Catching up on the 2018-19 NBA season to date
Antetokounmpo soars, Harden streaks and trade deadline sets up summer
Ben Couch, NBA.com
With NBA All-Star 2019 in the rear view and a few days to catch a refresher before the action picks back up on Thursday, let’s take a look at what happened since training camp broke on the season to date.
Harden can’t stop scoring
The last time James Harden scored fewer than 30 points, the Rockets were sitting at 12-14 and No. 14 in the Western Conference. The next game, Harden dropped 50 on the Lakers in a victory. Then he had 32 in the next game and 47 after that … and then 30-plus again and again until he stood alone with Wilt Chamberlain, who had previously owned the four-longest streaks. As we exit the All-Star break, Harden and Chamberlain are tied for second at 31 games; Houston plays the Lakers on Thursday (10:30 ET, TNT).
Harden ran out of real estate this season on a chance to tie the all-time record – Wilt reached 65 straight in 1961-62 – but he stands to finish with the single-highest scoring average the league’s seen since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. Harden also managed to find a widely lampooned boundary for the outer reaches of his patented step-back jumper:
Giannis levels up
We all realized Giannis Antetokounmpo had made a jump last season, and that the Milwaukee Bucks, under new coach Mike Budenholzer, could be among the Eastern Conference contenders — especially with LeBron James moving out West.
What maybe we didn’t count on was Antetokounmpo taking it up another notch as Budenholzer and GM Jon Horst surrounded him with shooting, shooting and more shooting as they gave him full reign over the offense. Antetokounmpo has averaged an astounding 27.2 points (58.1 field goal percentage), 12.7 rebounds, six assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. The Bucks are an NBA best 43-14 at the break, and Antetokounmpo is the current Kia MVP favorite.
Also, he does things like this:
Kawhi of the North
The Toronto Raptors made a bold move before the season, sending DeMar DeRozan — the homegrown face of Toronto’s franchise revival — to the San Antonio Spurs in a package that returned impending free-agent Kawhi Leonard, who played only nine games last season while dealing with a quad injury.
While he and the team have been cautious about back-to-backs and the overall “load management”, if you thought Kawhi wasn’t still the player who turned back LeBron to win Finals MVP in 2014 before consecutive Defensive Player of the Year campaigns, well …
Here’s Kawhi Leonard doing whatever the robotic equivalent of laughing is. pic.twitter.com/2ZzHM0B7nY
— Faizal Khamisa (@SNFaizalKhamisa) September 24, 2018
Leonard is averaging 27.0 points (49.2 field goal percentage, 36.3 3-point percentage), 7.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 steals and has led Toronto — with a big supporting nod to breakout starter Pascal Siakam — to the second-best record in the league, just two losses back of leader Milwaukee.
Westbrook’s world? Triple-doubles, daily
Another season, another triple-double average for Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook. And this time, it’s not close:
Westbrook, despite struggling to keep his shot north of 40 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3-point range and 65 percent from the line, is averaging 21.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game. And he’s done it while essentially deferring to Paul George as the team’s No. 1 option — his usage rate (the percentage of his team’s possessions used) is at its lowest mark since his second season.
He has literally entered unprecedented territory, both with this third full season of statistical prowess and the still ongoing streak of 11 games with a triple-double.
The previous record — held, of course, by Chamberlain — was 10. Russ had threatened several times in recent years, stringing together runs as long as seven games. He’s rocking out, indeed:
The Kings are BACK
On no one’s timetable but their own, the Sacramento Kings made a collective leap out of the NBA dungeon to put the league’s longest-running playoff drought in danger. Bolstered by the backcourt duo of speedy De’Aaron Fox and sharpshooting Buddy Hield, the Kings have risen to 30-27, good for ninth in the super-competitive West — just four games back of No. 4 Portland.
They added Harrison Barnes for the stretch run, and should be primed for more fun moments like this Bogdan Bogdanovic buzzer-beater:
The confounding Celtics
Here are some mini-records: 10-10, 15-5, 12-6. All the Celtics! They’re clearly one of the better teams in the East when everything’s firing … but Gordon Hayward hasn’t looked quite right all season, they keep dropping bad losses between the winning streaks. And, every so often, someone seems to pop off about leadership or commitment or fun or some other aspect of “This is off and we can’t quite nail it down.”
