhythm in front of the fans (who are known for being one of the noisiest in basketball). Per teamrankings.com, the Jazz has also played the most difficult schedule when taking into account some of its wins (vs. GS, @ POR and 2-0 vs. HOU & BOS). That alone should boost its outlook moving forward. Utah has not been terrorizing on the defensive end like previous years. However, it still holds a strong advantage in that department with Rudy Gobert (64.9 FG%, 12.3 REB, 2.0 BLK) anchoring that side of the ball.
14. Kings (18-15)
The time has finally come and we are witnessing a truly rejuvenated Kings franchise. De’Aaron Fox (18.1 PTS, 41.2 3P%, 7.5 AST) and Buddy Hield (20.4 PTS, 3.2 3PM, 44.0 3P%) make up one of the league’s most heralded backcourts. Fox, who just turned 21 years old, has taken the Western Conference by storm while going toe-for-toe with some of the league’s elite point guards. The Kings have really hurt teams by constantly getting out in transition (1st in fast break PPG). Role players like Bogdan Bogdanovic (2.0 3PM) and Nemanja Bjelica (45.3 3P%) have been valuable knock-down shooters to help the team shoot 38.7% from deep (2nd in NBA).
13. Spurs (18-16)
The Spurs (won last seven of nine games) have lost any sort of defensive supremacy now that Kawhi Leonard is out of town. DeMar DeRozan (23.1 PTS, 47.9 FG%, 6.3 AST), the main piece in the Leonard trade, has been the generating source of offense as a better playmaker than Leonard was. LaMarcus Aldridge (18.6 PTS, 48.2 FG%, 9.3 REB) doesn’t seem as equipped to carry a heavy scoring load like he did in previous years. Coach Popovich has mastered the art of getting by with fundamentally sound role players like Brynn Forbes and Dante Cunningham. I would give the Spurs about a 50/50 shot at making their 22nd straight postseason.
12. Clippers (19-14)
The new-era Clippers, now completely removed from Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan, have been somewhat of a shocker thus far. They were largely anticipated to take a back seat to the Lakers again. That hasn’t exactly happened though. Tobias Harris (21.6 PTS, 42.4 3P%, 8.1 REB) has taken a step up from proven veteran scorer to fringe All-Star (regardless of him making the team or not). Lou Williams’ numbers are down this year (17.4 PTS, 41.0 FG%) but that hasn’t mattered. The Clippers have spread the wealth throughout the roster with Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander playing key roles.
11. Trail Blazers (19-14)
Damian Lillard (third straight year averaging 27 PTS) has turned excellence into a routine and seems to ensure Rip City does enough to qualify for the playoffs each year. C.J. McCollum (21.3 PTS, 46.6 FG%) gives Lillard more-than-adequate company, making this one of the league’s most lethal backcourts. The Blazers have lacked a natural power forward ever since losing LaMarcus Aldridge three years ago. Defensive specialists Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless have done a fairly admirable job manning the forward spots. Finally, they excel with free-throw shooting (especially in crunch time).
10. Rockets (17-15)
After a heartbreaking finish in the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets have not exactly built off that momentum. Instead, Chris Paul (15.6 PTS, 41.5 FG%, 8.0 AST) continues to deal with nagging injuries and that has forced James Harden (32.0 PTS, 37.9 3P%, 8.4 AST) to bring out his inner-Kobe Bryant while attempting over 21.2 shots per game (and over 10 FTA). Houston has strung together a pair of four-game losing streaks but finally seems to be coming around (won last 6 of 7 games). The negative impact from losing Trevor Ariza over the summer was inevitable. Carmelo Anthony didn’t do any justice as he and the Rockets quickly parted ways.
9. Lakers (19-14)
Simply put, the Lakers look no better than a second-round team. Adding a mega-star like LeBron James means the Lakers will take time to jell, especially with all the pressure directed toward them. They have a plethora of perimeter options ranging from quick, athletic guards like Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart to face-up combo forwards like Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. 7-foot center JaVale McGee (62.6 FG%, 10.2 REB, 3.9 BLK per 36) seems to have benefited from his championship experience with G.S. The Tyson Chandler signing was another timely addition due to his defensive presence down-low. A James-led team needs to find more success from long range (20th in 3P%).
8. Pacers (22-12)
First and foremost, the Pacers have been a well-oiled machine on the defensive end, allowing a league-best 100.6 PPG (which is far from easy these days). They give up the lowest shooting percentage (43.5%) to opponents and also the second fewest points in the paint per game. Coach Nate McMillan should be held responsible for orchestrating this terrific defensive execution. That side of the ball dictates its well-balanced offensive attack (six players average double-digits) led by All-Star guard Victor Oladipo (20.2 PTS, 2.3 3PM, 5.3 AST) and his multi-dimensional game.
