NBA Power Rankings: Cavaliers are right where they want to be
New Orleans Pelicans
Last week: 0-7
SOS: SOMEONE SAVE ANTHONY DAVIS!
Last week: 0-6
Everything with the Philadelphia 76ers this season begins and ends with Joel “The Process” Embiid. Embiid has seen his minutes restriction rise from 20 minutes a night to 24 and now word has come out that it will be set at 24 until he is reevaluated at Christmas. In his first taste of basketball action in three seasons, Embiid has been everything that Sam Hinkie tanked for and more. The Sixers finally have a light at the end of the tunnel and all those years of forced losing and ping pong balls is looking like it was worth it.
Embiid isn’t the only player that was obtained by Hinkie through his bottoming out techniques. Philadelphia also brought in Nerlens Noel (injured), Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor, and Ben Simmons (injured). Saric and Okafor have both been up and down in their play, but the potential still shows for those two. Okafor is likely to be the odd man out as his defensive ineptitude makes it hard for him to play extended minutes. Saric is a consistent jump shot away from being a deadly versatile weapon in this league.
Things are looking up in the City of Brotherly Love and I for one suggest that when Embiid and Simmons bring home a championship in 2023 that Hinkie gets the same type of empathy that the nation showered the reclusive Steve Bartman in when the Chicago Cubs finally brought home a World Series title this year.
Last week: 1-5
It was announced that future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki will miss at least a week with soreness in his right achilles. This team has been hampered by the injury bug in the last few seasons and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
For the next week, or however long Nowitzki remains sidelined, Dallas becomes Harrison Barnes’ team (please stop laughing, there’s still two more teams left). The Mavericks have seen glimpses of a better Harrison Barnes, including his career-high 34 point explosion to get Dallas its first win of the season in an overtime victory against the Milwaukee Bucks. However, last season’s prized signee, Wes Matthews, is experience a shooting slump as bad as any player not named Klay Thompson. Matthews shot 3-for-17 from the floor in that same overtime victory that saw Barnes drop 30-plus.
Rick Carlisle is a genius in regards to basketball IQ and if there’s any hope of saving this season for Dallas than I trust that Carlisle will be able to uncover how to accomplish that. However, as of this writing it seems like the more fun storyline from the Mavericks will be whether or not Mark Cuban embarks on what seems to be budding political aspirations.
Last week: 1-5
The pieces are all there for the Wizards, but they can not seem to get it together no matter who is on the sidelines. Things are bad in the nation’s capital and that’s ignoring the current presidential election (GO VOTE! NO LIKE SERIOUSLY GO VOTE, IF YOU’RE READING THIS AND YOU HAVEN’T VOTED WALK AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER/PUT DOWN THE PHONE OR TABLET AND CAST A VOTE!). Washington was a pick to usurp a couple of the teams listed above them and make a return to the playoffs, but that couldn’t be any further from their mind at the moment.
Washington needs to do something to jumpstart this team. A trade doesn’t seem likely as that was the route they choose to take at last year’s trade deadline. They swapped out coaches and actually have had a relatively healthy Beal for the better part of their opening stretch of games. Figuring out the Wizards is like trying to guess the correct answers for a Rorschach test. What you see on paper isn’t necessarily what you get in real life. The Wizards look dead in the water during a stretch where it is absolutely silly to say anyone looks dead in the water. Hopefully for my foolish pride things will get turned around in the District of Columbia.
Last week: 2-5
Devin Booker is shooting his way into all of our collective hearts. The second-year 20-year-old guard put up back-to-back 39 point outings (a win over the New Orleans Pelicans and a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers). Eric Bledsoe has returned to the floor and looked just as good as he did in the games leading up to his injury last year. The emergence of TJ Warren has also helped ease the pressure off of Booker to do everything for the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns have put together a nice balance of youth and well-respected veterans on their roster. While it is unlikely that this team will benefit from this mixture this season, it could have an impact on the franchise in the long-term. At some point they will have to address the backcourt, especially if Brandon Knight isn’t content with coming off the bench all year.
