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.
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Nov 7, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) takes the court prior to action against the Miami Heat at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
About a month into the 2016-17 NBA season, it’s 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.
No matter where your favorite team stands one month into the new season, every single fan base has a reason to be thankful. With Thanksgiving Day 2016 come and gone, 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 second 15 in alphabetical order today) in order to assess what your fan base should be thankful for. Starting with the Miami Heat and concluding with the Washington Wizards, let’s get started with Part 2.
With Goran Dragic dealing with an early season injury and Justise Winslow still struggling to develop a competent perimeter touch, Miami’s saving grace in their 4-10 start has been the monster numbers Hassan Whiteside is putting up.
After awarding Whiteside with a massive four-year, $98.5 million contract, the Heat have to be pleased with the otherworldly 17.9 points, 15.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game he’s averaging. This will be a lost season, but Whiteside is living up to expectations as the next franchise cornerstone so far.
Nov 5, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) hangs onto the rim after dunking for a basket in the third quarter during the game against the Sacramento Kings at BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Bucks beat the Kings 117-91. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Milwaukee Bucks: The Greek Freak
With Khris Middleton out for possibly the entire year and the team sitting at 6-7, hovering around .500 has been about as good as it gets for the Milwaukee Bucks. Thanks to Giannis Antetokounmmpo, however, this might not be a lost season after all.
Averaging a gargantuan 21.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 blocks and 2.0 steals per game, the Greek Freak is putting up numbers that have only been matched by Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson for an entire NBA season.
He already has one triple-double in his first 13 games, and he’s becoming a two-way terror who overwhelms opponents with his length and trademark spin move in the lane. The scary thing is, this franchise cornerstone will only turn 22 in a few days. “Own The Future,” indeed.
Nov 23, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) warms up before the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
The Tom Thibodeau era is off to a rougher start than expected, and with the Minnesota Timberwolves sporting a 4-10 record, this trendy dark horse playoffs prediction is looking like it was one or two years premature.
That being said, Andrew Wiggins has taken the next step in his development thanks to a vastly improved three-point shot. His 41.8 percent long range shooting on 3.9 attempts per game is impressive for a third-year player who shot just 30 percent from downtown last season. It’s also part of the reason he’s as dynamic a scorer as ever, averaging a career-high 23.9 points per game.
Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t quite taken the Anthony Davis-level leap we were expecting, Kris Dunn is nowhere to be found in the Rookie of the Year conversation and the Wolves’ defense has been a disappointment considering the new coach and his personnel. But KAT is guaranteed to be a monster, so if Wiggins can continue to fine-tune that long range touch, Minny will be better off in the long run.
Nov 18, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) talks to his teammates in the second half of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
New Orleans Pelicans: Holiday Back For The Holidays
Anthony Davis is the real reason the New Orleans Pelicans should be thankful, that much is obvious. But in terms of keeping him happy in NOLA, the return of Jrue Holiday has been a galvanizing force for this team, and it’s a huge part of the reason they’ve won four straight games.
Now sitting at 6-10, the Pellies are only two games out of a playoff spot in the West, which is extremely encouraging after their 2-10 start. With Holiday averaging 16.3 points and 7.0 assists per game off the bench, it’s no coincidence the team began its four-game win streak the night he returned.
The Pelicans still have a long way to go, of course, and the Brow is still the saving grace of this franchise. But we shouldn’t overlook how Holiday’s return has served as a possible turning point for New Orleans, especially right when things were starting to look pretty desperate.
Oct 29, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) gestures after scoring during the second quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Averaging 21.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game on .502/.390/.780 shooting splits, the Zinger has become New York’s most efficient option on offense at age 21. We’ve already seen him top 25 points four times this season, which is more impressive than it sounds since early on, the Knicks weren’t getting him the ball nearly enough.
Melo, Rose and Noah were meant to make the Knicks competitive sooner rather than later, but the future leader of this franchise is still Porzingis. The fact that he’s taking over those inevitable duties in his second season is a great sign.
Nov 18, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) waits for a teammate to shoot free throws against the Brooklyn Nets during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Not only is 2016-17 Russ the most likely player in NBA history to match Oscar Robertson‘s triple-double feat, but he also re-upped over the summer, showing his commitment to a Thunder fan base that desperately needed to be talked back down off the ledge.
