The 2019-20 season didn’t begin well for the Pacers. They started without star Victor Oladipo, defensive anchor Myles Turner got hurt soon after, and Indiana lost its first three games -– one to the lowly Cavaliers. After a dramatic summer makeover, the Pacers were a pedestrian 7-6 three weeks into the season.
Then Indiana started winning, and winning a lot, with few noticing. But after beating the red-hot Lakers this week, the Pacers (19-9) are a game out of the No. 2 seed in the East. They’re still in sixth place because of how tightly packed the non-Bucks contenders are, keeping the Pacers further under the radar. But they have virtually the same record as the much more ballyhooed 76ers and Celtics. If the winning continues, and Oladipo makes it back from a knee injury (the timetable is unclear), the Pacers will be ignored all the way to the conference finals.
Keep an eye over your shoulders, Bucks.
In the off-season, Indiana was aggressive because several of its players hit free agency. Bojan Bogdanovic left for Utah, Thaddeus Young went to the Bulls, Tyreke Evans got a two-year ban for drug abuse, and Darren Collison retired to commit himself to his Jehovah’s Witness faith. In all, the Pacers had to replace over 60% of last season’s minutes, and they did so with a series of bold moves, all of which are starting to pay off. The biggest move was prying Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter who can play both guard spots, from Milwaukee. He joined the 40-50-90 club last season by shooting 50.5% from the field, 42.6% from three and a league-leading 92.8% from the free-throw line. The Bucks decided they’d rather have a few draft picks than Brogdon, a gritty defender whose 6-foot-11 wingspan lets him switch onto much bigger players and disrupt passes. Maybe they didn’t believe in Brogdon, who recently turned 27, but the more likely reason is that they didn’t want to pay the luxury tax this year, possibly because one of their owners bought a casino. Brogdon is fantastic in a larger role in Indiana, driving to the basket relentlessly (15.6 times per game, 15th in the league) and getting good shots for his teammates (7.6 assists per game, seventh in the league). He has improved every season since winning Rookie of the Year in 2016-17 as a second-round pick (the lowest draft pick to win ROY since the legendary Woody Sauldsbury in 1958). Another undervalued guy is his backcourt partner, Jeremy Lamb, who is most famous for being on the wrong side of the lopsided James Harden trade. Then he toiled in obscurity in Charlotte while making himself into a solid complementary player -– he moves without the ball, hits floaters at a high rate, and is good on catch-and-shoot threes. He was a top-15 guard last season in defensive plus/minus, and, like Brogdon, he has long arms (6-foot-10 wingspan) that make him disruptive on D. Plus, he willingly moved to the bench even though he was Charlotte’s second-best player last season, which means he should adjust seamlessly when Oladipo returns from his injury and semifinal run on “The Masked Singer.” How appropriate for this invisible team that even when their star is on national television every week, he’s in an elaborate disguise. Speaking of NBA obscurity, T.J. Warren was one of the least-known scorers in the league in Phoenix, averaging 18 points for a franchise that’s usually not relevant around Thanksgiving. Now that he’s on the Pacers, Warren has dropped pounds and added an interest in defense. The Packers also brought in Justin Holiday, who has formed a devastating bench combo with his brother Aaron -– they’re combining for 17.6 points and three three-pointers a game, at a 38% clip. Even Doug McDermott, a disappointment in Chicago and New York, is shooting 47% from behind the arc, and T.J. McConnell, cut loose by the Sixers, is averaging 4.9 assists in under 18 minutes per game. Maybe he feels comfortable among so many other TJs in Indiana (they also have T.J. Leaf). Even the players who stayed have been underrated! Domantas Sabonis, who signed a controversial extension in the fall, has backed it up by averaging 18 points and a whopping 13.3 rebounds. Myles Turner was fifth in the Defensive Player of the Year vote last season — he should have been higher -– and has continued his defensive dominance this season. Experts say Sabonis and Turner don’t provide enough spacing to play together, but Sabonis-Turner lineups are outscoring opponents by six points per 100 possessions. Indiana is even getting solid, limited minutes from rookie center Goga Bitadze, the greatest (and only) Georgian NBA player since Zaza Pachulia! On a 56-win pace, the Pacers have won 12 of their past 15. They’re seventh in defensive rating and 13th in offensive rating, though that second number should rise with Oladipo. Lamb is comfortable coming off the bench, and he and Brogdon can both easily play next to the unmasked Thingamjig. It’s an ideal situation for Oladipo to come back to, because Brogdon, Lamb, and Holiday the Younger can take over ball-handling duties and defending the other team’s best guard. Meanwhile, Victor can focus on easing his way back, getting his body right, and nailing the high harmonies on his next R&B album. None of the Pacers’ additions were nearly as flashy as adding Kyrie Irving, or Jimmy Butler, or Kemba Walker, or even Al Horford, but Brogdon is arguably as valuable as any of them. And many of the things Indiana is very good at don’t show up in the box score: They don’t get a lot of steals, and they’re only 11th in blocks, but they’re great at limiting three-point attempts (fourth in the league) and harassing opponents into low-percentage shots (teams only shoot 43.6% from the field). They don’t have a 20-point scorer, but they have seven guys averaging more than nine points. The Pacers don’t make a lot of threes –- Reggie Miller is shaking his head right now — but they make the second-most two-pointers. Look, Indiana can’t compete with Milwaukee when it comes to top-end talent, and this season’s Bucks are a juggernaut. But the Pacers can match up with any other Eastern contender, and it’s doubtful that the Bucks would look forward to playing them in May. Indiana has the big to contain Giannis as much as anyone can and the perimeter defenders to throttle Milwaukee’s three-point-crazy offense.