Earl Watson has this team developing at the right speed and hitting on another lottery pick could be just what the doctor ordered for this team to become a contender in the Western Conference once again. Phoenix might not have a team that is relevant to fans outside of the state of Phoenix, but this is definitely a team to keep an eye on for the future as well as this season too. Booker is going to shoot his way into the record books, Warren finds new and different ways to score every game, and Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and Marquese Chriss are likely to embarrass defenders at the rim on any play.
Last week: 1-4
Even without the immediate improvement in the team’s win/loss record, there are already glimpses of the coaching switch paying off for the Timberwolves. Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine both seem to have taken a leap in their play and Karl Anthony-Towns is rounding into form as a do-it-all player that impacts both the offensive and defensive ends of the game. These three players are firmly planted as this franchise’s future and this season is the one where they are really going to need to show and prove that they have what it takes to bring this team up from the cellar of the West.
As the season goes on, common sense suggests that Minnesota will start to rack up wins and Thibs will put himself right back into the race for Coach of the Year by season’s end. This team is still young and though Thibodeau is one of the top coaches in the NBA, it takes time for a young group to learn how to win. We’re watching Minnesota go through that phase now, but once they are out of it it will spell trouble for the rest of the league. Kris Dunn is getting extended minutes as the team’s starting point guard with Ricky Rubio out with an elbow injury. If Dunn can start making an earlier than anticipated impact don’t be surprised if the Timberwolves are able to flip Rubio for some much needed veteran leadership this year.
Last week: 2-4
Atkinson has been able to make a player like Trevor Booker like the next great small ball power forward. His system opens the court and with more space comes more opportunities. Jeremy Lin has been great in his return to New York and his reunion with a man who was critical in the Linsanity explosion during their time together with the New York Knicks. Lin, however, is now sidelined with a leg injury. Without Lin, the Nets are still playing hard and solid basketball, but without Lin’s ability to knife into the lane and score from different areas of the floor things just aren’t the same in Brooklyn. Isaiah Whitehead held his own in his first start in Lin’s absence, but he just doesn’t have the game’s subtleties and nuances figured out yet like someone who’s been in the NBA as long as Lin does.
This might be the highest the Nets make it on the list this entire season–that should be great for Boston Celtic’s fans to hear–but not being a bottom-dweller for the entire season is a huge improvement for this franchise. There weren’t many expectations of this year’s Brooklyn Nets’ team, and this season can already be chalked up as a success for the new front office of Sean Marks and others. If they can prove to be this effective with their offseason decision making heading into next year than Brooklyn could find themselves back into relevancy a lot faster than many had pegged them.
Last week: 2-4
Some of the cool and intrigue of Pat Riley has worn off. After becoming the spokesman of “Show Me The Rings” sports, Riley has seen LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh leave town with nothing in return to compensate his team for their huge losses. Miami is now Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic’s town, That might not be the worse thing in the world, but it is a steep fall from grace compared to where the team once was.
The Heat do have a better outlook though than most franchises that see such a mass exodus of talent in such a short time. They have a stable of young prospects that will do well to earn more time on the floor and they aren’t lacking for draft picks and are staring at a potential lottery pick in one of the most talented draft classes of the decade. Players like Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Briante Weber, etc. will be able to showcase themselves in hopes of either staying with the Heat or staying in the league entirely.
This team isn’t yet complete and they probably won’t be for the entire season. Things can change in a New York minute with someone like Riley in control. While Tyler Johnson bathes in cash, Erik Spoelstra will need to tinker with this roster and find the proper amount of playing time in order for everyone on the roster. Miami needs to end this season knowing what they have and then adjust their franchise short-term and long-term plans from there.
