This is what’s great about the NBA: It’s always something different.
As the league reaches the first quarter mark as just about every team hits 20 games, the stories are those coming and going. That being the amazing run of the Golden State Warriors—yes, they were defending champions but mostly not favorites—and the announcement by Kobe Bryant that this will be his last season.
One of the best stories, albeit mostly overlooked, has been the fabulous comeback of Paul George, who a year after no one could bear to look at his horrific compound fracture injury, George is having by far his best season and probably would be league MVP if not for the play of Stephen Curry.
Plus, a revamped and restyled Indiana team has been one of the early season surprises. In just a few weeks of play, they turned one of the slowest offenses into one of the fanciest. They’re among the early season surprise teams, which basically means “experts” misjudged their talent.
That group probably would include the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and the Eastern Conference, which a season removed from demands of a seeding change because of East incompetence, Eastern teams hold an edge in interconference games.
On the negative side are teams like the Houston Rockets, who already fired their coach, Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards, Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Clippers and, to an extent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, good but hardly excellent. That would include the Cleveland Cavaliers, though Kyrie Irving has yet to play after being injured in last season’s playoffs.
Wesley Matthews has been a great comeback story from Achilles surgery. Not quite as dramatic, but Andrew Wiggins has emerged as a future star. Kawhi Leonard already had, but is building on that. Andre Drummond is doing the best Wilt impersonation in years. And, yes, I have Curry for the first quarter as league MVP, Most Improved, Sixth Man (for when he comes off the bench) and Coach of the Year.
Usually by this time in the season, it’s possible to get a picture of where teams are and what they will be. General managers generally set a mark at 30 games to know what they have. Good luck with that this season as the top 10 teams in the Eastern Conference are separated by two games, which is basically three fortunate bounces. Perhaps never has it been this close after 20 games, which makes rating the teams fairly irrelevant now. Of course, we’ll all do it, nonetheless.
The Western Conference is considerably more spaced out at this point with the eighth place team under .500. Eastern teams are horrified at the inequity. The Warriors and Spurs have pretty much lapped the field and at this point it looks like they are the only teams that can win the title. But they will make an Eastern team play for it, anyway.
And the 76ers and the Lakers will battle for the worst record of the season, if not in history.
Here’s one estimate:
1. Golden State Warriors: I’ve got one correct. With another title they’ll have to be considered an all time great team given their current domination. But the historic formula for greatness is multiple Hall of Fame players. The Warriors seem to basically have one in Curry. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else. Can you put a system of play into the Hall of Fame?
2. San Antonio Spurs: They’ve quietly made the transition to the next decade with LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. They’re really threatening Red Auerbach’s legacy for sustaining greatness like no one in league history. Perhaps the great irony is now they are one of the feature TV teams not long after they were anathema to the networks for their small market and supposedly drab style. Now even their coach’s end of quarter interviews are one of the viewing highlights of the season.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers: Just because of LeBron. Remember that guy? With Curry and Kobe he’s almost forgotten. And now they look awfully pedestrian. There’s the thing about Kyrie Irving’s return, but who knows how he’ll be after being out for so long. Kevin Love has become an after thought again despite decent numbers as he’s mostly ignored at key parts of the game. It looks again like LeBron pulling a box car of role players, and now needing more second winds than ever. They’re still the target, but very vulnerable.
There’s sort of a big gap here..but our numbering system requires a next
4. Indiana Pacers: It’s Paul George, who has been fabulous, especially given the severity of his injury. Just as impressive has been this seemingly seamless transition from the league’s ugliest offense, plodding and dull, to a fast paced, open court three point shooting game in a matter of weeks. They’re in the top five in scoring and three-point shooting and George has been so good he doesn’t need a last name.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: More on potential talent than actual play. Scott Brooks looks better and better. The reason for moving beyond Brooks was to break the stranglehold of Durant and Westbrook monopolizing everything. And they seem to do it more than ever now. Westbrook has become the leading scorer now with Durant out six games with injury, though Westbrook leads the league in turnovers at almost six per game and shoots just under 30 percent on threes. And taking a lot of them. If Kobe wasn’t around threatening all time shooting futility marks they’d be looking at Westbrook. But they have an awful lot of talent there and have time to figure it out.
6. Toronto Raptors: This is where it begins to get confusing in the East as any of at least a half dozen teams could be anywhere from here to 15th. The Raptors almost beat the Warriors, which now is an honor. They lost both by five points or fewer. They’ve also played the most road games in the league and have been getting big time play from their backcourt; not Golden Stateesque, but tough to defend.
