Blogtable: Best team? Biggest surprise? Biggest disappointment?
Our scribes discuss state of the NBA at the season's quarter point
From NBA.com Staff
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Taking everything into consideration (injuries, schedule strength, etc.), who are the Top 5 teams in the league right now, ranked from 1 to 5?
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Steve Aschburner: The Bucks have played a tougher schedule than most of the top contenders, weathered Khris Middleton’s injury without a hiccup and are thriving with continuity and depth. My Top 5: 1. Milwaukee. 2. L.A. Lakers. 3. LA Clippers. 4. Toronto. 5. Boston.
Shaun Powell: No. 1 is the Bucks. Greatest point differential, a superstar in Giannis, quality wins vs. the Rockets, Raptors, Clippers and Pacers and consecutive blowouts by 40-plus points. Lost one game by three points and another in overtime. No. 2 is the Clippers. Didn’t have Paul George for 11 games and Kawhi Leonard for six and still lurk in the attic of the West. They’re just getting started. No. 3 is the Lakers. Ripped through a record month (albeit against a batch of inferior teams) and LeBron James and Anthony Davis are both playing at a Kia MVP level. No. 4 is the Raptors. The heart of a champion beats without Kawhi and while missing Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry for chunks of games. Pascal Siakam is for real, folks. No. 5 is the Celtics. Currently playing through the loss of Gordon Hayward, who had just started to sparkle before his injury, and own a convincing win over the Bucks. Sorry, Nuggets … you just missed the cut.
John Schuhmann: I typically only rank teams on Mondays, but I’ll make this exception … No. 1 is Milwaukee. Their 12-game winning streak lacks a signature win, but they’re 16-1 since Nov. 1 with only a three-point loss in Utah. No. 2 is the L.A. Lakers. They have played a relatively weak schedule as well, but it’s hard to argue with 18-3, with how well they’ve been able to close games out, or how good they’ve been defensively. No. 3 is the LA Clippers. They haven’t been as consistent as the teams above, but last week’s win in Dallas was a display of just how good they can be, especially defensively. No. 4 is the Dallas Mavericks. That loss to the Clippers is the only setback in an 8-1 stretch in which they’ve beat the Raptors and Lakers (in L.A.). No. 5 is the Toronto Raptors. They’re the only team without a loss that wasn’t within five points in the last five minutes, but now are just 3-5 against the other 12 teams that are currently over .500.
Sekou Smith: I’m going with the Bucks (No. 1), Lakers (No. 2), Clippers (No. 3), Raptors (No. 4) and the Nuggets (No. 5) edging out the Celtics. The Bucks ran through the competition with their second-best player missing and Giannis Antetokounmpo destroying everything in sight. The Lakers are off to a championship start and playing at an elite level on both ends of the floor. The Clippers have the league’s best bench and the best perimeter defensive personnel we’ve seen in years. The Raptors are still in a championship groove even without Kawhi Leonard. They’ve been the most impressive team given the circumstances. The Nuggets got off to a slow start but I believe in what coach Mike Malone has built. Losing Gordon Hayward was yet another cruel injury blow for the Celtics but they remain the most dangerous group outside of the obvious top five teams.
Michael C. Wright: My Top 5: 1. Lakers 2. Bucks 3. Clippers 4. Raptors 5. Rockets. I was waffling some on No. 5 between the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets, but the Rockets get the nod here simply because the franchise is so desperate, knowing the championship window is closing quickly. The Lakers hold the top spot for me, and it’ll be revealing to see how they hold up playing such a brutal schedule this month. Milwaukee is hot right now at No. 2, but it isn’t defending the 3-point line the way it needs to at this point. The Clippers and Raptors hold the next two spots at Nos. 3 and 4. The Clippers’ defense is nasty, they’re battle-tested and deep. But the Raptors are getting it done on both ends of the floor (Top 5 in offensive and defensive rating).
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What is the biggest surprise of the season so far?
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Steve Aschburner: That the Toronto Raptors haven’t curled up in the fetal position that so many expected of them. Maybe playing those 22 load management games without Kawhi Leonard — along with the experience so many of their players gained in The Finals run — did wonders for what was considered a supporting cast.
Shaun Powell: Luka Doncic already being in the Kia MVP conversation means he’s wearing skates on his path to development. Wasn’t he supposed to be merely an All-Star first? Him taking the baton from Dirk Nowitzki could be similar to Tim Duncan taking it from David Robinson. Or is that basketball sacrilege? Not sure if it is. Luka is that good, that quickly. Doing it nightly means you’re no fluke.