Last week: 3-5
The problem is the rest of the league knows this as well. Any trade proposals that the Kings receive for Boogie are likely going to return them pennies on the dollar. With the team opening a brand new, state-of-the-art arena this year it isn’t likely that they would willingly sell low on their prized possession. This has seemingly been the same problem for years with Cousins and the Kings, but this time around Sacramento hasn’t made the same critical case as they did in the past.
The good news for the Kings. New head coach, Dave Joerger (formerly the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies) seems to have formed a bond with Boogie Cousins and that’s the first step to turning this whole situation around. Now if they could just unload the more unhappy Rudy Gay than they could really get a jump on becoming a competent franchise once more. That has proven to be more difficult than initially assumed for the Kings–Gay being on record as saying that he plans to leave Sacramento as a free agent this offseason as no doubt hurt his trade market. Nonetheless, there will be suitors for a player of his talents and if they are able to find a deal that appeases them then they won’t hesitate to make the move.
Last week: 3-4
I’m going to go on record and say that the Orlando Magic don’t even know what the Orlando Magic are doing anymore. This team is one conundrum stacked on top of the other in the form of forwards and centers. Frank Vogel was gifted to them from the Pacers, but with too many cooks in their frontcourt kitchen it’s a tougher job than originally imagined to get the Magic out of the doldrums of the East–where many a general manager have lost their jobs.
Aaron Gordon as Paul George 2.0 is already a failure and Mario Hezonja has once again seen his inner-JR Smith stifled. Elfrid Payton, the only other lottery pick that the current Magic regime made, still can’t shoot and hasn’t done much else to grow his game besides gaining experience just from playing as much as he does. If this team remains playing .500 basketball it is a credit to Vogel and his staff.
Things could be worse for the kids of Disney World, just look at the teams below them, but this is a team that wasn’t looking for more of the same this year. They made a multitude of moves with the intention of turning their team into a playoff team this year. The return on their investments so far have not been good. If this team can’t reach the lofty goals placed upon it by the front office then there will be major changes to come to the Magic organization.
New York Knicks
Last week: 2-4
The players have called the coaches out over practice habits, the coaches have called players out over lack of scouting report retention. The triangle is still being droned into players’ heads like it’s a Westerworld vacation gone horribly wrong. It’s all a mess, and yet there are still times when this team looks like it could pose a real threat to other top tier talents in both the Eastern and Western Conferences. Madison Square Garden will be treated to more competitive games than it’s seen in recent years.
The real question with the Knicks lies in how they treat the development of everyone’s favorite unicorn Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is clearly the future of the franchise, but he’s actually seen both his usage and touches per game decline in his second season. Part of that can be attributed to the Knicks having more actual basketball players on their roster this year, but Jeff Hornacek needs to find a way to get all he can out of the Latvian big man if the Knicks are to live up to the expectations of their fan base this year. The Knicks need to decide if they want to go all-out on a potential playoff chase or would rather spend the time tearing down to build the roster back up around the skyscraper that is Kristaps Porzingis.
Last week: 3-4
The Grizzlies finally saw prized free agent signing Chandler Parsons suit up for a game on Sunday, but he might’ve been better off remaining in street clothes. The max contract signee put in all of zero points as he went 0-for-8 in his Memphis debut and played 22 minutes. If any semblance of the Parsons we once knew returns for Memphis this year than we could be looking at a team that is able to roar back into the postseason. The changes that Memphis is undergoing are necessary and if they work this team could cause trouble for anyone that dares overlook them.
Fizdale knows what he’s doing as a coach and with a healthy Gasol and Mike Conley this team has more than enough talent to make the playoffs. However, it is really going to take a full team effort if the Grizzlies are going to reach the playoffs again. That’s thinking way too far down the road for this team though. Let’s hope they are able to make it through the a month of games with their roster intact before we start scoping out the bigger picture with the Grizzlies.