7. Chicago Bulls: Maybe the toughest team to read given the quality wins and indifferent losses. Their wins over the Thunder, Spurs and Cavs were the best in the conference this early. But they’ve played the fewest games and just eight on the road with only Miami substantially lower. The biggest statistical concern is the margin of victory, an accurate indicator of success that is 12th in the league, belying this ranking. But they seem to have a high ceiling for improvement with the missed training camp for Derrick Rose and extended summers for Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic and new coach trying a new system.
8. Miami Heat: They’ve had a fairly soft schedule thus far with few road games, and Dwyane Wade has been pretty good. Will that last? It actually might as he seems to go more slowly and still score. They can’t quite get it figured out with Goran Dragic, who wants to run and everyone else seems to be saying that it’s December and he should relax. And they still have Hassan Whiteside on track, and if he stays there they’ll stay there.
9. Los Angeles Clippers: Finally, a Western Conference team again. Yes, I’m wearing that one out. The Clippers basically still seem shell shocked from blowing that 23-point lead to the Warriors and losing. The old Lakers with their 33-game winning streak are as well. Is DeAndre Jordan wondering if he picked the wrong team? They’ve messed up filling their bench once again, and it probably will keep them from making any serious run. I heard Chris Evert describe herself once as “almost pretty.” The Clippers are like that, really nice, but not quite knock you out.
10. Boston Celtics: A really intriguing team, the surprise being they are so tough without anyone on the team you’d actually want to have on your team. A lot of nice players, really, and now mini Isaiah Thomas starting. A bunch of exchangeable big guys. But a team that really gets into you on defense. They made the playoffs last season, so they’re no huge surprise. Perhaps the surprise will be what they do as they have a load of top draft picks and the ability—in theory—to trade up with some of their players and picks. They’ll be the team to watch at trade deadline.
11. Memphis Grizzlies: After a tough start with a lot of road games and Zach Randolph out, they’ve regained some stability and did upgrade some in the offseason. Jeff Green shows up not often enough and who knows what Matt Barnes will do. But they made a reasonable pickup with Mario Chalmers and someone may make a jump shot from time to time. And when Barnes yells at Chalmers he’ll have heard much more than that before from LeBron.
12. Atlanta Hawks: Great to see Thabo Sefolosha back, though DeMarre Carroll has helped the Raptors in that Draymond Green way. They haven’t replaced him, and you have to admire the Jazz for their scouting the way they’ve helped build the Hawks and other teams and now the Pacers with C.J. Miles. Not winning 60 again, obviously, but no easy out in the playoffs.
13. Charlotte Hornets: Maybe because I’ve seen them too much. And they hope Al Jefferson doesn’t come back too soon. They’re another team that has evolved quickly from a desperately slow defensive team to a team with nice movement and a sometimes star in Nicholas Batum, who can finish some games for them. You’ve got to have one reliable closer, which they mostly haven’t other than the aging Jefferson. Michael Jordan has done some good things with personnel. See, he said he could. And even after losing Kidd-Gilchrist for the season.
14. Orlando Magic: Right on the verge of being good; if they can find that closer. It’s interesting to see Scott Skiles doing what he did in Chicago to turn things around bringing Ben Gordon off the bench and going from 0-9 to 47 wins. Skiles has reenergized Victor Oladipo that way, though he has to find a shot from Elfrid Payton. They’re a scrappy bunch with talent who just don’t quite know how to win yet.
15. Houston Rockets: Can they continue to fall even this far? It seems likely that James Harden got Kevin McHale run out and may do the same with potential free agent Dwight Howard. It is difficult watching Harden dribble around all game like he does, but they do have talent and perhaps someone will eventually tell Harden that Howard is on his team.
16. Dallas Mavericks: Can probably make the case for them being even higher, though it’s tough to believe they’re even here. Matthews has made a remarkably quick and effective comeback from his Achilles. He’s a guy who simply refuses to be hurt. And who knew Deron Williams could still play? No, was willing to. He’s met his match in Rick Carlisle and Williams seemed to realize it and is trying again. Zaza Pachulia also was a nice pickup, and that’s something rarely written. They are one of the surprises.
17. Detroit Pistons: Some terrific stuff from Andre Drummond, though the most amazing may have been two free throws in a row to send a game into overtime they won over the Suns. Reggie Jackson hangs onto the ball too much, but does some good stuff and who knew they got the good Morris. Stan Van Gundy is importing his Orlando plan of stationing a bunch of guys on the perimeter around the league’s best rebounder. It worked once.