The Pacers are ready to make playoff games very difficult, and with Oladipo, they’ll also have a closer who can get his own shots in tough spots. That guy might also be Brogdon. He’s certainly not going to miss any clutch free throws. Boston is more popular, Philly has more stars, Toronto is the defending champions, and Miami is the best soap opera (thank you, Dion Waiters!). But when all is said and done, the biggest threat to the Bucks may well be the NBA’s most anonymous contender, the Pacers. Because the most dangerous opponent is the one you don’t see coming.
Luka Doncic is 20 years old. Watch him play basketball, however, and he looks more like a player who has spent 20 years in the NBA. Before he can even legally drink in the U.S., Doncic has wedged himself near the top of league leaderboards in points (30.6) and assists (9.6) per game, ranking third and second, respectively. For his latest feat, Doncic took down LeBron James — the only player ahead of Doncic when it comes to dropping dimes — and his Lakers on Sunday in Los Angeles, 114-100.
Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Doncic — who scored 27 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed nine boards against L.A. — continued his incredible early season run against James. That’s because LeBron was the last player to have the monster impact Doncic is having just a year out of his teens. If you’re trying to figure how this young Slovenian star is pulling this off, here’s a key number: 3,441. That’s the minutes Doncic played professionally before he even stepped on an NBA floor.
When he was just 16, Doncic began his career with Real Madrid, a team in Spain that competes in two of the best competitions outside the NBA — the ACB, Spain’s top domestic league, and Euroleague, the intercontinental competition that pits Europe’s best clubs against each other. For three years, Doncic honed his game against former NBA players and top international stars, a vast improvement in competition faced by players who spend just a lone season in the NCAA.
That experience is exemplified by Doncic’s passing. He plays chess, with some flair, whereas most NBA players play checkers. Doncic whips passes to the weakside corner, lob balls into space where only his teammates can catch, or uses his eyes to bait defenders away from the true target about to receive his pass.
While we often think of assists as a lone category, what Doncic is really doing is creating points without shooting the ball himself — 24.6 points per game, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. During his last season in Spain, Doncic averaged a whopping 1.275 points per possession on passes out of pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports. That mark was the best in Spain and fifth best in any league outside of the NBA. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Doncic has carved up the NBA with his ball movement.
What is a little surprising is how Doncic has scored. Scroll through Twitter during his rookie year last season and you’ll find plenty of highlights featuring Doncic using some crafty dribble and footwork combination before launching a step-back jumper. This ability to create space before launching a shot helps Doncic balance his elite passing. And this season, the Mavericks’ forward is attempting more “open” shots per game than any other player besides the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard. (“Open” is the term NBA.com uses to define shots where a defender is four to six feet away.)
Open shots don’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a high degree of difficulty either. Because Doncic incorporates so many step-backs — NBA.com has him at 102 since he entered the league — it sort of masks where he’s at as a shooter. Doncic was considered a good but not great outside shooter before he entered the NBA. The one flaw in his game is that he shoots 33 percent from beyond the arc, so it’s scary to think where Doncic will be should he improve in that area.
If you are looking for an area where Doncic has already improved, it’s his commitment to attacking the basket. He averages 18.3 drives per game this season, according to NBA.com data, up from 14.7 during his rookie season. This mindset of going downhill more has helped Doncic up his free throw rate from .409 last season to .484 this season. In raw numbers, that means Doncic is averaging just a shade under three more free throws per game.
Getting to the free throw line is really where a lot of the NBA’s offensive stars have separated themselves from other players. In his first season in the NBA, Doncic was in the middle of the pack at getting to the line. This season, the only players ahead of the Mavericks’ star are Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston’s James Harden — pretty good company as far as offensive powerhouses go.
This evolution to Doncic’s game is one that would have been hard to see coming. For all the benefits of honing his craft in Europe, the spacing is quite different there. The international line is shorter and there are no rules, like the NBA’s defensive three seconds, to keep hulking big men from planting themselves in front of the basket. Doncic has clearly figured that in the NBA’s new spacing craze, he’s going to encounter far less resistance heading to the rim than he ever could have imagined while playing overseas.
This combination of passing, shooting and driving have added up to Doncic propelling Dallas to the top of the NBA’s offensive hierarchy. The Mavericks are first in the league at 116.1 points per 100 possessions. The return to health of Kristaps Porzingis, as well as some other new additions, has boosted Dallas’ attack, but make no mistake, the key to it all is Doncic.