7. Sixers (22-12)
It almost seems as if there was no transition period – Philly welcomed Jimmy Butler and he hit the ground running (18.5 PTS, 39.6 3P% in 17 games with team). Butler’s ball-handling duties have understandably been cut down with Ben Simmons (16.2 PTS, 58.2 FG%, 7.9 AST) being a primary offensive facilitator. Fortunately for Butler, Simmons doesn’t need to score 20 points every game in order to take control of things. Think of it like LeBron James (Ben Simmons) and Dwyane Wade (Jimmy Butler) in terms of sharing the ball. That still leaves room for Joel Embiid (26.4 PTS, 79.4 FT%, 13.2 REB) to be the franchise player in a time where multiple stars are necessary to win a title.
6. Celtics (18-13)
Boston’s recent eight-game winning streak may have served as a turning point for the season. Gordon Hayward’s (14.0 PTS, 40.2 FG%, 7.0 REB per 36) return has come with boundaries he’s still looking to overcome. That also goes for Jaylen Brown in a crowded rotation where players fight for minutes and even take rest days. That has not given second-year player Jayson Tatum (19.5 PTS, 39.6 3P%, 7.4 REB per 36) any reason to let his foot off the gas. Tatum can play multiple positions and possesses all the tools to blend in with different types of lineups. We can go on and on about all the weapons on this roster. At the end of the day, Kyrie Irving (22.7 PTS, 40.9 3P%, 6.4 AST) still needs the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
5. Thunder (21-11)
Don’t get me wrong – Russell Westbrook (20.2 PTS, 10.8 REB, 10.3 AST) has been his usual self and he’s shown better leadership in getting teammates more involved. Not to take anything away from Russ but Paul George (26.2 PTS, 8.2 REB, 2.2 STL) has probably been the Thunder’s real MVP. On top of that, he attempts more shots than Westbrook. PG-13 is also an all-NBA caliber defender and that makes him one of the most respectable two-way players in the game. OKC has the most efficient defense in the league. Things have really started to clique as of this year. Let’s also credit the emergence of sixth man Dennis Schroder (20.0 PTS, 85.1 FT%, 5.6 AST per 36).
4. Nuggets (21-10)
Denver has gradually made its way closer to the league’s upper-echelon. Rather than solely being an offensive juggernaut, the team has made its mark with a new and improved display on defense. We rarely hear any more concerns of Nikola Jokic’s downfalls on defense. Instead, his weaknesses in that area have been covered up by the Nuggets’ defensive overhaul from a team standpoint. Jokic’s offensive wizardry (18.2 PTS, 10.0 REB, 7.3 AST) is a beautiful sight – his creativity and IQ make him an undeniable threat. The oft-injured Paul Millsap seems to be on his way down. However, Monte Morris, Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez have become steady rotation players to help matters.
3. Bucks (22-10)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.2 PTS, 58.3 FG%, 12.8 REB) may be the league’s most unique star in that he does just about everything well – except for shooting the three-ball. It’s rare to find a ball-dominant point forward like the Greek Freak shoot so poorly from the perimeter. He has a better touch from mid-range but getting to the rim and finishing or creating is what he does best. Mike Budenholzer is certainly looking like the right choice for this job as he has both sides of the ball firing on all cylinders. Milwaukee is second in the league in shooting efficiency and first in opponent shooting efficiency. Eric Bledsoe (19.3 PTS, 50.1 FG%, 6.9 AST per 36) has also come to life while comfortably playing off the ball.
2. Warriors (23-11)
Stephen Curry is the team’s most valuable player. Kevin Durant is the finisher. Draymond Green is the heart and soul. Label the players on this team however you wish but those don’t matter in reality. It’s about one common goal and that’s winning a championship. The one burning question is: how far will Golden State separate itself from the pack come playoff time? Last year, the Warriors showed apparent vulnerability and just barely squeaked by a Harden-led Rockets team. Veterans like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala may be nearing the tail end of their careers. That’s where the importance of energy players like Jonas Jerebko and Jordan Bell comes into play.
1. Raptors (25-10)
As great as DeMar DeRozan played with Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard (26.8 PTS, 49.9 FG%, 8.0 REB) appears to be an even better fit. His presence has enabled Lowry (14.4 PTS, 84.5 FT%, 9.8 AST) to sustain all-star status without needing to attempt that many shots. People were raving nonstop regarding Boston’s depth…but what about that of the Raptors? Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright give Lowry an extra hand at the top of the key. Wing players Danny Green and O.G. Anunoby give them even more flexibility. Pascal Siakam (17.5 PTS, 58.4 FG%, 7.4 REB per 36) has undoubtedly become the team’s highly regarded X-factor.