The most we can do about the Warriors is hope for an ankle sprain (or two). Otherwise, it looks like they’ll coast to their third NBA championship in four years. Even still, there are many intriguing storylines to follow, making for interesting games almost every night.
The elephant in the room
When is the basketball mutant that is Lebron James going to slow down? The Cleveland Cavaliers have responded to a nightmarish 5-7 start with an eight-game win streak. James is having yet another career year, shooting 42 percent from three and an astonishing 77 percent in the restricted area (second in the league).
Legitimate questions, however, still exist in Cleveland. They own the league’s fourth-worst defensive rating (108.2), among the Bulls, Kings and Suns, but the more alarming issues are beyond the awful defensive statistics we are accustomed to seeing out of Cleveland in the regular season. This team, after the departure of Kyrie Irving, seems to largely resemble what Lebron fled in 2010 — just him and a collection of average players with no real shot at winning a title. Kevin Love is scoring with efficiency and complements Lebron’s style of play but has become such a defensive liability as the only big man on the court that it is impossible to stop anyone.
Maybe more concerning is that the Cavs are not the offensive juggernaut that they were last year: other than Lebron, only two players — Kyle Korver and Channing Frye (also enormous defensive holes) — are shooting more than 35 percent from three. But they are shooting 42 percent (third in the league) on wide open 3-point looks, so their problems can be helped with more playmaking and effort to find good shots. The still far-off return of former Boston all-star point guard Isaiah Thomas should certainly create this kind of offense, but right now this team should be more concerned about getting to the championship rather than winning it.
The strange top of the east
Now that we’ve gotten the obligatory Cleveland worry out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff! The Boston Celtics have turned many heads with the league’s best defense and record, but what may be more surprising is the success the Detroit Pistons (second in the East) have been enjoying.
The Pistons seemed lost coming into the season, with an average point guard masquerading as a No. 1 option (Reggie Jackson) and an old school power center who was struggling to remain relevant in the modern NBA (Andre Drummond). Now they are 13-6, largely thanks to a career year from Drummond, a steady scoring option in Tobias Harris, and a strong bench unit that owns some of the team’s best net ratings.
Stan Van Gundy’s usage of Drummond in the pick and roll is very reminiscent of his Orlando days coaching Dwight Howard. First, watch how the motion before the pick and roll confuses the Minnesota help defense, allowing Drummond to roll free to the rim for an alley-oop. Later in the same game, the same play with the same personnel is called, but this time the defense rotates to his roll and Harris gets an open three. This is the kind of scheme that has allowed Drummond and the Pistons to excel.
After losing new star forward Gordon Hayward to injury in the first five minutes of their season, the Celtics have not lost a step. Coach Brad Stevens has led them to an impressive 18-4 with a roster that many thought would struggle to win 50 games after Hayward was declared out for the year.
The Celtics have been relying on incredible play from rookie Jayson Tatum and former Cal star Jaylen Brown. Brown looks more polished and explosive than he ever did last year, while Tatum has been able to get his shot off well within their offense, finishing with NBA moves.
Stevens has also been able to use elite scorer Kyrie Irving in very creative ways. Here, Al Horford brings the ball up the court and dribbles toward Irving in the corner. Irving comes off of a Horford screen, receives a handoff/screen from Aron Baynes and hits a tough shot, but you can see how either the roll man Baynes or Horford would be open. This is difficult to guard because Irving started from the corner, forcing Avery Bradley to trail him for the rest of the play. Just fantastic by Stevens.
Despite this brilliance, the defense has been the real catalyst for this fast Boston start. A stark increase in effort from Irving, the length of Brown and Tatum, solid rim protection from Horford, and fantastic on-ball defense from Marcus Smart have allowed this team to have a league best 98.3 defensive rating.
Trouble in OKC?
Yes, there is real trouble in OKC. After 19 games, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit tenth in the West at a regrettable 8-11. Hardly the result you’d expect from a team led by last year’s MVP Russell Westbrook, as well as Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. If you would have told me that they would be this bad at this point in the season, I probably would have guessed Westbrook was averaging 30 shots a game while a disgruntled George stood in the corner with his hands on his knees, dreaming about leaving for Hollywood. Remarkably, Westbrook has actually transformed his play style to more accomodate his co-stars, reigning in his usage from 42 percent last year to 33 percent this year.
But this has not translated to team success. That has largely been because of the offense which, visibly, lacks purposeful movement. They use isolation possessions more than any other team in the league with 13 percent, and are decidedly average in scoring on those shots. Even when they use off-ball screens and movement, it seems that they only result in George or Anthony dribble-dribble long two sequences. Too many of their possessions have this version of offense and just end in bad shots.
This brand of short, sweet and effective offense should is what OKC fans envisioned before the season, but it simply doesn’t show up often enough. Worse, André Roberson’s horrific shooting continues to kill the Thunder flow. Billy Donovan needs to implement deliberate movement in this offense to get his stars easy shots, otherwise this team will struggle for 50 wins and the dream of keeping George from the Lakers will be dead.
Checking in on the process
Sam Hinkie has been vindicated. The Sixers have been so ripe with talent and potential that we haven’t even needed Markelle Fultz on the court to declare them the team of the future. The way that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid play off each other is nothing short of magical (see this and this). We knew that Embiid was the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon in the post, but who knew Simmons could be this good without a jumper? The way he attacks the space defenders give him, using his length, strength and touch to finish creatively has allowed him to score in bunches.
Those two, recently extended wing Robert Covington, potentially Fultz, another high draft pick (either coming this year if it falls sixth or lower or the 2019 Kings unprotected first round pick in a pick swap), and lots of cap space will make the 76ers the focus of Philadelphia and the basketball world for years to come.
Some quick thoughts
Did Indiana win the Paul George trade after all? Victor Oladipo has emerged from the shadow of Westbrook and is showing that he is a legitimate NBA starting guard. He is scoring 23 points per game on 59 percent true shooting, both career highs. His leadership as the primary offensive option has injected life into a once-abject Pacers team, which is now 12-9. As long as tough shots like these stay in his arsenal, he will continue to produce well for Indiana.
The other piece in the trade, Domantis Sabonis, is also defying expectations. The sophomore out of Gonzaga disappointed last year in Oklahoma City, but is now flourishing in his Indiana role, averaging 13 points on 63 percent true shooting. He is also finishing 74 percent of his attempts at the basket (up from 55 percent last year) and rebounding with much more effort on the defensive end.
Over in Utah, rookie Donovan Mitchell has been given a massive role in the Jazz offense (28 percent usage) as the starting shooting guard ahead of Rodney Hood. He has not been efficient at all (48 percent true shooting), but his highlights are absolutely tantalizing. See this spin move and this floater coming off a close out. It won’t be this year, but he’ll soon be fantastic player.
Are we allowed to give up on Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves defense yet? After acquiring two-way superstar Jimmy Butler from Chicago and signing free agent Taj Gibson, Thibs was finally supposed to have the necessary personnel to create a top ten defense. Instead, they have the sixth-worst defensive rating (107.8), as one of two teams in the bottom ten defenses to be above .500 (you guessed it, Cleveland). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to get absolutely shredded in the pick and roll and it doesn’t look like it will get any better — so much for those lofty pre-draft expectations.
Where the hell is Kawhi Leonard? He missed the season opener unexpectedly with a right quad injury, and now it’s almost December and we still haven’t seen him on the court. All we have is this mysterious video of him struggling to climb stairs. It hasn’t seemed to matter — San Antonio is still 13-7, on pace for another 50 win season even without him. Is this Gregg Popovich’s way of protesting the NBA’s crackdown on resting players? Very suspicious.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].