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In the interest of full disclosure: I tend to be a generous grader.
Maybe I like to see the best in the NBA‘s 30 organizations, as I seek the silver linings and optimistic takes at this early stage of the 2018-19 campaign. Perhaps I’m too soft, hesitant to throw down a poor mark even when one is deserved.
But that’s changing this year, thanks to a handful of teams that are falling apart. The Washington Wizards are dysfunctional, the Houston Rockets got off to such a slow start that Carmelo Anthony is no longer a part of the roster, and the Cleveland Cavaliers can’t make any progress without LeBron James.
That’s only the start.
Using the plus/minus grading system employed by the University of Georgia (among others) and looking not just at win-loss records, but also player development, underlying metrics and more, we’re giving the entire NBA a 2.77 GPA that corresponds most closely to a B-minus. Here’s hoping your favorite team is above that benchmark.
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Though losing isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Atlanta Hawks, who don’t have much to play for aside from top picks in the 2019 NBA draft, they still need to make on-court strides. Wasted seasons remain wasted seasons, even with tanking proclivities, which means the squad needs to have actual keepers emerge.
Who can Atlanta count on to feature prominently when this team is ready to compete for another Eastern Conference playoff berth?
Trae Young has struggled to find his shooting stroke and looks absent on defense, but his driving ability and preternatural passing skills have kept his stock from plummeting. He counts. You can talk yourself into Omari Spellman, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Kent Bazemore, though the final name on that short list will likely be shopped before the Feb. 7 trade deadline in an effort to add long-term assets.
Losing is fine if there’s a process. But that part has been questionable in the early going.
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The Boston Celtics were supposed to assert themselves as legitimate powers, ready to earn the No. 1 seed and force the remaining Eastern Conference organizations to chase them for the right to play in the Finals.
To be fair, the defense has kept its end of the bargain. Led by the ageless Al Horford, who directs traffic and shuffles his feet between assignments as well as anyone, the C’s are ceding just 102.1 points per 100 possessions, which leads the league. The gap between them and the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies (102.8) is larger than the separation between the Nuggets and No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder (103.2).
The offense has told a different story. Jaylen Brown has faded into the background. Jayson Tatum’s shot profile has trended in the wrong direction as he’s fallen in love with mid-range jumpers. Gordon Hayward has been unable to find a rhythm. The team, with the exception of Kyrie Irving, has struggled while trying to out-talent rather than out-execute the opposition.
Until the offensive rating is better than No. 27, Boston won’t fulfill its lofty potential.
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The Brooklyn Nets are no longer pushovers.
Under the supervision of head coach Kenny Atkinson, they’re playing high-quality basketball on a semi-nightly basis, promoting positive contributions from players scattered throughout the roster. We could easily focus on Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert (prior to the devastating ankle injury that halted his momentum), Joe Harris or Ed Davis.
But let’s instead shine the spotlight on Jarrett Allen, who has become a defensive stalwart and has an intriguing brand of offense. If he can become a centerpiece of this ongoing rebuild, the year should be considered a success for a team that’s no longer saddled with the mistakes of prior regimes but instead gains a first-round pick from the Denver Nuggets if it falls outside the first 12 selections in 2019.
Allen is averaging 12.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 59.0 percent from the field. Those might seem like nondescript numbers, but the well-rounded nature of his production is significant, and he often makes an impact that goes beyond the basic counting stats. His 2.9 defensive box plus/minus ranks No. 25 among all qualified players, and the Nets have been 4.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
Anytime a first-round pick blossoms into a surefire keeper during another rebuilding year, the grade can’t fall too low.
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How do you stop Kemba Walker?
His speed hasn’t diminished, allowing him to jet by defenders caught flat-footed and finish plays at the rim. Nor have the three-point strides he’s made over the last few seasons, as he’s drilling 38.9 percent of his whopping 10.4 attempts per game. That combination is brutal for defenders, forcing them to continuously choose between the proverbial rock and hard place while he averages 29.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.
But the Charlotte Hornets aren’t just about Walker this year, and that bodes well for their ability to continue to earn a 4.4 net rating (No. 9 in the league) and eventually post a representative win-loss record. They have a minus-1.4 net rating when he’s not on the floor, which stands in stark contrast to the minus-6.8 earned in those minutes last year.
