POSTED: Dec 10, 2015 12:59 PM ET
The Cavaliers continue to fight through injuries as they focus on a return to The Finals.
The NBA.com writers check in with an evaluation of every team at the quarterpole of the 2015-16 season.
What went right: Cleveland started out 8-1, with LeBron James committing to Kevin Love as a focal point of the team's offense. Love's numbers (18.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg) haven't quite returned to this All-Star Minnesota levels, but his effective field goal percentage is a career-high 52.1. Coach David Blatt, despite constant scrutiny since he arrived, has settled into his job. Blatt appears to have James' backing now and was the East's Coach of the Month in November. Tristan Thompson, after his awkward preseason holdout, slipped comfortably back into his reserve big man role without a hiccup, even though blue-collar work never paid so well (five years, $82 million). Cleveland has crafted a real homecourt edge at The Q, going 29-2 since last Jan. 19.
What went wrong: After that fast start, the Cavaliers went 5-6, drooped defensively and slipped out of the East's No. 1 seed. James' offensive rating of 111 is his lowest since his rookie season, though his traditional stats are as formidable as ever. Mo Williams had a zesty start, starting at the point and averaging 15.5 points. But after sitting out three games, he returned to average 10 points, mostly off the bench behind Matthew Dellavedova.
What's ahead: There's great optimism among Cavaliers fans for the return from injury of the starting backcourt, Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert. But there probably will be yet another period of transition that will try everyone's patience again, inside and outside the organization. Cleveland seems to be searching for the right approach, somewhere between pacing itself for the postseason and pushing hard to build habits and emulate Golden State's no-prisoners style.
What went right: The most impressive thing in the Pacers' transformation to a smallish, offense-first attack is that they haven't suffered on the other end of the court. Indiana ranks seventh in offensive rating and a still stingy fifth in defensive rating. Paul George not only has recovered from his gruesome leg fractures but he has taken his game to a new MVP level. Center Ian Mahinmi has thrived in Indiana's swifter pace, on track for career highs in points, rebounds and minutes. In his 11th NBA season, C.J. Miles is taking a career-high 63 percent of his shots from 3-point range and hitting 43.5 percent.
What went wrong: Rookie center Myles Turner figured to be in the middle of the Pacers' new style but a chip fracture in his left thumb limited him to just eight appearances. George Hill's two-point percentage (40.0) is worse than his three-point accuracy (41.9) -- and his blonde dye job is an acquired taste, too.
What's ahead: Monta Ellis is averaging the fewest points and fewest shots since his rookie season. The Pacers are 8-2 when he leads them in assists, but can he stay happy setting up George's and others' offense? Solomon Hill has been odd man out, stacking up DNP-CDs and positioned now as a trade candidate. It remains to be seen if Indiana has the size or inclination inside against the league's biggest teams.
What went right: While looking more like pretenders than contenders on most nights, the Bulls' 11-8 start bought them time to fix flaws. Jimmy Butler returned from a summer in which he landed a max contract looking as driven as ever and trying to assert himself more as a leader. Pau Gasol, after a busy FIBA offseason, still was averaging a double-double in five fewer minutes nightly. Maybe it's muscle memory with Tom Thibodeau gone, but Chicago's defense is Top-5 again in what was set up as a season about offense.
What went wrong: Derrick Rose has been a shell of his MVP self, shooting 35 percent and lugging a 10.1 PER. Joakim Noah was the all-NBA first-team center two seasons ago but comes off the bench now -- in a contract year -- with almost no offensive confidence or inclination to shoot. Veteran SF Mike Dunleavy's recovery from preseason back surgery thrust Tony Snell and Doug McDermott into roles for which they don't look ready. The Bulls have continued a sloppy trend dating back to last season in which they play "down" to the competition.
What's ahead: Clearly the Bulls expect easier buckets and loftier scores from the newly installed "Hoiball" (Fred Hoiberg-coached) pace-and-space attack, but the question is when. They ranked 27th in pace through the season's first quarter. Dunleavy isn't expected back until January at the earliest from complications and consultations on his back.
What went right: Reggie Jackson was considered by many to be the summer's biggest overspend, given the Pistons' five-year, $80 million deal. But Jackson has been Detroit's offensive motor, scoring more (and not just due to playing time, based on 23.1 points per 36 minutes to last year's 19.7 after arriving). Big man Andre Drummond is on pace to become only the 11th player in NBA history to average 18 points and 17 rebounds in a season -- and the first 10 to do it went into the Hall of Fame.
What went wrong: It's been slow going for Stanley Johnson, the No. 8 pick from Arizona who was projected as a Rookie of the Year favorite by some insiders. Johnson averaged 8.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 21.6 minutes, with a 9.9 PER. Jackson, Drummond, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all were logging more than 30 minutes nightly, with coach Stan Van Gundy relying on his starters through Brandon Jennings' and Jodie Meeks' injury absences. The Pistons, despite improved defensive play, were underwater in effective field-goal percentage, .467 to their opponents' .497.
What's ahead: This first part of the season has been all about establishing things and, for the most part, Detroit has done just that. After an 18-23 home record last season, for instance, it started 8-2 at the Palace. The Pistons have shaved 5.5 points off their defensive rating (106.4 down to 100.9), solidly in the Top 10 now. Maintaining it -- and the one-in, four-out attack style Van Gundy favored in Orlando. Jennings, when he returns from his Achilles rehab, looks to be a Sixth Man candidate or trade bait.
What went right: The Bucks were delighted to land free-agent Greg Monroe in the offseason and the big man has delivered his usual 16-10, even as the NBA game moves away from traditional post play. Lanky, freaky Giannis Antetokounmpo, in his third season, had bumped up his numbers in points, shooting percentages. Jerryd Bayless has been a solid point guard option and set a Milwaukee franchise record with 38 three-pointers in November. Everything about the Bucks offense is better in the first quarter -- scoring, passing, accuracy, taking care of the ball -- as they outscore opponents by an average of 0.7 through games' first 12 minutes. After that? Minus-7.4.
What went wrong: Victims of their own success, the Bucks were 11-10 through their first 21 last season compared to, so far, this season's step backward. The most alarming drop-off has come defensively, where they ranked No. 4 in 2014-15 (102.2 DRtg) but have dropped to No. 25 (109.0). Coach Jason Kidd finally changed up the his starting lineup last week, moving both Michael Carter-Williams and Jabari Parker to the bench. Parker at least had the excuse of recovery from last December's ACL injury, but MCW's offense and decision-making at the point were hurting.
What's ahead: Milwaukee would be wise to find a trading partner and get back some veteran help, if only to replace the stability and leadership gone this season with Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley. O.J. Mayo was looking like a possibility to relocate, then put together a pair of good performances against Detroit and New York. Antetokounmpo needs to develop a few go-to skills and make the early stride he's taken a permanent thing. Lacking perimeter shooting, Milwaukee either tightens up defensively or slips out of playoff contention in the improved East.
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