IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T HEARD, Christmas is next week. And while many casual fans like to refer to Jesus’s possibly apocryphal birthday as the “unofficial” start to the NBA season, the truth is, the first third of the regular year is already under Santa’s belt. While the 27-ish game mark is a bit premature to be handing out awards, the league has taken shape enough to discuss some of the best and worst things we’ve seen thus far. Let’s get to it, starting with the guy who is quickly becoming the undisputed face of the league…
BEST PLAYER: GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Apologies to: James Harden, LeBron James, Luka Doncic
The top tier of superstars (and likely MVP candidates) is really special this year. Harden has improbably raised his scoring average from 36.1 PPG in ’18-’19 to a scarcely believable 38.9 this season. No player besides Wilt Chamberlain has ever averaged more over a full season. [The Big Dipper did so twice, though he averaged far more minutes per night, and the game was played at a dizzying pace back then, even compared to today’s uptempo style. FWIW, he did not win MVP in either of those seasons. Stay tuned for more about Wilt.] LeBron is leading the league in assists for the first time in his career, and along with Anthony Davis, has the Lakers out to the best record in the NBA, despite a supporting cast which has been predictably pseudo-crummy. And recent ankle injury aside, Doncic has been the league’s breakout superstar, leading the surprising Mavericks (hold that thought) to an 18-8 start and an Offensive Rating which would literally be the highest in NBA history. His statistical resume (29.3/ 9.6/ 8.9 on 48/33/80 shooting and a 32.0 PER) and style are drawing comparisons to everyone from Harden to LeBron to Larry Bird, and none of them feel hyperbolic. He is everything anyone could want from a young talent, and then some.
But with all due respect, no one is single-handedly dominating the league like The Greek Freak. The reigning MVP has gone up another level this season, cranking out a 31.7/ 12.8/ 5.3 line on 56% shooting in a mere 31.2 minutes a night. His current 34.6 PER would be the highest in NBA history over a full season, and his Win Shares per 48 Minutes rank 10th all-time. [Every season above his belongs to Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Wilt, or Steph, and only two of those seasons did not result in MVP awards — Wilt in ’64 and Kareem in ’73.] The only player in history to rival Antetokounmpo’s current averages in points/rebounds/assists over a full season is — you guessed it — Wilt Chamberlain. He averaged a bonkers 33.5/ 24.6/ 5.2 in ’65-’66, though again, it’s important to note he played an unfathomable 47.3 minutes a night and his Philly team ran at a breakneck pace of 122.8 possessions per 48 minutes. [The ’19-’20 Bucks lead the NBA with a pace of 105.1. And yes, for the record, Wilt did win MVP in that ’66 season.]
Outside of the alien numbers, Giannis’s effect on the team has been even more noticeable. Despite losing superstar role player Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana over the summer, and missing All-Star sidekick Khris Middleton for seven games, the Bucks are cruising through the improved East. Milwaukee is 24-4 — a 70-win pace — even after a tough loss on Monday night to a Luka-less Mavs’ team ended their 18-game winning streak. [Hard to blame Giannis, who slapped up a 48/14/4 on 18-of-31 shooting in 34 minutes. The other four starters combined for only 23 points.] They lead the league (again) in Defensive Rating, with Giannis in the thick of the DPOY race as the league’s preeminent weakside eraser. Coach Mike Budenholzer notably deployed Giannis as the primary Kawhi Leonard stopper in the Bucks’ 119-91 shellacking of the Clippers back on December 6th, after taking flak for refusing to do so last season in the playoffs against Toronto.
This is the most terrifying thing about Antetokounmpo: no matter how much he’s doing for the Bucks, you always know in the back of your mind that he has more in reserve AND is going to continue to improve. He’s already launching threes with far more confidence, and is up to a semi-respectable 32.1% from deep on 5.1 attempts per game (vs. career averages of 28.4% and 1.9 attempts).
The only turd in the punch bowl is his free throw shooting. I mentioned this on Twitter the other day, but it bears repeating: Giannis’s Effective Field Goal Percentage (which accounts for the added value of a three-pointer) is sitting at .603, which is higher than his current Free Throw Percentage (.598). There are mitigating factors at play — such as the success rate of shots by teammates off passes from Giannis — but at a simplified level, defenses are better off fouling him than they are allowing him to attempt a field goal. If the scales continue to tip in this fashion, scamming-ass coaches (I’m looking in your direction, Pop) may start to view Hack-a-Freak as a viable defensive strategy. No one wants that, so here’s hoping Giannis (72.8% career) regains his confidence from the stripe.
