If you’re a loyal NBA fan, congratulations because we’ve finally reached the point in the season where things start to get interesting. January is usually sort of a dead zone for the NBA where the hype of marquee holiday matchups is long gone, players start to tire, and teams aren’t exactly in a playoff mindset yet.
It was encouraging to see a trade deadline filled with Woj Bombs and a lot of activity, which reflected the modern era of increased player movement. With only a few weeks before the All-Star break, we rank the top ten teams in the NBA and provide some outlook for the immediate future of each franchise.
10. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers record actually indicates that they’re better than 10th in the league, but the loss of All-Star shooting guard Victor Oladipo will make it tough for them to retain the success they’ve had this season. Luckily for Indiana, Oladipo is only 26, and they didn’t have a real shot at making it out of the East considering the moves that Toronto and Philadelphia just made at the trade deadline.
Nate McMillan deserves an incredible amount of praise though, as even in the absence of Oladipo, they’re currently on a four-game winning streak against respectable teams. One of those four games, they ripped the soul out of a Lakers team (they won by 42 pts) that absolutely needs a win every night to keep playoff hopes alive.
After a somewhat disappointing 2017-2018 season, Myles Turner has flipped the script this year, averaging 13 points on 51% FG and a surprising 40% 3PT (although a small sample). A lot of players on this team don’t get enough credit for their contributions, especially Bojan Bogdanovic, who averages 16.7 PPG and is lights out from behind the arc, shooting 43% 3PT. Others who contribute more than 10 PPG include Tyreke Evans, Domantas Sabonis, Thaddeus Young, and Darren Collison.
9. Houston Rockets
Houston has been playing fairly well as of late, winning 6 of their last 10, and they’re surely glad to have Chris Paul back in the lineup. But the storyline that has drawn people to watch the Rockets this season is undoubtedly the spectacular play of James Harden.
Maybe it’s notable that he’s scored 30 or more points in the last 30 games he’s played in. In that same stretch, he’s eclipsed the 40-point mark 16 times and has scored more than 50 points four times. To put that in perspective, no one in the last dozen years has dropped 30 more than seven consecutive games.
Say what you want about Harden, but during this span, he’s been a +143 overall, so his play is resulting in winning minutes in a tough Western Conference. He’s doing it all on his own too – out of 499 players in the NBA, James Harden ranks 480th in assisted FG% (around 11% of his field goals are assisted), and none of the players ranked below him are starters or even notable rotation pieces.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
As of now, Portland is pretty much in their usual position in the Western Conference. They’ve finished between 41 and 54 wins every year since 2014, which roughly coincides with the arrival of Damian Lillard (2012). Similar to all of those other years, the Blazers have a fighter’s chance of knocking off someone significant in the West and making some noise in the playoffs. But will it really happen? What does it matter if they do, unless it’s Golden State? I guess if they knock off someone like Denver, Houston, or OKC, it’ll keep up ticket sales and retain fan interest for the foreseeable future.
The positive outlook for Portland is that they have a reliable, somewhat youthful core in Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic. Maybe that could satisfy a marquee free agent if they were traded there. Unfortunately, it would be extremely tough to attract a free agent to a relatively small market like Portland, and they’ve got about $75M wrapped up in Lillard, McCollum and Evan Turner alone for the 2019-2020 season.
Credit must be given where credit is due though, Lillard (26 PPG) and McCollum (21 PPG) are doing their fair share which has gotten them to 34-23, good for 4th place in the West. This team notably has the highest offensive rating in franchise history at 113.0, but the second worst defensive rating in franchise history at 110.1.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
It’s surprising to see that the 76ers aren’t a little higher up in the Eastern Conference Standings since acquiring Jimmy Butler from the Timberwolves, but as we’ve seen with the Celtics, these things take a little time. But just as fans began to get used to seeing Jimmy Buckets in red, white, and blue, Elton Brand pulled off the best transaction of trade deadline week to acquire thriving forward Tobias Harris. As recent as 2016, Philly was in the slums of the NBA, a free win for opponents, and seemed to miss on every high draft pick they had.
Fast-forward to now, they’ve got a nightmare of a big four with two potential future MVP candidates. Joel Embiid is clearly special because of his insane offensive repertoire, rim protection skills and freakish athleticism. But what really should scare other teams is the fact that small lineups are now prominent in the NBA, and many contenders lack a center that can even survive down low versus Joel Embiid.
In the East, Horford, Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and 34-year-old Marc Gasol will all be eaten alive by Embiid in the paint. If teams try to double team him, he’ll happily spray the ball out to the likes of Harris, Butler, and Redick for easy threes. This team is going to be a nightmare to guard. The only concern I have for the 76ers moving forward is that they’ll have trouble distributing contracts, which could lead to the loss of Jimmy Butler. This is a conservative spot to keep the Sixers considering they just added a borderline All-Star, but they now have a legitimate shot.
6. Boston Celtics
Boston has had their share of struggles this season, which has more or less proved Brad Stevens’ mortality as a coach. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a stud and easily a top five coach, but it’s been humbling to have a roster loaded with talent to manage.
Nonetheless, there are always the teams that have deceivingly good regular seasons who you should temper expectations for in the playoffs, and there are teams that struggle during the regular season who should be more dangerous come playoff time, Boston being the latter. They have insane potential. Everyone knows that Kyrie has been criticized lately for an apparent lack of leadership, and to be honest I’m not a fan of how he’s discussed his teammates with the media.
