With a new year comes a new resolve: for aspiring NBA championship teams, it’s time to win; and for tanking teams, well, now is their time to shine.
Over the past two months several teams have had the luxury of experimentation and the quintessential “soul-searching, usually with the goal of living up to or fighting against very public expectations.
On the encouraging side, some have managed to find a steady equilibrium to build their offenses around, such as the Boston Celtics, who have suddenly found the perfect balance of youth, talent, defense, and superstar power (minus one) to bring Danny Ainge’s empire to the promised land, and the Golden State Warriors, who despite all media indications, are cruising to the Finals despite sprinkling significant minutes to new contributors in Omri Casspi, Nick Young, Jordan Bell, and Kevon Looney.
Being on top in one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory sounds great—but so is dwelling at the bottom, where marquee unicorn talents Marvin Bagley and Deandre Ayton lie waiting along with passing savants Luka Doncic and Trae Young. The latter two have benefitted greatly from Ben Simmons’s remarkable rookie season, showing that playmaking talent seems to find great synergy with today’s long-range renaissance.
The rest may have been horsing around too much, and are starting to find themselves in the dreaded middle of the standings—which in 2018 might be the worst place to be in. Several superstars have already bared (directly or otherwise) intentions to migrate to big market teams, and consequently every Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and Lebron James loss becomes fodder for more trade scenarios with the Lakers, meaning that unless less-heralded teams find their own unique system to rely on, they shouldn’t expect an especially newsworthy offseason signing. These teams will have to decide very soon which direction they plan to follow towards the end of the season.
Toronto Raptors (26-10)
Despite DeMar DeRozan’s career-high 52 against the Bucks and leading what might be the most complete basketball team ever unveiled in Canada, people are still finding difficulty believing the Raps can beat Lebron James’s lower-seeded Cavs. This has probably more to do with competition being as fierce as it ever was, with new Eastern conference giants such as Giannis Antetokounpo’s Bucks and the perennially disappointing Wizards itching to finally prove themselves worthy of a playoff challenge.
DeRozan is in the middle of his best long-range shooting season by far, averaging 37% (29% career), but the jury is still out on promising, better-than-expected rookie OG Anunoby, who is also shooting at an unbelievable rate (47% FG, 40% 3PT) on a small sample size. With not-exactly-household names in Jakob Poeltl (7.1 ppg), C.J. Miles (9.8 ppg), Norman Powell (7.5 ppg), Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet (both 6.2 ppg) contributing in spurts for this no-frills team, the Raps will have to deal with their perpetual underratedness by getting the most out of everyone in their lineup, especially as the rotation shrinks to 7-8 deep following the playoffs. Only then can they unlock the full potential of Jonas Valanciunas (who is on a slow-burn trip to extinction with his skillset) and the streaky Kyle Lowry.
New Orleans Pelicans (19-18)
The Pels certainly seem to be trying to get into the playoffs, but only a handful of their players can present any proof. Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Jrue Holiday are scoring roughly 60% of their team’s total points—and despite having two potential Hall of Fame talent on the frontcourt, the Pels are smack dab in the middle of the pack in rebounding (17th) and blocks (15th)—leading to the assumption that the monstrous combination we were salivating over the past few years hasn’t worked out too well.
This might be the bash brothers’ last chance to prove they can perform in the postseason—otherwise we will likely be seeing DeMarcus Cousins T’ing it up for another team next year.
New York Knicks (18-20)
The Knicks may have the highest expectations to conquer. Can they prove to fans that they can have a respectable team without Carmelo Anthony and beloved GM Phil Jackson? Can Kristaps Porzingis rise through the injuries, and criticisms and cement his superstar status among the most rabid NBA fans imaginable? Can Michael Beasley use more than 10% of his brain to magically make the Knicks jump past the first round of the playoffs?
The Knicks may have a recognizable core, but unlike many other teams in the same position, NYC has already earmarked a boatload of cash for talents who have no clear or sustainable path to long-term stardom. If we base NYK’s starting five based on their salaries, they would be Enes Kanter ($20M), the ghost of Joakim Noah ($18M), Tim Hardaway Jr. ($17M), Courtney Lee ($12M), and Lance Thomas ($7M).
