Thought I’d do a quick spin around the league this morning.
The Cleveland Cavaliers. After starting the season 5-7, the Cavs have merely won 19 of their last 21 games. Somewhat oddly, only five of those wins have been by double-figures, but as someone likes to say, a win is a win no matter how big. I think that was Dr. Seuss.
They have the third best offensive rating in the league, but are 27th on defense. We’ve seen this story before with the Cavs, who tend to drift defensively during the regular season. It’s always a question whether they have another gear on that end, but it’s working for now. LeBron James is having another incredible season, and they generate no end of open looks. They struggle to rebound, and have had the easiest schedule in the league, but they’ve been winning.
The Toronto Raptors have taken advantage of a rather soft part of their schedule to win 11 of 12. They are top six on both sides of the ball, and have really changed the way they play. Their assists are up 25 percent from last season, and they are moving the ball much better. They also have great depth, with 11 guys averaging 17 or more minutes. Shout-out to OG Anunoby, who has already become an effective 3-and-D guy as a 20 year old rookie coming off a torn ACL.
The Oklahoma City Thunder seem to have figured some things out, with a 9-3 record in December, vaulting them back into the playoff mix in the Western Conference. It was just a matter of time, apparently, for them to put it together, though it’s still far from perfect. They are relying on their 3rd rated defense and a slow pace to win. Paul George has helped at both ends but is not playing like a superstar, and Carmelo Anthony has been of dubious use.
The Chicago Bulls, in the midst of what was supposed to be (and probably still is) a tanking season, won seven in a row before losing to the Cavs in a close one last night. So kudos to them for competing. The return of Nikola Mirotic has been a catalyst for them, and Kris Dunn has been playing some excellent basketball of late. They are also looking forward to the return of Zach LaVine from his ACL tear, likely next month some time. It’s not going to be a winning season for the Bulls, but there are some bright spots.
The Boston Celtics have gone 4-5 after their 22-4 start. This is just a correction, because of course they were never that good (as Brad Stevens tried to tell us.) Their defense remains tops in the league, but their offense is struggling a bit. Stevens is very good at getting the most out of his guys, but they are not the most talented roster in the league. Running away with the conference was never in the cards.
The Philadelphia 76ers are 1-8 in their last nine (their lone win coming against the Wolves in overtime...grrr.) Joel Embiid has played in four of those nine games, missing the last three with a back problem. They run so much through him when he’s playing, that when he isn’t there are massive adjustments. While this stretch has not featured the roughest of opponents, overall they have played the second toughest slate in the league. They’re done with both the Rockets and Warriors, and have seen both the Celtics and Cavs more than once. If Embiid can just stay healthy...
The Utah Jazz had lost seven of eight before beating the Spurs on Thursday night. It’s been a struggle to find offense at times in the absence of Gordon Hayward, and they have been reliant on rookie Donovan Mitchell, who missed the Spurs game. Despite a couple of blowout losses prior to beating the Spurs, the Jazz feature an 18-15 expected record, compared to their 15-18 actual record, so there’s been a bit of bad fortune as well. It’s been a struggle for Ricky Rubio, whose shooting is poor as always but who also is not generating the assists we’re used to seeing. Part of that is system based, but fans are rightly disappointed in his lack of unicorniness.
There are 13 rookies who have played 600 or more minutes, and among them have been some outstanding performances. What’s notable to me is there have been some remarkably efficient rookies this year, something we don’t often see. Jayson Tatum is playing terrific basketball in Boston, posting an eFG of 59.3 percent, grabbing six boards a game, and looking very little like a rookie.
Ben Simmons is doing everything for the Sixers, and really is a 6’10” point guard. Despite his inability to shoot from range, he’s scoring efficiently and doling out the assists like candy. Kyle Kuzma, the forgotten rookie with the Lakers is rolling, shooting it great and scoring with panache. Donovan Mitchell has become the go-to guy for the Jazz in his rookie year, and after some early struggles has put together some monster performances, and clearly does not lack for confidence. OG Anunoby has quickly emerged as a hyper-efficient 3-and-D guy for the Raptors.
Even the guys who are struggling as we would expect from rookies have shown some things to be excited about. Lonzo Ball hasn’t been able to make shots, but is one of two rookies (along with Simmons) with over 200 rebounds and 200 assists so far. Dennis Smith Jr. and De’Aaron Fox have both had their moments, and have shown off their athletic gifts despite not putting it all together on poor teams. Even Josh Jackson, who has been perhaps the most disappointing of this group, has shown flashes.
That’s enough from me this morning, what’s caught your eye around the league?