However, as a bystander, it’s impossible to interpret how much that tangibly affects wins-losses. From a purely statistical standpoint, he’s putting the team on his back. His offensive stat line is almost flawless – he’s averaging 24 PPG on 50% FG and 40% 3PT along with a career-high 7 APG. I’m sure if you cared enough to look it up, those stats would be something few have ever matched.
Additionally, Kyrie is included in four of the five best 3-man Celtic lineups, and so is Marcus Smart. Ask any Celtics fan, and they’ll say Jaylen Brown has been the issue this year. The stats support that, as every Boston lineup with a negative net-rating includes him. I’d say the Celtics sit slightly below expectations would at 35-20, but should only get better (and hopefully help Gordon Hayward find his footing) as the playoffs draw closer.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
There’s no denying that in a post-Spurs Big 3 dynasty era in the NBA, star power has ultimately decided who wins and who loses. With that said, no team can be successful without finding an identity that specifically fits their talent. For example, when you think of the Warriors, you think of off-ball screens and Draymond Green running and gunning in transition (and obviously Curry, Durant, and Thompson bombing threes). The Nuggets are defined by their ability to run an efficient inside-out game through Jokic’s unparalleled passing skills.
This season, the Thunder have finally been able to focus on what they do best – be a pain in the ass on defense. OKC currently trails only two teams in defensive rating, which has been a huge contributing factor in their success. NBA players - before you decide to pass it in the general vicinity of PG13 – don’t. He’s as good as anyone when it comes to swarming the passing lanes, averaging a career-high 2.3 steals per game, which makes him best in the league. On another note, it’s mind-boggling how Russell Westbrook continues to shoot at a high volume with bad results (41% FG on 19 shots and 24% 3PT), while still having a net rating of +8.
At the end of the day, the Thunder are arguably the Warriors’ least favorable matchup in the West, with the ability to switch almost anything on defense (courtesy of Jerami Grant, Paul George, Terrance Ferguson). I liked the addition of Dennis Schroder last offseason, which has worked out nicely thus far. The Thunder will most likely lean on him to provide offense when defenses double George and Westbrook during the playoffs.
4. Denver Nuggets
Denver, like Milwaukee and Toronto, is in an unbelievably favorable position to compete now and in the future. They’ve got a legitimate franchise cornerstone superstar in Nikola Jokic and incredible depth. The Nuggets’ ball movement is beautiful, with Jokic leading the league in passes per game (71.2) and ranking fourth in assist percentage (38.4%). Jamaal Murray looks like a future All-Star and plays with the sort of chip on his shoulder that every team needs, he certainly isn’t afraid to take and make big shots down the stretch. It’s hard to give everyone on this team the credit they deserve:
- Malik Beasley has been a pleasant surprise, giving the team an 11 PPG scoring punch at 50% FG and recently dropped a career-high 35 points
- Torrey Craig has been an important defensive piece, consistently hounding opposing teams’ top scoring guards
What’s really promising for Denver is the fact that we haven’t seen them even close to full-strength yet. Rookie lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. hasn’t played a game yet and could be a valuable asset moving forward, while former MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas has yet to recover from his nagging hip injury, and former All-Star PF Paul Millsap is close to a return from his ankle injury. Once fully healthy, HC Mike Malone will have the heavy burden of incorporating all that talent smoothly, but if he’s successful, they’ll be a serious threat to dethrone this Golden State team come playoff time.
3. Toronto Raptors
GMs were as active as ever this trade deadline and you know Masai Ujiri wasn’t going to miss out on the action. He’s been as aggressive and audacious as anyone in the past few years and it’s paid enormous dividends for the franchise.
Toronto Raptors are probably the biggest favorite in the Eastern Conference and the team who can beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals as well.
Gasol is a perfect defensive remedy for other versatile centers in the East like Brook Lopez and Al Horford, but might be a slight downgrade from Valanciunas should he have to bang down low with Joel Embiid. If I’m the Raptors, I’m confident in a playoff series against almost anyone, considering I’ve got the best two-way player in basketball, former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard on my squad, and two more lockdown wing defenders in OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
After a few years of being the talented young team that somewhat underachieved, the Bucks have finally reached their potential. I’ll keep the Giannis talk brief because he’s been the headline of just about everything Bucks-related. We know he’s averaging 26 PPG, leading the team in minutes and usage, averaging a career-high 6 APG and is debatably the front-runner for MVP this season.
Outside of him, they’ve got such a unique mix of length, athleticism and niche skill set that they can’t help but have the best record in the league at 43-14. Khris Middleton is an All-Star this year and is providing exactly what you look for in a shooting guard in terms of length and 3-point shooting ability (38%+ on 6 attempts a game). The Bucks also have him on one of the best contracts in the league at $13M the next two years, and they own his bird rights, which means they can go over the cap to resign him come 2020. Eric Bledsoe is still extremely reliable and bouncy, continuing to mesh well with the team and averaging 15 PPG on 48% FG.
The young Bucks haven’t proven much in the playoffs until now, but the East is wide open, and the addition of Nikola Mirotic should help to hide Giannis’ 3-point shooting woes.
1. Golden State Warriors
Breaking news, the Warriors are far-and-away the best team in the NBA and free agency is the only thing that can change that. When Golden State landed their second All-NBA Player in the last three summers, it cast a mix of chaos and depression on most of the 29 other NBA fanbases. Hope-traffickers convinced themselves that DeMarcus Cousins would wreak havoc on the Warriors’ locker room, but as far as we know, the grass is still green as hell in the Bay Area.
What I’d suggest is that you take any money you have saved up in your bank account, put it on the Warriors to win the NBA championship this year, and buy yourself something nice with your return in June. Other than that, all you can do is wait and see if KD will find any interest in relocating to New York or the Big Apple after the season.