18. Washington Wizards: It’s not losing Paul Pierce as he didn’t care much until the playoffs last season, either. Bradley Beal has been terrific. But their big man rotation as faded and struggled; Kris Humphries as stretch four basically had no chance, anyway, and now they’ve had guys out, changes, uncertainty and bottom 10 on offense and defense. Not sure Kevin Durant is impressed with that.
19. Utah Jazz: Yes, their kingdom for a point guard. Didn’t look like they could figure out enough ways to score, but they get there from time to time, especially with Derrick Favors. Gordon Hayward still has to do way too much and is not quite good enough to do all that.
20. Phoenix Suns: They’re not that far from turning their record around except for the losses. They’ve blown a bunch of fourth quarter leads and have almost perfected the art of the close loss. They need a finisher like Dragic as they are a running team and Dragic needs a running team. Never mind. They do have good scoring guards. But one needs to make the last shot. They’re in a tough road stretch where they’re always a play or two away. But the league keeps insisting as listing them as losses.
21. Milwaukee Bucks: They lost a lot of their identity with their offseason moves that seemed good when Greg Monroe chose them over New York and Los Angeles. Yes, Milwaukee. But the young, energetic, long armed, physical, defensive, switch everything group sort of faded away with the personnel changes. It’s sort of Antetokounmpo’s team now, but no one is quite sure what he’s best at.
22. New York Knicks: Lots better because they are quietly a much better defensive team, although that’s been overlooked as the New York media seems to believe Porzingis is Abdul-Jabbar. The rookie is terrific and looks like he’ll battle with Karl-Anthony Towns for rookie honors. But it’s the Knicks’ interior size that has changed the team. And they still can be a playoff team as they do have a closer no matter how much Carmelo Anthony’s reputation has suffered. You won’t want to play them if they can find a defensive point guard.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins is getting closer to the stars. They’re starting to get something going there that is fun to watch. Will Kevin Garnett eventually have Sam Mitchell as his assistant? Ricky Rubio is shooting a little better and they’re another team that needs maybe just one tough veteran to take the pressure off Wiggins at the end of games.
24. New Orleans Pelicans: A disappointing team, though you see the same problem with the new coaches as it’s tough to get guys to change habits. Their guards still don’t really understand that Anthony Davis is better than them. Way better, in fact. But they’re still isolating all over the place and forgetting about Davis, who gets 22 points, anyway. Alvin Gentry also can’t quite get them running yet, but as we hear it is early.
25. Portland Trailblazers: Tough to get much going with four new starters and your star gone. They got off to a surprisingly good start with their hot scoring backcourt. But you need more. Even Golden State. They do a good job with personnel filling in pieces, but it’s a long way back after losing Aldridge, Batum and Matthews.
26. Sacramento Kings: I keep hearing how great DeMarcus Cousins is and his team keeps winning about 35 percent of its games. Just watch him the last five minutes: Doesn’t run the court, won’t defend, demands the ball in a triple team and then shoots, pouts, argues with the officials, stands around angry. George Karl has to sit there stunned. Rajon Rondo is moving himself back into prime free agency in a summer to come with a lot of money and a limited free agent class.
27. Brooklyn Nets: They’ll give you a tough game since Lionel Hollins demands it. They’re obviously trying to recover from the disaster of disasters as they’ve basically given away their draft picks for the next four years. And they’ll be good ones. The cap will go way up and they’ll spend money, so they can recover some. For now they do compete. But the talent is more in transition than their game.
28. Denver Nuggets: I like watching Emanual Mudiay play. I think he’ll be good. And Kenneth Faried, too, though he needs a mature playmaker. Mudiay will get there, though not yet. It’s good to see Danilo Gallinari back, but it does show it takes two or three years to recover from those ACL tears, and he’s still not where he was.
29. Los Angeles Lakers: It’s the Kobe farewell tour, though no gifts, he said. But you can register at Crate & Barrel. They need to finish top three in the lottery to keep their pick from the disastrous Steve Nash trade. See, it wasn’t only the Nets. And they are on course with Kobe shooting about 20 percent on threes. Someone must have told him there’s Ebola on the rim. I’m actually surprised as he looks healthy, and if he is he’ll shoot better. I’m sure, really.
30. Philadelphia 76ers: There’s not much to say other than poor Jahlil Okafor, poor Nerlens Noel, poor JaKarr Sampson, poor Phil Pressey, poor Rashaun Holmes, poor whoever you are.