In the 648 minutes Doncic played entering Sunday night’s game, the Mavericks posted an amazing 117.1 points per 100 possessions. When the Slovenian star sits, that number “plummeted” to a still-solid 110.1 points per 100.
Although Doncic and Dallas are not excelling on defense, the team clearly is improving. With Sunday night’s win over the first-place Lakers (17-3), the Mavericks are tied for fourth in the Western Conference. For those looking for a better indicator of the team’s performance, Dallas also boasts the conference’s second-best point differential, trailing only the Lakers.
It’s a good bet that James is going to be looking over his shoulder the rest of the season to see how Doncic and Dallas perform. And when he does glance back, the player who took the NBA by storm en route to one of the best careers in league history might be looking at a player a lot like his old self.
In today’s social media-driven NBA, MVP candidates don’t just need the numbers, they need an accompanying narrative to take home the MVP award. Just ask James Harden.
Three seasons ago, Harden finished second to Russell Westbrook in the MVP vote despite averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds and leading the Rockets to 55 regular-season wins. Westbrook edged Harden because he had the best narrative: Westbrook was the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson and the superstar who stayed in OKC even after Harden and Kevin Durant had left.
The next season, however, Harden beat LeBron James for the award, despite having inferior statistics, because he had the better narrative: It’s about time we recognize Harden’s greatness and reward him because he probably should have won last season.
Last season, Harden finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo because people had crowned Giannis as the best two-way force in the league and the next face of the NBA. As Harden so aptly put it in a GQ interview, “[I had] a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games… and all the talk was about [Giannis]? There’s no way. You can’t pout or be mad, and the kid had an unbelievable season, so did his team. But the things I was putting up were legendary. You going to look back in 10, 15 years from now and be like, is that really true? Did that really happen?”
Narratives matter in the MVP race. So, as a primer for this season’s MVP race, here are the top-10 MVP contenders and their accompanying narrative (in italics) entering the season (in alphabetical order):
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Based on the past two seasons, it’s clear Giannis is on a LeBron James-Kevin Durant kind of career trajectory. That being the case, we should expect Antetokounmpo to ascend even higher in this, his seventh season, in the middle of his athletic prime. Giannis’ MVP narrative will be one of dominance, a season where he erases any doubt as to whether he’s the best player in the world. Look for him to improve his game in some obvious way this season -– the most obvious hole in his game is his jump shot (26 percent from three-point land last season) -– but he could also double-down on his already one-of-a-kind post game or become a better playmaker.
Steph Curry, Warriors
Steph has a chance to remind everyone that he’s still the toughest player to game plan for in the league … and maybe ever. He’s back to being the unquestioned best player on his team and the player who won back-to-back MVP awards before taking a step back to make way for Kevin Durant.
After having the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA during his record-setting 2015-16 MVP season, Curry finished the next three Durant seasons at 11th, 10th and 13th. With no Durant and no Klay Thompson for most of this season, Curry’s usage rate should easily jump back into the top-five again. Thus, his stats will almost certainly mirror his stats from that 2015-16 MVP season, when he averaged 30.1 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds and made an NBA-record 402 three-pointers. If the Warriors are near the top of the West, and Curry leads the league in scoring and flirts with breaking his own three-point record, he’ll be right in the mix for MVP.
Like Shaquille O’Neal before him, AD is hitting his prime and poised for a Hall of Fame leap as the two-way centerpiece and next great big man for the Los Angeles Lakers .
If he plays anything like he did during the second half of the 2017-18 season, when he averaged 31 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 2.1 steals over the last 27 games of the season, he’ll probably be a frontrunner for his first MVP award. And if he is playing like that, you can bet your bottom dollar that LeBron and Klutch Sports start campaigning for AD to take home the MVP award. In fact, you don’t even have to read between the lines from the Lakers’ media day to see that James is already doing that.
Joel Embiid, 76ers
Embiid’s narrative began shortly after Kawhi Leonard’s fourth bounce fell through the basket in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The world saw Embiid crying as he left the court, exhausted from a grueling seven-game series. If Embiid plays his way into the MVP conversation, it will mean he spent the offseason getting into the best shape of his life, vowing that he’d never lose another playoff series due to fatigue. He’ll have realized that few people on this Earth have been blessed with his size and athletic prowess, and he decided it’d be a travesty if he didn’t maximize those God-given gifts. It’s time to do what Shaq and Wilt and all the other historic NBA centers did before him: dominate.
With Jimmy Butler taking his talents to South Beach, Embiid will have ample opportunities to show off his newfound conditioning as the closer for the Sixers.
James Harden, Rockets
The Beard knows first-hand how a narrative can swing an MVP vote. He believes he got robbed of the award last season. He has a point. And that means that Harden’s narrative this season will be one of revenge against the voters who wronged him out of capping off a historic season with no MVP trophy. Revenge against the people who think he isn’t the best player in the league. Revenge against the people who don’t think he can lead the Rockets to a title.
An MVP season for Harden might not include the same massive scoring as last season (36.1 points per game) now that his high-usage buddy Russell Westbrook is in H-Town. But if his isolations and pick-and-rolls remain two of the most highly efficient plays in basketball and his assist numbers go back to what they were in previous seasons (10.0 per game from 2016-17 to 2017-18), Harden will have another crack at MVP.