This team has been significantly better than the middling record indicates. And if players such as Willy Hernangomez and Miles Bridges can keep thriving in their allotted minutes, that should become increasingly clear.
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Though the 4-13 Chicago Bulls may be losing plenty of games, they’re at least getting development from key pieces.
Wendell Carter Jr. looks the part of a future centerpiece, as he’s asserting himself in the Rookie of the Year race by averaging 11.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.9 blocks per game while keeping his turnovers in check, shooting 46.5 percent from the field and playing high-quality interior defense. Though he might not produce the glamorous numbers of some other first-year standouts, he’s a standout nonetheless.
Then we have Zach LaVine, who’s using a tighter crossover and heretofore unseen confidence while driving toward the hoop to become an even more dangerous scoring threat. Justin Holiday remains a two-way building block. Ryan Arcidiacono has played useful minutes. Lauri Markkanen (elbow) is still waiting to make his season debut and imbue the organization with even more upside.
The Bulls should never have been expected to compete for a playoff spot, even in the weaker of the NBA’s two halves. This season is instead about development, and that appears to be happening for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s troops.
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A pitiful 2-13 record doesn’t even begin to sum up the futility that has plagued the Cleveland Cavaliers throughout 2018-19. This team has been atrocious, finding itself on the wrong end of a minus-8.9 net rating (No. 27 in the league) while two new holes seem to emerge every time one is temporarily plugged.
First came the decision to fire head coach Tyronn Lue after a 0-6 start; then came the subsequent drama before Larry Drew accepted the interim tag and a deal that’s only partially guaranteed for 2019-20. Kevin Love is out for weeks with a foot injury. JR Smith publicly requested a trade. The veterans were allegedly displeased with Collin Sexton’s skill set—never a good thing for a lottery addition who’s attempting to run the show in his initial campaign.
If you’re searching for good news, it’s tough to find any. In fact, Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson are the only two players on the roster with positive box plus/minuses, and it’s tough to believe that a 25-year-old and 27-year-old, respectively, are the biggest bright spots on a team that’s entering a full-fledged rebuild.
Unless Sexton makes major strides in the immediate future, this season won’t avoid the “disaster” label.
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“We’re growing defensively,” Dennis Smith Jr. said after his Dallas Mavericks took down the short-handed Golden State Warriors to earn a 7-8 record Saturday, per Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. ”Everything takes time. I feel like everybody was overreacting to what was happening. It was so early. Just take a chill pill, man. It’s going to take time. But it’s coming around.”
Starting with two wins in the first nine outings was less than ideal, but these Mavs are rounding into more respectable form even while Dirk Nowitzki continues to watch from the sidelines while he rehabs his ankle injury. Smith still hasn’t quite found the shooting stroke that will push him firmly into the realm of rising stars, but that’s been fine, as the team boasts an intriguing combination of up-and-comers and veteran talents.
Luka Doncic, in particular, has stood out.
The teenaged guard has already looked in complete control of the proceedings, spearheading a Dallas squad on the rise by averaging 19.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.3 blocks per game on a 45.3/37.5/76.7 slash line. His pull-up triples are starting to swish through nylon with more frequency, and his heady play allows him to finish plenty of opportunities in traffic when he’s not creating easy looks for his teammates. If he continues on this trajectory, he’ll factor prominently into the Rookie of the Year race.
The Mavericks will also continue to win games.
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The Denver Nuggets aren’t perfect. They have legitimate issues that could hinder their quest for a higher ceiling in the loaded Western Conference, and Will Barton’s eventual return from a hip injury won’t remedy all of the problems.
Barton’s presence might help the offense, as it’s struggled to create reasonable looks after opponents stifle the initial action. Denver doesn’t always appear to play with flow but instead goes through the motions and seeks an early mismatch to capitalize on. Without more shot-creating presences, that won’t change.
Of course, an increase in aggressiveness from Nikola Jokic might help. Talented as the team’s best player may be, he can occasionally put up a passive performance and fail to assert himself from the high post and blocks.
