Merry Christmas Basketball Nerds!
We've nearly reached the new year, and most teams pretty much have their identities.
Let's look at our Surprises, Disappointments, and Things to Keep an Eye on.
- Devonte' Graham
If you created a list of players that would make a leap this season, Devonte' Graham probably wouldn't have even been on there. But his play has helped the Charlotte Hornets find themselves just one game back of the playoffs.
He has made himself the leader in just his second season, on a team full of guys who have been in the league for multiple years. But his vocal leadership has been backed up by his play.
- Ben McLemore
The Houston Rockets have somehow unlocked the talents of Ben McLemore. In his last 15 games, he has had three 20+ point performances, shot 39% from three, 45% from the field, and has made an incredible 48 three-pointers.
It seems as if the Rockets have found another guy they can bring off the bench and add more scoring. And maybe Ben has finally found the right fit for himself.
- Portland Trail Blazers
This is the second time they have gotten on this list. We usually try to switch things up, but not much has changed with these guys. They have played better with Carmelo Anthony in the lineup, but it still hasn't been enough.
To be fair, injuries to Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood have killed their chances of being one of the top teams in the West. But they still have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, which should lead to a better record than 14-18.
- Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings have been the most inconsistent team in the NBA. Even with the recent returns of Marvin Bagley III and De'Aaron Fox, they have still not really found their footing.
Over their most recent stretch, they've achieved wins over the Nuggets, Rockets, and Mavericks. But they've also suffered losses to the Knicks, Bulls, Grizzlies and Wolves. Their current five game losing streak matches their longest of the season, so let's hope they can figure it out quickly.
Things to Keep an Eye on
- East vs. West
During the 2010's the Western Conference playoff race was a dog fight. However, with disappointing play from more than half of the conference, the Western Conference has taken a step back. Only 6 teams have a winning record in the Western conference.
The East has taken a step forward this season and has just one team without a winning record in the playoff race. Both conferences have two heavyweight contenders and a couple of teams on the fringe of being contenders. We'll see how things shake out.
- The Trades!
We finally had our first movement since the Chris Paul trade before the season when Jordan Clarkson got shipped to the Utah Jazz. It'll be interesting to see which teams are buyers as we approach the deadline.
With a clear cut four or five championship contenders, I would be surprised to see any of those teams on the fringe make any kind of desperate moves. But we may see teams like the Blazers, Wolves, or Spurs make a move to help them in a playoff push.
I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more sellers than buyers. Teams trying to get rid of contracts to get some future assets in return. The Cavs, Suns, Pelicans and Bulls all have talent that they could give up on to build toward the future. Especially since the playoffs are a distant thought for those franchises.
During the Philadelphia 76ers rebuild, they allowed their first round picks to take the first year off.
Ben Simmons took the first year off.
Joel Embiid didn't play until two years after getting drafted.
And Markelle Fultz spent most of his first year working on his "mechanics,"while just playing in 14 games.
The Sixers allowed their young guys time to heal properly before throwing them onto the court. The Pelicans and Zion could take a page out of their book on managing health for longterm gain.
The New Orleans Pelicans came into the season with positive vibes, and a hope that they would be in the playoff race. But they weren't the only ones.
They are scheduled to play the 10th most nationally televised games in the NBA this season. And we picked them to be a team in the playoff race by the end of the season.
With a 6-21 record and 13 straight losses, they have essentially played themselves out of the playoffs. So what's next?
They have a ton of assets that they can sell. All the way from the bottom with guys like Josh Hart and E'Twuan Moore to the top of their roster with guys like Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday. They have many draft picks coming in the future thanks to David Griffin.
So there's really no rush, right? If the plan is to establish New Orleans as a new destination for free agents, then Zion Williamson being healthy should be their top priority.
Zion has yet to play in a regular season NBA game, and we have already begun to see the injuries pile up.
