The 2017-18 NBA season is churning along, albeit with a lot of early-season expectations already flying out the window. Did anybody think the Boston Celtics would be this good without Gordon Hayward? What about the Indiana Pacers making all of us look like fools for criticizing the haul they got from the Paul George deal?
It’s a great time to be an NBA fan, at least if you’re team is winning. If they aren’t, well, the holidays can’t come soon enough.
Before we start with the festivities of the Christmas season, let’s go around the Eastern Conference and throw out holiday wishes for each of the teams. Some will probably need it, some will probably don’t. But it’s Christmas, so let’s wish for good tidings anyway.
Atlanta Hawks - More talent
Outside of Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince, and John Collins, the Hawks’ talent pool doesn’t have a lot going for it. Maybe it’s for the best that Atlanta’s toiling in the cellar of the East. It needs to be there if it hopes of acquiring more talent for the future. We can’t imagine the Hawks being better this season when it has players like Josh Magette, Nicolar Brussino, and Isaiah Taylor on its team. Who, you ask? Our point exactly.
Brooklyn Nets - Identity
The Brooklyn Nets aren’t bad. They’re not good either. Unfortunately, the Nets play in a market that has long been dominated by the New York Knicks. That’s even taking into account how dysfunctional the Knicks franchise has been for the better part of a decade. But the Nets need to be good to be relevant in its market, and it needs to have an identity to have a shot at being good. Anything outside of that and they’ll always be sitting in the shadows of the Knicks.
Boston Celtics - A healthy Gordon Hayward
There’s a narrative going on in Boston that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum wouldn’t have developed as fast as they have if Gordon Hayward didn’t go down with that ankle injury in the season-opener. Those are fair points. But Hayward is Hayward. He’s a do-everything All-Star that can serve as an A-plus second option for a championship team. As good as the Celtics are now, they’re going to be better when Hayward comes back. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the league.
Charlotte Hornets - Clutch shooting
The Charlotte Hornets have played in more close games this season than any other team in the league. They’ve lost a lot of those close games for one reason: shooting. According to NBA.com, in the last three minutes of games with a three-point difference or less, the Hornets have shot 18.6 percent from the field—18.6 percent! It’s a miracle that in the 10 games that fall under this classification, the Hornets still managed to win three of them. 18.6 percent! Let that sink in.
Chicago Bulls - Diamonds in the rough
Kris Dunn has been playing like a high lottery pick recently. Lauri Markkanen has been playing like one for the entire season. The two look to be the future cornerstones of this Chicago Bulls team. Let’s hope for the team’s sake that these blue-chippers can take their games to the next level. As bad as Chicago has been this season, there’s a glimmer of hope that the future’s looking bright.
Cleveland Cavaliers - Less minutes for LeBron James
LeBron James is third in the league in minutes per game, averaging 37.2. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler play more minutes than him. That’s an issue for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has aspirations of making a long run in the playoffs. As indestructible as James has been throughout his career, this is his 15th season in the league. He’s turning 33 at the end of the month, and he just recently went over the 50,000-minute club. That’s a lot of mileage for anybody, including LeBron. How long can the Cavs keep tempting fate and put such a heavy burden on James at this stage in his career? It’s starting to become a legitimate question now.
Detroit Pistons - Consistency
Two weeks ago, the Detroit Pistons were the No. 2 seed in the East with a sparkling 14-6 record. I’m not kidding. They really were. Since then, they’ve been 0-7, falling all the way to the 7th seed in the conference. The defense has been decent in that stretch, but the offense has gone AWOL, in large part because the team’s stars are all struggling at the same time. Some form of consistency from any one of Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond should be enough to right this ship. Hope it happens sooner than later.
Indiana Pacers - A clean bill of health for Myles Turner
The Indiana Pacers have been one of the feel-good stories of the NBA season. Predicted to stink, the Pacers are sporting a clean 16-12 record—good for 5th in the East—on the back of strong play from Victor Oladipo and consistent contributions from guys like Donatas Sabots, Thaddeus Young, and—gasp!—Lance Stephenson. Notice who’s missing there? Myles Turner, the man who’s supposed to be the team’s franchise player, has been beset a litany of injuries this season. It’s not too late to see the breakout season we were expecting out of Turner, but he needs to be fully healthy to get to that point.
Miami Heat - Relevancy
As recently as four seasons ago, Miami was the center of the NBA universe. Today, nobody talks about them unless Dion Waiters is in the headlines for something he did in a game. The fact that the Heat’s relevancy is tied into the exploits of Waiters tells how far Miami has fallen off the map in the NBA. Where’s Pat Riley when you need him? Oh, wait...
Milwaukee Bucks - New ACLs for Jabari Parker
God bless Jabari Parker. After two ACL tears, it’s hard to imagine what kind of player he’s going to be when he returns next year. We’re all rooting for him to return to form, but can you imagine what this team would be now if Parker’s knees didn’t give out on him? “Scary good” would be a good way to put it.
New York Knicks - A new owner
James Dolan stinks. That’s all you need to know.
Orlando Magic - A bonafide franchise player
The Orlando Magic is a team full of good players. Aaron Gordon is good. Evan Fournier is good. Nikola Vucevic is good. Elfrid Payton is good. But simply being “good” doesn’t get far in this league. It’s tough to ask Fournier and Vucevic to get to another level with their play so that leaves Gordon and Payton as the two guys who need to elevate their play to franchise cornerstone-levels if Orlando is going to have a bright future.
Philadelphia 76ers - A bodyguard for Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid is a stud. He’s also an all-time troll. The former is one of the best things about him. The latter is one of the worst things about him. How long is Embiid’s constant trolling of other players going to last before he gets some comeuppance? Believe me, it’s going to happen this season, and it won’t be pretty.
Toronto Raptors - Playoff clutch genes
How many seasons has it been for Toronto? Three? Four? They’re this generation’s version of those early ’90s Cleveland Cavaliers teams that featured Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance Sr., and Ron Harper. They were awesome in the regular season, routinely posting 50-win seasons without breaking a sweat. But when it came time to the playoffs, those ’90s Cavs sunk faster than the Titanic. Sound familiar? That’s today’s Toronto Raptors. Great in the regular season. Bad in the playoffs.
Washington Wizards - Motivation
No team plays more to the level of its competition this season than the Washington Wizards. They’re still in the sixth seed in the East with a 15-13 record, but for a team that was supposed to be one of the contenders of the conference, 15-13 isn’t good enough. The Wizards’ string of mediocrity can be attributed to an alarming lack of motivation to show up in games against teams that they’re supposed to beat. Consider this: the Wiz are 9-6 against teams with .500 records or better and 6-7 against teams with sub-.500 records, including losses to the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, and Brooklyn Nets. Not exactly the recipe for success, is it?