On the flip side, the Nuggets can also rest assured these offensive concerns will sort themselves out while the team continues to focus on playing swarming defense. Their No. 6 defensive rating (105.3) is a massive step up after last year’s porosity (109.9). That stems from Jokic’s improved play, Paul Millsap’s health and an overall commitment to maintaining effort for the full extent of each possession.
The Nuggets haven’t reached maximum power, but they’re already dangerous behind that improved stopping ability.
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As expected, the Detroit Pistons’ 4-0 start was a bit of a mirage.
Blake Griffin has returned to earth, averaging 24.3 points on a more realistic slash line: 47.1/37.0/73.7. And sans his herculean efforts from the beginning of the campaign, the team has struggled to stay afloat on the scoring side while so many of the guards and wings have searched for missing shooting strokes.
Basketball Reference’s simple rating system, which looks solely at margin of victory and the difficulty of the calendar, gives the Pistons a score of minus-2.63, placing them at No. 24 and directly between the Orlando Magic (minus-2.53) and Washington Wizards (minus-5.48). That’s as clear a sign as any that this team, while still boasting a respectable record, hasn’t been that good. The wins won’t disappear from the ledger, but they might start coming with less frequency as Detroit regresses to its mean.
We’ll give the Pistons some credit for the early success, and we won’t rule out any ability to improve when the perimeter shots finally start falling. But expecting too strong a grade at this early stage would be unreasonable.
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Perhaps the Golden State Warriors would earn an even sturdier grade if they’d avoided off-court turmoil. But the brewing situation between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green prevents that, and it has the potential to grow ugly if the results don’t remain relatively untarnished during the quest for a third consecutive title.
As The Athletic’sMarcus Thompson II wrote:
“According to multiple sources, Green then went on to make it clear he’s been making plays for years. He reminded Durant the Warriors were winning before Durant showed up so he wouldn’t stand for Durant talking to him as if he were a scrub. Green accused Durant of making the whole season about him even though he was going to leave after this season. Green let out his frustrations about how Durant has handled free agency—keeping his options open and keeping the story alive, consuming the Warriors and their season with talk of what Durant will do next.”
Golden State has still opened with a 12-6 record despite six- and five-game absences from Stephen Curry and Green, respectively. Klay Thompson has a 50-point explosion to his credit, but he’s slashing an uncharacteristic 44.8/32.1/79.5. The roster has serious long-range deficiencies when the Splash Brothers aren’t active or are misfiring.
And yet, the Warriors are still out-talenting the opposition to the tune of the league’s No. 5 net rating. All isn’t fine in the Bay Area, but the underlying numbers help mask any growing fissures.
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Though the Houston Rockets have climbed back above .500 during a trying opening salvo, they’re a shell of the squad that earned last year’s No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
The imminent return of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik could help improve a defense that’s still figuring out its issues after it lost Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza during the offseason, though those problems go well beyond the departures of two role players. Houston is searching for high-quality depth after the failed Carmelo Anthony experiment. Most importantly, the offense has declined dramatically, in part because Chris Paul has had difficulty reaching his former level of excellence.
James Harden can only do so much of the heavy lifting for a squad that’s scoring 108.4 points per 100 possessions and 104.2 when he’s off the floor. That teamwide mark may leave it at No. 12 in the Association’s overall hierarchy, but that’s not enough when coupled with the defensive deficiencies that give the Rockets a negative net rating.
Until Paul rounds into form, Eric Gordon remembers how to shoot and the defense coalesces, Houston will struggle to justify its perceived status as an enduring contender in the West. And even as it rights the ship, that won’t change the poor marks for the first portion of the season.
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Maybe the Indiana Pacers aren’t ready to challenge for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, but they’re only a tier below the true powers.
As Victor Oladipo struggles to match the efficiency levels he posted during his breakout season and Tyreke Evans disappoints slightly in his bench role, the Pacers aren’t clicking offensively. But behind Domantas Sabonis’ transformation into one of the game’s best second-string big men, they’re still stifling the life out of opponents and winning through sheer defensive prowess.
Then again, Sabonis isn’t just thriving on defense.
The 22-year-old center is averaging a staggering 20.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists per 36 minutes, and he’s doing so while shooting 68.5 percent from the field. He’s excelled out of the post, in the pick-and-roll game, on spot-up attempts and when waiting for the offense to naturally develop in a way that features him. He’s thrived on defense by bodying up against bigger players and switching capably to corral smaller foes. Everything has clicked during a season that could result in some Most Improved Player love.