Last week: 3-4
After beginning the season looking like the team ready to make a return back to the elite of the Eastern Conference, things have cooled off for the Indiana Pacers. Paul George is back fully, but the new uptempo look has failed the Pacers throughout the beginning of the year. The push for making the team a better offensive unit has meant that it’s taken a large step back defensively. Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young aren’t exactly racking up All-Defense votes over their careers.
For all the talk of quickening the offense and pushing the tempo, it’s been their play on defense that has been their biggest detriment so far. Frank Vogel had built Indiana to be a defense-first type of squad and when Larry Bird showed him, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, and David West the door in consecutive offseasons they took with them the team’s identity. No one seems to be particularly happy with the new and improved product coming out of Naptown.
Things in Indiana are seemingly getting worse before they get better, but with Bird so vehemently behind these changes it might not be the greatest for those working within the organization. Many questioned the hiring of Nate McMillian when it was announced in the offseason. If the struggles continue for the Pacers it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bird finds his fall guy on Indiana’s own sidelines.
Los Angeles Lakers
Last week: 4-3
Luke Walton should already have the place picked out for where he’s going to place his first coach of the year trophy. After being denied last year on a technicality, his fast restart of the Lakers’ franchise is more impressive than his 39-4 run with the Golden State Warriors last season. D’Angelo Russell looks more like the player we saw in Columbus than he did at any point during his rookie season. Julius Randle is still going predominantly left, but now the offense creates the space and opportunity for him to do so. Jordan Clarkson has adapted nicely to his next life as a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Also, Brandon Ingram’s tattoos no longer make his arms look like a Chipotle bag (huge improvement for the rookie).
The Lakers being fun, I’m not yet ready to brand them “good” just yet, is great for basketball and they are coming off back-to-back home victories over Pacific division foes in Golden State and the Phoenix Suns. Now isn’t the time to go too crazy for Hollywood’s team though. Los Angeles is exceeding expectations only because they had dragged those expectations through the mud by their own doing. If they can keep up this pace, as improbable as that sounds, than they could possibly backdoor their way into the postseason with 46 wins. How fun would a Warriors and Lakers first round series be! Please Basketball Gods, don’t let us down now.
Last week: 4-3
The injury in the preseason to Kris Middleton really put this team in the hole to begin the year. Their acquisitions of Michael Beasley and Tony Snell–both are shooting below 30 percent from three–have not turned out to be capable replacements for the 3-and-D wing. As a team, the Bucks have seen their three-point percentage dip from 34.5 percent a year ago to 32.4 percent currently. The lack of shooting has really hurt this team’s growth as opposing teams simply just pack the pain in an attempt to slow the Greek Freak down. If any two players could share the floor with Antetokounmpo and be threats to hit from the outside the outlook for Milwaukee would be totally different.
Milwaukee looks primed to be a team to make an overcorrecting move when the trade deadline comes around as they’ve billed themselves as a playoff team, especially with a new arena in the pipeline. The only problem is the lack of suitors for the pieces they have assembled over the years. Things for the Bucks could go a different numbers of ways, but they have to make sure they choose correctly or all this time trying to build up the team could be for nothing.
Last week: 3-3
Mike Malone, who still should be the head coach with the Sacramento Kings (but KANGS gonna KANGS), has gotten this team to totally buy in. They play hard and they play together every game. The Nuggets are no pushover and they are making their way steadily up the ladder of contention. Outside of the Celtics, no other roster has such a deep collection of talented players that share the same position. Yet, it seems that the team has been able to overlook personal goals in order to obtain success as a team. The Nuggets are a team to keep an eye on should any disgruntled star start looking for greener grass.
The Nuggets have been the tortoise in terms of rebuilding at a time where everyone was trying to be the hare and become good as quickly as they could. Things in Denver are looking up and if they continue this way than the Pepsi Center could potentially host its first playoff game since 2013. The Nuggets had their former franchise player in Carmelo Anthony decide that the “homecoming” to New York was too great to pass up. Since then they’ve been dwelling in mediocrity and finally have a chance to make good on all the talent and draft picks they were able to acquire in their move to accommodate Melo.