BEST ROOKIE: JA MORANT, MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Apologies to: RJ Barrett, Jaxson Hayes, Rui Hachimura, PJ Washington, Tyler Herro, Brandon Clarke, Matisse Thybulle, Eric Paschall
As is often the case, it’s been a mixed bag for the rookie class thus far. The continued (and indefinite) absence of Zion Williamson casts a pall over the entire group. At the same time, a few keepers have popped further down the draft board, most notably Clarke, Thybulle, and Paschall. And even beyond Zion, the top-10 has been moderately disappointing, with the lone true exception being Morant.
The no. 2 overall pick’s star potential explodes off the screen with every cross-court dime, fearless rim attack, and dunked-upon big man. His off-the-dribble game calls to mind the heroics of future MVPs Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook before they became household names. The speed with which he scoots around and elevates over defenders can be breathtaking:
Morant led college basketball in assists per game last season, and his elite playmaking has immediately translated. Scouts had concerns about his jumper, but so far, so good on that front as well: he’s shooting 43% from deep, albeit on only 51 attempts. The only thing that could short circuit Ja’s rise to stardom is himself. His willingness to hurl his body at the rack with reckless abandon is undeniably thrilling, but it’s also eventually going to get him killed. He has already taken several hard falls and has been dealing with back spasms as a result. He is paying lip service to the need to pick his spots and channel his aggressiveness properly, but it takes time and maturity to learn how to actually implement it, by which point the damage may already be done.
In a sense, Ja and Zion represent two sides of the same dilemma. Both were gifted with otherworldly athleticism and the ability to harness it in exhilarating ways. And both need to strike a balance between deploying it and reigning it in — Ja because his lean body won’t stand up to the pounding, and Zion because his massively thicc frame puts too much pressure on his lower extremities upon impact. Morant at least has the benefit of the issue being behavioral rather than structural. It takes far more skill to be a fighter pilot than a kamikaze pilot, but the long-term outlook is also a lot better.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: DALLAS MAVERICKS
Apologies to: Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat
The rise of Doncic has been spectacular, and his superstar turn is obviously the biggest factor in Dallas sitting third in the West at 18-8. However, his heroics tend to mask the fact that head coach Rick Carlisle has done a phenomenal job extracting maximum cohesion and productivity from the Mavs’ role players. Their deep bench has been the best second unit in the league, frequently expanding on the leads to which Doncic (and to a lesser extent, Kristaps Porzingis) has staked them. Plugging Tim Hardaway, Jr. into the starting lineup alongside Doncic, Porzingis, rim-runner Dwight Powell, and wing stopper Dorian Finney-Smith seems to be the chess move that allowed everything to fall into place on both units, and Dallas’ top-ranked offense keeps humming no matter who is on the floor.
There are simply no bad minutes on their roster, and combining that with a transcendent superstar is a solid formula to win a ton of regular season games. The playoffs will likely expose some of their limitations, especially on defense, but even being in position to be exposed counts as a quantum leap forward in the post-Dirk era. The Mavs are going to be in contention for a really long time.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Apologies to: Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs
On paper, it really looked like the Pelicans had something brewing. A core of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, J.J. Redick, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kenrich Williams, and E’Twaun Moore should have been able to do some things. Vegas thought so too, setting New Orleans’ over/under for wins at 38, a number I predicted was too low.
It, umm…wasn’t. A team many thought would challenge for a playoff spot instead stews in the midst of a 13-game losing streak, and a putrescent 6-21 overall record. The loss of Zion took away the organizing principle on both ends, and the defense especially has cratered (a 114.3 Defensive Rating, 27th in the league). Being without Favors’ rim protection for fifteen games has not helped matters. The backcourt pairing of Holiday and Ball was supposed to be one of the elite defensive units in basketball, but Jrue has battled injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, and Lonzo has been, for lack of a better word, bad. Reserves Moore, Nicolo Melli, Frank Jackson, and rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker have all been at or below replacement level thus far. Jahlil Okafor is Jahlil Okafor.