The freak shoe explosion accident at Duke. The knee injury in the Summer League. And then the torn meniscus in the preseason that required surgery.
These little flashes of "Injury Prone" are not quite a red flag, but we're at least on a yellow in the color spectrum. Big guys like him who are freakishly athletic as he is hardly ever get a chance to succeed.
To be fair, we may have never seen anything like the mix of athletic ability and size of Zion at that age. So maybe he can just heal faster than other human beings, who knows.
But why risk it if you're New Orleans? If Zion has made up his mind about playing, then that's one thing. But we have not seen him or heard him make any kind of "I am definitely playing this season" statement.
And with the Pelicans being as bad as they are, there's really no point to let him play. They have a guy who has the potential to be a top ten player in the NBA, if not better. Throwing him out there to play for a bad team after having surgery, doesn't seem like the best business decision.
At this point, if I am running the Pelicans, I'm wrapping Zion in bubblewrap and asking him to stay home until the 2020 season.
Two teams sitting at 13-10 couldn't be any different. The Utah Jazz and the Brooklyn Nets both have dreams of improving on their play from last season.
Both teams suffered first round exits in five games. Both teams made a lot of splashy moves during the offseason to bolster their roster. And both teams have coaches with really greasy hair.
But one team should clearly be better than the other, but their records haven't reflected such opinion thus far.
Who Sucks Less? Utah Jazz or Brooklyn Nets
The Utah Jazz have had the blessing of health throughout this young season. Like with any team that adds new pieces, it will take some time to get everyone to play well together.
But there is cause for concern as Mike Conley has yet to show that he can return to his All-Star form. Over the past couple of seasons, he has suffered injuries that have slowed him down. But with one of the most talented roster he's had in a while, you'd think the game would come easier to him.
Conley has never had a season where he shot worse than 42% and this season he is shooting an abysmal 37% from the field. He's forcing less turnovers than ever. He's averaging just 4.6 assists per game, which he hasn't done since his first two seasons of his career.
It's pretty clear to see what is slowing the Jazz down, and keeping them from being more successful. Now it is still very early in the season, but it's still alarming.
The Jazz still have a top ten defense thanks to Rudy Gobert in terms of opponents field goal percentage and points allowed per game. But they are bottom of the league in turnovers forced, which has made it hard for them to get easy points.
The Brooklyn Nets couldn't have had things go much worse for them so far this season in terms of health. They came into the season knowing they would be without Kevin Durant. But they didn't expect their next two best players in Kyrie Irving and Karis Lavert to miss significant time with injuries.
Yet, while being decimated by injuries, they have found a way to win nine of their last twelve games. Much of it has had to do with their interior defense.
Since November 16th (first game without Irving and Lavert) the Brooklyn Nets are 3rd in field goal percentage allowed within 9 feet of the basket. Holding their opponents to just 56% from 0-5 feet and an incredible 26% from 5-9 feet.
Guys like Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple have both seen in increase in minutes, and have played well in their roles. Efficiency has been the key for Prince, who is shooting 40% from the field as well as the three. And Temple is 5th in the NBA in total blocks amongst guards since November 16th.
The narrative has been that the Nets are playing better without Kyrie because he's not playing. But the offensive stats prove otherwise. Their scoring, assists, field goal percentage and points off of turnovers are all down since his absence.
People can continue to downplay Kyrie and label him whatever they want. But the fact of the matter is, he raises the ceiling for this Nets team.
So Who Sucks Less?
We have one team in the Utah Jazz trending in the wrong the direction with a fully healthy squad.
And we have the Brooklyn Nets trending in the right direction while being hit with the injury bug.
At this time, I'll say that the Utah Jazz still suck less, even though things haven't been looking great.
They could easily go 7-3 over their next ten games and find themselves all the way up to the 2 seed in the Western Conference. Their top ranked defense will carry them throughout the season, and will eventually wear teams down.
So congratulations Utah Jazz, you suck less than the Brooklyn Nets!
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