LeBron James, Lakers
This is the most obvious narrative: LeBron’s “Forgot About Dre” season. LeBron is coming off of a miserable first season with the Lakers in which he suffered his first major injury and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. However, missing the playoffs means that he finally got an extended rest after eight straight trips to the NBA Finals.
He’s also undoubtedly been listening to the media mock his team the past 12 months and declare that he’s no longer the Best Player on the Planet. It’s all set up perfectly for LeBron to come out and have a G.O.A.T. kind of season to remind the basketball world that he’s still the King.
An MVP season for LeBron won’t be his typical 27-7-7 season –- voters are too bored of that. Instead, look for him to average double-digit assists now that the Lakers have Davis, but a dearth at point guard.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
The Joker’s narrative is mostly tied to his team’s success. If the Nuggets, who should have some of the best chemistry in the league, are the best team in the Western Conference and flirt with winning 60 games, Jokic will get plenty of MVP votes and his narrative will sound something like this: Jokic is doing it all alone as the lone superstar in a conference loaded with superstar tandems. He flashed his true potential as a franchise centerpiece in last season’s playoffs, averaging 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists. That performance has carried over into the 2019-20 season as he has Denver at the top of the league earlier than anyone would have imagined.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
After last season’s playoff run and subsequent free-agency power flex, Kawhi is the Alpha Dog of the NBA, and he isn’t ready to relinquish that title just yet. In fact, as a little more of Kawhi’s personality has come to the forefront, it has become apparent that he relishes destroying opponents the same way MJ and Kobe did, albeit in a less expressive way.
With Paul George out at the beginning of the season, the Clippers will need Playoff-Kawhi (30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds on 49-38-88 shooting splits) to keep them near the top of the Western Conference until George returns, which should force Kawhi to get rolling a lot earlier than last season’s load-managed season.
Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
Lillard’s MVP narrative is similar to Jokic’s in that it’ll be tied to the Blazers’ record this season. Most analysts seem to think that the Blazers will finish closer to .500 than the 53 wins the team had a season ago. Thus, if Lillard leads Portland to another top-three finish in the West, and with his typical Curry-lite numbers (25.8 points, 6.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds with 44-37-91 shooting splits last season), and none of the other candidates on this list are having other-worldly seasons, Lillard could start to garner some late season MVP buzz.
He’s the best leader in the league, the superstar who chose to stay when most would have demanded a trade –- he’s as important to his team as any player in the NBA. Isn’t that everything you can ask for from an MVP candidate?
1. Should the Pelicans trade Anthony this season or this summer?
The Pelicans are in 12th place in the Western Conference, and it’s time they start thinking about trading Anthony Davis. If they deal him this season, the Lakers might be willing to part with three of their four young assets (Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart). The 76ers might be willing to dangle Ben Simmons, too. Heck, the Warriors could even offer Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
If New Orleans waits until the summer, the Celtics will be eligible to acquire Davis (a provision in the CBA is preventing them from doing so this season without including Kyrie Irving) and could offer a package including Jaylen Brown and their war chest of valuable future draft picks. The Knicks could offer their unprotected 2019 first-round draft pick and Kevin Knox. The only downside to waiting for the summer is that if Davis demands a deal to a specific team, the Pelicans lose all their leverage. Lots to consider in the Big Easy, and none of it is all that promising.
2. What does the Lakers starting lineup look like this spring?
The best-case scenario includes LeBron James and Anthony Davis. A lineup with those two could win the title. The next best scenario probably involves James, Bradley Beal and whichever two youngsters remain. This lineup could hang with any team in the league but is probably an underdog in the Conference Finals and Finals. The worst-case scenario would be if they make no major moves at the deadline because their current lineup likely has a Conference Finals ceiling and it’d be malpractice to waste a year of LeBron’s prime, like when the team has a number of trade chips.
3. Which teams mortgage their futures at the deadline?
Out West, the Pelicans are sure to be in the middle of everything, as they hold the crown jewel in Anthony Davis. Yet there’s a chance the Pelicans hold onto Davis and make a big trade of their own — we know they were in the mix for Jimmy Butler earlier this year. Everyone knows that the Rockets and Lakers will be looking for deals too. The Kings are desperate to make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, so keep an eye on them as well.
Out East, any of the top five teams could justify pushing their chips in and try to capitalize on the Warriors’ perceived vulnerability. Also, keep an eye out for Pat Riley and the Miami Heat — they’ve straightened things out as of late and have been trying to land a blue-chipper ever since LeBron James left.
4. Does Michael Jordan deal Kemba Walker?
The conundrum of Kemba Walker: He means everything to the Hornets and wants to remain the face of the franchise, yet they can’t compete with him on their roster. He’s not quite elite enough to carry Charlotte deep into the playoffs, yet he’s too good to not carry the team to a .500 record. With no cap room (maybe you shouldn’t have maxed out Nic Batum, MJ!) and hardly any trade assets (maybe you shouldn’t have turned down four first-round picks to draft Frank Kaminsky, MJ!), Michael Jordan needs to seriously consider trading Walker for some future draft picks and/or cap relief if the Hornets ever want to quit toiling in mediocrity.