With this new version of Sabonis, the Pacers might have one of the NBA’s stronger cores of young contributors. We haven’t even touched on a healthy Myles Turner, though he’ll likewise go a long way in determining how high this team can rise.
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Maybe we don’t need to nitpick the Los Angeles Clippers, as Grant Hughes penned for Bleacher Report as he moved them up to No. 6 in his most recent power rankings:
“The Los Angeles Clippers are this week’s ‘don’t overthink it’ team, as there are plenty of red flags to consider and means toward which regression feels imminent. Fortunately for L.A., which bested the Bucks on Saturday and the Warriors on Monday (both in overtime), we won’t worry about iffy rim protection stats or the limited ceiling of a starless team.
“Knock off a pair of possible Finals participants in a row, and you get a reprieve from nitpicking.”
So how did these egalitarian Clippers follow their pair of victories against contenders? With a win over the San Antonio Spurs, then a road victory over the can’t-be-taken-for-granted Brooklyn Nets. They’re flat-out rolling, and the success goes well beyond the dazzling production of Montrezl Harrell and his indefatigable motor.
Don’t overlook Tobias Harris’ continued growth, as he sure seems comfortable as a go-to scorer. Danilo Gallinari is producing like he’s finally healthy. Lou Williams is doing Lou Williams things in fourth-quarter situations. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is emerging as one of the NBA’s more useful two-way rookies and is assuming more ball-handling responsibilities.
The Clippers have enough talent depth that, even without established stars, they can count on remaining competitive night in and night out. It’s time to take them seriously as threats to hold down one of the coveted Western Conference playoff spots.
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If you thought Father Time might catch up to LeBron James during his age-34 season, or that he might require an adjustment period after he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, you might want to re-evaluate. He’s averaging 28.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game while slashing 52.0/39.6/75.0, and his advanced metrics aren’t too shabby, either.
Take a gander at how he’s fared in the two components of ESPN.com’s real plus/minus (offensive and defensive) during the last two seasons:
- 2017-18: 5.64 ORPM, minus-0.68 DRPM, 4.96 RPM (No. 12 overall)
- 2018-19: 5.38 ORPM, 0.57 DRPM, 5.95 RPM (No. 3 overall)
James is still taking off some possessions on the preventing end and falling into the watch-the-ball trap, but he’s been more effective on defense in 2018-19 than he was in 2017-18. Overall, the same story rings true.
But if the Lakers are to become postseason locks, they need more than James. And that development has come around more slowly, recently aided by the waiver addition of Tyson Chandler, whose presence has led to a defensive lift.
This team will endure some trials and tribulations as Brandon Ingram tries to break out, Kyle Kuzma looks to develop and Lonzo Ball figures out when to use his unorthodox shooting stroke. That it’s already above .500 should be considered a moderate success, unless you entered the year with unrealistic expectations for a strangely constructed roster that’s attempting to coexist with James.
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Sure, the Memphis Grizzlies might be overachieving by winning 11 of their first 16 games. But so long as Marc Gasol continues to dominate on both ends and the squad employs the grit-and-grind mentality that makes it so tough on opponents, the Grizz may well continue to outperform the underlying metrics.
First, let’s focus on Gasol. The 33-year-old center looked like he was on the decline last year, but he’s forced that narrative to undergo a 180-degree shift.
Looking quite spry on defense as he continues to position himself admirably, he’s also cut down on his offensive mistakes to become one of the league’s deadliest two-way players. While averaging 16.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game, Gasol is shooting 44.9 percent from the field, 41.1 percent from downtown and 72.4 percent from the stripe. That’s enough for him to claim the pole position in ESPN.com’s RPM with a positive score on both ends.
But Gasol isn’t doing this alone. Kyle Anderson, Mike Conley, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shelvin Mack and Garrett Temple all deserve praise for various reasons, and the team is employing a tortoise-inspired pace that runs counter to the overall trends of the Association and throws off some offenses used to running at a much higher tempo.
Even if this isn’t sustainable, the early efforts are laudable.
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This roster isn’t working.