Heck, Kyrie Irving even called LeBron to apologize for being a knucklehead in Cleveland after realizing he was running into similar situations, now from the other perspective, with the Celtics’ young core.
If the league’s most famous beef this side of Joel Embiid-Russell Westbrook can find resolution, anything’s possible. Either way, maybe not quite the time to be super confident as a fan of one of the other East contenders until you see the four Ls this spring.
Jimmy Butler is something else
You might have heard Jimmy Butler made a trade request this summer while heading into this contract year that he started with the Minnesota Timberwolves. If you missed that, you probably heard about the practice. Oh, that practice.
Butler showed up for the first time in months, reportedly ran the other starters off the floor while playing with all-reserve teammates and, ah … was maybe not quiet about it.
Four weeks later, he was headed to the Philadelphia 76ers with Justin Patton for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick. Butler promptly hit a pair of game-winners and reportedly stirred the system drink as he attempted to (what’s the opposite of ease?) impose his way in.
Butler’s impending free agency — for all the chatter about the Sixers’ long-term plans with this “Big 4” — is going to be wild interesting.
Turnover in the ranks
- Oct. 28, 2018: Cavs pull plug on Tyronn Lue
- Dec. 3, 2018: Hoiberg heaved in Chicago
- Jan. 6, 2019: Minnesota ends Thibodeau’s TimberBulls era
- Feb. 15, 2019: Hornets part ways with GM Demps
Klay shatters the 3-point record
Out here playing pop-a-shot:
A slip-up for Steph
We all love Stephen Curry around these parts, and have much respect for how this greatest-of-all-time shooter has changed the game. But that this water-slide wipeout didn’t make Shaqtin’ A Fool is tragedy:
A rare humbling moment for the three-time champ. Not expecting many more this year, ha.
Wizards can’t conjure a break
John Wall had season-ending surgery on his heel. Then slipped at home and ruptured his Achilles’ tendon. Dwight Howard has been out with gluteal soreness (12 games) and then lower-back surgery (35 games). Le sigh.
But they’re still only three games out! And Bradley Beal is an All-Star!
Trades, trades and yes, more trades
[Deep breath] The Pelicans kept Anthony Davis. Tobias Harris is in Philly. Marc Gasol’s a Raptor. Mike Conley Jr. is still in Memphis. Nikola Mirotic will further space the floor in Milwaukee. Markelle Fultz gets a fresh start in Orlando. The Wizards broke it up. Harrison Barnes takes his talents to Sacto. Kristaps Porzingis will return from his ACL injury a Maverick. The Knicks are set for two max slots. So are the Clippers. The Nets will have one. The Lakers, too. The Mavs. And others. Houston picked up Iman Shumpert, avoided the tax. The Celtics stood pat.
Phew. And that was only the key deals. Some takeaways:
- The top of the East is officially a battle royale. The Bucks, Raptors and Sixers all made prominent moves, and while the Celtics held the line, they still run out a squad most expected to hold pole position heading into the season. Those semifinals are going to be LIT.
- The Knicks made a 7-foot-3 sized gamble on the future of the franchise, moving on from Porzingis to clear cap room and pick up a pair of first-round picks, along with high-ceiling guard Dennis Smith Jr. This one only gets a grade after you see exactly how that space gets spent.
- On the flipside of that one, if Porzingis comes back at full strength and re-signs to play alongside Luka Doncic for the next 10 years … Dallas will be very, very fun to watch.
- Sacramento is all in on the playoff chase, acquiring a proven veteran in Barnes to complement and steady their rising core. With the Clippers sending Harris out for future returns, that eighth spot may loom large for the Kings.
- Otto Porter Jr. appears to be the Bulls choice for a foundational piece, with his pickup eating into most of their available offseason space. He’ll slot alongside Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter Jr. as Chicago attempts to turn the corner on their rebuild.