Rookie Frank Ntilikina hasn’t shown a lot of evidence he can be as dynamic a scorer as he is a passer—which means NYK doesn’t really have enough youth to excuse themselves of “developing” and they don’t have enough talent to convince themselves they are contending either. Names like Willy Hernangomez, Ron Baker (R.I.P.), and Doug McDermott need to find their Super Saiyan selves to make the Knicks realistic threats in their conference.
THE TANKTASTIC FOUR
Dallas Mavericks (13-26)
Dallas won 5 of their last games, and have registered wins against 2nd-seeded Toronto, Indiana, and OKC. Most recently, they lost a surprisingly competitive match against the defending champs due to a last-minute three from Steph Curry (122-125) in a game where they matched GSW shot-for-shot. Coming from a 2-14 record, the Mavs have dug out of their hole into a somewhat less despicable 13-26 record.
Wait, so you mean to tell me this whole Nerlens Noel debacle wasn’t a deliberate attempt to tank this season? You mean playing a Tunisian named Salah Mejri and a German named Maximilian Kleber was an attempt to actually win games and not to spit on NBA draft rules? Is Dallas actually preserving Seth Curry for a more promising 2nd half or neutering its own 3pt offense?
I’m confused. For the Mavs’ sake, they’d better not be. Even if Dirk comes back next season, there’s no way they can contend for the title next year—they might as well lose their way into the Luka “Slovenian Ben Simmons” Doncic sweepstakes.
LA Clippers (17-20)
Between Milos Teodosic’s sick passes, DeAndre Jordan’s uncanny ability to finish, and Blake Griffin’s propensity to break down, it’s no wonder the Clippers community are still debating whether this team has found an exciting core or is on the verge of melting down from another curse. Teodosic, who is now dealing with his plantar fasciitis, isn’t exactly young at 30; Blake Griffin isn’t getting any healthier; Jordan isn’t getting any more patient.
The Clips have solid yet unexciting talent outside of their Lob City cover band—Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker have had their moments pretending they were still with the Houston Rockets; Patrick Beverly and Danilo Gallinari have been dealing with injuries—leaving an extremely unnoteworthy core of Lou Williams, and the reviled Rivers father-son dynasty.
To be fair, a lot of the Clippers’ injury luck has been downright rotten—but with no impressive rookies on the table and a bunch of key contributors on the verge of turning 30, one wonders what’s next for the cursed Clips in the next 3-5 years—perhaps this is the Basketball Gods’ way of telling the Clips to finally hit the reset button.
Chicago Bulls (13-25)
The Bulls have found themselves in an unexpectedly pleasing situation so far: upon Mirotic’s return from absence the Bulls have been winning—they are currently 10-5 when he is in the rotation and 3-20 without him. Mirotic has immediately boosted the Bulls’ offense, leading their team in scoring (18.4 ppg) in 15 games of play. Rookie Lauri Markannen has proven that volume shooting (14.9 ppg) trumps efficiency (.344 3P%); and Kris Dunn may have finally regained his legendary ’16 Summer League form by averaging a solid 13.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, and 6.0 apg. Their recent string of wins have validated the Bulls as a legit team, and this is all without human pogo stick Zach Lavine in the lineup.
But as Lavine inches closer to his return from an ACL injury, rumors on Mirotic’s insistence to be traded continue to circulate—leading to the assumption that the Bulls’ already short-term celebration may be cut even shorter. One wonders if they should go back to racing to the bottom of the lottery; they were already doing it at the start of the season—why stop now?
Memphis Grizzlies (12-26)
The Grizzlies deserve your sympathies. Polarizing party boy Chandler Parsons is again dealing with his knee, guard Mike Conley is still a few weeks away from returning from injury, and Mike Gasol is still dealing with his anger. The Grizzlies have already lost their meme-worthy coach, their grit-and-grind personality, and a promising rookie in Wade Baldwin IV, leaving Mario Chalmers (3.1 apg), Tyreke Evans (19.6 ppg, 4.6 apg), JaMychal Green as the supporting cast to the ongoing Gasol Drama.
As resilient as this franchise has been throughout the years, perhaps now is the time to search for new, younger talent by swapping some players that were deemed untouchable a year ago. Who knows—you lose Marc Gasol and you may gain a Marvin Bagley or a Michael Porter.