5. What do the Blazers do at the trade deadline?
The Blazers are having another solid season. They’re 25-17 and have an average offense and defense. They won’t miss the playoffs, but they probably won’t make it out of the first round if they don’t make a move at the trade deadline. Is this the year they break up the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt? How does the passing of owner Paul Allen impact the team’s previously unwavering loyalty to its dynamic backcourt? Would the Wizards ever consider a Bradley Beal for McCollum plus an unprotected 2020 first-rounder swap?
6. Which teams should blow it up at the deadline?
A couple of teams that are teetering on the brink of falling out of playoff contention should seriously consider blowing up their rosters by trading away assets for future draft picks and high-upside prospects. The most obvious team is the Washington Wizards. At 17-25, no John Wall for the rest of the year and no cap space, the team should absolutely be looking to trade Otto Porter and his massive contract, Markieff Morris and his abrasive attitude and even Bradley Beal if a team like the Lakers offers multiple prospects and draft picks.
Just above Washington in the standings, the Magic, Pistons and Hornets are all fighting for the eight seed. If any of them falter, they’d be obvious “tank” candidates. In the West, everything is still congested in the standings, but the Grizzlies and Pelicans will want to listen to offers for their respective stars if they’re on the outside looking in a month from now.
7. Do the Bucks have enough to compete for a title?
When LeBron James was 24 years old, he won his first MVP and led the Cavs to a league-best 66 wins. He was so transcendent that the team didn’t think it needed to improve a roster with Mo Williams as its second-best player at the trade deadline. Everyone knows how that worked out for Cleveland — the Orlando Magic caught fire in the Conference Finals and upset the Cavs.
Milwaukee Bucks fans should be scared to death of history repeating itself with Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. Giannis is also 24 years old and an MVP front-runner, and he’s leading a surprisingly good Bucks team to the top of the conference as the deadline nears. While the Bucks have better secondary options than the 2009 Cavs had, their current roster is probably another scorer and versatile forward away from being threats to win it all.
8. Are the Raptors finally a legitimate title contender?
These dinosaurs are legit. Unlike past years, they have a roster built for the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is back to being the Kawhi Leonard of old (albeit, a little better on offense and a little worse on defense). Danny Green is having his best season in years. Same goes for Serge Ibaka, whose switch to small-ball center appears to have triggered a Benjamin Button-like reverse aging in his body. Kyle Lowry is second in the league in assists, too.
And who could forget Pascal Siakam — wow, where the hell did this guy come from? In his third season, he’s made the jump from solid defensive presence off the bench to potential All-Star and two-way terror on the court. He’s always sprinting, making offensive players uncomfortable on defense and pushing the envelope on offense — just making winning plays all over the court. He’s like Toronto’s own mutated version of Draymond Green. If you haven’t seen him play yet, you’re missing out on the best spin move in the NBA.
9. Are the Houston Rockets still contenders?
James Harden probably answered this one at Golden State last week where he put on one of the most impressive performances of his career. His three-pointer between the outstretched hands of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green was the climax point of an on-going, 15-game stretch in which he’s averaging over 40 points per game. We know Harden will keep stuffing the stat sheet, but we also know that he’s prone to wear down in the playoffs if another teammate isn’t there to lighten his load. Can Chris Paul get back on track once he returns from his hamstring injury? Does Houston trade for another shot creator at the deadline?
10. Are the Nuggets a legitimate title contender?
Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets’ meteoric rise to the top of the Western Conference has been one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season. Jokic is proving to be a one-man elite offense, as the Nuggets have been able to withstand significant injuries to a number of their key players, including Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton. Even if they sputter at some point during the second half of the season, they should finish with a top-four record in the West. The question then becomes what is their ceiling this season with a roster comprised mostly of players with little to no prior playoff experience? A safe bet is that they’ll win their first-round series and then lose a close battle in the second round to a more experienced team like the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder or Lakers. Regardless, the future is bright in Denver.
11. Have the Thunder quietly built a defensive machine to upset the Warriors?
With Paul George playing at a first team All-NBA level this season and Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant playing excellent two-way basketball, the Thunder might be the team best equipped to take down the Warriors. Notice I didn’t mention Russell Westbrook? That’s because the Thunder are often winning games in spite of Westbrook. While he is taking two fewer shots per game and has recommitted himself to defense (leading the league in steals), his shooting splits and shot selection are abysmal. He’s a key reason why OKC has the worst field-goal percentage in the NBA. It’s so frustrating because this team could absolutely steal some games from the Warriors in a series (they’re 3-2 vs. Golden State since acquiring Paul George) with its defense and overwhelming athleticism. However, Westbrook has to be a much more efficient player for the Thunder to take down Goliath.