- Anthony Davis now says “all 29 teams are on my list.” Dell Demps won’t be handling the deal for New Orleans, but count on Davis moving along once the season comes to a close. This whole thing has been a million kinds of awkward.
- Can the Lakers stay patient here? It’s possible Davis deals get less expensive, rather than more, depending on how the leverage points are pressure once the offers are extended.
But best believe they’re not going to be the only ones chasing the potential of that 25-year-old future MVP. If they hold the line on gutting the team, can they come up with an alternative route that’s anywhere close to as attractive? Stay tuned.
Nineteen-year-old Luka Doncic entered the 2018 draft with a fair amount of hype, expected to be drafted top five, and then selected No. 3 by the Hawks. Minutes later, the Slovenian swingman was swapped to Dallas for No. 5 selection Trae Young and a protected 2019 first-round pick (likely to convey as it’s top-five protected and Dallas sit eighth-worst).
After a middling 10-point debut in Phoenix, Doncic rebounded to drop 26 points, six rebounds and three assists on the Timberwolves. Then truly began the breakout with a 31-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance against the San Antonio Spurs on October 29. He’s led the Kia Rookie Ladder from the jump.
And the hits … keep … coming.
He’s gone from showcasing one of the league’s most vicious stepback 3s to developing into one of the top 10 closers — he ranks ninth with 88 field goals in clutch moments, shooting 30-of-60 — to sometimes combining both at once:
For what it’s worth, Young is actually coming along pretty well for Atlanta, who could be looking at a pair of Top-10 picks come June. But still.
Derrick Rose’s revival
For all the hullabaloo out in Minnesota, Derrick Rose has quietly crafted a new path forward in a career that seemed to have stalled out after several debilitating knee injuries checked the league’s youngest Kia MVP.
Averaging 18.2 points and 4.8 assists (mostly off the bench), Rose has reinvented his game and is shooting a career-best 40.2 percent on 3-pointers. The highlight, without question, was a 50-point explosion on Halloween — a crucial career-high that Rose didn’t seem ready to process.
Changed fortunes in Denver, Brooklyn
Out West, the unquestioned surprise at the top of the standings is the Denver Nuggets rising from a one-game playoff miss last season to a 39-18 mark, just two games behind the defending-champion Warriors.
It’s a total team effort — 11 players average at least 18 minutes; nine, at least 8 ppg — that centers (literally) on the unique skillset of Nikola Jokic, the 7-foot fulcrum of their attack. In this fourth season of steady progression, the All-Star Jokic has boosted his season stats to 20.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game.
Yes, you read that correctly: A center currently ranks fifth in the league in assists. He does it with handoffs and no-looks and baseball passes and … 167 inches of high pick-and-roll action:
Yup. A thing that happened. Almost as surprising as the Nets being good!
The culture turned the corner this season, finally shedding the shadow of the infamous 2013 pick-packaging exchange with the Celtics, one that ultimately cost them the 2017 No. 1 overall pick.
They started the year 8-18, but beat the Raptors in overtime on December 7, ripped off seven straight wins and have been rolling since. They’ve elevated all the way to 30-27, good for sixth in the East, a lot closer to the clear top five than the five teams chasing them for playoff position.
Most surprisingly, they’ve done it through injury adversity all the while. Caris LeVert opened the season on an absolute tear — averaging 19.0 points on 47.9 percent shooting, along with 4.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists in his first 13 games — before a scary dislocated foot took him out of the action for nearly three months.
Spencer Dinwidde, by now a proven killer off the bench, was perhaps the leading candidate for Kia Sixth Man of the Year. He was averaging 17.2 ppg through 49 games … and then tore ligaments in his thumb that eventually required surgery.
D’Angelo Russell has stepped up as well, earning an All-Star nod with all those arcing 3s. He’s finally looking like the floor leader everyone thought he could develop into as the No. 2 pick in 2015. Rookie Rodions Kurucs, elbows akimbo, has crashed into the hearts of Brooklyn fans. In addition, DeMarre Carroll is having a mid-career momentum boost as the veteran leader.
Also, Jarrett Allen blocks everybody. Even LeBron. Enjoy.