Last week: 4-3
The greatest shooting team in all of basketball has been a little more East than many predicted heading into the season. The Chicago Bulls are hitting 38.8 percent from deep, third best in the NBA, and have six players shooting higher than 40 percent from three (Bobby Portis, Michael Carter-Williams, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Doug McDermott, and Denzel Valentine). This unforeseen and math-defying hot streak has Fred Hoiberg looking like an offensive genius just one year after his own players (mostly Butler) were questioning if he even had the chops to cut it in the NBA.
Maybe Hoiberg’s spaced out motion offense can be attributed for turning non shooters like Carter-Williams and Wade into the Windy City version of the Splash Brothers, but it’s more likely that we see these numbers regress back to the mean over time. For Chicago, the good shooting has been an added bonus, but this team has shown that it has what it takes to be in games night in and night out.
Wade and Rondo have relinquished control of the team, and the ball, to Butler as they said they would in the offseason. The result has been a team that has been able to build cohesion quickly and gotten off on the right start to open the year. The Bulls look like they are well on their way to proving their doubters wrong.
Last week: 4-3
The Houston Rockets surrounded Harden with a cast of shooters that makes the defense choose between open three-pointers or open lanes. Both are horrible choices to surrender, but when facing the Rockets your hands are tied behind your back. Worry about Harden scoring easily and watch three after three rain down. Worry about giving up open threes and you let Harden score at the rim or even worse at the free throw line/
For all the fun that Houston has brought on the offensive end, they have looked equally porous on the other end of the court. Their 111.7 defensive rating ranks 28th out of 30 teams. That won’t get them very far in the playoffs. Patrick Beverly’s return should help improve that number slightly, but there doesn’t seem to be any answer to their defensive woes currently on the roster.
The Rockets have an MVP candidate on their team and while their plan of outscoring every opponent makes sense on paper, it’s proven harder to execute game-to-game. That doesn’t mean that they are going to stop anytime soon. Harden’s ability as a playmaker really opens up the court and makes the game easier for all the other four players on the floor with him.
Last week: 3-3
The Boston Celtics destined ascension to the number two slot in the East has hit an early road bump. Star free agent signing Al Horford has missed the team’s last three games while in the NBA’s concussion protocol program. On top of that, Jae Crowder has been sidelined with a sprained left ankle after exiting the Celtics’ second meeting with the Chicago Bulls. That’s also with Kelly Olynyk missing the beginning of the season as well.
In their absences, Boston has had to turn to rookie Jaylen Brown, and big man Jonas Jerebko to pick up the slack. Neither have been bad in their expanded roles, but neither have been able to replicate the success of the player’s they’re replacing in Brad Stevens’ rotation. Things in Boston are going to turn around once the roster gets healthy, but until that time comes Boston will need to be able to count on the players that are out on the court to do what Stevens’ asks of them.
The Celtics still have a number of good, healthy, pieces on their roster and with Stevens on the sideline he’ll make sure to get the most out of his players. Boston–along with all 29 other NBA franchises–has more than enough time to get back on track to reach their lofty preseason goals. Given time, things should get righted in New England, and the Celtics will be a team vying for home court in the postseason.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last week: 4-3
A huge factor for Portland’s sustained excellence has been the seamless fit of free agent acquisition Evan Turner. Turner’s mid-range game is a welcomed sidekick to the perimeter shooting abilities of Lillard and CJ McCollum. Turner’s ability to run the show has also freed up the Trail Blazers’ late game offense and allow both of the sharpshooting guards to play more off the ball. This quirk has made it possible for Terry Stots to draw up some of the most unique end of game and out of bounds plays we’ve seen this season.
