NBA Thanksgiving: What Every Team Has To Be Thankful For, Part 1
About a month into the NBA season, every team has given at least one positive to feed on. In honor of Thanksgiving, here’s the first edition of why every team should be thankful in 2016-17.
Only a month into the 2016-17 NBA season, it’s far too early to make any definitive statements. The contenders like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are around where we thought they’d be, as are the bottom-feeders like the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
That being said, there have been plenty of surprises in the first four weeks of NBA action. The Los Angeles Clippers surprisingly have the best record in the NBA, the Washington Wizards have been a shocking disappointment, and there’s been plenty of jostling in the middle of both conferences.
But no matter where your favorite team stands one month into the new season, every single fan base has a reason to be thankful. On Thanksgiving Day 2016, it’s important to keep these reasons in mind, whether your team is a title contender or a favorite to land the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017.
In that spirit, we’ll be taking a look at all 30 NBA teams (the first 15 in alphabetical order today) in order to assess what your fan base should be thankful for. Starting with the Atlanta Hawks and concluding with the Memphis Grizzlies, let’s get started with Part I.
Atlanta Hawks: Defense
The Atlanta Hawks have hit a snag, dropping three of their last three four games. That being said, their defense so far in 2016-17 is as good as last year’s second-ranked unit, holding opponents to a league-leading 96.2 points per 100 possessions.
Al Horford was thought to be a more versatile defender at this stage than Dwight Howard, while Jeff Teague was clearly the more experienced point guard compared to Dennis Schroder. Despite those two switches in the starting lineup, Mike Budenholzer’s defense is as stout as ever.
With Howard around to protect the rim and boost what was a lackluster rebounding Hawks team, Atlanta is closing possessions with defensive boards and now ranks third in overall rebounding percentage. The Hawks need to get themselves out of this temporary rut, but with so many changes in the starting lineup, it’s reassuring that stifling defense remains their calling card.
Boston Celtics: Staying Over .500
The Boston Celtics have a lot to be thankful for, including the incoming Brooklyn pick, Isaiah Thomas being on pace to set a franchise single-season record for points per game among guards, and Avery Bradley somehow becoming a double-double machine overnight.
But for a team that’s already seen Jae Crowder and Al Horford miss a combined 17 games, Brad Stevens and company should just be glad they were able to hover just above .500 until two of their best three defenders were available to return.
A projected top-five defense, the Celtics have a long way to go to improve their 16th-ranked defense. But if Horford’s go-ahead basket and game-saving block in his return to action in Detroit were any indication, Boston is a completely different team with those two players on the floor. Now it’s just a matter of climbing back near the top of the East as expected.
Brooklyn Nets: Brook Lopez
Kenny Atkinson’s squad has been more competitive than expected, compiling a 4-10 record that was actually only 4-5 until their current five-game skid). That being said, with a hamstring injury limiting Jeremy Lin to five games thus far, Brook Lopez has really been the Brooklyn Nets‘ saving grace so far.
Averaging 20.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, Lopez is not only providing Nets fans with a reason to watch this team on a (somewhat) nightly basis, but he’s also doing the franchise a favor by boosting his trade value.
It’s no secret that Brooklyn desperately needs future first round draft picks, and Lopez is their only ticket to acquiring one via trade. This team will be brutal to watch if and when that day comes, but Lopez is the key to a more manageable present and future for the Nets.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
Something like “defying expectations” or “Steve Clifford” would’ve worked here too, since no one expected the Charlotte Hornets to be this good after losing Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson in free agency. But let’s be honest: Kemba Walker is the best part about Hornets basketball right now.
After being a fringe All-Star in the East last season, Walker is submitting his early claim for a spot on the 2017 All-Star roster, averaging a scorching hot 24.8 points, 5.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game on .476/.438/.817 shooting splits.
Kemba’s consistency and three-point touch were the biggest problems with his game in the past, but early in 2016-17, it appears as though he’s ready to put those bugaboos behind him for good. Maybe Michael Jordan and the Hornets weren’t as bad at drafting as we once thought?
Chicago Bulls: Three Alphas Coexisting
The Chicago Bulls have been one of the biggest surprises in the East, not only because they’ve shot better from three-point range than expected (34.6 percent), but also because their Three Alphas have become symbiotic so quickly.