While Hassan Whiteside continues to chase blocks at the expense of proper positioning, and James Johnson (hernia) gets back to full strength, the Miami Heat sometimes have trouble stopping nosebleeds. And yet, the offense might be even more problematic as Goran Dragic struggles to score efficiently and Josh Richardson is pigeonholed into a go-to role.
“We need a trade,” an anonymous Heat official told HeatBeat’s Ethan Skolnick. “Badly.”
Nothing emerged from the Jimmy Butler pursuit, and that may be a good thing for a franchise that can’t afford to part with much of its young talent. But this squad still needs to establish an identity—one that’s not just a collection of average contributors whose combined salaries add up quickly and prevent the front office from making many positive strides.
So will the Heat throw themselves behind a move that will promote a playoff push in the Eastern Conference? Will they try to sell veterans and accept a tank?
Your guess is as good as mine, and that lack of clarity is part of the problem.
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At this stage of the season, you can make a compelling argument that the Milwaukee Bucks have been the league’s premier outfit. Many numbers would have your back.
They’re blowing out the field in Basketball Reference’s SRS, and the gap between them (12.86) and the No. 2 Portland Trail Blazers (8.01) is bigger than the yawning chasm that separates the Blazers from the No. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder (3.38). They’re an obvious No. 1 in net rating (10.6), and the room between them and the No. 2 Toronto Raptors (7.7) is again quite notable. For good measure, they’re also the only organization ranked in the top five of both offensive rating (No. 1) and defensive rating (No. 5).
Focusing on Giannis Antetokounmpo is easy. The do-everything superstar might still have room to improve upon his MVP-caliber start to the year, but he’s already averaging 25.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 55.5 percent from the field. Good luck finding numbers that gaudy from anyone else.
Still, that single-minded approach would ignore Eric Bledsoe’s exploits, Khris Middleton’s offensive heroics, the sharpshooting of Brook Lopez, the two-way improvements of Pat Connaughton and the advantageous schemes set in place by head coach Mike Budenholzer. This team may have a singular superduperstar, but it’s so much more than one player.
So, from us to you as we move into the season of giving, here’s a friendly piece of advice if you’re not thinking of these Bucks as a title contender: Start thinking of them as a title contender.
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Rewind to the end of last season, and the Minnesota Timberwolves were riding the high of beating the Denver Nuggets in a de facto play-in game to end a playoff drought that stretched back to the 2003-04 campaign. In Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler, they possessed one of the NBA’s most talented trios and were poised to keep trending upward as the youngsters continued tapping into their dizzying potential.
Now, Butler is a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, traded to the City of Brotherly Love after a tumultuous offseason and a will-he-or-won’t-he-play first few weeks of 2018-19. And even though the trade yielded Robert Covington, a struggling Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick, that’s problematic.
Towns hasn’t continued progressing. Wiggins is mitigating the gains made in the three-point department with struggles in other facets. Those happenings are even more problematic.
The ‘Wolves aren’t bereft of positive developments in 2018-19—mostly because Derrick Rose became a legitimate asset on the offensive end again. But with a sub-.500 record and roster upheaval, they’ve looked more dysfunctional than ready to compete for home-court advantage in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs.
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The New Orleans Pelicans’ season has been a roller-coaster ride, replete with highs that convince fans of the team’s postseason upside and lows that make Anthony Davis’ departure seem inevitable. Four victories were quickly followed by six consecutive losses, which were then followed by a 6-1 stretch that pushed NOLA back above .500.
So which version is for real? It’s tough to tell.
Davis has been phenomenal, as you might expect from an MVP candidate who has a legitimate chance to climb atop the NBA’s individual hierarchy. Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle have all excelled, at times, within their various roles. The team has looked potent with Elfrid Payton steadily leading the charge, but injuries have already taken a toll on the hometown floor general who’s out with a fractured finger.
Do we buy into the high-flying offense, which could reach even greater heights if Holiday remembers how to knock down three-point attempts? Do we worry that the team’s posting a minus-12.3 net rating without Davis on the floor?
Uncertainty reigns supreme, allowing us to reasonably buy into both optimistic and pessimistic outlooks on New Orleans’ long-term goals.