The continued development of Mason Plumlee and the average 3-point shooting of Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu is something this team will need if they are to improve on their performance this season. Dame has shown that he has the talent and fortitude to lead this team to greater aspirations than others perceive possible. This team might have plateaued with their accomplishment of making it to the second round of the playoffs last season, but what’s wrong with being one of the eight best teams in the league year-in and year-out? Lillard, the fierce competitor he is, would never come to terms or settle for less than pushing everyone for their absolute best every night that the team steps on the court.
Last week: 4-3
Newly extended Rudy Gobert is taking his $100 million and remaining the best interior defender in the NBA. He’s denied the likes of Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid and it doesn’t look like his rim protecting ways will decrease any time soon. The return of Gordon Hayward has Utah looking like a potential threat to upset the West’s hierarchy. However, Hayward’s return coincided with George Hill having to sit out a few games with an injured finger.
Utah was already a handful for the Golden State Warriors to deal with when they were setting records a year ago. They’ve shown that they can go toe-to-toe with the Spurs this year. Only the Clippers and Spurs have defeated them by double-digits this season and their opening night defeat was mostly due to Damian Lillard turning into a fire-breathing dragon in front of our very eyes. The Jazz are a tough out for any team nowadays.
Quin Snyder is doing a great job of maintaining a culture in Salt Lake City and he has this team poised to do great things and soon. The additions of veterans Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw have not only helped this team stay fresh, but it’s also had a profound effect on the team’s morale and belief that it could pull out close victories.
Last week: 4-3
Stan Van Gundy is The Point Guard Whisperer. When it was announced that Reggie Jackson would be sidelined for a few months to begin the season a lot of folks soured on the Pistons. All SVG has done is turn Ish Smith into a quality point guard as if he were Rafer Alston in 2009.
Van Gundy also knows a thing or two about versatile forwards. Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris are his latest attempt to reclaim the magic that was born out of the Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis duo in Van Gundy’s previous stop. If it seems like I’m comparing everything to the 2009 Orlando Magic it’s because I am. That Magic team was one of the last teams to keep LeBron James out of the NBA Finals. I think if given the chance, Van Gundy would reform that team for one more run at a title. Well, maybe he’d bring everyone but Dwight back in. Sub in Andre Drummond for Dwight and you really aren’t leaving out much. The Pistons were also the lone Eastern Conference team to really test the Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason last year.
Van Gundy knows what it takes to best a James-led team in the playoffs and he’s brought that formula from sunny Orlando to the rugged streets of Detroit. When Jackson comes back this team has what it takes to make a run at home court advantage and delaying any possible playoff rematch against LeBron to at least the second round.
Golden State Warriors
Last week: 5-2
But boy oh boy did Stephen Curry ever pick the right moment to go absolutely bonkers crazy from deep. In the Warriors victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, Curry broke his own record for most threes made in a single game and capped off the night shooting 13-for-17 from behind the line.
Kevin Durant has proved that he fits in anywhere on any team on any basketball court, but the other Warriors have yet to regain their 73-9 form from last season. Stephen Curry has been average aside from a couple of big third quarters. Draymond Green has more technicals than triple-doubles. Klay “I’m not sacrificing sh**” Thompson seems to have sacrificed his ability to make open jumpers. Steve Kerr no longer looks like he came to the arena straight from a day on the beach catching waves and sun.
However, it is early in the year and despite the high level expectations placed on their heads there are instances where you see the potential shine through for the Warriors. There are a lot of teams lower on this list that would gladly take Golden State’s problems and record off their hands in a millisecond. If this team is able to get it going then we’ll look back on these early times of trials and tribulations and laugh. Especially after seeing Steph singlehandedly make the art of shooting threes look more simple than a Dr. Seuss book.
Last week: 4-2
Surprisingly enough, Dwight Howard has not caused the Atlanta Hawks to spontaneously combust yet. The one time pariah with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets might have finally found a home in his hometown with the Hawks. Howard’s a superior rim protector than the departed Al Horford–hopefully cinephiles catch that whimsical pun–and his play as a roll man is better suited for Dennis Schroeder’s game who has taken over at point guard for Jeff Teague.