12. Can the 76ers avoid a chemistry catastrophe?
There are layers to this one. For starters, the relationship between franchise cornerstones, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, is somewhere between “working partnership” and “icy.” It’s probably closer to the latter right now after their recent rebounding collision and Embiid’s subsequent freak-out. If that weren’t enough to worry about, Jimmy Butler is apparently already comfortable dressing down head coach Brett Brown in front of teammates about his role in the offense. Some teams can excel amid chaos like this; others fall victim to it. Will the Eastern Conference’s most talented team straighten things out for a long playoff run? Or will it implode from within?
13. Do the Pacers have enough offensive firepower to win the East?
It may come as a surprise to the casual fan, but the Indiana Pacers are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference this season. They’re currently in third place and have the NBA’s third-highest rated defense despite missing their star, Victor Oladipo, for 11 games this season. Their defense and plethora of excellent role players will keep them in every game come playoff time, but can Oladipo carry their offense enough for them to make a deep run? Look for the Pacers to add some more scoring pop at this year’s trade deadline.
14. What is the Clippers’ ceiling?
How many players do you think a casual NBA fan could name on the Clippers? Three? Four? Despite having no star power, the Clippers are 24-16 and in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference. This is no longer a cute story about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts — this team is legitimately good. Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are all good players and have destroyed unsuspecting opponents this season.
How good are they? Can they win a playoff series? It’ll depend on the matchup and whether they pick up a better two-guard (Avery Bradley stinks now) and rim protector (Gortat isn’t cutting it). They could probably take down any team without an MVP-caliber player in a seven-game series, so if they play the Spurs, Blazers or Jazz in the first round, they’ll have more than a puncher’s chance to advance.
15. Will Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward get back on track?
If someone told you that Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward were averaging only a combined 23.6 points per game, you’d probably assume that the Celtics were having the season from hell. Fortunately for Boston, the “Marcuses” (Morris and Smart) have stepped up their respective games and covered for Brown’s and Hayward’s struggles. The team is comfortably in fifth place in the top-heavy Eastern Conference and will always have a chance in any playoff series with Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and the Marcuses playing well. However, if the Celtics want to compete for a title, they’ll need at least one of Brown or Hayward to start playing better. Both have shown some signs of life recently, but an occasional good game won’t suffice come May and June.
16. Do the Jazz have another magical second half in store?
Quin Snyder has been a second-half miracle worker in his tenure as head coach of the Utah Jazz. Last season, after a 17-24 start to the season, the Jazz ripped off a 31-10 record the next 41 games and rode that momentum to a first-round upset over the Thunder. At 20-21 through 41 games this season, Snyder will need to once again work his second-half magic to get Donovan Mitchell and Co. back on track.
17. How does DeMarcus Cousins fit in with the Warriors?
As they attempt to three-peat and win their fourth title in five seasons, the Warriors are struggling with mental and physical fatigue. Even when they’re at full strength, they seem as vulnerable as they’ve seemed since Kevin Durant joined the team. That could all change when DeMarcus Cousins makes his debut. Will the Warriors be rejuvenated by their “new toy” and find new ways to throttle teams? Or will Cousins’ overwhelming but unnecessary offensive talent hurt the team’s on-court chemistry? Boogie’s commitment to defense could ultimately dictate this one.
18. Can Steph Curry really go 50-45-90 again?
Remember when Steph Curry won the first-ever unanimous MVP in 2015-16 and forced us to recalibrate how basketball was going to be played moving forward? That season he averaged 30.1 points per game and joined Steve Nash as the only players to ever join the 50-45-90 Club (FG percentage-3FG percentage-FT percentage). Well, he’s doing it again this season. Right now he’s averaging 28.9 points per game on 48-44-91 shooting splits. (And he’s been in a slump lately too.) Thanks to the equally ridiculous seasons guys like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are having, hardly anyone seems to be noticing how insanely well Curry is shooting this year.
19. Can we hand Luka Doncic the Rookie of the Year, already?
Barring injury, the answer is yes. Doncic has been a revelation in Dallas and is must-see television every time he steps on the court. He might even get voted in as an All-Star Game starter. And while he shouldn’t be an All-Star starter, nobody should have any issues with him making the team because he’s averaging 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game and absolutely has a case as being one of the 12 best players in the Western Conference this season.
20. Should the Knicks even bother bringing Kristaps Porzingis back this season?
If you recall, Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL just before the All-Star break last season. With a crappy roster in place and their sights set on Kevin Durant, the Knicks have been in no rush to get their young star on the court before he’s completely healthy. They are going to evaluate Porzingis in mid-February, but there’s a chance he doesn’t play at all this season.
Should he play? On one hand, it’d be nice to get him back on the court for about 10-15 games to help him get his rhythm and confidence back heading into the offseason — this is what the Pacers did with Paul George following his broken leg. On the other hand, with a shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, they might not want Porzingis winning games for them and screwing up their lottery odds.
The Clippers climb into the top-10, and the Bucks bounce all the way up to the top spot in this week’s updated NBA Power Rankings.
1. Milwaukee Bucks Record: 11-4
The Bucks are balling. They boast the league’s most effective and efficient offense. Milwaukee leads the NBA in Offensive Rating, averaging 115.3 points per 100 possessions. They also are near the top in Defensive Rating, allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks are the only team in the league to rank in the top-five in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency. Unsurprisingly, Milwaukee leads the NBA in Net Rating by a wide margin, outscoring their opponents by 10.7 points per contest.