John Schuhmann: The Indiana Pacers winning 13 of their first 20 games is a surprise. They’ve played a very easy schedule and have just one win over a team that’s currently over .500. But good teams take care of business against the teams at the bottom of the standings, and they’ve been better than they were without Victor Oladipo last season. Malcolm Brogdon has been great, but the Pacers were without Myles Turner for eight games, they lost six guys from their rotation last season, and they had a rough first week, losing to Detroit (twice) and Cleveland. I wasn’t sure they were a playoff team if they weren’t going to get Oladipo back early in the season, but they’re clearly that and maybe more.
Sekou Smith: As surprising as Luka Doncic’s breakout season has been, I’m more surprised at how well Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors have performed in the aftermath of Kawhi Leonard’s departure. I wasn’t sure what to expect from him or them. But it’s obvious they’re more than just one-hit wonders. Siakam has elevated his game in ways I didn’t imagine would be possible until he went bonkers in the 2019 Finals. Now, I don’t know what his ceiling might be. And kudos to coach Nick Nurse and his staff for keeping it going, even without the services of some of his veteran stars this season.
Michael C. Wright: If this question was asked a couple weeks ago, Phoenix’s rise would’ve been the surprise for me. The Suns started off 7-4, then dropped six of the next seven. So, let’s go with the Miami Heat here. They’re legit. Back in the summer when Miami signed Jimmy Butler, nobody around the league expected him to make this significant of an impact. But here he is, a playmaker, at age 30, averaging a career-best 6.7 assists as youngsters such as Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn (a Kia NBA Rookie of the Year candidate) blossom around him along with Tyler Herro. Butler brings an intensity and competitiveness that will be locked into this young squad’s DNA for a while, thus setting up the Heat for a bright future with all these young, budding stars.
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What is the biggest disappointment of the season so far?
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Steve Aschburner: This was the season — finally! — that the Chicago Bulls were going to actually try to win some games. Two years of tanking, er, rebuilding was supposed to pay off in a roster full of young talent, assisted in 2019-20 by some carefully selected vets (Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky). But neither Zach LaVine nor Lauri Markkanen has taken the big step up expected of him, injuries on the wing (Otto Porter Jr., Chandler Hutchison) have intruded and there’s still too much tension surrounding coach Jim Boylen and his acceptance by the players. The Bulls have face-planted so far.
Shaun Powell: There are nights when the Spurs aren’t even competitive. The last time anyone said that about a Gregg Popovich team was right before this epic two-plus decade run started, when David Robinson was hurt and the Spurs collapsed their way to the Draft lottery and the No. 1 pick — and you know how that went. They’ve lost to the Pistons by 34, the Celtics by 20, the Wolves twice by double digits. And they’re relatively healthy, too.
John Schuhmann: We’re going on seven weeks without Zion Williamson, and the disappointment is as much about the impact that he could be making on the Western Conference playoff race as it is about the highlights. The big takeaway from the preseason was that the most-hyped No. 1 pick in a long time was ready to make a real impact on the Pelicans right away. There’s still plenty of season left, but a knee injury at this point in his career is a scary proposition and the Pelicans should obviously take all precautions going forward. Hopefully, when we’re looking back five years from now, this delayed start was just a blip on the radar.
Sekou Smith: They might be in the midst of turning things around right now with the aid of Carmelo Anthony, but I expected so much more from the Portland Trail Blazers. That trip to the 2019 Western Conference finals was supposed to be the start of something special. And instead, it felt (early on this season) like the Blazers had exhaled and maybe settled for a fate that would not include any sustained contention in a brutal West playoff chase. Anthony has a chance to resurrect his image and career this season — and he might just help save the season in Portland, too.
Michael C. Wright: There are plenty: Golden State’s demise, the Zion Williamson injury, and the struggles of the Sacramento Kings. But the biggest for me is what’s going on in San Antonio. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry once joked that for the last 20 years people have been trying to slam shut the Spurs’ championship window. It’s closed now, it appears, and San Antonio likely won’t extend its playoff streak to 23 years in a row. That’s confounding considering the Spurs should actually be in better shape than they were a year ago given the return of Dejounte Murray, DeMar DeRozan getting comfortable in his second season there and Derrick White’s ascension (not to mention the expected emergence of Lonnie Walker IV). The Spurs produced their worst defensive season in 22 years last season, and 2019-20 so far is shaping up to be even worse. You have to wonder how much more of this Gregg Popovich can take.
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