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Without Kristaps Porzingis in the lineup, the New York Knicks never had any reason to entertain playoff dreams in 2018-19. This should be a season focused solely on player development during the ongoing rebuild, figuring out which youngsters can assume prominent roles within a realistic time frame.
Under the supervision of head coach David Fizdale, that’s exactly what’s happening, as 13 different players average double-digit minutes.
Mitchell Robinson is morphing into a legitimate point-preventing force for the Knicks, posting a team-leading 4.1 defensive box plus/minus in his limited minutes. Noah Vonleh has rekindled some hope for his NBA career. Tim Hardaway Jr. has reminded the world of his awe-inspiring offensive upside. Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson have outplayed expectations, while Emmanuel Mudiay has made the most of what could’ve been his last shot to stick on a roster at the sport’s highest level.
But the Knicks are still earning nothing better than a B-minus because two of the most prominent figures in this rebuild have largely struggled. Until Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox can submit better slash lines than 34.1/26.3/91.7 and 33.0/34.2/66.7, respectively, we can only get so excited about the ancillary pieces.
New York’s 4-13 record shouldn’t be too relevant at this stage, and the team can be pleased with plenty of the early occurrences. But if Ntilikina and Knox don’t prove they belong, the ceiling can only rise so high.
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Between the recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery that delayed the start of his 2018-19 endeavors, a sprained ankle that knocked him back out of the lineup and the birth of his twin daughters, Russell Westbrook has suited up in just eight of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first 16 games. That they’ve gone 10-6 is downright miraculous, as well as a testament to the inspired play of Paul George, Steven Adams and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the roster.
Of course, it’s also notable that OKC has gone 5-3 with its star point guard logging minutes.
Though it’s great that Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel have been effective, or that Dennis Schroder has played solid basketball while replacing Westbrook, this season will hinge on the Thunder’s ability to maximize the talents of their leading triumvirate. If Westbrook, George and Adams can’t thrive together, they’re not getting by the elite teams in the Western Conference.
Thrive they have, albeit in limited action.
And that’s the best sign of all for a team that could be an Andre Roberson return away from earning an “elite” tag of its own.
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- Nikola Vucevic, 3.8 (No. 18 overall)
- D.J. Augustin, 1.91 (No. 44 overall)
- Evan Fournier, 1.04 (No. 72 overall)
- Aaron Gordon, 0.82 (No. 83 overall)
Kudos to the Orlando Magic for opening the season in 9-8 fashion, but that doesn’t mean the winning record is even remotely sustainable. Pythagorean wins indicate that 7-10 is the expected win-loss mark for the opening slate, while Basketball Reference’s SRS places the team at No. 23 overall with a distinctly negative mark.
Mo Bamba (minus-3.9) isn’t there. Nor is Jonathan Isaac (minus-1.12). Gordon, ostensibly the most promising piece and someone who came into the season on the heels of a massive contract extension, lags well behind the team’s leading figures, which somehow include a 31-year-old point guard in Augustin who doesn’t factor into the long-term plans.
So if you’re expecting to see a grade that begins with a “B” or an “A,” remember that we’re not just grading a team’s win-loss record relative to the expectations with which it entered the season. All the pieces matter, including inevitable regression, development of key pieces and the overall level of play that led to that aforementioned record.
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At what point do we start realistically entertaining the idea that Joel Embiid could become the best player in basketball?
The big man has continued to play his lockdown brand of defense while averaging 27.9 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.5 steals and 2.1 blocks per game, but he’s shored up many of his prior weaknesses.
He’s connecting on a more respectable 31 percent of his triples and spending far more time at the stripe. He’s turning over the ball just 3.1 times per game despite logging more minutes and handling increased responsibility within the offensive schemes. And speaking of minutes, he’s needed to miss exactly zero contests while playing 34.9 minutes per game.
But effective as Embiid has been, the Philadelphia 76ers haven’t been able to get rolling.
Their offense in particular has lagged behind where it should be while the team has gone 12-7 to start the year. Even while employing the ageless shooting of JJ Redick (36.6 percent on 8.1 three-pointers per outing), the Sixers have knocked down just 34.5 percent of their triples, which leaves them ahead of only nine organizations.
That number—and the offense in general—should improve, especially with Jimmy Butler aboard after an early-season trade that sent Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington and Dario Saric to the Minnesota Timberwolves along with a 2022 second-round pick.