2. Toronto Raptors Record: 13-4
Despite losing three of their four games last week, the Raptors have already notched 13 wins this season. No other team in the Eastern Conference has more than 11. Kyle Lowry exited Saturday’s blowout victory over the Bulls in the third quarter and did not return to the contest. However, coach Nick Nurse downplayed the severity of the injury when speaking with reporters after the game.
3. Golden State Warriors Record: 12-6
The Warriors have lost five of their last seven games, which is the team’s worst seven-game stretch under Steve Kerr, and are now 12-6 on the season. In 2016-17, Golden State didn’t lose their sixth game until January 6th. In 2015-16, the year before Kevin Durant arrived, when they won an NBA-record 73 games, they didn’t lose their sixth game of the season until March 6th! Nonetheless, Steve Kerr said that the team would be “very cautious” bringing Stephen Curry back from his groin injury. Draymond Green is also ailing. He missed this past weekend’s game due to a nagging toe injury.
4. Portland Trail Blazers Record: 11-5
The Blazers .688 winning percentage is tops in the Western Conference. Portland is the middle of an arduous six-game road trip; after playing the Knicks on Tuesday, the travel to Milwaukee to take on the Bucks Wednesday night and then face the Warriors in Golden State on Friday.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder Record: 10-5
Prior Saturday night, Russell Westbrook had missed each of the Thunder’s previous five games due to an ankle sprain. However, Westbrook was able to take part in practice on Friday, including part of the contact portions, and went through shootaround on Saturday. Then, Westbrook’s wife gave birth to twins over the weekend, and Russ left to be with his family. Coach Billy Donovan said that they didn’t know if Westbrook would’ve been physically able to play on Saturday if he was there and they never got to the point where they tried to test him to find out. Russ is listed as out for Monday’s game vs. Sacramento. Nonetheless, the streaking Thunder has won 10 of their last 11 games. That 10-1 record is the best in the league over that stretch.
6. Philadelphia 76ers Record: 11-7
Jimmy Butler has only been a Sixer for a week, but he’s already made quite an impression. Butler was incredibly clutch late in overtime on Saturday to carry Philly past the Hornets in Charlotte. With less than 15 seconds remaining in the game, Butler blocked Kemba Walker’s final field goal attempt and saved it inbounds to a teammate. Then, Jimmy Buckets came down the other end of the floor and drilled a game-winning dagger 3-pointer with less than a second left on the clock. Welcome to Philadelphia.
7. Los Angeles Clippers Record: 10-5
The Clippers are rolling right now. They have won six of their last seven, with three of their most recent victories coming against the Bucks, Warriors and Spurs. Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams are all averaging over 19 points per game. The only other teams in the league with a trio over players averaging over 19 ppg are the Warriors and Pelicans.
8. Boston Celtics Record: 9-7
The Celtics notched an important victory on Friday, when they knocked off the Raptors in overtime, behind 43 points courtesy of Kyrie Irving. However, they scored just 86 points in a home loss to the Jazz on Saturday. Boston’s offensive struggles this season have been puzzling. They are currently averaging fewer than 104 points per 100 possessions and rank 27th in the league in Offensive Efficiency, ahead of only the lowly Suns, Bulls and Hawks.
9. Indiana Pacers Record: 10-6
Victor Oladipo (right knee) was a game-time decision on Saturday night but did end up starting. However, just four minutes into the game, he tumbled into the front row after a foul and reaggravated his right knee injury. He has been ruled out of Monday’s game vs. the Jazz, but, fortunately, it doesn’t sound like it will be a long term issue. “A little sore, but I’m good,” Oladipo told reporters Monday morning.
10. Houston Rockets Record: 8-7
The Rockets are back over .500 after stringing together a four-game winning streak, which included victories over the Pacers, Nuggets and the Warriors in Golden State. During this four-game surge, James Harden is averaging 30.8 points, 7.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 triples and 2.3 steals.
The Milwaukee Bucks added to their frontcourt depth by agreeing to acquire center Tyler Zeller from the Brooklyn Nets, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
In return, the Nets will receive guard Rashad Vaughn, along with a second-round draft pick, the details of which Wojnarowski detailed in his report:
The Bucks will send the 2018 second-round pick to the Nets should it fall between 31 and 47 in the draft. Otherwise, Phoenix will receive the pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. If the Bucks pick doesn’t convey in 2018, Milwaukee will send its unprotected second-round pick in 2020 to Brooklyn, league sources said.
Zeller is a 7-foot center averaging 7.1 points and 4.6 rebounds in nearly 17 minutes this season for the Nets. He’ll compete with Bucks big men John Henson and Thon Maker for playing time in Milwaukee.
The Nets will get to see what they have in Vaughn, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2015 draft. The 6-foot-6 guard has yet to make an impact in the NBA, and has seen his playing time decline to only 7.9 minutes per game in 22 contests this season.