Averaging 31.8 points, 10.5 assists and 9.6 rebounds per game hasn’t been enough to get OKC above .500 16 games in, with the Thunder dropping their last three contests. That being said, Oklahoma City would be utterly lost without Westbrook, the last remaining vessel from a championship contender that once included Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
Nov 21, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) and Milwaukee Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova (8) battle for a loose ball in the fourth quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Bucks beat the Magic 93-89. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic: An Easy Opening Schedule
Sporting a 6-9 record, the Orlando Magic haven’t exactly thrived early in the Frank Vogel era. The defense has immediately improved to a top-10 unit, but the offense is a severe problem, ranking dead last in the NBA in offensive rating.
Luckily, the Magic have been able to pad their record a bit with an extremely favorable schedule. Their six wins have come against the Sixers, Kings, Wizards, Thunder (in Serge Ibaka’s revenge game), Pelicans and Mavericks — teams with a combined win percentage of .337.
Overall, the Magic’s opponents have a combined win percentage of .410, and their only opponents that still have a winning record to this point are the Cavaliers and Bulls. For a young team lacking talent and needing time to jell like Orlando, this favorable schedule early on has been a huge blessing. In fact, it’s the only reason the Magic aren’t out of the playoff picture already.
Jun 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers number one overall draft pick Ben Simmons (R) is greeted by center Joel Embiid (L) during a press conference at the Philadelphia College Of Osteopathic Medicine. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Philadelphia 76ers: The Process
No, “The Process” doesn’t just refer to Joel Embiid, though at the moment, he’s easily the best aspect of Philadelphia 76ers basketball. For our purposes, “The Process” refers to its original meaning: the dying efforts of Sam Hinkie, who, though he didn’t actually die, is responsible for the Sixers’ future looking so bright.
Ben Simmons dealing with a fractured bone in his foot means Philly will enter its third straight season with its top rookie out injured, but whenever he makes his NBA debut, the Sixers will have two franchise-caliber players to work with.
Dario Saric is coming along nicely now that he’s finally stateside, Jahlil Okafor could be a nice bench option a la a younger, more effective version of Al Jefferson, and Embiid is the real deal, even on his current minutes restriction. Hinkie was reviled for it, but The Process is finally starting to show some honest to God results.
Nov 23, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) celebrates after scoring in front of Orlando Magic forward Jeff Green (34) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Phoenix Suns: Youth
Expectations for the Phoenix Suns were low entering 2016-17, and so far under head coach Earl Watson, there’s been a greater emphasis on building a sense of family and culture than on the actual X’s, O’s or results.
That’s not the end of the world though, since Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Alex Len, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis — the future benchmarks of the Suns — are all 23 years or younger. Phoenix’s veterans aren’t talented enough to win games, but they’re useful enough to help the young ones learn the game as they struggle through the expected growing pains.
As long as Watson stops forgetting to play Bender, continues giving Len opportunities and creates some easier looks for Booker that aren’t just one-on-one isolations, the Suns will be content to take their lumps as they await a brighter future centered around the young guns.
Nov 17, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) advances the ball upcourt against the Houston Rockets during the third quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard
Not a great outlook for the Portland Trail Blazers at the moment. Sure they’re young, but they’ve also lost five of their last six games to fall to 8-9, they’re giving up a league-worst 109.7 points per 100 possessions, and their marquee offseason acquisition, Evan Turner, is a -158 in 420 minutes of action.
C.J. McCollum has fallen off a bit after his white-hot start, but Rip City can rest easy knowing they got at least one contract extension right with Damian Lillard. He and McCollum’s woeful defense is a problem together, but Dame is the undisputed leader of the team and the franchise cornerstone in a way that McCollum simply won’t ever be.
The Blazers will have a hard time replicating last year’s stunning success, mostly because it’s unreasonable to expect such a young group to all turn in career years for the second season in a row. But even with so many gaudy contracts on the books that may look problematic down the line, at least Lillard is living up to his billing.
Nov 23, 2016; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) smiles against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half at Golden 1 Center. The Kings beat the Thunder 116-101. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins
For both the present and the future, DeMarcus Cousins is the only good thing the Sacramento Kings have going for them. Averaging 27.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.3 three-pointers and 1.1 steals per game, Boogie is undoubtedly one of the best centers — if not THE best — in the game.