That chemistry rests primarily on Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo ceding control of the team to Jimmy Butler, who has become an absolute superstar in his leadership role and is averaging 25.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
But ignoring the fact that the Bulls are a +2.1 with Rondo on the floor and a +10.1 with him on the bench, the Three Alphas have somehow found a way to coexist without any of them possessing a serviceable three-point shot. Despite both Butler and Wade operating in the midrange, the Bulls are 9-6 and look poised to make their return to the playoffs.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Owning The East
LeBron James is quietly averaging 23.8 points, 9.3 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game, Kyrie Irving has taken the next step as one of the team’s leading scorers (23.7 PPG on .472/.407/.814 shooting) and Kevin Love is basically good for 20 and 10 on a nightly basis.
But with all the attention being paid to the Kevin Durant experiment in Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers’ red-hot start, doesn’t it kind of feel like we’re overlooking the Cleveland Cavaliers? It makes no sense since they’re defending champs, but maybe it’s because — barring injury to King James — their path to the Finals is pretty much guaranteed.
And that’s precisely what the Cavs have to be thankful for, because as of right now, it’s hard to see the Raptors, Celtics or Hawks giving them legitimate problems in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s still early of course, but so far it feels like the Cavaliers are just coasting, yet they’re still No. 1 in the East.
Dallas Mavericks: Harrison Barnes
We won’t lie to you Big D fans: 2016-17 is looking pretty rough so far. The Dallas Mavericks are 2-12, the 38-year-old Dirk Nowitzki has missed all but four games due to an Achilles injury and the Mavs are down to Seth Curry and Jonathan Gibson at point guard.
But after giving Harrison Barnes a five-year, $94 million contract over the summer, at least he’s exceeding expectations. He’s not a franchise player, nor is he the successor to Nowitzki this team will need one day soon, but he is proving he deserved more credit for the player he was with the Warriors, averaging a career-high 21.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in Dallas.
He’s not shooting the ball particularly well from downtown, but Harry B is quickly proving he can be a No. 2 or a No. 3 option on a good team. Now the Mavs just need to find a new No. 1 option so they can, you know, be a good team again.
Denver Nuggets: Patience
It’s been a slow going for the Denver Nuggets early in 2016-17, especially since their best/most consistent players have been aging veterans the team should be thinking about trading, like Wilson Chandler and lately, Kenneth Faried.
The Emmanuel Mudiay experience continues to be a roller coaster, Gary Harris is hurt again and Nikola Jokic was so out of sorts alongside Jusuf Nurkic in the starting frontcourt that he asked to come off the bench.
Luckily, expectations for the Nuggets weren’t particularly high this year, so Michael Malone and company have the luxury of staying patient through the growing pains. Jamal Murray has come into his own over the last few games, Nurkic has been one of Denver’s best players all season and there should be plenty of opportunities for the youngsters if/when the Nuggets manage to deal Faried and/or Gallo. Patience is still a virtue.
Detroit Pistons: An Obvious, Injury-Related Excuse
At 7-9, things haven’t gone according to plan for the Detroit Pistons. In what was supposed to be their coming-out party, the Pistons have now lost seven of their last 10 games. After spending their summer upgrading one of the league’s worst bench units, it’s unfortunate Detroit has yet to play a single game with its preferred starting lineup.
Last season, the Pistons’ starting five of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond showed signs of being one of the best up-and-coming lineups in the East. Unfortunately, a knee injury has prevented Jackson from playing a single game so far in 2016-17.
Jackson won’t solve all of Detroit’s problems, like their bottom-third three-point efficiency. He might be able to help with the Pistons’ 25th-ranked offense though, especially since his return would push Ish Smith back into the second unit where he belongs.
Golden State Warriors: Immediate Offensive Chemistry
The Golden State Warriors have been a mediocre defense so far, but after adding Kevin Durant and so many other new pieces over the summer, the Dubs have quickly assembled the NBA’s most dangerous offense.
Leading the league in offensive rating (115.7 points per 100 possessions), scoring (119.2 points per game) and assists (31.9 per game), not to mention ranking second in Net Rating (+12.5), incorporating KD has been a seamless transition, especially now that Stephen Curry is looking more like his normal MVP self and Klay Thompson has busted out of an early shooting slump.