But it’s telling that Philly felt it had to make such a trade in the first place, since that speaks to the struggles that kept it from ascending all the way up the Eastern Conference standings.
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At some point, the Phoenix Suns have to start showing something that resembles winning basketball.
Mikal Bridges (0.34) and Devin Booker (0.33) are the only men with positive scores in ESPN.com’s RPM, though T.J. Warren has at least looked like an asset on the offensive end. Deandre Ayton doesn’t quite qualify, but the franchise can feel good about his early-season effectiveness while he’s posting big per-game numbers and gradually starting to gain a quality feel for NBA action.
Still, individual success stories feel less relevant when the overall product remains so putrid.
Troy Daniels (5.7 net rating in 40 total minutes) and Bridges (7.9 in 291) are the only men whose presences are leading to scores in the green, and the team as a whole is being outscored by 10.3 points per 100 possessions, second-worst in the league. After finishing in dead last for both offensive and defensive rating last season, the Suns are up to Nos. 28 and 27, respectively.
Yes, they’ve moved up on the leaderboards. The net rating, though, has trended in the wrong direction from last year’s minus-9.0.
Though the Suns were never expected to be competitive during another rebuilding year, how can we give them a better grade when the results aren’t there? Anytime you finish No. 30 in net rating before posting an inferior number during the follow-up season, you aren’t earning lofty marks.
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Jusuf Nurkic still has some areas for improvement—tunnel vision with the ball and the occasional foul trouble chief among them—but his game has grown on both ends of the floor. While continuing to serve as an underrated rim protector, he’s playing to his strengths more than ever, as Peter Sampson detailed for SB Nation’s Blazer’s Edge:
“Nurkic has increased his efficiency by limiting the scope of what he’s trying to do. When players try to do too much, they can lose track of what makes them effective. Despite adding a three-point shot to his repertoire that he hasn’t seen much success with, Nurkic has narrowed the rest of his game down to finishing off the pick-and-roll and distributing off the pick-and-pop. It’s not glamorous, but it works, devastatingly so. [Damian] Lillard has 40 assists to Nurkic this year. No other Blazer is in double figures, and only CJ McCollum has found Nurkic more than three times.”
To be clear, the Portland Trail Blazers don’t belong to Nurkic. They’re still Damian Lillard‘s team, especially while he’s submitting arguably his best season yet and checks in at No. 3 on Basketball Reference’s MVP Award Tracker. But if the big man can help the backcourt standouts, they grow all the more deadly while coming off last year’s first-round sweep.
So far, so good.
With Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic on the floor, per PBPStats.com, Rip City is outscoring opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s the biggest reason, among many, that these Blazers have climbed all the way to the top of the Western Conference pecking order in the early going.
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The Sacramento Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006. That was also the last time they posted a record above .500. But this franchise has been so futile during the perpetual rebuild that the 9-8 iteration currently playing at a lightning-quick pace (the second-fastest in the league, in fact) is already entering relatively uncharted territory.
Looking at every season since that 2006 postseason appearance, take a gander at the deepest point that featured a record no worse than .500:
- 2006-07: 8-8
- 2007-08: 0-0
- 2008-09: 0-0
- 2009-10: 9-9
- 2010-11: 3-3
- 2011-12: 1-1
- 2012-13: 0-0
- 2013-14: 1-1
- 2014-15: 11-11
- 2015-16: 1-1
- 2016-17: 2-2
- 2017-18: 1-1
- 2018-19: 9-8 (and counting)
Playing 9-8 basketball 17 games into the year should already be considered a monumental success. Only two of the last dozen outfits have managed top that mark later in a season, which is fewer than the number of teams that never hit .500 (outside of a 0-0 record).
That alone deserves high marks, and this success may be (somewhat) sustainable if De’Aaron Fox can continue playing such high-quality basketball at the point. The underlying metrics aren’t quite so rosy, but let’s give this downtrodden organization a break.
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How do the San Antonio Spurs keep doing this?
Down a bazillion point guards to start the season after losing Tony Parker to free agency, Dejounte Murray to a torn ACL, Derrick White to a troublesome plantar fascia and Lonnie Walker IV to a right knee injury, they’ve been just fine. Without any notable defensive studs in the lineup, they’ve been just fine. While LaMarcus Aldridge battles through a substandard offensive season, they’ve been just fine.