However, the Kings are going nowhere fast, failing to ever put a competent team around Cousins. HIs best teammates have been Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay, which doesn’t inspire much faith that this front office knows how to complement his skill set and build a legitimate contender.
With the Kings constantly whiffing on draft picks and trading them away 2-3 years after drafting them, it might be time to accept that Boogie’s time in Sacramento will probably end in 2018 free agency. The time has come to do right by everyone involved and trade Cousins to jumpstart yet another rebuild, hopefully this time by bottoming out and drafting more blue chip players to build around.
Oct 29, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and guard Jonathon Simmons (17) talk on the bench during the second half against the New Orleans Pelicans at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs Way
Despite losing Tim Duncan to retirement, despite Pau Gasol being a defensive liability and despite Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili starting to show signs of their age, the San Antonio Spurs are, as always, a safe bet to win at least 50 games, secure a top seed in the West and present a brutal challenge to whatever team they face in the playoffs.
That starts with Kawhi Leonard, but even a player so singularly talented who can create his own shot and take liberties on the offensive end can’t take all the credit. Thanks to Gregg Popovich and a winning system that’s been embedded within this franchise’s DNA, the Spurs are set to keep on trucking even without Duncan.
San Antonio ranks fifth in offensive rating, 11th in defensive rating and their 12-3 record ranks third in the West. The Clippers and Warriors have looked like more dangerous teams to this point, but as always, you can never count this team out because of the Spurs Way.
Nov 2, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) shoots the ball over Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. (22) in the second quarter at Verizon Center. The Raptors won 113-103. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Toronto Raptors: The DeRozan Midrange Throwback
DeMar DeRozan is no longer leading the NBA in scoring, falling to third behind Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. But since he’s still averaging 30.5 points per game and doing it in the most midrange, 90s throwback way possible, he’s been the best story for the Toronto Raptors so far this season.
The biggest knock on DeRozan’s game — aside from his defense — has always been his lack of a three-point shot. That hasn’t changed in 2016-17, with DeRozan shooting 26.7 percent on 1.9 long range attempts per game. Luckily, his midrange mastery has more than made up for it.
DeMar DeRozan’s shot chart 15 games into the 2016-17 NBA season, via NBA.com/stats
Aside from the obvious red from downtown, DeRozan’s midrange efficiency is off the charts. He’s a modern-day embodiment of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, attacking the rim, getting to the foul line and dominating defenders with an array of midrange moves to free up his shot. It’s probably not sustainable for a full season, but so far it’s been pretty damn fun to behold.
Nov 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5) passes the ball as he is guarded by Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles (41), guard Rodney Hood (5) and center Rudy Gobert (27) in the second quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
But even with all those injury problems, the Jazz have managed to amass an 8-8 record to stay in the thick of the playoff picture. The reason? Despite all the inconsistency in their starting lineups, Utah continues to defend no matter who is on the floor.
Completely healthy, this might be the most stifling defense in the league. For now, they’ll settle for being the NBA’s fifth ranked defense, which is holding opponents to 43 percent shooting (fourth-best in the league). Quin Snyder has done an excellent job instilling defensive values in his squad from day one, and if they’re ever fully healthy, the Jazz will go back to looking like the team that started 7-4.
Nov 21, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) runs up the court after making three point shot during the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Verizon Center. Washington Wizards defeated Phoenix Suns 106-101. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal Returning (Knock On Wood)
We should probably go with John Wall here, but most Washington Wizards fans already recognize that he’s the only consistently good thing this franchise has had in decades. In order for them to take the next step, however, they need Bradley Beal to stay healthy for once in his career.
The pressure was on entering the 2016-17 season. Beal had just been awarded with a massive five-year, $128 million contract over the summer, despite missing a total of 81 games through his first four seasons. When Beal went down with a hamstring injury in Washington’s seventh game of the season, familiar feelings of disappointment came creeping back.
Fortunately for the Wizards, his absence lasted only three games, and in his second game back, he dropped 34 points in 40 minutes. The following game, he added a career-high 40 points in a win over the Suns. Wall is what this fan base really has to be thankful for, but if Beal staying healthy can just be a consistent theme in 2016-17, that’s what will have Wizards fans rejoicing.
That’s it for our Thanksgiving-related counting of NBA blessings. Here’s Part 1 in case you missed it, and we hope you all have a happy holiday season no matter which great, mediocre or crappy team you cheer for!