There are a few bright spots despite the morass. Even at 35, J.J. Redick continues to excel at all the things he always has. No. 8 overall pick Jaxson Hayes is ahead of schedule in his development and looks like he will be an impact big man at some point down the road. And Brandon Ingram has transformed from something like a distressed asset in L.A. to a borderline All-Star in New Orleans. The Duke product is averaging 24.9/ 7.1/ 3.6 on 48/40/84 shooting, and is going to get P-A-I-D in restricted free agency this summer.
None of these silver linings make up for the execrable start, the lack of Zion, and the repeated embarrassments on national television, and the Pels have some tough choices to make about how they approach the remainder of the season. Zion’s recovery from knee surgery has progressed more slowly than expected, and there are beginning to be whispers New Orleans might just redshirt him for the year. With all the assets they acquired from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade, the Pelicans were positioned to be major buyers in the trade market if they so chose. Instead, head honcho David Griffin must now decide if it makes more sense to sell off all the veteran parts (Holiday, Favors, Redick, Moore) and enter into a deep rebuild around Zion, Ingram, Hayes, NAW, and every draft pick under the sun. Assuming Zion gets healthy at some point, the future remains bright in New Orleans, but life in the NBA sure did come at them fast.
GOOFIEST SUBPLOT: WINNING BROTHERS!
Sports brothers are always fun, and this season, we’ve been blessed with two examples of the best variation on the theme: when brothers play on the same team. Brook and Robin Lopez have teamed up in Milwaukee, while Justin and Aaron Holiday joined forces in Indiana, with both teams reaping the chemistry rewards. The two squads are a combined 42-13, so it’s safe to conclude putting brothers together is the key to NBA success. [Aside: hands down, the best 5-man lineup any team has put on the floor all season is Indiana’s deployment of both Holiday brothers alongside T.J. Warren, T.J. Leaf, and T.J. McConnell on November 3rd. Three TJ’s over two Holidays — a full house!]
For further proof of the efficacy of blood pairings, we need only look to the Morris twins. Marcus and Markieff played two full seasons together in Phoenix from 2013 to 2015. The Suns won 48 games in ’13-’14 and 39 in ’14-’15, and haven’t won more than 24 since. Coincidence? Now separated, their careers have mostly languished. Marcus burned the Spurs over the summer and instead chose the Knicks, who have as many power forwards this season as they do wins. I legitimately had to look up what team Markieff now plays for, and that rarely ever happens. [It’s the generally forgettable Pistons, owners of an 11-16 record as of this writing, in case you’re wondering.]
Yes, I know Seth Curry is the counterpoint to this argument. His Mavs are off to the aforementioned great start, and his slightly more well-known brother is nowhere to be found. But maybe, just maybe, Golden State’s season wouldn’t have fallen apart so thoroughly had they figured out how to acquire Seth over the summer. We can’t prove the negative, so I’m just going to operate on the assumption the Dubs would still be atop the West in this alternate, all-brother universe.
WORST GOOD TEAM: UTAH JAZZ
Apologies to: Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets
The good news: the Jazz are 6th in the West at 16-11, they have a positive point differential against a tough schedule, are winners of three in a row, and they might get two All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
The bad news: for a team expected to compete for a top seed in the West, they have looked ROUGH at times. Over the first nine days of December, they got hammered by Toronto, Philly, the Lakers, and OKC, often resembling a bumbling lottery team more than a potential powerhouse.
Free agent acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic has been mostly as-advertised (21/4/2 on 45/46/88 shooting), but Mike Conley has struggled mightily to integrate into Quin Snyder’s system, and he’s looked borderline washed on occasion. Outside of Joe Ingles, the bench is a disaster, and it increasingly appears Dante Exum is never going to happen. Defense has been Utah’s calling card over the last several seasons, but they’re sitting at a middle-of-the-pack 11th in Defensive Rating at the moment, and the offense (22nd) can’t make up the difference.
More good news: we’ve been down this road before with the Jazz. They’ve struggled through sluggish starts in each of the last few seasons and then flipped the switch along with the calendar each time. Why this is a defining feature of this group is anyone’s guess, but there is enough evidence to suggest it’s not a fluke, so we ignore it at our peril. If they can stay healthy and unlock something like Memphis Conley along the way, Utah should be right in the mix for a top-4 seed in the West come April.