Bet against the Spurs at your own peril.
I already did so at the beginning of the season, citing their woeful defensive numbers in the first handful of games (114.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). They’ve responded by climbing to No. 21 on the leaderboard (109.4 points allowed per 100 possessions).
So long as DeMar DeRozan keeps proving himself an offensive force capable of changing outcomes with his scoring and passing, so long as Gregg Popovich keeps working his magic as the head coach and so long as role players such as Dante Cunningham, Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl keep rolling, they’ll be just fine.
Maybe they aren’t a dominant outfit capable of earning home-court advantage in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs, but just staying above .500 is a success for an organization with seemingly lackluster personnel at its disposal for the first time in decades.
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- Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors: 19.6 net rating in 300 minutes
- Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, Toronto Raptors: 19.0 net rating in 443 minutes
- Danny Green and Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors: 18.1 net rating in 354 minutes
- Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors: 17.9 net rating in 308 minutes
- Serge Ibaka and Danny Green, Toronto Raptors: 16.8 net rating in 311 minutes
- Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors: 15.9 net rating in 362 minutes
- Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: 15.9 net rating in 322 minutes
- Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors: 15.8 net rating in 434 minutes
- Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks: 15.8 net rating in 400 minutes
- Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: 15.8 net rating in 332 minutes
Up to this point in the season, 163 different duos have logged at least 300 minutes during the 2018-19 campaign. Here are the top 10 in net rating:
Enough said? Enough said.
These Toronto Raptors are in juggernaut mode right now, and that might not change for quite some time. If their lack of playoff success in recent years has scared you away, do yourself a favor and catch a few of their games.
This team is different and in a good way.
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Remember when the Utah Jazz were supposed to make strides toward cementing themselves as one of the true challengers in the Western Conference? That was before serious regression on both ends of the floor.
During the 2017-18 campaign, the Salt Lake City representatives ranked Nos. 16 and 1 in offensive and defensive rating, respectively. This year, they’ve shifted to Nos. 24 and 15. The defense has struggled to coalesce around Rudy Gobert, and the offense is lacking an efficient go-to scorer.
Donovan Mitchell may be posting 20.7 points per game, but he’s doing so while shooting only 41.2 percent from the field, 29.0 percent from downtown and 78.8 percent at the stripe. That adds up to a 50.5 true shooting percentage that can’t touch his 54.1 percent mark as a rookie. Correspondingly, his offensive box plus/minus has fallen from 1.3 to 0.0.
Until that changes, the Jazz can’t score enough to keep pace with high-powered offenses. Not when Gobert (15.2 points per game), Joe Ingles (12.9), Jae Crowder (12.6), Ricky Rubio (12.4) and Derrick Favors (10.8) are the only other double-digit scorers, none of whom are reliable alpha dogs but instead depend upon setup passes from teammates.
Unless Mitchell finds his stride, this offense could remain problematic.
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“There are a bunch of teams with worse records than the [Washington] Wizards’ 5-11 mark, but there are none half as poisoned, as visibly radioactive, as obviously in need of some kind of major change,” Deadspin’s Albert Burneko wrote while excoriating the Washington Muggles Wizards.
Everything is falling apart for the team from the nation’s capital, which sits at No. 25 in Basketball Reference‘s SRS (minus-5.48), ahead of only the New York Knicks (minus-7.74), Phoenix Suns (minus-8.33), Chicago Bulls (minus-9.65), Cleveland Cavaliers (minus-10.36) and Atlanta Hawks (minus-12.36). That’s not the collection of teams with which a squad with playoff aspirations would like to be grouped.
It gets worse.
“As the Washington Wizards’ season spirals, the franchise is making every player on its roster—including All-Star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal—available to discuss in trade scenarios, league sources told ESPN on Monday.
“Washington’s preference remains to reshape the team around Wall and Beal, but poor play among key teammates is limiting their trade value and paralyzing the Wizards’ efforts to make meaningful changes to a roster that no longer appears functional together, league sources said.”
If you’re looking for a silver lining, well, we’ve got nothing.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.
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