Mike Budenholzer is truly showing that he will one day have a Coach of the Year trophy on his mantle piece, potentially more than his mentor Gregg Popovich. Budenholzer is proving that his style and system are not only adaptable, but produce winning basketball as well. The Hawks have latched onto this and are using it to keep their hopes of Eastern Conference supremacy alive. Paul Milsap still is completely undervalued and underappreciated by the NBA masses and quietly has helped turn things around in Atlanta.
The Hawks have the talent to do damage in the East, but they are still ways away from giving the Cleveland Cavaliers any cause for concern. The Eastern Conference looks like they haven’t been able to live up to the hype that they built over the offseason. Through six games it’s the Cavaliers and everyone else. Out of that second grouping though the Hawks have steadied themselves at the top. Remaining there will be a yearlong challenge and hopefully they will be able to keep everything in order for years to come.
Last week: 4-2
Up in The Six, the Toronto Raptors are trying to remind the world that they were one of the NBA’s final four teams last year. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors got most of the publicity over the playoffs and summer, but the Raptors reupped for another year and are seeing their patience pay dividends.
DeMar DeRozan is leading the way for Toronto. His 33.7 points per game are not only the highest in the NBA, but are coming in a very efficient manner. He hasn’t made the recommended switch of trading long twos for threes, but he is getting to the free throw line more. His current number of 9.2 free throw attempts per game is a career-best for the Compton native. While the midrange shots won’t drop forever, getting to the line is an easy way for DeRozan to continue to fill up the box score.
Dwane Casey has this team locked in and focused to begin the year. Outside of a head scratching loss to the Sacramento Kings, this team has met all expectations that they placed on themselves with their performance from the previous season. It will be interesting to see if any bumps in the road pop up along the way for Toronto. The Raptors are yet to truly face any media backlash in their time as one of the few teams that found their way back atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Last week: 5-1
Moving on from that, man was I so wrong about the Crying Jordans aka the Charlotte Hornets. I honestly thought that they would fall flat on their face after overachieving last season. I thought Basketball Twitter would be firing Frank Kaminsky over Justise Winslow jokes that would make “the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead” disappear quicker than Michael Jordan’s sneakers under his boot cut splattered jeans.
But still they rise. Charlotte has found an identity and knows just how to stick to it. A lot of their credit should go to the head coach that truly turned things around for Charlotte. The Hornets under Steve Clifford have been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and that hasn’t changed this season. They are fourth in opponent points per game (95.8) and fifth in defensive rating (97.7). Kaminsky is turning heads like a seven-foot Billy Hoyle and Kemba Walker can not be stopped, but only contained to being this season.
The Hornets were overlooked a year ago when they finished in a three-way tie for third place, but so far they have looked like the second best team in the Eastern Conference. IF everything keeps clicking in Queen City than we could possibly see if LeBron has to go through “the Ghost of Jordan” to get to his seventh consecutive NBA Finals.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: 6-1
Russell Westbrook’s solo act with the Oklahoma City Thunder has been a joy to behold a week into the year. Much like his awesome Jordan Brand commercial Westbrook now gets to do what he wants for the lack of a better term. Westbrook is one rebound per game and 0.3 assists per game away from averaging a triple-double (oh and he’s only 0.5 points per game away from being the league’s leading scorer).
The Thunder haven’t looked as clean as the trio of teams ranked above them, but they’ve found ways to win ugly games. Aside from having Kevin Durant go supernova on them in the Bay Area, OKC has found a way to win close game after close game on their way to a tie for the best record in the Western Conference. Not too bad for a team that many had counted out of title contention the moment that Durant announced he would be leaving the Thunder on the Fourth of July.
Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams made noise this past week when they both became multi-millionaires after signing $84 million and $100 million dollar extensions respectively. If Oklahoma City is to keep up this hot start they are going to need both players at their best.