The Dubs only rank fourth in three-point efficiency at 38.1 percent, so they still have a ways to go to match last year’s league-leading 41.6 percent. But they’ve posted at least 30 assists in nine straight games for a new franchise record, so once the defense catches up to an instantly potent offense, the rest of the league could be in serious trouble.
Houston Rockets: M-V-Beard
Without James Harden, the Houston Rockets would be one of the worst teams in the NBA. Just a season after most NBA fans turned their back on the Beard for his lack of leadership, his abhorrent defensive effort and his team’s 41-41 record, Harden is back to looking like an MVP frontrunner.
The defensive effort is still lacking at times, but few are batting an eyelash about it when Harden is putting up a monster 28.7 points, 12.5 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game for a 9-6 Rockets team while posting .464/.366/.825 shooting splits.
Eric Gordon has played well off the bench, Clint Capela is coming into his own in his third season and Mike D’Antoni‘s return to the NBA has been pretty smooth so far, but Harden is a legitimate MVP candidate who is once again receiving the recognition he’s deserved all along.
Indiana Pacers: The Lay Of The East
No, the Indiana Pacers are not the leading threat to LeBron’s Cavaliers as so many predicted them to be before the season began. As it turns out, an elite offense doesn’t just happen overnight, especially in the wake this little thing called defense, which has plummeted since Frank Vogel and Ian Mahinmi left.
However, in spite of Indiana’s underwhelming 7-9 start, the lay of the land in the East has prevented them from falling outside the playoff picture just yet. As long as Paul George‘s absence doesn’t last too long, this team will have more than enough firepower to return to the postseason.
There are several good teams in the East behind Cleveland, including Boston, Toronto, Charlotte and Atlanta, but the Pacers could very well enter that mix for home-court advantage once PG-13 is back, especially if Jeff Teague continues showing signs of life. Myles Turner hasn’t quite delivered on the hype from his season opener, but the Pacers still have plenty to time to figure things out in the East.
Los Angeles Clippers: Continuity And Desperation
This season has a Chicago Cubs-esque feel to it (“It’s their year!”) for the Los Angeles Clippers, not only because of the team’s red-hot 14-2 start or their league-leading Net Rating (+13.5), but because this is pretty much the same team, only with a little desperation thrown into the mix.
No one has forgotten that this could be Chris Paul and/or Blake Griffin‘s last season with the Clips, since both can opt out of the final year of their contracts next summer. That, plus the many playoff collapses over the last few seasons, creates a sense of urgency for this team’s core.
The Warriors still have issues to sort out, the Spurs just aren’t quite the same defensively with Tim Duncan retired and though the Cavaliers should waltz into the Finals, it feels like this could be Lob City’s best shot at a title. Be thankful for the advantage of continuity and accompanying sense of desperation, Clips fans. It’s one of the main forces driving your team this year.
Los Angeles Lakers: Luke Walton
The Los Angeles Lakers are blessed with a bountiful harvest of young talent, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and rookie Brandon Ingram. Without a quality head coach like Luke Walton at the helm, however, L.A.’s rebuild might have started as painfully as a similar youth movement that’s currently underway in Phoenix.
Growing pains are to be expected, of course, but was anyone expecting the Lakers to be 8-8 16 games into the season? It’s far too soon to be making any playoff predictions, but the Lakers have become one of the NBA’s most enjoyable young teams to watch.
Russell’s current knee injury puts a temporary damper on things, but Walton is extracting the best from his veterans while also letting the youngsters develop. Having a great coach can make all the difference in this league, and Walton is quickly becoming a prime example of that.
Memphis Grizzlies: Z-Bo, Sixth Man
Hats off to Zach Randolph for not only embracing his sixth man role at age 35, but owning it as well. The Memphis Grizzlies‘ second unit would certainly be one of the worst in the NBA without Z-Bo leading the way, averaging 14.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game off the pine.
Despite Marc Gasol‘s less than stellar field goal percentage, despite another injury to Chandler Parsons, and despite having a mostly inexperienced bench unit, with veterans like Z-Bo and Vince Carter leading the bench charge, the Grizz have won six games in a row to slowly work their way up the Western Conference ladder.
The Grit-N-Grind era may never see a championship run, but Memphis has found a way to prevent it from ending on a depressing note, keeping Z-Bo effective into his mid-30s.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our Thanksgiving special on the one thing every NBA team has to be thankful for!
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