Over the first three weeks of the season, basketball fans have learned two things about the Milwaukee Bucks. First, Giannis Antetokounmpo is even better and more dominant than anyone could’ve imagined a few years ago. He’s trending closer to generational talents like Shaq and LeBron rather than small-market All-Stars like Paul George and Jimmy Butler. He’s only 22 years old and on Tuesday against the Cavs, he put up 40 points on 16 of 21 shooting, along with nine rebounds and four blocks. This is a big deal.
The second lesson concerned the team around him. The Milwaukee roster hasn’t made sense for a several years, and it look disjointed again as this season began. There’s a glut of underwhelming big men up front, not enough depth on the wing, and no scoring to pace the second unit whenever Giannis sits.
This was going to be the riddle for Kidd, the Bucks, and anyone else who’s gotten invested in this team. After clunky losses to Detroit and Charlotte last week, there were coaching decisions to nitpick—it’s early, but the defensive scheme is currently bottom five in the league—but some of most frustrating problems were structural, not strategic. The Bucks have invested resources in the wrong places, and it looked like the only option was to proceed with an ill-fitting roster and hope that Giannis could be incredible enough to save them.
But now there’s more hope. Greg Monroe is on his way to Phoenix, and as of Tuesday morning Eric Bledsoe is and on his way to help on the perimeter. I will admit I’m not entirely unbiased here—in 2014 I was openly lobbying for a Brandon Knight–Bledsoe swap—but Bledsoe is a theoretical perfect fit next to Giannis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Khris Middleton. He gives Milwaukee yet another two-way weapon on the wing who’s capable of guarding multiple positions, and his offensive versatility at the guard spot will give Kidd more tools to work with around his MVP candidate. To begin with, there’s a Bledsoe/Brogdon/Snell/Middleton/Giannis lineup that could turn into a total nightmare for the East.
O.J. Mayo broke down in tears when he heard the NBA was going to ban him for at least two years for a failed drug test, and he surely would have cried even harder if he had known the embarrassment, loneliness and aimlessness that would follow.
His first instinct was to call his mother, Alisha, a conversation that left him feeling ashamed of the inevitable questions she would face at work. Two weeks later, shortly before his dismissal and disqualification became public on July 1, 2016, Mayo sent out a group text message to his family and close friends. As the former highly-touted high school star and 2008 lottery pick typed out the words to his siblings, the youngest of whom was still a teenager, he was forced to contemplate his neglected responsibilities. “If you’d been a preacher, your brothers would have been preachers,” Alisha had told him, quoting American Gangster, the movie about drug kingpin Frank Lucas’s family-run operation. “If you’d been a solider, they’d be soldiers. … They look up to you. They always expect you to know what’s best.”
The NBA’s press release hit on the first day of free agency last summer, and Mayo fielded a brief round of sympathetic and surprised texts from his friends while media organizations reported the news and social media users speculated about his drug of choice.
And then: nothing.
“I didn’t get a phone call last summer from anyone besides my family for 40 days,” Mayo told The Crossover at a Southern California gym last week, in his first extended interview since his suspension. “People who called me every day didn’t call me for two or three months. I still haven’t talked to some people who I talked to every week. Everybody was off my a–. I was tripping. ‘Oh, I see how the world is now.’ That was rock bottom.”
Here’s what we learned from the Bucks and Raptors after Toronto advanced to play Cleveland with their 92-89 victory over the Bucks in Game 6 Thursday ,,,
FOR THE RAPTORS
Well … they won … I guess? The Raptors dropped Game 1 in typically disappointing Raptors fashion. They were obliterated in Game 3 in what was quite simply the worst performance from a top-four seed in some time, maybe ever, going down 2-1. Then they rallied, took the next two two games, and were up 25 in Game 6 … only to blow the entire lead, going down multiple possessions … before finally storming back and taking the game to close it out. Leave it up to the Raptors to win in six games, look impressive for most of it, and still somehow wind up underwhelming. But in the end, they get out with the win, and that’s what matters.
DeMar DeRozan had the worst performance for an All-Star player in a playoff game, maybe ever, going 0-for-8 with eight points in Game 3 … and then took over. He averaged 27.7 points per game on 52 percent shooting, and the Raptors outscored Toronto by 16.7 points per 100 possessions. Just a phenomenal performance from the All-Star.
The Raptors’ small picture looks like it can hang with the Cavaliers. P.J. Tucker’s defense is so great, as is Serge Ibaka’s, and that can be a difference from last year. Norman Powell looks ready to step up and deliver, that’s different from last year. So the formula that they bring to the table is different from the team that lost in six last year in the conference finals.
In the big picture, however, this series has to shake your confidence in the Raptors being ready to put a real fight up vs. the champs. Each series is a microcosm, to be sure, but the lessons we took from the Raptors in this series say more about their ability to still fail in spectacular fashion and then squeak by if they have more talent and experience, than about their composure and overall ability.
If nothing else, though, the lesson should be not to overreact to any one game. If the Raptors had won the first two games, lost the next two in normal fashion, then closed the next two, the result would have been the same, it just would have felt different. But if the end result is the same, what really is the difference?