In Year Two of his NBA tenure, Billy Donovan has seemingly found the right balance between letting Westbrook be Westbrook and ingratiating his motion offense. The second unit is troubling, Enes Kanter seems to be the only rotation caliber player in the grouping for now, but as long as Westbrook is around he won’t let them down. The Brodie is coming for the MVP trophy and The Brodie gets what The Brodie wants.
San Antonio Spurs
Last week: 5-2
Gregg Popovich is a gift to the basketball world. Not only has he turned the San Antonio Spurs into a clinic of how to play basketball right, but he’s also a genuinely great (and funny) guy. Pop has once again revamped the Spurs in ways only he could’ve foreseen. They’ve gone to a Leonard-centric team and he has responded to the additional workload in an amazing fashion.
Tim Duncan has moved on from the court, though he and Pop are still BFF’s, but Kawhi Leonard has picked up the slack for the future Hall of Famer. It was rumored that Leonard had worked out with Kobe Bryant over the summer and whether he did or did not there is a noticeable change in Leonard’s game again. Leonard is now as lethal at putting the ball into the basket as he’s been at taking it away from opposing players. Leonard is once again in contention for both the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year. It might be early to start thinking about awards, but Leonard has just been that damn good.
On a team where the interior presence is a combination of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, David Lee and Dwayne Dedmon, San Antonio is holding opponents to 54.9 percent from five feet and closer, which is the sixth lowest percentage in the NBA. Just when you think you’ve seen it all from the Spurs they go and make the improbable look easy.
Los Angeles Clippers
Last week: 6-1
If you’ve only been following headlines during the start of the NBA season this might seem like a surprise to you. Everywhere you look the Warriors have been mentioned–good or bad–Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis are having all-time seasons, and the Los Angeles Lakers are making basketball fun again. However, don’t sleep on the Los Angeles Clippers.
Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul, and Doc Rivers seem to finally have figured it (Not quite sure what “it” is yet, but it definitely isn’t Pennywise, the Clown) out in La La Land. The quartet has always been one-step behind in terms of realizing the championship aspirations that were placed upon them back in 2013. Yet, with the Warriors not getting off to as dominant of a start as expected, the Clippers have shown that cohesion and familiarity can take a team further than just pure talent.
Their pure talent makes them one of the best teams in the NBA this season, but they have done more than just be the more talented team to begin the year. Out of their first six games, only one has been against a team that won’t be vying for a playoff spot at season’s end. They’re a Westbrook pull-up jumper away from being undefeated along with Cleveland. While Los Angeles is proving that it will always be a Laker town, the Clippers looked more primed to get a banner of their own to hang from the Staples Center rafters.
Last week: 6-0
Despite having a few letdowns against inferior opponents–the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers to name names–they were able to emerge victorious in both cases. What has really stood out this year with the Cavs is how James has seemingly taken a step back. Kyrie Irving has led the team in scoring most nights. Kevin Love has finally found his place in LeBron World. Ty Lue looks like the strongest branch left on Phil Jackson’s coaching tree.
Everything is alright in Cleveland, aside from that team across the street surrendering a 3-1 lead of their own in their sports’ biggest spotlight. With the eyes of basketball locked tightly on the Warriors it seems like the Cavaliers have been able to find themselves in the shadows. Kevin Love and LeBron James might have actually become friends now. Kyrie Irving has made his green light even brighter. JR Smith has mascots taking off their shirts in honor of him.
An interesting note about the fast start in Cleveland: this is the first time a LeBron-led team has opened a season 6-0, his previous best was 5-1 (2011, 2012, and 2015). In all those years’ LeBron ended the year with a ring. With barely a week played, it’s too soon to tell whether or not James will be adding on to his collection of rings at the end of this season. What can be said is that not one single team has looked even remotely as good as Cleveland has when they’re on their game.
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