BEST BAD TEAM: WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Apologies to: Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns
Let’s be clear: there are certainly lottery teams who are objectively better than this cast of DC misfits. But for night-to-night absurdity and entertainment value, nobody beats the Wiz. [S/O to any people of a certain age reading this in the Tri-State area.] At 26 and newly well-heeled, Bradley Beal is probably one of the best fifteen players in the league, and would get a ton more national attention if he were playing in a less bleak situation. Guys who can go get 28/5/7 a night don’t grow on trees, even if he’s doing it out of necessity. I didn’t have much faith in Rui Hachimura as a prospect, but he looks the part of an actual NBA player, and could grow into more. Snagging Davis Bertans and Moe Wagner from desperate teams over the summer are the sorts of opportunistic moves former GM Ernie Grunfeld would have never in a million years thought to make, and both guys look like nice pieces moving forward. Bertans in particular has been an absolute sniper. The Latvian Laser is hitting 45.7% of his threes on 8.4 attempts per game, and if he isn’t invited to the Three-Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend, we riot. Thomas Bryant (yet another guy snatched off the Lakers’ scrap heap) was having a breakout season before going down with a stress fracture in his foot. Second-year wing Troy Brown, Jr. does some good things now and then and should stick in the league. Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas are around, for some reason. I watched Ian Mahinmi confidently step into a top-of-the-key three the other night and nearly hurl it over the backboard, which was entertaining in a perverse sort of way.
The crazy part is this collection of castoffs (plus Beal) somehow has the 4th-best offense in the league at the moment, and they play at the second-fastest pace. It makes no sense, but it’s strangely enthralling to watch. What truly makes the Wizards such a beautiful disaster, though, is their defense. I’ve been watching pro basketball my whole life, and have never seen a team put up so little resistance. The numbers nearly agree. Last season’s Cavaliers registered the worst Defensive Rating on record (117.6), but this year’s edition of the Wizards is only a tick less horrendous (117.4). There’s still plenty of time for them to get worse if they set their minds to it. Rare as they may be for an 8-17 team, in “clutch” situations (the last five minutes of a game where the margin is five points or less), Washington’s Defensive Rating skyrockets to an unfathomable one hundred forty-six. Think about it. That’s 1.46 points PER POSSESSION, with the game on the line. How is that possible? Most teams could play 3-on-5 and do better than that. Just mind-blowing incompetence.
LET’S BRING THIS BEAST IN FOR A LANDING by switching gears and taking a way-too-early look at…
FIRST TRIMESTER ALL-NBA TEAMS
- F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- F: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
- C: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
- G: James Harden, Houston Rockets
- G: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
- F: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
- F: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
- C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
- G: Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
- F: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
- F: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
- C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
- G: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
- G: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Barring significant injury, the First Team may as well be written in stone. In a vacuum, Kawhi is good enough to crack the top group, but he’s been oddly inefficient so far, and he’s likely to only play about 65 games. He’ll have to settle for Second Team, not that he gives a shit. It’s an odd crop of guards this year due to the absence of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Victor Oladipo, as well as Kyrie Irving being hampered by injury and his personality. A few others have a case for inclusion — Trae Young, Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell, Malcolm Brogdon, Andrew Wiggins — but I feel pretty good with where we are. I can’t really craft a devil’s advocate argument for any forward outside of the six listed. [Jayson Tatum? Jaylen Brown? Brandon Ingram? Feels like a big drop-off.]
There is some intrigue at center. AD is the natural First Team choice, but both Embiid and Jokic have struggled a bit relative to their usual lofty standards. A case could be made for a number of other big men, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, and Clint Capela. If I had to replace one, I’d lean toward including Towns because his production is just so impressive, but it’s difficult to overlook how poorly Minnesota is playing right now (lost seven straight and eleven of fourteen). Even with the overall dip in offensive output from Embiid and Jokic, they are still anchoring elite defenses, and their teams are a combined 37-16, so it’s hard to ding them too much.
That’s it for now. Don’t forget to tune in to TNT on Thursday night at 8 PM ET for the game of the season so far — Lakers vs. Bucks. Enjoy!
Top Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images