The NBA season is almost a third of the way through and a glance at the standings tells us some stuff we know and some stuff we don’t know. Before getting into things, fuck injuries The talent pool in the NBA has never been deeper and yet we are being robbed as fans with injuries to Davis, Curry, Leonard, Jokic, Porzingis, Gallinari, Beverley, Griffin, Conley, Teague and a multitude of other players. The positive is that these injuries are happening early in the season, but those first five guys in particular are top 20 players and need to get back on the court! This is the first of two blogs which will look at each conference with a quick recap of where teams are at, and where they are likely to go from here.
Now, the standings. Houston, Golden State and San Antonio are the top three teams – yawn. Actually, the Warriors look about as interested as LeBron in the regular season, and the Spurs are chugging along just fine but the Rockets are the ones to watch. James Harden is playing incredible basketball, and Clint Capela is the perfect agile, rim running big who defends well enough to justify playing in the fourth quarter. The jury is still out on the Chris Paul trade, because I can see him becoming an offensive black hole come playoff time but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see the Rockets having home court advantage throughout the post-season.
It would be remiss to not discuss Golden State a little more. Kevin Durant had a nice 12 months, but this is Steph’s team and he has reminded everyone while playing at warp speed (he leads all players that have played at least five games in pace, outside of Brooklyn duo Russell and Crabbe), ranking 13th in usage and fourth amongst guards in true shooting percentage. Given he throws up heaps of his shots from quarter court, that is an insane statistic that belies belief. Curry is managing to produce at this level while manipulating an amazing public relations personality that belies the petulant child who throws his mouthguard at refs. But I digress, only to say that Golden State remain heavy title favourites, even though they need to find more minutes for Jordan Bell.
Beyond those three, pick a name out of the hat. Portland are over-achieving as they rank fourth in defensive rating, second in defensive rebound percentage, and fourth in opponents field goal percentage despite playing large parts of the season without their best defender in Al-Farouq Aminu and starting two below par defenders in the backcourt. Denver will do well to maintain the rage without Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, the latter for only a short while and their lack of consistent point guard play remains a concern. The Timberwolves are terribly coached (Thibs, Tyus Jones and Gorgei Dieng might not be your adopted fucking children but both are BETTER BASKETBALLERS along three superstars than Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson) and are a major injury waiting to happen, but figure to have too much talent to not finish top 6 in the standings. The last couple of weeks have shown without a shadow of a doubt that this is Jimmy Butler’s team, a fact that might be lost on Messrs Wiggins and Towns.
The Jazz are incredible; losing Rudy Gobert for 4 weeks was just a blip on the radar as Utah have won five of their last eight games by more than 25 points. The lack of a proven scorer will ensure the playoff run isn’t deep, but just getting there will be an amazing effort for a team that is proving there are many ways to skin a cat. Oh, and they have Donovan Mitchell who would be the rookie of the year if it wasn’t for a bloke from Down Under. The Pelicans are trotting out a weird-as-fuck line-up including two of the best 10 players in the league, a very good second-level budding star and a motivated Rajon Rondo. Whether this mishmash of players will continue to work remains to be seen, but you could put Davis and Boogie out there with three mannequins and they'd still remain competitive. Side note – give me Cousins over Davis if a choice is to be made.
Look at those eight teams and there seems to be something missing. Bang, crash, it’s the THUNDER! Oklahoma City went all in on Paul George and Carmelo Anthony but can’t get things right. There is one basketball, and Russell Westbrook on the team, which spells problems for other guys who need the ball. Granted, George has been outstanding at both ends but Melo needs to come off the bench where he can dominate the ball and not be left as a spot-up shooter. Billy Donovan doesn’t strike me as a great coach, so he may not figure this out before he is fired. OKC seem to have too much talent to miss the playoffs, but those teams ahead of them are all playing well and while they might not have the talent, have a far better mesh of players and/or a good head coach! Steven Adams is the perfect foil to Westbrook and George, and the five-man line-up which features those three, Jerami Grant and Alex Abrines is by far the best per-36 minute line-up trotted out by the Thunder this season.
The Clippers are easily hated, but even they don’t deserve the injury curse that has overwhelmed them. Without Blake Griffin, Austin Rivers becomes there second-best player. His Dad seems proud, as most Dad’s would be, but most Dad’s aren’t also the coach. That could soon become former coach, as Doc Rivers continues to impersonate an NBA coach, hanging his hat on a title win back when Baby Glen Davis was relevant. At least when Milos comes back he will make basketball fun – having him and Sweet Lou in the same backcourt will be entertainment personified, at least at the offensive end of the court!
The rest of the conference is rubbish. Phoenix seem to be setting their line-ups based on the Magic-8 ball sitting in Earl Watson’s old office, although Devin Booker and T.J.Warren give them two precocious talents around whom they can build the next decade. Memphis have simply run out of soldiers and chose to dump a very good coach rather than have him and Marc Gasol sort out their differences, but have given rise to a Tyreke Evans reincarnation that reminds us all of how much injuries can kill a career. Sacramento seem to see the benefit and logic in running George Hill and Zach Randolph into the ground rather than PLAYING THE FUCKING KIDS, and Dallas are caught in an awkward spot as they can’t push Dirk out the door and give control to Dennis and Harrison, or maybe they don’t want to do so because it will jeopardise a good draft pick? The Mavericks have given us the best NBA story of the season though, as Rick Carlisle’s pig-headedness and Nerlens Noel’s petulance has led to this.
Did we miss someone? Oh yeah, the Lakers. Now, this won’t turn into a debate about Lonzo Ball because he is a very good passer and may one day become a serviceable point guard in this league. But there is an almost zero chance that he delivers the value of a #2 draft pick. That aside, the Lakers are an intriguing case study. They are eighth in defensive rating, mainly due to excellent individual defenders such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope but they concede the third most points in the paint in the league due to a doughnut defence that missed Larry Nance. Offensively, they rank third-last in offensive efficiency and fifth in turnover percentage while leading the league in pace. If they want to sell tickets, they are doing the right thing but why the fuck would LeBron go there based on what they have showed thus far? A rotation of Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Nance, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez, Jordan Clarkson, Josh Hart and Julius Randle is impressive but this side needs to build around Ingram and make everyone else disposable. Ingram ranks fifth in the team in usage and second to last in net rating, of those players seeing more than 15 minutes a game – both areas must be fixed, one by the kid himself and one by Luke Walton. The minutes are there, and the Lakers seem set on their future – Kuzma, Ball, Caldwell-Pope and Ingram are all averaging more than 30 minutes a game; Ball is on a historically bad shooting pace (not really, but that’s what Twitter and the talking heads tell me) and Caldwell-Pope is flaky at best. If the Lakers are relying on that backcourt to be a defensive beast, then they must invest in Ingram and get him leading the team in shots taken and usage. Where was I? Yeah, going through the standings; the Lakers suck, and that’s probably not a bad thing for now but they MUST make the most of the opportunity they have to develop their youngsters, or trade them all for a few years of LeBron, PG13 and Russ…decisions, decisions.
A glance into the crystal ball throws up a first round of Rockets-Wolves, Warriors-Thunder, Spurs-Jazz and Nuggets-Pelicans…try and tell me we wouldn’t be in heaven if that happened!!